Kauai's commercial center and the county capital, Lihue is a laid-back town that is home to 6,000 people. Lihue is still experiencing growing pains, and new housing and a sprawling shopping center have recently been constructed on the outskirts of town. Today the community that was originally founded to provide a worker base for the still-operating sugar mill nearby seems to be straddling two centuries, caught somewhere between the modern world and Kauai's former way of life.
There are several sights of note in and around Lihue. The Kauai Museum is a
must-see for any traveler really interested in the history, culture,
geology, and ecology of the island. Nawiliwili Bay, fed by Huleia Stream and
flanked by lovely Kalapaki Beach, is the deep-water inlet upon which Lihue
is situated. A bit further inland you'll find the bucolic Huleia National
Wildlife Refuge and Menehune Fishpond, where "Jurassic Park" was filmed. Ninini Point and Lighthouse sit at the mouth of the bay. To the north of town, on the road to Wailua are Wailua Falls--gorgeous, natural twin cascades, where you can swim and hike.
Located at the island's southernmost point, Poipu is home to many of the island's most luxurious hotels and resorts. Here, the beaches are broad and spacious, the ocean is safe for swimming, and the sun shines predictably year-round. Hit particularly hard by Hurricane Iniki, Poipu has been largely rebuilt; however not all signs of damage have been completely erased.
A thick canopy of swamp mahogany trees known as the tree tunnel welcomes you into Poipu on the road from Lihue. These magnificent trees form a viney roof that continues for about a mile. Once in town visit Poipu Beach Park, a favorite spot for families and water-sports enthusiasts. The National Tropical Botanical Garden is another highly recommended destination--it's a beautiful 186-acre research garden dedicated to the study of Kauai's indigenous plant life.
Sights nearby Poipu include Spouting Horn Beach Park to the west, where incoming ocean swells flow into a natural lava tube, shooting water up to 50 feet in the air. Located about three miles inland is Koloa, a quaint, recently renovated plantation-era town. Koloa is notable for its historic sugar mill dating to1835 and for its numerous tourist-oriented establishments.
Princeville and Hanalei
Kauai's North Shore is home to sedate outposts of civilization, literally carved out of the hinterland. Pacific trade winds bring intermittent rain showers here, producing dense tropical vegetation and numerous waterfalls.
Princeville is a golfer's dream, where the golf greens are like thick carpets and play is available on more than 45 holes. Numerous tennis courts, swimming pools, a shopping complex, and a variety of restaurants keep even non-golfers busy. Kauai's most developed resort area, Princeville also boasts the gorgeous backdrop of Hanalei Bay, and many vacationers just enjoy gazing at the phenomenal scenery.
The nearby town of Hanalei is a relaxed working town where several plantation-era structures are still intact. The Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge is located here, and the rustic, untamed beaches in the area are nothing short of spectacular.
Na Pali Coast
This 14-mile stretch of soaring cliffs and steep, deep green valleys can only be described as otherworldly. Virtually inaccessible from land, the towering palisades provided natural fortresses for early Polynesian settlers on Kauai, who hid out from enemy tribes in Na Pali's rugged gorges. The view of the cliffs from above is awe-inspiring, and many visitors take helicopter rides over the imposing natural structures. Zodiac boat rides are also popular; these high-speed boats cruise the length of the shoreline, passing under waterfalls, and into lava caves.
A moderate two-mile day hike into the area starts at Haeana State Park and ends at Hanakapiai Beach. A slightly more strenuous four-mile hike along a trail leads to misty Hanakapiai Falls. For an overnight hike, consider going the full 11 miles to Kalalau Beach--it's fantasy beach camping at its best.
Nicknamed the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, Waimea Canyon is an unexpected sight for those who think of Hawaii as all beach. Its measurements are impressive: 10 miles long, one mile wide, and close to 3,500 feet deep. Heading north along Route 550, visitors can drive the length of the canyon in Waimea Canyon State Park and continue into Kokee State Park. The canyon boasts breathtaking, deep red walls, majestic waterfalls, and lush vegetation. Shimmering rainbows are a frequent sight here. Take some time out for a scenic hike or picnic.
Kokee State Park
Located north of Waimea Canyon State Park, Kokee is a 4,300-acre rain forest preserve along the western edge of Mt. Waialeale. Drive into the park, and then set off on a hike through the saturated rain forest growth. To the east of the park is Alakai Swamp and north is the beautiful Na Pali Coast.
Located right in the island's center, this 5,000-foot mountain receives anywhere between 426 and 624 inches of rain per year, making it the wettest spot on the planet. Mount Waialeale boasts a unique ecosystem entirely dependent on the enormous quantity of rain that falls here. For example, a special species of trees in the region grows only to the height of most people's knees, and numerous breeds of birds, insects, and reptiles found nowhere else call the mountain home.
Several hiking trails meander over the mountain, letting you explore the unusual area for yourself. Do be sure to take sturdy hiking boots and rain gear.
Flat-bottomed boats depart Wailua Marina and travel to the end of the Wailua River to arrive at this exquisitely beautiful spot. Probably Kauai's most touristy attraction, Fern Grotto is a fantastic fern-draped cave. It sometimes gets uncomfortably crowded inside, but many argue that the fantastic scenery is well worth the hassle; in fact, the setting is so romantic that many couples tie the knot here. On your way you'll pass the 80-foot Wailua Falls along the Wailua River .
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