A Haole's guide to the South Shore of Kauai

This year, Kauai achieved a distinction of entering my list of "what did I do to end up here?" places. Along with places like village of Ordjonikidze in Crimea, immigration hold in Kuwait International, or an empty service station in Salina, Utah. One common feature of these places is that I did not end up there on my own will, but as a result of some bizarre chain of events. Sometimes the stay in one of these places becomes long enough to allow some unplanned exploration of local geography.
This trip to Kauai came after two previous trips - with the family and work-related - so I was roughly familiar with the touristy parts of the island. So, instead of a "adventure report," I'll list a few places that are not considered glamorous enough to be inundated by nature-loving crowds. This list is organized geographically - East to West along the Southern shores of the Island, from Lihue to Polihale Beach.

Lihue is the place you arrive to in Kauai (unless you get a privilege of being ferried on a Lear from other islands to Hanalei Bay or on a C-17 to Barking Sands). It has all you can possibly need - supermarkets, big box stores, Starbucks (why would you go there in Kauai?), and more than a handful of bars and restaurants. I failed to discover the red (or purple?) light district - some other time.

If your way from Lihue is to one of ridiculously-expensive hotels in Poipu, you may take a little detour. From the airport, take a left on Hwy 51, which becomes 58 (Nawiliwili Road), and turn left to Wilcox Rd. This one, in its turn, will change name to Kanoa Rd and then to Waapa Rd. The road will take you by the passenger terminal (sometimes with a view of a cruise ship the size of Lihue), by local marina with all five or ten sail and fishing boats, tiny park, and will rename itself yet again to Hulemalu Rd. The road will become narrow and twisted -

and it'll pass by rather scenic-looking lake with some mystical importance for the native population - Menehune Fishpond:

Should you become curious, some information is provided:

A few miles later, you'll turn to Puhi Rd., which will take you to Hwy 50 - the main throughfare of the South of Kauai. By the way, if you have a habit of trusting the GPS (or smart phone, for that matter), don't - it'll show plenty of roads from this area to Poipu. All these roads will be gated shut, and in the middle of several square miles' expanse there's a gloomy-looking sugar mill:

We'll come back to these roads yet.

On your way to Poipu you'll turn left on 50, and enjoy a relaxed traffic until the left turn to Highway 520 into Koloa and Poipu. If it isn't raining cats and dogs, you might enjoy the eucaliptus tree alley, planted about hundred or so years ago during the heyday of Koloa Plantation:


If you are in no hurry, stop by the old town Koloa and walk all of a thousand feet of its main street.

There's a few cafes, an expensive and mediocre italian restaurant, gazillion of places selling expensive trinkets, and a ten-square-feet museum of Koloa. The real treat is this, however - a tiny shop called Koloa Fish Market. You'll notice numerous window stickers including "Zagat Rated" and the like. The posted working hours are from 10 to 3 (or was it 5?) - in any case, after three in the afternoon you won't find much besides smoked marlin and sodas.

The main thing in the menu - Poke - is awesome. Wasabi Ahi Poke and Avocado Ahi Poke were my favorites - after a mistake with smoked marlin poke. The shop is cash-only, so plan accordingly.

Past Koloa, your road towards the coast depends on which of the overpriced hotels has the firm grasp on your credit card. Grand Hyatt, Marriott, and Koa Kea are marginally faster to get to via Aha Kinoiki Rd. (continuation of the same 520 that you took to Koloa); Sheraton's a few seconds faster via Poipu Rd. If you're The Government, the hotels agree on the same set price of $305 a day, before taxes and fees - but don't expect to rack up any Marriott Rewards and the like. If you are a family with the kids, you'd be much better off renting a condo or a B&B - but you know this already.

I'd stoke your interest in Grand Hyatt nonetheless - stop by at least to take a look inside, it's worth it. A hotel bar will be happy to offer you a shot of 12-year-old Macallan for a mere $40 (before taxes).

There's another reason to drift towards Grand Hyatt - asphalt ends there, and a dirt road begins. It is better to be driven in a rental Wrangler, but a Chevy Cruise from Budget does it just fine - at least for a person used to Russian highways in early Spring:

The road is posted with a sign "Private Road;" however, if your eyesight is good enough, you'll gather that it's okay to drive on it as long as you don't park your ride on the shoulder (which the road doesn't have).

About two miles (and a few bottom scrapes) further, you'll be reminded of the private nature of the road. At this point, you'll see two possibilities: turn right to the stables (we'll be back to this option later) or head straight through the open gate (which just may be closed at 6 - with you either locked in for the night or your car towed, according to the signs).

