How to See Na Pali

Exploring Kauai’s remote coast

By: Jad Davenport

If the Na Pali Coast of Kauai’s North Shore is famous for what it has towering fluted sea cliffs tumbling 3,000 feet into the foaming Pacific then visitors are quick to discover that the most scenic 15 miles of Hawaiian coast is also famous for what it lacks a road. Sea kayaking has always been the classic way to see the coast, but the journey (billed the Mount Everest of sea kayaking due to the potential for rough water) often puts the coast out of reach to inexperienced paddlers. Fortunately, there are other ways to gain access to this spectacular coast.

By Sea

It’s just past nine on a Saturday morning and I’m enjoying a cinnamon roll aboard the 65-foot catamaran Blue Dolphin II, one of a handful of catamarans that regularly tour the Na Pali.

“Port side, nine o’clock,” Capt. Ellis announces over the intercom as half a dozen sleek dolphins pace us. “Sometimes we can see as many as a hundred out here,” Ellis tells me, “and in the winter, we have the humpback whales.”

The five-hour Deluxe Na Pali Coast Tour takes in the entire length of the Na Pali twice once going out and once returning. Along the route, Ellis delicately noses the twin-hulled ship beneath a free-hanging waterfall and idles outside booming sea caves. At the halfway point, snorkelers and scuba divers plunge into the green-glass shallows alongside half a dozen curious sea turtles, while I watch an endangered monk seal through my binoculars.

By Air

“This is what you don’t see from the water,” Casey Reimer hollers.

Reimer, a marketing manager with Jack Harter Helicopters, gives a whoop as the pilot spins the Hughes 500 helicopter down and out a narrow cleft in the Na Pali. Unlike the other helicopters in the fleet, sleek six-passenger Astars, flight-seeing on the four-seater Hughes is done with the doors off. When Harter began flight-seeing in 1962, he was the first to offer helicopter service in Kauai. Today, his pilots are the best in the business excellent fliers as well as skilled narrators offering commentary on the island.

The hour-long tour has taken us in a scenic clockwise circuit from Lihue Airport and includes a visit to Mount Waialeale Crater, often billed as the wettest spot on Earth, and the Navajo-red cliffs of Waimea Canyon, dubbed the Grand Canyon of the Pacific. But it’s the 30 minutes we spend gliding and hovering like hawks above the crashing surf and knuckled ridges of Na Pali that are the most dramatic.

By Land

For all the comfort of the catamaran and helicopter, there’s something to be said for earning your entrance to the Na Pali Coast. On a warm morning at Kee Beach, I join Micco Godinez, co-owner of Kayak Kauai, whose company not only runs epic sea kayak trips down the coast, but also guides hikers.

We’re taking on the first two miles of the 11-mile Kalalau Trail, a dusty cobbled track that stitches together a handful of white-sand beaches pocketing the remote coast. After two hours of hiking, the trail switchbacks down into the cool, shaded Hanakapiai Valley; a short spur leads us to a beach of the same name. Beyond this point, trekkers need a permit.

We laze away the morning, cooling off in the creek and creeping through sea cave tunnels. I sit up at one point and catch Micco staring out at the ginger-sand beach and the bookend cliffs.

“What’s the best way to see the Na Pali?” I ask Micco, who’s hiked, paddled and flown the coast hundreds of times.

“I don’t know that it really matters how you get here,” he says. “What matters most is you just sit down, take a deep breath and soak it all up.”


Blue Dolphin Charters
The five-hour Deluxe Na Pali Coast Tour runs $148 per person ($127 if booked online); one-tank dive costs $35.

Kayak Kauai
The three- to six-hour Hanakapiai Beach Hike costs $126 per person, two-person minimum. The eight-hour Na Pali Coast Sea Kayak Expedition costs $185 per person, May through September.

Jack Harter Helicopters
One-hour tour costs $229 per person ($199 if booked online).