People of Kauaʻi
The people of Kauaʻi are diverse in many ways, but most share a few common characteristics. Sure, they know how to spread the love, but being a small island, they also know how to mind their own business. One of the central concepts here is aloha ʻaina (love of the land). Head out to a community market or local beach and you will probably also witness a love for the sea, a love for family and tranquility, a love for community, a love for isolation and a love for spirit. Residents may be native Hawaiian, descendants of early setters and immigrants, kamaʻaina (born here), end-of-the-road escapists, hippies, farmers, doctors and businesspeople, snowbirds or transplants. In some ways, these disparate groups manage to coexist. The saying 'small island big inferno' definitely comes to mind.
Local Versus Transplant
Born-and-raised Kauaians tend to be easygoing and low-key for the most part, preferring the unpretentious small-town life. Multigenerational locals take pride in their roots and enjoy knowing and being known within their community – which is a good thing since anonymity is a short-lived state, thanks to the ‘coconut wireless.’ Stereotypes of an unwelcoming local contingent do exist and there is some justification for that – after all, the infamous Wolfpak Surf Gang got its start on the North Shore.
Resistance has been one of Kauaʻi’s strong suits throughout its history and the way that this still manifests itself today is in an insider-outsider mentality that can linger beneath the surface of everyday interactions. However, we find that if you give aloha, you get aloha.
Island life is different and its pace of life is a few gearshifts down from that of the modern get-it-done-yesterday world. For most island-folk, tradition trumps change. Locals can be resentful of the influx of mainland transplants and their progressive ideals diluting traditional communities, especially on the North Shore. Yet other transplants seem to quickly find their feet: befriending neighbors, immersing themselves in the culture and simply slowing down and respecting local ways. As the saying goes, ‘Kauaʻi will either suck you in or spit you out.’
Typical transplants include post-college wanderers, surfer dudes, wealthy retirees or middle-aged career switchers seeking idyllic seclusion.
Despite the island’s compact size, each geographical location has its own distinct vibe. Lihuʻe, the county seat, is a functional town where people go to work, not to play. Wailua’s upcountry remains a favorite residential area while coastal Kapaʻa has taken on a burgeoning hippie front. Hanalei is a surf town, dominated by suntanned blonds and affordable only to multimillionaires. Poʻipu’s sun-splashed beaches serve as a perennial summer camp for retirees, and the Westside – more so than any other region – has retained an audible echo of its multiethnic plantation-history traditions.
Most residents focus on the outdoors. With the ocean as the primary playground, surfing is the sport of choice, along with fishing, free diving, hunting and ‘cruisin’ as popular pastimes. The workday starts and ends early, and most find a comfortable work/home balance.
The vast majority of residents work in fields somehow related to tourism or the service industry. There are smaller groups of farmers and fishers, craftspeople and, of course, like anywhere else, there are doctors and lawyers and time-share salespeople.
Head to the beach at sunset and you’ll see the balance at work. Locals, visitors, businesspeople all stop to take a last sunset surf session or just watch the sun dip below the horizon.
Not surprisingly, many Kauaʻi locals follow traditional lifestyle patterns. They often marry early and stick to traditional male and female domestic roles. The easy lifestyle, especially in surf towns like Hanalei, seems to squelch ambitions to travel the world or attend mainland universities.
Locals and transplants tend to diverge in their careers and ambitions. Locals tend toward more conventional, ‘American dream’ lives, meaning marriage, kids, a modest home, stable work and free nights and weekends. Mainland transplants are here for other reasons: retirement, a dream B&B or organic farm, waves, art, or youthful shenanigans. All are free to be unconventional on Kauaʻi.
In many ways you still see the remnants of ancient Hawaiian faiths both at home and in the church. It's not a hugely religious society, but you will find people of all faiths, with a strong Christian contingency and notable populations focusing on Eastern philosophies.
In Hawaii, locals define ‘family’ much more inclusively than mainstream mainlanders. Here, the ʻohana (family) can extend beyond bloodlines to friends, teammates, coworkers and classmates. If people demonstrate the ‘ʻohana spirit,’ it means that they are generous and welcoming, like family should be.
Hanai (adopted or foster) children are common in Hawaiian families. To be a hanai child or to hanai a child is not odd or pejorative in Hawaii. Instead, hanai children are fully accepted into the family.
Locals might refer to a ‘calabash cousin,’ meaning a close friend akin to a cousin but not a blood relation. More commonly, you’ll hear locals refer to ‘aunty’ or ‘uncle’ even if the person is not related at all. These elders are beloved community members, and calling them aunty or uncle connotes respect and affection.
