Time to visit Kauai

Ways to Leave a Small Footprint on Your Visit

KAUAI, HAWAII — One of the most satisfying ways to visit the Garden Isle is to do so in harmony with the principles of old Hawaii: respecting the land, caring for the land, and giving back to the land and the local people.

There is any number of opportunities for this kind of ecotourism—traveling as guests who ensure that their visit protects the very beauty they’ve come to experience.

Ecotourism on Kauai inspires hands-on volunteerism that enriches the local environment and provides an opportunity for visitors and local residents to share their worlds and work together. These encounters may involve removing invasive plant species from local parklands, or taking part in small-footprint hiking tours led by local residents who understand the significance of the fauna and the terrain. When these guides share the cultural and geological history of the island, they bring into sharper focus the treasures of the Islands and reasons they are worth caring for and protecting.

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Imagine strolling along the Limahuli Garden Loop Trail and learning that many of the plants you’re seeing are those the Hawaiians of old employed in their day-to-day life—as cordage, as clothing, as shelter, as cooking utensils, in their arts, and, of course, as food itself. The 17-acre garden is part of the 985-acre Limahuli Preserve, the north shore component of the non-profit National Tropical Botanical Garden chartered by the U. S. Congress in 1964.

Because this precious site is being protected, it’s possible to sink into the quiet of the time before Hawaii had contact with the outer world. You might sense a mystical energy in the Limahuli Garden; you might even feel the presence of the lost tribes.

The word limahuli means “turning hands,” a reference to offering one’s own energy to the land—the very heart of ecotourism. Below are some ways that you can experience the Garden Island as an ecotourist.

There are many opportunities to enjoy Kauai’s outdoors while you learn about its environment and natural history. Some organizations offer one- or multi-day trips on various projects while providing training and opportunities for dialogue with local residents of like interests. One of these organizations is the Sierra Club, which offers guided hikes, excursions and opportunities to volunteer for both members and non-members.

More and more, resorts are employing their own green, energy-saving measures in day-to-day maintenance, such as energy management cooling systems, green-waste composting, and the recycling of glass, plastic and aluminum. Heat produced by air conditioning systems is also being used to heat water for guest rooms and swimming pools.

Resorts also offer opportunities to volunteer in various environmental programs, with some room and activity packages that may include volunteering. You can, for instance, take a seminar to learn how to protect the Hawaiian monk seal, one of the most endangered species on the planet and one of two mammals indigenous to Hawaii. The seals are often found resting on local beaches after a night of foraging and fishing. Following the seminar, visitors are eligible to join the Monk Seal Watch Program, a volunteer organization of Kauai residents committed to protecting the seal and its habitat.

Visitors to the Garden Isle may also volunteer to work with plants at the National Tropical Botanical Garden or to do restorative “forest gardening” with Hui o Laka, the community-based organization that helps to maintain Kokee State Park. Or they can take part in beach clean-ups organized by the Surfrider Foundation and help preserve marine life along the coastline.

An informative online resource to see the types and diversity of “voluntourism” projects available to visitors of Kauai is at PreserveHawaii.org.

One of ecotourism’s greatest benefits is how it protects local wildlife. In the Kilauea National Wildlife Refuge, one of the few remaining colonies of nesting seabirds in the main Hawaiian Islands, you can enjoy seeing diverse species of Hawaii’s seasonal, rare, and endangered birds, among them Hawaiian Gallinules, albatrosses, frigate birds, tropicbirds and red-footed boobies. You’ll see them flying, swooping and landing nearby, or in their protected nests on the cliffs of this dramatic promontory on Kaua‘i’s north shore. Marked by the historic Kilauea Lighthouse, the refuge allows you to look the birds in the eye as they swoop nearby and land. Look to the ocean and shoreline, and you may be blessed with the sight of endangered Hawaiian monk seals, green sea turtles and leaping spinner dolphins.

Botanical gardens offer a refuge for plant life, and for the ecotourist there is no better way to learn about imperiled local plant species than in the very spots where they’ve found safe haven. These gardens have a special place on the Garden Isle. At the Na Aina Kai Botanical Garden, the 12 acres of gardens through which you can walk are surrounded by 45 acres of exotic fruits and 110 acres of tropical hardwood forests. Through its investment in forestry, this botanical garden on the north shore is ensuring its own sustainability, and there are guided and riding tours daily.

In the National Tropical Botanical Gardens, which are located on both the north shore (Limahuli Garden) and south shore (McBryde Garden and Allerton Garden), there is also an emphasis on conservation and education. All of these botanical gardens offer guided tours. Limahuli Garden is in a verdant tropical valley, backdropped by the majestic Mount Makana and located a half-mile before Ke‘e Beach, in Ha‘ena, at the end of the road on Kaua‘i’s north shore.

McBryde Garden in Lawai Valley is a veritable botanical ark of tropical flora and is home to the largest ex situ (“off site”) collection of native Hawaiian flora in existence, including extensive plantings of palms, flowering trees, heliconias, orchids, and countless other plant types from the Pacific Islands, South America, Africa and Indo-Malaysia.

Allerton Garden is a masterpiece of garden art, transformed by the hands of a Hawaiian queen, a sugar plantation magnate, and most recently an artist and an architect. The result is breathtaking. Among the guided and self-guided tours offered is the Hoike Discovery Tour, a 3-1/2 hour guided adventure through the McBryde Garden to a waterfall, and along a lava tube to Allerton Garden.

