Kauai: Through The Eyes Of An Adventurer and A Local

September 17 – September 22, 2009

Where have I been?! The lack of updates here has not been for a lack of travel.  However, all of my travel this year has been within the Contiguous United States, much of it surrounding live music events.  I’ve been to Austin for SXSW, New Orleans for JazzFest, Michigan for Rothbury Festival, Santa Barbara for Nine Inch Nails – you get the picture.  As a result of all of this “music travel” and my desire to write frequently, I started an additional blog:  Rock Is A Girl’s Best Friend.  While not chronicling my travel tales, I have been blogging about my live music experiences.

Also, last year’s epic trip to visit the polar bears in Churchill is a hard one to follow-up! Little jaunts to San Diego, Palm Springs, and Seattle seem trite compared to that adventure.  (I am highly considering a return visit to Churchill this year, so stay tuned for that.)   However, last week I made a journey to Kauai that was so unique it felt like I traveled to another country.

Kalalau Valley

Kalalau Valley

Perhaps this trip won’t be considered all that unique for some people, but it was definitely different for me.  During previous trips to Kauai, I was always accompanied by my parents, and a bit too young to appreciate all the intrinsic beauty and the “joy of doing nothing.” Well, all of that’s since changed!

I’ve been to Oahu and Maui as an adult several times.  They’re nice of course, but they feel a bit commercialized.  In fact, during my last trip to Maui, we weren’t able to visit the waterfalls unless we paid for an escorted tour.  I asked a local about this, “C’mon – you know where there are waterfalls we can explore on our own. . . ”  To my surprise the local man responded, “No, actually, the waterfalls here are on private property.  The only people with keys to the properties are the property owners and tour operators.  My friends and I tend to march to our own beat which can make group tours a bit of a challenge, so we skipped waterfalls during the Maui trip a few years back.  We made up for it this time!

We also hit up some secluded beaches.  So secluded that sometimes we were the only ones there.  In addition to the absence of my parents, what made this trip unique is that I was guided by a local and both of us are quite adventurous.  By “adventurous” I mean: if my parents would have advised against it, we did it.  I’m not talking about jumping out of planes (although, that’s already on the itinerary for the next visit), but we did climb fences, traverse unkempt trails barefoot, and ignore “Danger” signs.  All with great reward. . .

Sunset over Hanalei

Sunset over Hanalei

I landed late Thursday afternoon and after a quick stop for lunch we headed straight to the beach.  The first beach we hit up was Hanalei, home of Puff The Magic Dragon.  The water was calm and warm, and the clouds looming above exacerbated the magical feeling that overtook us.  We ended up swimming in Hanalei until just after sunset.  Next, we enjoyed a relaxed dinner outside, at a nice restaurant on the North Shore.  We went to bed fairly early (although it was 3-hours later by my Pacific Time) so that we would be ready for Friday’s adventures.


Sitting on the edge of a beautiful world

Friday: We got an early start, loaded the tent and sleeping bags in the truck, and headed for Small Tall Town Coffee, a great local shop in Kapaa. In addition to making the perfect Mocha, they also had delicious fresh honey spreads.  We picked up the recommended toasted almond & honey spread – the first item in the cooler for our upcoming night of beach camping.

After coffee, we went to a great local’s diner and had eggs and their signature Tropical Shorty pancakes with coconut syrup.  Yummmm! The places we ventured were not crowded, not your typical tourist stops, and in some cases unmarked or difficult to find – all of which made this trip even more spectacular.  We dined, hiked, and swam with the locals, never waiting more than a few minutes for any experience.  I’ve been asked not to post the names nor locations of some of the places we went, since part of their allure is that they are well-kept secrets and among the few places locals can visit to escape the hustle of tourists.

After breakfast we picked up food, firewood, and supplies for what would become a night of mystical beach camping.  With all our gear loaded in the truck, we headed south so we could get a view of Kalalau.  Originally, we discussed hiking the 11-mile trail some describe as treacherous and camping out at Kalalau.  However, there weren’t enough days during this vacation to work that in, so we decided to appreciate the magnificence of Kalalau from above.

Sitting on the edge of the Earth, way above the Ocean

Sitting on the edge of the Earth, way above the Ocean

We spent a while taking in the views.  I found it interesting that the designated “viewing areas” were well gated and secured, but if you continued to the end of the road, you could walk down a path and literally dangle your legs off the edge of the earth.  People watched us do it as if it were no big thing. . . until they got closer to the edge and saw the vertical drop.  Then, without fail, after an audible gasp, the men on the path would tease their wives and travel companions by getting as close to the edge as possible.

