Napali Coast is one of the world’s most beautiful coastlines


The allure of the Napali Coast State Wilderness Park on the island of Kauai is its striking beauty. The pali, or cliffs, rise dramatically to as much as 4,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean. Hidden beaches are sprinkled among its many steep, amphitheater-like cliffs rising above green isolated valleys, as waterfalls tumble down its walls from great heights.

It attracts all types of people from all over the world — day hikers, backpackers, trail runners, free spirits and hermits. The park, which extends from Haena to Miolii Valley, can be seen by air, land or sea — each a unique adventure that I’ve done, and none of which get old.

The 11-mile Kalalau Trail is an arduous but incredible journey to the remote, white-sand Kalalau Beach, which takes six to 10 hours, depending on ability. (Most people know the trail for the first 2 miles to Hanakapiai Beach.) The helicopter tour takes you inside and around the valleys, allowing you to peer over the coastline in ways you otherwise wouldn’t be able to see. The boat tour is the best of both in many ways, as it immerses you right into the scene with very little effort, which is what I chose to do this time.

The sunny sky is clear and sea spray hits me as we ride the open ocean. Makana Charters’ 32-passenger catamaran zips past Polihale Beach on my right, the last accessible beach by car on the west side. I see campers lining the vast white -sand beach and dunes until the towering cliffs begin.

The light begins to change, as we continue in the shadow of these rolling cliff faces and the ocean turns a vibrant turquoise blue like none I’ve ever seen. Dolphins appear, jumping and spinning, ahead of our boat — I count at least seven or 10 — and I feel that nothing could be as idyllic as this moment.

Miolii Valley is where we spot the first remote beach on the coastline. A small valley, it was once a sustainable place to live, like the other valleys, as Hawaiians cultivated taro and fished for food. It’s also been said before that Miolii, which means “fine twist,” is known for its cordage. The valley was apparently named after an expert sennit weaver who once lived there. It’s also where Bishop Museum acquired an abandoned pili (grass) house that is currently exhibited at the museum in Honolulu.

Located on the Napali Coast, Miolii Beach is only accessible by kayak in the summer months.

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Boat landings are not allowed at any of the beaches along the Napali Coast, but in the summer months, the adventurous set can kayak and land on Miolii’s beach to camp for up to three nights with a permit. I daydream about the number of stars in the sky that must be visible from this remote spot at night, but it’s not long until we enter the next section of the Napali Coast known as Nualolo.

From Nualolo to breathtaking Honopu

Turtles pop up out of the water as we slow down to marvel at Nualolo’s sandy shoreline and fringing reef, the largest on the Napali Coast. Isolated by cliffs on all sides, it is made up of two parts: Nualolo Kai (“kai” means ocean) is the coastal part we can see, and Nualolo Aina (“aina” means land) is the part I’ve never seen. It’s not visible because Nualolo Aina is a hanging valley that doesn’t touch the coast.

Nualolo Kai from the air on the Napali Coast of Kauai. The Hawaiians who lived here would traverse the cliffs to reach Nualolo Aina, the small valley on the top left.

Nualolo Kai from the air on the Napali Coast of Kauai. The Hawaiians who lived here would traverse the cliffs to reach Nualolo Aina, the small valley on the top left.

Brbnkseaj/Getty Images/iStockphoto

In the past, the Native Hawaiians who lived on this coastline would climb these mountains and ridges with ease. There was no 11-mile Kalalau Trail along the coastline — that was built in the late 1800s. Instead, an elaborate system of foot trails once connected the different Napali Coast valleys to each other by climbing up into the cliffs to top — in an area known as Kokee (above Waimea Canyon) — and back down into a different valley. None of these other Napali trails exist today.

At Nualolo, Hawaiians would traverse between the fishing village of Nualolo Kai and the farming village of Nualolo Aina by climbing sheer cliffs.

One such cliff, Kamaile, was famous for its oahi (projecting fire) display. Similar to fireworks, people would gather in canoes in the ocean off Nualolo Kai and watch men light pieces of wood and hurl them from 2,500 feet. Light in weight, the wood sailed into the air spectacularly until it hit the water — possibly to where our boat is sitting.

The cultural sensitivity of Nualolo is evident, which is why only a few motorized raft tours have a permit to land on the beach for an archaeological tour and to educate visitors of the area. Kayak landings are prohibited.

