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.
5. Wailua River State Park
The Wailua River runs between grassy banks through this park, where Kauai’s oldest temple, Holo Holo Ku Heiau, lends a grim historical touch: the ancient site was once the setting for human sacrifices. By way of contrast, the nearby birthing stones were used by royal mothers when giving birth to future kings.
To reach the ancient religious sites, follow Rte. 580, which winds beside the river’s northern banks. Farther on, the highway leads to Opaekaa Falls, where powerful plumes spill down from a plateau cloaked with lush vegetation.
Back on Rte. 56, the drive skirts popular tourist destinations, then enters the bustling little town of Kapaa, which offers a variety of shops and restaurants. From Kapaa you’ll see the mountain peaks that form a silhouette known as the Sleeping Giant. Up ahead lies stunning stretches of the Coconut Coast, which can be reached by side roads that branch away from the Kuhio Highway. At land’s end, secluded, beach-lined coves await, including the ones at Kealia and Anahola. Be aware, however, that the sandy oceanfronts have one daunting drawback: powerful undertows.
6. Kilauea National Wildlife Refuge
As the mountains begin to grow craggier—hints of the drama to come—the drive eventually intersects with Kolo Road. Make the turn, continue to Kilauea Road, and follow the signs to this wild-life haven. Among the delights here are the black-footed albatrosses, or gooneys, gull-like birds with wingspans up to seven feet. You might also catch sight of rare Hawaiian monk seals; they come to nap on the rocks below the refuge’s green thumb of land topped with a lighthouse.
Rte. 56 continues beside steep green peaks, lush meadows, and frequent waterfalls. Stop at Hanalei Valley Overlook for a panoramic sight, especially dazzling when sunbeams shoot through clouds and the arches of rainbows.
Farther on, Hawaiian coots, stilts, ducks, and moorhens frequent the refuge. The road to the refuge passes into the valley and, at one point, hops across a one-lane bridge. You may not think much of the bridge—it is rather ordinary-looking—but to residents the span is a special treasure: it is too narrow for the big tour buses to pass across, sparing the area from the crowds of visitors that are sometimes found milling about other attractions; native Hawaiians reserve it for themselves.
Expect the unexpected in Hanalei —from an eclectic mix of inhabitants to a herd of bison—but most of all be sure to note the meeting of razor-edge peaks and the blue Pacific. Historic sites in town include the Waioli Huiia Church, where Sunday hymns are sung in Hawaiian, and the Waioli Mission House, little changed since 1837.
Once you’re back on the road, cross more one-lane bridges and the drive leads through a fertile, stream-fed valley. The crop with the huge heart-shaped leaves is taro, the Hawaiian staff of life.
Beyond, you’ll find two of the better spots to stop and enjoy the views: the pier at Hanalei Bay, with views of the sea and the surrounding mountains, and Lumahai Beach, the setting for scenes in the movie South Pacific.
8. Caves of Haena
Caverns are the highlight here. Dry Cave, just across from Haena Park, is the opening of a lava tube that, according to legend, snakes all the way to an inland summit. Native lore also explains the nearby Wet Cave. Pele, the goddess of volcanoes, is said to have created the caverns while she searched for buried fires. When she struck crystal-clear waters here instead of flames, the tempestuous goddess fled the island—much to the relief of all.
9. Kee Beach
The drive finishes its remarkable journey in Kee Beach, a haven for snorkelers and tropical fish of just about every imaginable hue. Visitors can also explore the Kalalau Trail, a footpath that rambles for 11 miles along the miraculous meetings of land and sea known as the Napali Coast.
Some spectacular scenery, fortunately, lies on the first mile of trail. Hikers cross clifftops about 100 feet above the sea and can feel the ground tremble underfoot even as the surf below seethes with some of the earth’s most powerful waves.
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