Entrance to Polihale

Entrance to Polihale

Next, we began the journey to Polihale. Polihale is one of those local gems, but you need to have 4-wheel drive and be willing to drive at least 5 miles over rocky, ditch-ridden, unpaved roads in order to get there.  I never saw any signs or arrows pointing to this beach and in fact, several of the roads we were on were unnamed (or rather, their names are not designated by signs). Important to note – you can camp on the beach at Polihale.  But you can also drive on the beach at Polihale.  So if you plan on camping on the sand, be sure to make yourself visible by building a camp fire or making a compound around your tent.  We saw several huge trucks traversing the sand throughout the night (mostly used to get from one side of the beach to the other than obnoxious joy riding).

Sunset at Polihale

Sunset at Polihale

Polihale means “House of the Po”, and Po is the Hawaiian afterworld. It is believed that this is the place spirits come before they “move on” by jumping into the sea.  Whether or not this is true or Hawaiian lore, there is definitely something mystical about Polihale.

We arrived just prior to sunset and waited for the sun to sink below the horizon before we set up our tent.  Once the sun set, we built a campfire to provide light while we got situated.  There were approximately six other groups of people camping on the beach, but everybody was substantially spread out.  Aside from the flickers of light bouncing off one of the campfires, all you could see were stars.  And because there were no obstructions (buildings or lights), the stars appeared visible from the ground behind us, all the way to the horizon.

What’s there to do with a campfire, but make S’mores?!  We perfected and ate S’mores, listened to one group of campers have a sing-off (which sometimes morphed into a sing-a-long), wished upon shooting stars, and drifted off to sleep. While sleeping under the stars at Polihale I experienced some of the most magical dreams yet.  They felt larger than life and exceptionally colorful – a bit like being in a fairytale.  When I awoke it almost felt like I never went to sleep because my dreams were so active and the “characters” so unique.

Saturday: We watched the sunrise at Polihale, packed up our gear and decided to head back to the North side of the island for more adventures.  But first – breakfast, of course.  I don’t remember the name of that diner either, but it was a really cute place with its own bakery (which made for an exceptional breakfast croissant).  We sat outside, leisurely sipping our coffee and discussing the day’s plans.

The thing about Kauai is that “plans” are extremely loose.  Conversations go something like: “Should we go to a waterfall, take a nap, or go swim in the ocean?”  While it’s entirely possible to accomplish all of those things in one day (and we did), there’s no need to commit to a “plan” in Kauai.  You can truly just go with the day and see how you feel, which leaves more room for spontaneity and adventure.

Wailua Falls

Wailua Falls

On the way back from breakfast, my friend took a sharp left off the main road toward Wailua Falls.  As with most things that are worth seeing in Kauai, you must first journey along a narrow, winding road.  I got used to the drives pretty quickly — anything was easier than that road to Polihale. We arrived at one of the Wailua lookouts and viewed this 80 foot waterfall from above.  It was spectacular, but what really caught my eyes was the beautiful body of water and river below.  The waterfall came thundering down into the most peaceful pool of water, and nobody was in it!  “You used to be able to climb above the waterfall,” my friend explained, “but people have fallen and died, so they closed it.”  Sure enough, there were gates and huge “DANGER” signs posted all along the perimeter.

“I don’t care about going above it,” I replied, “I want to go down there – I’d like to get IN it!”

My friend explained that this wasn’t possible.  There’s no way down. When I later recounted this story to another friend she said, “Wow. . . Ali must have forgotten who she was with.  You always find a way. . .” Ignoring Ali’s suggestion that a trek to the base of the waterfall was not possible, I began surveying the area closely.  Within minutes I saw people with inexplicably muddy feet and wet clothing.

“Look at them!!” I said to Ali.  “They’ve been somewhere wet and muddy – they’ve been down to that waterfall!”

“Maybe they came from somewhere else.  Look – there’s no way down,” Ali said, pointing all around us.

We continued walking up the road and ran into a local, Phill, whom Ali knew.  Phil was selling handmade wooden instruments at the top of Wailua Falls.  We chatted with him for a bit, played around on the instruments and then I pointed to the bottom of the falls and asked, “is there a way to get down there?”

“YES!” Phil’s face lit up as he explained, “If there’s one thing I tell people to do in Kauai, it’s hike down to the bottom of this waterfall.  You can even go behind it.”

“Great! How do we get down there?” I inquired.

“Follow this road around the bend.  You’ll see a place where people have pushed down the fence.  Go over the fence and start walking down the path until you get there.”

“Can we wear these shoes?” I asked, pointing to our flip flops.

Phil chuckled. “Don’t wear any shoes,” he offered helpfully.  “It’s really muddy and slippery down there and shoes get stuck and break.  There are a lot of broken shoes down there.  Go barefoot and grip the rocks and dirt with your feet.” And with that, we walked back to the car to ditch our shoes.

You've been warned

You've been warned

[Now, as with all adventures recounted in this blog, these are my personal stories, not my recommendations for you.  While I find these experiences extremely rewarding, I’m not suggesting that you go beyond your comfort-level, trespass, or endanger yourself in anyway.]

