From breakers to choppers, Kauai offers ways to beat the heat

Ziplining over the tropical canopy is a good way to beat the heat on Kauai, especially if a stop at a swimming hole is on the itinerary.
Ziplining over the tropical canopy is a good way to beat the heat on Kauai, especially if a stop at a swimming hole is on the itinerary. Photo Credit: Tor Johnson/Hawaii Tourism Authority

In the Hawaiian Islands, thanks to their volcanic island nature, there are particular ways for giving directions. Instead of east and west, locals tend to go by windward and leeward, respectively. As each island is shaped by one or multiple mountains, there are also words for toward the mountains (mauka) and toward the sea (makai).

In the summer months, mauka and makai are not just good directional vocabulary words, they also serve as good advice. Sitting in the tropics, Hawaii's temperature does not fluctuate greatly throughout the year, but on average the hottest summer months are about 10 degrees warmer than the coolest winter months. When it gets a bit too sticky to stay at sea level, it's best to hit the water or head for the hills.

Kauai, the only Hawaiian island with navigable rivers and home to towering waterfalls and long, sandy beaches, is a great choice for summer fun. The Garden Isle is known for its stunning, verdant landscape, a product of its relative old age compared to its sister islands. In contrast to Hawaii Island, the youngest island, nature has had much more time to paint the canvas of Kauai, leaving the island with jaw-dropping waterfalls and awe-inspiring Waimea Canyon.

While the record rains that hit Kauai's north shore in April caused landslides that cut off portions of the area, the vast majority of the island is experiencing business as usual. Some areas, such as Napali Coast State Wilderness Park, may still be inaccessible come summer, and travelers with plans to visit the northwest sector of the island are advised to check on the availability of specific activities and accommodations during their stay.

Kauai boasts its own range of options for traditional Hawaii water activities, such as surfing and snorkeling. Wave-riding novices can hit the gentle rollers typically found at Poipu and Kalapaki, while wannabe Kelly Slaters can test their skills on the more advanced breaks of the north shore, some of which host winter competitions. Snorkelers can head to Anini Beach in the north, and Lydgate Beach Park in the east and Poipu Beach Park in the south both boast protected areas great for children and weaker swimmers.

Kauai is the only Hawaiian island with navigable rivers, and the Wailua River is one of the most popular to explore.
Kauai is the only Hawaiian island with navigable rivers, and the Wailua River is one of the most popular to explore. Photo Credit: Tor Johnson/Hawaii Tourism Authority

Certified scuba divers will also find a wealth of quality sites in every region of the island and plenty of options for both beginners and more advanced underwater explorers. Sheraton Caverns, off the south shore near its namesake Sheraton Kauai Resort, is a popular boat dive location 400 yards offshore. The site consists of three partial lava tubes with plenty of nooks and crannies for sea creatures to hide in. The lava-formed archways and overhangs create a one-of-a-kind environment, and visitors can search out sea turtles, frogfish and black coral. For all ocean activities, participants should check the latest water and weather conditions before heading out. 

Meanwhile, in the mountains of Kauai, there are epic ziplines, teeth-rattling ATV rides, rugged mountain bike trails and vista-laden horseback tours. Here are some of the warm-weather activities that stand out on Kauai:

• Kayak the Wailua River: Sure, Kauai has the typical Hawaiian ocean offerings, but what sets the Garden Isle apart from its neighbor islands are its rivers. The Wailua is one of the island's more popular waterways for kayaking, as it weaves by lush, jungle landscapes along the island's east side. Guides offer some of the history of the island and the importance of the river while taking guests through dense rainforest. After a 2-mile paddle on the river, participants dock their kayaks and embark on a hike to 120-foot Secret Falls for a swim break.

• Ocean kayaking: Some tours, like kayaking the picturesque Napali Coast with Kayak Kauai, are only offered in the summer. While it can be more challenging than river kayaking, getting up close to the towering cliffs of the 17-mile Napali Coast can be worth the rigorous workout. Paddlers cruise by sea caves, waterfalls, hanging valleys and hidden beaches. Dolphins, seabirds and monk seals are often encountered along the way, and the tour includes a lunch stop at a sandy, secluded beach.

