“Turn on your headlamp so you can see where you’re going,” our guide says, pointing to the tiny lamp strapped to my hard hat. The hat doesn’t match my white swimsuit and black rubber water shoes, but it’s what you wear when you’re floating on a blue inner tube down the flumes of a sugar cane plantation.
It’s a former plantation, actually. Farming cane is no longer profitable here on Kauai, so the fields of Lihue Plantation have sat empty for years – until now.
Kauai Backcountry Adventures recently turned the Hawaiian farm into an exciting natural playground. Now you can hike the green lands on foot or rush through them on an ATV. Those who want a truly unique Hawaiian experience can grab a tube and float down the flumes of the Lihue waterway system, which originates in the rainforests of Mount Wai‘ale‘ale.
Dug by hand for irrigation back in 1870, the Lihue ditches are still in excellent condition. We’ve drifted past wild sugar cane and plucked fruit from branches hanging over the waterways while enjoying views of lush mountains in the distance.
Then suddenly, the ditch makes a turn, and a black hole looms ahead. “That tunnel looks pretty small…,” the woman drifting next to me says, worry in her voice. Abruptly, we’re in blackness, the smell of wet earth in our nostrils.
My headlamp casts a thin beam of light on rock walls hewn out over a century ago. The darkness ahead is filled with bobbing lights – and laughter. After all, it’s the first time most of us have floated through a narrow tunnel inside the earth. We can’t help but enjoy the experience.
Yet, it’s a part of Kauai I had never imagined.
Like siblings in a big family, the Hawaiian Islands each have their own reputation and character. Kauai has sometimes been typecast as the “quieter” and “wetter” island, yet that stereotype is misleading.
It’s true that Kauai has a slow, small-town pace. There’s not much of a nightlife here, and high-end shopping opportunities are limited. But the island has plenty to offer those who want to explore the island’s natural assets, from hiking and snorkeling to golfing, boating and fishing.
And while the island’s remote interior does receive a great deal of rain, the rest of Kauai enjoys pleasant weather. In fact, even though the isle is only 33 miles wide and 25 miles long, you can almost pick the weather of your choice. Kauai has several different micro-climates.
Like dry, arid conditions? Then stay on the Kauai’s west side, which only receives an average of 18 inches of rain a year. Home to Waimea Canyon State Park with its dramatic 3,600-feet red-walled canyons, the region looks more like Arizona than a tropical island.
If fertile greenery and occasional misty rains are your thing, then head to the North Shore. Numerous movie stars live near here, drawn by the region’s amazing scenery. The elegant Princeville Resort, built in tiers on the cliffs overlooking Hanalei Bay, is known for its stunning location. It has, some would argue, one of the best views in the region.
An aerial view of Na Pali Coast State Park shows its rugged beauty. The 11-mile Kalalau Trail draws hikers and nature lovers. Most people hike in and stay at least one night before returning. Hiking permits are required.
Like much of the island, the southeastern area of Poipu enjoys a quick rain shower here and there. Yet most of the time, the weather is warm and sunny. Poipu Beach Park, with its soft, white-sand shoreline, is a popular local draw. There are dozens of resorts, bed and breakfasts and apartment rentals to choose from in this region.
Here on the plantation, though, I’m floating through the island’s remote southeastern interior. The vegetation is thick and the dirt roads narrow. It took sturdy, four-wheel vehicles, driven by our fearless guides, to reach this part of wild Kauai. This certainly qualifies for “off-the-beaten track” — and that’s exactly what I had hoped for.
Our tubing group is a diverse one, with Europeans, a few Australians and a dozen sun-seekers from the mainland. There are even Kauaians on our tour. Drifting ahead of me, two teenage boys speak in Pidgin (a Hawaiian dialect of English). Later, I learn they were discussing a recent University of Hawaii football game, but I hadn’t even understood enough to guess the topic. That, I suppose, is the fun about Hawaii. Even though it’s part of the U.S., it is a complete world all its own.
More than 58,000 people make their home on Kauai; many of them work in the tourism business. Some locals have family roots that go back generations here, while other residents moved to Kauai from the mainland to retire, motivated by Kauai’s warm climate.