We took off our shoes, drank some water, and headed barefoot back down the road toward the man-made “entrance”.  We were greeted by a Danger. Keep Out sign and a lot of mud.  We stepped over the portion of fence that had been pushed down and carefully began to navigate our way down the hill.  The no-shoe suggestion was very helpful! Tree roots became the make-shift “steps” down the hill as we wound our way over and under branches, trees and bushes.  Some locals have put rope along the way which helps mark “the path” and can be used for additional stability when you’re making your way to the waterfall.

“Getting back up there is going to be interesting,” Ali said, after we had been walking for a little while.  Having not thought about that previously, I looked up at the steep, muddy hill behind us.  “So that’s what the rope is for! That’s going to be even more useful on the way up,” I replied.

We continued down the way until we arrived here:

We made it to the bottom!

We made it to the bottom!

Yes, it was worth it.  And extremely gratifying.

We swam around freely in the pool beneath the waterfall.  At one point, I floated on my back and looked up at the forceful stream of water pounding down beside me.  If only I had a waterproof camera – it was one of the most spectacular sights I’ve seen.  There are few things more humbling than swimming around waterfalls.  There were two people heading out when we arrived so we had the falls to ourselves for a while.  Then, gradually, a few more people tentatively made their way down to the falls.

Standing at the base of the falls

Standing at the base of the falls

After soaking it all in for a while, we decided it was time for the next adventure.  The ropes tied between the trees were essential to scaling the mountain on the way back up.  It was also helpful to just look where your feet were stepping, one step at a time, rather than look up. . . or down! When we got back to the road we paused for a moment of gratitude, thanked Paul for his guidance, and walked back to our car.

"Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale. . . "

"Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale. . . "

Ali didn’t tell me where we were headed next.  Actually, she did rattle off the names of 4 different beaches, but none of them were familiar to me.  “Ok – it’ll be a surprise,” Ali said as she navigated us back to the main road.  We drove for a while longer, made another sharp left turn (again unmarked) and ended up on a residential street.  We parked the car and walked along the road until we could access the beach.  And there we were – at the site where the first couple episodes of Gilligan’s Island were filmed (November 19 -22, 1963), Moloaa Bay. The water was pristine and the sand was fine and soft.  We swam around in the crystal blue bay for a while and napped on the sand.

Not so sure being stuck on Gilligan's Island was a bad thing!

Not so sure being stuck on Gilligan's Island was a bad thing!

I honestly don’t remember what happened after that.  I think we may have headed home, showered, and then went to a friend’s house for dinner.  I do know that I slept exceptionally well on Saturday night.

Sunday: By this point, we had adventured, camped outside on the beach, swam in waterfalls, and enjoyed some good meals.  Now was the time to do what I can only do in a place like Kauai – truly slow down.  Stop even. We spent most of Sunday lying around the house, napping, catching up.  We eventually made it out to a beach and went swimming at sunset and then picked up some dinner and went back to sleep.  I got more sleep Sunday than I do cumulatively during a typical week.

Monday: Our day of rest behind us, it was time for more waterfalls.  First, we walked to breakfast at a little local bakery.  As usual, we sat outside, leisurely sipped our coffee, and considered our options for the day.  We initially planned on snorkeling, but we checked the surf report and the water was going to be too rough for snorkeling.  In fact, it was advised that people stay out of the water on the North Shore altogether on Monday (that of course doesn’t apply to the world class surfers who live for days like this).

So instead of snorkeling, we went on another waterfall adventure.  Ali explained that there was a bit of a hike involved, but it would be worth it.  I actually enjoy hiking so that was part of the fun for me, although I don’t typically hike in that kind of heat and humidity.  I’d imagine the hike is a couple miles (1-3) each way.

First, you walk down this path for a long time:


Then, you climb over this gate:


Next, you walk along this winding and hilly path for a considerable time:


The scenery on this path changes drastically as you make your way along.  At times it feels like you’re in the rain forest, other times it feels like you’re in the jungle, and due to the heat, sometimes it feels like you’re in the desert.


Eventually you get here and you see the first sign of water moving down a stream to your left:


And then, you arrive here:


Next thing you know, you’re here:


The waterfall swimming was amazing and once again, we were the only people there.  One thing to remember about these falls is: after you get out, you still have the long, hilly, hot walk back.  Even so (or especially so), it’s worth it!

The Lighthouse

The Lighthouse

Once we made our way back from the waterfalls, we stopped by the lighthouse and wild bird sanctuary. The view – as I became accustomed to – was spectacular.

We wound down the evening and brought dinner home.  I threw my wet clothes in the dryer and began packing.

Tuesday: At 4:30am the alarm went off. If you have to leave Kauai, I recommend you do it while it’s still dark out.

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