3/30/22: Kauai’s Lihue & Wailua River’s Fern Grotto

Family and friends,

Kauai had been such an exciting first destination island for us and one we would heartily recommend to others considering a visit to the islands. On our last day, I was glad Steven and I finally took the opportunity to see some of the sights in Lihue, Kauai’s largest city, and a very relaxing, if somewhat hokey, boat ride before moving on to another island. No great thrills or sights in either Lihue or along the river but if you’re a Dustin Hoffman or John Wayne fan or like Elvis, read on to get a kick!

All the best to you and your loved ones,


Since arriving in Lihue near Kauai’s South Shore almost a week previously, Steven and I had passed Kapaia Stitchery umpteen times but this was the first time it was open. I was happy since this would be our only opportunity to stop by before we left the island the following day. The red plantation-style building had a huge choice of Hawaiian fabrics and quilting kits in addition to locally made gifts that I really liked.

Lihue is the commercial and political center of Kauai County which includes the islands of Kauai and neighboring Niihau. As we walked around the Lihue Civic Center Historic District we couldn’t help but notice the historic County Building located in a large park.

Also in the park was a small Japanese garden that paid tribute to the Japanese immigrants that moved to Kauai.

Across from the park was the former Rice building named after another local businessman and politician William Hyde Rice, now home to theKauai Museum. Inside were a number of displays that described the island’s history.  

That afternoon we took a Smith’s Motor Boat tour on the Wailua River, the only navigable waterway in Hawaii, to Fern Grotto. The 60-foot-long, 120-passenger Smith’s Boats started in 1946 with just six passenger boats. The first one was just a small rowboat with a borrowed outboard motor.

The boat was unusual as the engine was at the rear.

As we slowly drifted up the river, the captain mentioned that the first Hawaiian people came from the Marquesas Islands, followed by the Tahitians. The coconut trees along the river were planted by the Menehune people. Lands along the river were the sacred capital of ancient Kauai and the birthplace of the island’s ali‘i or royalty.

Just some of the 20 or so people canoeing and kayaking the river that day!

Taro, a tuber brought by the ancient Hawaiians to Kauai, was being grown on the flat piece of land on the riverbank.

I had never seen this contraption before our boat tour! Am I the only one not to have heard of hydrofoiling?!

The captain told us that the 1995 movie Outbreak starring Dustin Hoffman was filmed here. He jokingly said, “Welcome to our Africa!”

A little further upstream was this lovely hillside home where John Wayne starred in Donavan’s Reef. The Duke played the former United States Marine “Guns” Donavan who ran a tropical bar on a South Pacific island which was represented by beautiful Kauai. The movie’s canoe and boat scenes were filmed on the river.

The river’s name, Wailua, translates to “two mouths of the river,” and came from this spot. We took the right fork. The river was brackish with a mix of fresh and salt water and a two-foot change of tides with the ocean. People like to fish for rainbow trout, barracuda, and some type of crabfish.

After the leisurely two-mile jaunt upriver, we arrived at the Fern Grotto landing.

A walk through the rainforest took us past a large stand of Chinese bamboo and some gorgeous tropical flowers.

The Red ginger flower looked lovely but it was inedible.

The grotto was formed millions of years ago by a lava tube and had ferns growing upside down from the roof! There used to be a trail that led to the shallow cave that held up to 125 people at a time. The cave was considered a sacred space for native Hawaiians.

A guide told us that the trail and access to the cave had to be closed permanently in 2006 after “forty nights of rain” caused boulders the size of small cars to fall down from above the grotto.

I wish my camera showed the constant drizzle we saw that came from a natural spring 15 miles inland.

The Ti plant is used for cooking and, according to native Hawaiians, wards off evil spirits.

On one side of the grotto were philodendrons, a cloaking native plant.

Since arriving on Kauai over a week previously we had noticed that the island was infested with wild chickens. They were everywhere! According to local folklore, hurricanes in 1982 and 1992 destroyed domestic coops which let the animals loose in the wild to breed and multiply. Others believe the escaped domesticated birds bred with jungle fowl originally brought in by Polynesians 1,000 years ago. 

While admiring the grotto, we were treated to a heartwarming performance by employees of the boat company. While the woman above played the ukelele and sang Hawaiian Wedding Song made famous by Elvis in the movie Blue Hawaii, she was accompanied by one of the most sensuous dancers we’d seen.

The walk back to the boat landing was an excuse to admire more red ginger and other tropical flowers.

The ride downriver passed very quickly with entertainment provided by staff from the grotto. All the passengers were asked where we were from and how often we’d been here. Those visiting for the third time were called rich!

After the dancer encouraged all of us to learn the hula, she laughingly said she knew who was doing it for the first time!

The boat tour along the Wailua River and to the Fern Grotto was a fun way to end our week on the stunning island of Kauai. It was exciting to imagine how the next two Hawaiian islands we were visiting would compare!

Next post: Onto Maui and a national wildlife refuge, heritage gardens, and way more!

Posted on April 23rd, 2022, from our home in Denver as we’ve been experiencing fierce winds and the driest month since 1963. We’re hoping and praying that the wildfires south of us in New Mexico will soon be contained so their people and property will all be safe and the haze blanketing Denver will be lifted.


6 thoughts on “3/30/22: Kauai’s Lihue & Wailua River’s Fern Grotto

  1. That boat tour looks kind of fun, and the grotto is lovely. The red ginger flowers take me back to Costa Rica 🙂 If you love this sort of landscape you really must go there some time!


  2. Annie, your posts are always interesting and informative and decorated with great photos. But you make me smile too – because just about every one of your posts has some American (I presume) words which must come from your home state – and Englishmen like us have no idea what they mean. I so often have to Google your words! This week’s is right at the beginning. “Hokey”…???!


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