Few destinations bring to mind visions of paradise like Kaua‘i: spires of emerald mountains, miles of jungle trails fringed with dew-glistened orchids, and secret waterfalls waiting to be explored. But with a majority of the island inaccessible via car, only the pluckiest travelers can access some of Kaua‘i's best sights. Here's how to do it.
Cruise the Na Pali Coast
Centuries ago, ancient Polynesians arrived to the Hawaiian Islands aboard double-hulled canoes using a complex system of navigation. Experience what this must have been like aboard a modern (albeit a bit more comfortable) vessel along the Na Pali Coast. Zip into a secret coastal cave aboard a small-but-nimble inflatable boat, or lounge aboard a 35ft catamaran and examine the dramatic coastline while sipping a cocktail or regional craft beer. The most adventurous (and fittest) travelers can go on the marathon 17-mile kayak tour of the coast, frequently described as one of the best kayaking trips in the world.
Make it happen: Catamaran cruises like Holo Holo Charters depart from Port Allen Harbor in ‘Ele‘ele on the Westside, while kayaking trips depart from Hanalei or ‘Anini on the North Shore. Due to rough seas, first-time sea kayakers must be on a guided tour. The 17-mile Na Pali Coast trip can only be done between April and October.
Soar over landscapes
Flying over lush valleys, landing at hidden waterfalls and shooting high above the island's vertiginous coast, experiencing Kaua‘i via air is one of the best ways to see the incredible landscapes of the island. Nothing quite compares to the rush of adrenaline as the ground falls away and you're whisked into the salty air in a helicopter. Options include a windy-but-worth-it doors-off helicopter (great for photographers hoping to get a clear shot), fully enclosed helicopters, or an open-cockpit biplane, an experience redolent of early aviation luxury.
Make it happen: Most air tours take off from airports in Lihue, Port Allen and Princeville. The weather on Kaua‘i can turn at a moment's notice, so book an air tour early in your trip in case you have to reschedule due to weather.
Kayak the Wailua River
Head into the verdant heart of the island aboard a kayak. Considered sacred among ancient Hawaiians, the 20-mile-long Wailua River is the only navigable river in the Hawaiian Islands, and its banks are littered with secret hideaways and places to explore. The most popular destination is the hike to Uluwehi Falls (aka 'Secret Falls'), a 100ft-tall waterfall framed by moss-covered cliffs. Continue upstream to a section where the river narrows and a rocky bank makes for the perfect place to experience the thrill of cliff diving (check the water's depth below beforehand).
Make it happen: Kayak rentals are easy to find in Kapa‘a and the East Side; Kayak Kaua‘i is an island-wide operator offering guided tours ($85) or two-person kayaks ($64) for independent explorers.
Hike to Hanakapi‘ai Falls
Even a novice hiker will tell you the best hikes are the ones that are earned through blisters and sore calves, and the Kalalau Trail doesn't disappoint. But the multi-day, 11-mile trek might be a bit too strenuous for some visitors to Kaua‘i, so the hike to Hanakapi‘ai Falls is the perfect day-trip alternative.
Following the first two miles of the Kalalau Trail, the hike to Hanakapi‘ai Beach hike gives a taste of what the full trail is like: gasping at the views of the Na Pali Coast, scrambling over boulders and stopping to look at wild orchids or pluck fresh guava. Stop at Hanakapi‘ai Beach and ponder the waves (no swimming) before heading inland, following the river that leads to the 300ft-tall Hanakapi‘ai Falls.
Make it happen: Though difficult, the trail can be tackled by experienced hikers without a guide, but island tour operators can hook trail novices up with an expert. Pay attention to trail markings and heed weather warnings from the Department of Land and Natural Resources (http://dlnr.hawaii.gov) – flash flooding is common.
Snorkel the South Shore
Slip into the blue underwater world of the South Shore's famous reefs. Watch neon yellow and blue angelfish dart between coral-covered rocks or spot sea turtles lazily paddling their way out to sea. Like most of the Hawaiian Islands, Kaua‘i's reefs contain some of the world's most diverse marine life, and the island's South Shore has a string of pearly beaches ripe for aquatic exploration.
Make it happen: From beginner to expert, the South Shore has snorkeling opportunities for all ranges of abilities – start at the lifeguard-protected waters of Po‘ipu Beach Park if it's your first time. Gear rentals abound on the island.
Drive Highway 550
Hop in the car rental and prepare for a winding, 14-mile drive from sea level to some of the the island's highest peaks. The road twists and turns its way up to one of the island's signature vistas: Waimea Canyon, a 3000ft-deep, dun-colored canyon that's also known as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific. Stop by other lookouts along the way, which only get more impressive as the drive goes from the dusty gorges of the south to the vibrant jungles of the north.
Make it happen: Skip the gas guzzler and rent a hybrid to help keep those lush jungles green – it might be a less-exciting driving experience than a sports car, but the speed limit is 25mph anyway. Fuel up before departing the town of Waimea at mile marker 0.
Take in the Kalalau Valley view
You've seen it on the cover of your guidebook and in every magazine article on Kaua‘i. A ridge of steep, scalloped mountains, each vertical spine catching the light and casting the deeper recesses in moody shadows. At the bottom, a flat, forest-covered valley and the blue sea beyond. Images of the Kalalau Valley seem to capture the essence of Kaua‘i's landscapes: at once primordial and green yet just out of the reach of us mere mortals. Luckily this particular vista is one of the most accessible on the island. Head up Waimea Canyon Drive where it ends in Kokee State Park and follow signs to Kalalau Lookout.
Make it happen: Check the weather before departing. Clouds regularly obscure the view, and the hour drive from Waimea has led some to call the vista 'Disappointment Lookout.' The best times are usually late morning, but clouds can quickly dissipate, so stick around to see if your luck improves.
Where to stay
With the exception of B&Bs scattered around the island, sleeping options are generally split between the resort areas on the North and South Shores. On the North Shore, the St Regis Princeville takes the cake for location (it overlooks picturesque Hanalei Bay) and pure opulence, while the South Shore has equally luxurious options like the Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort & Spa. Midrange travelers can head to Aqua Kauaʻi Beach Resort, an Eastside choice featuring warm, plantation-style furnishings and budget-friendly resort amenities – the bonus is it's location: staying here allows easy access to both the North and South Shore's activities.
Alexander traveled to Kaua‘i with assistance from Discover Kaua‘i (gohawaii.com/en/kauai/). Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.