Still other arrivals have come to enjoy the island’s outdoor lifestyle. Patrick Gmelin is just one example. A former ski guide from Colorado, Patrick says that Kauai allows him to enjoy outdoor activities and a healthy lifestyle year round.
Now a guide with Kayak Kauai Outbound, I join Patrick later that week for an afternoon kayak tour. The sun is shining in a bright blue sky as we paddle the Hanalei River downriver toward the Pacific Ocean. We kayak past fishermen on the banks, patiently waiting for the catch that will grace their dinner tables tonight.
Along the river, Patrick points out coconut groves, banana farms and papaya trees. By the time we reach the open ocean, I can understand why so many people come to visit Kauai and never want to leave.
Kayakers paddle Hanalei River, one of the few navigable rivers in Hawaii. The scenic route is lined with fruit trees and other tropical vegetation. Lush mountains rise up in the distance.
The Hawaiian Islands are not known for their gentle surf, and the going gets tougher as we pull out into the open ocean. We paddle along the shoreline until we reach the beach near Princeville, where we pull ashore to stop for a break.
Yet our ultimate goal is to snorkel, so we soon head back into the water and paddle around the bend to secluded Hideaway Beach. We pull snorkel gear from the back of the kayak, and within seconds, we’re in the ocean.
The water is warm and clear, and I can see purple coral and sea cucumbers lining the ocean floor. The current sweeps me from side to side as I dive down to view these living treasures up close. It’s a surreal world that Hawaiians enjoy all year round, and I must admit that I’m envious.
But all too soon, it’s time to paddle back. As we kayak back upstream, we pass a young man on a wide surfboard. He has attached a small engine that propels the surfboard through the water like a boat. Fishing gear and a cooler sit atop the board, and a huge smile covers the surfer/boatman’s face.
Such is life in Kauai.
Sore from paddling, I opt for an adventure of another sort the next day – a Plush Papaya Body Polish at the ANARA Spa at Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort and Spa. Okay, perhaps this isn’t an adventurous activity, but maybe it qualifies as a natural, healing pursuit.
Like many buildings in Hawaii, the 25,000-square-foot spa seamlessly combines outdoor and indoor living. My massage room is partially open to the outside, yet it’s still private. As the therapist rubs the ache from my shoulders, I drift into a world of soothing ocean waves and sweet papaya.
The spa is just one of the many reasons to stay at the Hyatt Regency Kauai. With its perfectly manicured tropical gardens, natural pools and open 1920’s-inspired architecture, the resort reflects the pleasure of all that is Kauai.
But as with all vacations, my island adventure has flown by all-too-quickly. There is time for only one more activity. As afternoon moves toward nightfall, some friends and I board a catamaran with Captain Andy’s Eco Adventures for a sunset cruise.
A warm wind whips through our hair as we sail along the Poipu Coast, listening to local musician Calvin Chow strum 1970’s Gordon Lightfoot tunes on his guitar. We sail past huge mansions and tidy homes, and then suddenly, Kauai is wild again. Green mountains jut into the sea, their cliffs sticking out like proud chests, while gulls glide in the breeze behind our boat.
Then the captain stops the engine near a secluded beach, and the catamaran slowly dances in the waves. Below deck, a chef prepares us a dinner of lobster tail and tropical fruit flan, which we enjoy as the sun is setting.
Later we lie on the ship’s tarps and watch the moon begin its nightly show. It’s been a magical evening — of that I’m sure. Many people conjure up pleasant memories and images to help them relax when life gets stressful. And right now, sailing under a star-filled sky along the rugged Poipu Coast, I know that this is one of them.
If You Go
Kauai Visitors Bureau
4334 Rice Street, Suite 101
Lihue, HI 96766
Kauai Backcountry Adventures
Kayak Kauai Outbound
800-437-3507 (toll-free from USA)
Capt. Andy’s Eco Adventures
Hyatt Regency Kauai Resort and Spa
1571 Poipu Road
Koloa, HI 96756
5520 Ka Haku Road
Princeville, HI 96722
800-325-DLUX (toll-free from USA)
2640 Puuholo Road