We're going to head straight through the gate and continue for about a mile and a half. The road will turn towards the shore, and end up nearly thirty feet from the surf zone. If you're here with me, you are in

Kawailoa Bay

This is a favorite spot for kite surfers - the coast is open to trade winds. If you're lucky, you may watch them for hours:

This swing isn't too bad as an observation point, either:

Once you had enough, put on something better than flip-flops or sandals, and hike the trail along the shore.

On a sunny day, the views will be oustanding:

The trail follows the edge of the bluff, and sometimes you don't know that you're walking on the "shelf:"

Near the trail there are numerous blowholes - sometimes obvious, sometimes barely noticeable by the movement of the leaves after a slap of the wave. The blowholes can be pretty far from shore!

The trail climbs to Kamala Point.

Near the point there's a labyrinth made up of the rocks laid in grass:

If you want to keep this mysterious, or want to impress your children, don't read the sign and make something up - like native peoples marking up a place to build a temple. Otherwise, you (and your children) will know that this thing is barely a few years old.

Don't be afraid of heights, and walk up to the very edge and marvel at the rocks worn down by the surf:

There's a nice little bay beyond the point - which turns gloomy on a rainy day (or ten minutes):

The kids much appreciate the attempts of building a hut from driftwood:

The little beach is pretty dangerous for swimming - depending on the tide, you may miss the rock shelf covered by corals and whatnot. But it's a beachcomber's paradise - with pieces of fishing nets, floats, sand crabs, and plenty of dead fish. It doesn't hurt that there's nearly no Verizon coverage, so you are not distracted by instantaneous access to Facebook updates:

Plenty of hiking and horse trails go every which way from the beach. Some of them are several miles long - I never walked to the end of any of them.

One clearly local fellow promised me another beach beyond Kamala Point; indeed, the trail continued past the beach right up to a barbed wire fence not far from this place -

Not that we care for barbed wire fences; you can jump over or walk around it right at the very edge of the cliff. The first thing you see is this wall:

Beyond that, you really need good shoes: you'll be walking on these knife-sharp edges:

You can only guess what kind of surf is below the bluff:

In a few minutes' walk, you'll spot the well-hidden beach:

which takes some getting to. If you walk around the point, your conscience will be once again disturbed by the Private Property sign:

Fortunately, we hugged the edge of the cliff, and remained blissfully ignorant (barbed wire quickly forgotten). We crossed a bizarre little conifer grove on sand dunes -

and found remnants of a hut, with the unbroken porcelain toilet on prominent display. A few yards away there was a really well-built and well-protected from wind and rain lean-to with a couple of picnic tables - a great place to wait out a rain squall.

At this point, the annoying conscience told us to get out of the private property, and we left. After all, you never know what you might walk onto, just like in Oregon or Baja California.

Maha'ulepu Heritage Trail

If you're still with me, you may remember a mention of a turn towards horse stables. If you take that turn (instead of going straight through the gate towards Kawailoa Bay), and ignore everything about the stables, you'll drive almost up to the coast. Part of this short spur road is much rougher than the dirt road you just drove before it; if your ride is less than a Jeep, your only consolation is in the motto of an American Traveler - "the best off-road vehicle is a rental car."

Rock crawling habits help here -

At some point, you have to leave your low-slung rental behind:

You are almost at the edge of the cliff, along which there's a hiking trail - called something like "Bluff Trail" in tourist maps, and Maha'ulepu Heritage Trail according to Google.

The trail - rather, a web of little paths - is awesome. Arguably the most scenic short hike I've come across on the South Shore. It is about under 2 miles long end to end, but the scenery is so outstanding that you won't want to rush through it. I was lucky to hit it on a bright and sunny day, with strong trade wind to cool me off.

Here's the Eastern view from my starting point:

The house on the other side of the bay - "Gillin's Residence" - is a private residence. Most likely, you should be able to walk around it - in which case you'll get closer to Kawailoa Bay.

If you go West, towards Grand Hyatt, the trail will climb along the bluff -

Surf is pounding below the bluff, and the rock gradually yields to the sea. You must pay attention to what you're walking on - I haven't witnessed the shelves breaking off, but they clearly are.

A few hundred feet, at the "top of the hill," the golf course shows up - and quite a golf course it is! Hyatt buildings are behind it.

The trail leaves the bluff's edge, and goes into the six-feet-plus grove of acacia trees and tall grass. The trail remains fairly dry.

