Hidden Treasures in The Garden Isle, Kauai
By Noreen Kompanik
GoNOMAD Senior Writer
Known for its unique geography and unparalleled natural beauty, Kauai is one of the most breathtaking islands in the world.
97 percent of this island’s land is covered with undeveloped verdant mountain ranges and lush tropical rainforests, earning it the well-deserved moniker, The Garden Isle.
As the oldest island of the Hawaiian Islands chain, Kauai is filled with innumerable natural wonders.
This island paradise is without a doubt one of the most beautiful places our family has ever visited. It happens to be our favorite Hawaiian island for it dazzles the senses like no other destination on the planet.
Waimea Canyon and the Waterfalls
First-time visitors should definitely plan to see some of Kauai’s top-draw natural attractions like the impressive Waimea Canyon and the easily accessible waterfalls of Wailua and Opaekaa.
They should snorkel under the towering Na Pali cliffs on Ke’e Beach, and take a helicopter tour to really see the expansive grandeur of this magical island from the air.
Follow the Locals’ Guidance
But because Kauai is filled with so much immense beauty, we take great pride in finding those hidden treasures, most not well-known, and some only the locals know of.
We always follow their sage advice because no one is more familiar with the island than those who live here and whose families for generations have called Kauai their home.
Hiking the Makawehi Lithified Cliffs
Kauai’s South Poipu coastline features a fascinating path along the ancient fragile ecosystem of the Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail. A short distance from beautiful Shipwreck Beach sits a spectacular geological wonderment known as the Makawehi Lithified Cliffs.
We heard about the cliffs from a Hawaiian fisherman. We had originally planned another hike along Kauai’s stunning Na Pali Coast but three days of heavy rains and flooding foiled those plans making the trek quite treacherous.
Extreme adventure and heart-failing excitement were not on our menu. So, we headed to the sunny side of the island and found one surprising unexpected treasure.
Leaving the tropical white sandy beach, we entered groves of fresh, fragrant pine trees. The colorful flora and fauna of the forest surrounded us. With few hikers around, we felt as if the trail was ours alone.
After a gentle upgrade, we emerged into a completely different world. Views of the churning ocean were visible from vantage points over sun-bleached cliffs, some even stunningly colorful due to time and nature’s forces.
Noisy blowholes shooting occasional sprays of salty ocean water along the path demonstrated the sea’s power here at high tide.
The Makawehi Lithified Cliffs loomed ahead, appearing like an alien landscape, formed from sand dunes weathered by wind and surf over thousands of years.
Crashing wave action had carved sharp ridges and deep pockets in the cliffside.
Each Changing Vista
Each outcropping of rock, each sheltered bay and inlet, and each changing vista revealed more stunning panoramas and geological wonders.
Nearby cave entrances begged to be explored, while the thundering surf below warned us of the might of the Pacific.
On the return hike, we stumbled across an ancient Hawaiian burial site.
The stillness of that secluded glade was interrupted by a gentle breeze whispering through the treetops, reminding us that for the old gods, their mana still lives here.
Menehune Fish Pond
We actually found this lovely place just outside the town of Lihu’e by complete accident after taking an unplanned turn off the main highway and arriving at a scenic overlook.
Hawaiian legend says the mythical Menehune (or little people) completed these large impressive ancient ponds overnight some 1,000 years ago as a gift for a princess and her brother.
The ponds, believed to be one of the oldest structures on the island, were created by a dam across a portion of the Huleia River to trap fish to feed Hawaiian royalty known as the Ali’i.
The wall separating the pond from the stream is 900 feet long, five feet high and meticulously assembled with lava rock. Though the ponds are no longer used for fishing, the site now privately owned was listed on the U.S. Register in 1973.
The scenic overlook provided the perfect viewing location and at near sunset, the play of the setting sun against the mountains was spectacular. Little did we know that this was the best time to view this impressive site.
Na Pali Coast Caves on Kauai
Seeing the massive velvety cliffs of the Na Pali Coast by boat is one of the most awe-inspiring experiences in Kauai. And though we had explored this region by day and sunset catamaran sails in the past, nothing could have compared to the wonders we explored on our five-hour Makana Charters Na Pali cave and snorkeling tour – native Hawaiian-owned and operated.
A couple we’d met in Kauai who were also frequent visitors to the island shared their Na Pali boat experience but also recommended we “take the morning tour as the waters are calmest then, and ask for Captain A’a (ah-ah). He’s the best.” So, we booked the cruise for our family of four.
As fate would have it, we were informed this infamous Hawaiian captain was not scheduled on the only day we could tour. However, when we arrived at the marina, there he was.
This bigger-than-life native eclectic and shirtless Hawaiian with sunbaked skin was there to welcome guests aboard his spacious 16-passenger catamaran.
