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Kauai, Hawaii



Kauai is above and beyond my favorite Hawaiian Island. Its vast wilderness, lush landscapes, and spectacular beaches are difficult to beat. Through previous visits, and trial and error, I have found that staying in Poipu is the most convenient. Not only are you at the best point on the island for sunsets, but it places you in the most advantageous location in terms of travel times to either side of the island. This is largely in part due to the fact that there aren't any roadways that will take travelers around the whole island. The omnipresence of the Na'Pali Coast, on the northwest side of the island, prevents any highways from connecting the two sides of the island. Instead, motorists can take the 550 on the west side of the island, which ends at the Kalalau Lookout, OR the 560 on the east side of the island, which ends at Ke'e Beach. By staying in Poipu, you are as close to the midpoint between these two locations with the drive times as follows:

Poipu to Kalalau - approximately 1 hour 13 minutes

Poipu to Ke'e Beach - approximately 1 hour 38 minutes.

Besides travel times, one of the most challenging aspects that I have encountered through photography is trying to predict/plan for the weather; Kauai is no different. Kauai holds the record with Mt. Waialeale being the 2nd wettest spot on the planet, receiving an average of 460 inches of rain per year! Not only that, but the weather in Kauai is constantly changing and rain showers can happen unexpectedly at any point on the island. The list below consists of points of interest around the island that are a must see for any fellow traveler and will help you attempt to plan around any possible rain showers. The locations that are listed start on the northwestern side of Kauai and continue clockwise around the island:

Na'Pali Coast - This is far and away the most impressive and popular landscape on Kauai (and for good reason). The coast, and landscape, have been used in several films including Jurassic Park, King Kong, and Six Days Seven Nights, just to name a few. This rugged 16-mile coastline is truly majestic, showcasing the emerald green pinnacles that tower along the water's edge. The cliffs of the Na'Pali Coast offer some of the best views of the deep, narrow valleys leading to the sea. The Na'Pali Coast is always changing due to the erosion they experience from waterways that carve through the landscape or the pounding surf that slams against the shore every winter. If you have time, and are willing to pay a little extra money, take a boat tour/excursion to your liking or a helicopter tour (or both!) that will take you along the coast for the most dramatic and jaw-dropping views of these giants. Another option is to hike down one or more of the trails and take in the view from the edge of one of the cliffs. Some hikes I recommend are the Awa'awapuhi Trail and the Nualolo Trail.

Awa'awapuhi Trail - The trail head starts near mile marker 17 off of Koke'e Road and is easily missed if you are not looking for it. The Awa'awapuhi Trail is a moderate 6.5-mile, round-trip, hike, which begins on the west side of the Waimea Canyon and descends approximately 1,700-feet to the rim of the Awa'awapuhi Valley. It meanders through thick canopied trees, desert like terrain, and rich grassy areas that provide hikers with sweeping views of the coast. If you are not afraid of heights, then test your grit at the edge of one of the outlooks and look down into the valley for a birds-eye view of the landscape.

Nualolo Trail - The Nualolo Trail starts from a small grass parking lot that sits on the left side of the road, which is just before the Koke'e Ranger Station. The Koke'e Ranger Station is a great place to check their trail maps for closures and any other pertinent information. During the time of my trip I discovered that the Nualolo Cliff Trail was closed to erosion (this is the portion of the trail that connects the Nualolo Trail to the Awa'awapuhi Trail to make an 11-mile loop). Although the news was disappointing, the 7.5-mile round-trip Nualolo Trail was not. There are some small inclines at the start of the hike, but after that it is a steady descent the rest of the way. Like the Awa'awapuhi trail, the Nualolo Trail traverses rugged terrain under the shade of thick forest. As you near the end of the hike, the trees give way to unreal views of the Na'Pali Coast and the blue vivid waters below.

Kalalau Lookout - If you do not have the time to explore one of the many Na'Pali Coast hikes, or just want the view without taxing effort, then this lookout is for you. This lookout gazes out at the Kalalau Valley and the prolific vegetation below; however, visitors are at the mercy of the weather, since it is not uncommon for the view to be obstructed by a thick layer of fog. Unfortunately for me, during my last trip, I was the victim of heavy fog to where the visibility was less than 10 feet in front of me. With all of this being said, I still believe that stopping at the Kalalau Lookout is a must, even if you plan on one trekking down one of the many hikes. I am a firm supporter of photographing iconic landmarks from as many perspectives/viewpoints as possible.

