I’m sitting next to the pilot, camera at the ready. The helicopter spins up and within seconds we’re whisked away from Island Helicopters Kauai’s base and into an aerial wonderland. I feel my blinking response go into overdrive as I try to devour every millisecond of this experience.
To my left, soaring mountain peaks pierce misty clouds. To my right, double rainbows continually appear, disappear and reappear. All around, dewy clouds drift and vaporise; there are rain showers one minute and bursts of blowtorch sunshine the next.
As we near the ocean, massive waves steal the show, blasting incessantly against the serrated cliff faces. It’s wild. It’s raw. It’s bizarrely beautiful. The pilot glances over and smiles, then turns up the volume on his microphone and asks how everyone is doing.
There are five passengers in the helicopter and no-one rushes to answer. Eventually the woman next to me slowly exhales, “Just amazing”. Obviously I’m not the only one holding my breath. Kauai has that effect on you. It leaves you breathless.
Getting to know Kauai
I have to admit something before I get in too deep. This is my first visit to Hawaii and I figured I knew exactly what was coming. I would relax on pretty beaches, book a surfing lesson, laze about doing very little and indulge in a spa treatment or two ... typical holiday stuff. I landed in Honolulu, jumped on a domestic flight to Lihue and arrived in Kauai. It’s here I changed my mind.
Kauai is the oldest of the eight major Hawaiian Islands and, like all of the atolls, it’s a volcanic landmass that was formed more than five million years ago – from a single volcano that erupted over and over again.
The rains drenched the land (Kauai has Hawaii’s highest annual rainfall) and these remitting showers moulded deep gorges. Cascading waterfalls began to pour, rivers cut through valleys, lush rainforests flourished and bogs swelled.
At the same time, waves persistently pounded the outer fringes of the island, making their own razor-sharp mark as the sea level rose and fell through time.
The dramatic coastline
Only three per cent of Kauai is used as residential and commercial space, so it’s no surprise that most of the island’s attractions are of the natural kind.
The Na Pali Coast is as majestic as they come – 27 kilometres of toothy peaks cloaked in velvety grassland and spritzed with gushing waterfalls. The Kalalau Trail (an 18-kilometre track that can take up to two days to complete due to its level of difficulty) is the only way in by foot. But for non-hikers, cruising past on a boat is the way to go. The views of the famous rugged cliffs are even better from the sea.
I wake early one morning and make my way to Port Allen for Capt. Andy’s Na Pali Coast cruise. The five-and-a-half hour excursion includes breakfast, lunch, drinks and snorkelling, but for me it was all about those unspoiled panoramas.
When we reach the outskirts of Na Pali I grab my camera and dash towards the right side of the yacht. The real-life view is far better than any camera can reproduce.
Leaping green pinnacles jut upwards; foamy waves thump against the sharp rock formations; everyone on board takes a minute of silence. It’s another one of those ‘leaves you breathless’ Kauai moments ... and I’ve only been here two days.
Back on ground
Even on ground Kauai’s sweeping vistas are spectacular, and there are plenty of ways to soak them up. Robert Nagao of Kauai Outdoor Adventures & Tours, who goes by the name Bobby, covers the whole gamut.
“I think I’m the only guide in Kauai who offers such variety – cruising and rafting the Na Pali Coast, snorkelling, hiking, surfing, stand-up paddleboard lessons and more,” he says. “I also like to give my guests a real taste of Kauai and I make time to stop and pick guavas, passionfruit, plums and pears whenever they are in season.” Although I love the fruit-picking breaks, my favourite stops are any of the lookouts over Waimea Canyon, nicknamed the Grand Canyon of the Pacific.
Sure, my helicopter pilot pointed out the canyon from above, but actually leaning over the edge and gazing in offers a completely different perspective. It’s as though the canyon is one continuous valley of mountains and gorges – hulks of rich browns and sprawling patches of glossy greens that you could stare at forever.
Kauai’s other side
The three per cent of the island that is inhabited offers plenty to see and do, and Bobby takes me to a couple of his favourite local hangouts. “I was born and raised here,” he says. “I know where to go.”
We lunch at Deli & Bread Connection (the Lobsta’ Roll is delicious). We stock up on four different types of poke (raw fish salad) at Ishihara Market for afternoon snacking. We ramble around a farmers’ market perusing local foods and homemade goods. And when we need a pick-me-up we head to Kauai Coffee, the largest coffee plantation in the US.
And wherever we go or whatever we do, we pause ... because someone knows Bobby and wants to chat. Bobby says Kauai is that sort of island. “Out of the four main islands it’s the least developed, so I liken the residents to what you might call country folk,” he says. “We never rush around and we like to chat. And of course we live and breathe aloha. It’s the core value of Hawaiian culture.”
Three Kauai must do’s
1. EXPERIENCE A LUAU: A Hawaiian luau is a traditional celebration, where typically a whole pig is slow-cooked in the ground and served with plenty of other local foods. The Smith Family Garden Luau is Kauai’s most legendary. smithskauai.com
2. ENJOY FINE FOOD WITH A FINE VIEW: Foodies have plenty of choice in Kauai, with everything from casual fare to elaborate multi-course meals on offer. RumFire at Sheraton Kauai Resort covers the best. rumfirekauai.com
3. CHECK OUT SOME FILM LOCATIONS: Jurassic Park, Avatar, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Descendants and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides are just some of the movies that have filmed scenes in Kauai. Island Helicopters Kauai is the only helicopter company that has permission to land at Manawaiopuna Falls (famously known as the Jurassic Park Falls thanks to the movie).
Spend a week in Kauai, basing yourself in two different locations.
Sheraton Kauai Resort is close to one of Kauai’s best surf beaches, Poipu Beach. sheraton-kauai.com
Kauai Marriott Resort is 10 minutes’ drive from Lihue Airport and close to restaurants and shops. marriotthawaii.com/kauai- marriott-resort
Island Helicopters Kauai
Capt. Andy’s Na Pali Coast cruise napali.com
Robert Nagao of Kauai Outdoor Adventures & Tours facebook.com/bobby. nagao