3/29/22: Kauai’s South Shore: Vines, Seals & Little People!

Family and friends,

If you’re ever thinking of which Hawaiian island to visit, Steven and I would certainly encourage you to seriously consider choosing Kauai. We’d already spent the past few days enjoying the fabulous Limahuli Garden & Preserve on the North Shore, the magical Napali Coast on the West Side, Donkey and other beaches on the East Side, the moody and misty Waimea Canyon that ran through the center, so here we were finally on the island’s South Shore. Pour yourself a glass of wine or cup of tea and tour the shore’s sights with us – come as we snorkel, feel the spray of Kauai’s mini Old Faithful, stroll through another National Tropical Botanical Garden, see monk seals on Poipu Beach, discover Koloa’s Heritage Trail including the Tunnel of Trees, and finish up at the Menehune Fishpond believed to have been constructed centuries ago by little people!

All the best to you and your loved ones,


On Kauai’s South Shore was what was described as one of its most spectacular beaches, Lawai Beach, which was known for its excellent snorkeling when the seas are calm. Conveniently located at the road’s edge, the beach had a narrow slip of sand. Its somewhat rocky bottom was what made it good for snorkeling as rocks create safe hiding places and grow the food fish and other marine life like to eat.

We were both eager to go snorkeling here on Kauai after enjoying it so much in French Polynesia in December.

Thanks to Google lens, I found out this was a diagonal butterflyfish! We didn’t realize when we snorkeled at Lawai that these would be the most common type of fish in each of the three Hawaiian islands we visited. 

A kin to the diagonal butterflyfish was this threadfin butterflyfish.

Another common fish throughout the islands was this saddle wrasse.

We admitted to being jaded after our incredible experiences snorkeling on several islands in French Polynesia but were still disappointed with not seeing many fish and almost no coral except for this purple cauliflower type. Other snorkelers mentioned they had seen turtles but we weren’t so lucky that first day.

Just a few minutes away was Spouting Horn, Kauai’s version of Old Faithful in Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park. Unlike its mainland cousin, we only had to wait a couple of minutes between spouts of the natural blowhole as it shot saltwater high into the air!

Nearby was the 252-acre McBryde National Tropical Botanical Garden where we had a timed entry for a self-guided walk. Access to the garden from the visitor center was only permitted via a 20-minute bus ride with a very knowledgeable driver who pointed out places of interest along the way.

Allerton Beach:

The driver told us that just ten percent of the plants in Hawaii are native to the state. Those ones known as modern exotic plants were brought, he said, over by explorer James Cook. I think he must have meant also brought over by many others in addition to just Cook.

The driver cautioned visitors to always look up when sitting under palm trees as 150 people die a year (in Hawaii only?) from falling coconuts. He called the coconut trees in the valley a ‘war zone!’

Bougainvilleas were planted by Hawaii’s Queen Emma, he added. 

These glorious Orange African tulips were a common sight on Kauai. Though called ‘tulips,’ the vibrant flowers were on a tree, unlike the tulips we’re familiar with.

On the side of the road were “house plants gone wild” aka philodendrons which can completely cover homes here in Hawaii because of the state’s temperate climate!

An Indian banyan tree:

No visitors were allowed in this part of the garden as just one seed from the fruit of this suicide tree is enough to kill a person.


Steven and I were somewhat alarmed that we had forgotten to bring mosquito repellant with us to the garden when the driver said the mosquitos here were so big they could pick us up and carry us away!

The idea for a national tropical botanical garden goes back to early 20th-century plant explorers who recognized the need to protect and share plants. Plant lovers and garden supporters made that dream a reality in 1964 thanks in large part to the late Hawaii Senator Daniel Inouye whose grandparents lived and worked at the McBryde Sugar Plantation.

It was alarming to learn that one-third of all tropical plant species are threatened with extinction. As a result, one of the garden’s areas of focus was to identify, document, preserve, and grow the specimens most at risk. McBryde’s scientists travel throughout the Pacific tropical regions to collect plant specimens and seeds and then bring them back to McBryde. Staff at its Conservation and Horticulture Center and Botanical Research Center hope to develop strategies to keep species from disappearing.

Our exploration of the garden began on the Hidden Treasures of the Tropics Trail.

Seychelles stilt palm:

We happened to glance over and see this lovely orchid growing from the bark of the tree.

We lucked out and quickly found another orchid. It might have been a tiger orchid.

There are only 12 Vahana Palms found near human settlements. One of their main threats is the conversion of the palms’ habitat to coconut plantations.  

An interesting bit of trivia: During World War II, coconut water was sometimes used as an IV drip when blood plasma wasn’t available.

This low Chinese wall from the Qing Dynasty was donated to the National Tropical Botanical Garden by a patron who purchased it during a trip to China during its Cultural Revolution. The ceramic wall, which had images of flowers, birds, dragons, and butterflies – all symbols of good fortune – would most likely have hung over the main entrance to a compound wall.

