Certain parts of Hawaii have been in the news over the past few months for all the wrong reasons. Flooding after extraordinarily heavy rains, volcanic eruptions and hurricanes – they seem to have had it all.
However, things seemed to have settled down a bit when it came to the fall offseason, and the lush extreme green of Kauai, the Garden Isle, called my name. This is the wild, jungly island that all the Jurassic Park movies, as well as a hundred more, have been filmed on. Kauai’s incredible, overgrown, lush rainforest has been a stand-in for Hollywood’s tropical locales for decades.
The inaccessible north known as the Na Pali Coast is rugged, huge and awe-inspiring with abundant waterfalls, vegetation and vertigo-inducing cliff drops. It can be seen by tourist helicopter, via outfitters who run hour-long flights all day, or by boat (if you can stand the swell; I can’t).
There are many scary, not-for-beginners hiking trails and one 11-miler, the Kalalau Trail, across the whole coast that draws extreme adventurer types. However, on Kauai, like in Aspen sometimes, hiking adventures depend on the weather. Since this is arguably the wettest place on the planet, it’s dicey a lot of the time.
The week we visited, the rain made hikes we’d honed in on unsuitable, unpassable and unsafe. Beyond the mud, which is kind of fun, you must use reason and not risk precipitous dropoffs, gushing rivers, steep banks and crumbling cornices. One hike with just enough scare factor that was safe was the two-hour Waipoo Falls trail (also known as the Canyon Trail). From the trailhead in Waimea Canyon State Park it was an incredible walk with impressive views reminiscent of the Grand Canyon, with a small waterfall at the end.
What’s great is that Kauai has so many cool sights, waterfalls and extreme vistas. Some can be seen right from the car or a few steps from parking – Wailua Falls and Opeakaa Falls, to name just two, and the occasional monk seal napping on any beach in front of your eyes, to name a third.
The south of the island is sunniest, with less extreme topography. Accessible beaches mean a tourism hub. However, amazingly, the behemoth branded hotels sort of disappear into the foliage. Even so, I was so happy at boutique hotel Koa Kea (meritagecollection.com/koa-kea), right on Poipu Beach with just 120 rooms and everything a barefoot step or two away. This is surf country, so the crashing waves right outside the door are to be taken with caution. I walked a few hundred feet down for a safer swim.
The super-personal service at Koa Kea makes this place a standout in a crowded arena. With an upgraded garden-view room and feeling spoiled, the best seat for sunset was from our personal loungers. Modern but comfortable island-style décor, delicious amenities by Fresh, silky soft beds, plus the food at Red Salt, the small but insanely good restaurant, add to its standout qualities. Try the Furikake and Wasabi-Crusted Seared Ahi on a bed of creamy risotto. Really hard to beat. And I mean anywhere. The staff obviously take extreme pride, and it shows. Hotels rarely exceed expectations, but Koa Kea is really run right, with staff anticipating needs. There’s even a small spa with not outrageous-priced treatments. A Hawaiian massage for under $200 including gratuity at a top-shelf resort? Believe it or not, this is competitive.
Kauai’s traffic problems stem from one-lane roads and too many rental cars. This made exploration occasionally frustrating, but without splitting stays between the north and south of the island, only an hour’s drive apart, you plan ahead. A foray northward past the east coast towns of Kapa’a and Anahola and on up takes you into Princeville, the other mega-resort, with some billionaire and celebrity second homes. Zuckerberg has a compound here. This is now the north shore proper, where you’ll find the small boho-chic enclave known as Hanalei, peppered with cool design shops and insane farm-to-table food trucks and shave ice (try Wishing Well for organic).
Hanalei is cult in certain surf circles and reachable by a one-lane river-bridge that beautifully keeps out further development. Sadly, this is the area that suffered most in floods this year. It’s supposedly exquisite beyond the closure, just beyond the beach and pier, but not for now while they rebuild the road.
Kauai gets under your skin, and I can’t wait to go back. For the chance to snorkel beyond Hanalei, to SUP up the Wailua river and to dock my board at the Secret Falls hike trail. Kauai SUP, a shop in Wailua, had terrific rental gear, but with recent extended heavy rain Daryn and his dudes there encouraged safety first and expressed sympathy for the timing of our trip. It was a no-go renting boards. High river gauges, brown water and unsuitable conditions spelled danger. Global warming is heartbreaking. Seeing it take a toll on breathtaking locales such as Kauai is hard. None of this could ruin the trip, however, and honestly if I’d sat on a lounger with a mai-tai in the paradise of the Koa Kea hotel gardens the entire time looking out at the surf, I’d have been just as happy. It’s just great to sit in the lap of the Garden Isle.