Warm weather, incredible views and amazing hiking trails are just some of the reasons to pack up and go to Kauai, the Hawaiian Island known as the Garden Isle because of the lush rich lands, tropical vegetation, stunning cliffs, mountains, valleys and waterfalls. After spending a few cold weeks in Texas, my boyfriend and I decided to take a last minute trip to Kauai to celebrate the New Year. But can you go to wild Kauai on a budget? I was going to find out. In the past, I would go celebrating with my friends club hopping from bar to bar, paying a hefty cover while patiently waiting in line for $15 drinks. Some years our group would have bottle service, which can run from $200 to $500 a person easily. Hotel parties were fun but also expensive when you factor in the cost of event tickets, drinks as well as a hotel room, easily spending $800 – $1,000 for a night of celebration. As we were discussing ideas for New Years Eve, I wanted to see if we can travel for less than NYE night out.
With United airline miles in hand, we booked our flights for $5.60 each, less than a Starbucks Coffee and pack our bags to leave in less than 24 hours. With only 5 days before the New Year, finding place to stay was harder than convincing TSA to give me back my slightly oversized $25 conditioner. My favorite booking site, Airbnb, only had only 2 options: A semi private closet/bedroom for $65 or a condo for $600. Yikes. Almost every hotel on the island was well over $500. Even campsites from the Kauai State & County were sold out. Luckily, my friend Virginia emailed me posting from Craigslist, a cute inn with an even more attractive price, the Kalaheo Inn for $103 a night before taxes. Booking 2 nights, we packed our tent, rented a Nissan Frontier Truck with 4 wheel drive, less than $200 and decided to wing it and camp the last few nights on island, which runs from $5 to $20 a night for two people. There are two sites, the County Site and State Park, where you can check to see if there are camping sites available.
After a long day of travel from Texas, we finally arrived in paradise at night. Unfortunately it was raining. In fact, the weather reports stated cloudy conditions with rain for the next few days, which would making camping very unpleasant. Last time I was in Kauai, about 7 years ago, I was chasing dry patches of sky, driving from Princeville, the northern part of the island, to the south which tends to be drier. With a 2-3 hour round trip commute each day, I spend more time in the car than I would like.
This time, our hotel was in Kalaheo, the southern part of the Kaui which tends to be drier. Like any good budget traveler, our first stop was Walmart, which usually has the best prices on the island for souvenirs as well as camping gear. After picking up a couple of light fleece sleeping bags, duct tape, and bottled water, we headed to the Safeway Grocery Store to pick up some food for the hike and drove to our hotel. When we arrived at the Kalaheo Inn, we had no problems getting in. The one bedroom suite, which included a kitchen area with a plugin portable stove, was more than what we needed. As we looked around the Hawaiian inspired decor, we noticed one thing was missing: The air conditioning. Luckily, the weather in Hawaii is generally in the low 80’s to mid 60’s and there is a gentle breeze to cool the room.
Day 1 – Waimea Canyon & Polihale Beach & State Park
We woke up the next morning at 7am to the sound of crowing from the roosters which run wild on the island. The roosters and chicken are the pigeons of the island, running wild, a showy array of vivid colors, begging for food like hungry dogs. I think they are quite charming and makes Kauai even more special, although it seems like the number of chickens had decreased dramatically from the last time I was here. After loading up the car, we drove towards Waimea Canyon on the west side of Kauai, commonly known as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, a 10 mile long canyon formed by erosion from the Waimea River. Fueling our stomach with heaping piles of scrambled eggs, “little smokies” usually referred to as Vienna sausages, and fried Spam at Gina’s Anykine Grinds Cafe in Waimea Town, we continued towards the western point of the island.
Our plan was to hike into Waimea Canyon after stopping by the Waimea Canyon Lookout to see the beautiful red, green and brown hues along with the famous waterfall. By the time we arrived to the Waimea Canyon Lookout, we were greeted by a flocks of roosters & chickens, as well as excited tourists spilling out of the tour buses with their cameras and flip flops. After taking a few photos at the Lookout with tourist from all over the world (December is a busy time for Kauai), we went towards the the cliff where there is a lookout point unprotected by guard rails, giving you the complete unobstructed view of the canyon. We decided to pioneer the journey and we were not disappointed with the view. Other adventurous tourists followed our lead. My advice: Keep your eyes in front of you and don’t look down!
After leaving the Waimea Canyon Lookout, we continued driving until we reached Kōkeʻe State Park. Wanting to conserve our energy and make better time, we decided to challenge our 4X4 Nissan Truck and drive down the Hale Manu Valley to hike the Canyon Trail and Cliff Trail. It had rained earlier and the red mud was slippery, but we were able to drive the 2 miles in to reach the start of the Canyon Trail. After parking the truck, we trekked through the valley, slipping and sliding our way through the red mud through trail until we finally reached the Cliff Trail, a beautiful viewpoint of Waimea Canyon. Seeing signs for a waterfall, we hiked a little further and arrived at a small but lovely waterfall, where we stopped for a few minutes to take in the view. Tip: Wear good shoes with treads. Having good hiking boots would have made our journey down much steadier, although the hike up was easier.
Kalalau Lookout & Pu’u O Kila Lookout
We continued driving until we reached Kalalau Lookout, a popular photo spot with railing and an easy walked down a paved path. Many tour buses stop at this location and it is an easy walk. For a better view of the Kalalau Valley, go to Pu’u O Kila Lookout, a mile up the road from the Kalalau Lookout with higher elevations. To get an even better view of the Kalalau Valley, we hiked a short distance down the ridge of the Pihea Trail, perched on a land bridge straddling 4,000 feet above the Kalalau Valley floor and the Alakai Swamp, with inland views stretching to Mount Waialeale, “The Wettest Spot on Earth”. Needless to say, the mud was a little slick, but the view was worth it. If you have time, make sure to hike the Awaawapuhi Trail, for the pictures from the trail is amazing! Check out this blog Unreal Hawaii for more pictures on the trail. I am definitely going next time!
View from Pihea Trail
After getting as much mud off of our shoes as we could, we headed towards Polihale Beach to catch the sunset. Polihale Beach and State Park is the 17 miles, the longest stretch of beach in the state of Hawaii. Since we had a 4-wheel drive, we decided to take on the 7 miles of rough unpaved roads away from civilization to the western end of the beach where the Napali Coast starts.
Keep in mind rental car companies frown on driving vehicles off road, so you may want to give the car a quick wash before returning. As we drove through the spectacular stretch of wilderness, it seemed the road was never going to end. After a slow and bumpy drive, we parked our truck and walked towards the unblemished white sand beach.
Polihale Beach has restroom and showering facilities, but no shade cover, so if you plan to spend time here during the day, bring an umbrella and don’t forget the sunscreen. It is an amazing place to camp, but you need a permit. I had tent envy as I imagined what it would be like to wake up to the sound of the ocean crashing into the sand.
Packing up our bags, we headed to the showers to wash the sand off our feet when we met a few locals with their dogs. “The dogs didn’t bark because you have good energy,” said the guy as his girlfriend nodded her head in agreement. Happy with the good energy we were putting out, we headed back to civilization, happy to know our karma was on point.