The overwhelming majority of Kauaʻi’s current immigrants are white, so the island’s diversity is based on historic minorities: Native Hawaiians and plantation immigrants (predominantly Filipino and Japanese).
During plantation days, whites were wealthy plantation owners and their legendary surnames remain household words (eg Wilcox Memorial Hospital and Rice St). Their ingrained privilege is one reason why some resentment toward haole lingers. As time passes and the plantation era fades, the traditional stereotypes, hierarchies and alliances have softened.
That said, no ethnic group in Hawaii ever remained exclusive; instead, they freely adopted and shared cultural customs, from food to festivals to language. Folks of all backgrounds dance hula, craft hardwood bowls, play the ukulele and study the Hawaiian language.
Today there is no ethnic majority in the Hawaiian Islands. Due to this multiculturalism, you will find a blend of cultural influences and names. Many local Hawaiians have Caucasian or Asian surnames, for example.
Generally, locals feel bonded with other locals. While tourists and transplants are usually welcomed with open arms, they must earn the trust and respect of the locals. It is unacceptable for an outsider to assume an air of superiority and try to ‘fix’ local ways. Such people will inevitably fall into the category of ‘loudmouth haole.’
The Hawaiian language is not widely spoken, though with the rise of immersion schools and renewed interest in ‘everything Hawaiian’ you'll probably hear it more today than 50 years ago. What you get instead is an island patois that combines surfer lingo, Hawaiian words and plenty of colorful metaphors.
Feature: What’s in a Name?
Haole White person (except local Portuguese). Translates as ‘shallow breather.’ Often further defined as ‘mainland haole’ or ‘local haole.’
Hapa Person of mixed ancestry, most commonly referring to hapa haole, who are part-white and part-Asian.
Hawaiian Person of Native Hawaiian ancestry. It’s a faux pas to call any Hawaii resident ‘Hawaiian’ (as you would a Californian or Texan), thus ignoring the existence of an indigenous people.
Kamaʻaina Literally defined as ‘child of the land,’ refers to a person who is native to a particular place. In the retail context, ‘kamaʻaina discounts’ apply to any resident of Hawaii (ie anyone with a Hawaii drivers license).
Local Person who grew up in Hawaii. Locals who move away retain their local ‘cred,’ at least in part. But longtime transplants never become local. It is an inherited, elite status. To call a transplant ‘almost local’ is a welcome compliment, despite its emphasis on the insider-outsider mentality.
Neighbor Islander Person who lives on any Hawaiian Island other than Oʻahu.
Transplant Person who moves to the islands as an adult.
Among social issues on Kauaʻi, two stand out: education and substance abuse. With only three public high schools on the island, education remains a weak point. North Shore students, for example, can average three hours a day commuting to and from school. And with an ‘us versus them’ mentality often present between the student body and the faculty, public school can end up being more of a containment facility than an institution of learning. Parents, especially if they’re mainland transplants, often try to get their kids into private schools.
Crystal methamphetamine, or ‘ice’ as it’s referred to locally, is an issue that's growing at an alarming rate. With Hawaii’s considerable reliance on importing goods, ice has been able to make its way onto the islands with ease. As there is no inpatient rehab facility on the island and there's a lack of funding from any direction even if there were, progress is something residents can only hope for with fingers crossed. And with the extremely addictive nature of the drug, crimes like theft (including gas siphoning) and even fatalities are inevitably one or two paces behind. Yet even with all of these stern facts clearly visible, this issue seems to remain half-swept under the collective social carpet of denial – perhaps an example of the darker (and sadder) repercussions of a remote and rural community’s exposure to the outside world.
Feature: Island Etiquette
- Practice acquiescence, be courteous and ‘no make waves’ (don’t make a scene).
- Try to use basic Hawaiian words.
- Treat ancient Hawaiian sites and artifacts with respect.
- Dress casually as the locals do.
- Remove your shoes before entering homes and B&Bs.
- Give a thank-you shaka (‘hang loose’ hand gesture, with index, middle and ring fingers downturned) if a driver lets you merge or stops before a one-lane bridge.
- Don’t assume being called a haole is an insult (but don’t assume it’s not either).
- Tread lightly with locals when surfing; it can quickly become unpleasant if you do otherwise.
- If you give aloha, you’ll get aloha.
