Our first morning on Kauai, I stood on one of the 20 concrete helipads at Lihue Airport trying not to cry. My boyfriend squeezed my hand. “It’ll be fine,” he said.
This trip to Kauai was the present I gave myself for finishing six rounds of chemotherapy. I had one month between the end of chemo and a double mastectomy. Derek and I had picked Kauai three months earlier, when I had no idea how I’d feel when the chemo was over: We figured that if I were still fatigued, there were beautiful beaches to lie on, and if I felt good, there were outdoor adventures to be had.
Because I ended up feeling great, we bypassed beaches to focus on the Na Pali Coast — a 17-mile stretch on the island’s northwest corner. We explored it by every means possible — by foot, boat and helicopter. By car was not an option: The terrain is too rugged for a road.
Kauai is the fourth largest of the seven inhabited Hawaiian islands — more than 500 square miles — with dozens and dozens and dozens of beaches. Some of the coast’s brick-red cliffs (“na pali” means “many cliffs”) rise 4,000 feet above the Pacific. Valleys and ridges are carpeted in hundreds of shades of green. The ocean is Smurf blue. Today none of the Na Pali Coast’s canyons are inhabited — the area is a 6,175-acre state wilderness park — but people did live in all of them into the early 20th century. Some canyons had as many as several thousand residents.
From the ground, hiking along the Kalalau Trail, you see a hot mess of jungle on one side and cliffs and the ocean on the other. From the air and ocean, there are no signs that humans have ever been there; you can’t even imagine anyone penetrating such a thick, forbiddingly fecund landscape.
My helipad tears really had little to do with chemotherapy, mastectomies or cancer.
Derek and I, both adrenaline junkies, had selected an hour-long scenic helicopter ride with Jack Harter Helicopters because they offered rides without doors. No doors! We could dangle our feet a couple of thousand feet above the ground, lean out to take killer photos and feel that, at any moment, we just might fall out.
But it turned out that only three of the four passenger seats of our Hughes 500 were door-less. The two back seats each had an open door, but in the front, the pilot got one of the door-less seats; one passenger had to get stuck with a middle seat.
After our group of four was weighed — seats are assigned this way — it turned out that middle passenger would be me.
Cancer wasn’t enough? I wouldn’t be able to feel like I was falling out of the helicopter? That was why I was near tears.
As the helicopter took off, rising like a bloated mosquito, I had already decided the next hour would suck. I was paying $280 for side views of my boyfriend and the pilot. When we got free of the crowded airspace immediately around the airport and the pilot asked how we were, I was too depressed to answer.
My sullenness lasted five minutes.
The pilot had us heading straight toward a ridge at 80 miles an hour. From my middle seat, I could see all the gauges, dials and -ometers, and I realized we were about 100 feet below where we needed to be to clear it. I thought we were going to crash.
At the last minute, the pilot rocketed us up and over. And then we careened down the ridge’s far side, into a primordial abyss that dropped away for a couple of thousand feet. My stomach fell even farther.
I loved it.
As my stomach returned to its proper anatomical position, I decided to grow up and stop pouting. Really, I could see fine.
For about 10 minutes, we flew over Waimea Canyon — at 10 miles long, up to a mile wide and 3,500 feet deep, it’s also known as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific. Then we headed out over the ocean to take in the entirety of the Na Pali Coast, from Ke’e Beach in the north to Polihale Beach at its southern end.
We flew along the coast close enough to see the foam from the waves crashing against the cliffs and the lines backpackers had strung up at Kalalau Beach, the terminus of the 11-mile Kalalau Trail, to dry their clothes on.
We dropped into deep, narrow valleys — the helicopter descending in tight spirals because the spaces were so narrow.
As we hovered before various waterfalls that cascaded down their flanks, the pilot gave us details: One waterfall was among the tallest on the island; another had a pool at its bottom that people swim in; the really big one was featured in “Jurassic Park.”
My favorite had three streams, and the pilot explained its name had something to do with marriage. Two main waterfalls joined high on the cliff’s face; these were the husband and wife. Lower down, the third, much smaller fall came in. This was the mother-in-law. “Always there and a bit of a nuisance,” the pilot said.
