Although no point on the tiny island of KAUAI is as much as a dozen miles from the sea, the variety of its landscapes is quite incredible. This is the oldest of the major islands, and erosion has had more than six million years to sculpt it into fantastic shapes. The mist-shrouded extinct volcano Mount Waialeale at its heart is the world’s wettest spot, draining into a high landlocked swamp. Nearby is the chasm of WaimeaCanyon, while the north shore holds the vertiginous green cliffs of the awe-inspiring Na Pali coast, familiar from films such as Jurassic Park and South Pacific, but the sole preserve of adventurous hikers. Kauai is a place to be active, on sea and land; if you take only one helicopter flight in your life, this is the place to do it.
The small town of HANALEI itself, set around a magnificent bay, has some low-key apartments for rent, but otherwise little formal accommodation. Gorgeous Lumahai Beach, just beyond the western edge of the bay, has starred in countless movies, among them South Pacific, but is far too treacherous for swimming in winter. All the roadside beaches from here on, however, are good for snorkelling. The road finally comes to an end at Kee Beach, perhaps the most delightful spot of all, with safe inshore swimming.
Despite the rampant resort-building elsewhere on the island, the lush valleys of Kauai’s Na Pali coast remain inviolate – though accessible enough by canoe to sustain large Hawaiian populations, their awesome walls shield them from any attempt to build roads. Separated each from the next by knife-edge ridges of rock thousands of feet high but just a few feet thick, they make Kauai one of the world’s great hiking destinations.
The Kalalau Trail along the shore, which starts alongside Kee Beach, is unforgettable. The full eleven-mile trek to Kalalau Valley is arduous and gets progressively more dangerous; in places you have to scramble along a precipitous (and shadeless) wall of crumbly red rock.
However, the first two miles of the trail, to Hanakapiai Beach, are the most beautiful. They’re steep but straightforward, passing through patches of dense vegetation where you clamber over the gnarled root systems of the splay-footed hala (pandanus) tree. From the beach, a further hour’s arduous hike (off the main trail) leads inland to the natural amphitheatre of the towering Hanakapiai Falls. It takes at least four and a half hours to get to the falls and back from the trailhead.
See our comprehensive first-timers-guide to the Hawaiian islands for overviews of all six freely visited islands, and more on what to see and do in Kauai.