Fly over Kauai and you won't spot many roads twisting through the destination's lush interior, but the oldest island in the Hawaiian archipelago does feature an assortment of winding passageways you can't find anywhere else in the state: navigable rivers.
Formed nearly 6 million years ago by a hot spot in the planet's crust, which later produced the younger Oahu, Molokai, Lanai and Maui and continues to add to the Big Island today, Kauai has simply had more time to erode than the rest of the state, fashioning unique geological treasures such as Waimea Canyon, more sandy beaches than any other Hawaiian island and deep, meandering rivers.
One of the largest of those waterways, the 20-mile-long Wailua River offers travelers a chance to explore the Garden Isle's remote inland beauty with a paddle. Wailua means double waters in Hawaiian and is named for its north and south forks.
During a recent visit, I joined Kayak Kauai, one of the island's first paddling outfitters, on its Sacred Falls Tour, launching from a Wailua boat ramp just upstream from the Pacific.
"It's about a 45-minute paddle followed by a 45-minute hike to the falls," said Micco Godinez, who started Kayak Kauai with his brother Chino in 1984. "So by the time people may be deciding their arms are a little sore and they've had enough paddling, it's usually time to land and start hiking."
During the leisurely trip upstream, kayakers are guided along the olive green Wailua, gliding past banks lined with leafy hau bushes, a plant ancient Polynesians introduced to Kauai and used to make rope. Paddlers may also have views of Kawaikini and Waialeale, the tallest points on the island, at about 5,000 feet.
"The Wailua River is fed from Waialeale, or the rippling waters [in Hawaiian]," Godinez said. "Up there you find the headwaters of not only the Wailua but the Hanalei. It's the mother of a lot of the rivers."
Frequently veiled with heavy, gray clouds, the serrated summit of Waialeale, actually the rim of an extinct volcanic caldera, is one of the wettest places on Earth, averaging more than 400 inches of rain each year. Although Kauai's coastal areas don't see anywhere near that much moisture annually, the substantial rainfall of the island's interior makes the destination a terrific spot for waterfalls, including Uluwehi, the 100-foot star attraction of Kayak Kauai's Sacred Falls trip.
"The waterfall is just amazingly beautiful," said Kevin Ditamore, owner of online activity wholesaler AdventureinHawaii.com
. "It's much taller than you think it's going to be, [and] it's certainly an adventure to get there. With no road to take you there, the river is your highway."
A Kauai resident, Ditamore told me his company "sells a lot" of the Kayak Kauai Sacred Falls tours because "it captures the uniqueness of Kauai."
"Whenever I have friends or relatives come to Kauai for the first time, that's an excursion I like to take them on," he said. "I really think it's what most people who come here are looking for."
Requiring a total of about five hours, the Sacred Falls adventure certainly gives visitors a chance to sample a great deal of Kauai's charm, featuring picturesque paddles up and down the Wailua along with the relatively easy hiking through verdant rainforest, which includes several fun stream crossings and an up-close look at ancient Hawaiian ruins.
Visitors also have a chance to swim in the cool mountain pool at the base of Uluwehi falls, pose for photos in front of the iconic Hawaii backdrop and sit down to a picnic lunch in the postcard setting.
"I don't think we've ever had anybody tell us they didn't enjoy the tour," Ditamore added. "And we've been selling it now for more than 10 years."
Commissionable to agents, Kayak Kauai's Sacred Falls product is $85 for adults and $60 for children 12 and under. The tour isn't suitable, however, for smaller children not able to hike on their own.