Watch out for wildlife - if you are arachnophobic, spider webs are numerous. There are poisonous spiders - same brown recluse and black widow as in CONUS, - but these are rare. This dude is most likely non-poisonous Argiope Appensa, or Hawaiian Garden Spider:

For some reason, these spiders like to spread their legs in pairs - go figure. I thought this shot was unique, but no - Google is full of these with legs spread out in pairs.

The trail walks out of the grove and continues along the golf course - with all mortal dangers one can be exposed at a golf course. In case you've never yet been hit by a golf ball, the numerous signs all along the trail remind you of that possibility.

The golfers don't pay you any attention. As if you were transparent. The course is magnificent:

The trail winds between the course and the bluff, and dumps you at the beach right near the Grand Hyatt. If you're not in a hurry, stop by the hotel itself... there's a bar (then see above). If you haven't instructed your chauffeur to wait for you at the Hyatt, you'll have to retrace your steps back to the stables.

Further West

Poipu Beach
The best lazy-bathing, carefree-snorkeling place in this neighborhood is Poipu Beach.

The beach is adorned by two little bays, separated by a sand bar and protected from the surf by a reef:

Normally, the bottom of the bays is covered by chunks of dead coral reef, and populated by the tropical fish:

Not your Red Sea snorkeling, but not a California beach, either. Once, about eight years ago, we shared the waters with pretty big sea turtles - about two or three feet in size; this time they weren't around. This time quite a few things went missing, partly due to a glancing blow of a hurricane. That gave us a three-day vacation, two days of which were spent in the hotel bar due to incessant tropical rain (not that Kauai is normally dry - it sports the wettest spot on Earth, with 460 inches of annual rainfall). Besides the rain, the strong surf rearranged the sand - so the corals were buried and fish left.

Now it's time to lower ourselves to the sunset photos... Right before the arrival of the hurricane:

... and on the following day:

Poipu Beach is a county park. Right next to it is Marriott, with a tiki bar on the beach. Feel free to stop by and enjoy frequent live music. A few yards further there's a lawn and beach of Koa Kea Resort and Hotel - our home away from home for nearly a month. I still haven't fully paid off my credit card balance...

Spouting Horn Park

If you continue West on Poipu Road, and turn South on the roundabout, you'll make it to the Spouting Horn park. In less glamorous places this effect of nature is called blowhole - or La Bufadora just South of Ensenada. The waves wore out a tunnel in the rock, and every time when a good wave slaps the shore, a 30-ft column of spray and mist shoots up from the blowhole. I'd challenge anyone to take a photo of this place without any humans in the picture... haoles were stacked three deep by the railing during the close pass of the hurricane. Kids will love it, though.

Farther up the road there's Allerton Garden. If tropical botanical gardens are your thing, you'll like it. We did, 8 years ago.

Kukuiolono Park
I failed to read it aloud first couple of times. I spotted a sign to this park absolutely by a chance. In Kalaheo, turn South off Hwy.50 (which is also known as Kaumualii Highway) on Papalina Road; follow the signs to the park and golf course. The road goes uphill, wanders around a bit, and here you get to the gates of the park:

You can leave your car right behind the gate and walk to the japanese garden:

Up the trail, there's a small exhibition of stone vessels made by the natives with little posters describing their purpose and value. Some of these vessels may be populated:

In the park, as pretty much anywhere on the island, you can find yourself a picnic table in the shade. You may have to kick some of the natives off it, though -

It is nearly impossible to talk about Kauai without a photo of a peacock - no shortage of poultry on that incredible golf course:

The park is open every day from 7 am to 6 pm, and is a worthy destination. Remarkably, in about a couple of hours I spent there I haven't seen a single tourist (other than myself).

Kauai Coffee Plantation

If you are like me and just can't understand what makes Kona coffee so great - you may just like Kauai coffee, with its soft and very rich flavor.

A few miles West of Kalaheo on Hwy.50 there is a turn-off to Hwy.540, which passes through the coffee plantation. Somewhere in the middle, Hwy.540 makes a sharp turn - and right there is the coffee plantation store, tiny museum, cafe and tasting room. If I remember correctly, tasting is free, and there's a lot of flavors to choose from. In the cafe, there's a selection of sandwiches, ice cream, and a variety of coffee drinks.

The store can ship your fifty-pound bag of coffee or whatever else you fancy anywhere in the world. If you think it isn't worth it, try to visualize the pile of trinkets and local products near your luggage (which was already full when you arrived, right?).

