Hike and Camp Kauai for $250 a week

-Published in The Haleakala Times

In the tiring but rewarding aftermath of a hike through Kauai’s Koke‘e wilderness, a nice elderly couple picked us up at the end of the trail and gave us a ride back to the campground. We talked with them about their vacation and my heart went out to this couple; they claimed they were “doing the tourist thing, and it’s breaking the bank!” I almost felt guilty listening to them, knowing that while they were rapidly spending their savings, we were doing Kauai for a week for only $250.

First of all, airline miles are a convenient and wonderful thing. A roundtrip flight to the mainland on Hawaiian Airlines, for example, earns approximately 5,000 miles. That’s enough for a free one-way ticket to an outer island, in our case from Maui to Kauai. With a purchased return ticket, airfare can come to only $60. Secondly, the majority of car rental companies not only ask for a large amount of cash – in the $40 a day range – for a vehicle because I’m only twenty-three years old, but there’s also a standard additional charge of $20 a day if you’re under twenty-five. All of this can be avoided, however, by checking the local yellow pages and finding the discount car rental agencies found on every island. Ithunderdragonn this case, we used Island Discount Cars in Lihue. They charged us only $25 cash per day; just call them when you get in and they’ll even pick you up at the airport. Sure, the car may not have a radio – or a muffler – but it gets you around the island and brings an overwhelmingly charming level of character to the table, an intangible on which no price can be placed.

Once on the road in our noble steed – sans muffler – we headed north out of Lihue, past the wind-tickled beaches of the eastern shore before finally weaving our way into idyllic Hanalei on the North Shore. A culinary staple of Hanalei is Bubba Burgers (“We cheat tourists, attorneys and drunks”), located smack dab in the center of town. For six dollars, a Bubba Burger will sate your appetite and leave you looking for a nice place to curl up and take a nap. Luckily for us, the golden horseshoe of Hanalei Bay lay before us, and a nice blanket, a good book and the shade of palms fringing the bay made for the perfect place for an afternoon nap. Framed by stoic cliffs to the west, the sheer cliffs of Princeville to the east, the time capsule that is Hanalei bay to the south and the remnants of a winter swell lapping at the shore right in front of us, Hanalei Bay is easily one of the most picturesque and serene places one can choose to visit.

Refreshed from our nap, we continued on down towards the end of the road, passing over rickety old wooden bridges, under beautifully landscaped seaside homes raised on stilts, and past the ubiquitous chickens dotting the sides of the road. We passed Lumahai Beach, a place that makes you forget that anywhere else actually exists, and then the confines of Haena Beach Park, which provides amenities and a touch of home that any weary traveler would be glad to see after a long day on the road. We watched the local surfers one-up each other in barreling wasunsetves as the setting winter sun fell asleep over the ridge to the west; an incredibly relaxing day fittingly drew to a close.

You see, Kauai is splendidly set up for camping. While many people are willing to pay for an ocean view room, many others are just as content to swap the drywall of a resort for the nylon walls of a tent, with the ocean literally steps from your front door. In order to camp at beach parks on Kauai, where showers, cooking facilities and restrooms are conveniently placed for your use, you need to go through the simple steps to get a permit, including paying five dollars a night.

With the sun as our alarm clock, we were able to get an early jump on the piece of infamy that is the Kalalau Trail. Not possessing an overnight permit for the entire trail, we opted to simply hike the first allowable 2.5 miles in to Hanakapi‘ai Beach. For those who are unfamiliar with the Kalalau Trail, words such as na paliunrivaled, breathtaking and jaw-droppingly impressive, make meager attempts to do it justice. With clear weather permitting, even day hiking the first section of this trail is simply astounding.

We finally arrived at Hanakapi‘ai Beach, which is framed by two fern covered cliffs, with a sugary fingernail of sand easing itself into the crescent in between. Fed by Hanakapi‘ai Stream, the water near the beach can be rough; looking out at the vast, endless Pacific from this seemingly secret location, one is content to simply sit and stare. An hour long hike up the stream brings you to Hanakapi‘ai Falls. To float in its pool with your ears below the water and your eyes fixed straight up at the cascading water above is to achieve something close to nirvana; you can reach a place where the world seems to stop and you have no care to ever return.

