One Day in Waimea

We touchdown in the salty morning air of Lihue, the faint ocean mist catching the first rays of a new day. Another day, another adventure–this time on the lush and mountainous island of Kauai. The town of Lihue is flanked with a panoramic mountain range, and the shadows of the early morning sun highlight the green valleys and peaks as we head westbound towards our first adventure.

But first: some food. We stop in Kalaheo at one of Kauai’s dozens of roadside cafés serving fresh baked goods and delicious Hawaii grown coffee. It’s a breath of fresh air to be back on Kauai–the laid-back, relaxed ambiance of this island is infectious, and I already feel miles and miles away from bustling downtown Honolulu. Sipping my coffee, I admire the colorful local art and photography displayed on the walls, and catch my first glimpse of a few of Kauai’s ubiquitous wild chickens grazing in the ginger and hibiscus bushes out past the patio.

Continuing on westward, we cross bridges over numerous streams winding their way to the sea (a hint of the heavy rainfall in the thick clouds circling the mountain peaks–high above us is Mount Wai’ale’ale, one of the wettest spots on earth with an average rainfall of about 450 inches per year.) All that rain also lends itself to an extremely lush and vibrant rainforest–we drive through densely forested valleys, flowering vines draping from the towering trees, and whole sections of roadway covered by tunnels of vegetation.

We round the bend at Hanapepe, arriving on Kauai’s western facing shores, and suddenly the landscape transforms. The dry, leeward facing hills on our right give way to expansive, brilliantly white sand beaches flanking the road on our left. The water looks deep and crystal clear blue, and any of these turnoffs would be a great place to spend a day in the sun and the sea. But we continue on, heading towards Waimea, where Keawe Adventures guide Josh and his dad are waiting for us to head out for a few hours of fishing.

Waimea is a sleepy little seaside town, historically distinctive for being the landing place of the first Westerners to reach Hawaii’s shores, led by Captain James Cook in 1778.

We continue a few miles through Kekaha and out of town, eventually pulling up next to a lone truck parked on yet another endless sparkling sand beach. Josh, his dad, and one of his fishing buddies are inside—all eyes turned towards the water, scanning the shoreline, looking for the distinctive dark mass of a school of fish lingering just below the surface. They tell us there have been rumors of large schools passing through this area in recent days…but today is not one of those days. The life of a local fisherman in Hawaii is a constant game of hurry-up-and-wait—always prepared for the day when the conditions are right and the fish will bite.

For now we head to their nearby boat shed to help them get some work done before we can go play. We drive onto a short red dirt road, past a few older homes left over from the sugar plantation days and several gigantic mango trees, hanging heavy with hundreds of large red fruits. An open-air garage shelters a good-sized fishing boat, a smaller skiff, and the motors and supplies required to be a successful commercial fisherman in Hawaii.

I’m not much of a help around fishing gear, so I find a cool spot in the shade and watch their knowledgeable hands haul out hundreds and hundreds of feet of fishing net, loosely stitching together separate pieces to form one large net big enough to stretch across a football field. When the stitching is done, it’s time to re-lay the net in the skiff—hauling the hundreds of feet of line back into the boat in neat folds. The small round floats lining the net slam rhythmically into the boat rail as they pull the nets in. When they are finished, the result is a fully loaded boat, ready at a moments notice for the first sign of a school of fish and a calm breeze.

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For some people, fishing is a hobby—but for Josh it is a way of living that has run in his family for generations. A local boy from the island of Kauai, Josh grew up in a fishing family, and knows all there is to know about the oceans and fish around this tranquil island.

After an hour’s work (and an hour’s entertainment for me), we load up our gear, and clamber into the boat, driving through empty streets in the mid morning heat, heading towards Kikiaola Small Boat Harbor.

In no time at all, the boat is launched in the water, and we are headed out to the open sea. Looking back towards land, the dry red dirt hills rise up gradually to meet the higher peaks of the hidden Waimea Valley beyond. We pass a boat headed off toward the small island of Ni’ihau, visible faintly in the distance. Known as “The Forbidden Isle”, Hawaii’s western most island is privately owned by the Robinson family, accessible only by invitation, and has a population of approximately 130 people, mostly Native Hawaiians.tumblr_inline_nr3730YWej1tq8bup_540

The water in this particular area off Kauai is a greenish-blue because of the nearby Waimea Rivermouth, so we scan the waters looking for clear patches and reef formations under the water. Makani, Josh, and Josh’s dad take turns strapping on oxygen tanks, masks, and fins, and diving into the deep blue with three prong spears. They coast along the bottom, looking for shelves in the reef where the fish hide, and our job on the boat is to watch for the bubbles rising to the surface so we don’t lose anyone. After about 10 minutes, they resurface, spears loaded with a small silvery red fish called menpachi. Menpachi are a tiny nocturnal fish, popular in Hawaii because they are delicious to eat and easy to cook.tumblr_inline_nr3734pbu51tq8bup_540

After an hour or two of bobbing around on the ocean, the wind starts to pick up, blowing small whitecaps across the formerly still surface of the water. The boys are satisfied with a dozen or so fish, so we start making our way back to the harbor. Our time on Kauai is ticking, and there is still a lot to see!

When we get back to the boat shed, it’s time to clean off all the gear. When you make a living off of your boat engines, there’s a pretty strong incentive to keep them clean and running well. Josh and his dad hose off every square inch of the boat, and spend extra time filtering clean water through the engines. By the time they are done, the boat is better than it looked this morning, and ready to ride again tomorrow!

