Kauai is the northernmost and oldest island in the Hawaiian chain. It is draped in emerald valleys of tropical rainforests, sharp mountain spires and jagged cliffs often sporting dramatic waterfalls. And Kauai’s Na Pali Coast offers one of Hawaii’s most iconic landscapes, 26 kilometers of sheer fluted cliffs, some up to 1200 meters high, dropping straight into the Pacific Ocean. Na Pali, means ‘the cliffs’ in the Hawaiian language, and they are the must-do adventure when you are visiting the ‘Garden Isle’. This coastline is completely wild…there’s no development, no phone reception and no roads. The roads end at the northern and southern entrances to Na Pali so you must explore it via boat, on foot or from the air. Along the way depending on the seasons you may also see spinner dolphins, bottle-nose dolphins, whales, green turtles and even monk seals.
Last year one of my daughters and I kayaked along the coastline in what must be one of the world’s great one-day kayaking trips, often nicknamed the ‘Everest of kayaking trips’! We also enjoyed a 13 kilometer round-trip day hike along the coast and up to the Hanakapai’ai waterfall.
There are, in fact, six different adventures you can enjoy along the Na Pali coast. Here is the lowdown on how to do it.
The best sailing experiences are on Captain Andy’s luxury 65 ft Southern and Northern Star catamarans, which are the most comfortable yachts sightseeing along the Na Pali coast, which is especially important in winter because the waves can make for a bit of a rock ‘n roll ride. These catamarans have hardwood floors, tiled bathrooms, granite counter tops and a full kitchen. This is also the only yacht that has an on-board chef cooking all the meals.
You have a choice of:
- a 5½- hour Star BBQ Sail which leaves in the morning and includes an hour of snorkeling and a sail home if there is a breeze. It features a hot barbecue lunch with freshly made coleslaw, baked beans and freshly baked cookies for dessert as well as beer, wine and tiki cocktails (no precooked buffet here.)
- a four-hour Star Na Pali Dinner Sunset Sail with New York steak and jumbo shrimp, salad, roasted potatoes, grilled vegetables, dessert, beer, wine and tiki cockails.
Captain Andy Evans has been sailing and rafting on the Na Pali coast and around Kaua’i since 1980.
Captain Andy’s also offers exciting four or six-hour trip on a 24-foot rigid hull inflatable raft (Zodiac) during summer months. These stable and buoyant craft can explore caves and land on secluded beaches like Nualolo Kai where you hike to an old Hawaiian fishing village and go snorkeling.
Wings over Kauai offers a terrific small plane adventure offering a 65-minute Grand Deluxe Tour of Kauai. This includes spectacular views, not just of the Na Pali Coast but also Waimea Canyon, Jurassic Park Falls, Wai-ale-ale Crater, and Hanalei Bay. It is a smoother and quieter alternative to a helicopter and you really feel like a bird soaring over the cliffs.
You have a choice of two planes: A Cessna for two people plus the pilot, and the Australian-made G8 Air Van for six people, where every seat has large bubble windows for unobstructed views.
If you want to get a little closer to Na Pali’s dramatic cliffs and other attractions like the Waimea Canyon, Jurassic Park Falls, and Wai-ale-ale Crater, opt for a helicopter ride with Jack Harter Helicopters.
They offer tours in a six-passenger Eurocopter AStar (with the doors on) and a four-passenger Hughes 500 (with the doors off, for adventurous types).
For fit and adventurous types, the most exhilarating way to explore the Na Pali coast is via a 6-8 hour sea kayaking excursion, which is offered during the warmer months of May – September.
Kayak Kauai, which has been operating out of Hanalei Bay for more than 25 years, is the oldest and most experienced kayaking company on the island.
You paddle on “sit-on-top” two person plastic sea kayaks with foot controlled rudders and comfortable back rests. This is a fabulous way to marvel at the cliffs from ocean level and you often paddle with dolphins and turtles. You’ll see waterfalls, hanging valleys and access secluded beaches as well as paddle right into sea caves.
Starting from Haena Beach Park, just west of Hanalei, you paddle past the first break and then see the full expanse of the Na Pali Coast, starting lush green and fading to reddish brown in the distance. You paddle past the green Kalalau valley, past the arches of Honopu and finally stop for lunch at Miloli’I Beach, where you can hike to a small waterfall, beachcomb and swim. It is eight more kilometers to Polihale State Park.
Note: It is very advisable to take sea sick tablets the night before and the morning of your kayak trip so you can handle the ocean swells.
The 17 ½ kilometer Kalalau Trail offers the only land access along the Na Pali coast. It leads from Ke’e Beach and traverses five valleys before it ends at Kalalau Beach, where it is blocked by sheer, fluted pali or cliffs. The trail is graded but almost never level as it crosses above towering cliffs and through lush valleys. It drops to sea level at Hanakapi’ai and Kalalau beaches.
The original trail linked early Hawaiian settlements along the coastline while portions of the trail were rebuilt in the 1930s. For most backpackers in good condition, hiking the full trail will take a day, one-way. Get an early start to avoid the midday heat.
The 3.2 km section between Ke’e Beach and Hanakapai’ai is a popular day hike offering spectacular views of the coast. Do not swim or wade at Hanakapi’ai due to strong surf and rip currents (there is a notched sign keeping track of all the drownings).
An often muddy, unmaintained 3.2 km trail, over rocks and tree roots, goes up the Hanakapi’ai Valley to a spectacular 30-meter waterfall.
The 6.4 km section between Hanakapi’ai and Hanakoa is more strenuous with a steep switchback trail climbing 300 meters out of the Hanakapi’ai Valley. It traverses two hanging valleys to Hanakoa Valley, where camping is allowed.
The final 8 km section to Kalalau Beach is drier and more open, with little shade from the midday sun. Use extreme caution, especially during wet weather as portions of the trail are very narrow and the drop-off on the ocean side is severe.
The trail crosses the Kalalau Stream near the valley mouth before ending at Kalalau Beach and a small waterfall. Camping is allowed behind the beach, which is wide in summer. As always, be careful in paradise: swimming is dangerous in the ocean and the waterfall and cliff face often are the site of falling rocks!
I highly recommend getting in touch with Stephanie Michel of Island Girl Activities to book all your adventures in Kauai. She acts as a local concierge curating the very best adventures all around the island and she gave me many of the insider tips you see here. If you book your tours with her, she also fills you in on the best local places to eat, shop, swim, snorkel, hike and sightsee.
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