3/27: Kauai’s OMG Napali Coast & Hanapepe!

Family & friends,

One of the things Steven and I were bound and determined to do while on the Hawaiian island of Kauai was to take a boat tour of its gorgeous Napali Coast. We’d read that even if you only have one day on the island, seeing the Napali Coast should be the thing to do. Thankfully, we had a little more than a week on the island but our coastal boat tour was one of the two highlights on an island full of can’t miss sights. Unlike some other experiences where the hype is overkill, the beauty we discovered along the Napali Coast lived up to all our hopes. I hope you will also sense the beauty of your virtual tour through my lens and perspective.

All the best to you and your loved ones,


Southwest of where Steven and I were staying in Lihue on Kauai’s South Shore was the harbor town of Port Allen and our departure point for our half-day boat tour of the Napali Coast.This would be our only chance of seeing the island’s West Side because you can’t see it from a scenic lookout and the only way to experience the magic of the famous coast is by helicopter (too rich for our blood), by boat or by the hellishly long Kalalau Trail. We couldn’t drive to the Napali Coast, through it, or around it as there was no road on that stretch of the coast.

Trying to decide how to see the Napali Coast wasn’t as easy as you’d think – we needed to figure out what kind of boat we wanted to go on – a rubber, inflatable raft for thrills and adventure or a small catamaran that would be more adventurous but likely crammed with people on top of one another versus a larger catamaran that would be more leisurely and more private. The smaller boats sounded enticing as they could slip into one of the sea caves if ocean conditions allowed it but a downfall for me was their high rate of speed would make taking photos more challenging.

Another thing to consider was what time of day to take the cruise – the morning which includes a snorkeling stop and a chance that spinner dolphins might enjoy the ‘waves’ created by the catamaran and would possibly escort us along the coast or an afternoon tour with no snorkeling but a sunset over the ocean. Decisions, decisions – what to do?! Definitely first-world problems, I know.

We ended up choosing the 7:30 am departure on a larger catamaran with Captain Andy’s Sailing Adventures, a longtime Kauai company that had come highly recommended by friends.

Just after setting sail, Captain Matt gave a very brief safety overview and advised anyone feeling seasick to get out of the cabin and into the fresh air pronto. Several passengers had to take advantage of that later but for some, it was a little late! Another reason to take the morning sail is that afternoon trips are rougher because the winds pick up.

The captain informed us the boat would be heading further along the South Shore and then up inside the Napali Coast as far as possible. 

I asked the captain if this was the high time of the year for touring the Napali Coast and he responded saying “All the time is the busy time for us.” There were 48 out of a maximum of 49 on the ‘cat’ as he described his boat. Ours was one of several just from Captain Andy’s alone that would be touring the coast that day. There were several other operators leaving Port Allen and other departure points to ply the waters off Kauai’s West Side.

Matt stopped for close to an hour so anyone on board could take this one opportunity to go snorkeling. It was nice the boat provided all the equipment so we hadn’t need to lug our stuff with us. It was fun swimming in the 76-degree water but we were far too deep to view any coral so, in hindsight, we could have given the snorkeling a miss altogether except for getting a glimpse of this one Hawaiian green sea turtle. If you’re into turtles, Steven managed to see one on Maui but the best place by far was on the island of Hawaii where we saw lots of them!

The boat continued up the coast with the captain telling us this was Salt Pond Beach.

Everyone was pretty excited to see a pod of spinner dolphins off the side of the boat. This was as big as they get, we were told. Spinner dolphins mate for life with the babies staying with their mom for the first 12 months.

The captain pointed out one of the five sugar mills that used to be on the island but sugar is a dead crop now. 

Still along the South Shore was the small town of Waimea at the base of the Waimea Canyon, also known as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific. This was where explorer James Cook first sighted any of the Hawaiian islands. 

I wasn’t fast enough with my camera to take photos of a whale spouting here so you’ll have to wait until you see some decent photos I caught on our whale-watching tour on Maui, the next island we stopped at several days later! The captain explained the whales can hold their breath underwater for 45 minutes.

