Kauai – The Hidden Gem

“Come to Oahu” they say. “Go to Maui” they say. For some reason most people forget about Kauai but maybe that’s what makes it stay so great. Perhaps it’s the lack of throngs of people that keep this Hawaiian island pristine. It stops it from becoming overpopulated like Oahu or too commercialized like Maui. The population sits around 65,000. Much smaller than the 152,000 of Maui or the 953,000 that live on Oahu. Keeping the population in check helps the island not grow past its limits. The other thing that helps is Kauai’s lack of infrastructure. For most of the island there is one highway – with one lane going each way. As you continue farther north it narrows even more to one-lane bridges. The largest city is Lihue with a population of 6,500. If you’re looking for nightlife or for a super active bar scene, you are on the wrong island. Kauai is the island where you take in what nature has to offer. This is what, in my opinion, makes Kauai the true hidden gem of the Hawaiian Islands.

When you land on Kauai prepare yourself for a lot of physical diversity in a very small space: deserts, canyons, a massive mountain, rainforests, waterfalls, beaches, reefs, and a swamp. It’s all packed into this 552-square-mile island. For some perspective to my fellow Wisconsinites, Kenosha County where I live is 754 square miles in size. It’s a strange feeling going for a short drive, where you start out by waterfalls and a rich diverse jungle plant life, when just a short hour drive later (the only reason it takes an hour is the speed limit for most of the island ranges from 25-35 miles per hour), you find yourself around dry arid earth with cactuses all around you. How is this possible, you wonder? Well, several factors come into play; first, there’s Mount Waialeale. This towering, once-great volcano is now just a large mountain and also happens to be about the highest point on Kauai and one of the wettest places on the planet. It averages more than 452 inches of rain per year! Like most mountains it creates a rain shadow. This allows for the dramatic difference from one side of the island to the other. So on one side – the windward side – you have a tropical rainforest, while on the other side – the leeward side – you have a desert. But wait, it gets better, because of the huge amount of rain the mountain gets and the 5 million years it has had to develop. The five million years of rain has had a great effect, carving out some of the most spectacular canyons and scenery you have ever seen. This area is called the Napali coast. You also have Waimea Canyon, which deserves its own blog (coming next time). Because of the amount of rain and canyons on the island you have hundreds of waterfalls to choose from. Some you can drive to, but some you need to earn with a treacherous hike through the rainforest. To keep on adding to the diversity there is also a swamp to explore near the wettest part on the island – which is separated from the desert section by just a few miles!

Now those are just some of the things you will find on land. Once you head to the beaches things get even better. Because the ocean has had 5 million years to work on that basaltic lava rock Kauai has lots of beaches to choose from. It’s not hard at all to find your section of beach where you don’t have to worry about being bothered by the crowds. Another nice perk: all Hawaiian beaches are public. It’s against the law in Hawaii to privatize a beach. So you have your choice of many great surfing beaches, not to mention great reefs to go snorkeling on – to see all manner of exotic fish life, sea turtles, and a species of seal called the monk seal (which only has about 1100 left in existence, most of which live on Kauai; if you’re walking on a rocky beach keep your eyes open, as stepping on one of these six-foot long, 500-pound seals could be the last thing you ever do).

Then you have the famous Kauai Chickens, made possible by the fact that Kauai is the only Hawaiian island without mongoose. Yes, I put the chickens on the beach section because they love to hang out at the beach. I promise I’m not messing with you. Go there and see for yourself. The little guys are running all over the island by the thousands. Then we have the people of Kauai, who are very friendly. They will gladly tell you the best spots and some of the great stuff to see on their island. However, if you disrespect their island or their culture they will turn into some of the meanest people you will ever meet. Being called a “haole” (a Hawaiian insult meaning a non-native of the islands) is the least of your concerns. I would worry more about ending up on the bottom of the ocean, or them just steering you into the thick jungle where you may never find your way out. So if you can’t tell yet, Kauai is an outdoor explorers paradise. It also has beaches galore for those who are looking for a relaxing vacation. So what are you looking for? Book your ticket to Kauai!

Traveler’s note: So I will be the first one to tell you Kauai is a couples/family-orientated island. Being on my own and being 23 at the time, I found most of people I hung out with and were friends with were older – like 30-plus (I’m not saying that’s old, but there was a generational gap). Also many of my friends were in a different stage of life. Either they were married or already had kids. Even guests on the island tend to lean more towards families or couples on their honeymoon. So, if you’re planning on visiting the island long term, keep this in mind: you probably won’t find your island romance here. Everyone seems to bring their own!