The Kalalau Trail along the Na Pali Coast is serious business.
Because of its narrowness and exposure — in its 11 miles, it sometimes traverses sheer cliffs that drop hundreds of feet to the ocean — and penchant for flash flooding, Backpacker Magazine once determined the Kalalau one of the 10 most dangerous trails in the United States. But it’s also on lists of the most beautiful. National Geographic’s top-15 list described it as “the finest coastal hike in the world.”
It turned out that the finest hike in the world was so popular that all the permits to go beyond Hanakapiai Beach, two miles up the trail, were taken. So we just hiked those two miles.
The trail itself was far from awesome — overused and dotted with both boulders and mud pits — but “awesome” didn’t even begin to do justice to the views.
When I was a kid my dad described such otherworldly dreamscapes as “phantasmagorical.” Even as I slipped into a mud pit, that was the single word that popped into my head.
Arriving at Hanakapiai Beach was anticlimactic. Dark cliffs rose up on one side; tight forest on the other. The only views were out to the ocean, which looked fairly benign. But signs warned us to stay onshore, including a handmade one, of weathered wood, with a tally of the number of visitors who had drowned here: 83. Derek and I enjoyed our snacks a safe distance from the surf.
Two days later, we took a trail that doesn’t require permits and was worth the two-hour drive from our hotel in Princeville: the Awa’awapuhi Trail in Kokee State Park.
The Kalalau Trail is on the coast; Awa’awapuhi is above the coast, dropping about 1,500 feet along its 3.2-mile length along a forested ridge. The trail stops when the ridge does.
Derek and I scrambled a couple hundred feet past where dirt gave way to rock. There were no warning signs, but there was also nothing but air between us and the ocean, far below. We ate and took more pictures than at any other point in our week-long trip.
On the hike back to our car, we walked into clouds. On the way down, we’d seen expansive vistas of the entire Na Pali Coast. Going up, we saw shades of gray. Anything farther than 20 feet away was invisible.
Passing hikers heading down, I envied them. The mist obscured all clues of what lay ahead. They would emerge from clouds and suddenly find themselves in a postcard.
Unlike the heli flight and hike, kayaking the Na Pali Coast was not something we planned. This was mostly because we had little experience ocean kayaking and didn’t know that it was possible to do the coast’s full 17 miles in a single day. Also, my spirit animal is a T. rex: I’ve got powerful, muscular legs but tiny, ineffectual arms. Paddling 17 miles at once sounded awfully long and difficult.
As we geared up with seven others at Ke’e Beach, our guides did not disabuse me of this idea.
“This is a physical challenge. It’s the longest single-day kayak trip in the world,” said one named Steve. “But it’s more a test of mental toughness. At some point during the day, all of you will be outside of your comfort zone. Whether it’s the exposure of the open sea, discomfort, hunger, fear, fatigue, seasickness — something will challenge you.”
Settling into the front seat of a tandem kayak (Derek got the back seat and the responsibility of controlling the rudder), I got the same tangy taste in my mouth that I do at the top of an ungroomed 45-degree ski run. This was going to be awesome in a terrifying way.
The guide wasn’t done. “If you decide this isn’t something you want to do, you’ve got the five minutes after we push you into the water to make your decision. After that point, there’s no going back. You quit now or 17 miles later when we all take out.”
Our launch beach was somewhat protected, but the surf was still a good two to three feet tall. Two guides pushed each kayak into the ocean between sets of breaking waves. The first kayak flipped over, but the couple in it were unhurt. Their second attempt was successful. We went next.
A wave crashed over the front of the kayak and pushed coarse, scratchy sand into my mouth and hair. Sand went up the Velcro-ed sleeves of my Gore-Tex jacket and down my shorts and into my bikini bottom. But we dug our paddles in and stayed upright.
Everyone launched and circled up about a quarter of a mile offshore, and then we started paddling west. One couple immediately tipped over. The rest of us watched three sea turtles — dark masses in the emerald water — swim by.
The current and a tail wind made paddling almost unnecessary. Hikers on the Kalalau Trail were specks. Because it had poured the night before, I felt sorry for them, imagining them slipping and sliding in its deep, red mud. Today, a kayak was definitely the best way to see the coast.
