Kauai, Hawaii, Trip Report

Amcan Travel visits Kauai, July 2002.

It took us a full day to fly from Seattle to Lihue on Kauai, the most remote of the four major Hawaiian Islands. We got in one day before July 4, U.S. Independence Day. It seems Kauai is the only island that does not have a massive Parade or Fireworks going on for the holiday. It is quiet, lazy and happy.

We settled into our condo in Kapa'a Beach on the east coast of the island, a major tourist and commercial area near the Lihue Airport area. Our big plan for recreation on this island, on top of relaxing from our hectic daily life, is to go snorkeling. We had so much fun snorkeling over the Great Barrier Reef when we visited Australia over our Christmas break last year, we wanted to make an effort to explore this relaxing sport in a little more "depth" (ha!). So, to prepare for our trip we bought prescription-lens goggles, new snorkels and fins, and borrowed a detailed Snorkeling book. We also bought fish ID cards so we can tell what fish we will be looking at. We really felt ready.

Thursday morning we got up early to hit Ke'e Beach on the island's north coast. In summer Ke'e is one of the best beaches on Kauai for snorkeling. During winter the north and east sides of the island are wetter and windier. We arrived at the beach close to 8am and found that already the big parking lot was starting to fill up. We established our towels and things in a shady spot and sat quietly watching the current and the wind a little before wading in. The water felt a bit chilly at first, but we soon forgot about it once in the clear water. The bay at Ke'e holds an oval pool 10 or 15 feet deep, bounded by the sandy beach on one side and a wide shelf of coral on the other. Just a dozen feet into the water, we were looking at a lot of pretty fish, Triggerfish, Ornate Wrasse, and several kinds of Butterfish. We were greedy and wanted to explore more, so we went further out toward the ocean through a narrow channel in the reef. The water becomes so shallow that in order not to touch or stand on the coral (a single human touch kills hundreds of coral cells), Barbara got her legs scratched bleeding. However, along the outer reef there are many more fish, and bigger ones. We saw a long Trumpetfish running along the bottom looking like a slender length of rope. On our way back to the beach, we nearly bumped into a great sea turtle. Barbara first saw it moving slowly with its head tucked down in a hole in the reef. She thought it might be another snorkeler or swimmer having trouble in water, but when she swam up behind it, she realized it was a turtle rooting around for his lunch. She was moving so fast in the water, she almost had a collision. She brushed the turtle's rear leg while trying hard to brake and turn. The turtle turned around, facing us with his small head (compared to his giant body), little beady eyes glaring at us, as if to say "What!" We fled, leaving Mr. Turtle to his meal.

After two excursions in the water and a quick shower, we took a walk up the Kalalau Trail. Hiking the first couple of miles is allowed without a permit. We walked up just high enough to see a panorama of Ke'e Beach (photo, Ke'e from above) and the reef. On the drive back around the island, we scouted our next day's snorkeling spot - Tunnels Beach.

Friday morning we rose early again and headed out, hoping to snag one of just ten parking spaces that our snorkel book says are near Tunnels (photo, Tunnels). We felt lucky to find room for just one more car when we arrived. It's hard to imagine a better snorkeling spot than Tunnels. Access to the water is easy with a gentle slope of sand into the nice calm pool. Once in the water, you find yourself in a sort of maze of sandy paths through big standing clumps of coral. When we paddled out from the shore, we could see a sharp drop behind the inner reef from 5 feet to 30 feet. We saw a Unicornfish, red and blue Parrotfish and a school of several dozen Big Eyed Jacks. The school came all swimming toward us, only to detour at the last second in front of our faces. Tunnels Beach is next to Ha'ena Beach Park where there are twenty or thirty tents spread around the camping ground. Across the road from the camping area is a large dry cave, making the hill hollow (photo, Cave at Ha'ena Beach Park). On the way home, we stopped at the Guava Kai Plantation. We walked around their exotic flower garden and through a guava grove. At the shop we sampled their juice, guava spread and hot sauce. We liked the spread the best so we got a jar of it to take home.

On Saturday our enthusiasm about snorkeling was still going strong, so we headed out to Princeville and Queen Emma's Bath. Behind a tiny parking lot in the middle of an upmarket neighborhood, there is a narrow dirt trail running steeply down through a gully. A little way down there is an idyllic pool fed by a 15-foot waterfall, with a large boulder in the center. Further down the trail, the gully opens on to a wide flat expanse of jagged lava that wraps around the coastline toward the west. Years of relentless surf have beat two inlets into the lava, each a perfect rectangle with waves and currents pounding in and splashing up foam. A third inlet forms a very shallow, narrow spillway that lets the ocean water just splash into a large natural swimming hole. The name Queen's Bath seems apt for this calm little pool in the middle of the great black lava flow, filled with boulders and lots of little fish (photo, Queen Emma's Bath). We were excited to be the only people there, and Barbara got into the water immediately to meet all the fish. We saw a creepy little goby fish using his four fins like legs to crouch on the slope of a rock. When a smaller fish came by, the goby flexed down and then leaped up and out quickly. He seemed more interested in scaring others away than in catching or battling them. Pretty soon, other people started to arrive and the little pool gets crowded easily. We dried off and drove around to the Kilauea light house and bird sanctuary. We watched the birds soar around, checked out a nesting albatross through a telescope, and talked for a while with a Fish and Wildlife volunteer who had moved to Kauai just a year ago to retire. Before heading home, we drove around to the south side of the island to scout more potential snorkeling spots. Our book rated Ho'ai Beach, Koloa Boat Landing and the spot next to Beach House highly, but we found them more crowded, commercial and noisy (right next to the highway). There are a lot of young people there so we guess it is probably a good place to pick up a date. We talked with a woman who said she is the sister of the first mayor of Kauai. She is proud of her brother for stopping massive commercial construction and passing a law prohibiting highrise buildings. Til now the tallest building in Kauai is four or five stories.

