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In Hawaiian mythology, Kauai (properly pronounced “Cow-ah-ee,” but often pronounced “Kuh-why-ee”) was the original home of the volcano goddess Pele (“Pay-lay”). But Pele’s vengeful sister Namaka (“Nah-ma-kah”), goddess of the ocean, chased her first to Oahu, then to Maui, and finally to her current home on the Big Island of Hawaii, where high mountains put her safely out of Namaka’s reach. This myth shows that the ancient Polynesians were astute observers of nature. They correctly deduced that Kauai, the northernmost of the main Hawaiian islands, is the oldest in the archipelago; and that the islands to the south get progressively younger. The only active volcanoes today are on Hawaii, the southernmost island.
The mythical rivalry between Pele and Namaka echoes what scientists now know about how the Hawaiian islands formed. But the process actually involves geology rather than deities. The Earth’s crust— the outer layer that we live on— is made of enormous “plates” that float on a layer of molten rock called the mantle. The plate that contains Hawaii and much of the Pacific Ocean is, not surprisingly, called the Pacific Plate. As the plate slides 5 to 10 centimeters per year over a particularly hot section of the mantle, Pele’s fiery eruptions of magma rising from the mantle heap up to build an island. As the drifting plate carries the island away from the hot spot, the eruptions gradually diminish until they cease. Namaka— in the form of wind, rain, waves, and the weight of the island itself— is then free to slowly but relentlessly devour the island.
The full chain of Hawaiian islands actually extends north of Kauai for over 2,300 kilometers. Those ancient “Northwestern Hawaiian Islands” were once full-sized. But Namaka has mostly consumed them, leaving only the vestigial specks of land and sandy atolls that comprise an uninhabited wildlife preserve.
At six million years old, Kauai is merely middle aged. But with the help of the Hawaiian Islands’ most abundant rainfall, it’s old enough to have acquired the lush greenery that earns it the nickname of “the Garden Island.” (The meaning of its real name is lost to history. But one version of the Hawaiian founding myth says that Hawaii-Loa, the Polynesian chief who discovered and settled the islands, named Kauai for his youngest son.) Those millennia of erosion have also given Kauai some unique geological features that include the only navigable river in Hawaii, a canyon, and spectacular fluted cliffs.
Some brochures and guidebooks assert that it was Mark Twain who proclaimed Waimea Canyon (“Why-may-ah,” meaning reddish water) “the Grand Canyon of the Pacific.” But in fact, Kauai was not on Samuel Clemens’ itinerary when he visited the Sandwich Islands as a young reporter for a California newspaper.
Whoever did come up with that sobriquet is not exaggerating much. The canyon is 16 kilometers long, a kilometer and a half wide, and up to 900 meters deep. Although that’s much smaller than the Grand Canyon in Arizona, the rich reds of weathered volcanic rock splashed with the green tropical foliage make it more intensely colorful.
Like its Arizona cousin, the relentless erosion of a river contributed to carving Waimea Canyon. Here it’s the Waimea River, whose source is a mountain in the center of the island— aptly named Waialeale (“Why-ah-lay-ah-lay”), meaning overflowing water— that may be the wettest place on Earth, averaging 11,430 mm of rainfall per year. But the canyon had a head start as a hole in the ground where the volcano that formed Kauai collapsed some four million years ago. Also in common with the other Grand Canyon, there are hiking trails and numerous lookouts along a road that parallels it (Waimea Canyon Drive, state route 550).
Waimea Canyon Drive turns into Kokee Road (“Ko-kay-ay,” meaning bend) and ends at the Kalalau Lookout, 1,200 meters above the Kalalau Valley (“kah-la-l’ow,” meaning the straying girls). The valley is usually overcast and often shrouded in heavy fog, but the view is spectacular if you’re lucky enough to have a break in the clouds. (The light is best in the afternoon.) Kalalau Valley was home to several thousand Hawaiians until the nineteenth century. More recently, hippies took up residence there in the 1970s. Perhaps because they (and others) found the valley ideal for growing certain illegal crops, the state park rangers have adopted a Zero Tolerance approach to anyone attempting to linger there.
If you look at a map of Kauai, you’ll notice that there are no roads between the 10 and 12 o’clock position along the roughly circular coast. That 35-kilometer section is the Na Pali Cliffs (“Nah-pa-lee”; it’s one of those redundant macaronic phrases, as na pali means the cliffs). The sharply fluted cliffs visible from the Kalalau Lookout are the southern end of a series of cliffs that have defied the best efforts of highway engineers. So the only way to visit this scenic coast is by boat, helicopter, or a difficult hiking trail. Several companies offer tours of the Na Pali coast by air and by sea, depending on your spirit of adventure and your budget (look for coupons in the ubiquitous tourist magazines). The coastal cruises— by catamaran, kayak, or Zodiac raft— provide a close-up view of the fluted cliffs and sea caves. But the water can be rough, so bring your favorite seasickness remedy if you have that tendency.