At times we were much closer to the cliffy shore, and the waves pounding it, than I expected, and at other times we were much farther out into the open ocean than you’d think inexperienced kayakers should be. The rolling swells were so big that kayaks completely disappeared on the far side.
Lunch was on the Milolii beach area, beyond the end of the Kalalau Trail and accessible only by kayak. A couple of monk seals lazed nearby. Returning to the beached boats after wandering along some barnacled rocks, I almost walked into one. It raised its head when I was feet away, and I gave it a wide berth.
Back on the ocean after lunch, Steve demonstrated kayak “sailing.” He rested his paddle behind his neck with its blades perpendicular to the water. Paddle blades aren’t big, but they caught enough of the stiff tail wind that Steve was going about as fast as we could paddle. Yet he expended much less energy. My T. rex arms weren’t nearly as tired as I had imagined they’d be, but they appreciated this trick.
Less than two hours after lunch — sooner than I would have liked — we arrived at Polihale Beach State Park. The waves here were twice as big as the waves at Ke’e, but there were no nearby hazards such as coral reefs that we needed to worry about. The main danger was our boat.
“When you get sideways in a wave, you will get flipped over,” Steve said. “When you fall out, try to fall on the side of the boat away from shore. Otherwise the wave will bring the boat into you and it’ll knock you over. That hurts.”
Steve picked Derek and me to go in first. Paddling toward shore, it dawned on me that he hadn’t said “if you fall out,” but “when.”
We stayed upright until the very final seconds. Then, as predicted, we got sideways in a wave. And fell out. We had enough wits about us to tumble away from the beach.
The next couple managed the same.
The third kayak flipped 20 feet from shore, and its occupants fell out the wrong side. They stood up in the surf only for their boat to clobber them, knocking them back under. They quickly popped back up, wearing no sunglasses — they’d been swept off — and ginormous smiles. “Wooo-hoo!” one shouted.
On the way to the airport for our flight home, Derek and I finally did the beach thing. Flying back to that double mastectomy, it’d be good to soak up just a bit of relaxing ocean energy, right? Protected with warm water and soft sand, Anini Beach was divine. Snorkels slid everywhere through the water like shark fins. Kids built sand castles and buried one another. Teens splashed about. Dressed for the flight, we could wade in only to our knees. We’ll do the beaches next trip.
Unless we get a permit for the Kalalau Trail.
Mishev is the editor in chief of Jackson Hole magazine and the assigning editor of Inspirato.
More from Travel:
Westin Princeville Ocean Resort Villas
3838 Wyllie Rd., Princeville
This family-friendly resort doesn’t have a beach, but there’s a large pool, covered patios and a public beach in walking distance. From $480.
St. Regis Princeville
5520 Ka Haku Rd., Princeville
Expansive views of the Na Pali Coast and a private beach. From $505.
Hanalei Dolphin Fish Market
5-5016 Kuhio Hwy., Hanalei
Grab fresh rolls, poke and ceviche here for a picnic on the beach or, if you’ve got access to a grill, fresh-cut local fish and beef. Open daily
11 a.m.–7 p.m. From $12.
Kilauea Fish Market
4270 Kilauea Rd., Kilauea
Grilled and fried fish tacos and fish burritos are big as your forearm tucked behind an open-air mall. Open daily at 11 a.m. From $8.
Kalalau Trail and Na Pali Coast State Wilderness Park
Hike two miles to Hanakapiai Beach or spend several days hiking the entire out-and-back trail to Kalalau Beach. Entrance to the park free. Overnight permits $20 a night for non-residents of Hawaii.
3-5971 Kuhio Hwy., Kapa’a
Paddle 17 miles from Ke’e Beach to Polihale State Park in a tandem kayak accompanied by guides. Through September. From $250.
Jack Harter Helicopters
4231 Ahukini Rd., Lihue
The first company to offer scenic heli flights on Kauai. Tours are in door-less, four-passenger Hughes 500 copters or in six-passenger Eurocopter AStar helicopters. From $259.
Kokee State Park
Waimea Canyon Rd., Waimea
Six- to eight-mile round-trip hikes down several ridges hanging over the Na Pali Coast. Free.