About this Itinerary
Even if you’ve never been to Kaua'i, the northernmost island of Hawai'i, chances are you’ve seen it. The island has been variously cast as a Costa Rican island (“Jurassic Park”), South Korea (the opening credits of “M*A*S*H”), the depths of a Peruvian jungle (“Raiders of the Lost Ark”), a previously undiscovered island in the Indian Ocean (one of many versions of “King Kong”) and a mysterious island where dreams come true for a price (TV’s “Fantasy Island”), to name but a handful. Elvis Presley’s “Paradise, Hawaiian Style” and Disney’s “Lilo & Stitch” were both set here.
Running along the Coconut Coast on the eastern shore of Kaua'i is our featured rail-trail: The Path that Goes by the Coast, or Ke Ala Hele Makalae in the native Hawai'ian language. The 8-mile-long paved trail follows the route that sugarcane from numerous plantations once took from the fields to a processing center, and from there to numerous ports. The trail may be only a few miles long, but it’s easy to forget that when gazing out into the seemingly infinite expanse of the Pacific Ocean as the sun rises. The trail is currently split into two discontinuous sections bridgeable via a parking lot and an on-road section. Fortunately, the gap continues to shrink with each component of a grand construction project that will eventually unite the two sections and continue farther both north and south.
It’s worth pausing here for a quick note on the Hawai'ian language—specifically that upside-down apostrophe mark you’ll see in a lot of words. It’s called an 'okina and is a letter in its own right (and yes, the mark in front of the word is part of the word!). It represents a glottal stop, or a brief pause in a word (say “uh-oh” quickly and you’ll have a glottal stop). However, many local businesses omit the 'okina in order to make their name more search-engine friendly.
If you aren’t fortunate enough to already be living on Kaua'i, you’ll fly into Lihue Airport (LIH), which supports numerous inter-island flights, as well as a few from the mainland. Just a few miles to the north is the largest city on the island and our destination. The town of Kapa'a boomed with the rise of the pineapple’s popularity, and today the town of 10,000-plus is a vibrant tourist destination that still maintains a small-town Polynesian quality. Forbes magazine has named Kapa'a one of American’s 15 Prettiest Towns. Lodging options from bed and breakfasts to beachside resorts abound—you could stay for weeks without sleeping in the same hotel twice if you were so inclined! The Waipouli Beach Resort, Kauai Coast Resort at the Beachboy and Plantation Hale Suites are the best-rated hotels in Kapa'a. If smaller B&Bs are your style, check out the Fern Grotto Inn or Kauai Country Inn. All but the last option are located in central Kapa'a near the beach and—by extension—the trail. The Kauai Country Inn is located just 2 miles inland and is home to the only private Beatles museum in the United States (guided tours are given to guests upon request).
Bike rental options near the trail are hardly less profuse: Kauai Cycle, Hele On Kauai, Kapaa Beach Shop and Coconut Coasters are all situated along the same road within less than a mile of one another and a stone’s throw from Ke Ala Hele Makalae. Note that the state of Hawai'i mandates that children under the age of 16 wear helmets.
Kaua'i is solidly tropical, so there really is no bad time of year to visit. We believe that the absolute best time, though, is when it’s cold and wintry wherever you live. Nicknamed the Garden Island, Kaua'i gets plenty of rain, and once recorded more than 12 inches in one hour before the rain gauge overflowed! That being said, rain on the east side of the island usually passes quickly, and rained-out days are rare indeed.
You’re in Hawai'i! This first day is all about enjoying the trail and the sunshine.Ke Ala Hele Makalae goes right through the heart of Kapa'a and is short enough that it doesn’t much matter where you start from—it’s easy enough to ride to the end and back again. As noted above, getting up early enough to watch the sun rise, even if you’re not usually much of a morning person—especially if you’re not much of a morning person!—is its own reward. Even at this early hour, you’re bound to see others already enjoying the path or surfers catching waves with the first light of day.
Start riding north, with the ocean on your right. As you ride along, keep your eye on the water, where, in winter months, you may catch sight of breaching whales. Pods of dolphins, monk seals and green sea turtles are all possible wildlife sightings as well. You’ll ride by numerous public beaches, so plan to make a day of it, packing plenty of beach items and sunscreen. You may want to leave room, though, for fresh pineapple, star fruit and coconut from fruit vendors you’ll pass along the way.
