Kauai by Air

Kauai by Air

IMG_0423.JPGThis trip we decided to do something we had never done before- a helicopter tour!

Kauai’s 552 square miles is only about 10% accessible by car, making it a perfect locale to see from the sky. We chose Island Helicopters, which caught my eye with its Jurassic Park heavy branding and but also with its modified helicopter doors, which include more window for sightseeing and photography. Other companies offer helicopter tours sans doors for true photography buffs, but this sounded mildly terrifying for first time passengers.

bay.jpgWe chose the 50 minute Grand Circle Tour, a popular offering across helicopter companies. The flight left out of the Lihue Airport, conveniently just down the road from the Kauai Beach Resort where we were staying. Each pilot can fly up to nine tours a day so there are often multiple time-of-day options even for last minute bookings (we only booked one day in advance). Our cruise would take us and four other passengers around the island in a circle that started on the east shore and took a clock-wise route around the highlights of Kauai.

hills.jpgPart of the reason we chose to to helicopter was the desire to see what Waimea Canyon was all about. This west shore standout, “the Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” has hiking trails and scenic overlooks if you prefer to drive there, however, the full expanse was breathtaking from above. Checking it out this manner also saved us what would have easily been a half to full day excursion by car.

WaimeaValley2.jpgOur helicopter was much more nimble than I would have expected and our pilot maneuvered in and out of the valleys and over ridges with ease as he followed mountain goats and pulled us over waterfalls, all while keeping up a nice banter over the intercom. Our pilot, a former Vietnam pilot and school teacher originally from Kauai, helped us relax by “reading the air” to tell us when drops would occur. His knowledge helped us feel confident we would not be needing the inflatable life jackets we were required to strap around our waists prior to boarding. IMG_7154.JPGThe pilot’s commentary is set to a background of everything from the Hawaiian folk music that is ever-present on the island to reggae to the Jurassic Park theme song pipped in through your headphones. You can also ask questions through a little radio.

napoli.pngThe Na pali coast of the north shore is gorgeous and fairly inaccessible except for by air or by sea. Na pali, which means “the cliffs” or “many cliffs” in Hawaiian, consists of 17 miles of sheer drop-off cliffside with valleys between that were inhabited first by Polynesian navigators around 1200 AD.

north shore.jpgAfter soaring over the ocean to take in the full expanse and cruising over Hanalei Bay, we flew up towards Honopu Beach (sandy stretch, top left of photo). The beach and interior valley were film location for Six Days Seven Nights, King Kong, Pirates of the Caribbean and The Man with the Golden Gun, among other movies.

Waterfall.jpgWe choppered inland through Honopu Valley, also known as “the Valley of the Lost Tribe.” The lush basin had literally hundreds of waterfalls pouring down the sides. According to our pilot, the tribe of people who lived here until the 19th century disappeared (thus the name) and he also told us of the rumor of early inhabitants with red hair and light colored eyes in the area. This misty vale is the site of many Hawaiian myths and legends, some of which have now been lost as the oral history of the Hawaiian people gets passed down less and less frequently through generations.

valley.jpgThe background of this photo contains Mount Waiʻaleʻale, barely visible through the cap of fog, who’s name means “rippling water” or “overflowing water.” Shrouded in mist and often billed as the wettest place on earth, (regions of Meghalaya, India are actually wetter), this shield volcano still gets an impressive 335 days of rain per year. Our pilot was able to take us up close to the many thin waterfalls cascading down sheer rock face and reported that locals are happy when the moisture sits inland there and understandably less so when the rain moves outward to the shores.

green.jpgWe ended our trip heading southeast over the jungleous stretches of the eastern interior. We flew over the Halelea Forest Reserve, Kealia Forest Reserve and the Wailua River before reaching coastline again. Our pilot was stoked to tell us about the new bike trails and connections around Lydgate Beach Park, where a multi-use path runs along the shore and is now being expanded.

Though we were nervous about our flying adventure, it was a great way to drink in the scenery and experience the whole of the island. Not as out of reach as we had imagined price-wise, it is a highly recommended activity to partake in on your Kauai vacation!

Pro tips:

Booking online was great for deal comparison, but check with your hotel (if you have one) to see if they can get you any specials. If you plan to do any other guided activities, check with providers for reciprocal deals and discounts.

Though they do distribute passengers through the aircraft by weight, it would be worth checking with whomever you talk to at a company about where you’ll be placed on the aircraft and perhaps booking early for best placement. Next to the pilot was prime visibility, with directly behind them as your second-best option and the passenger-side back was still good but with the least visibility.


Po’ipu and Beyond: Kauai’s South Shore

Po’ipu and Beyond: Kauai’s South Shore

If you’re thinking sandy beaches and sunshine with a side of cultural sites as central to your Hawaiian vacation, the south shore is right up your alley. Winter days with overcast skies in the east or rougher seas in the north are often still sunny and calm in the south.

Kauai is easy to navigate and directions mostly consist of knowing when you need to turn off the main highways which connect the island. The exit into Koloa, Maluhia Road, is pretty tree-lined stretch surrounded by eucalyptus planed over a century ago. The heart of Old Town Koloa is a charming stretch of shops and restaurants, with a number of foot truck options as well.


