Standing on a steep slope of loose, red lava rock and peering hundreds of feet down to the lush floor of Kauai's Waimea Canyon, I recognized the sound of rushing water.
About 90 minutes earlier, I'd started my trek along a hiking path known simply as the Canyon Trail, descending first through a dense forest loaded with native koa and ohia lehua trees before venturing more recently onto the open, lava rock ridgeline.
Certain that the water I heard was the stream feeding nearby Waipoo Falls, I did my best to capture the show-stopping canyon vista before me with my little camera and then hurried on down the trail, hoping to reach the waterfall before anyone else.
Waipoo Falls. Photo Credit: Shane Nelson
I'd driven away from my accommodations at the historical Waimea Plantation Cottages before 8 a.m. specifically to get the jump on the eventual stream of rental vehicles and crowds that head up daily to Waimea for photo ops at two well-known drive-up lookouts.
And while the Canyon Trail has become increasingly popular in recent years, most Kauai visitors still don't set aside time to explore the region's numerous hiking paths, many of which traverse nearby Kokee State Park, and they miss a wonderful opportunity to explore some of Hawaii's best-preserved native forest.
"On some of these trails, you might have the opportunity not only to hear endangered birds but also see them," said Chris Faye, the director of the Kokee Museum.
"When you go into the forest up at Kokee, you're seeing around 90% native plants and trees rather than when you're down in the lowlands, where 90% of the plants are introduced," she added. "It's just a different world up there."
Travelers keen to explore some of the many hikes in the gorgeous forests of Kokee State Park and around Waimea Canyon should consider booking at least a couple of nights at the Waimea Plantation Cottages, which are just over a half-hour's drive from the attraction's first lookout point. But the charming collection of more than 60 small homes, some dating as far back as 1884 and each linked directly to Kauai's robust sugar plantation era, also offers Hawaii visitors a mix of history and authenticity that's tough to find elsewhere in the Islands.
"It just goes against the norm for the rest of the state," said Gregg Enright, the Waimea Plantation Cottages general manager. "There aren't many properties, if any, that can transport you back in time like this one can."
Accommodations at Waimea Plantation Cottages date to Kauai’s sugar plantation era.
Ranging from a five-bedroom, ocean-front home priced at $879 per night to one-bedroom units for $149 per night, each of the property's renovated cottages feature period-inspired furniture; full kitchens with modern appliances; covered outdoor lanais; large bathrooms; comfortable bedrooms; and typically a combination living room and dining room.
Shaded by a troupe of swaying palm trees and fronted by a commonly deserted black-sand beach, the 27-acre property is a superb place to simply sit outside in the fragrant breeze and soak in the rhythm of the ocean while doing absolutely nothing.
"If you're a client looking for the big resort experience, like at the Ritz, the Sheraton, the Hyatt, and that's all you know, this property isn't for you," said Steve Douglas, the reservation manager for wholesaler All About Hawaii. "But if you're a person who wants to step back from the norm and see something different, this is a unique opportunity."
Douglas said the Waimea Plantation Cottages are often the best fit for repeat visitors looking for a more authentic, local experience on their return. And the layout makes it a great place for multigenerational family bookings and folks planning large weddings.
Coast Hotels USA took over management of the property last summer, after it had been run for nearly 19 years by Aston Hotels & Resort. Work on a $1.2 million refurbishment began early this year, including improvements like replacing bedding throughout the property, adding air conditioning to the master bedrooms and new paint and curtains in all cottages.
"We just want to bring the status up a little," Enright said. "But we want to stay true to what this place has always been without altering the ambience or the heritage."