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Kayaking the Na Pali Coast

Two summers ago, I had the privilege of tackling a bucket list item of mine: the Na Pali coast. This region makes up the northern coast of the island of Kauai in the Hawaiian island chain. When I was planning this trip, my initial goal was the Kalalau trail; a 22-mile trail that takes hikers through rain forested mountains while enjoying breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean. As I was putting together my itinerary, I stumbled upon an adventure opportunity that I could not resist. I signed up with a tour group that guides people on a sea kayaking expedition along the entire 24-mile northern coast of the island; passing beneath towering mountains, through sea caves, and surrounded by sea turtles and dolphins.


My journey began at Hanalei Bay, the last town before Na Pali State Park. This is a small peaceful town that is located right on the beach and offers visitors a handful of restaurants and shops to enjoy and is a great refueling destination on the way back from Na Pali. This beach is also a great place to enjoy a relaxing day by the water that is less crowded than many of the islands more popular beaches but still offers amazing white sand, blue water, and towering mountain views. This beach was our launch off point. We gathered into our kayak and our group of 12 took off into the Pacific Ocean. Sad to say, that it only took me 2 minutes to flip my kayak. After gathering myself back into the kayak and regaining my composure, I began paddling again. And flipped over again 5 minutes later. Whoops! Turns out I had to redistribute some of the gear weight to balance the kayak out more. Lesson learned. Once everything was sorted out, it was time for the adventure to begin. One of the first views that we were greeted with on this voyage was a rainbow that spanned across the entire sky. It’s hard to describe the beauty of being surrounded by crystal blue water, viewing at tropical mountains on the shore, and having the sky filled with a spectrum of colors.


The Na Pali coastline is made up of volcanic rocks that have been carved and eroded by the waves and tides over the years. Some features that came from this erosion is that many sea caves and alcoves dot the coastline. Since kayaking through a sea cave was on my bucket list at the time, I was pleasantly surprised to have found this opportunity. Within an hour of our launch, we came upon a sea cave that we kayaked through. To make this experience even more dramatic, we had to paddle beneath a waterfall to get to the cave entrance. We spent our first break within this cave, enjoying the darkness and the sound of our voices echoing off the cave walls. The confined space amplified the incredible smell of the sea. A hand full of trail mix later, we were back on the trail (figuratively speaking), as we continued our way further down the coast. I went on this kayaking expedition the day after I hiked the coastline so seeing the terrain from a different perspective made me appreciate the region even more. The remainder of the morning was spent with endless views of rain forests, mountains, and valleys to the left with endless blue water to the water. We encountered several more waterfalls and sea caves throughout the morning including a prolonged break spent inside an open roof cavern. This calm water was a welcome rest stop that allowed us a break from needing to continuously paddle to fight the currents in the open sea. We were joined in this alcove by a large sea turtle that appeared curious with us and wandered between our kayaks up until it was ready for us to continue our journey.


By early afternoon, we had arrived at our lunch destination, a secluded beach called Miloli’I that only accessible from the sea. This beach is surrounded from all sides by mountains that makes getting there by land very difficult. Our lunch was made up of local fruits, primarily pineapple, coconuts, and mango. Between the fresh fruit and location, this was one of the most memorable and refreshing lunches I have had. Enjoy fresh coconut that had only been picked off the tree that very morning was the perfect energizer needed to recharge for several more hours of kayaking that awaited us in the afternoon. More of the same views greeted us during the afternoon as we continued to our destination: Polihale Beach on the northwestern corner of the island. This was a popular beach that was frequented by locals and visitors of the nearby town of Waimea. Polihale is another white sand beach that is on the western edge of the Na Pali mountains and was a peaceful location to get a quick swim and a cool down before our group piled into the van and made the 2-hour drive around the islands circumference to return to where we started. Although we only kayaked 27 miles, there is no land route that connects our starting and ending beaches; nor are there roads that run through the middle of the island. Because of this, getting between these two points means driving the entire outside edge of the island. Luckily, this is a very scenic route that frequently passes by ocean outlooks as well as Waimea Canyon, also known as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific. This is a large canyon within the middle of Kauai that combines rain forest with a deep red canyon and is a terrific option to spend a day while visiting this tropical paradise.


The first moderate sized town that we passed Waimea. While this is not a popular town for tourists compared with other towns on the island, this quaint town offers several good places to get food that is frequented by locals. This is also the first town where I discovered that one of the secrets to getting a great meal on the island for relatively cheap is in the small grocery stores. The back of grocery stores on this island frequently has deli style pickup options of more variety of poke than I realized existed. While in Waimea, the guide brought us to the local grocery store called the Ishihara Market that left me amazed with its poke variety. On the mainland, the primary poke options that I had gotten accustomed to where tuna, salmon, and eel. While I have found other options, they were few and far between. This small grocery store brought them all to shame with poke options such as siracha infused sea snail, mountain apple tako, octopus, lobster, clam, crab, and so much more.


By the time, I had gotten back to my car, the sun was already setting. A day that started before dawn, ended well after dusk but it was an incredible way to pass the day while scratching off several items from my bucket list at once. The Na Pali Coast has been one of my favorite destinations. Whether it was the day I viewed the coast on the hiking trail or from the sea by kayak; this coastline left a lasting impression on me. I hope that I will be able to see this jewel of the pacific again in the not-too-distant future; may next time I will be able to see the Na Pali Coast by air as well in one of the island’s popular helicopter tours. But that is a story for another day…

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