I’m unsure if there has ever been a place I’ve traveled to that I haven’t wanted to visit again. For me, part of the beauty of traveling is to continue exploring and constantly carving out new experiences. And, no matter how many different places I’ve been fortunate enough to see, there are always more adventures to create. A 6 day stint on the Island of Kauai at the tail end of our winter vacation was a glimpse into the glory of the ‘Garden Isle’ and had us craving for more time. I would say that as far as a quick breakaway is concerned, I could not envision a more rejuvenating location than the pristine island of Kauai.
After some minor flight delays leaving the Big Chill on the Big Island, we landed in Kauai well after dark and had a ride set up to take to us to Kauai Rooftop Campers (Google). We had decided instead of paying the cost to rent a car and a hotel room, we could combine the two and experience more of the wilderness. Our Toyota Tacoma was fully loaded with a rooftop pop up tent and bedding, cooking utensils, beach gear, a large cooler, and any miscellaneous items you might need for camping. Having four wheel drive is recommended when accessing remote locations in Kauai and almost a necessity following the series of flooding which had occurred this Winter. Within 10 minutes of leaving the parking lot, we were putting our borrowed rig to good use as the road to Anini Park Campground (Google Maps) came to an abrupt end. The route was trying to take us through an abandoned vehicle, a concrete barricade, and a rushing creek. The night was only made darker by the cloud cover and we began to meekly follow a set of tire prints that led us through some puddles that more resembled ponds and weaved us through trees before stumbling onto a beach. With waves looming too close for comfort and a no vehicle sign posted in site, the adventure had officially begun! The wheels on the truck began to spin and visions of facing arrest, a gauged up tow truck bill, or saltwater pouring into the cab, all flashed through my mind. Fortunately, the 4WD worked and we motored through the soft sand and back into the jungle until we found the campground. We later learned from the campground host that the bridge had blown out a year ago and there was another entrance further down the highway. Apparently, this did not make the latest updated version on Google Maps. Not completely sure of our surroundings and with a little effort, we popped open the rooftop tent and settled into sleep.
Anini Park Campground
We woke the next morning to a steady drizzle that quickly built up into an island downpour. I love camping; being close to nature, experiencing the elements, sleeping under the stars, roughing it. Except of course, when Mother Nature decides to piss down upon you with great ferocity and then being outside is only fun when you can dry off. We retrieved our rain gear from the pickup, where a window had inadvertently been left open, and did our best to pack up without getting everything drenched. Note: This was the first of several occasions on this trip when I swore I would never buy a rooftop tent. Rather than battling to make breakfast or coffee in the faucet leaking from the sky, we drove until we landed upon the town of Princeville. We discovered from a local artist who was showing off his works that the North Shore General Store (Google Maps) had the best breakfast burritos on the island. Although that was the only breakfast burrito we had on the island, we went back several times and could not argue his point.
The skies started to calm and we were unsure of how saturated the trails would be so we decided to stay close and venture to Queen’s Bath (Google Maps). Although the trail was closed for the Winter season, there was an offshoot a little further down the fence line. We had read that it was a short 10min walk down to the ocean and thought we would we be able to manage with a coffee in hand. My confidence quickly slipped away as my feet went airborne on the greasy path and we retreated to take the coffee back to the truck. Better prepared for the current conditions, we slid through the sloppy mud and found times when we were knee deep in footholes filled with rain water. The jungle was still sweating with precipitation and the vines were tightly woven into an impermeable ground covering. A stream pulsed with a couple of waterfalls and broke up the vegetated fabric before creasing into the sea. The site from there would have been enough reward for navigating the mud but we were treated to more views of the northern coastline as we traversed across the rocks. Queens Bath is formed by a sink hole in the ocean floor that is now a deep tidal pool protected by rocks. Queens of the past used to bath in the calm, but now in the Winter months there are typically stories of people being swept out to sea.
Fortunately, we had a 5 gallon tank of water that we could use to wash off the mud caked to our legs and clothes. In the Princeville marketplace there is a courtyard which had a few different food options and we had some tasty Thai food before heading back to our camp. The surf which had been so rough that morning calmed enough for us to embark on a sunset swim. In comparison to days of battling the masses on the beaches of the Big Island, we felt like we had Anohola Beach to ourselves and were glad to call it home for the next 4 nights.
The morning brought an abundance of sunshine that would stay with us for the rest of our time on Kauai. We had stocked up on groceries in Princeville and watched the rising sun glisten across the sea from while eating granola and sipping from our French press.