Feature: Hawaiian Words
aloha – love, hello, welcome, goodbye
hale – house
kane – man
kapu – taboo, restricted
mahalo – thank you
makai – a direction, toward the sea
mauka – a direction, toward the mountains (inland)
pau – finished, completed
pono – goodness, justice, responsibility
wahine – woman
Feature: Local Phraseology
brah – shortened form of braddah (brother)
chicken skin – goose bumps from cold, fear, thrill
coconut wireless – the ‘grapevine’; local gossip channels
da kine – whatchamacallit; used whenever you can’t think of the appropriate word
cruisin’ – refers to going with the flow, dating, roaming about, driving around, sitting still in one place, and many other active or passive activities or states of being
fo’ real? – Really? Are you kidding me?
high makamaka – stuck-up, snooty, pretentious; literally high ‘eyes,’ meaning head in the air
howzit? – Hey, how’s it going? As in ‘Eh, howzit brah?’
rubbah slippahs – literally ‘rubber slippers’; flip-flops
talk story – chitchat or any casual conversation
to da max – used as an adjective or adverb to add emphasis, as in ‘da waves was big to da max!’
The foundation of life for ancient Hawaiians was the philosophy of aloha ʻaina – love, care and respect for the land. Eco-concepts such as ‘green’ and ‘sustainable’ weren’t catchphrases introduced by foreigners; they were principles already built into the fabric of everyday life, based upon a spiritual relationship with the land. Today those principles and that love are coming full circle on the Garden Island.
The Island Goes Green
Truth be known, being ‘green’ is not easy, especially on an island where staunchness is a positive attribute and change is met with resistance nearly every step of the way. Taking a broad overview of Kauaʻi, one can see an isolated island threatened by overdevelopment, traffic, a lack of affordable housing, waste creation, and an extreme reliance on imported fuel and food. However, look closer and what becomes visible are the efforts of a community working together to create and implement realistic future-based alternatives to the unsustainable practices that have taken over.
While relishing in all the tropical delights Kauaʻi has to offer, an hour or two spent volunteering can be satisfying. Listed here are a few volunteering opportunities. When possible, make arrangements in advance.
Hui O Laka Get dirty while working to restore forested areas impacted by overuse or invasive species, or participate in the annual bird count.
Kauaʻi Habitat for Humanity Help build affordable housing in the island's low-income communities.
Kokeʻe Resource Conservation Program Accepts short-term and long-term volunteers and interns to help with weed-control projects in and around Kokeʻe, Waimea Canyon and Na Pali Wilderness Coast State Parks. It involves strenuous hiking and use of herbicides. Bunk-bed housing is provided at the historic Kokeʻe Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) Camp.
Malama Kauaʻi Half-day volunteering projects take place at the community gardens and ‘Food Forest’ in Kilauea.
National Tropical Botanical Garden Call or email in advance to find out about the ‘Vacation and Volunteer’ program.
Sierra Club A pioneer in the environmental movement, this nonprofit organization's Kauaʻi chapter offers guided outings, such as full-moon hikes, and half-day volunteer projects cleaning up beaches and restoring native plants.
Surfrider Foundation Public beach clean-ups happen regularly, and can always use more volunteers.
Waipa Foundation Join the Hanalei community for a hands-on lesson in making poi, a traditional Hawaiian food staple. Call ahead to sign up or to ask about other volunteer opportunities with this nonprofit organization.
Feature: Helpful Organizations
Island Breath (www.islandbreath.org) Dig deep into local issues with its links to newspaper and independent articles on Kauaʻi’s hot-button sustainability topics.
Kauai Explorer While known mainly for its outstanding ocean-safety tips, this refreshingly concise site also contains preservation tips and a handy ‘Where to Recycle’ guide.
Malama Kauaʻi This Kilauea-based grassroots organization is the island’s watchdog, dedicated to protecting the ʻaina’s ecosystems and culture with a biweekly KKCR public-radio show, volunteering opportunities and more.
Feature: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
Here’s a list of convenient island recycling centers:
North Shore (5-3751 Kuhio Hwy) At the Hanalei Transfer Station, across from the Prince Golf Course in Princeville.
Eastside (4900 Kahau Rd) In Kapaʻa at the end of Kahau Rd, behind the ball field near the bypass road.
Lihuʻe (4303 Nawiliwili Rd) At the back of the Kmart parking lot on the pavilion side of the store.
Nawiliwili Harbor (3343 Wilcox Rd) At Reynolds Recycling, just north of the harbor, at the corner of Kanoa Rd.
South Shore (2100 Hoʻone Rd) In the Brennecke’s parking lot opposite Poʻipu Beach Park.
Port Allen (4469 Waialo Rd) North of the harbor at ʻEleʻele Shopping Center.
Westside At Waimea Canyon Park (4643 Waimea Canyon Dr) and Kekaha Landfill (6900-D Kaumualiʻi Hwy).
Impact of Tourism
High up on the list of ecological concerns is tourism, an issue with which Kauaians have a love-hate relationship. It drives the economy but also affects the environment and increases the cost of living.
