Like the other Hawaiian Islands, Kauai is the top of an enormous volcanic mountain rising from the Pacific Ocean floor. It was formed by a single volcano about 5 million years ago, and is the oldest of the large Hawaiian Islands.
Kauai lies 33 miles northwest of Oahu across the rugged Kauai Channel, which helped protect the island from invaders, including Kamehameha I, who never managed to conquer it. Kauai’s King Kaumualii, facing continued threats of invasion, joined the Kingdom of Hawaii without bloodshed in 1810, ceding the island to the Kingdom upon his death.
At the island’s center is the wettest place on earth – 5,148-foot Mt. Waialeale, with an average rainfall exceeding 480 inches annually. This prolific precipitation creates the headwaters for Hawaii’s richest river system, the Waimea, Hanapepe, Wailua, and Hanalei. These rivers have created Kauai’s most striking geographic features, except for its world-renowned Na Pali Coast.
Waimea Town, once the capital of Kauai on the island’s southwest side, was the first place in Hawaii visited by British explorer Captain James Cook in 1778. It’s located at the mouth of the Waimea River, whose flow helped form one of the most scenic canyons in the world, the 3000-foot-deep Waimea Canyo, often called “The Grand Canyon of the Pacific.” Waimea Canyon State Park encompasses 1,866 acres and is a popular tourist attraction offering a wilderness area with numerous hiking trails. Here, bicycle tours are a popular activity for Kauai visitors.
This canyon is protected at higher elevations as Kokee State Park.
Traveling east, counter-clockwise around the island, Hanapepe at the river’s mouth, is a vintage Hawaii village with wooden sidewalks. At nearby Port Allen, the small boat harbor is a departure point for sport fishing, scuba diving and excursions up the Na Pali Coast.
Poipu is the sunny jewel of the south side of Kauai, a vacation community of hotels, condominiums and shops built along white-sand beaches. Two miles inland, historic Koloa Town, is a charming 19th-century plantation town, home of Hawaii’s first successful sugar mill.
Lihue on the southeast coast is the county seat of Kauai, the site of Nauwiliwili Harbor, and Lihue Airport, departure point for sightseeing air tours. Here, the island’s two main highways meet – Kuhio heading north and Kaumualii heading south – so it’s impossible to go anywhere on Kauai without passing through Lihue. The Huleia River feeds the nearby Menehune Fishpond and is flanked upstream by the Huleia National Wildlife Refuge.
Wailua on the east side of the island is a coastal town at the mouth of the Wailua River, the only navigable river in the state. Wailua and nearby Kapaa are a center of activity for locals and visitors. Boat tours access 80-foot Wailua Falls which feeds into the river, and the Fern Grotto, a fern covered, lava rock natural amphitheater that enhances the acoustics of the live music, with traditional themes performed here. The area is managed by the state of Hawaii as Wailua River State Park.
Hanalei Bay on the north side of the island boasts two miles of tranquil beach against a backdrop of glorious green mountains. In the summer, the glassy bay offers excellent sailing, kayaking and swimming. The bay is also home to the famous Princeville Resort and the Hanalei Curl, a breaking wave known throughout the surfing community. A number of tour boats use Hanalei Bay as a launch point for excursions down the Na Pali Coast.
The Na Pali Coast on the island’s northwest side is Kauai’s most famous attraction and arguably the most spectacular, primitive coastline in the world. It extends from Ke’e Beach on the south and runs 16 miles to Polihale State Park on the north. Na Pali Coast State Park encompasses 6,175 acres of land located in the center of this rugged and spectacular coastline. Its Kalalau Trail is a don’t-miss trek for avid hikers. A wonderful variety of sunset cruises, sightseeing sails, and snorkeling tours are available, including one to the shores of Niihau.
Niihau, 17 miles west of Kauai, is the smallest of the inhabited Hawaiian Islands. Also known as the “Forbidden Isle,” it has long been accessible only to relatives of the island’s owners, the Robinson family.