Not far from Waimea was a US naval base that monitors 11,000 square miles of underwater activity, something new to me.

As we began to turn northward along the Napali Coast we saw the longest stretch of sand on the island, Polihale State Park, accessible via a long and rutted dirt road which was also the westernmost road. We were advised not to drive there because if we got stuck on the sandy beach, it would cost anywhere from $1,800-$3,800 to get towed out because of the time and distance a tow truck would take to reach us – yikes, definitely a little too remote for our comfort!

Shortly we had our first glimpse of the unforgiving Napali cliffs. They were only at 90-feet elevation and were in the dry part of the island. Further north, they would reach 330 feet high and were the wet part. This part of the coast was only accessible by boat or kayak.

In front of Steven was Hanging Valley where the valley floor was at a higher elevation than at sea level. We learned that there can be up to 60-feet-high swells at this point in the winter. The result is more erosion takes place there than anywhere else in the world.

People lived here until 1200 years ago, farming. growing fruits and vegetables, and raising pigs. They had everything they needed from the land and the sea. 

This was as close as we could get to one of the sea caves because of the size of the ‘cat’ and the waves.

If you remember the Dragonfly movie starring Kevin Costner (I didn’t), the helicopter flew right through this cave. I was suitably impressed even though I don’t know the movie.

Captain Matt joked he didn’t want to get any closer to the Waterfall of Fertility which was called an artesian waterfall as it originated up in the trees. It was the only such one on the island.

The Napali Coast is characterized by its staggeringly beautiful telltale fluted cliffs. 

In the largest valley along the coast known as the Garden of Eden, 5,000 native Hawaiians lived there until missionaries told them they needed a more ‘civilized life.’

Much, much later it became known as a hippie hangout.

IF you click on the photo to make it bigger and also look really closely, you can see the waterfall that was featured in the Jurassic Park movie. The location was known as the Valley of the Warrior.

Just visible through the haze on the left was a 3,800-foot-high waterfall, the second-highest in the state. 

We could just detect the bottom of the waterfall at the back of the cave!

It was only once the boat maneuvered close to the rocks we could see the exquisite turquoise-colored water. 

A little further on was Pirates’ Cave with another waterfall at its entrance. The cave goes in 75 feet. Guess we would have needed to be on one of the inflatable or zodiac boats to see more of it.

Sadly because this had been one of our most enjoyable boat tours anywhere, the boat turned around at the cave and hightailed it back to Port Allen so another group could enjoy the sunset cruise up the Napali Coast beginning at 2. For us, the tour of the Napali Coast with Captain Andy’s was a good decision with a perfect-sized boat for photos and stability and an informative description of what we were seeing along the coast. We lucked out weatherwise, too, which only added to our enjoyment of the Napali Coast.

After the tour, we drove to the nearby town of Hanapepe which meant ‘crushed bay’ in Hawaiian, possibly because of the appearance of the cliffs from the sea. The town flourished as a result of the sugarcane industry in the 1880s which brought Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese, Puerto Rican, and Filipino immigrants to Hanapepe. Successive generations of immigrants built many of the town’s storefronts.  Ancient Hawaiians lived in the fertile valley before Cook arrived in 1778. The main crop grown in the valley was taro. Salt traded from the Hanapepe Salt Ponds was one of the earliest forms of business in Hanapepe.

Described as, or better yet, marketed as “Kauai’s Biggest Little Town,” we were curious to look for the dozen or so plaques with historic photos and stories mounted on buildings throughout Hanapepe. 

The town caught our interest when billed as historic, but in reality, we both found Hanapepe rather depressing with its old storefronts, a few wooden sidewalks, a shuttered movie theater, and only a couple of shops open in the mid-afternoon.

About seven years after a small house was built in 1918, Onzuka Laundry & Cleaners started their laundry business there. In the early 1930s, they had this building constructed to replace the house and ran the laundry and dry cleaners in the storefront for nearly 50 years while living behind it. It was restored as an art gallery in 2002.

