As a kid growing up in south Florida, I went to Disney World a lot. My favorite ride at the Magic Kingdom was It’s a Small World, a water-based tour that takes you past animatronic dolls representing cultures around the world. I remember sitting in the boat and floating past “Hawaii,” with its dancing hula girls and erupting volcanoes. I knew I wanted to go there someday.
Many years after those family Disney visits, I finally took my first trip to Hawaii. Since it was only a one-week trip, I decided to pick one island rather than do the “3 islands in 6 days” insanity. I chose Kauai, mostly because of the photos I had seen of the Na Pali Coast.
Since that first visit to Kauai, I’ve traveled solo to all the main Hawaiian Islands except Molokai, and I even lived on Maui for a year. But Kauai remains my favorite island, and I have returned there repeatedly in the past 20 years. Aside from its dramatic cliffs, I love the island’s rural and local feel. And West Kauai is one place on the island where you’ll get that true local vibe.
Many people breeze right through the town of Waimea on their way to Waimea Canyon. I recently saw a travel site that said, “Waimea is a good place to get gas on your way to Waimea Canyon.” But Waimea is much more than just a place to fill up. It’s the kind of place where you’ll hear cashiers at the grocery store calling customers by their first names. In fact, I highly recommend a stop at Ishihara Market, which has been open since 1934. Head to their seafood section and take a gander at all the local delicacies. They’re known for their poke, a native Hawaiian dish consisting of diced raw fish and Hawaiian sea salt and spices.
No visit to Waimea is complete without a stop at JoJo’s Shave Ice on the main highway. It might be the most expensive ice you ever pay for, but it’s definitely a Hawaiian treat not to miss. After you finish your coconut-strawberry-pineapple shave ice with macadamia ice cream at the bottom, take a short stroll over to the Waimea Recreation Pier. This is one of my favorite places on the island to take photos. Be aware that the ocean water in this area is usually pretty murky, so don’t expect the clear turquoise waters of the north shore beaches. But watching the locals fish and enjoying a quiet sunset will make you feel like you’ve gone back in time.
If you’re a history buff, don’t miss the Captain James Cook Monument in the center of town. Kauai was the first island visited by Captain Cook, and he landed right there in Waimea Bay in 1778. The following year he was killed at Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island (a fascinating story to read about if you have the time).
The Kalalau Overlook is something you must see to believe. In fact, this view alone will make your trip to Kauai worth every penny you paid for it. The Na Pali Coast is known for its dramatic sea cliffs (pali in Hawaiian). This rugged coastline stretches for about 16 miles along the northwest side of Kauai, and it’s the reason you can’t drive all the way around the island. A road through the sheer cliffs and swampy areas would be next to impossible to build. But drive to the top of Waimea Canyon Road, and you’ll be treated to a view of the Na Pali Coast from 4,000 feet above the ocean. Just look at the photo below if you think I’m exaggerating about the view.
The first viewpoint is the Kalalau Overlook at mile marker 18. Stop here for your first glimpse of the coast, but then continue a mile farther to the Pu’u O Kila Lookout, which is even more dramatic. A couple times when I’ve been there, the road between the two lookouts has been closed to traffic. If that happens, just walk the extra mile—it’s worth it. The views often get socked in with clouds and fog, and you’ll be standing there looking at a lot of…white. Your chances of having clear skies increase greatly if you go early in the day. But if you do arrive when it’s foggy, just wait a while. Sometimes just when you’re ready to give up and leave, the clouds break and the surreal view reveals itself.
Hanapepe: “Kauai’s Biggest Little Town”
With a current population of less than 3,000, it’s hard to imagine that the little town of Hanapepe was once one of Kauai’s most hopping places. It may not look like much is happening here, but that’s part of its charm.
One of these hidden treasures is the Hanapepe Swinging Bridge. Built in the 1900s, the bridge gave residents a way to cross the Hanapepe River. It was restored after Hurricane Iniki destroyed it in 1992. If you’re not game for walking across the bridge (it really does swing), you can still climb the stairs up to the entrance and take a photo. Hanapepe is also home to a number of interesting shops and galleries. During the weekly Friday Art Night, local artists open their galleries to visitors.
Waimea Canyon is what most people drive to west Kauai for, and you should definitely see this dramatic gorge. Just know that there will be lots of people joining you at the overlooks, and finding a parking spot can be challenging. You’ll often read that Mark Twain called Waimea Canyon the Grand Canyon of the Pacific. However, according to several very reputable sources, that little factoid is a myth. Twain did indeed visit Hawaii, but he never stepped foot on the island of Kauai, and he never laid eyes on Waimea Canyon. So, you can just roll your eyes when you hear that historic inaccuracy repeated ad nauseum.
If you’re satisfied with just a glimpse of the canyon, then a stop at the Waimea Canyon Lookout will give you the grand overview. For a more in-depth experience, several hikes lead along the rim and into the canyon. My best experience at Waimea Canyon was joining a group hike with the Sierra Club. The trail we took led us to a spectacular view from above Waipo’o Falls, and it also got us away from the crowds.
I have a friend who once went to Kauai on my recommendation. When she came back, I asked her what her favorite place was, fully expecting her to say the Na Pali Coast or Hanalei. But nope—she said Glass Beach! It struck me funny, because in my many trips to Kauai, I had never even been to this place. So, on my next trip I made it a point to find out what impressed her so much.
In an industrial area near Port Allen Harbor is an area of shoreline covered in small pieces of sea glass. Glass from bottles dumped in the area gets broken up, and a couple decades of wave action results in millions of frosted little pebbles in green, brown, aqua, and clear.
In defense of my friend, it really is a cool thing to see. When I was there, a local man was selling jewelry made from the glass, so I now have a green sea glass pendant. Just a short walk beyond the beach is a historic cemetery. Note that it’s culturally respectful to ask permission before you walk around the cemetery.
Have you visited west Kauai? What was your favorite place there?
Images and text ©Laurie J. Schmidt, All Rights Reserved