After a jolt of espresso or a snack, you can continue West to Hwy.50, through a town of Ele-Ele, and find a sign to turn right to

Old Hanapepe Town

The town - whatever's left ot it - fancies itself to be an artist colony of sorts. It boasts 16 art galleries (I didn't count - given the total of about 10 buildings on the main street it looks a tad high); this is where you buy some realy gaudy art pieces and expensive trinkets.

One of Hanapepe's attractions is a wooden suspension bridge - kids will have a great time:

The movie theater (of course named Aloha) seems to have ceased to be not too long ago. Next to it - a bookstore:

If browsing used bookstores' shelves is one of your hobbies, go at it. You just might come across something unexpected. My only visit yielded a 1941 John Steinbeck's book "The Forgotten Village," made as a children's illustrated book reflecting the movie with the same title. Besides (rather unremarkable) Steinbeck's text, the book had 136 black-and-white photgraphs of Mexico of about 80 years ago:

A cursory search on Amazon.com showed that I didn't lose a penny on the $5 purchase price.

You can leave Hanapepe the same way you came, or continue on a single-lane bridge built in 1911:

If you cross Hwy.50 into about a thousand-foot-long Hwy.541, you'll visit Port Allen:

There's a bunch of stores, a few cafes, and a marina - with all signs of boat tour activity.

On your westward way, if you turn left on Lele Rd. about a quarter-mile West of the Hanapepe river bridge (at the sign to Salt Ponds and Port Alle Airport), you'll see...

Port Allen Airport

with most or all of its fleet on display:

According to the posters, you can fly around the island for a reasonable fee, and even get dumped with a parachute. I am still perplexed about a location for an airdrop in Kauai, as well as practicality of jumping out of a Cessna 172 - but what do I know about it.

The road around the airfield will take you to the Salt Ponds (which are also of some significance to the natives) - a shallow lagoon used as a facility for conversion of salty red dirt into red dirty salt.

You can take a beat-up shortcut to a road that dead-ends in

Salt Pond Park

Its beach and picnic areas are fantastic:

You have to retrace your steps to Highway 50; the next "stop" on our westward drift is

Fort Elisabeth (Russian Fort)

As usual, I'll spare you the history. In today's geopolitical environment, probably only the shortness of Russian presence on the island (1815-1817) preserves it from territorial claims of former empire. There isn't a whole lot left of the fort, but it is a nice place to walk about:

There's a dirt road around the fort to the little beach:

A few years back, we found a coconut in the surf zone, broke it apart with a knife, and ate every little bit of it. Kids were ecstatic.

If, however, kids are asleep or not conceived yet, Fort Elisabeth is a nice place for a romantic evening:

On the other shore of Waimea River (across from Fort Elisabeth) lies the town of Waimea - which offers a bunch of stores, cafes, taco joints, a bank, and other cultural attractions. One of the stores is very popular among locals and tourists due to its poke: Ishihara Market:

(That's how we mainly saw it during our stay on the island).

Across the street, there's a monument to Captain James Cook,

who first visited Kauai in January of 1778. This time, he still possessed enough common sense not to kidnap a local king - and thus lived another year.

The food at this taco joint -

was rumored to be very good, but since we never were there during the lunchtime, we never got to try it.

Further West...
we come to a fork: one road goes to the mountains (Waimea Canyon Road, or Hwy.550), and another hugs to coast to Pacific Missile Range and a beautiful Barking Sands beach in Polihale State Park.

First - take to the mountains.

Waimea Canyon Road

I just have to wax lyrical about this road. It climbs from Waimea, and follows the edge of Waimea Canyon. The canyon is very impressive, geographically - about 15 miles long, more than a mile wide, and about half a mile deep. A Grand Canyon on the island scale. There's a gazillion of viewpoints along the road, and from many of them start hiking trails.

If you haven't been here before, don't rush it, and stop everywhere you like. The views will not disappoint:

This road is somewhat memorable for me. At least due to an incredible fact that we haven't crashed a single rental car (in dozens of man-rental car-months of our experience); not even a speeding ticket. The speed limit of 25 mph was violated repeatedly, frequently, consistently, and by a lot.

To get a feel of this road - in its 19.5 miles, it has 180 (one hundred and eighty!) turns (definition of a turn: if you don't do anything with the steering wheel, you run off the road and into the abyss). On average, if you adhere to the speed limit, you have to change direction every eleven seconds - for forty minutes. At sixty miles an hour, turns come a lot more often. You can rack up bonus points passing the tour busses in blind turns with elevation change, with double-solid yellow line in the median and practically no shoulder.

