Kaua’i Trip Report
With one of the biggest snowstorms in recent history bearing down on the Pacific Northwest, we managed to sneak out of SeaTac airport on our flight to Lihue, HI on the island of Kaua’i with only minor delays and go from 30° winter weather to 85° sunshine in a matter of hours. We were glad to hear the flight attendants announced that Alaska Airlines does everything it can to make sure flights to Hawaii aren’t cancelled. As we made our final descent into the Lihue airport, the ocean swell and whitecapping waves were clearly visible – we knew that we were in for an epic trip of surfski paddling!
Kaua’i is the oldest of the Hawaiian Islands and the fourth largest at 562 sq. miles. The terrain goes from sea level to over 5,000 ft in elevation and is said to have some of the wettest locations on the Earth. The coast is well known or its’ rugged cliffs and reefs surrounding the numerous breathtalking beaches. The island has a population of around 60,000 with much of the inland area uninhabitable due to the steep mountainous terrain. With the same population living on the Island as the city of Bellingham, we had no problem staying out of the crowds and enjoying the open ocean.
The predominant Northwest swell hits the North shore of Kaua’i making this the ideal location on the island if you are looking for the biggest conditions. During the winter, and leading up to our trip, wintertime swell can get up to 20-25 ft, making conditions challenging for even experienced paddlers, while in the summer conditions are much more mellow and more conducive to recreational paddlers.
While we were on Kaua’i, we saw typical daily swell ranging from 5-10 ft, with one day up to 15ft, and we were told that was overall pretty mellow for that time of year. Along with the swell, the tradewinds blow predominating East to West in the winter which makes for great conditions for downwinders from the Eastside of the island back home to Hanalei. We had a few days of mixed & reverse trade wind direction, but it’s an island & as a local paddling guru clearly stated “you know, it’s an island, you can go around it”….so we chased the wind to wherever the best downwinder may be.
Winds were moderate during our stay ranging from high teens- low 20s with a couple no wind days mixed in. The open ocean environment allowed windspeeds that normally at home would produce 2-4ft windwaves to create 5-6+ ft waves. Adding those waves to the existing swell and you had conditions that we Pacific Northwesterners almost never see at home. Also, conditions varied greatly from one day to the next, a downwinder that felt like no work one day could be a big challenge the next time around due to subtle condition changes.
Hanalei, where we stayed for our trip, is an awesome low-key hippie/surf town with good restaurants, shops, and easy access to the beach as well as the Na Pali coast. The vibe wasn’t too touristy and the area didn’t seem overcrowded. Our homebase was the Dolphin Cottages in Hanalei on the North Shore of Kaua’i. With three 2 bedroom fully equipped cabins available for nightly or weekly rentals (with everything from a fully equipped kitchen to beach coolers and towels to gas grill to washer/dryer to outdoor hot shower AND doorstep river access that allowed us to “Paddle In/Paddle Out”) we found the Dolphin Cottages ideal location to be based out of for 12 days.
Down at Black Pot Beach, we met up with Dylan Thomas, owner of Surfski Kaua’i and the Hawaii Fenn Rep, to pick up our boats and get some local beta. Dylan has been living on Kaua’i for about 4 years and has a fleet of Fenn fiberglass rental boats that get the job done for everything from downwinders to surf to easy paddles on the river. Currently he has an offering of singles XTs and a Mako 6 as well as an Elite double. We chose to bring our own paddles and leashes, but he also has those available for rent if needed. Along with this gear, Surfski Kaua’i also offers guided downwinders, retreat packages and lessons. Dylan also has a great shop in downtown Hanalei, Havaiki, that sells incredible handmade local Hawaiian, Polynesian, and Oceania art pieces.
1. Paddling with the whales
The Hawaiian Islands are home to roughly 12,000 humpback whales during the winter months who are down there during their mating cycle. While local paddlers seemed to consider these creatures vermin who might scratch their carbon boats with their barnacles, we were in awe every time we saw one, whether from a mile in the distance to tasting their breath at ten feet away. Paddling near a 50 ft/ 90,000 lbs creature while sitting on 20ft 40lb boat definitely gives you a whole new perspective and appreciation for the ocean.
