with Kayak Kauai drag a boat ashore in a surf
landing at Polihale Beach State Park, at the end of
the day-long paddle of the Na Pali coast.
outfitter calls this the "Everest of sea
kayaking," but as I paddle through a sea cave on the
Na Pali coast of Kauai I quickly realize the day’s peak
experience will have nothing to do with a high mountain.
all about the sea caves.
knew I would see a cave or two on this 17-mile, all-day
paddle along the Hawaiian island’s fabled Na Pali
("high cliffs"). I had heard we might even
paddle into a cave. But I had pictured, well, sort of a
modest indentation at the base of a cliff. Something we
might meander in and out of with a few quick paddle
strokes — never losing sight of the sunshine — and
then tell folks back home how cool it was.
halfway through the morning, here I am in pitch darkness,
bobbing and rocking and still moving forward as my guide
in the back seat steers us into a side tunnel in what is
clearly a deep, multichamber cavern created by the
hope you know where we’re going!" I chuckle
nervously as the total loss of vision adds a little stress
to the already challenging adventure.
a problem, done it many times, says Nick Oliver, the lanky
blond and tanned, chin-whiskered guide, now in his mid-30s
but still looking every bit like the swaggering Southern
California surfer dude of his youth.
later, as we leave another cave, I take revenge on my boat
partner for thrusting me into the netherworld without
warning: I paddle straight for a waterfall that partially
drapes the cave entrance, a stream tumbling thousands of
feet from the pali’s velvety emerald spires. "It’s
cold!" another paddler shrieks.
you really want to do that?" Nick asks.
I respond, loosing a primal howl as the frigid spring
water crashes over my head.
just a moment I am the swaggering surfer dude from
day had started inauspiciously.
pelted from a dirty-dishrag sky as our group of eight
visitors met at 6 a.m. at the Kayak Kauai office in Wailua,
on Kauai’s opposite side from our northwest-shore launch
was a somber van ride to the launch at Ha’ena Beach
Park. Pollyannaish comments about it being "warm
rain" and how we wouldn’t get overheated while
paddling offered little comfort as we glanced at brooding
clouds cloaking Kauai’s jagged peaks.
the rain was tapering off as our three guides gave us a
safety lecture, sat us on our kayaks and shoved us into
the surf a little before 8 a.m., making the launch as easy
as valet parking.
route would take us southward, with prevailing wind and
current at our backs, along the island’s rugged,
roadless west coast to a late-afternoon landing at
Polihale Beach State Park. There, the van would meet us
for a 6 p.m. return to Wailua.
other sea-kayak experiences have been in fiberglass craft
in which the paddler nestles inside a cockpit with a spray
skirt to keep the sea out. But these were plastic
sit-on-top kayaks that leave the paddler exposed. Why go
with sit-on-tops when Kayak Kauai’s website thoroughly
warns (with, yes, some hyperbole) that this is "the
roughest and longest sea kayak (day) trip offered on the
they’re easier to get back aboard when we flip, we’re
"if" we flip, but "when."
comes this website warning: "Pick your shipmates well
and be galvanized for a long and hard day on a capricious
ocean ready to test your mettle. At one point you will
question the wisdom of paying Kayak Kauai and having to
work your butt off."
barely off the beach when our first boat turns turtle,
dousing New Yorkers Eduard, a premed student, and Mae, an
they manage to clamber back aboard and, with equal parts
anticipation and trepidation, we paddle.
mile, our little fleet passes Ke’e Beach Park, at road’s
end. We’re told this is the bailout point for any
paddlers who decide they’ve made a mistake (but nobody
is offered a refund). Beyond here the only land route back
to civilization is the notoriously difficult Kalalau
Trail, which we’ll occasionally see skirting the sea
this corner of the island is the fingerlike Bali Ha’i
hill featured in the movie "South Pacific."
to natives as Makana, or "the gift," this
mountain is where Hawaiians would practice "firebranding,"
building large bonfires and pushing them off a cliff into
the trade winds for a display like fireworks, Nick tells
peak is so much like a raised middle digit it’s as if
Kauai is taunting the ocean to do its worst.
