Nature takes center stage on the lushest of the Hawaiian Islands. Kauai has been around for more than five million years, and the ages have carved deep canyons and covered the land in a rich and diverse mantle of greenery. This is the island for anyone who packs hiking boots rather than dress shoes— though golf shoes will also work. And for those who are less interested in returning to nature, an assortment of upscale properties also stands ready to pamper.
1 The Wild Side
Kauai’s Napali Coast is a land without roads, where narrow valleys are walled by sheer cliffs that drop thousands of feet to the sea. This rugged landscape is a mecca for adventurous hikers, who challenge the cliff-side trails for the reward of remote beaches and wild green valleys. For a less strenuous viewing experience, there are helicopter tours and boat cruises along the seaside bases of the cliffs.
With an average of 450 inches of rainfall each year, Mount Waialeale is said to be the wettest place on earth. It’s certainly one of the greenest, with plenty of cascading waterfalls set against towering emerald cliffs. Reaching the summit is an arduous—and damp—endeavor that few attempt, but jeep tours to the rainforest at the base of the slope are a popular option.
3 For the Birds
Kauai has more free-roaming wild chickens than people. These birds are mixed descendants of the island’s once-native red jungle fowl or moa and domestic chickens. They thrive because Kauai was the only island where the mongoose, a predator of eggs, was never introduced, but in settled areas, free- roaming become fair game for the stew pots of locals.
4 Canyon Land
Nicknamed the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” the rugged Waimea Valley is enclosed by towering 3,500-foot canyon walls that expose the underlying lava substrate in shades of red, blue, green and purple. Highway 550, aka the Kokee Road, skirts the western edge of the chasm, offering dramatic views from overlooks and access to the hiking trails of Waimea Canyon State Park.
5 Hollywood Goes Green
When producers go for the prehistoric look, they often find it in the rainforests and rugged mountains of Kauai. Think Jurassic Park, Lost World and the opening scenes from Raiders of the Lost Ark. The island’s more civilized side also sees its share of production crews, dating back to classics such as South Pacific and Blue Hawaii.
6 A River Runs Through It
Kauai is the only Hawaiian island with navigable rivers. The placid Wailua River flows past historic sites where temples stood, and kayakers now ply waters where warriors in dugout canoes once paddled. A favorite cruise takes visitors on a two-mile voyage upriver, with a stop at the lush Fern Grotto, where the walls of a natural lava rock amphitheater are covered in thick greenery.
7 Seeing Red
Kauai is famous for its brilliant red dirt, which was used to make traditional fabric dyes and in folk medicines. The soil’s dramatic color is the result of iron-laden minerals, and certain microorganisms which ingest those minerals. This red earth can be quite cloying, but that’s OK, because it’s considered good luck to come home with a trace of the soil on your clothing. Or you could buy one of the island’s signature Red Dirt Shirts.
8 Growing Attractions
Kauai’s nickname is “The Garden Island,” and this is certainly true of the National Tropical Botanical Garden, which features the world’s largest collection of native Hawaiian plants. For a wilder take on native flora, head to the Wainiha Preserve, which is home to more than 130 flowering plants found only in Hawaii, including more than 40 growing only on Kauai.
9 A Pinch of Salt
At the Hanapepe Salt Pans, traditional evaporation beds turn ocean water into sea salts known locally as paakai. The right to harvest the solidified mineral residues in the salt pans at Hanapepe is passed down through generations, and traditions dictate that this salt can never be sold, but only given as a gift. Of course, it is possible to buy other varieties of Hawaiian sea salts at places across the island.
10 Gushing Waters
Kauai is home to some of Hawaii’s most spectacular waterfalls. Some like the “Jurassic Falls” are located in remote areas that can only be seen by helicopter tour, but others can be reached by hiking, paddling or simply pulling off the road. One favorite that is within driving range is Wailua Falls, which some might recognize from the opening scenes of the vintage television series Fantasy Island.