It’s just after dawn, and I’m paddling up the Wailuā River en route to a “secret” waterfall. The water is a shimmering, orange-tinged mirror to the sky – so still, and so peaceful. It’s just me out here, for the moment anyway, amongst the birds and the trees and the silence. My map says I’ll need to bank my kayak at a small island roughly 2.25mi (3.6km) upstream, passing an old Hawaiian village on the way, before commencing a 20-minute jungle trek to reach the 98ft (30m) Uluwehi Falls, which, to be honest, isn’t so much of a secret anymore – it's way too beautiful to be kept under wraps.
But Wailuā River was, and still is, sacred. Besides being Kauai's longest waterway, Wailuā River was once the center of royal power on the island. Indeed, it was here, on the river's banks, that native Hawaiian royalty came to give birth. Today, the site is a National Historic Landmark, a refuge of ancient stone temples set amongst the lush interior of the valley – it isn’t called the Garden Island for nothing.
Not far from Wailuā River stands Nounou Mountain, aka the Sleeping Giant, so called because of its profile: viewed side-on from the coastal town of Kapaa, the mountain looks like a giant lying down. And that’s pretty much what I want to do, right now, as I scramble up the summit – the Giant’s Head – and finally reach the roof of the mountain.
The Sleeping Giant East Trail is one of Kauai’s most popular hikes, and for good reason. First, at only 3.5m (5.6km) round-trip along a mostly-shaded forest trail, with just a 985ft (300m) change in elevation and minor scrambling in parts, anyone – from little Tommy to Nana Beatrice – can do it. And second, the views from the top, which compensate adequately for the slog, are sublime: a 360-degree panorama of Kauai’s beautiful east, including cameos by Kalepa Ridge, the Wailuā Valley, and the sweeping coast. There are several trails up to the summit of Nounou Mountain, but the Sleeping Giant East Trail is easily the most accessible, and photogenic.
I’m strapped into my harness and ready to fly. My legs tremble as I look across the valley, knowing that, in mere seconds, I’ll be zooming over it at some significant speed. Though my nervousness might not be evident to others, nerves are to be expected. Humans weren’t meant to fly.
I’ve driven over to Kauai’s north shore, past taro plantations and under looming, rugged mountains, for a half-day adventure of zip-lining, threading my way over lush forest canopies that stretch to the horizon. The longest of the nine thrilling zip-lines is just shy of 1,312ft (400m), and you need to walk up a 33ft (10m) ramp to get to the platform. Once at the top, facing the Hanalei Mountains, there’s nowhere to go but down, letting go of the fear as the zip-line roars like a small jet engine.
It’s only been 30 minutes and I’ve already spotted three pods of Hawaiian Spinner dolphins. I’m still waiting for my first turtle sighting, but I have the rest of the day to see one. I’m sailing along the breathtaking Nā Pali coast in Kauai’s northwest, easily the island’s most majestic and dramatic backdrop, featuring 3,940ft (1,200m) jagged peaks, hidden beaches, and towering waterfalls. The marine life is almost beside the point.
The Nā Pali Coast is considered the 8th natural wonder of the world, and it easily tops the list of must-dos in Kauai. This part of the island is completely inaccessible by road, so the only way to see it is on a sailing trip along its coast, on a helicopter scenic flight, or on a strenuous 11mi (18km) hike. Personally, I’d choose a sailing trip every time. Nothing beats seeing this jewel of Hawaii from its most awe-inspiring vantage point – from the sea looking up – exploring secluded sea caves and snorkeling in crystalline water where you have every chance of seeing a green sea turtle, just as I eventually do.
Several airlines fly direct into Kauai’s Lihue Airport from major cities on North America’s west coast. Alternatively, take an inter-island flight with Hawaiian Airlines from Honolulu. Once on the island, the best way to get around is to hire a car.
Kayaks can be rented from as low as US $50 per half day including all equipment (paddles, lifejacket, dry bags, lunch containers, etc). It’s also possible to join a guided kayaking and hiking tour to Uluwehi Falls.
The trailhead of the Sleeping Giant East Trail is near the end of Haleilio Road, off Kuhio Highway. Plenty of parking space is available.
Several operators offer zip-line tours all over Kauai, all year-round. A half-day tour starts at around US $130 per person.
Choose between a morning or afternoon cruise around the Na Pali coast. All sailing trips depart from either Port Allen or Kikiaola Small Boat Harbor in Waimea. Half-day tours can be booked for about US $180 per person (including lunch and refreshments).
Get gorgeous scenery without the crowds in Goblin Valley, the North Cascades, the Great Sand Dunes, and the Buffalo National River.
For adventure travelers, the island paradise of Hawaii has a large variety of activities to suit all tastes. Here are our tips to make sure your time is a safe and memorable one.