Kee Beach (“K.A.”) is at the north end of the Na Pali Cliffs. One of Kauai’s most popular beaches, it’s renowned for snorkeling. It’s also the access point for the scenic but treacherous 18-kilometer Kalalau Trail into the Na Pali coast. The popular name for Kee Beach is “the beach at the end of the road,” as it’s a short walk from the end of state route 560. This area must have been difficult for ancient Hawaiians to reach; the word kee, which literally means avoidance, otherwise connotes a long arduous journey.
Driving east from Kee Beach along Kauai’s north shore, Route 560 becomes the Kuhio Highway (56). It passes Hanalei Bay (“Ha-nah-lay,” meaning crescent bay), and then a viewpoint that overlooks Hanalei Valley. Farmers in the valley grow taro, the Polynesian staple starch, as well as fruits and vegetables.
Further east, the Kilauea Road off the highway leads to Kilauea Point (“Key-l’ow-ay-ah,” meaning spewing and spreading lava), on a picturesque cliff complete with lighthouse. Part of a national wildlife refuge, it’s the northernmost point in the main (inhabited) Hawaiian islands.
The Wailua River (“Why-ah-loo-ah”) is the only navigable river in the Hawaiian Islands. The river’s mouth on the east coast of Kauai is just over three kilometers from where the river’s north and south forks converge into Hawaii’s miniature Mississippi— hence the name, which means two waters. But that’s plenty of room for kayaks, water skiers, and river cruises. Tourists can board flat-bottomed cruise boats for the 40-minute trip to Fern Grotto, a cave festooned with ferns and tropical greenery. Some brochures make the specious claim that the grotto is “sacred.” Once there, they’re serenaded with “traditional” Hawaiian guitar and ukulele music, until it’s time to make way for the next herd. Yes, it’s a tourist trap, with the requisite quota of schlock. But the river is scenic enough to make it worthwhile.
Not all of Kauai is a garden. As on the other Hawaiian islands, the west (leeward) coast is a desert. Mountains in the interior condense the moisture from the prevailing westerly winds as rain, leaving only dry air for the leeward coast. If it’s overcast elsewhere on Kauai, you could well find sunshine on the beaches along Highway 50. Despite all the sunshine, this part of Kauai has not been developed as a resort destination. That’s because much of it is a Navy facility for testing missiles and missile defense systems.
The west coast also provides a tantalizing view of the island of Niihau (“Knee-ee-how”). Niihau is a privately-owned refuge for about 160 native Hawaiians, who speak Hawaiian and live a rustic life as ranchers. This “Forbidden Island” is fleetingly accessible only on expensive helicopter tours.
If you’re looking for the stereotypical Hawaiian vacation spot, the south shore is where you’ll find it on Kauai. Many of the island’s best beaches— and beachfront hotels and condominiums— are in Poipu (“Poe-ee-poo”).
Poipu and the south shore had long avoided the relentless “condo-ization” of similar locations on the other islands. That made it a favorite place for couples and families who wanted a Hawaiian beach vacation without the crowds and traffic jams of Waikiki. But developers, presumably having run out of sandy beaches elsewhere, have recently embarked on major construction that threatens to turn Poipu into clone of Kaanapali, the charmless overbuilt stretch of sand on the west coast of Maui.
Poipu means crashing waves. During the summer there can be plenty of them for surfing on the south shore, although Poipu also offers beaches with water calm enough for small children. West of Poipu, at the Spouting Horn, an ancient lava tube channels the crashing waves into a “geyser” that can spray water up to 15 meters high. The air displaced by the rushing water creates a moaning sound just before an eruption. One version of an oft-retold Hawaiian legend says that a ferocious giant lizard once lived near this blowhole, and ate anyone who trespassed on its territory. One boy managed to escape through the lava tube, but the lizard got stuck in the tube as it chased him. The moaning sound is the lizard’s frustrated roar, and the erupting water is its breath.
The ancient Hawaiians (like the ancient Romans) envisioned an extensive pantheon of deities responsible for just about everything in their lives. Hinaea (“Hee-nah-ay-ah”) was the goddess in charge of sunrises and sunsets. Poipu is a great place to watch her nightly show.
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