Finally, within Wailua Marina State Park on Kauai’s east side, called the Coconut Coast, there is Smith’s Tropical Paradise, a lush 30-acre botanical and cultural garden on the banks of Wailua River, sacred to the Hawaiians of old. There is a mile of meandering pathways, which you might share with peacocks and other exotic birds. In days of yore this garden was on royal grounds, and today it is a favorite spot for weddings.

Hiking is an adventurous aspect of Kauai ecotourism, and no less so when you go with a guide. A guide doesn’t walk and climb for you; a guide gives your journey a context in history, geology, botany, biology, and local lore of Kaua‘i, and in this way enhances your understanding of the island.

The best of the hiking tours encourage participants to meld with the environment, whether the tours are in the remote mountain parks or at the shoreline, conducted one-on-one or with a small group. These hikes may be a mile-and-a-half or 11 miles in length and have such destinations as Kuamoo Lookout, skirting Nounou, the Sleeping Giant mountain, Näpali Rim, and Hanakapiai Falls.

The Napali Coast hike begins at the end of the road on the north shore, past Kee Beach. If you’re a moderate to seasoned hiker, you can follow the first leg of the ancient Kalalau Trail—said to date back 1,000 years—to magnificent Hanakapiai Beach, two miles from the trailhead. The beach is gorgeous to behold but treacherous, and inland is a 300-foot waterfall. The trail, with sections that can narrow to under a foot wide, has vistas looking out over 1,000-foot drops to the ocean. It is magnificent but not easy and gets tougher as it continues the rest of the 11 miles into Kalalau Valley. Permits are required to go beyond Hanakapiai Beach and can be obtained from the Division of State Parks in Līhu‘e.

While Hanakapiai is usually manageable as a self-guided hike, the longer Kalalau trail is usually an overnight expedition, for advanced hikers only, and is best attempted with a local outfitter. As you walk along this coastline, you will have wild, rugged cliffs on one side, extending sharply upward, and on the other, a scalloped edge of land that includes sea caves and lava arches, desolate coves and sparkling beaches. In the winter and early spring, you can often see whales in the coastal waters, and in the summer there may be hardy kayakers, making their own Island pilgrimage with a local outfitter.

The concierge of any Island hotel will be able to suggest how you can arrange to take a guided hike that is perfect for you. Important details, such as safety tips, are vital for adventurers on this island. As always, use good judgment and exercise precaution and be aware that Kaua‘i’s ocean conditions can be more unpredictable during the winter months.

So, what makes a self-guided hike any different from, say, a hike? What makes it ecotourism? It’s in the way you do it.

When you pick up maps and guidebooks from your hotel to orient yourself to the terrain, when you read what you can about the history of the spot before you walk across it, when you make it a point to respect the place while you’re there, that’s ecotourism.

Hawaiians of old used to ask permission from Nature before they entered an untrammeled area. That’s a beautiful way of showing respect. Another is to make sure that everything you’ve carried in, you carry out as well and refrain from the temptation to remove a piece of Kaua‘i’s natural environment to keep as a souvenir. Yet another is to stay on the trail—that dusty little plant you trample may be a struggling indigenous species.

While there is no end of trails to explore on this island, there are three areas of particular note: the Napali Coast (after the road ends at Kee Beach on the north shore), Kokee State Park (past Waimea Canyon, at the other end of the road) and the 10-mile Koloa Heritage Trail on the south shore.

Kokee State Park, more than 4,000 feet in elevation, is a hiker’s paradise, a misty forest crisscrossed by more than forty miles of footpaths for all hiking levels. The 20-square-mile highland bog known as Alakai Swamp is home to the state’s only native land mammal, the hoary bat, and features a boardwalk throughout for comfortable hiking, as well as to protect the rare plants.

And, if you’re a less-seasoned hiker, there’s a walk you can take to Waimea Canyon’s spectacular Waipoo Falls through red torch gingers and yellow orchids. The trails of Kokee and Waimea Canyon are in the same region, yet differ markedly in nature, the former being lush highland forest and the latter an arid landscape of purple and red canyons.

The Kokee Natural History Museum, operated by the non-profit Hui o Laka, is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day of the year, and with knowledgeable staff and volunteers, is available to assist park visitors with information on trail and weather conditions.

Kauai’s wildly varying southern coastline includes the popular Poipu Beach and an archaeologically rich stretch from Keoneloa Bay (also known as Shipwreck’s) to Kawailoa Bay, rugged and delicate at once—rugged because of its rocky, windswept stretches of lithified sand dunes and sandstone pinnacles, and delicate by nature of its archaeological and cultural sites. The unmarked footpaths of the Maha‘ulepu Heritage Trail follow the shoreline and weave in and out of the vegetation.

Along this trail are such phenomena as the Heiau Hooulu ia (“fishing temple”) and the Makauwahi Sinkhole, where there is usually a scientific team at work. There are also petroglyphs. The sixty-seven petroglyphs are usually covered by sand, but north of the beach is a large petroglyph boulder containing two cup-like carvings at the top. Paleo-ecological and archaeological excavations of the sinkhole have put its age at 10,000 years and have revealed the remains of some 45 species of bird life. A reforestation program is now in place to replant indigenous species and help bring back this environment to its pre-human condition.

The trailhead of the Mahaulepu trail, four miles roundtrip, is one of 14 markers on the Koloa Heritage Trail, which winds in and out of Koloa village and its historically rich plantation sites: 13th-century lava rock walls, churches and Buddhist temples, and Koloa Landing, at one time the third-largest whaling port in Hawaii. Five million years of the region’s geological and cultural history come alive on the Koloa Heritage Trail.

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