Much later, back past Hanalei, the Princeville Shopping Center provides us with some gas for the car – we needed only $30 worth for the whole trip – and cheap nourishment from Foodland, the basis of most of our meals. For those wanting to momentarily leave the camping mentality behind, and not wanting to dine out of a can for the evening, you can splurge at Hanalei’s main street restaurant/bar called Kalypso, situated on the main drag. With an ice cold Pacifico and Kalypso’s renowned seafood chowder in hand, we sat on the raised lanai, which is the perfect perch from which to cooly watch the passing foot traffic and replay the splendor that comprised such a day.

Wanting to swapwaterfall one ocean view for another, we spent the second night on the water’s edge at Anini Beach Park, a spot recommended to us by a local – an absolute must for all. Facing directly north, the offshore barrier reef provides such ample protection from the invading winter swells that if one were to toss a stone into the still lagoon, you could almost hear the clouds shattering the mirror reflection of the sky above. As night falls, we start discussing which luminary presence is more splendid – the rhythmic single flash of the Kilauea Lighthouse in the east or the gaping Milky Way etched across the sky above; the dance of the campfire on the golden sand or the curious glow of the night fisher’s torch below.

The next day, having sufficiently sampled the bounty of the North Shore, we retraced our tracks back towards Lihue, with our sights set on locales further beyond. After a brief stop at the County Office to obtain a State Parks Camping Permit (again, five dollars), two roads diverged in a wood and we took the one, well, more travelled. In this case, it was the tree tunnel heading towards old Koloa town. Situated a few miles inland, Koloa provides a glimpse into the old plantation days of the island, watchfully keeping its distance from the encroaching resorts and condominiums of shore-lined Poipu just a few miles south. A roast beef sandwich and amber ale from Brennecke’s Beach Broiler in Poipu suffice nicely for lunch, and our muffler-less chariot (by this point labeled the Thunder Dragon) sputters further west towards the looming foothills of Waimea.

There exists some controversy as to whether or not Mark Twain professed Waimea Canyon to be the ‘Grand Canyon of the Pacific.’ Regardless, it is. Colors you failed to see before present themselves with such ferocity that they shatter the tranquility you had hoped to attain.

Wanting to steal a glance at every other outlook, we slowly make our way up to the end of Highway 550, to Pu‘u o Kila Lookout, stepping into the often seen postcard view that is Kalalau Valley from above. Much less crowded than the tour bus clogged Kalalau Lookout five minutes below, Pu‘u o Kila offers an unrivaled sunset pinnacle that no postcard could completely capture.

After spending the last two mornings waking to warm humidity and sweat beading on my brow, the feeling of hairs briskly standing on goosebumped skin is a welcome change of pace. Located just a notch below 4,000 feet elevation, the campground at Koke‘e leaves the unprepared questioning if they are in fact still in the Aloha State.

Amongst the hovering morning clouds and blanketing dew, roosters, ensuring a prompt and hard to ignore wake up call, roam the vast green meadow, intermingling with the occasional nene. Being our last day before departing on a six a.m. flight back to Maui, we decide to wake early and tackle one of the numerous and more lengthy trails in the vicinity – the nine mile loop that connects the Nu‘ulolo Trail to the Nu‘ulolo Cliff and nuuloloAwa‘awapuhi Trail. It’s highly recommended that the trails be hiked from this direction, as to do so in reverse would make for a hellaciously near vertical ascent. To hike the cliff trail is to do so at your own risk; segments of the trail can be washed out, with incredibly narrow passages leading across cliff faces that the non-suicidal would prefer not to falter on. The views that are awarded to the intrepid, however, are well worth what it takes to negotiate this sketchy section of the trail. If Columbus himself were to try to convince his crew, from this vantage point, that the world did not in fact drop into an endless abyss over the not-too-distant horizon, he would have been forced to sail for the New World with an incredibly vacant vessel. As mountain goats bleat on the cliffs below, we ascended up the forecasted switchbacks of the Awa‘awapuhi Trail back to the highway, our eventual conduit in the direction of home.

On our flight back I thought of that nice elderly couple. I wished for them the same simple holiday success that can be attained on an island with so many natural treasures to behold. In this age of first class flights, Presidential Suites, rental surcharges and included gratuities, it’s possible, with the aid of some simple hiking boots, a pair of sturdy board shorts and some nice comfy outdoor gear, to experience all that Kauai has to offer without ever having to “do the tourist thing and break the bank.”

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