Ke'e Beach - Ke'e Beach is part of Ha'ena State Park and is located on the northern side of the island. Commonly reffered to as 'the end of the road,' since Ke'e Beach is quite literally where the Kuhio Highway (560) ends. The beach has a decent sized parking lot and overflow lot, which caters to the beach-goers and hikers/campers that want to embark along that Kalalau Trail. Arrive early to grab a parking space! Once the lots are full, cars will then have to resort to parking along the roadside and this can stretch as far as a mile or two. Ke'e Beach is a gentle ocean lagoon that offers great opportunities for snorkeling and swimming. If you are up to the challenge then try the most famous trail on the island: the Kalalau Trail.

Kalalau Trail - The Kalalau Trail is a commitment and requires a permit for anyone planning on embarking on the full 22-mile, round-trip, difficult journey. The trail head starts at Ha'ena State Park and meanders through five valleys until the trail is blocked by the sheer, towering cliffs of the Na'Pali Coast. Luckily, the end of the trail is at Kalalau Beach, which is where permitted hikers may camp overnight. If you are looking for a suitable, moderate day-hike for beginners, then most hikers will embark on the 4-mile, round-trip hike to Hanakapi'ai Beach. If you are more advanced, then the 6.5-7-mile, round-trip hike to Hanakapi'ai Falls may be more to your liking. With either excursion, hikers should remain vigilant of rain/weather conditions as this makes the river crossing to Hanakapi'ai Beach highly dangerous. In fact, it is not uncommon for hikers to get stranded overnight at Hanakapi'ai Beach due to these powerful conditions. If you plan ahead, and the weather is in your favor, then be prepared for the magnificent views that this trail has to offer.

Hanalei Bay - Hanalei Bay is the largest bay that sits on the north side of the island. It is a 2-mile long half-moon bay that looks out onto the calm water and is surrounded by ancient volcanic mountains. The Hanalei Pier sits on the eastern side of the bay and gives sightseers the opportunity to walk to the end and look back on the bay and the mountain-side. Besides being a great place to view the bay, Hanalei Pier offers photographers plenty of photo opportunities in its own right. Just be sure to take the time to scout out the location and find the perspective that you like the most.

Kilauea Lighthouse - The Kilauea Lighthouse is 52ft tall and sits on a rocky cliff that rises 180ft above the Pacific Ocean. It is part of the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge, which encompasses 200-acres of protected land for the surrounding wildlife. The refuge provides visitors an opportunity for viewing wildlife such as migratory birds, native seabirds, spinner dolphins, monk seals, and even humpback whales. Since it is state-run, it is important to check the operating hours so that you time your visit when the site is open to the public. Admission is $5 per person, but it is a small price to pay for the views of the wildlife, ocean cliffs, and tall grassy slopes of the dormant volcano.

Queen's Bath - Found in Princeville, the northern part of Kauai, Queen’s Bath is a unique tide pool surrounded by lava rock. The bath is an enjoyable ten minute hike past a waterfall and culminates at a landscape of igneous rock. An additional 5-minute hike over this igneous rock leads hikers to the Queen’s Bath, which is about the size of a large swimming pool. Since Queen’s Bath is a natural tide pool, it is rejuvenated by the ocean waves that overflow into the pool. As alluring as this location may be, it is critical that visitors exercise extreme caution when hiking to the pool. Be vigilant of the weather/surf conditions and only make the journey if the circumstances are suitable.

Lydgate Beach - Located on the eastern side of the island in Lydgate Beach State Park, Lydgate Beach is a family-friendly beach. It has a jetty-enclosed swimming area that protects visitors from the ocean's current. The beach is a great place for picnics, camping, or spending a relaxing day at the beach. While all beaches are great for snorkeling, Lydgate Beach is the best place for beginners due to the calm water that's created by jetty-enclosed swimming area.

Wailua Falls - Nestled in a patch of wilderness near the city of Lihu'e, Wailua Falls is an 80-foot (some exaggerate its height to be 173-ft) double-tiered waterfall that feeds into the Wailua River. To get to the falls, take Maalo Road (Highway 583) to the end, which will culminate in the parking lot for Wailua Falls. From the parking lot, it is a short walk to view the waterfall at different points along the road. The powerful, double-cannon Wailua Falls is the most picturesque waterfall that Kauai has to offer.

