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Kayaking the Na Pali Coast

Sitting high and dry, and soaking in the setting

Story and photos by Lee Juillerat   October 1, 2009

  Kayakers on the Na Pali Coast  
Kayakers enjoy a view of the Na Pali Coast (Photo by Lee Juillerat)

While hiking the Kalalau Trail along the Na Pali coast of Kaua’i, I noticed the small print on my trail map showed a sea cave at the trail’s 3-mile mark. But when a friend and I reached and passed the mileage marker, no cave was in sight. That wasn’t really a surprise because the meandering trail climbs high above the coast as it wriggles its way west along Kaua’i’s northern shore. It had to be way below, out of sight.
Two days later from another vantage, a two-person sit-on-top kayak that Tom Fisher and I were paddling along the Na Pali Coast, there it was, a hole in the rock-walled coastline that opened into the spacious Ho’olulu Sea Cave. Tom and I were part of a 13-person group paddling an 18-mile long stretch of the Na Pali Coast. Rich Fater, one of two guides with Kayak Kaua’i, told us to stay close, then aimed his kayak into the passage. We didn’t hesitate. Tom and I followed.

Ho'olulu sea cave
Ho'olulu Sea Cave
  Ho’olulu entrance from outside (photo by George Steinmetz)  
Entering Ho’olulu Sea Cave (photo by Lee Juillerat)

It was like nothing I’d ever experienced, a rite of passage right into a watery inferno. Passing through the darkened, tunnel-like entrance, the gash opened into a broad amphitheater. Incoming waves pounded against the walls, the sound echoing and reverberating like roaring lions. The other kayaks in our seven-boat flotilla followed, emerging from the oblique light into the spacious room. Our guides said nothing, leaving each of us to our individual thoughts. I don’t remember that Tom and I talked. Words seemed unnecessary. We were sitting high and dry, but soaking in the setting.

  Inside Ho'olulu Sea Cave   Kayakers in Ho'olulu  
Inside the cave
Paddlers kayak into Ho’olulu    (Photo by Tom Fisher)
    That cave was a highlight of the day, but it was just one of many eye-popping experiences. Actually, the first adrenalin rush had come with the launch at the beach of Maninholo, where Rich and lead guide Steve Prebisius had pushed us from the beach’s shore head-on into incoming waves. Once launched, we paddled like maniacs, pushing through the barrier waves. After 50 hard strokes we relaxed and savored views of the beach and, to the west, the walls of the Na Pali Coast.    
Kayakers ready to launch
Ready to launch (Photo by Lee Juillerat)
  We rode up and down the humpy swells the mile or so to and past Ke’e Beach, the beginning of the Kalalau Trail, sometimes regarded the Hawaiian Islands most famous trail. For good reason. It meanders 11 rugged miles along the coast.  
Kayaking with dolphins
Dolphins sometimes swim alongside kayaks  (Photo by Michael Powers)
  Soon after, only minutes after Rich said we were passing an area popular with dolphins, as if summoned, two appeared, spiraling out of the water doing barrel rolls. Groups of four, two adults and two young, followed behind, gliding, rising and diving like smooth, undulated ribbons.  
Cruising kayaks
Cruising the wide-open seas (Photo by Lee Juillerat)

As we paddled from Ke’e to Hanakapi’ai Beach, I laughed inwardly. What had required two miles of hiking on the Kalalau Trail, which winds, climbs, dips and bends, was only slightly more than a mile by kayak. But the hike offers its own pleasures. We had continued past the beach, winding and climbing the narrow trail for another two miles until deciding to backtrack to Hanakapi’ai and what I’d heard was a challenging but unforgettably worthwhile 2-mile hike-scramble to Hanakapi’ai Falls. It was that and more. By the large pool we stripped to our shorts and dove in, swimming through the falls’ curtain of pounding water. Later, from the kayak, Hanakapi’ai Falls (depending on which source you use it is 100, 300, 410 or 600 feet high) was just a memory.
Later, emerging from the Ho’olulu Sea Cave, we continued westward. Sections of the Kalala Trail were visible where it edges along narrow, exposed ledges. Along one stretch we saw abandoned hiking sticks that had been irretrievably dropped down steep slopes.
We saw no hikers, but we were sometimes accompanied by large catamarans, sailboats and motor-powered tour boats, all loaded with camera-carrying passengers. The views had to be spectacular, but they never saw the humongous sea turtle that we paddled past. Easily visible in the dazzlingly clear water, the turtle seemingly nonchalantly cruised along. We would see another turtle farther into our trip stunningly sunning itself on shoreline rocks.

