Paradise Found: A Trip to Kauai Delivers a Lush Garden Playground for Nature Lovers


Replace cold, short winter days with warm sun, blue sky and palm trees. Add fresh fish, tropical fruit and a full range of activities and you’ve got paradise. The 11-hour flight to Honolulu from the East Coast plus a connection to Lihue, Kauai, is worth the journey. 

The Garden Island is known for its laid-back vibe and outdoor attractions. A 15-mile drive from Lihue Airport through the Tree Tunnel (500 eucalyptus trees planted more than 150 years ago) and historic Koloa Town (home of restaurants, boutiques, coffee shops, art galleries) delivers you to Poipu on Kauai’s sunnier south shore. Poipu Beach is a popular spot for snorkeling, swimming, surfing and stand-up paddleboarding. Nearby Brennecke’s Beach is known for its easy-to-catch waves for body boarding and body surfing. 

It’s a short drive west to Waimea Canyon (the Grand Canyon of the Pacific), which stretches 14 miles long, one mile wide and more than 3,600 feet deep. Stunning views are offered from roadside lookouts; miles of hiking trails invite exploration of the canyon’s interior. An off-the-beaten-track west-side attraction is Polihale Beach at the end of a bumpy five-mile dirt road (beware, rental car companies may prohibit driving here). Those who brave the drive are rewarded with a remote 17-mile white sand beach framed by serrated cliffs. 

Intrepid hikers won’t be able to resist the famous 11-mile Kalalau trail that runs along the Napali Coast through five valleys, ending at secluded Kalalau Beach. When starting out at Ke’e Beach, many opt for a two-mile hike to Hanakapiai Beach or four miles to Hanakapiai Falls. But watch the weather: These hikes shouldn’t be attempted in the rain, as the rocky trail quickly gets muddy and slippery. 

Nonhikers get breathtaking views on helicopter or catamaran tours of the Napali Coast. Or take a drive to the Kilauea Lighthouse on the island’s northernmost tip for unbeatable coastline vistas and a seabird sanctuary with frigates, shearwaters, boobies and albatrosses soaring over the cliffs. December through May, humpback whale sightings are possible. Other activities include kayaking, horseback riding, zipline tours. That’s all before exploring 50 miles of white sand beaches for swimming, snorkeling, SCUBA and, of course, surfing. 

Accommodations around the island range from self-serve vacation rentals to luxe resorts. The recently renovated Koa Kea Hotel in Poipu is popular with honeymooners and couples (you won’t see many kids here) who aren’t looking for a mega-resort but who appreciate highly personalized service. The restaurant, Red Salt, has been called the best on Kauai, and the oceanfront rooms can’t be beat for proximity to the waves.

For a luxe resort with all the bells and whistles, the sophisticated St. Regis Princeville Resort delivers on the North Shore. Overlooking Hanalei Bay and Makana Mountain, it offers five-star dining, spa, golf course, infinity pool, plus St. Regis’ signature butler service. The resort served as the backdrop for several scenes in The Descendants (starring George Clooney) and is close to top surfing spots, where you just might run into Soul Surfer author and Hanalei resident Bethany Hamilton.

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Blue Hawaiian Helicopters

❀ Ke Ala Hele Makalae (translation: the path that goes by the coast) is a dream trail for bikers, runners, walkers. About 10 paved miles connect Lydgate through Kapaa to Ahihi Point. Bike-rental stands populate the main drag in Kapaa; we rented our cruisers from Kauai Cycle, a full-service bike shop.

On a helicopter tour, you’ll zip over Hanapepe Valley, get a bird’s-eye view of Manawaiopuna Falls (known as Jurassic Park falls) and Waimea Canyon interiors, soar along the Napali Coast’s 3,000-foot cliffs and over waterfalls seen in Fantasy Island and remote beaches from Pirates of the Caribbean. We were happy with the pros at Blue Hawaiian Helicopters and their roomy Eco-Tour helicopters.

Don’t miss the sushi at the Koa Kea Hotel’s Red Salt lounge. With fresh daily-caught fish, really, how can you go wrong? But Justin’s creations take everyday sushi to the next level. Paired with a signature sake martini: culinary perfection.

A version of this article appeared in the January 2014 issue of Connecticut Cottages & Gardens with the headline: Paradise Found.