After kayaking 17 miles down Kauai's stunning Na Pali coast, every one of Cindy Chase's muscles hurt in her face. She and her paddling partner, Jamie Klein, had spent the...
After kayaking 17 miles down Kauai’s stunning Na Pali coast, every one of Cindy Chase’s muscles hurt in her face. She and her paddling partner, Jamie Klein, had spent the entire day grinning. “We couldn’t wipe the smiles off,” she said.
Cindy and Jamie are seasoned whitewater kayakers. A death-defying plunge down experts-only rivers is routine to the West Virginia couple. But sea-kayaking the waters off Hawaii’s oldest, wettest and most beautiful island was an entirely new thrill for them. And for me except I wasn’t sure I was up to the challenge.
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The trip sounded gorgeous but exhausting: six hours of flat-water paddling if the heaving swells off Kauai can be considered flat. Sunburn and incapacitating seasickness are real dangers. Would this be the best use of a precious vacation day in paradise? After my teenage sons agreed to come along, though, there could be no backing out.
The northernmost island in the Hawaiian chain, Kauai is less developed than its neighbors. But travel to the “garden isle” is growing rapidly as is traffic congestion, particularly on the road that connects the North Shore to the rest of the island.
Getting an early start
At 6 a.m. on a dark, soggy morning, our paddling crew gathered at the outfitter’s shop in Hanalei, a post-hippie North Shore tourist town that, with poetic license, became Hanalee in the classic song “Puff, the Magic Dragon.”
We had been lured by the prospect of kayaking impossibly blue waters past mountains that drop thousands of feet down to perfect, and perfectly deserted, golden beaches.
My sons and I had stopped by the outfitter’s shop, at their request, the day before. We would be the youngest and oldest on the trip, and they apparently wanted to look us over and see whether we could survive the ordeal. But the only question they asked when we got there was whether we wanted a turkey sandwich or vegetarian for the lunch break assuming we made it that far. It wasn’t uncommon, I learned, for someone to be put ashore less than an hour into the trip, usually because of seasickness. Sorry, no refund.
After a brief van ride to a nearby beach, and some rudimentary orientation, we climbed into our kayaks and launched. It was not yet 8 o’clock.
The tropical shores of Na Pali have inspired Hollywood filmmakers, who have used it as backdrops for movies from “South Pacific” to “Jurassic Park.” Fluted mountains covered in lush vegetation shoot 4,000 feet into the air. Waterfalls pour down the slopes.
No roads cross Na Pali’s cliffs and hidden valleys, just the treacherous Kalalau Trail, a narrow footpath above the shoreline. Most tourists choose a helicopter fly-by as their Na Pali adventure. Unfortunately, choppers buzzing the canyons, like the motorized tour boats plying its waters, greatly diminish the area’s wild quality.
Far better, then, to paddle it’s the best way to see the entire coast in a single day, including places no motorboat, helicopter or hiker can go. Our party of 14, including two guides, was the maximum size allowed under state regulations.
The outfitter, Kayak Kauai, which helped pioneer this trip in the late 1980s, uses sit-in, two-person sea kayaks. These classic touring boats are faster and more stable than the sit-on-top models other outfitters use.
I was fortunate to share a boat with John Morris, a 32-year-old native of Kauai who has been an ocean guide since the mid-1990s. He was in constant radio contact with our other guide, Harmony Harwell. Morris’ commentary about the ancient Hawaiians, who considered Na Pali a sacred place, enriched the experience.
Because of dangerous surf conditions the rest of the year, kayaking the coast is permitted only in the summer. We had almost ideal conditions. Overcast skies much of the day cut the sunburn risk and kept us cooler. We didn’t have the strong northeasterly trade winds that usually help push kayaks. That meant more work for us. But the relatively placid seas only briefly did we experience the dubious thrill of riding the crest of 6-foot swells let us explore sea caves that are too dangerous to enter when the surf is up.
Each cave was different, and surprising. In one, a waterfall poured through a hole in the roof. The ceiling of another cave collapsed long ago, opening it to the sky and leaving a pile of rocks in the center.
Strong shoulders and stomach
For anyone reasonably fit and at home in the water, a sea-kayak tour is an unforgettable way to glimpse some of Hawaii’s most splendid scenery. Only about 2,000 of the state’s 7 million tourists will paddle the Na Pali coast this year.
Sore shoulders were the physical price we paid for our paddling indulgence. The first, and longest, stretch of the voyage required about four hours of almost constant paddling. Along the way we saw dolphins and at least a dozen sea turtles, their dark green shells a distinctive shape on the ocean surface.
Our party consisted mainly of people in their 20s and 30s, though paddlers as old as 70 have made the trip, our guide reported. Anyone planning on dipping a kayak blade about 10,000 times over the course of a day ought to have decent upper-body strength. But a strong stomach is more important. The guides had to minister to several seasick members of our group, though everyone finished in good shape.
A lunch break at Milolii beach got us out of our boats and into the water for snorkeling and a swim. After sandwiches and cookies, there was time for a bracing dip in a nearby waterfall or stretching out on the sand.
As we headed toward our final destination, we’d gone from the wet part of the island to the dry side. The barren bluffs streaked red by iron deposits looked more like the rocks in the Utah desert than a tropical jungle.
Prepare for landing
In sea kayaking, as in flying, takeoffs and landings are crucial. I’d heard about kayaks capsizing as paddlers struggled to get ashore.
Our arrival at Polihale Beach turned out to be uneventful, thanks to benign conditions a gentle shore break barely large enough to bodysurf and the work of our two guides and a third helper from the outfitter’s staff. They caught each boat as it headed to shore and dragged it onto the sand.
After a shower and a long drive back around the island, we returned to the outfitter’s shop. My son Sam, 16, was moved by the “splendor” of what we’d seen. “Grueling but worth it” was how his brother Max, 18, would remember the adventure.