  Kayaks riding the waves   Kayakers  
Riding the waves (Photo by Tim de laVega)
Soaking in the sights
  The Kalalau Trail ends at Kalalau Beach. I had seen the broad, lush Kalalau Canyon several days earlier from the Kalalau Lookout, a perch along Waimea Canyon Drive. A mile beyond Kalalau Beach, around an entrance guarded by a rocky outcrop that reaches into the ocean, was magical Honopu Beach. With its evocative inviting setting, including an otherworldly giant arch, some regard Honopu as the Hawaii’s most beautiful beach. Why argue? Tour boats took turns slicing near the shoreline but none landed. The only legal way to reach the beach is by swimming.  
Kalalau Beach
Kalalau Beach comes into view (Photo by Lee Juillerat)
  Dazzling sights — valleys set on benches above the shore, plunging waterfalls, deep tropical canyons, canyon walls that seemed as sharp as knives, more sea caves — treated, tempted and delighted us as we paddled.
We passed some, but entered the cave known as the Blue Grotto, which opened into a spacious circular room with an open ceiling. Waves and water swirled around a rocky outcrop. Our kayak bobbed back and forth in the cauldron of twirling, frothy waves. It felt like sitting on a rubber ducky.
Roiling water in a cave
Roiling water inside the cave (Photo by Tom Fisher)

But it wasn’t until reaching Miloli’i, a beach with campsites, picnic tables and fresh water, that we paddled to shore. For 90 welcome minutes we greedily devoured sandwiches, fruits, cookies and chilled beverages. Tom and I followed a half-mile trail to a set of small bustling Mioli’i Falls, nicknamed “lomi lomi,” the Hawaiian words for massage, where we let the thudding water pound out the stiffness in our shoulders. Even better, along the beach portion of the walk we spotted a beached harp seal.

Miloli'i Falls
Falls offer soothing lomi lomis (Photo by Tim de la Vega)

From Miloli’i it was five mostly flat, easy paddling miles to Polihale Beach Park on Kaua’i’s west side. The driver of the waiting van and trailer helped Steve and Rich load the kayaks while our exhausted but exhilarated group showered before the drive around the island to our gathering place in Hanalei.
Kayaking the Na Pali Coast isn’t a trip for everyone. The 18-mile paddle is physically challenging. For us, the distance was made longer by an unusually persistent headwind that churned large swells. Two of our 11 paddlers suffered severe seasickness. For several hours one sick paddler, who was transferred into Steve’s two-person kayak, was little more than a mannequin lifelessly propped in the kayak’s front seat. I’d taken the recommended dose of seasickness pills, so I happily wasn’t bothered by large swells that frequently hid a kayak only 10 or 15 yards away.
We had intermittently paddled for more than six hours on what some call, because of its distance and challenges, the Everest of sea kayaking. We had gone to great lengths to prove that, even at sea level, paddling the Na Pali coast was a way to get high on adventure.

Kayaking Na Pali coast
Savoring the sights along the Na Pali Coast (Photo by Lee Juillerat)


  When You Go  

I made the Na Pali Coast trip with Kayak Kaua’i, one of the companies that offers guided trips. For information visit their Website at or call toll-free 800-437-9844. The guides were friendly, gave helpful paddling tips, provided excellent historical information and prepared a generous lunch. Advance reservations are suggested and, during the peak season, required. Other possible outfitters include Na Pali Kayakand Outfitters Kaua’i.

Several excellent guidebooks are available for visiting the island of Kaua’i. For years my family, friends and I have relied on books by Andrew Doughty, including the most updated edition of The Ultimate Kauai Guidebook: Kauai Revealed from Wizard Publications.

  About the author  
  Lee Juillerat is a writer-photographer who lives in Southern Oregon. A long-time contributor to High On Adventure, he works for a daily newspaper, he has also written books about Crater Lake National Park and is a frequent contributor to several magazines, including Northwest Travel, Oregon Coast and Range. He can be contacted at  
  Useful link:
  Napali Boat Tours; Whales, Turtles and Dolphins, oh my! See the majestic Na Pali Coast on Kauai's north shore.
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