Named the Garden Isle because of its lush vegetation, Kauai is the most northerly island in the Hawaiian chain. Although it is small, measuring only 33 by 25 miles, it is a tropical paradise with a surprising number of must see attractions: dramatic landscapes, incredible beaches, glowing rainbows, breathtaking sunsets – and chickens.
Yes, chickens. Anyone visiting a public park in Kauai is bound to encounter this unpublicized tourist attraction which makes Kauai unique among the Hawaiian Islands. The chickens are a cross between the descendants of the canoe fowl brought by the first Polynesian settlers, fighting cocks and barnyard hens. People tend to either passionately love or vehemently hate these birds. But love them or hate them, they are an intrinsic aspect of Kauai’s cultural traditions, a permanent fixture of its landscape, and an inevitable part of the visitor experience.Credit: By jaybergesen (Great Plumage (wild island rooster)) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
But for the first time visitor, who is understandably more interested in Kauai’s natural beauty than its quirky wildlife, the two main attractions are the Na Pali coast and Waimea Canyon.
The dramatic cliffs and rock formations of the 17 mile Na Pali Coast cannot be reached by road. The only overland route into this pristine area is a challenging 11 mile hike on the Kalalau Trail from Ke’e Beach at the end far end of route SR560. While boat tours and kayak trips make it possible to view Na Pali from the ocean, the best way to see this amazing landscape is by taking a helicopter tour.
Waimea Canyon is known as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific. This is a dramatic 3,500 foot deep trench eroded into the red rock heart of Kauai. An 18 mile scenic drive on Route 550 leads up to the dramatic canyon lookout where visitors can gaze deep into the canyon, or up at Kawiakini Peak, said to be one of the wettest places on earth.Credit: Michael Oswald via Wikimedia Commons
In addition to the spectacular eroded landscape of Na Pali and Waimea, the abundant rain blown to Kauai by the constant trade winds has also created the island’s luxuriant greenery, as well as its rivers and waterfalls. Kauai is home to the Wailua River, the only navigable river in the state of Hawaii. Two miles up the River and only accessible by boat is the Fern Grotto. This is a lava cave which shelters hanging ferns and tropical plants cooled and watered by a misty waterfall. If you remember the television series Fantasy Island, you might be interested to know that the beautiful waterfalls featured in the opening scene of each episode were the Wailua Falls.
But Fantasy Island is not Kauai's only Hollywood connection. Several television series, countless commercials and over 60 movies have been produced here. These include South Pacific, Avatar, Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and one of my personal favorites, Soul Surfer.
But mostly when people on the island mention a movie it will be Elvis Presley's Blue Hawaii. This was filmed at the legendary Coco Palms, an elegant hotel which catered to the rich and famous until it was destroyed in 1992 by Hurricane Iniki (which islanders also blame for letting the chickens loose). Coco Palms is still in ruins over 20 years later, although there are plans to restore it to its former glory. The unofficial caretaker of the Coco Palms is Kauai's legendary entertainer Larry Rivera, who began work as a busboy there almost 60 years ago. Larry sang for Elvis when he was at the Coco Palms for Blue Hawaii and is a passionate supporter of the plan to rebuild the hotel. Tours of the hotel grounds are offered from Monday to Friday and cost $20 a person.
Kauai's Legendary Entertainer Larry Rivera
Naturally, the Garden Isle is also home to many wonderful tropical gardens. The beautiful setting of Limahuli Gardens and its unique collection of Hawaiian plants have received rave reviews on Trip Advisor. Also worth visiting are the Na Aina Kai Botanical Gardens, a 240 acre coastal estate containing thirteen gardens, a hardwood plantation, a fern filled canyon, and the largest collections of bronze sculpture in the United States.Credit: By Daderot. (Own work (I took this photo)) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons
Of course, the main attractions of Hawaii are the beaches. With 50 miles of beautiful white sand along Kauai’s 111 mile coast it is not surprising that some of the best beaches in the state of Hawaii are here.
The clear ocean water around Kauai offers great swimming, surfing, snorkeling and diving from virtually any beach and it is often possible to snorkel safely in relatively shallow water. The south coast is generally good for swimming and surfing year round, although conditions on the north shore may not be optimal in the fall and winter. Two particularly popular beaches are Tunnels Beach, a winter surfing and year round snorkeling destination with a stunning mountain backdrop, and Lydgate Beach which provides safe ocean swimming inside a protective man-made rock barrier.Credit: User:Grace808 [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
A truly unique beach is Salt Pond on the west side of the island. In addition to great swimming, it is also a cultural site with traditional evaporation pits which Hawaiian families still use to produce natural salt from the ocean.
Another ancient cultural site is the Aleko or Menehune Fishpond, said to have been built by Kauai's legendary "little people", the Menehune. This is a 39 acre pond erected on the banks of the Hule’ia River. It was created by building a 900 foot lava rock wall along the river bank, and the fish trapped in the pond provided a readily available source of food for the early Kauaians.
One of the most photographed attractions on Kauai is the spectacular Spouting Horn on the south shore. Waves washing in to shore are forced under a lava rock overhang. The water then spouts up through passages in the rock which form natural blowholes. As the surf spouts upward it creates a dramatic noise which according to Hawaiian legend is the roar of the lizard monster Mo'o trapped under the rocks.Credit: By Bgabel (Own work (Original text: self-made)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Another photo opportunity is the statue of British explorer James Cook in Waimea, which commemorates Cook's first landing in Hawaii in 1778. If you are interested in island history, you can find out more about Captain Cook at the Kauai Museum in Lihue. It has a varied and interesting collection and also offers tours and cultural events. When we visited the museum we were delighted that the legendary Larry Rivera made an appearance along with his friend Charlie the fishnet weaver.
Kauai is an island of legends. In addition to being the home of legendary little people, sea monsters and entertainers, Kauai is also said to be the place where the hula originated. Therefore, no visit to the island would be complete without watching Hawaii’s traditional dance. Free shows are offered at various locations, including the Poipu Shopping Village, the Nawiliwili Harbor Mall, the Hyatt Regency, the Kauai Marriott and the Princeville Hotel.Credit: By Frank Kovalchek from Anchorage, Alaska, USA [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons