Travel Guide: Kauai

Several years ago I was fortunate to get a three-month sabbatical. And by sabbatical, I really mean time off. My first thought was a round-the-world trip to warmer climates in the middle of winter. But with the kids in school that would be challenging. And, more practically, three months of rigorous travel with kids 9 and 12 would be challenging. We decided instead to pick somewhere great and live there to really experience the culture and the way of life. That place was Hanalei. We rented a little house near Tunnels and settled in to the north-shore cadence. A fresh dawn after the rains in the night. A sunny morning and mid-day on the beach or hiking. Settling in somewhere for a few hours during the afternoon rain. Then back to sun for the evening.

After a couple of weeks I also got island fever really bad. It’s really small! I realized, as nice as it is, I could never settle down in paradise. To keep busy I started kiteboarding, and also exploring the island. Hiked to Kalalau with Jasper, explored every jungle trail and more around Ke’e, and the drier secret beaches past Mahaulepu.

A friend recently said she is going there for two weeks so I wrote her these notes – starting in Princeville where she is staying, and expanding out.

Bali-hi – the bar at the Hanalei Bay Resort is an epic view, great for sunsets. The St. Regis is nice too. There’s a nice trail from Hanalei Bay Resort to the beach/pool at the St. Regis. And they don’t mind you using the pool if you buy drinks.

My favorite Princeville beach is Hideaways. The trail is unmarked and starts along the outside of the chain-link fence at the road entrance to the St Regis hotel. Parking is minimal but you can also park somewhere else and walk over there. The trail is steep but short. You can walk around the point to the west (right as you enter the beach) to even more secluded beaches. The snorkeling is very good when the tide is right. You can also swim all the way to the St Regis to the east – about 20 minutes (no rest stops).

Hideaways Beach

On snorkeling:

  • Rule number one is, don’t walk on the reef. It hurts the reef, and it will probably hurt you. Urchins are bad. “Reef shoes” should be banned.
  • Look for the right tides. Tides in Hawaii vary by only a couple of feet. Reefs grow only a little beyond the low-tide line. So the water depth goes from zero, with the reef exposed a few inches, to around a foot and a half deep. All you need is enough to slither over between deeper parts – maybe a foot or so. In the picture above you can see the sandy channels between reef parts. Generally stay in those, with occasional trips over the flat reef part.
  • It’s ok to go outside the reef if you feel comfortable. The fish are bigger and cool over there, and the turtles (Honu) tend to be on that side. And the precipitous drop to the abyss at places like Ke’e is wild.
  • Significant waves make it all more challenging. They stir up the water. They slosh you around. But most importantly and subtly , they create rip currents.
  • If you get in waves near rocks, stay in the water. You can be in incredibly scary looking places with waves crashing against big rocks and be just fine. The waves move you up, then down. What you want to avoid is a wave on one side of you and the rocks in the other. If a wave is coming at you, dip down a few feet and even a big one will go right over you. Then swim until the next one, dip, repeat.

On rip currents:

  • First, in all my ocean fun I’ve never had any problems or been even close to caught. But, good to be aware and careful. It’s all about where the water comes in via waves, and where it goes out.
  • For sandy beaches with no reef, if the beach is straight then waves go in and water goes straight back out where it came from. That’s an undertow (or toad…) – scary for kids but not dangerous. But for waves hitting the beach at an angle, or a curved beach, waves come in, bounce of the beach, and then go out a different direction. That’s a current. In a symmetric, curved beach, the waves reflect into the middle and a rip current will tend to form down the middle. From above, you can often see a highway of sand dragged out to sea. Take a little time to observe and think about where the water is going.
  • For beaches with a reef it’s more complicated. If it’s low tide and little water is coming over the reef then the inner area will be a bathtub. If the waves are coming over the reef then think of that as pouring water into the area inside the reef. It’s going to go out somewhere. Again, from above, you will often see one or more channels cut between the reef that make it fairly obvious. Ke’e is a great example, water comes in over the reef and exits left through one large, deep channel. As you swim near a channel, float for a minute and notice what happens. If you’re zipping along somewhere you probably want to think about that.
  • Bigger waves, bigger currents…

Anyway, back to the beaches. You can see the main (bigger) Hideaways beach, and the smaller less visited one on the left here

Hidden hideaways on the left

Sea Lodge beach is also there – slightly longer hike but less steep and nice snorkeling. It has a nice wild feeling.!

Queens bath is really cool – you can snorkel in a rock pool that is filled in high tide – like a big aquarium. It can be dangerous but not as much as everyone says.

A drive to the west, Secret beach is huge. Swimming is very dangerous here – shore break, no reef. But the long walk down the sand is fun.!

Hanalei bay in town is the spot for surfing. Lots of great food too. Hanalei wake-up cafe is a local favorite. Tahiti Nui is party-central – fun music and crowd.

The farmers markets are crazy good – though usually open just for a few hours once or twice a week. Ask at the natural food store in Hanalei.

From Hanalei it’s about 8 miles more to the end of the road. Be considerate on the bridges, and give ’em a hang-loose when they let you by.

Lumahai is the first great beach after town – the parking is just after you crest a hill on a headland. Walk down the trail to the curved beach at the west end. The big broad part is ok and closer to the road but not the same.


The left, curved one is the deal. The trail enters from the very bottom of the picture. The rocks there can be fun to jump off if the waves aren’t too crazy.  The middle beach can be nicely private.

Tunnels is really nice. Park at the campground and walk back west towards Hanalei to great snorkeling.

Tunnels beach and reef

Our house was behind the beach there. Notice the massive reef and drainage channel to the right. It’s bigger than it looks here – swimming across the channel to the outer reef is an adventure.

Ke’e at the end is my favorite. Good snorkeling when the tide is right and surf is down. Lots of turtles on the outer part of the reef if you can get out there (when there’s about a foot of water over the reef. Incredible sunsets.

Ke’e! My favorite beach.

The trail to Hanakapa’i and the falls begins here.

Explore the headland at the east-end of Ke’e. Either walk the rocks to the west along the beach cove to the point and then head up, or take the old road between the hiking trail and the beach and go through the fence with the no-trespassing sign and past the abandoned house. There’s are multiple rock structures (platforms)- parts of an old Hawaiian village/temple. More stuff in the jungle if you look around. Being up on the upper site (Ke Ahu a Laka) at sunset is quite a deal.

The hike to Hanakapi’ai is a must! It’s a two mile rather strenuous hike from Ke’e. The views from even the first 10 minutes are incredible! The trail winds up and over the headland, and down to the beautiful isolated beach. Check out the ferrel cats that roam around, and the sea caves to the east (yes it does go through, keep crawling). But, they mean it about the drownings – don’t go in the water.

Almost to Hanakapi’ai!

From Hanakapi’ai beach you need a permit to hike the 9 miles further down the coast to Kalalau. I highly recommend that but it’s a serious undertaking. You start and end at sea level, but there is over 5000 feet of elevation changes as you go from valley to ridge over and over.

But you can hike two miles inland to the falls. The guava trees and bamboo forests on the way are really cool. Just follow the creek. Oh, and bring lots of water!

Here’s a nice view from afar that shows both the beach and the falls up there in the valley. You hike in from the left.

Hanakapi’ai beach, valley, and falls

On the south side of the island, the best thing by far is Mahaulepu. Drive past the Hyatt, onto gated (but public) dirt roads, and park at Gillins. Then walk east out to the rocky point (Mahaulepu) The rock formations are incredible. The sandy beach on the far east side is remote and awesome. Trespassing around the fence past there leads to an incredible beach where you’ll either be all alone, or possibly surrounded by angry Hawaiians. And more beaches beyond that over headlands…

Mahaulepu pearch.

Waimea canyon is a long drive but cool *if* it’s clear. If it’s not, it’s nothing. From the top, the sandy beach you see below is Kalalau where Jasper and I camped.

That’s should do it! Highlights are Hideaways, Ke’e, and Mahaulepu.


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