Sunday we decided to take a break from snorkeling. We slept in, then did a bit shopping at the local farmers' market for food. Mid-morning we drove south and west to Waimea Canyon (photo, Waimea Canyon). The canyon drive rises up from the sea level to 4000 feet in less than 20 miles. At the lookouts and viewpoints, we could clearly sense how long this island has existed. It is indeed the oldest island in Hawaii, the first-born. It felt surreal to see the lush tropical green turn into high altitude red desert in a matter of minutes. Up at the top of the canyon, where the road ends, we saw a few nene geese in the parking area, making their unique Neh Neh moaning sound (photo, Geese). On the way back down the canyon, we caught a clear view of the forbidden island of Ni'ihau to the west (photo, Waimea Coast). Ni'ihau is a private island owned by the Robinson family. The 200 or so islanders are mostly self-sufficient and do not permit any visitors. The only connection they have with the outside world is via a barge going in and out once a month from Port Allen. The Ni'ihau women make beautiful shell necklaces, which can be purchased at some Kauai galleries at a handsome price, since it takes almost a year to make a single necklace.

Monday morning we got up at an early 4am to catch a charter catamaran trip by Holoholo Tours. They say holoho means, "Let's Go," in Hawaiian. The boat left Port Allen at 6am, carrying a nearly full load with 49 passengers, captain and three crew. The tour itinerary is seven and a half hours long, starting with a fast bumpy ride around the island's west end and then up north along the Na Pali Coast. We were treated to a spectacular sunrise view (photo, sunrise). Soon somebody spotted a couple of dolphins. Apparently this area along Kauai's southwest coast is a popular place for dolphins to sleep. A dozen or so dolphins swim around keeping watch while the main group rests overnight. The guard dolphins like to come near boats to catch a little free ride in the bow waves. We saw two or three, even five dolphins breaking the water at once, arching out of the water in formation (photo, dolphins). We also saw a lot of flying fish, little sparkling silver splashes rising up and skittering across the water in groups of ten or twenty.

After the boat had run north nearly to Ke'e Beach, we moved in closer to the Na Pali Coast and cruised south, slowly poking into sea caves and gazing up stately Kalalau Valley, where thousands of native Hawaiians lived a century ago. One of the crew members gave us a bit of history and a short geology and biology lesson. Then the captain revved up the engines and directed the boat west toward Ni'ihau (photo, mysterious Ni'ihau island). Just to the north of Ni'ihau is a small uninhabited volcano core called Lehua (photo, Lehua crater), where a finger of coral-covered lava flow stretches west into crystal clear water. The two sides of this ridge provide well-protected calm areas for an abundance of reef life. On this sunny day we could see clearly to a depth of 100 or 150 feet. We had so much fun snorkeling, even with 40 snorklers in the water we did not feel crowded. Among all the amazing fish we encountered, the highlight was a big spotted eagle ray, flying away directly under us about 20 feet down. After about an hour in the water, we got back on the boat, where a buffet lunch was served, and then the captain headed back toward Kauai. The return ride is very bumpy because the boat runs against the prevailing current. We sat comfortably in the bow, ignoring the crew's warning that this is the most bumpy part of the boat. Pretty soon, Richard felt a bit uneasy and went to the back of the boat where a few other passengers were dealing with some slight sea-sickness. Barbara on the other hand, tough as an unpopable kernel of corn, stayed napping in the bow til the end of the ride. We chose this tour because it is the only one that goes out to Lehua and Ni'ihau. A half dozen other operators provide tours of the Na Pali coast, but don't venture out to Lehua. Now we know why: not every tourist has the stomach to take the long rough ride.

On our last day in Kauai, we decided to go back to Tunnels Beach to spend the morning there. We just fell in love with the beach and the water here. This second time we paddled out to the outer reef to see more fish. We saw our second sea turtle, who seemed to be in a big hurry and we could not keep up with him. In the afternoon, we drove around to the west coast to the end of the road, then over five miles of unpaved road full of pot holes as big as our kitchen sink. All this trouble paid off when we finally got to Polihale Beach (photo, Polihale beach), Kauai's westernmost beach. Polihale features a fine 17-mile white sand beach, the longest beach in Hawaii, with sand dunes rising to 60 feet high. As far as our eyes could see, there are less than a dozen people up and down on this long stretch of the beach. It is far more beautiful and romantic than Waikiki. We sat at the foot of the dune, and experienced a most memorable sunset (photo, Polihale sunset). It was a beautiful way to end our Kauai Snorkel Adventure Vacation. We have many friends who claim Kauai is their favorite island in Hawaii. Now we have to say the Garden Isle is our favorite too.