Before continuing, our guide points to a large 400-feet-tall X seemingly etched on the side of the 2,000-foot cliff face. It’s not a marker, he says, but a natural formation made by the crossing of lava. I would have never guessed that.

An aerial view of the Napali Coast's open-ceiling cave from the air. Small tour boats can enter the cave, depending on conditions.

An aerial view of the Napali Coast’s open-ceiling cave from the air. Small tour boats can enter the cave, depending on conditions.

MartinM303/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Our next stop, an open-ceiling cave, is the spot I am most anxious to see, as only smaller boats are allowed inside, depending on conditions. Slowly, our boat propels itself through a large, natural archway. All eyes straight ahead, as we enter the large round cavernous space with an enormous ceiling open to the sky. It’s so much bigger than I expected as we do a full lap around its borders.

The water is crystal clear and no photo can capture its full width — nevertheless, I tried.

Pukalani, the guide says the Hawaiian name of the place is called, which loosely translated means “hole to the heavens.” It was once believed to be the home of a shark god. Makana Charters is Native Hawaiian-owned from the area, and Much of the guides’ knowledge is not from books but passed down through stories from friends and relatives, so these details amplify my experience.

The scenic beauty of the Napali Coast really doesn’t end, as Honopu (meaning “conch bay”) is coming up next. Often considered the most photographed beach of the Napali Coast, it’s appeared in many films, too. “King Kong, “Six Days Seven Nights” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” just to name a few.

An aerial of Honopu Beach and its hanging valley above. The beach is bisected by a natural archway, often seen in films.

An aerial of Honopu Beach and its hanging valley above. The beach is bisected by a natural archway, often seen in films.

rothandrus/Getty Images/iStockphoto

From the ocean, I take in the view of its gorgeous white-sand beach and dunes that are bisected by a natural archway and backed by the Napali’s steep sea cliffs. Incredibly picturesque, the beach is only one part of Honopu, as it also has a hanging valley where Hawaiians once lived further inland.

As lovely as it is, the beach is only accessible by water, and boat or kayak landings of any kind are not allowed.

Majestic Kalalau Valley

Next, we arrive at the jewel of the coastline, as some would say, to Kalalau (which means “the straying,” used to describe someone doing something foolish). I take in the whole scene: a long white sandy beach with an incredible backdrop of those rugged cliffs with large pointed spires like that of a cathedral, and a waterfall flowing down one side. There are a couple people on the beach — permitted backpackers who completed the Kalalau Trail to get there and enjoy the isolated beach. It’s illegal to be dropped off by boat.

Kalalau Beach on the Napali Coast of Kauai. It can be reached by hiking the 11-mile Kalalau Trail.

Kalalau Beach on the Napali Coast of Kauai. It can be reached by hiking the 11-mile Kalalau Trail.

noblige/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Kalalau Valley is larger than any other on the coastline, with an abundant amount of natural resources. It’s clear why this had such a thriving Native Hawaiian population for generations.

Western society disrupted the old way of life. By the early 20th century, most of the Native Hawaiians of the Napali Coastline had left for school or employment elsewhere. The last resident of Kalalau left in 1919 — it’s believed other Napali residents left before then.

Since then, many historic sites along the Kalalau Trail — from Haena to Hanakoa to Kalalau — have been disturbed by cattle and horse grazing, other agricultural ventures and people.

Kalalau Valley on the Napali Coast of Kauai once had a thriving Native Hawaiian population. It's only accessible by hiking the 11-mile Kalalau Trail.

Kalalau Valley on the Napali Coast of Kauai once had a thriving Native Hawaiian population. It’s only accessible by hiking the 11-mile Kalalau Trail.

Yin Yang/Getty Images

Though now a state park, Hawaiians help preserve and take care of their ancestral home through the nonprofit the Na Pali Coast Ohana, addressing issues of illegal campers and visitors who “[leave] behind untold tons of abandoned campsites and trash in the farthest extremes of the Napali.”

In my many visits, I’ve always felt seeing the Napali Coast as a privilege — and preserving its pristine environment and cultural history are of the utmost importance, especially for those with genealogy tied to the land.

Stopping for more than a few minutes to allow photos with Kalalau Beach in the background, our captain reverses direction, and I take in one final view of the famed coastline as we speed back to the boat harbor.

Editor’s note: SFGATE recognizes the importance of diacritical marks in the Hawaiian language. We are unable to use them due to the limitations of our publishing platform.





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