In the mid-2000s resort and luxury developments went gangbusters, with over 5000 residential units and 6100 resort units on the drawing board. The largest project, Poʻipu’s massive Kukuiʻula community, is on its way to being another enclave of wealthy second-home buyers. While Kukuiʻula gets some credit for its Club Cottages, which were designed to meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification standards, its asking price of almost $3 million is unaffordable for most. Exclusive communities like this can’t help but shift island demographics away from people who are truly connected to the land.
Environmentally, the biggest impacts of tourism are from cruise ships and helicopters. Cruise ships burn diesel fuel, releasing exhaust fumes equivalent to thousands of cars into the island's atmosphere. Their discharge of ballast water and wastes can pollute the ocean, damage coral reefs and accidentally release invasive species. Helicopter tours are popular with visitors, but some residents and environmental groups point out that those pleasure flights contribute to both air and noise pollution. They also diminish the enjoyment of Kauaʻi's natural areas for those who choose to visit them in low-impact ways, such as by hiking or kayaking.
Arguably the best thing Hawaii has going for it is the same factor that led to its state of dependence on global currents: isolation. Yet this isolation can also now be transformed into the freedom to invent a new system.
But any progress must come from the ground up. In the next decade or two, with consistent and concerted efforts, Kauaʻi could go from being almost completely regulated by the outside world to being significantly self-sustaining. And that change is already underway. From photovoltaic and hydroelectric power to waste utilization to GMO-free initiatives and bans on plastic bags, the future has been set in motion. After all, with a nickname like the ‘Garden Island,’ it just makes sense, right?
On the Ground
When it comes to putting green theory into practice there are definite steps you can take as a visitor to reduce further harm to the ʻaina (land) without forgoing any of its charms. Available as a free mobile app, the handy Green Kauaʻi Map (www.malamakauai.org) provides a list of local businesses and organizations with environmentally, socially and culturally responsible practices. Though the list is based on self-identification as being ‘green,’ it’s a good starting point.
Given limited bus services and safe bicycle lanes, there’s no getting around the fact that you'll probably need a car on Kauaʻi. But choosing a small rental car and efficiently planning daily excursions can make a difference. Perhaps pick a couple of home-based accommodations around the island. Then, at each place, keep your sightseeing to within that region. Along with saving on unnecessary fuel costs this will allow you to really plug in to your immediate surroundings, and most likely will result in a richer, more local travel experience.
Consider offsetting the carbon of your flight to the island by buying carbon credits. There is a bunch of companies now doing it and you can even arrange it through most major airlines. Some top offset companies include www.terrapass.com, www.myclimate.org and www.carbonfund.org.
Food & Accommodations
When it comes to eating, where you buy is as important as what you buy. Buying locally grown produce, locally caught fish and locally made cheeses, preserves and baked goods is very easy to do. Wherever you’re located on the island there is both a weekly farmers market and a fish market open daily within a 20-minute drive or so. To find unique, homegrown food and drinks made around the island, visit the Kauaʻi Made (http://kauaimade.net) website or look for its purple-and-green stickers on products when you're out shopping.
In 2009, Kauaʻi County passed a ban on plastic bags at retail shops. Grocery stores and big-box chains now charge a small fee for recyclable paper bags, but bringing a reusable tote bag can earn you lots of points with the environmental karma police. The garbage dumps on Kauaʻi are nearly overflowing, so it’s always important to minimize your waste production. Try to patronize restaurants and food retailers who use biodegradable utensils, avoid styrofoam and feature local produce, dairy, seafood and meats as ingredients on their menus.
Camping is another way to make your vacation more green. Kauaʻi offers state and county park campgrounds by the coast and in inland forests. All require getting advance permits, reservable online or available in person from government offices (most are in Lihuʻe), so plan ahead.
For the price of an ATV or helicopter tour, you could instead get an up-close and personal experience with some of the same terrain on an expert-led hike with Kauaʻi Nature Tours. Outrigger-canoe sailing with Kauai Outrigger Adventures or Island Sails Kauaʻi in Hanalei, Garden Island Surf School or Kauai Island Experience in Poʻipu, or the Kamokila Hawaiian Village in Wailua, makes for a great time on the water.
Possibly the most Kauaʻi-friendly activities you can try are those that teach about Hawaiian history and local culture, such as Limahuli Garden on the North Shore, the Kauaʻi Museum in Lihuʻe and the Eastside's Kauaʻi Cultural Center. Agrotourism is also big on Kauaʻi, including with Hoʻopulapula Haraguchi Rice Mill & Taro Farm Tours in Hanalei and the renewable-energy-powered Kauaʻi Coffee Company.
