A sweaty, sweet time on Kauai

LA Times | Travel

Here's the deal: For some travelers a vacation is a time of indulgence. No argument here; indulge away. But I like to earn my indulgences. Rather than laze by the pool with a plate of nachos, I like to move when I'm traveling. Being presented with swooningly good Dizzy Lizzy cookies upon our ...

By Tom Bentley // 04.23.09

Here's the deal: For some travelers a vacation is a time of indulgence. No argument here; indulge away. But I like to earn my indulgences. Rather than laze by the pool with a plate of nachos, I like to move when I'm traveling.

Being presented with swooningly good Dizzy Lizzy cookies upon our arrival in Kauai spurred my resolve. Investing a little sweat equity would mean I could have my cake -- in this case, cookies -- and eat them guilt-free. Hiking, swimming, snorkeling and kayaking on Hawaii's garden island is the sweetest sweating you'll ever do.

Day 1

In the pecking order of great canyons, our mainland Grand Canyon is no slouch. But Kauai's Waimea Canyon gives it a serious run -- in our case, hike -- for the money. Carved by millions of years of river erosion and floods from Mt. Waialeale, one of the wettest land areas on Earth, Waimea is 10 miles of striated glory, its multilayered cliffs a fanciful pastiche of color and texture.

Some of its gorges are 3,500 feet deep, and there are several classic lookouts where photo ops abound.

But we weren't here merely to point and shoot; we wanted to savor the canyon directly. So we began our trek at Puu o Kila, a lookout so lovely it almost hurt. Our trek on the Pihea Trail hurt more directly, as recent rain turned some of the trail ascents and descents (and there are many) into splay-legged thrashings. I bemoaned the high-top basketball shoes I'd brought for hiking, because they had no grip in Kauai's red dirt, or mud, as it were.

Trail mishaps aside, it was a fantastic hike through the deeply green (and occasionally damp) canyon, thankfully cool and above the mosquito line. We took the Pihea, a fern-laden route of multiple greens and some autumnal colors, to the Alakai Swamp Trail. From there, we went into the beautiful swamp on the trail's boardwalk. Off the boardwalk, the trail was a spongy, slurpy tangle of moss and grasses.

The high plateau of the Alakai offered broader views into corners of the canyon (more obscured by the forested Pihea), with the spiky red blossoms of the ohia tree standing out like Rudolph's nose in the landscape. We spent about five hours hiking in Waimea, and some time checking out other lookouts, such as the Puu Hinahina and the Kalalau, both stunning. Be sure to drive Kokee Road up the canyon and the Waimea Canyon drive back, or the reverse, so you can check out variable panoramic views of this, Kauai's dry side.

This hike was good for at least four Dizzy Lizzy cookies.

Day 2

This day found us easing into gear by visiting the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge, which is on a visually arresting finger of land. Kauai's northernmost point is a haven for soaring, swooping and slicing birds, which wheel unfettered through the air. Not feeling any inferiority complexes for being dubbed boobies and gooneys, these mighty-winged fliers are joined by frigate birds, tropic birds and shearwaters; groups of the endangered Hawaiian goose, the nene, wandered peaceably about the grounds of the informative visitors center and historic lighthouse. Our destination was Tunnels Beach, past the funky town of Hanalei with its good restaurants and magnificent Hawaiian church. Tunnels has a snorkeling reef, where we saw a particularly large parrotfish, many types of wrasse, unicornfish, pipefish and tang, and some large schools of jack and trevally, while we swam happily in the warm water.

Three cookies seemed well earned for these activities.

Day 3

Kauai gives travelers plenty of opportunities to combine water- and land-based maneuvers, and one of the best is kayaking down the Wailua River, one of Kauai's few navigable rivers. We rented our gear from Wailua Kayak and Canoe, just five minutes from our Kapaa condo, and were quickly paddling down this pleasant, winding river, lined with dense cliffside vegetation. We turned off into a narrow channel, where the thick, overhanging trees reminded me a bit of a Micronesian mangrove swamp.

We tied up the canoes to hike for a mile or so on a fairly flat, forested trail to Secret Falls. The falls aren't that big a secret -- there was a gathering of other kayakers -- but that didn't detract from the charm of the 30- or 40-foot falls, which fell into a pretty pool below. On the way back down the river, we stopped at the famed Fern Grotto, a beautiful lava cave where flowing water from the cliff above usually feeds a lush growth of ferns. There wasn't much flow on our visit, but it was a beautiful spot even with all the man-made development for weddings and other events.

Exploiting that development are the tours to the grotto on filled-to-the-rails barges, with tour guides braying into loudspeakers, but thankfully, we were there in between sorties. The four-hour trip was a trifle more strenuous on the upstream return but well worth the effort. Hint: Leave early: If it's sunny, you'll be pretty warm, and there's also a fair amount of powerboating that takes place later in the day.

Cookie allowance: four.

Day 4

Our last major excursion on our too-short trip was the Na Pali Coast -- a sterling reminder that nature's magnificence can be heart-thumpingly beautiful. The trail begins off Kee Beach, probably the most-visited beach in Kauai. This is the northern wing of the 11-mile Kalalau Trail, a seriously strenuous trek along the Na Pali.

The hike quickly takes a calf-stretching uptick, a mouth-breather that lasts for about half a mile before you ascend a corner and are nearly knocked senseless by the splendor of the high, cliffside views and the gleaming water below. The long-tailed tropic birds were sharp blades of white in the air, and as we ascended and descended through some of the famed "hanging valleys" of the cliff-hugging trail, there was a sweet piping of birdsong.

At several points, the trail was sliding, swampy going in the red-dirt muck, reminiscent of our Waimea jaunt. Tiny, trickling waterfalls pooled in several places, and delicate pink wild orchids appeared, like unwrapped presents.

We began a descent into the steamy canyon above Hanakapiai Beach. The canyon and beach were rugged and beautiful, with rough, surging green waters. A sign at the trail's edge noted in crossed notches the many drowning deaths. We decided that two miles in was enough, considering the sweaty two-mile trek back. Traffic on the storied trail was moderate, including heavily outfitted backpackers and bare-chested, flip-flopped fathers carrying babies, though the latter didn't get far from the trail's head. Even the occasional helicopter flight didn't detract much from the Na Pali's wonder.

Definitely a four-cookie journey.