We struck out to the southern side of the island, with fueling up for the day as our first priority. Anuenue Cafe, known for local favorites like loco moco, was our brunch go-to, since people rave about their benedicts and macadamia nut pancakes. Everyone else had the same idea, however, and so in the interest of time, we opted to go the beach picnic route instead with some yummy looking ready-made handrolls, fresh fruit and other snacks from a local store in the same shopping center.

Pro-tip on upping your beach lunch game: pretty much every grocery store has poke, and so if you’re like us and this is a “must-eat as much as possible” on your trip, pick up a few plastic tubs of spicy ahi, tako poke or seaweed salad while also stocking up on other picnic essentials. Stow the tubs in ice and you’re good to go!


We stopped at Spouting Horn before finding a beach to park ourselves for the day. Hawaiian legend is that the spout is the breath and angry hiss of Kaikapu, a moo (lizard), that is stuck in the lava tubes after a clever boy, Liko, outwitted her to be able to swim in and fish the nearby waters. I ended up thinking the lava shoreline was cooler to photograph than the spout (not pictured lol) which is apparently more impressive at high tide, when water can spray up to 50 feet under the right conditions through the lava rock. There’s also a little marketplace set up next to it with Hawaii tchotchkes, jewelry and other souvenirs. With bathrooms and a water fountain on-site, it’s an easy stop if you are in the area and want to pull in to check it out.

We considered visiting McBryde Garden and Allerton Garden, which are two adjacent National Tropical Botanical Gardens of rare and endangered tropical plants just across the road. Visitors can take in the giant Moreton Bay Fig trees, seen in Jurassic Park and countless Instagrams, as well as novelties like allspice and vanilla. At $30 dollars a person for the self-guided experience, we decided against it but countless TripAdvisor reviews strongly recommend it.


Po’ipu Beach Park is one of the more popular beaches in the south. It has it all: snorkeling, swimming, surfing and bodyboarding but it can also get crowded since the main beach is not very large. There was a surf shop right next to the beach where we rented our snorkels and fins ($6/set) and a bodyboard ($6). There were also umbrellas, chairs, surfboards and other beachy accessories available to rent by the day or week.

Po’ipu has golden sand, an abundance of sun and fun for the whole family. The water right in front of the lifeguard tower is protected by rocky outcroppings and there’s a cove area for little kids with calm, shallow water. We mostly explored the area on the far side of the beach where the snorkeling is better and there’s also a surf area with bigger waves. The deeper water contained everything from the reef triggerfish Humuhumunukunukuapua’a (the Hawaiian state fish) to parrotfish, sea urchins and even an eel! There is a rip current (but luckily no undertow) so stay aware of the conditions, stay calm and swim parallel to the shore and before swimming in if you get caught.


We were lucky enough to have a Hawaiian monk seal (one of only about 1,200 of these type of seals endemic to the Hawaiian islands) and a honu, or giant green sea turtle sunning themselves right on the beach. The south is known for its monk seal sightings and they can be found basking on the sand and swimming around Kauai’s beaches year-round.


The bodysurfing cove has more waves and is a short walk from the main beach. Alex had a blast but wished he had used water shoes or the smaller bodysurfing fins since the rocky area bashed up his bare feet a bit.

While Alex was boarding, I hung out in the shade of the Casuarina trees (also known as Ironwood pines), which are plentiful on the divide between the coves at Po’ipu, reading my book in the shade atop some lava rocks. These trees were introduced to Hawaii, but unlike most introduced species, are a benefit to the islands because of the excellent tsunami buffer they provide. Their shade is a nice break from afternoon sun but the prickly cones they drop make some stretches of sand less pleasant for barefoot beach walking. Poipu also has picnic shelters and bathrooms. Come early in the day if you want to find parking right next to the beach.

Looking for more to do in the south? There other great beaches, like Salt Pond Beach Park, and the area’s rich history can be explored on the Koloa Heritage Trail, 14 stops along ten miles which are marked with plaques exploring the culture and history of the area. We stopped at a few and it’s an easy way to learn more about the island, from some of Kauai’s oldest occupied sites to the plantation sugar mill history.

Aloha! Alex and Alexis Head to Kauai (Part 1: West Shore)

Aloha! Alex and Alexis Head to Kauai (Part 1: West Shore)

We love adventure and the Garden Isle has it all- snorkeling, waterfalls, swimming, hiking, surfing and scenery fit for the movies (hello Jurassic Park!).

img_0374We went the 18th to the 25th of February, about a week on the island. The weather was pretty nice- highs in the mid to high 70’s and lows in the 60’s- but this time of year can be rainy. We were lucky to not have any real precipitation, which can affect water visibility, trail conditions and overall outdoor enjoyment if you’re not prepared. Even still, some days and some zones of the island were definitely a little misty or cool at times. Winter can also mean intense surf and higher winds on the north and west shores of the island. One plus of this time of year is that January and February are peak Humpback whale season; there are many boats and tours around the island that will take you out to see them in action.