With a dismal dependence on petroleum for energy production and higher energy costs than the other Hawaiian Islands (and anywhere else in the USA, for that matter), Kauaʻi has sprung into action and gotten on board with the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative – a statewide push to have 70% of Hawaii’s energy for electricity and ground transportation come from renewable resources by 2030.
Major steps on Kauaʻi toward this goal began with the 1.21-megawatt solar farm near Kapaʻa that was completed in 2011. The farm, connected to the Kauai Island Utility Cooperative (KIUC) grid, provides electricity to 300 homes. A 6-megawatt solar plant in Poʻipu, which began operations in 2012, supplies even more. As well, the Port Allen facility has a battery storage system to stabilize short-term fluctuations in energy output during cloudy spells. Another 12-megawatt project in Anahola reduces carbon emissions by 18,000 tons per year and has 59,000 panels.
It’s projected that soon Kauaʻi could have the highest percentage of solar energy on its system of any in the country. KIUC has committed to generating 50% of the island’s power from renewable sources by 2023. In 2016, roughly 38% of the island's electricity came from renewable sources. Who knows, in the coming decades Kauaʻi could do a complete 180-degree turnaround and one day be exporting energy.
Plans have also been proposed for four possible hydroelectric plants to be constructed across the island on the Hanalei and Wailua Rivers, as well as the Kokeʻe and Kekaha Ditches. However, there are concerns from the community about how these facilities may impact the aesthetic beauty of these waterways. The Wailua River project is proposing a dam to be placed only 1000ft up from Wailua Falls, one of Kauaʻi’s trademark wonders. While the solar panels may be a minor eyesore in some places, hydroelectric plants have the potential to permanently affect the physical harmony of the island.
On the other hand, hydroelectric energy is considered by many to be the most stable form of renewable energy, lacking the fluctuations that come from wind and sunlight. Hydroelectric facilities in Kalaheo and Wainiha, owned by the McBryde Sugar Company, have been running for over a century (yes, over 100 years), and currently generate about 5 megawatts of electricity for the island. A new 6-megawatt plant, privately owned by the ex-sugar plantation company Gay & Robinson, is expected to come online in 2019.
Powering the Future
As with any change, compromise is a must, and underlying all these nifty propositions for a greener future is the continued threat to the sanctity of Hawaiian culture. With new technologies come the companies that can afford to research and run these technologies; companies not based on Kauaʻi. This inevitably results in more of Kauaʻi’s land, while being used for ‘good’ ends, also being controlled by strangers, whose ultimate goal very well may be to turn a profit.
Another hot issue on Kauaʻi is food security. About 90% of the island’s food is imported, despite its natural biodiversity. At any given time there is only enough food on Kauaʻi to feed the island for three to seven days.
A growing contingent of small-scale organic farmers argues that island agriculture is no longer viable by the old model of corporate-scale, industrialized mono-cropping (of pineapples and sugarcane, for example) enabled by chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. Instead, family farms growing diverse crops – for the table or for sale locally, not only globally – would always be sustainable.
Nobody goes into farming to make money, especially on Kauaʻi, where limited resources mean that land, water and labor costs are comparatively high. Huge parcels of agricultural land are occupied by major multinational corporations growing genetically modified (GMO) crops, mainly corn. Minds differ on the risks of genetic modification, but many agree that island crops should benefit residents, not multinational corporations.
Hawaiian Arts & Crafts
E komo mai (welcome) to these unique Polynesian islands, where storytelling and slack key guitar are among the sounds of everyday life. Contemporary Hawaii is a vibrant mix of multicultural traditions and underneath it all beats a Hawaiian heart, pounding with an ongoing revival of Hawaii's indigenous language, artisanal crafts, music and the hula.
In ancient Hawaiʻi, hula sometimes was a solemn ritual, in which mele (songs, chants) were an offering to the gods or celebrated the accomplishments of aliʻi (chiefs). At other times hula was lighthearted entertainment, in which chief and kamaʻaina (commoner) danced together, including at annual festivals such as the makahiki held during harvest season. Most importantly, hula embodied the community – telling stories of and celebrating itself.
Hula still thrives today, with competitions and expositions thriving across the islands.
Feature: Kauaʻi's Contemporary Art Scene
Most artwork by Kauaʻi artists is highly commercial: colorful, representational works that appeal to the tourist eye. Unique pieces (usually less marketable) that go beyond the stereotypes do exist, but they’re harder to find and are displayed mainly in Honolulu museums and galleries. On Kauaʻi, try the Kauaʻi Society of Artists and the cluster of galleries in Hanapepe.
