For some water sports enthusiasts, Kauai’s Na Pali coast is considered the Everest of sea kayaking. The 17-mile voyage past soaring cliffs, valleys ripe with guava and mangos, sea caves, and waterfalls spilling into the sea can be a peaceful float or a wrestle against the elements, depending on the whims of nature. Because of the heavy winter surf, it is only possible to kayak Na Pali during the summer months, from May through September.
Kayaking Na Pali is not for everyone. It is a challenging paddle, suitable only for those who are comfortable in the ocean and reasonably fit. But those who brave it are richly rewarded.
Most people kayak the coast as part of a one-day guided tour, leaving from Haʻena on Kauai’s north shore just after sunrise and landing at Polihale Beach on the west side at around 4 p.m. Na Pali kayak tours always go one-way west-southwest around the curve of the island to stay with the current. You’re always going with the flow. An air-conditioned van stocked with cold drinks and dry clothes awaits you at Polihale on the other end.
I’d hiked the Na Pali coast before, a grueling trek along rocky ledges best traversed by mountain goats. This time my friends and I decided to kayak in and camp for three nights at Kalalau, a seven-mile paddle from Haʻena, then continue along to Polihale on the fourth day. A few days of campfires, hiking barefoot and showering in waterfalls sounded like a perfect way to start out the summer.
The morning of the launch, six of us woke before sunrise. All our gear was packed tight in dry bags lent to us by NaPali Kayak. We shoveled down some instant oatmeal and Bonine tablets (to prevent seasickness), and headed out into the misty Hanalei morning.
At the Na Pali Kayak shop we loaded up our gear and boats in the company van and headed down to Haʻena Beach, the site of our launch. Ke’e Beach the last beach at the very end of the road before the Na Pali coastline begins is off-limits for commercial tours. After dragging our three double kayaks down to the water, we strapped our dry bags, coolers and life jackets on tight. The ocean looked calm, but the winds were picking up. As the waves grew larger, so did our anxieties.
Our guide, Josh Comstock of NaPali Kayak, said the most common problem kayakers face on the trip is seasickness. A few hours of bobbing on the ocean in a large piece of plastic takes its toll on even the hardiest adventurers. And because the long stretch of coast is mostly lava rock cliffs, between Ke’e Beach and Kalalau there is no easy place to stop. No way to turn back. Gazing at the choppy surface, I was glad I opted to take the Bonine that morning.
My boyfriend Matt and I climbed into our double kayak and held on tight as Josh positioned himself at the back of the boat. We waited for a lull between sets, then with a burst of speed Josh pushed us down the slope of sand into the water where we began paddling frantically to get out of the shorebreak. A minute later we were floating happily out to sea.
To avoid the shallow reef on the west end of Haʻena, we initially paddled straight toward the horizon.
My friends immediately capsized their kayak while trying to adjust their gear on the boat. After a few frantic moments, and some instruction from Josh, they righted their boat and were back in their seats. First lesson of the day: If you huli your kayak, don’t try to push it over from below, you’ll only push yourself under water. Climb over the exposed underside of the kayak and pull it over into upright position.
We rounded the reef, then paddled closer to shore to skirt the base of the steep Na Pali cliffs. The ocean was frisky that day, and waves were crashing against the cliffs, showering us with seaspray and foam. We passed a few sea caves, dark gaping holes in the lava rock where the waves gushed in and out. In a few minutes we were paddling by Hanakapi’ai Beach, the first beach two miles in on the trail to Kalalau.
It takes about an hour and a half to get to Hanakapi’ai on foot. With the kayaks, we reached it in about 35 minutes.
We paddled past the heavy beach break at Hanakapi’ai and kept going. I could see the valleys tucked a hundred feet above the jagged cliffs: wet, green and wild. I remembered the feeling of trekking one foot after another along the narrow cliffside trails, a heavy backpack weighing me down. Paddling along in my kayak, I felt free as a fish. After a while, the rhythm of the waves slapping against the boat and our paddles dipping simultaneously into the water began to lull me into a daze. Or maybe that was just the Bonine.
Josh motioned us toward a narrow sea cave up ahead. A waterfall poured into the ocean from a rocky cliff above the cave â€” an icy shower that jolted me back into the moment. We paddled into the darkness, like unsuspecting victims entering a cavernous mouth.
Twenty feet back, the cave dead-ended in a dark circular room, about 30 feet in diameter. Our shouts and laughter echoed off the walls as the incoming waves bobbed us up and down in the blackness. We were lucky to be able to have this experience; when ocean conditions are too rough, it’s too dangerous to enter the caves.
Back out in the sunlight, we paddled down the coast to another dark opening. This one went all the way through, funneling water through a narrow U-shaped passage in the rock. Sunshine and fresh water streamed down through a natural skylight in the ceiling. The waves ricocheted off the rock walls on both sides, tossing our kayak like a toy boat. We dodged a large rock jutting out of the water, then cut a sharp right turn to head back out to sea.
After 2 1/2 hours of paddling, I spotted the golden stretch of Kalalau Beach up ahead. I remembered hiking the slippery red hill leading down to the valley floor, a descent that ended with an exhausted splash in the Kalalau Stream. As we approached the beach, my arms were tired from holding the paddle, but not too sore. I was amazed at how quickly we had reached Kalalau by kayak; it was just past 10 a.m. and we still had the whole day ahead of us.
Our landing was not quite as smooth as our launch, however. Kalalau is known to have a rather harsh beach break. The waves break with up to five-foot faces, and the undertow is strong. As a wave approached us from behind, Josh motioned for us to begin paddling. The idea, he told us earlier, was to follow the back of a wave so that it would set you on the beach in one piece, instead of riding the face of the wave, which almost always leads to a roll in the whitewash.
