Riding a raft to Kauai’s Na Pali Coast
NA PALI COAST, Hawaii – Paddling along in their double-hulled canoes, the ancient Hawaiians had roughly this same vantage point of Kauai’s northwest shore. And it’s difficult to imagine them feeling any less significant than we did.Black cliffs rise precipitously from the ocean, soaring more than 3,000 feet, where they are topped with serrated ridges. Deep, hanging valleys are tucked into the folds of the cliff face’s corduroy contours. Waterfalls trickle from high above. Ocean swells roll up to the base and expend themselves in sudden bursts of foam. When the sun occasionally peeks through, the overgrown landscape gleams in emerald hues.
For miles and miles, there isn’t the slightest indication of man.
We bobbed in the ocean currents in a 24-foot rubber raft, peering into sea caves, scanning deserted beaches, craning our necks to take in the summits.
It isn’t tourist-bureau hyperbole to refer to Kauai’s Na Pali as “the forbidden coast.” Its daunting natural features do, indeed, hold all but a handful of visitors at bay.
If you look at a map of Kauai, you’ll see that the major highways form a great smile around the base of the island. Na Pali’s shear rock faces defy roads and habitation, resulting in about 15 miles of coastline that can only be reached on foot (via the difficult
Kalalau Trail) or by something that floats. (Helicopter tours will give you a glimpse from the sky, but unless you’re a movie production company that has paid a hefty fee, you won’t land.)Catamaran tours regularly ply these waters, but they can’t venture under the arches, into the sea caves and onto the shore as some raft excursions do. The latter can be a punishing undertaking, especially if the winds come up on the return, creating a pounding ride as the boat porpoises along the ocean surface. But the payoff is considerable.
“We don’t use the word `rough.’ It’s always rough,” Wendell Merritt, captain of our Kauai Sea Tours outing, said in a dockside orientation before we set out. “We use the word `exciting.’ And at times out there today, it’s going to get really exciting. This is the rock ‘n’ roll thrill ride. And you need to know now: I don’t allow any whining.”
Not surprisingly, the company has the occasional customer who returns to the office after this talk and signs up for a different tour, even if it means coming back on another day. The catamaran rolls with the swells a bit more gently, offers protection from the elements, has restrooms and serves mai tais on board.
But it’s a trade-off: The people on that tour are denied many of the experiences that made our trip memorable. This was the beach-landing raft tour, a 5 1/2-hour excursion offered from April to October, and it gets up close and personal with the Na Pali Coast.
The rubber tour boats used to go out of Hanalei Bay on the north shore of Kauai, which is much closer to Na Pali, but concerns about environmental impact on the bay scrubbed those operations. Now the operators have to make the long haul around from Port Allen on the southwestern side of the island, a one-way boat trip of about 30 miles to the mouth of Na Pali’s spectacular Kalalau Valley.
The views and experiences along the way are plenty rewarding, though.
The boat cruised past Waimea Bay, chosen by English Capt. James Cook for his first landing in these islands in 1778. We also got to contemplate what is surely the best posting in the United States military: commanding officer of the Barking Sands Pacific Missile Range Facility, which comes with an oceanfront residence on a 17-mile, all-but-deserted beach. Niihau, the Hawaiian island to the west that permits no tourists, was in view off the port side most of the ride. And the boat motored the entire length of remote Polihale, perhaps the most photogenic beach in all of Hawaii.
We had plenty of company, too – at least of a marine variety.
The boat’s engines were suddenly cut as we came upon two Hawaiian green sea turtles, languidly floating on the surface like algae-crusted boulders.
A short time later, spinner dolphins were suddenly all around us, swimming alongside the boat with their young, some leaping from the water to execute their signature pirouettes. Some swam up to the edge of the raft and then plunged beneath it, as if we were no more threatening than some great leviathan cruising the coast. It was a Nyland painting come to life, set on a brilliant-blue ocean with visibility to a depth of 60 feet.
The cliffs meet the beach at the edge of Polihale, and it is there that awe sets in with each successive perspective of the Na Pali Coast.
Farther on, Merritt deftly maneuvered the boat beneath a sea arch and into a dark cave, always backing in. He noted that the waters along this coast are wildly unpredictable, and he always wanted to be positioned for a hasty escape should a rogue swell come rolling toward the cave entrance. The highlight was venturing into an open-ceiling sea cave, a vast cone of rock that was open to the sky, with a small island at its center.
He also had some fun with a little waterfall tumbling over the mouth of one rock opening; the boat was turned this way and that so that every one of the 12 passengers got a brief shower.
But the air was 80 degrees, everyone aboard was in a bathing suit, and the sun was peeking out occasionally to warm the breeze.
The natural features ashore were spectacular … and vaguely familiar. We came to learn why: Because of its rugged, other-worldly characteristics and its lack of power poles and highway cuts, the Na Pali Coast is a popular location for Hollywood whenever an exotic land is being depicted. Among the movies that have used it as a backdrop: “King Kong,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Star Wars,” “Jurassic Park,” “Six Days, Seven Nights.”
A rubber raft is particularly advantageous because it’s the only craft permitted to make a beach landing – ocean conditions permitting – at Nualolo Kai, a long-abandoned Hawaiian village located where a rocky beach is sheltered slightly by reef.
As lunch was readied at a picnic shelter, crew member Kapono Ueno led us on a short hike past rock ruins of home sites, burial grounds, canoe shelters and a heiau (temple). The village was occupied until about 1910, he said.
Gear was provided for snorkeling in the channel that extends just off the beach, but few members of our group availed themselves of the opportunity. It was apparent that fatigue had begun to set in.
This excursion is definitely for the Hawaii visitor with a hardy spirit and a reasonable degree of fitness. You sit on the inflated pontoons that form the sides of the raft, holding onto a strap with one hand and tucking a foot (or both feet) under another strap that runs along the floor of the boat. There is no back support, and particularly in the swells of the open ocean you are constantly flexed, either holding on or bracing for impact when the boat plunges into a trough.
Spray frequently sloshes over the boat’s sides, so you have to be a trouper, because you’re going to get wet. The bathroom, meanwhile, is the ocean. The boat is stopped periodically and those who need to take care of business leap off the sides. (Might want to go light on coffee that morning.)
The crew was extremely professional, with no horseplay, and there wasn’t a drop of beer on board, even for the guests.
Even on the way back, when the winds whipped around us, the perspective from well offshore, at the very surface of the ocean, was somehow reassuring. If only because that’s how the ancients beheld the Na Pali Coast – a primeval wonder that has changed little since their day.
IF YOU GO
GETTING THERE: Kauai Sea Tours’ beach-landing raft excursion is offered from April to October (the winter is generally savage on the Na Pali Coast). Check-in time is 6:15 or 7:15 a.m. in Port Allen, about a half-hour drive from the Poipu Beach resorts. Although the tour company’s Web site says the trip lasts 6 to 6 1/2 hours, our boat departed just before 8 a.m. and was back by 1:45 p.m. Continental breakfast and picnic lunch are provided. With an Internet booking, the cost is $135 for adults, $105 for children ages 5 to 12.
INFORMATION: www.kauaiseatours.com; (800) 733-7997, (808) 826-7254.