the Pacific doesn’t take the challenge this day. As we
turn southward, a swell gives us a brief thrill ride, like
hanging 10 on a surfboard. "Woo-hoo!" cries
paddler Patrick, a newlywed from New York City.
the sea is atypically calm for the rest of the day. The
lack of following wind and current makes us paddle harder
to get to Polihale. The upside: Nobody else goes for an
unplanned swim. And nobody gets seasick, another major
streams through the clouds as lush green cliffs, some
4,000 feet high, beckon us southward.
our paddling route there’s not just one cave, but an
dark Pama Wa’a (meaning "enclosure of canoes")
and the waterfall-draped Ho’olulu ("protected
waters"), there’s a crowd-pleasing
"paddle-through" cave — a loop with two
entrances — with a waterfall inside, called Waiahuakua
(the magically named "water from the altar of the
seems to know if there was ever a Hawaiian name for one of
my favorites, so it goes by the unromantic title of the
Open Ceiling Cave.
name tells the story: We paddle from the sea through an
archway of rock in the most vividly electric-blue water I’ve
ever seen and quickly find ourselves in a large chamber
with towering rock walls and sky above.
an old lava tube. You can clearly see the bottom in this
protected alcove, though the water is 50 feet deep. I take
this opportunity for a refreshing swim.
in is also the recommended strategy for relieving your
bladder during this long morning paddle, but looking at
the beautiful water around me I decide to hold it until
ALONG THE WAY
we paddle onward Nick points ashore at "Crawler’s
Ledge," a narrow stretch of the Kalalau Trail edging
a high cliff, often the turnaround point for weak-kneed
hikers. He tells the story of valleys and beaches, such as
Honopu ("Conch") Beach, where boat landing is
forbidden because it is an ancient burial ground. Conch
shells were blown at the burial of royalty.
in time for lunch, at our 12-mile point at Miloli’i
Beach, rain returns.
is, in fact, warm rain. In just shorts and a nylon shirt,
I get wet but not cold.
our group huddles under a tin-roofed picnic shelter as
shower turns to downpour. "Oooh, my butt is
sore," groans Kevin, from Boise, as he starts to sit
at a picnic table but quickly rises again.
we eat sandwiches, taro chips and pineapple and watch with
fascination as instant waterfalls form on the
2,000-foot-tall cliff above us. They start at the top and
take 10 minutes to reach the beach. Because these are born
of flash floods, carrying lots of topsoil, we dub them
"chocolate waterfalls" and reminisce about Willy
rain stops but on this final stretch of paddling along the
island’s dry southwest shore, much of the sea has turned
brown from runoff.
like suddenly we’re paddling on the Mississippi,"
says Morgan, another Boise resident.
10-inch needle fish thrash to the surface, and a scream is
heard as unlucky Mae and Eduard are struck by flying fish.
don’t jump unless something is chasing them," Nick
says, discouraging us from taking a rest break to loll
with feet in the water until we’re clear of the brown
I learn that Hawaiians know not to swim in murky water
because sharks like to prowl there.
content with seeing noddy terns, boobies, green sea
turtles and frigate birds.
Beach, at the end of our trip, is sunny and hot and we all
welcome a cool rinse in an outdoor shower. We’re all
proud that we made it.
heard horror stories, ‘your shoulders will be dead!’
" Patrick says. "But it’s good — you can do
it, it’s OK if you’re in OK shape."
till tomorrow," someone mutters.
But tomorrow is when you get to tell friends about those
ahead and start your workout regimen to paddle the Na Pali
coast next spring, when guided kayak outings resume (April
to October). Rougher seas and high surf prohibit making
the outing in winter.
guides charge about $250 including tax and fees. Since
this is an all-day trip, plan to tip your guide
sampling of outfitters:
Kauai, 888-596-3853 or kayakkauai.com
Pali Kayak, 808-826-6900 or napalikayak.com.
in Hawaii, 877-678-7333 or adventureinhawaii.com/
operators offer motorized boat tours of the Na Pali Coast,
including some that enter the sea caves in small boats.
For a list, see gohawaii.com/kauai and click on
Visitors Bureau, kauaidiscovery.com