Notable fine artists (to name only a few) include the following:
Carol Bennett Meditative paintings of underwater movement.
A Kimberlin Blackburn (www.akimberlinblackburn.com) Uninhibitedly colorful, stylized sculptures and paintings.
Liedeke Bulder (www.liedekebulderart.com) Classic botanical paintings and skyscape watercolors.
Margaret Ezekiel Pastel drawings of cloudscapes or the human figure.
Mac James (www.macjamesonkauai.com) Nature paintings and drawings with contemporary environmental themes.
Bruna Stude (www.brunastude.com) Elegant B&W underwater photography.
For traditional myths and legends of Kauaʻi, you can’t go wrong with master storyteller Frederick B Wichman’s anthologies, including Touring the Legends of Kokeʻe and Touring the Legends of the North Shore, both published by the Kauaʻi Historical Society (www.kauaihistoricalsociety1914.com). Talk Story in Hanapepe is the best bookstore on the island.
Hawaii on Screen
Kauaʻi has an extraordinary cinematic history; when Hollywood wants paradise, this is their first stop. Below are some of the most popular movies filmed on the island. For a free map of all films and locations, stop by the Kauaʻi Visitors Bureau in Lihuʻe.
Jurassic World (2015)
Pirates of the Caribbean 4 (2011)
Just Go with It (2011)
The Descendants (2011)
Soul Surfer (2011)
High School Reunion Season 5 (2008)
Perfect Getaway (2008)
Tropic Thunder (2008)
Jurassic Park 3 (2001)
The Time Machine (2001)
Mighty Joe Young (1998)
George of the Jungle (1997)
The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
Jurassic Park (1993)
Honeymoon in Vegas (1992)
Lord of the Flies (1990)
Throw Momma from the Train (1987)
The Thorn Birds (1983)
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1983)
Fantasy Island (1977)
Islands in the Stream (1977)
King Kong (1976)
Gilligan’s Island (1964)
Blue Hawaii (1961)
South Pacific (1958)
Pagan Love Song (1950)
White Heat (1934)
Greetings. Love. Honor. Respect. Peace. Celebration. Spirituality. Good luck. Farewell. A Hawaiian lei – a handcrafted garland of fresh tropical flowers – can signify all of these meanings and many more. Lei-making may be Hawaii's most sensuous and transitory art form. Fragrant and ephemeral, lei embody the beauty of nature and the embrace of ʻohana (extended family and friends) and the community, freely given and freely shared.
Shopping for Lei
You can find lei across the island. Keep your eyes out for eye-catching Niʻihau shell lei.
On the 'Garden Island,' leathery, anise-scented mokihana berries are often woven with strands of glossy, green maile vines. Mokihana trees thrive on the rain-soaked western slopes of Mt Waiʻaleʻale.
Landscapes & Wildlife
The Hawaiian Islands are the most isolated land masses on earth. Born of barren lava flows, they were originally populated only by plants and animals that could traverse the Pacific – for example, seeds clinging to a bird’s feather or fern spores that drifted thousands of miles through the air. Most flora and fauna that landed here didn’t survive. Scientists estimate that new species became established maybe once every 20,000 years – and these included no amphibians, no browsing animals, no mosquitoes and only two mammals: a bat and a seal.
The wildlife that did make it here found a rich, ecologically diverse land to colonize. Developed in isolation, many of these species became endemic to the islands, meaning that they’re found nowhere else in the world. Unfortunately, Hawaii has the highest rate of extinction in the nation and nearly 25% of all federally listed threatened and endangered species in the US are endemic Hawaiian flora and fauna. Only time will tell how climate change will affect the island’s unique species.
For wildlife enthusiasts, the island’s main attractions are both resident and migratory birds, as well as myriad ocean creatures.
Feature: Marine Wildlife 911
Federal and state laws protect all of Hawaii’s wild marine mammals and turtles from harassment. Legally, this usually means you may not approach them closer than 50yd (100yd for whales, or 20ft for turtles) or doing anything that disrupts their normal behavior. The most important actions for island visitors to avoid are disturbing endangered monk seals and sea turtles that have ‘hauled out’ and are resting on beaches. If you see a fellow beach-goer hassling one of these sand-lounging beasts, feel free to get righteous on them.
Feature: Swimming with Dolphins
Hawaiian spinner dolphins are some of the most amazing, intuitive and curious creatures on earth. A highlight of many a trip is the chance to see these cetaceans up close. The dolphins are facing increased pressure from humans, however, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), meaning you should think carefully about how you engage with dolphins while visiting.