When he signaled us, however, Matt and I dug hard with our paddles, shooting our kayak out ahead of the wave. Second lesson of the day: Don’t do this. We had a three-second rush of excitement as the wave caught our kayak from behind, sending us flying toward the beach. Then we tumbled: paddles, sunglasses, bags and bodies churning in a whitewash soup. A few seconds later we were laughing on the beach, our toes sinking into the warm Kalalau sand.
The other two boats landed successfully. Josh caught their bows as they paddled in and helped drag them above the water line. After three fairly easy hours of paddling along one of the most beautiful coasts in the world, we had landed on one of the most breathtaking beaches on Earth. Tough life, eh?
Kalalau Valley has the kind of energy that makes you shiver. Along with Nu’alolo Kai, a valley farther down the coast, archaeologists believe Kalalau was one of the last inhabited Native Hawaiian subsistence-based settlements in the Islands. The last Native Hawaiian family in Kalalau left for Kekaha on the other side of Kauai in 1919. Today, the entire Na Pali coast is a state park.
Because it is accessible only by a treacherous 11-mile hike and by sea, Kalalau feels like the end of the Earth. There is no plumbing, no running water (except for the kind in streams), no electricity, no stores and no cars. The main street is a footpath that snakes from one end of the beach up the valley. If you get hurt, you pray for a passing tour boat or helicopter, or send for help by foot or kayak, which could take a whole day. The valley is verdant with guavas, mangos, oranges, bananas and taro.
Camping at Kalalau is experiencing Hawaii at its rawest and roughest, in my opinion, at its best.
After setting up camp in a shady spot beneath the milo trees, we filled our water bottles in the waterfall on the west end of the beach and treated the water with iodine tablets. Virtually all Hawaii streams are contaminated with leptospirosis, which can cause severe flu-like symptoms and in some cases is fatal. The bacteria can squirm through many water filters, so I always go with iodine tablets. They make water taste funny, but add a little Tang, and â€” voila!” Kalalau cocktail!
The valley is accessible via a web of trails that lead to waterfalls, swimming holes and some of the largest mango trees I’ve ever seen. About 10 minutes into the hike, one of my slippers broke, so I took on the rest of the hike barefoot. Feeling ripe guavas squish between your toes is a sensation like no other.
Although Kalalau Valley officially is uninhabited, there is a die-hard crew of valley dwellers who live there illegally for months or years at a time. State park rangers sweep through every few months to try to clear them out, but the valley offers numerous hiding places. On our hike, we encountered a few valley folk who were friendly, with that hazy, happy look of people who truly live in paradise.
On the morning of our departure, the ocean was rippled but much calmer than the day we arrived. The first two boats launched without a hitch, but the two guys in the last boat capsized twice in the heavy shorebreak before some friendly beach folk offered to help.
We paddled past Honopu Beach with its vertical cliffs and magnificent arch. Down the coast, we entered another sea cave that ended in an enormous open-ceiling cavern, a collapsed lava tube.
The coast turned gradually southwest as we passed Nu‘alolo Kai and Miloli‘i, two smaller valleys with narrow, rocky beaches. A cluster of local fishermen were gathered on Miloli’i, eating lunch and talking story. We waved and continued on to Polihale, the final destination of our four-day adventure.
After Miloli’i, the coast turned sharply south. The wind died completely and the surface of the ocean became glassy as a lake. We floated in a blissful calm on the deep blue sea. Sea turtles poked their heads out of the water to inspect us, then dove under our kayaks. As we approached the long stretch of Polihale Beach, I could see four-wheel-drive trucks zooming across the sand. A pair of dolphins swam beside us as if guiding us ashore. We slid onto the dazzling hot sand at Polihale Beach at noon, four hours after setting out from Kalalau. Back to civilization … at least, until next summer.
IF YOU GO …
Na Pali Coast State Park, Kauai, a 17 mile stretch of rugged coastline accessible only by boat, kayak or hiking.
When to go: The Na Pali Coast is only accessible from May through September because of high winter surf and weather conditions.
Getting there: Flights to Lihue, Kauai leave from Daniel K. Inouye International Airport. Rent a car and drive to Hanalei via Kapule Highway (Hwy. 51), which eventually merges into Kuhio Highway (Hwy. 56) heading north.
Where to stay: For convenience, stay in Hanalei or Princeville.
Trip details: This is a strenuous 17-mile paddle. On the one-day tour, kayakers paddle for 5-6 hours, with a one-hour lunch break. Check-in is at 6 a.m. at the Hanalei shop. A van takes participants and Haʻena boats to Haʻena Beach for the 7 a.m. launch. Kayakers reach Kalalau in about 3 hours and Miloli’i in about 4 hours. One-day tours stop at Miloli’i for lunch around noon. From Miloli’i, kayakers paddle about two more hours to Polihale, where a van picks up passengers and boats. Participants arrive back in Hanalei around 7 p.m.
Fitness requirements: Kayakers should be comfortable in the water and in good physical condition. Those prone to seasickness should think twice.
What to bring: For a one-day trip, bring sunscreen, water, snacks, bathing suit, waterproof camera, mask and snorkel, motion sickness medication (Bonine is recommended), a towel and a change of clothes. Lunch will be provided. For those planning to camp at Kalalau, also bring a tent, sleeping gear, food, camping stove, toiletries, water bottles, iodine tablets and shoes.
Camping at Kalalau: Permits from the Department of State Parks are required to camp anywhere on the Na Pali Coast, including Kalalau, and space is limited, so apply far in advance. Permits cost $10 per person per night. Contact the Department of State Parks, (808) 587-0300, weekdays 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.