Flying along the Napali Coast (courtesy Maverick Helicopters)

With its dramatic cliffs, spectacular waterfalls, and magnificent canyons, Kauai is a fantasy island that redefines the meaning of Polynesian Paradise.

A light veil of mist hovered above Kauai’s verdant mountains as the warm Pacific sun began to rise on pretty Nawiliwili Bay. We had just arrived on the Garden Isle via cruise ship from Honolulu, and we were anxious to begin our exploration of Hawaii’s oldest and most majestic looking island.

Wailua Falls

Five million years of rain, wind, surf and volcanic eruptions have worked their magic on Kauai, creating an unspoiled paradise where lush vegetation, thundering waterfalls and deep canyons are framed by pristine beaches and dramatic sea cliffs. And the fiercely independent people of this isolated island have kept it that way by resisting development – in fact, local building rules prohibit any structure to be taller than a coconut tree.

While Kauai is a relatively small island it has lots of stunning scenery, most of which can be seen by driving along a highway that encircles most of the island. The exceptions are Napali, a 15-mile stretch of dramatic cliffs and dreamy beaches along the north coast, and Mount Waialeale, a 5,148-ft high extinct volcano in the centre of the island which is the wettest spot on earth (there are three active volcanoes in Hawaii, including Kilauea which has recently been spewing dangerous amounts of lava in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island of Hawaii). These two destinations are not accessible by car, and the best way to see them is by helicopter, particularly for those with limited time on the island.

The helicopter tour is fantastic, but since we had done it before, we decided to rent a car and drive north to Wailua Falls, and then west to the magnificent Waimea Canyon.

Waimea Canyon lookout

Surrounded by lush vegetation, the Wailua Falls are so picturesque that they were used in the opening sequences of the old television show “Fantasy Island.” But the thundering cascade also served a more serious purpose in ancient times – it was used by young Hawaiian men who would jump from the top of the waterfall and plunge 83-feet into the bubbling river below to prove their courage.

We took a pass on the cliff diving and made our way along the beautiful south coast of Kauai past sandy beaches and dense vegetation into the spectacular Waimea Canyon. Sculpted out of the mountains over the centuries by the powerful Waimea River and lava flows from Mount Waialeale, the resulting gorge is so spectacular that Mark Twain once dubbed it the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific.”

Blowhole at Spouting Horn Park

The Waimea Canyon State Park rises some 4,000 feet above sea level and encompasses nearly 1,900 acres of towering cliffs lined with red-coloured basalt rock and green-hued vegetation. The best way to soak up the marvelous scenery is to drive up Kokee Road and stop at several vistas, including the Kalalau, Puuokila and Waimea Canyon lookouts.

After driving through the Canyon, we retraced our route back along the Kaumuali Highway and stopped for a fabulous lunch of fresh fish and local beer at Keoki’s Paradise in the seaside town of Poipu on the south coast of Kauai. It proved to be a great place to stop because Poipu is home to a stretch of beautiful sand beaches as well as a series of blowholes in nearby Spouting Horn Park which can send streams of sea water soaring into the air when seas are stormy.

Poipu Beach

The beaches around Poipu are ideal because they offer something for everyone including gentle wading pools at Poipu Beach Park, snorkeling at Longhouse Beach, bodysurfing at Bennecke’s Beach and boogie boarding at Shipwreck Beach. In fact, some travel pundits rate the area’s beaches as among the best in all of the United States.

We had an amazing time swimming and tanning at beautiful Brennecke’s Beach, but eventually had to fold up our towels and head back to Nawiliwili Bay before our ship departed at 5:00 pm.

As we watched the lush green mountains and golden beaches of Kauai fade into the sunset from the comfort of our balcony cabin, we felt a twinge of regret. We had just experienced a slice of Hawaii that was as beautiful, majestic and natural as a Pacific paradise could be. But our beautiful Garden Isle would soon be nothing more than a tiny spire left behind in our ship’s foamy wake.

Feature image – Verdant mountains of Kauai

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