Still in doubt?

Now, try that at night - bonus points double.

Fortunately, we didn't have to drive the entire 180 turns of this road in our daily commute - only up to 115th turn. There the road climbs from the sea level to 3600 ft above it; and we'd take a sharp turn left to another, narrower, road that loses the most of the elevation gain in about 4.5 miles (and another 55 turns). Here's a silly, bad-quality, GoPro video of climbing up this road and turning left on Waimea Canyon Road:

Dozens of hiking trails spur off the Hwy.550 and all of its tributaries. Some of them - a few hundred feet long, some others - many miles with half-mile elevation changes.

There is a lodge near the highway - rumors had it that the cafe was open during the day. Not far from it there's a campground:

Camping there isn't that much of "roughing it" - there are picnic tables at every campsite, spigots with potable water, and a block of restrooms. Your neighbors may be colorful, though - so you just might get a little more social life than you counted for.

About a quarter mile farther up the road, a hiking trail spurs off to the... Redwood Forest! Apparently, there was an attempt to grow redwoods for timber, but the enterprise failed. But the giant trees thrived, even not always the same as what we are used to in California:

The hiking path is not the easiest one - narrow, slippery, changing elevation, and in places overgrown quite a bit. You need good shoes - and insect repellant.

We'll get back to the South side of Highway 550 - to that little road with 55 turns. The road ends at the gate of some government installation, so don't count on a coast access. But all the way, from the 550 to the gate, there will be two-tracks accessible on foot or in a 4x4.

The forest is mostly made of conifers (pines) without too much undergrowth - environment favorable for the mushrooms. Sure enough, we came across an example of fly agaria:

These poisonous mushrooms are often indicators of presence of edible wild mushrooms; this one is likely a Xerocomus - one the lower geni of boletaceae family (which includes porcini mushrooms):

and a colony of Armillaria (honey fungi):

There are some facilities along the road:

After about forty minutes of fast-paced walking (the road indeed would require four wheel drive and more-than-average ground clearance), we came to this rest stop at the end of the road,

right at the edge of the cliff:

Most likely, there is a myriad of similar trails in this forest. If you walk up to drier spots, you may encounter wild goats (game season is year-round!) -

In the true "coexist" spirit, the goats share the pasture with very likable nene birds:

Nene birds are very protected species, and I haven't seen one without a tag on the leg.

Wild boars are less-predictable inhabitants of this forest:

This big mama walked right up to the driver's door, and clearly contemplated some aggression. Then made up her mind and calmly walked back into the woods.

The Wild West of Hwy.50

If you had your fill of stuff around Waimea Canyon - but the sun's still up and you're up to more exploration, take 550 down to the turn-off to Hwy.552. The latter is narrower, and slower, way downhill - but with different things to see. It also tees into Hwy.50 at the bottom of the hill; by the way, halfway between intersections of 50 with 550 and 552 there's a place that claims itself the Western-most restaurant and bar in the United States - Kalapaki Joe's.

I'd argue that dining facilities at Pacific Missile Range hold this distinction, but it is moot if you can't get on base. It may have some significance for you - there really is no place to eat to the West of this place. Plan your trip accordingly.

You'll pass a village of Kekaha with yet another abandoned sugar mill:

For a few miles, highway will hug the beach - narrow, open, and not very inviting, and then will veer off the coast. Near the end of it there will be a right turn to Kiko Road; take it for a couple of miles, and you'll see a dirt parking area and a signed turn towards

Polihale State Park.

Depending on what you drive, you may have to make a decision. If your rental contract states "no driving off pavement" (some rental companies specifically disallow driving on this road), and you have a General Motors' marvel with OnStar system, I'd ditch the car and hike. Otherwise... it is about 7-mile dirt/sand road that is very enjoyable in a jeep. I wouldn't even lift my foot off the gas pedal in front of a puddle or a pothole.

The first three miles or so aren't that remarkable, but then the road will go along the edge of the dunes, and things improve. You may pick up a passenger from the overhanging acacia trees -

At the end, the road vanishes at the Barking Sands beach. If you have a tire pump and some sand-driving skills, let some air out of your tires, make sure four wheel drive works, and give it a go! Otherwise... be ready to have to bribe some local surfers in lifted pickup trucks with fat tires to pull you back to solid ground.

This is likely the largest beach at the island. Out West - only Niihau island, clouds, the best sunset in Hawaii, and Pacific Ocean all the way to China.

This is the extreme Western-most point along the South Shore of Kauai - and the end of this "guide."