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Kauai: By land and air, Hawaii’s fourth-largest island offers breathtaking views

A couple sets out to paddle the arm-aching 17-mile Na Pali Coast of Kauai, Hawaii. "This is a physical challenge," a kayak guide acknowledges. "But it's more a test of mental toughness."

DINA MISHEV/SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON POST

By DINA MISHEV | SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON POST Published: August 27, 2015

Our first morning on Kauai, I stood on one of the 20 concrete helipads at Lihue Airport trying not to cry. My boyfriend squeezed my hand. “It’ll be fine,” he said.

This trip to Kauai was the present I gave myself for finishing six rounds of chemotherapy. I had one month between the end of chemo and a double mastectomy. Derek and I had picked Kauai three months earlier, when I had no idea how I’d feel when the chemo was over: We figured that if I were still fatigued, there were beautiful beaches to lie on, and if I felt good, there were outdoor adventures to be had.

Because I ended up feeling great, we bypassed beaches to focus on the Na Pali Coast, a 17-mile stretch on the island’s northwest corner. We explored it by every means possible — by foot, boat and helicopter. By car was not an option: The terrain is too rugged for a road.

Kauai is the fourth largest of the seven inhabited Hawaiian islands, more than 500 square miles with dozens and dozens of beaches. Some of the coast’s brick-red cliffs (na pali means “many cliffs”) rise 4,000 feet above the Pacific. Valleys and ridges are carpeted in hundreds of shades of green. The ocean is Smurf blue. Today none of the Na Pali Coast’s canyons are inhabited — the area is a 6,175-acre state wilderness park — but people did live in all of them into the early 20th century.

From the ground, hiking along the Kalalau Trail, you see a hot mess of jungle on one side and cliffs and the ocean on the other. From the air and ocean, there are no signs that humans have ever been there; you can’t even imagine anyone penetrating such a thick, forbiddingly fecund landscape.

My helipad tears had little to do with chemotherapy, mastectomies or cancer. Derek and I, both adrenaline junkies, had selected an hourlong scenic helicopter ride because they offered rides without doors. No doors! We could dangle our feet a couple of thousand feet above the ground, lean out to take killer photos and feel that, at any moment, we just might fall out.

But it turned out that only three of the four passenger seats of our Hughes 500 were doorless. The two back seats each had an open door, but in the front, the pilot got one of the doorless seats; one passenger had to get stuck with a middle seat.

After our group of four was weighed (seats are assigned this way) it turned out that middle passenger would be me.

Cancer wasn’t enough? I wouldn’t be able to feel like I was falling out of the helicopter? That was why I was near tears.

As the helicopter took off, rising like a bloated mosquito, I had already decided the next hour would suck. I was paying $280 for side views of my boyfriend and the pilot. When we got free of the crowded airspace immediately around the airport and the pilot asked how we were, I was too depressed to answer.

My sullenness lasted five minutes.

The pilot had us heading straight toward a ridge at 80 miles an hour. From my middle seat, I could see all the gauges, and I realized we were about 100 feet below where we needed to be to clear it. I thought we were going to crash.

At the last minute, the pilot rocketed us up and over. And then we careened down the ridge’s far side, into a primordial abyss that dropped away for a couple of thousand feet. My stomach fell even farther. I loved it.

As my stomach returned to its proper anatomical position, I decided to grow up and stop pouting. Really, I could see fine.

For about 10 minutes, we flew over Waimea Canyon — at 10 miles long, up to a mile wide and 3,500 feet deep, it’s also known as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific. Then we headed out over the ocean to take in the entirety of the Na Pali Coast, from Ke’e Beach in the north to Polihale Beach at its southern end. We flew along the coast close enough to see the foam from the waves crashing against the cliffs and the lines backpackers had strung up at Kalalau Beach, the terminus of the 11-mile Kalalau Trail, to dry their clothes on.

We dropped into deep, narrow valleys — the helicopter descending in tight spirals because the spaces were so narrow. As we hovered before various waterfalls that cascaded down their flanks, the pilot gave us details: One waterfall was among the tallest on the island; another had a pool at its bottom that people swim in; the really big one was featured in “Jurassic Park.”

My favorite had three streams, and the pilot explained its name had something to do with marriage. Two main waterfalls joined high on the cliff; these were the husband and wife. Lower down, a third, much smaller fall came in. This was the mother-in-law. “Always there and a bit of a nuisance,” the pilot said.

By land, the Kalalau Trail along the Na Pali Coast is serious business. Because of its narrowness and exposure — in its 11 miles, it sometimes traverses sheer cliffs that drop hundreds of feet to the ocean — and penchant for flash flooding, Backpacker Magazine once determined the Kalalau one of the 10 most dangerous trails in the United States. But it’s also on lists of the most beautiful. National Geographic’s top-15 list described it as “the finest coastal hike in the world.”

It turned out that the finest hike in the world was so popular that all the permits to go beyond Hanakapiai Beach, two miles up the trail, were taken. So we just hiked those two miles.

The trail itself wasfar from awesome — overused and dotted with both boulders and mud pits, but “awesome” didn’t even begin to do justice to the views.

When I was a kid my dad described such otherworldly dreamscapes as “phantasmagorical.” Even as I slipped into a mud pit, that was the single word that popped into my head.

Arriving at Hanakapiai Beach was anticlimactic. Dark cliffs rose up on one side; tight forest on the other. The only views were out to the ocean, which looked fairly benign. But signs warned us to stay onshore, including a handmade one, of weathered wood, with a tally of the number of visitors who had drowned here: 83. Derek and I enjoyed our snacks a safe distance from the surf.

Two days later, we took a trail that doesn’t require permits and was worth the two-hour drive from our hotel in Princeville: the Awa’awapuhi Trail in Kokee State Park.

The Kalalau Trail is on the coast; Awa’awapuhi is above the coast, dropping about 1,500 feet along its 3.2-mile length along a forested ridge. The trail stops when the ridge does.

Derek and I scrambled a couple hundred feet past where dirt gave way to rock. There were no warning signs, but there was also nothing but air between us and the ocean, far below. We ate and took more pictures than at any other point in our week-long trip.

On the hike back to our car, we walked into clouds. On the way down, we’d seen expansive vistas of the entire Na Pali Coast. Going up, we saw shades of gray. Anything farther than 20 feet away was invisible.

Passing hikers heading down, I envied them. The mist obscured all clues of what lay ahead. They would emerge from clouds and suddenly find themselves in a postcard.

On the way to the airport for our flight home, Derek and I finally did the beach thing. Flying back to that double mastectomy, it’d be good to soak up just a bit of relaxing ocean energy, right? Protected with warm water and soft sand, Anini Beach was divine. Snorkels slid everywhere through the water like shark fins. Kids built sand castles and buried one another. Teens splashed about. Dressed for the flight, we could wade in only to our knees. We’ll do the beaches next trip.

Unless we get a permit for the Kalalau Trail.


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