But an alternate Hawaii exists, offering the active nature-lover an idyllic tropical escape from winter’s grip. The Garden Isle of Kauai is lush and laid back, high on beauty and outdoor adventure, low on pretension and crowds. And low on cost, too, with many free and inexpensive ways to explore its natural treasures.
Kauai is compact but remarkably diverse. It boasts the planet’s wettest spot – Mt. Waialeale, averaging 450 inches of rain a year – yet it’s possible to hike among cactus on the lava cliffs of the south coast. It is one of the most biodiverse places in the U.S., with more than half of the nation’s endangered species. The island’s varied geography provides an array of recreation options along its 60-mile-long main highway, from the vertical, green-robed mountains of the Napali Coast, to the palm-fringed Wailua River (one of Hawaii’s few navigable streams) to Waimea Canyon — two miles wide and 3,600 feet deep. I just returned from my sixth trip to Kauai, and I’m enthused to share a few of my favorite active adventures, many of which won’t cost you a penny once you get there.
Tackle a trail
Fantastic hikes abound on Kauai, not surprising given its dramatic mountains and ‘Grand Canyon of the Pacific,’ as Twain reportedly dubbed Waimea on a 19th century visit. The Awa’awa’puhi Trail drops from Koke’e State Park, 4,000 feet above sea level, to a precipitous overlook above the Na Pali coast. Go in the morning to hopefully avoid the frequent mists that obscure the verdant cliffs. You can sample the Na Pali from another perspective on the famed Kalalau Trail, with a four-mile round-trip to Hanakapiai Beach from Ke’e Beach in Hae’na State Park, at the end of the road on the north shore. While the entire Kalalau is a challenging 22-mile, multi-day backpack, this portion offers a spectacular slice, hugging the rugged coast high above the surf. A final suggestion mellower than either of the two hikes above is the Kuilau Ridge Trail above Wailua. The hike begins on a grassy track through lush tropical forest, opening onto an undulating ridge with 360-degree views to the interior mountains and the blue ocean far below.
Pick up a paddle
Rent a kayak from Wailua Kayak and Canoe or Kayak Kauai to explore the lazy Wailua River. Flowing down from the heights of Waialeale, the river passes the famous Fern Grotto and ancient Hawaiian ceremonial grounds till it reaches the ocean just south of Kapaa. A two-mile paddle upstream will take you to the trailhead for “Secret Falls” – not at all secret, but hidden a mile away on a trail through rainforest where scenes from “Indiana Jones” were filmed. Wear river sandals for hiking and a swimsuit so you can plunge into the pool at the base of the falls. Another mile upriver is a rope swing that offers an exhilarating dip in the river. You can also kayak the Hanalei River through the lush taro fields of the north shore, with rentals available in Hanalei at Pedal and Paddle, Kayak Kauai or Kayak Hanalei.
Cycle a shoreline
Coconut Coasters in Kapaa offers nice Trek bike rentals (from $18/half day) – mostly geared cruisers – for exploring the new 4.1 mile (one way) coastal path that heads north along the sea to secluded Donkey Beach. Along the way you’ll pass Kealia Beach, a popular local surfing spot, and either locale is a fine stopping point for a picnic lunch. Pick up classic plate lunches from Pono Market in Kapaa to carry in your bicycle basket. If you’re watching pennies, consider a well-used cruiser from Hele On Kauai for just $10 a day. These popular rentals are first-come, first-served and are often gone by 10:00 a.m., so come early. Another 2.3-mile segment of the path travels through Lydgate Beach State Park where, eventually, the sections will be connected and expanded to create a 16-mile paved trail along Kauai’s entire eastern shore. In Hanalei, rent a bike at Pedal and Paddle and ride the seven miles to the end of the road at Ke’e Beach (stopping en route at a string of sandy crescents edging the turquoise surf), or go the other direction and ride up the sleepy Hanalei River – the bucolic agricultural setting will make you feel like you’re in Southeast Asia.
Boogie-board at the beach
Obviously no Hawaiian vacation would be complete without play time at the beach, and Kauai has some stunners. A plus is that all of Hawaii’s beaches are public. We picked up boogie boards for the week in Kapaa ($15 from Boss Frog’s dive and surf shop) and enjoyed some fine waves at Hanalei Bay (one of the most glorious beaches on the planet) and Kalihiwai Bay — an out-of-the-way locals’ favorite on the north shore — where the clear Kalihiwai River also offers some cool, deep swimming holes. Kauai has some dangerous surf conditions, however, especially on the north in winter: in all cases, check the ocean report at KauaiExplorer.com before heading out into the water.