Ancient Polynesians colonized Hawaii from at least 2,000 miles away via outrigger canoe—a voyage that took a month. We’ve barely made it a mile along Kauai’s famed Na Pali Coast before the offer is extended to quit. “This is your last chance to bail,” says our guide Nick Oliver. “Otherwise, it’s 16 more miles with no turning back.”
Though 16 miles doesn’t seem far, for a lot of guests, that’s 16 miles of constant capsizing and vomiting. “If you are prone to seasickness, we guarantee it out there,” they warned us. “Bring your Dramamine.” The office does a brisk business in ginger candy.
Unfortunately, there are a few people in our group who, despite the eye-searing scenery of the Na Pali Coast, are going to wish they’d taken that last chance to beach their kayaks and slink back to the van.
We’re on an April tour to kayak Na Pali Coast with outfitter Kayak Kauai. The paddle traces the famed fluted green cliffs of Na Pali Coast State Park, rising 3,000 feet from the ocean, punctured by sea caves and footed by just a few scallops of isolated beach. You’ve seen pictures or clips of it from Pirates of the Caribbean and King Kong. It’s simply beautiful. It’s also roadless for 17 miles, traversed only partway by a rugged 11-mile footpath. By ocean is the best way to see it, as the Polynesians did, with paddles in their hands. Our is the first trip of the year—the big swell that pounds the north side of the island all winter has subsided early, so conditions are safe enough.
Our group of nine guests is all smiles for the first few miles as our guides shepherd our fleet of double sit-on-tops. “They’re easier for people to get back in when they capsize,” says guide Web Godinez of the deckless boats. “I once led a trip where two teenage dudes flipped 26 times.” For Godinez, guiding the Na Pali Coast is a family business. His father Chino and uncle Micco Godinez founded the company after a five-month paddle up the Inside Passage from Washington to Alaska in 1980 and later made a three-week traverse of Hawaii from the Big Island to Kauai.
We smoothly skirt the basalt cliffs, “palis” in native Hawaiian, in warm morning sunlight, but as our aspect turns more southerly, the broad swell grows in size to head high, gently lifting and dropping our pod of boats relative to each other. The waves smash into the sheer shoreline, splashing foam 10 feet up the flanks. “You can see how high the waves reach in the winter,” says Oliver, pointing a hundred feet up to the vegetation line. The violence of waves that large smashing the shore is terrifying to contemplate.
The conversation turns to the Kalalau trail, occasionally visible along the palis above. Though anchored by ample verdant vegetation, the steep cliffs are very unstable, so the trail is frequently closed by rockfall. Last winter, however, was closed a few weeks for a more sinister reason. Police were searching the trail for a mentally disturbed man from Georgia who’d pushed his Japanese girlfriend off a 15-foot cliff there. After hiding amongst the colony of people who illegally live in the park, he’d finally turned himself in a few weeks before our trip.
Clouds roll in, shrouding the high, green ramparts in tearing clouds and making the scene even more dramatic. The resulting dull grayness of the water combined with the larger swell is what sets off the pukers. Web’s bow paddler is pretty discrete about it, but she’s sick. The guides split one couple when they’re both incapacitated, and the wife spends much of the next few hours retching violently. “Get us away from her,” says Hillary in the bow of my boat, her voice urgent. No dice, Hillary succumbs, demurely barfing into her hand and then trailing it in the water as we paddle in an attempt to conceal her condition.
Even the seasick, though, are amazed by the sea caves. I’m surprised when we venture into the first one, so large is the swell, but the ceiling is two-stories high, and though the water inside sloshes chaotically several feet up and down, no one even scrapes the walls. We time our exits between six-foot swells slinging into the cave. The next is even more dynamic, a cave into an alcove open to the sky above, known as the Queen’s Bath. A rock sits in the middle, and the swell thrusts water six feet up and down the walls in an instant. Once I calm down and trust we won’t be crushed against the rocks, it’s an exhilarating ride. Still, I’m relieved when we make it back to the safety of the open ocean.
At lunch on Miloli’I beach, a huge monk seal dozes nearby as we scarf down turkey sandwiches. Back on the water, Oliver mentions that it should be smoother sailing for the remaining six miles. “Most people don’t get seasick from here on out because the cliffs aren’t as sheer,” he says, which means fewer odd wave refractions. He’s right, it’s an easy paddle to Polihale Beach, punctuated by swims along the way when the sun comes back out. Everyone is happy. There’s one final challenge, though: the landing at Polihale.
“Try not to hit the surfer,” says Oliver as we’re lined up outside the breakers. You can just see the top of his head as he carves down the front of a wave a hundred yards from the steep beach. Oliver sends us in one at a time for our beach landing attempts. One after another, the steep waves lift the double kayaks and toss them upside down. There’s little danger, but it’s a challenge, and in the end, only one guest boat makes it in upright (not mine). Eventually, we all stand on the sand, wet, but smiling, our kayaks dragged up about the waterline.
“Not quite how the Polynesians did it,” laughs Hillary.
If You Go: The 12-hour tour costs $216, which includes a lunch and the three-hour shuttle ride back around the island. The season is May to September, typically, but depends on conditions. Kayak Kauai can outfit you up for overnight trips, guided, partially guided, or on your own, provided you score the hard-to-come by camping permits from Hawaii State Parks.