Length: About 40 miles.
When to go: Popular year-round.
Words to the wise: Since the roads in places are winding, rent a car you can comfortably handle. Powerful surf, especially in winter along the north shore, can make swimming dangerous.
Nearby attraction: Waimea Canyon State Park, north of Waimea, known as the Miniature Grand Canyon of the Pacific.
Further information: Hawaii Visitors Bureau, 4334 Rice St, #101, Lihue, HI 96766; tel. 808-245-3971, www.kauaidiscovery.com.
Kauai, lushest of the major islands, has been called the Garden Isle. Blessed also with many moods and splendors, it best reveals itself when seen from the Kuhio Highway. The road, with signs marking points of interest along the way, starts in the sunny south, skirts the rainy mountains of the interior, and ends at the impassable wilds that form Kauai’s unforgettable northern shore.
Isolated from the rest of the world by the Pacific Ocean, Hawaii developed not only a unique culture but also became colonized by many plants and animals found nowhere else. To discover some of its one-of-a-kind treasures, visit the small but superb Kauai Museum on Rice Street (Rte. 51). On exhibit are examples of the feathery capes once worn by native royalty, vintage photographs of plantation life, and a video of the island as seen from the air.
Once versed in local history, it is time for some in-person sightseeing. Continue along Rice Street, which rolls down to Kalapaki Beach and Nawiliwili Bay, a frequent port of call for cruise ships. At the harbor pick up Niumalu Road to Alekoko, which is also known as the Menehune Fish Pond. A thousand years ago the natives raised mullet, a food fish, in its waters. The pond, according to legend, was built in a single night by the Menehune, leprechaun-like creatures that were said to inhabit Hawaiian forests.
Double back to the bay and Rte. 56 out of Lihue. Heading northward, the road twists through a countryside where emerald fields of sugarcane give way to cloud-shrouded volcanic peaks, the tallest one climbing to 5,243 feet.
2. Wailua Falls
A side trip leading inland on Rte. 583, Maalo Road, leads to Wailua Falls, a pair of side-by-side cascades that leap off a verdant ledge into a shimmering pool. The higher of the two makes an 80-foot plunge, a dramatic sight that has often been filmed for television and motion-picture productions.
3. Lydgate State Park
After returning to Rte. 56, you might find it hard to stay on the road, for the island’s tempting scenery and beaches are nearly irresistible invitations to stop and explore. Hanamaulu Beach, with its white sand and tropical setting, is a favorite with locals. Better yet, perhaps, are the natural pools at Lydgate. Ideal for swimming, the water holes are edged with volcanic rocks, the benign end-products of the fury that shaped Kauai.
The region of Lydgate, known to early inhabitants as Wailua Nui Hoano, or “Great Sacred Two Waters,” was the island’s ancient hub, both politically and economically. Parts of it were held so holy that only royalty and priests were allowed entry. Several early temples still stand amid towering coconut palms. One was dedicated to the rising sun; another offered refuge to any lawbreaker who could reach its sanctuary before his pursuers caught him.
4. Fern Grotto
For a change of pace, head to the Wailua Marina for a 11⁄2-hour round-trip cruise—accompanied by musicians and dancers just as the kings of old were—along the Wailua River to Fern Grotto. Considered to be Hawaii’s only navigable waterway, the Wailua streams down from the green peak of Waialeale, drenched by rains and with rainfall measured at many feet per year. Once at Fern Grotto, a romantic setting with a drapery of enormous ferns, you’ll see why so many newlyweds come to the cave to have their pictures taken.