Kayaking the Na Pali Coast is not a leisurely paddle through some pretty scenery. It is a full on, strenuous 17 mile ocean kayaking experience that happens to have some of the most breath taking views in the world. Deemed by National Geographic as the second best adventure in the country, it doesn’t disappoint. We were fortunate enough to set off in early July, when the weather was calm (read: no wind), the seas were calm (read: no helpfully strong current) and the wildlife active (read: can you ever get tired of seeing sea turtles?). But it wasn’t until we set off from Ha’ena Beach Park and kayaked a mile around to the “last take out point” at Ke’e Beach that I had a real idea of what we were getting into. Like any activity, the first few miles are exciting, exhilarating, and most often than not a period of “breaking in”. Not exactly an avid ocean kayaker (not too many oceans here in Charlotte), and since I haven’t been regular in the whitewater boat for several years my kayaking skills were a bit rusty. Not to mention we were placed in a tandem kayak (read: divorce boat). With so many adventure races behind us that required tandem paddling, you’d think we would have learned to work together in the boat better. Alas, we have not and the tandem boat is still a cause for discord. Our boats always come with too many captains and not enough sailors. So the first mile was a bit of an adjustment, but we were flying high on the fact we had hiked in and out from Kalalalu beach in a day and felt invincible. With 3,000 foot cliffs looming ahead and the promise of some amazing sea caves, unspoiled beaches and wildlife views, I ignored the questioning feeling in my head and set my paddle to moving us down the coastline.
The first seven miles along the Na Pali Coast to Kalalau beach were beautiful. The full Na Pali Coast is in view and you feel like you are on a secret path between the soaring cliffs and the immense Pacific Ocean. The water is a perfect cerulean color, like something straight out of a crayon box, and perfectly clear. You can see the bottom of the ocean 40, 50 in some places 60 feet below. It was incredible to catch a glimpse of an endangered green sea turtle or the many fish swimming below. Our group of 7 got a great kick out of seeing the scenery we had hiked two days before, this time from a different perspective. The trail, which had looked so high while walking, seemed impossibly steep in some areas from a few thousand feet below. When we arrived to Kalalau beach we were all thrilled to see the white sand beach again and spent some time loosening our muscles by swimming off shore.
The stretch to Kalalau Beach was boring in comparison to what happened after we left and paddled further up the Na Pali Coast. Dipping in and out of pitch black sea caves, open-ceiling grottoes, under waterfalls that drop into the ocean, the coast’s twists and turns, we felt as though we had discovered a place of magic. It is hard not to be emotionally swept away by the impressive rock formations bathed in warm sunlight with turquoise water crashing on them as the waves come in. This area of the coast is sacred to the ancient Hawaiians who used the coastline as a training ground. There are some beaches on which it is forbidden to land a boat out of respect for the ancient traditions. Our guides filled us in on the human and natural history of this breathtaking area. And then the endangered green sea turtles began to appear. A few had graced us with their presence earlier in the trip, but at this point we started to see so many it was virtually unbelievable. It seemed that dozens of green sea turtles swam under and around us for the next few miles, with our fellow kayakers shouting “turtle” every few minutes.
As we passed a green sea turtle nest on shore we came to Milolii Beach, at the tip of the Na Pali Coast. I wish we had planned ahead to spend the night there. Not a lush paradise, the beach felt like a shipwreck settlement with a few trees, a faucet for running water and a small shelter for picnic tables. But the peaceful ease of the place, and the sense of being completely at the end of the earth looking out at the vast ocean – that is what drew me to want to stay. Camping is allowed on the beach by permit of the Hawaii State Park system for up to three days. One of our kayak compatriots spent a night there with his children years ago and said the monk seals come at night to rest and relax, making it a wild wildlife experience. No monks seals graced us with their presence while we were there, but all the better.
Past Milolii the geography changes with the wind. Less foliage and smaller cliffs make it less interesting, but no less beautiful. As Catamarans began to pass further out at sea, and boat traffic increased it was clear that civilization was rapidly approaching. Within site of our take out point at Polihale State Park we suddenly spotted dolphins far out to sea. Paddling furiously (read: this is a subjective term, remember we are still on divorce boat) we caught the Hawaiian Spinner Dolphins playing in the water. Swimming directly under us and around us, the pod of dolphins was not shy and spent several minutes entertaining us. Doing their namesake spinning jumps, our whole group realized how lucky we were when our guide, a native to the island, got excited. We never got a truly accurate count, but perhaps we saw two dozen dolphins in our area.
Finally we reached Kauai’s Polihale State Park. Our arms and torsos were tired, our legs were cramped, but we were in great spirits. Attempting to body surf our way onto shore, we looked something like beached whales to the families enjoying an afternoon picnic on the beach. As the water glimmered in the late afternoon sun we packed up our gear and headed back around the island (in a van!) to complete the full circumnavigation of Kauai.