There are a number of factors to consider. The number of dolphin-focused tours has grown across the islands, from about 10 in 2006 to over 70 today. Furthermore, dolphins hunt at night and then come in to the shallows during the day to rest. NOAA argues that swimming with them during these resting periods affects their natural life cycles. In 2016, NOAA proposed a rule to clarify the Marine Mammal Protection Act and prohibit swimming with and approaching Hawaiian spinner dolphins within 50yd. The proposed rule was a sticking point for many people on Kauaʻi and as of press time, it remains unclear what actions will be taken.
There are a few noteworthy exceptions to the rule. Persons who inadvertently come within 50yd, or who are approached by dolphins would be exempt. Vessels that are underway and approached, but make no effort to change course to intercept dolphins would also be exempt from the rule. This logic is designed to stop the practice of leap-frogging (less common on Kauaʻi than the other islands), where boats take turns intercepting dolphin pods.
There are no dolphin encounters with caged dolphins on Kauaʻi.
Up to 10,000 migrating North Pacific humpback whales come to Hawaiian waters for calving each winter, and whale-watching can be excellent off Kauaʻi’s South Shore. Pods of spinner dolphins, with their acrobatic spiraling leaps, regularly approach boats cruising in Kauaʻi's waters and can also be seen from the shoreline off Kilauea Point.
Threatened honu (green sea turtles) are traditionally revered by Hawaiians as an ʻaumakua (protective deity). Snorkelers often see honu feeding on seaweed along rocky coastlines or in shallow lagoons. Endangered Hawaiian monk seals also occasionally haul up on shore, which is a thrill for beachgoers who by law must observe turtles and seals from a distance.
Kauaʻi is a birder’s dream, with copious creatures soaring over its peaks and down its valleys. Lowland wetlands feature four endangered waterbirds that are cousins of mainland species: the Hawaiian duck, Hawaiian coot, Hawaiian moorhen and Hawaiian stilt. The best place to view all four species is the North Shore's Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge. Although public access to the refuge is strictly limited, an overlook opposite Princeville Center provides a great view of the birds' habitat, with a serene river, shallow ponds and cultivated taro fields.
The endangered nene, Hawaii’s state bird, is a long-lost cousin of the Canada goose. Nene once numbered as many as 25,000 on all the islands, but by the 1950s only 50 were left. Intensive breeding programs have raised their numbers to around 2500 on three main islands: Maui, Kauaʻi and Hawaiʻi (Big Island). You might see them in Hanalei wetlands, around golf courses and open fields, and at Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge.
Native forest birds are more challenging to observe, but the keen-eyed may spy eight endemic species remaining at Kokeʻe State Park, especially in the Alakaʻi Wilderness Preserve. The ‘apapane, a type of honeycreeper, is the most abundant: a bright-red bird the same color as the lehua flowers from which it takes nectar.
Today, two-thirds of all endemic Hawaiian birds are extinct, the victims of aggressive, introduced birds and infectious diseases. In 1992, Hurricane ʻIniki also contributed to this catastrophic decline: it was the last time three species were seen on Kauaʻi. To learn more about Kauaʻi’s birds, Birds of Kauaʻi (www.kauaibirds.com) is a good starting point and SoundsHawaiian (www.soundshawaiian.com) is a real treat for the ears, offering crisp recordings of island birdsong.
Ancient Hawaiians would scarcely recognize Kauaʻi, having never encountered the tropical flowers, fruit trees and lush landscape that today epitomize the island. Mangoes came from Asia, macadamia nuts from Australia and coffee from Africa. Today many botanists and farmers advocate biodiversity, so alien species aren’t necessarily bad. But, of Hawaii’s 1300 endemic plant species, over 100 are already extinct and 273 are endangered.
Native Forest Trees
Over 90% of Hawaii’s 1000-plus plant species are endemic to the islands. To see native forest trees, visit Kokeʻe State Park and the 10,000-acre Alakaʻi Swamp Wilderness Preserve. Along the Pihea and Alakaʻi Swamp Trails, you’ll see the most abundant rainforest tree, ohia lehua, a hardwood with bright-red or orange pompom-like flowers that provide nectar for forest birds. Another dominant forest tree (or shrub) is lapalapa, with long-stemmed leaves that flutter in the slightest breeze. Among the best-known tree species is koa, an endemic hardwood that is Hawaii’s most commercially valuable tree for its fine woodworking qualities, rich color and swirling grain. You can identify koa trees by their distinctive crescent-shaped leaves.
Despite the rampant development along some parts of Kauaʻi's coast, the shoreline is also a good place to find endemic plants. The harsh environment – windblown, salt-sprayed, often arid land with nutrient-poor, sandy soil – requires plants to adapt to survive, for example, by growing flat along the ground, becoming succulent or developing waxy leaf coatings to retain moisture. You can also see many endemic coastal plants at Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge on the North Shore.