The Hanapepe Service Station occupied this site in the 1920s and early 30s before becoming a Japanese sundries shop and a catalog shop for workers’ overalls. In 1939, the Igawa Drug Store and soda fountain opened. When we peered through the windows, it looked like the Hanapepe Cafe had restored the old-time look but it was closed like pretty well everything else in town.

Also closed down was the former Sun Ki Heong Chinese Restaurant which was built in 1932. It was equipped “with a $1000 Knight soda fountain, a huge G.E. refrigerator, Victor phonograph, dumbwaiter, and a doubly reinforced upper floor for dancing if desired.”

Over time, the building, listed on both the State and National Historic Registers, housed a liquor store, baby clothes store, and the well-known Obatake Jewelry Store. After being severely damaged by Hurricane Iniki in 1992, it was slated for demolition until it was ‘rescued and restored.’ However, it sat empty when we visited.

I’m exaggerating but not by much when I say the most activity and noise in town was made by some of Kauai’s omnipresent roosters!

The reference to Lilo & Stitch didn’t mean a thing to me so I googled it/them and I had a whole new appreciation for Hanapepe. I hadn’t heard there was a Disney movie and TV franchise starring a Hawaiian girl named Lilo and the odd, stray ‘dog’ she adopts from the local pound. The puppy, Stitch, is actually an alien experiment on the loose – and soon he brings dozens of his kindred space creatures to live on Kauai, i.e. the Garden Island.

I read that in creating Lilo & Stitch, the Disney crew deliberately mixed up Kauai’s geography. The craft is shown landing on the lush North Shore, which was tailor-made for the show’s surfing and beach scenes. But the illustrators chose Hanapepe on the opposite side of the island when they wanted to find inspiration for a sleepy town on which to model Lilo’s home.

Sadly, there was even a chain and lock across the gate to the Hanapepe Hawaiian Congregational Church that began as a mission chapel in 1890 when services were held in Hawaiian.

I can see why Hanapepe was described by one writer as “beyond sleepy; it’s practically catatonic in its pace.” I couldn’t for the life of me understand why Hanapepe wasn’t marketed to capitalize on its Disney star power. There wasn’t a single reference anywhere we saw except the mural above to Lilo & Stitch which would surely attract a huge number of families to the moribund town.

At a stretch, the town’s big draw was the Hanapepe Swinging Bridge which was actually a re-creation of the original, which was destroyed in 1992 byIniki. The wooden-beamed bridge appropriately swayed and creaked as we walked slowly across it. I was relieved to return safely! 

Though Hanapepe is inland, it was a short drive from one of the better South Shore beaches, Salt Ponds Beach Park especially popular with local windsurfers. We just stayed for a few minutes at the beach we’d first noticed on the boat tour as we’d had our fill of the sea that day.

Next post: Driving up the Waimea Canyon, the other can’t-miss sight in Kauai!

Posted on April 13th, 2022, from back on the mainland in San Francisco, California, where we arrived from Hawaii last night for a few days to spend some time with our young grandaughter, Max, and her parents of course!


5 thoughts on “3/27: Kauai’s OMG Napali Coast & Hanapepe!

  1. That looks exactly like my sort of morning! Whenever I see a boat tour available I can’t wait to sign up 😃 The scenery looks stunning and seeing the dolphins AND a whale must have been a real thrill! A shame Hanapepe disappointed but it dies look rather photogenic at least.


    1. Really a perfect tour of the Napali Coast in my mind only possibly exceeded by a helicopter tour but that would would have been so short in addition to awfully expensive. Not a good combination in my opinion!


  2. Even though Hanapepe was a bust for us after its buildup, the Napali Coast boat tour certainly met all our expectations, Sarah, with the jaw-dropping views of the flutes cliffs that we could only see from the sea.


  3. Could have gone by helicopter which would have been a first but that would have been far too short in my view plus a sky-high price. I have too much of my English grandfather’s seafaring blood in me to normally choose anything but a boat tour!


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