When picking a home base, the east side of the island was attractive for its easy proximity to all the different regions. We settled in Lihue, the capital of the island and location of one of Kauai’s two airports. We chose the Aqua Kauai Beach Resort because it had fun amenities (saltwater pools with waterfalls) but was actually pretty frugal by island standards.

img_0436There were four saltwater pools and two hot tubs, plus a stretch of beach, so it was an ideal place to get into the island mood and relax for a day before we picked up a rental car. The pools and hot tubs are open 8 am – 10 pm, leaving our options open for soothing sore muscles at the end of the day or taking an afternoon break in one of the lounge chairs with a book.

img_0369The hotel beach was lovely. The wind blew through the nearby palms, we could feel the sand between our toes and we spent time just watching the waves. This beach was not safe for swimming but it was a place we visited most days during our stay.

img_0380We love exploring and so ambitiously planned trips to check out all the major regions on Kauai. With only a week, there was a lot we knew we wouldn’t get to but wanted to get a flavor for all the different microclimates and zones as much as possible. Another advantage was that each area has slightly different weather patterns- if it was cooler or rainy in one area, sunshine could likely be found in another.

3387172731_9ed975e020_b-1.jpgOur first venture to go way out west as far as you can go. We struck out from Lihue and went down the 50 to all the way out to Polihale State Park. Immediately, I was glad the we rented a Jeep, as the road was not one I would want to brave without four-wheel drive, especially if it was wet at all. Our Jeep was fun (“like a go-cart” according to Alex), but also somewhat of a joke by the end because of how many of the exact same grey Jeep rentals there were on the road.

Access to the park is down a wildly dipping and bumpy five mile red dirt road which will probably go on longer than you want it to. I would not try this trip in the rain as the area is prone to flooding and it would be crazy muddy.

IMG_6895 (1).jpgPolihale State Park is backed by the high sea cliffs of Nāpali Coastline and sets up next to the ocean with 15 miles white sandy beaches. It would be a killer place to camp ($12 a night with a permit) and is the perfect place to catch a sunset.

A few people were in the water, though strong currents and generally rougher conditions in the winter meant we just waded in the surf. Swimming is not recommended off the beach here generally, but we hear that Queen’s Pond, a shallow sandy bottom pond protected by reefs within the park, is a good place for to be in the water.

IMG_0318.JPGIt’s a super chill area and we could have spent longer soaking up the vibes.

Lacking more than a few snacks in our vehicle and short on water, we decided to head back towards town. We drove to Waimea to re-hydrate and plan our next move.

We shared a shave ice from JoJo’s, where they make their own syrups. Shave ice can be found all over the island and is a nice treat to cool off with. Next time, I would try the same tropical flavors (coconut, pineapple, guava) but add coconut cream on top for extra decadence. Waimea was a cute small town and apparently there is a cool farmer’s market there on Saturdays. We paid an outrageous amount for a ripe and very delicious mango at a local fruit stand and browsed some of the souvenir shops on the main drag.

unnamedWe were originally trying to stay in Waimea for part of our trip and I still think these Plantation Cottages look cute. I enjoyed our time in west Kauai, but it definitely would be a trek to get up north if you were staying down this far.

By the afternoon we just wanted to get into some water! It was in the high 70’s and we were looking to swim. We went to Kekaha beach, which seemed popular from the amount of locals who had driven trucks out onto the beachfront. It also had bathrooms, picnic areas, a lifeguard station and showers.

IMG_7150.JPGWe enjoyed playing out in the water, though there is a pretty strong current. I only almost lost part of my swimsuit to the ocean when I misjudged some waves. Be smarter than us and go talk to the lifeguard about conditions and best places to swim on the beach or bring a boogie board like some of the local kids.  

If you want to drive out onto the beach, look into it before you try it- locals were in the process of towing some other people out when we arrived. There’s definitely a method to driving on sand and it’s easy to get stuck if you wing it.

IMG_0331.JPGWe caught the sunset out at the Russian Fort Elizabeth State Historical Park on our way back east. The fort was started by the Russian in 1815 but interestingly only held by them for two years. It was finished and occupied by troops for the Kingdom of Hawaii from 1817 until it was abandoned in 1853.

IMG_0334.JPGThe area had the remains of the fort (a stacked outline of lava rocks) and some remnants of that time, such as a flag pole. The park has historical plaques and small beachfront, with some nice trees and fields to walk around. There are also a lot of feral cats in this particular place, which was kind of surreal and not something we experienced elsewhere.

IMG_0366.JPGAlso of historical interest, the fort is right next to the beach where Captain Cook first landed (Alex is pointing the way). Overall, not a ton to see but was pretty to walk around.

My biggest regret of the west side is failing to make it to Wong’s in Hanapepe. I got a pro tip that their lilikoi (passionfruit) pie is the best ever and their plate lunches looked good too but they were closed the day we were there. Definitely a disappointment (sorry Gabe!) but go Tuesday-Saturday and let me know what we missed out on.

What’s missing? Kokee State Park (with the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific”) is a must-see for most people on the west shore. We chose to check it out in a different way- more on that to come!