We wave goodbye to Josh’s dad, and take off westward, this time with Josh in the driver’s seat as our guide for the afternoon. We’re headed towards the end of the road, to the longest beach in Hawaii—the dry and deserted Polihale. This wide, white sand beach stretches approximately 17 miles along Kauai’s western shore, past the Barking Sands Pacific Missile Range Facility, and back towards Kekaha.

To get there, we drive along the hot and dry highway through old sugarcane fields spread out in the flat lands below a steep, sunbaked ridge on our right. Josh makes a turn off the main road to the left, and we are headed out toward Polihale State Park, accessible only by old sugarcane roads—unpaved, narrow, and full of potholes, making it a terrifying ride for the unsuspecting tourist in a rental car. I’m glad we have Josh with us, and as he expertly navigates the tricky landscape, he tells us stories of the good times he used to have with his friends out here, and points out spots associated with local legends.

When we finally come to the beach at the end of the road, our SUV is completely coated with a fine layer of dust. It was a long drive, but worth the wait to see this spectacular stretch of beach yet again. On the right, the cliffs of the Na Pali coast rise sharply out of the ocean as far as the eye can see. On the left, the blindingly white sand beach stretches even further, in one wide stroke of sand dune. The wind whips around the western edge of Kauai, leaving a salty mist in the air, and bringing crashing waves onto the shore. This landscape is indescribably wild, and we make our way toward the place where the cliffs rise up out of the sand. Rocks litter the landscape from previous landslides, and we scour the shoreline for shells and treasures. Josh tells us this is a popular spot to collect the smooth, round rocks needed for an imu (natural underground oven used at a luau) and other Hawaiian ceremonies.tumblr_inline_nr3758uPJ31tq8bup_540

Most days the water is too dangerous for swimming here, due to extreme currents and large waves. But today it looks less threatening than usual, so I jump in and cool off in the shore break for a little while. There are just a handful of other people at the beach today—a few families barbequing, but other than that, Polihale feels as though it is perched at the edge of the world.tumblr_inline_nr375nKNZe1tq8bup_540

As mid afternoon approaches, we take a last look at the wild west of Kauai, and head back on the dirt road toward civilization and lunch. Josh brings us to the simple but scenic Waimea Plantation Cottages, one of the only vacation resorts on this side of the island. The cottages are reminiscent of old Hawaii, scattered around a large property, with wide plantation style porches and towering coconut trees on all sides. Also home to Kalapaki Joe’s, which proudly proclaims itself as the westernmost sports bar in the U.S.

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We order a sampling of appetizers and fish tacos, taking Josh’s recommendations on which types of fish are fresh and locally caught at this time of year. Enjoying the warm breeze and the view of the wide lawn off the front deck, I feel a lazy “vacation mode” start to take over. This is definitely a place I could kick back and relax for a few days (maybe in one of the rocking chairs on the lanai out back). But our time on Kauai is dwindling, and we have one more adventure to get to, so we shake away our afternoon sleepiness, and take off for one last scenic stop.

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Heading inland through Waimea, we begin the long and winding climb up the cliffs of the Waimea Canyon. On our left, the gentle sloping hills rise up out of the ocean overlooking Ni’ihau, and on the right, we wind closer and closer to the canyon opening, with the Waimea River snaking its way through the ridges far below.

As we climb in elevation, the temperature beings to drop, and the road winds in tighter and tighter curves. After a series of rollercoaster turns, we suddenly round a bend, and our first view of the canyon opens up on the right. The stunningly beautiful red dirt ridges and crevices, streaked with green foliage and plentiful waterfalls, is enough to take your breath away. Known as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, Waimea Canyon is nearly 10 miles long and 3,000 feet deep—a panorama of spectacular views.

It’s hard not to stop at the first sight you get, but the views only improve as you get further up, so we continue on our way up the road. We stop briefly at the simple museum dedicated to Kauai’s native plant and animal species, and drive by the campgrounds and cabins for visitors who want to overnight in this tranquil setting.

Continuing up and up, we pass into the misty afternoon cloud cover, before arriving at the end of the canyon road. The Kalalau lookout overlooks the sweeping Kalalau Valley of Kauai’s Northern Na Pali Coast. This coastline is a long stretch of sheer cliffs rising straight up out of the ocean, dotted with ocean caves and waterfalls—one of the most spectacular coastlines in all of Hawaii. Unfortunately, visiting the Kalalau lookout is an activity better suited for the morning time (when the clouds are light), so today we mostly just see a lot of thick clouds, and only a hint of the beauty below. But I close my eyes and lean into the soft misty breeze, creating the image in my mind, and thinking of all the trails and streams winding their way through the valley thousands of feet below us.tumblr_inline_nr3783UiZI1tq8bup_540

From the end of the road, the only way to go is back the way we came, so we reluctantly head back, knowing the long drive that lies ahead of us back to the Lihue Airport. But we can’t leave before stopping at the best lookout point of Waimea Canyon. At an inconspicuous spot where the road runs particularly close to the steep edge of the canyon, you can see a wide section of Waimea opened up in front of you, and the cascading Waipo’o Falls tumbling down towards the Waimea River directly across from you. Like a page out of a National Geographic, it is hard to take a bad picture from this spot—there is so much beauty in all directions. I stop and stare for a few minutes, just to take it all in.tumblr_inline_nr3786OvAm1tq8bup_540

But yet again, reality calls, and the clock is rapidly ticking down our time on Kauai. We hop back in the car and begin the long and winding road back down into Waimea, along the dry red hills of the west side, and the jungle forests of southern Kauai. It has been a great day adventuring on the island with a little help from Josh, and a great change of pace from our hectic lives back in bustling Honolulu. On the island of Kauai, time moves a little slower, but when you’re with Keawe Adventures you can be sure to fill it with an action packed day of exploring and enjoying…

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