National, State & County Parks
About 30% of Kauaʻi is protected as state parks and nature reserves. For hiking, don’t miss Waimea Canyon State Park and Kokeʻe State Park, with their spectacular elevated views and numerous trails and campsites. On the Eastside, Nounou Mountain, with three steep but scenic hiking trails, is well-maintained forest-reserve land.
Haʻena State Park is another favorite, as it has Keʻe Beach, a fantastic snorkeling spot, and the nearby Kalalau Trail leading into Na Pali Coast Wilderness State Park. The miles of sandy beach at Polihale State Park offer an escape from crowds, but beware two potential threats: hazardous ocean conditions and the bone-rattlingly rough 5-mile unpaved road to get there.
Most of Kauaʻi’s best easy-access beaches are designated as county parks, such as sunny Poʻipu Beach Park (South Shore), serene ʻAnini Beach Park (North Shore), calm Salt Pond Beach Park (Westside) and family-friendly Lydgate Beach Park (Eastside).
There are no national parks on the island, but there are three federal refuges, including the accessible Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge, which has spectacular wildlife watching, including migratory whales in winter and the only diverse seabird colony on the main Hawaiian Islands.
Kauaʻi's Top Parks & Protected Areas
Alakaʻi Wilderness Preserve
rainforest, bogs, forest birds
boardwalk hiking, bird-watching
ʻAnini Beach Park
sandy beach, calm waters
swimming, windsurfing, picnicking
Haʻena State Park
sandy beach, historic Hawaiian sites, marine life
scenic circular bay, sandy beaches, winter waves
Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge
scenic views, taro fields, endangered waterbirds
bird-watching (limited access)
Huleʻia National Wildlife Refuge
river, endangered waterbirds
bird-watching (limited access)
Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge
seabirds, coastal plants, nene (native Hawaiian geese), historic lighthouse
Kokeʻe State Park
trails, waterfalls, forest birds & plants, interpretive center
hiking, camping, bird-watching
lithified sand-dune cliffs, sandy beaches, heiau (temples)
walking, windsurfing, surfing
Na Pali Coast State Park
challenging trails, coastal flora, seabirds, archaeological sites
Polihale State Park
coastal dunes, state’s longest beach (dangerous currents)
walking, sunset watching, camping
Waimea Canyon State Park
colossal gorge, forestland
*Private property not under governmental protection
Kauaʻi is the oldest and fourth largest of the major inhabited Hawaiian Islands, with volcanic rocks dating back over five million years and most of the island boasting the tropical trifecta of ocean, beach and mountain. Unlike the shiny black terrain seen on much of the lava-spewing Big Island (a baby at less than 500,000 years old), Kauaʻi displays the effects of time and erosion, with weathered summits, mountaintop bogs and rainforests, deeply cut valleys and rivers, extensive sandy beaches, coral and algal reefs, and rust-colored soil indelible from both memory and your white sneakers.
Because its volcanic origins lie hidden under a carpet of forests, ferns and shrubland, Kauaʻi’s landscape, particularly along the North Shore, is overwhelmingly lush and strikes many as the ultimate tropical beauty – which partly explains the frequency of visitors showing up for a week or two and staying a lifetime. Many folks’ lives have shifted as a result of just driving down the hill from Princeville to Hanalei.
Perhaps duped by its round shape, scientists for decades believed that a single volcano formed Kauaʻi. But on the basis of evidence collected since the 1980s, scientists now think that Kauaʻi’s entire eastern side ‘slumped’ along an ancient fault line, leaving a steep pali (cliff) along Waimea Canyon’s western edge. Then, lava from another shield volcano flowed westward to the pali and pounded against the cliffs. The black and red horizontal striations along the canyon walls represent successive volcanic eruptions; the red color shows where water seeped through the rocks, oxidizing the iron inside.
Highs & Lows
Now shrunken by age, Kauaʻi is also slowly subsiding into the ocean floor. Don’t worry, the rate is less than an inch per century. Still, over eons those inches have cost the island 3000ft in elevation, making today’s high point the 5243ft Kawaikini. Among the most visually spectacular valleys is Kalalau, with its curtain-like folds and knife-edge ridges, topping out just above 4000ft at lookouts where the road ends in Kokeʻe State Park. Views of the Na Pali sea cliffs are spectacular but can be seen only from the deck of a boat, the windows of a helicopter – or, for the fit and eco-conscious, from the Nuʻalolo or Awaʻawapuhi Trails in Kokeʻe State Park or the grueling 11-mile Kalalau Trail in Na Pali Coast Wilderness State Park.