It’s hard to hike the trail that snakes down a ridgeline above the famed Kalalau Valley, but not for the reasons you’d think; it’s steep but not that steep, and the drop-offs into Kauai’s valley are dramatic but simple enough to avoid. The problem is that the view into verdant Kalalau is so distracting that it’s easy to trip over your own feet or walk smack into the spindly limbs of a koa tree while (naturally) humming the theme song to Jurassic Park.
The Kalalau is on the island’s north side, a wedge reaching from the island’s mountainy center to the beach, part of the Napali coast that Kauai’s horseshoe-shaped road system doesn’t touch. From the water side, the Napali is accessible only by boat or 11-mile trek along the treacherous Kalalau Trail, a backpacking route with limited permits. But from above, it’s an easy day hike, a mere mile or so down a ridgeline.
Kauai is the oldest Hawaiian island, the green isle blanketed in acres of jungle-thick foliage and as many ramshackle homes as luxury condos. Though only about 500 square miles, it’s covered in a spiderweb of hiking trails, many unmarked. Kauai Hiking Tours guide Jeremiah Felsen knows how to find deserted trails on a summer weekend, sunny trails when it’s raining everywhere else, and with crumbling cliffs and no guardrails.
On the trail above Kalalau, all a newcomer sees is nature, but Felsen sees more. He points to a bit of airplane wreckage, to the cliff trails worn by domesticated goats gone wild. He points out where, in the verdant valley below us, feral cats and off-grid humans hide in the forest. The lure of this rainbowed utopia is palpable, and it’s almost impossible to turn around and hike out of it. kauaihikingtours.com
What to do on Kauai
A. Secret Beach
Don’t expect to pull the secrets of truly hidden beaches from the locals, but the route to the silky sand and black rock tide pools of Kauapea Beach, aka Secrets to locals, is easy to find online.
B. Wailua Shave Ice
The island’s famous dessert stand just opened an outpost in Portland, but the original Kapaa location is the best place to get yourself all sticky as you try to consume a softball-size mound of ice, haupia foam, and local strawberries before it melts. wailuashaveice.com
C. Mountain Tubing Through Irrigation Canals
The waterways that once fed the island’s sugar plantations are now lazy river rides through lush forest and pitch-black tunnels navigated by guide-led groups on inner tubes. It’s very mellow and open to kids five and older. kauaibackcountry.com
D. Doors-Off Helicopter Ride
In the spirit of daredevil pilot Jack Harter, who threaded sea arches when he pioneered whirlybird rides in the ’60s, doors-off copter tours let you feel the spray as the copter sideswipes waterfalls and smell the fragrant trees as you barely hop a ridge. helicopters-kauai.com
E. Sunset at Spouting Horn
Signs insist that the rocks around this south shore blowhole are off limits, but at sunset people still walk down from the viewing platform to watch each wave spout.
F. Waimea Plantation Cottages
Dozens of relocated farm homes dot a 27-acre beachfront property in one of the quieter corners of the island; they boast all the full-kitchen, multiroom expanse of a condo, plus a heaping of historical charm. waimeaplantation.com
G. Chili Pepper Chicken at the 76 Gas Station
Pass the gas pumps before ducking into what’s technically the North Shore General Store (but look for the 76 sign). The food counter serves a flavorful spicy chicken sandwich on a puffy bun. pizzakauai.com
H. Champagne Toast at St. Regis Princeville
At sunset every day, the bar manager at the island’s swankiest hotel sabers a champagne bottle and tells a story about an ancient Hawaiian practice of throwing burning logs on Makana Mountain across the bay. stregisprinceville.com