The most northerly of Hawaii’s eight main islands, Kauai is also the oldest geologically. More than five million years ago, a long series of eruptions built the island above a hot spot deep within the earth.
As the Pacific tectonic plate drifted northwest, the rest of the islands were each formed in turn. Today, that spot sits beneath the Big Island of Hawai’i and its active volcanoes. Millions of years of erosion have shaped Kauai’s rugged sea cliffs, deeply eroded valleys and the only navigable rivers on the islands.
For many visitors, Kauai is synonymous with the Na Pali Coast—a superlative stretch of precipitous 4,000-foot sea cliffs dominating the island’s north shore. Na Pali’s (literally, “the cliffs”) otherworldly scenery has made it Hawaii’s most popular paddling destination, and landing and camping here are heavily regulated.
Elsewhere on the garden isle, you’ll discover that kayaking, paddleboarding, outrigger canoeing and surfing are an integral facet of local culture and daily life.
In the winter months, when pounding swell closes out the north coast, surfers flock to nearby Hanalei Bay and coastal paddlers head to the island’s south shore.
Where to Go
If You Want to go guided
Kayak Kauai (www.kayakkauai.com) pioneered the epic, one-day tour of the Na Pali Coast—a 17-mile, 12-hour odyssey from the road-end in Ha’ena to Polihale State Park.
You’ll see spectacular sea caves, arches, tropical lagoons, plunging waterfalls, secluded beaches and astounding views of the technicolor cliffs. Be aware, however, it’s a strenuous journey for fit paddlers—surf landings, capsizes and seasickness are commonplace.
If you’re Craving waves
Early Polynesian surfers used paddles to propel their large, wooden longboards. Centuries later, SUP surfing is enjoying a modern revival at crescent-shaped Hanalei Bay, where sandbars form clean, novice-friendly waves alongside a historic pier and palm trees sway in the breeze.
If you Want to take it easy
Kauai’s short and scenic rivers make for delightful day trips. Glide beneath guava and mango trees, watch for native birds or bathe in a hidden cascade.
Paddle the Hanalei River past flowering hibiscus and vivid-green taro fields into Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge, then return to the golden sands and azure waters of Hanalei Bay to snorkel with reef fish and sea turtles.
On the eastern shore, popular Wailua River State Park packs rainforest views, a lovely fern grotto and secluded waterfall swimming hole into a shady, two-mile paddle.
Magnum PI approved.| Photo: Tor Johnson / Photo Resource Hawaii