The Spindle palm was endemic to remote Rodrigues Island in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Unlike its relative, the bottle palm, the trunk of the swindle palm tends to bulge at the center.

Another tree to make sure not to sit under is this multi-use Jackfruit tree! Its roots and leaves provide remedies for wounds and skin diseases; its termite-proof wood makes excellent furniture and instruments; its fruit and seeds can be cooked and eaten in many ways.

I think the St. Thomas Bean was the most unusual vine we’d ever seen with its fantastic bundles of thick, dull brown vines spilling down like old-fashioned phone cords! The vine grows from southern China through Southeast Asia, into Australia, and across the Pacific Islands.

The Philosopher’s Walk in the garden’s Lawai Valley contained 300 trees that represented 43 countries from around the world, half of which were collected in the wild by the garden’s conservation and research staff.

Like all ficus trees, the Chinese Banyan tree requires a particular wasp to take part in its reproduction. Unfortunately, once the banyan’s pollinator wasp was deliberately introduced, it allowed the species to spread beyond original ornamental plantings which has resulted in their strangling native trees.

Just like Limahuli Garden and Preserve on Kauai’s North Shore, McBryde also included a Canoe Garden which was made up of plant species brought here at least 1,000 years ago. These plants helped continue long-established traditions and values over thousands of miles and many epic voyages. 

Polynesians reaching Hawaii, the most geographically isolated landmass in the world, didn’t happen overnight. The journey by canoe was made many times before Hawaii was called home.

What is known of ancient canoes has come from petroglyphs left by Polynesian ancestors as well as oral histories passed down from generation to generation.

McBryde had a better explanation than Limahuli for its canoe garden, indicating that the Polynesians brought 30 plant species with them to Hawaii in canoes because they realized they would need to survive and continue their traditions in a new place. As space was so tight in the double-hulled canoes, each plant was chosen for its multiple uses as well as for representing the explorers’ traditions, stories, and identity.

The hoi were tubers that formed on the stem above ground and provided food when others yams were scarce. Though quite bitter, they were, and are, an important food source in times of need and famine.

The red-brown wood of the Portia tree was valued by early Hawaiians for carving canoe hulls as well as bowls and serving dishes.

Things needed for every day – beds, pillows, floor mats – could all be made from the leaves of the hala or screwpine tree. 

The stems of these giant ‘Ohe bamboo grasses were made into spears for hunting, tools for decorating fabric, and for making delicate music. In the Hawaiian religion ‘Ohe was considered the body form of the life-giving god Kane.

There were lots of other plants in the Canoe Garden but most were ones we’d already seen at Limahuli several days ago.

We strolled next through the Native Plants Garden.

How small a world it is – we were amused to find out that this baseball plant also known as Campanulaceae had actually been grown in the Chicago Botanic Garden which we toured last year while visiting our daughter and her family there. Chicago was also hardly a tropical isle, either!

Some of the largest blooms I’ve ever seen were these Cup of Gold which was a relative of potatoes, tomatoes, and eggplants. The beautiful tree, also called Hawaiian Lily, apparently releases a fragrance at night that reminds some of coconuts.

Unlike any other gardens we’ve been to, McBryde’s had a set time we were compelled to finish our tour because of the requirement visitors had to return to the visitor center by bus. If we had a do-over, we wouldn’t have wasted our time and money at the McBryde National Tropical Botanic Garden as it paled so far in comparison with Limahuli. The individual gardens had less appeal and being on a time crunch severely limited our ability to wander and explore at leisure. But to give McBryde its due, the orchids and bean vine sure captured our attention as did the driver’s entertaining spiel!

Beach time seemed very appealing after so much bus time to see McBryde so we drove to Poipu Beach Park which was only a few miles away. Described as the most popular beach on the South Shore, it’s a favorite for snorkelers and swimmers when the sea is calm, and a favorite for bodyboarders and surfing when the surf is up.

The beach’s abundant marine life was another of its major attractions. Poipu was known for the threatened green sea turtles and the endangered native Hawaiian monk seals who frequent the beach. Humpback whales also appear from November through May. Somehow, scientists knew that ancient Hawaiians fished and played here and harvested salt nearby.

Thanks again to Google lens, I was able to identify this as a Yellowtail coris.

Christmas wrasse:

Google lens couldn’t come to my rescue identifying this scarlet ‘coral’ or whatever it was.

It was really fun looking up from reading my book and seeing these Hawaiian monk seals resting on the beach just a few yards from our towels! Since they are such frequent visitors to the beach, lifeguards had cordoned off an area so beachgoers couldn’t approach the seals.