2. The downwinders The ‘meat & potatoes’ of trip was chasing the downwinders. We were fortunate enough to have both shuttle bunnies and trade winds/ reverse trades producing a spectrum of different runs and conditions. Some of the runs challenged us with technical beam & rebound surf conditions, other runs seemed like endless wave after endless wave with intermittent paddling required. In terms of technical levels of the downwinders, they were definitely challenging and constantly changing in character. Even when conditions didn’t look that big from the shore, once we got offshore we were consistently in mixed 4-6 ft waves along with swell, rebound, and of course, the whales.
3. Sunset surfing With sunset at around 6:30pm, almost every day ended with a 2 hour surf session on Hanalei Bay.
Not only was the surf amazing, but the scenery was stunning with the rugged mountains cloaked in clouds and the setting sun shining on the bay. At twilight we would paddle back up the Hanalei River under the stars to our cabins and call it a day.
4. Waterfall hike While there was endless hiking to be done on the Island, we only managed to sneak in one and it was well worth it. We took the 8 mile round trip Hanakapi’ai trail down the Na Pali coast and up the valley to the 410ft Hanakapi’ai Falls. We started early to beat the crowd and were happy to be one of the few groups up at the falls mid-morning. With it’s bamboo forest, steep cliffs and cold crisp water, this valley and falls is definitely worth the trip.
5. Food We certainly ate well on this trip, with our staple dinner being grilled tuna stakes from the Hanalei Dolphin Fish Market which was on the same property as the cottage (very convenient). We also had some killer burritos at Red Hot Mama’s in Wainiha, some amazing BBQ wild boar from the Anahola Farmer’s Market (Fri- Sun), a delicious dinner at the Postcards Cafe across the street from our cabins, as well as endless fresh fruit and juices. We may have overdone it on the shaved ice at the Princeville market, but it was still pretty good – but maybe not recommended right before you go snorkel with giant turtles.
6. Kauai Hoe Wa’a 2012 Series Race #2
The race was on the South shore of Kaua’i and was originally supposed to start at the Marriott Resort beach at Kalapaki and end at Poipu beach (East to West), but due to a shift in the wind forecast it was switched to even further down the southern coast starting at Poipu and ending at Salt Pond Beach (again, East to West). I was debriefed on the new course the night before the race by Dylan, who was also acting race director. Overall it was a straight shot down the coast, with only a bit of threading the needle through the reef to the finish at Salt Pond Beach. Dylan also mentioned not to swim near the FAD, or Fish Attracting Device, about halfway down the course because when fish are attracted so are sharks (I believe he may have used the word “teeming”). I laughed at what I thought was his attempt to scare the mainlanders, but then heard some stories after the race of some outriggers getting their boats nibbled on recently by sharks in the same area. Turns out Dylan wasn’t kidding. Didn’t see any sharks during the races but that’s OK with me. Kirk had a giant Humpback breach within feet of him at the start of the race and all the competitors enjoyed a barrage of breaching whales during the first half of the race. We hope to get Dylan out to the PNW for S2S to see what he can do on our B’ham flatwater.
7. Paddle down the Na Pali Coast
Kirk and I woke up early, drove to the end of the road, and set off on an early morning paddle down the Na Pali Coast. After a little carnage factor by Kirk trying to bust through the beach break on his first attempt, we were off after an early morning trashing and successful second launching. We paddled a stunning 11 miles west down the coast with breaching whales and the formidable wilderness cliffs as the backdrop. We paused every few miles to drift in the swell, explore sea caves, and float with pods of whales. At miles 11 we turned around and B-lined back to the car and straight to Bubba Burger for a little post paddle calorie intake.
On a side note; We were informed after the paddle from the captain of a tourist boat who saw us on the water that we turned around about half a mile from a dead humpback that was ‘being feasted on by a slew of tiger sharks’. I’m glad my blood sugar dropped when it did, or my craving for Bubba Burger overtook my paddling desire, and we stayed clear of the feasting sharks. Is being chased by hungry sharks the same as being chased by hungry bears? – Can you sacrifice your paddling partner as a peace offering and get away unscathed? – sorry Kirk, not that I was thinking that at anytime….
The set-up, downwind conditions, and mellow vibe made this a GREAT mid winter get away. We highly recommend that you consider visiting Hanalei on Kauai if you want an easy logistics paddling sun vacation. Paddling conditions can be mild to wild, there are options of all levels of paddlers and plenty of beaches to forget about the midwinter blues.
Interested? Give Dylan a shout to set up you tropical surf ski vacation!
FAX – 1-808-8267606