Poipu Beach - Poipu Beach holds the honor of having been named, "America's Best Beach.' It's large white crescent sand beaches encompass the shoreline that lead beach-goers toward the sparkling turquoise water. Poipu's calm southern water is renowned for its snorkeling opportunities, as well as paddle boarding and kayaking. Since the weather in Poipu is usually sunny, the beach attracts visitors from all across the island, so be prepared for a crowd. Arrive early and find a spot on the beach that is to your liking and then enjoy a relaxing day full of sun and splendor.

Barking Sands Beach - Barking Sands Beach is an isolated, white sand beach with views of the southwestern side of the Na’Pali Coast. The beach lies on a remote stretch of beach found on the west side of the island in Polihale State Park. The road leading to the beach is a long, heavily rutted road that must be driven with care. Due to the road conditions, this beach is not heavily trafficked and gives visitors the feeling of having the coastline to themselves. This beach is an absolute must for anyone looking to get away from crowds and still have beautiful coastal vistas to appreciate.

Waimea Canyon - Also known as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, Waimea Canyon found on the western side of the island (accessed from the same roadway that takes visitors to the Na'Pali Coast lookouts). The canyon is approximately 10-miles long and as deep as 3,000 feet. Throughout the landscape, visitors are treated to colorful views of the gorge, various waterfalls, and the occasional rainbow when the weather is right. The Waimea Canyon Lookout has a parking lot and walkway that leads travelers to the multi-level viewing area. The lookout is an easy way to get a complete panoramic perspective of the immense canyon and the remote wilderness below.

Recommendations of locations for photographing sunrise and sunset:

SUNRISE - Lydgate Beach and/or Waimea Canyon Lookout

Lydgate Beach - I could not choose between the two due to the fact that the locations are so vastly different. Lydgate Beach faces west and provides you with a sunrise that encompasses a typical beach setting: sand, ocean, palm trees, and even a lifeguard tower. When the conditions are right, watching the sun rise illuminate the clouds and scenery below is a powerful and refreshing sight to behold.

Waimea Canyon Lookout - Sunrise at the Waimea Canyon Lookout can be a gamble since it is hard to predict the cloud cover or the weather on that part of the island. The lookout faces the west/northwest and provides a sweeping view of the canyon below. Once sunrise begins the sun’s light pours over the valley like a paintbrush and spreads the land full of fiery reds, brilliant oranges, and golden yellows. It is a mesmerizing experience and I can’t think of any better way to begin the day.

SUNSET - Poipu Beach and/or Barking Sands Beach

Poipu Beach - As was the case with sunrise, finding one location for sunset is difficult. Poipu Beach is the most popular choice, so be prepared for large crowds along the southern coast at sunset. As the sun begins to make its journey past the horizon the reason behind these crowds are quickly understood. The evening sky unfolds into a spectacular light show bringing a close to another perfect Hawaiian day.

Barking Sands Beach - For those wanting to avoid the crowds and watch a sunset in a less congested area, then Barking Sands Beach is the ideal spot. Besides sand, the beach offers few foreground elements to compose your sunset with, but the scene is unmatched and unobstructed since the beach sits on the west coast of the island. The only downside for this location is navigating the long, jarring road back in the dark of night. For those willing to make the trek at night, then I would suggest bringing a blanket to watch the stars fill the night's sky.

Besides offering up endless splendor, the Garden Isle also provides locals and visitors with an eclectic mix of delicious eats:

*Bubba Burgers – A casual, local burger chain with restaurants in Hanalei, Kapaa, and Poipu. Bubba’s Burgers is a good-old fashioned, authentic burger joint serving 100% Kauai grass fed beef. They run their restaurants under the mantra, “our way, right away … your way, some delay.”

*Loco Coco Shave Ice – Of all the different shave (not shaved, this is a point of irritation by some business owners) ice businesses, this is the one that stood out the most. I’m not big on shave ice, so I had to defer to my wife and her expertise. Out of all the different establishments we tired, she said Loco Coco’s in Poipu was the best. The staff is super friendly and offers a laundry list of flavors, mixtures, and toppings. No trip to Kauai is complete until you try the shave ice!

*Koloa Fish Market – As the name implies, this market is found in Koloa and is well-known for great poke, which is a type of raw fish salad. They also sell a wide variety of seafood, but ask any local and they will tell you that the poke is something that should not be missed.

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