Known for its unique geography and unparalleled natural beauty, Kauai is one of the most breathtaking islands in the world. 97 percent of its land is covered with verdant, undeveloped mountain ranges and lush, tropical rainforests.
From the soaring cliffs of the Na Pali coast and its many velvety emerald peaks to the vast chasms of Waimea Canyon and the hundreds of rainbows and waterfalls, Kauai dazzles the senses like no other destination on the planet.
On our most recent trip, however, we discovered some unexpected off-the-beaten-path surprises that convinced us there’s more to this enchanting tropical paradise than we’d ever realized.
Makawehi Lithified Cliffs
Just a short distance from beautiful Shipwreck Beach in South Shore Poipu sits a spectacular geological wonderment known as the Makawehi Lithified Cliffs.
The magnificent coastal hike through a quiet, pine-needled forest led to commanding views of the churning Pacific waters from vantage points overlooking the edge of sun-bleached cliffs. These rock formations, weathered by thousands of years of pounding surf are multi-hued and fascinatingly sculpted by Mother Nature.
Magnificent coves and sheltered bays in the distance appeared like a perfect painting. The cliffs offered many vantage points from which we watched the migrating whales.
On the return hike, we unexpectedly stumbled across a sacred ancient Hawaiian burial site. The stillness of that secluded area was interrupted by a gentle breeze stirring through the treetops, reminding us that for the ancient Hawaiian gods, their mana still lives here.
Menehune Fish Ponds
We actually found this incredible site almost by accident after taking an unplanned turn off the main highway.
Hawaiian legend says the mythical Menehune (or little people) completed these ancient ponds overnight some 1,000 years ago.
The ponds were created by a dam across a portion of the Huleia River with the purpose of trapping fish to feed Hawaiian royalty known as the Ali’i. The wall separating the pond from the stream is 900 feet long, five feet high and meticulously assembled with lava rock.
A scenic overlook provided the perfect viewing location and at near-sunset, the play of the sun setting against the mountains was spectacular.
River Kayaking to Secret Waterfalls
Kauai boasts Hawaii’s only navigable rivers. Our kayaking trip on the scenic tranquil, nearly 20-mile stretch of the Wailua River took us past lush jungle landscapes and green mountain ranges.
A moderate hike from our landing point guided us through a tropical rainforest after which we waded through streams and traversed muddy canyon trails. At the end, we were rewarded with mesmerizing views and the thunderous applause of a 100-foot bridal-veil waterfall.
Uluwehi or, Secret Falls, is so named because of its remote location.
After a refreshing swim in the clean waterfall-fed pool, we lunched atop massive boulders overlooking the falls, before returning to our kayaks for a return trip back down river.
Wet and Dry Caves
So many visitors to Kauai are anxious to hike Na Pali Coast, one of the most stunning shorelines in the world, that they miss some genuine jewels along the way—the wet and dry caves
Located along the main road in the Haena State Park, water filling the Waikapalae Wet Cave comes from an underground spring that eventually feeds into the ocean. Water levels in the cave are affected by the tides. (This sensational structure was used in the filming of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.) A smaller cave is accessed via a swim through the first cavern though water temperature here was extremely chilly.
The Maniniholo Dry Cave can easily be explored through its massive entrance. We followed a recommendation to carry a flashlight, which made the experience of walking through the inviting cavern even better.
The many tropical vines climbing down the rock walls and hanging above the caves’ entrances were reminiscent of an Indiana Jones movie, adding an aura of adventure to our amateur spelunking.
Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1985 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is marked by its towering white lighthouse. The ocean cliffs and tall grassy slopes of a dormant volcano provide a protective breeding ground and sanctuary for numerous species of Hawaiian seabirds.
Perched at the northernmost tip of Kauai, the 52-foot Kilauea Point Lighthouse was built in 1913 as a navigational beacon. The drop-dead gorgeous views of the rugged northern coastline and the deep-blue Pacific made this a perfect vantage point for some unbelievably great photo opportunities.
Cradled by the emerald North Shore Mountains on one side, as well as the golden sand beaches and crystal clear waters of Hanalei Bay on the other, Hanalei Town resembles a picture-perfect postcard of Kauai.
Crescent-shaped Hanalei Bay is one of Hawaii’s most scenic beaches. In the distance, the distinctly shaped mountain peak of Makana played the role of Bali Hai in the classic 1957 musical, South Pacific.
Historic Hanalei Pier is a popular landmark. At one time a busy working wharf for the sugar industry, it’s now the perfect place to watch surfers and fishermen or take in a stunning Kauai sunset.
The old, iconic Waioli Huiia Church, a much-photographed symbol of Hanalei founded in 1834, is impossible to miss with its deep green shingles and exquisite stained glass windows. Set against the magnificent backdrop of lush green, waterfall-lined mountains, the pastoral beauty of this historic green, spired church designed in the American Gothic style is soothing to the soul.
If any botanical garden we’ve ever visited could be considered the modern-day “Garden of Eden”, our money goes to Allerton Garden on Kauai’s south shore.
This spectacular, 186-acre botanical paradise extends along the banks of Lawa’i Stream that empties into the Pacific Ocean. Tropical fruits, spices, trees, rare exotic plants and astonishingly captivating flowers are located throughout this landscaped architectural masterpiece preserving the largest collection of native Hawaiian flora anywhere.
The famous Moreton Bay fig trees prominently featured in Hollywood blockbusters like Jurassic Park and Pirates of the Caribbean are located on the grounds. Guided tours give more in-depth history as well, or you can just take a leisurely stroll around the massive garden with its numerous statues, fascinating water features and resident wildlife.
We once heard it said that “you don’t just go to Kauai; you absorb it with every one of your senses.”
It’s not hard to understand why Kauai is one of our favorite islands. After all, this emerald jewel of the Pacific has long been considered one of the world’s most alluring destinations.
And who knows how many more unexpected treasures remain there awaiting our discovery?
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