As we headed to the coast, Captain A’a regaled us with historic Hawaiian tales and legends.
Along the way, we spotted several pods of frolicking spinner dolphins before arriving at what would be the highlight of the day, going into several of the most magnificent sea caves we have ever seen.
It’s important to note that these sea caves can only be accessed by boat or kayak.
Double-Door Cave is likely the most beautiful sea cave in the entire Na Pali region. As the second longest sea cave in the world, it’s stunningly colorful patterns on its inner walls were formed by eons of erosion.
A small opening in the cave ceiling allows sunlight and fresh water to enter the cave.
And then there’s the waterfall at the cave entrance bringing more excitement to our passengers as we headed directly underneath its thunderous flow.
Open Ceiling Cave was another absolute favorite. Once a closed hollow lava tube, time and erosion by powerful sea waves caused the ceiling to collapse creating the vaulted open roof marvel that provides the feel of a gladiatorial arena.
Each cave had its own unique features, and we were surprised at how many of these caverns of different sizes exist along this stunning coast.
Thankfully, smaller vessels such as ours are able to enter these caves giving passengers an unforgettable experience to last a lifetime.
Kauai’s Wet and Dry Land Caves
It’s so easy to miss these fascinating land caves when visitors are heading to the Na Pali Coast on Kauai’s North Shore.
But these jewels along the route just a few feet off the road are not-to-be-missed.
Located along the main road in the Haena State Park, water filling the Waikapalae Wet Cave comes from an underground spring that eventually feeds into the ocean.
Water levels in the cave are definitely affected by the tides so visitors should take heed. Swimming is not recommended as the water though cold and spring fed, has shown bacterial contamination.
We could easily understand however, why this sensational structure was used in the filming of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.
In addition, a smaller cave can be accessed via a swim through the first cavern though water temperature here is extremely chilly year-round and is not recommended.
The Maniniholo Dry Cave can easily be explored through its massive entrance. We followed a local’s recommendation to carry a flashlight, which made the experience of walking through the dark and musty but inviting cavern even better.
The many tropical vines climbing down the rock walls and hanging above the caves’ entrances were reminiscent of an Indiana Jones movie, adding the aura of adventure to our amateur spelunking experience.
River Kayaking to Secret Falls
Kauai boasts the Hawaiian Islands’ only navigable rivers. And because of this, one of the island’s most beautiful waterfalls, Uluwehi (or Secret Falls) can be explored. Getting there, however, is not for the faint of heart.
We are a family of kayakers and hikers, so the 5 ½-hour adventure trip through Outfitters Kauai was the perfect combination of outdoor adventuring. The company is known for its kayak/hike adventures to some of the most exclusive and remote areas of Kauai.
Wailua is Hawaii’s largest tropical river and an absolutely gorgeous place to kayak. But our kayak adventure was all about heading to a hidden waterfall.
After paddling for about 1.5 hours, we beached our kayaks and our eco-guides handed each of us a walking stick. Some of us weren’t really sure we needed it. That is until we hit the trail.
The two miles (one-way) of rugged terrain included navigating slippery moving streams, and hiking over muddy tropical rainforest paths made challenging by loose rocks, roots, narrow spaces, and lots of arduous climbing.
Finally, we were rewarded with the thunderous applause of a 100-foot bridal-veil waterfall.
Adventurers cooled down under the waterfall or took a swim in the water-fed pool before having lunch to nourish themselves for the demanding return trek back to the kayaks. The journey back to our marina starting point had the added challenge of paddling into the wind.
Was it tough? Yes. Was it worth it? Definitely. Though I can say we all slept extremely well that night!
It’s always surprising to us that many travelers to Kauai have never been to Allerton Garden. If any botanical garden we’ve ever visited could be considered the modern-day “Garden of Eden,” our money goes to this picturesque paradise on Kauai’s south shore.
The spectacular, 186-acre botanical treasure extends along the banks of Lawa’i Stream that empties into the Pacific Ocean. The views here are absolutely stunning.
Tropical fruits, spices, trees, rare exotic plants and astonishingly captivating flowers dot this landscaped architectural masterpiece preserving the largest collection of native Hawaiian flora anywhere.
We never knew there were so many different types of orchids or tropical plants on the island. But they are here, in all their glory.
Another one of our favorite features of the gardens are the famous Moreton Bay fig trees prominently featured in Hollywood blockbusters like Jurassic Park and Pirates of the Caribbean. Remember the raptor eggs?
Guided tours offer more in-depth history for those who want a deeper dive into the botanical campus (something we thoroughly enjoyed and highly recommend).
But visitors can also take a leisurely stroll around the massive garden with its numerous impressive statues, fascinating water features, and resident wildlife.
Who knows how many more unexpected treasures remain within this emerald island jewel of the Pacific awaiting our discovery? We know first-hand that they’ll be well worth exploring.