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Hawaii Special: Kauai

Up a Royal River

Kayaking the Wailua, an ancient waterway with grottoes, rope swings

March 23, 1997|STEVE BRYNES | Brynes is a freelance photojournalist living in Rockville, Md

WAILUA RIVER, Kauai — There are any number of ways to head up Kauai's Wailua River. You can board a flat riverboat which, for a fare of about $15, makes the trip upriver in style, complete with narration on the outbound leg and Hawaiian musical entertainment on the return. You can rent a small craft with an outboard motor. You can water-ski your way up from the river's mouth, which lies just a few miles south of the small town of Kapaa. We even saw one hardy, but seemingly battered soul hanging on for dear life in an inner tube as he was dragged skitteringly against the current by a speedboat.

My wife and I, however, chose the watery road less followed. Whether it was those American Assn. of Retired Persons membership cards that arrived without invitation a few days before our trip, or simply a desire to explore Kauai's natural wonders peacefully, we opted to rent a two-person kayak and negotiate the river under our own power.

Our first visit to Hawaii was drawing to a close, and we were eager to extend our modest list of new experiences.

We chose to spend our final three days on Kauai. Known as the Garden Isle for its lush vegetation, the island was awash in spectacular natural sights including the Na Pali Coast, Waimea Canyon ("the Grand Canyon of the Pacific") and the Spouting Horn, a saltwater geyser that jets water as high as 50 feet. But it was the gently flowing Wailua River--just a few miles from our hotel, the Kauai Outrigger--with which we decided to become better acquainted.

The Wailua, one of Hawaii's few navigable rivers, figures prominently in Hawaiian history and tourism. The first migratory Polynesians reputedly landed at the mouth of the river on the island's east side. Endowed with a regal climate, a superb beach and a stately river that wound through a luxuriant tropical forest hiding grottoes and waterfalls, the region became the home of Hawaiian royalty, the alii. The remains of seven sacred temples, or heiaus, stretch from the mouth of the Wailua to the top of Mt. Waialeale, the volcano that about 8 million years ago broke the ocean's surface to give birth to Kauai. Caves in the bluffs above the river were the burial grounds of the aliis.

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About 1,500 years after the arrival of the first Hawaiians, more than half a million tourists annually cruise up the river especially to see the Fern Grotto, the island's most popular tourist attraction. The grotto, an enormous fern-draped cave under gentle waterfalls, reportedly has been the site of more weddings than anywhere else on the islands.

In truth, my wife and I were not so much interested in legends or incontestably beautiful natural landmarks--as captivating as they sounded--as we were in another attribute of the river: the aerial rope swing. There, at long last, in a thoroughly authentic jungle habitat, I could play Tarzan to my wife's Jane.

We had arranged our rental through Wailua River Kayak Adventures in Kapaa. Other companies had similar rates and would mount a car rack for carrying the kayak for free. But we picked Kayak Adventures, which gave us directions to a location near the mouth of the river and asked what time we'd like to start. They would rendezvous with us there, supplying the kayak, a cooler for the lunch we brought along and dry packs to protect our valuables. It couldn't have been any more convenient.

Although the sun blazed in a blue sky punctuated with marshmallow clouds as we drove to the designated meeting place, the car radio advised of possible thunderstorms and a flash-flood watch. Having read that Mt. Waialeale, the source of the Wailua River, is the wettest spot on Earth--with yearly rainfall averaging more than 440 inches--we couldn't imagine what a flash flood would be like here.

We met our guides, David and Tiane Cleveland, the owners of Kayak Adventures. I said, "Hi, I'm Steve, this is my wife Debbie. They're talking flash floods; we've never kayaked and we're more than a little worried that we'll be swept halfway to Bora Bora."

Tiane smiled, told us not to worry, and said we should get ready for one of the best days of our lives. She explained that the river would be safe, but that we should not stray off the main branch into tributaries where the danger from floods lay. And she warned that, although there was a trail to some wonderful waterfalls, we should refrain from hiking given the weather report.

Tiane spent a few minutes lecturing us in Kayaking 101. "If you want to go left, paddle on the right. If you want to go right, paddle on the left. Don't worry about being in sync; it's not likely you'll hit each other's paddle more than a couple of times."

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