• See Napali and Niihau in one day: Kauai is the closest island to Niihau, a closed community of Hawaiians that generally does not welcome visitors. You can, however, get awfully close to the island by boat and enjoy the clarity of its pristine waters for snorkeling. The area offers good opportunities to see Hawaiian monk seals and gray reef, silky and sandbar sharks. Holo Holo Charters offers a one-day super tour that takes guests along the Napali Coast before venturing across the channel to the coast of Niihau. The trip includes a stop at Lehua, an uninhabited, crescent-shaped island not far to the north of Niihau that is a Hawaii State Wildlife Sanctuary and a noted snorkeling and diving location.

• Mountain tubing: To serve old sugar plantations in the 1800s, workers built an elaborate system of irrigation channels into the Kauai mountains. Today, all of the sugar mills and most of the sugar cane fields are gone from Hawaii, but the flumes and tunnels remain. In 2003, Kauai Backcountry got permission to turn the old irrigation network into a tubing tour. First, guests are driven through Lihue plantation to get a sense of the history and context of the water-delivery system before arriving at the launch site. Equipped with a headlamp, they then gently float through a series of tunnels and above-ground waterways all fed by water originating near the peak of Mount Waialeale, one of the wettest spots in the world. The tour, which includes views of the mountains and Waialeale Crater, ends with a dip in a swimming hole.

Blue Hawaiian is one of several companies that offer helicopter tours of Kauai, which is the ideal size for an hourlong sightseeing flight.
Blue Hawaiian is one of several companies that offer helicopter tours of Kauai, which is the ideal size for an hourlong sightseeing flight. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Blue Hawaiian Helicopters

• Fly for miles: Koloa Zipline's 1.6-mile course takes more than three hours to traverse. The longest, the Waita zipline, is a half-mile long. The full course consists of eight lines, and Koloa also offers a sunset zipline tour.

Princeville Ranch on the north side of the island offers a nine-zipline course, with a swinging suspension bridge thrown in for good measure. The ranch's Zip N' Dip tour takes visitors over lush tropical forest and a 2,500-head working cattle farm. The tour includes an hour-long respite at a waterfall-fed swimming hole complete with inner tubes for lounging in the water. After the break, the final, longest zipline awaits: King Kong. Riders launch themselves from a 30-foot tower and can race friends on the 1,200-foot-long line.

• Two-wheeled tours: Bikes are sweet in the summer heat, until there is a steep hill and your lungs gasp for oxygen in the thick, humid air. Outfitters Kauai offers a downhill bike tour that starts 3,600 feet above sea level and descends along Waimea Canyon all the way to flat ground. There are frequent stops for vista viewing and picture taking

• Go off the paved path: Since 1999, the 3,000-acre Kipu Ranch has hosted off-roaders and led four-wheel-drive tours. Kipu Ranch Adventures lets visitors explore the cattle ranch established in 1872 in four-wheel-drive vehicles, and the sights include views of Kipu Kai Beach from the top of Mount Haupu, the Huleia River and the settings for several movies, such as "Jurassic Park," "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "The Descendants." Just watch out for the cattle, wild pigs, pheasants, peacocks and wild chickens when taking in the sights.

On the southeast side of the island, Kauai ATV offers 23 miles of diverse trails and features a three- to four-hour tour through historical plantations, tropical valleys and famous movie sites. The journey starts near the Old Sugar Mill of Koloa and ventures along Kahili Ridge before stopping at a waterfall for a midride cooldown.

• Cool off in a chopper:
Another way to beat the heat is to head up in a helicopter. The temperature drops quickly when the aircraft heads over Kauai's mountain ridges, especially during a doors-off ride. The Garden Isle is a great spot for a helicopter tour as the island is small enough to nearly circumnavigate in an hour, and it seems like a towering waterfall or other natural wonder awaits around every corner. From the air, riders can take in sweeping views of Waimea Canyon, the Napali Coast, Hanalei Bay and more. There are several quality helicopter tour providers on the Garden Isle, including Jack Harter, Blue Hawaiian and Safari Helicopters. And Maverick Helicopters announced earlier this year plans to bring its services to Kauai.

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