For lunch, try Chicken in a Barrel; they specialize in barbecuing meats in their custom-made 50-gallon drum. Bubba Burgers offers big burgers, shakes and fries along with generous portions of frivolity; they “cheats tourists, drunks and attorneys,” according to their tagline, and proudly sell merchandise advertising this tongue-in-cheek fact.
Stop to read a little local history on the dozens of cultural markers and interpretive signs you’ll see along the path. Explore boundary markers, native names of streams and canals, plants and animals found in the area, and archeological, cultural and historic sites. About 2 miles from the trail’s terminus is Kealia Beach, a popular surf spot. Lifeguards are stationed here, making it a good place to dip your toes. The trail ends at Ahihi Point, just past Donkey Beach, named for a sugar plantation company’s animals that once grazed above the beach. This is the most remote spot you can access from the trail.
Back in town, Hukilau Lanai is far and away one of Kapa'a’s best places for dinner. It’s pricey to be sure, but premium ingredients come from Kaua'i and the neighboring islands. Both the surf and turf come highly recommended, and they offer gluten-free dining options. The Pono Market is a small shop specializing in native Hawai'ian fare, such as poke, a raw seafood salad, and Laulau, pork or chicken wrapped in a taro leaf.
South of the Wailua River—the only navigable river in all of Hawai'i, with 3 miles of waterway that passenger boats can traverse—is the lower section of the trail. The meandering loop through Lydgate Park is the perfect place for families with youngsters and offers plenty of picnic tables, picturesque vistas, a lifeguard-staffed beach and—for those not yet ready to explore the open ocean—two artificial lagoons that create a safe haven from the ocean waves while still allowing small reef fish to move in and out. The protected calm waters make this the perfect beginner beach for snorkeling.
We wouldn’t blame you for wanting another day or two to enjoy the trail and lounge on the beach. Once you’ve gotten your fill, though, there’s some interesting historical sites to check out around the island. None are easily accessible by bicycle, however.
The Grove Farm Sugar Plantation was one of the first sugar plantations in Hawai'i. Take a train ride back in time to when sugarcane fields coated the island and went from field to factory in small sugar trains. The museum’s impressive collection of steam locomotives includes “Paulo,” the oldest surviving plantation locomotive in Hawai'i, along with trains named “Wainiha,” “Kaipu” and “Wahiawa.” Grave Farm offers free train rides on the second Thursday of each month and is closed on major holidays.
Along 'Opaeka'a Rd. west of Kapa'a is a one-lane bridge built with steel trusses forged in 1890 by the Alexander Findlay & Company of Scotland. The 'Opaeka'a Road Bridge is believed to be the only British-built bridge located in the United States and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Kamokila Hawaiian Village is a replica of a native village; for a nominal fee you can explore numerous thatched roof buildings, learn about the life that native islanders once lived and see craft demonstrations, including lei making. Highlights of the destination include Fern Grotto and Secret Falls. The grotto is a broad opening to a shallow cave over which a waterfall once ran down to the Wailua River. Sword ferns proliferate here, even hanging upside down from the cave roof. A somewhat difficult hike brings you to the Secret Falls, a 120-foot waterfall that the ruler of the island was once purported to bathe in. You can rent kayaks to explore the nearby waterways and or buy birdfeed to attract peacocks, chickens and other winged friends.
Nestled under a sacred volcano, painted with waterfalls, rainbows, jungles and flowers, Kauai Aadheenam is a traditional South-Indian style Hindu monastery-temple complex founded in 1970. Monks here live a strict lifestyle of daily religious worship that begins each day in the temple with services to Lord Ganesha, Lord Muruga and then Lord Siva, followed by yogic meditation led by the guru. Explore the beautiful grounds or take a weekly guided tour (but only if you are looking to worship or meditate should you enter the temple). Parking is limited, and reservations for the guided tour are required.
As the destination of choice for more than a million visitors a year, Kaua'i offers more things to do and places to eat than we can mention—we’ve hardly scratched the surface! The seafood infused Mexican-inspired offerings at Monicos Taqueria —fish tacos, shrimp and scallops burritos, etc.—are especially recommended. Oasis on the Beach is an open air restaurant with, as the name implicitly promises, great ocean views that serves up high-class meals reflecting a diversity of cultures.