Sleeping Giant (Nogono Mountain)
If Kauai does not awaken the wild side in your soul, you may be shackled to the stagnation of society’s sedentary life. Mystic mountains draped in density crest the skyline and spark curiosity with wonder. One mountain that loomed over our area was aptly coined the Sleeping Giant (All Trails) as the lazy ridge laid in the outline of someone sneaking a snooze on their side. The parking lot to access the East Side Trail (Google Maps), only has room for about 20 cars and half of these spaces require vehicles with clearance. With other trails in the area closed due to the incessant rains, we were happy to find that we are allowed to flop around in the mud. The 3.5 mile trail climbed steadily through the generations of vegetated growth and our shoes were occasionally sucked into the coffee ground sludge-like mud that brewed in the shade. When we wrapped on either side of the giant’s back there were pockets from the shadows where the sun was blasting and we could gaze down unobstructed on the prowess of the Pacific. Near the top, the spine becomes crooked with rock outcroppings and we needed all four of our appendages to stay connected to the ground. The vastness provided from the summit views were a stark reminder of our insignificance as we were simply ants crawling on a mound surrounded by peaks and valleys rising from a small volcanic island peeking through the sea.
With nothing but time and plenty of daylight on our side, we figured the best way to scrub the mud would be a salty snorkel on the reefs off Tunnels Beach (Google Maps). However, with the surf swirling in a display of boiling waves thrashing and crashing in chaos, the water was too rough for an actual swim. We were more than satisfied to sit back on the beach and marvel at jagged toothed formations that jutted into the ocean. On our drive back to our camp, we stopped in the charming village of Hanelei to eat at the Dolphin Restaurant. It was closed that night due to COVID, so we grabbed some tantalizing Poke and Sushi at the neighboring Dolphin Fish Market (Google Maps) that we enjoyed on their outdoor tables. Knowing the view that awaited us back at camp, we made sure that we were back in time to see the sunset.
Awa’awapuhi and Nu’alolo Trail
Even though Kauai is a relatively small island, life moves at a slower pace, and distances take loner to cover than expected. The drive to Waimea Canyon is no different and so we left early in the morning as we wanted to spend the day hiking in the area. I’m not sure if you can really go wrong as there are so many different options, but we found this 12 mile loop (All Trails) that was absolutely spectacular. We parked at the Awa’awapuhi trailhead (Google Maps) and meandered through the woods until the path spilled out onto the cliffs drastically dropping off into the big blue. This path was fairly well traveled and for good reason as the hanging canyon walls dove into the depths of the Earth’s core. On the cutoff trail that connects Awa’awupuhi to the Nu’alolo Trail we did not see another soul. The feeling of wilderness settled in as we were pushing through the thick brush to find our way. The ocean below was like a far off echo muffled in a conch shell that was greeted with occasional chirps from the flurry of iridescent birds. We had seen plenty of traffic on the drive winding up Waimea Canyon, but everyone had left us in peace for the remainder of the hike and we found more conversation in just listening to the outside world. The loop finishes up at Nu’alolo Trail Parking (Google Maps) and the walk along the paved road to our truck was definitely anti-climactic. We drove back with night creeping in and rather than cooking back at camp we elected to stop at the Fish Bar Deli (Google Maps) in Kaapa for an amazing meal.
With the need to get tested before our flight home the following evening, we spent the next morning around Anini Campground enjoying the serene setting over several pots of coffee. The clinic was in Lihue and so we decided to go down to Poipu Beach (Google Maps) which boasts a nice protected sandy bottom enclave for snorkeling. Poipu is known to have the best weather on Kauai and with that comes the larger resorts that run right into the water. We stopped at Lava’s (Google Maps) as we were cruising the beaches before deciding Poipu was a little more touristy than what we had become accustomed to further North. That night we were treated to a dazzling display of pastel paints pouring out onto Anahola Stream as it spilled into the sea.
Na Pali Coast to Hanakapi-ai Falls
The logistics of this hike definitely require some planning ahead and you will probably want to book well in advance. When we came here in 2011, the area was clogged with people and nature was getting hammered by the constant usage. They have put in a booking system (Google) to help manage the numbers and there is a limited number of reservations. For us to hike back to Hanakapi-ai Falls, we made a reservation for the shuttle bus that picks up at Waipa Park and Ride (Google Maps) and drops you off at Ke’e Beach. To walk further along the Na’Pali coastline or to camp, an even more limited permit is required. The trails climbs abruptly from Ke’e beach and soon we were gawking at the rugged coastline that spiked into the water. The hike is 8 miles and you probably want to give yourself at least 6 hours as the footing requires special attention and there are several creek crossings that you will not want to rush. There are steep up and downs as the path hugs the water for about 2 miles before leveling out at Hanakapi-ai Beach. From there, we left the sea views and slipped into the lush jungle mixed with bamboo stalks, looping banana trees, fuzzy ferns, and other island mysteries. The journey back to the falls was as breathtaking as the 300 foot rush of water busting free from the carved stream bed. Kauai is known to be a hikers paradise and this trail is at the top of my list for mixing the mountainous jungle with the cobalt infused sea. This was the perfect way to end our short trip on Kauai and made the 25 hour long trip back to Korea and the 10 day quarantine well worth it!