Hawaii — surfing and hiking in Kauai

Kauai is a great destination: easy to get to and offers exotic adventure, without being too exotic or uncomfortable. It is known as the most outdoorsy of the Hawaiian islands. We

  • Learned to surf in the protected waters of Hanalei Bay
  • Stayed in a bungalow and ate fresh fruits from the local farmers market
  • Hiked the amazing, incomparable, and slightly dangerous Kalalau Trail
The Napali Coast

My Zen moment

The Na Pali coast was truly spectacular. It’s where they filmed the opening sequence to Jurassic Park because it’s that intense and inspiring. We did a three day overnight backpacking trip through it’s rough wilderness. After the first day of hard hiking, we pitched our tent next to a stream and went looking for a waterfall we had heard existed nearby. We bush-whacked for 30 minutes and were lucky to finally come to it. The water thundered down from literally hundreds of feet on high and the clear, chilly water formed a welcoming pool. Not a soul was in site, so I quickly shed my clothes and plunged in. As my skin pucked into goosebumps, the thrill of the moment swept over me. This was being alive!

Beaches

It feels like pristine beaches ring almost the entire island, so it’s easy to find a convenient one. This map shows some of the more popular ones. We spent most of our time on the north shore, in Hanalei Bay. When we felt like seeing something new, we would simply hop in the car and drive until we saw something that looked interesting.

Tip: the pier in Hanalei Bay is an awesome place to watch the sun set. Bring folding chairs, some snacks, and a bottle of wine!

The beach in Hanalei Bay
Watching the sunset and the surfers from the pier

Surfing

Hanalei Bay is a great place to learn because the waves are regular and not too large. There are numerous surf shops in the area that will rent out boards and give you instruction. We simply picked one the afternoon we arrived. As a first-timer, I was given a large foam board which is more stable and easier to catch waves with. The board was very affordable to rent: only about $15–20 per day. Since we knew we wanted to surf for multiple days, we made sure to pick a rental car that would fit the boards!

It’s a great feeling to finally catch a wave on your own power!
You’ll spend a lot of time in the water, so protect yourself from the sun

Hiking & Waterfalls

Hiking is the most popular land-based activity. And if you like hiking, you HAVE to at least do the day-hike version of the Kalalau Trail. This is one of the most famous hikes in the world and is many top 10 lists. You park at the trailhead and it’s a moderately-intense 2 miles to the first beach. You can stop there or head in-land another 2 miles to the impressive Hanakapiai Falls waterfall. Expect the round-trip to take all day, since you’re hiking 8 miles total of ups and downs.

My girlfriend and I opted to backpack the full trail, which goes to Kalalau Valley and back, for 22 miles total. You have to get a permit to stay overnight. We did it in two nights but if you’re aggressive you can do it in one. Other great hikes can be found on this website.

Our local friends started the hike with us, down to Hanakapi`ai beach
But the most majestic views are further along the trail
Every mile just kept getting better and better
Some sections of the trail are narrow, so be careful!
The finale is the secluded Kalalau Beach, where you can camp overnight

Water Sports

Stand-up Paddle-boarding (SUP for short) is also popular. We rented boards for a few hours from Hawaiian Surfing Adventures. Maintaining our balance in the waves in the bay proved frustrating, so we shifted to paddling around the X river. The river was perfect, since we could focus on the scenery and the fun.

Kaui offers a wide variety of other water-based activities, such as kayaking. You can check out water activity ideas on Viator. Snorkeling and scuba are less popular, I believe, because the island doesn’t have colorful reefs so there’s less to see underwater.

SUP in the Hanalei River

Hanalei Town

The town is low-key and beautiful. There’s a small main drag where most things are located and a weekly farmer’s market. A special treat in Hawaii is to try the shaved ice! It’s perfect on a hot day. The Wishing Well and Shaved Ice Paradise are both local stand-outs.

The main drag in Hanalei
At the farmers market, we got fresh coconuts out of the back of a pickup truck

North Shore Lodging

The bigger chain beach resorts are located Princeville, just to the east of Hanalei. Those are a good option if you favor convenience and not having to think too much while you unwind on the beach. For this trip, we opted for getting a small rental at at Hanalei Inn, that was walkable to town and the beach. It gave us a better beach-bum experience :-) We did a few nights in their separate house and the final night in one of their small studios. You can find some pretty incredible, reasonably-priced places on AirBnb, such as this studio.

Cutting up fruit for our breakfast

Other Activities

Besides hiking it, there are two other amazing ways to see the famous Napali Coast: by boat and by helicopter. We didn’t try either one, but a quick google search will show you plenty of vendors more than happy to take you. The helicopter option sounded particularly wonderful, if you can afford it!

Another interesting place to explore is the Waimea Canyon. It’s connected to the Napali coast but you can drive to it from the souther part of the island. One particularly fun option is to get driven to the top and ride mountain bikes all the way down! We heard about doing that with these guys.

I encourage you to stop at whatever strikes your fancy. For example, checking out the Kilauea Lighthouse was a delightful way to start the trip, as we drove to Hanalei.

If you go

Look carefully at the weather for the time of year you go. In January, when we went, rain is variable. We had some clouds and one afternoon shower, but otherwise got lucky. If it had rained hard though, we would’ve needed to amend our plans, such as cancel our overnight backpacking.

Be careful of parking overnight at Kalalau trailhead. Our local friends warned us that cars get broken into and vandalized there. So if you’re renting, either park elsewhere or get the comprehensive insurance package!

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