The jaw-dropping scenery on Hawaii's Garden Isle invites exploration.

By Susan Cullen Anderson
March 04, 2008
Douglas Peebles

After a mile or so on the rugged Kalalau Trail, hikers who have slogged through red mud and climbed over slippery rocks stop abruptly. Far down to the right, the sapphire ocean shimmers. As the trail winds to the left, a cool canopy of deep-green foliage dotted with pink and orange blossoms awaits. In the distance, the coastline juts in and out, its steep cliffs dropping to the sea.

Ask visitors why they've come to Kauai's North Shore and they all give a variation of the same answer: to revel in that scenery. To surf in the sparkling ocean, hike in the rain forest, scuba dive among the dramatic underwater formations, kayak the rivers, or just gape at the rainbows that seem to form upon command over Hanalei Bay.

Chelsea Pavone came for a week in 2006, and promptly went back to California to quit her job. "I gave 30 days' notice and had a huge garage sale," she says. "I decided that I'd just go and play for a while."

For Chelsea, who spends her workdays leading hikes and kayaking trips and her free time surfing, "a while" is open-ended. For the rest of us, it may be just a few days―but what a recess. James Thresher, an insurance analyst from Phoenix, explored the late-spring North Shore with his wife via helicopter, boat, and fins. "We could snorkel above and along the lava cliffs," he says of the complex formations at Tunnels Reef. "It's probably the best snorkeling that I've ever seen."

Immersing yourself in the scenery doesn't mean you have to sleep in a tent, though. Even at the marbled and massive Princeville Hotel, muddy, bedraggled guests are greeted charitably upon their return from the wild. Waterside rooms deliver unparalleled views of Hanalei Bay and the mountains you climbed that morning. A private beach and pool deliver post-kayak relaxation complete with fruity drinks and fresh pineapple. You can even opt for a seaside massage before dining at one of the hotel's three restaurants. Whatever else you do here, though, don't miss sunset on the patio. Visitors come from other resorts to witness the spectacle.

Staying at the centrally located Princeville Hotel allows easy access to the North Shore's 15 miles of coastline, from the lighthouse at Kilauea Point to the crashing surf of Hanakapiai Beach. For an intimate introduction, put on your oldest pair of walking shoes (they'll soon be permanently mud-stained) and drive past lush taro fields, over a series of one-lane bridges, and through Hanalei town to the highway's end. The Kalalau Trail begins here, and its first two miles to Kalalau Beach provide plenty of heart-stopping views. You'll be tempted, but don't cool off after the hike with a swim. A sign warning of fierce currents makes its case with tick marks tracking drownings. It's far safer to sit on the rocks, enjoy a picnic lunch, and watch the surf toss around the fools who ignore the sign.

James and Paula Thresher skipped the hike and spent most of their time in more placid waters, spotting everything from sea turtles to white-tipped reef sharks. James says their best day was on Tunnels Beach, barbecuing fish tacos and snorkeling the reef. "There is just a ton of marine life there," he says. "Really fabulous stuff."

While it's easy to pick up a deli picnic, don't miss at least one lunch at Tropical Taco in Hanalei. This quirky establishment with limited indoor seating and only lemonade to drink offers customers a warning on its surfboard menu: "Not to be consumed one hour before surfing!" Take your beer-battered-fish burrito and lemonade out to the lanai, and climb onto a bar stool at the railing. There, you can admire wandering roosters, passing cyclists, and the yard art across the street.

For dinner, Postcards Café prepares fresh seafood and gourmet vegetarian meals using primarily organic ingredients, including herbs and tropical fruit from its own garden. The result: divine island-centric offerings such as taro fritters with pineapple-ginger chutney, wasabi-crusted ahi tuna, and a mousse made from lilikoi, a type of passion fruit. While reservations are advised, the café (a replica of the 19th-century rice-plantation cottage that once stood here) is casual and welcoming.

The same can be said of Kauai's North Shore. Visitors seeking a peaceful getaway gravitate to the laid-back pace and utter lack of nightlife. Like guide Chelsea Pavone, mortgage broker and jewelry maker Aia Walker moved to Kauai permanently after a visit. (Steel yourself: The island has transformed the most resolute tourists into lifelong residents.) "I discovered how to live life slowly and savor things," Aia says. "Like sunsets. And bananas."

And indelible red mud.

Originally published April 2008