Near Poipu was the inland town of Koloa, the site of Kauai’s first sugar mill that opened in 1835 which ushered in an era of sugar production throughout the Hawaiian islands. Throughout the South Shore were 14 historical stops along the Koloa Heritage Trail where we could learn about the region’s whaling history, sugar industry, ancient cultural sites, etc. That sounded especially appealing to me but not being able to find most of them on Google maps proved quite frustrating.

When we retraced our steps to Lawai Beach, our first stop of the day, we noticed the Prince Kuhio Birthplace and Park directly across from the beach. The prince, who was born in a grass hut near this spot, became a delegate to the US Congress after Hawaii became a territory in 1900. Serving for 19 years, he worked tirelessly for the Hawaiian people. 

Not too far away were Hanaka’ape Bay and Koloa Landing. In the mid-1800s, the landing was the third largest whaling port in all of Hawaii and also the only port of entry for foreign goods. The sugar industry increased its use until 1912 when better facilities became available.

Mor Gardens proved impossible to find for us but they were somewhere near this spot in a very attractive resort!

Fortunately, Kaneilouma was easy to find! Henry Kekahuna, a surveyor and researcher, wrote extensively in the 1950s about preserving Hawaiian culture and cultural sites. One of them was a fully functional and self-sustaining complex that was important to Kauai society before the 1800s.

We detoured to the delightfully-named Shipwreck Beach for a few minutes where its expanse of fine sand looked perfect for wriggling our toes in when we had more time

A volcanic cone, Puu Wanawana, was theoretically in this area but we couldn’t see it among the tall grass. 

I was surprised that St. Raphael Church was not part of Koloa’s Heritage Trail as it was Kauai’s oldest Catholic church.

As you can probably figure out from the context, Mahalo means ‘thank you’ in Hawaiian.

The Koloa Jodo Mission was a Buddhist temple established in 1910. The mission provided Japanese immigrants a place to worship, study their language, learn martial arts, and also participate in social events. The temple used a specialist in temple architecture from Japan to build the large temple interior. The hand-painted wooden ceiling tiles were a gift from the Japanese artist who created them.

If we’d had more time, it would have been amusing to wander through the town of Koloa and poke in its historical buildings that had been converted into fun shops and restaurants.

On a Koloa side street was Koloa Mission Church which had been founded in 1890 by missionaries who had come to serve the town’s immigrant population working in the sugar industry.

IF you ever are lucky enough to visit Kauai, make sure you drive out of Koloa along Route 520 known locally as Tree Tunnel Road as you’ll soon see. It’s hard to imagine a more beautiful few miles of road than this one for its stupendous views of the terrain.

This lovely canopy of eucalyptus trees lining the road as far as the eye could see was a wow sight for us! The trees were planted at the turn of the 20th-century by Walter McBryde, a Scotsman who began cattle ranching on the South Shore.

Though the canopy of trees was literally ripped to shreds during hurricanes in 1982 and 1992, they grew back into this impressive tunnel.

Even though it had already been a long day, we figured in for a penny, in for a pound, and headed to Menehune Fishpond in Niumalu before heading back to our condo in Lihue! According to our guidebook, no one knows who exactly built this elaborate aquaculture structure in the Huleia River. 

Depending on whom you ask, the fishpond may have been built by the Menehune, a Polynesian race of people who settled Kauai before the arrival of the Kanaka or Hawaiians about a thousand years ago. Referred to elsewhere on the island as ‘little people,’ the Menehune are credited with great engineering works that have still survived such as large heiau or temples, stone-cut irrigation canals, and these fishponds.

The fishpond was built by cutting off a bend in the river with an artificial wall of volcanic rocks intended primarily for raising mullet and other freshwater fish. The wall began with a single row of stones cut four feet thick and five feet high that then became twice as thick as the wall got further out into the river and the current started to be effective. The fishpond enclosure has endured for centuries!

Next post: Exploring sights closer to us on our last day: in Waimea and the Fern River Grotto.

Posted very early on April 21st, 2022, from our home in Denver as we connect with friends and doctors for a few weeks before hitting the open road again.


4 thoughts on “3/29/22: Kauai’s South Shore: Vines, Seals & Little People!

  1. You’re certainly selling this beautiful island very well! Everywhere looks very lush and I like the mix of scenery with interesting small towns and beautiful beaches. I especially liked seeing the Cup of Gold flower – stunning!


  2. Thanks, Sarah, for kindly commenting on the post. Impossible NOT to sell the beauty of Kauai in my mind as it has a wonderful combination of tropical gardens, historic towns, the Grand Canyon of the Pacific in Waimea Canyon, endangered Monk seals, the genius of the Menehune people and so much more. The Cup of Gold flowers were ginormous!


  3. Lucky you seeing orchids sprout from tropical trees in the past as this was our first time! I have to think that you will also see many other places to put on a Hawaii wish list by the time I get done writing the posts about our trip. I’ll be curious to know which places appeal to you and Michaela!


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