Kauai. Known as “The Garden Isle”, there are few locations in the world that can rival the stunning beauty found on the oldest of the Hawaiian islands. Consisting of 553 square miles of mountains, valleys, rainforests, plains, canyons and beaches, this island is a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts, photographers, and tourists alike. Whether you want to soak up the sun on sparkling sand beaches, hike through rugged and spectacular terrain in a canyon referred to as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific”, or experience the unbelievable fluted cliffs of the NaPali Coast, the island of Kauai should be on every nature-lover’s list.
I first discovered the wonders of Kauai while backpacking and hitchhiking around the Hawaiian Islands in late 2001 and early 2002. Though it was the magic of that first trip that made such a profound impression on me, it was the beauty I found on this small island that would never leave my mind. To this day, I dream of having a home on this island where I can escape from the world, write and take photos, surrounded by what I consider to be one of the most beautiful places in the world.
This is not an island dominated by fancy hotels or high-class shopping centers. You won’t find bustling nightlife or decadent shopping on Kauai. Even the existence of a WalMart and Costco are a stretch for an island that has resisted the same growth and expansion that has marred the beauty of some of the other islands. Though it remains a very popular tourist destination, Kauai is an island that is still dominated by the beauty and power of nature.
Unless you’re lucky enough to arrive by boat or helicopter, you will probably be flying into the airport at Lihue via an Inter-Island flight from Honolulu. Affordable flights can be found, both from the United States and abroad, but there’s no way getting around it- Hawaii is expensive. I’ve seen Hawaii from the comforts of beach parks and five-star hotels, but either way, it’s not a cheap place to visit. That being said, I think it’s worth every dollar to stand in awe, humbled by some of the world’s most beautiful creations.
The island of Kauai is one of the wettest spots on earth and visitors often complain about the weather. Yet, it is those same rains that create lovely and majestic waterfalls, rainbows that fill the sky, and incredible lushness that blankets the island. One of these waterfalls can be found just a short distance from Lihue. Easily seen from a roadside overlook, Wailua Falls was made famous for its appearance in the opening credits of Fantasy Island. The falls are listed as being 80-feet high, though others insist the height is closer to 175 ft (53 m). The falls can change dramatically depending on the river flow and are best photographed in the early morning when the sun shines on the falls.
Continuing north from Wailua Falls, you pass through the town of Kapa’a and continue along the eastern shore until the road turns inland toward the town of Kilauea. This old plantation town is known for its namesake lighthouse which lies at the end of Kolo Road. Viewed from the easily accessible overlook, the view makes for a postcard-perfect shot of the Kilauea Lighthouse and surrounding Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge.
From Kilauea the road continues along Kauai’s northern shore to the town of Hanalei and nearby Hanalei Bay. I adore this little town and though it gets pretty crowded with tourists, it’s a convenient stop en route to the NaPali Coast and the only place I have found on the island where you can find fuel for backpacking stoves, a crucial element to those like myself that prefer to save a few bucks and enjoy the island by the comforts of my stove and tent.
That brings about the subject of camping, which is another reason that Kauai is one of my favorite islands in the Hawaiian chain. Few islands have better options for those preferring to backpack and camp. In fact, in my opinion, Kauai lends itself to this type of budget travel with the few hotels on the island limited to the gated community of Princeville in the north and the resort area of Poipu in the south. I prefer to pitch my tent near the end of the road at the Ha’ena Beach Park, a cozy little seaside park that has been a favorite of mine for many years. As with most beach parks in Hawaii, camping is on a first-come, first-served basis with a fee system that is unfortunately so ill-conceived, it doesn’t lend itself to the convenience of those employing this method of travel. Permits are only available to be purchased in Lihue (or online), but most parks have a ranger that comes around at night or in the morning who will accept a payment if you’re only staying a night or two.
As a curious and eager 21-year old on his first trip overseas, I spent many nights camped on the grassy lawn at the Ha’ena Beach Park on Kauai’s North Shore. At just $5/night (at the time), you could pitch your tent upon some of the most beautiful property in the world and wake up for a mile-long walk along a golden beach to the start of the NaPali Coast or watch surfers braving the waves at the Tunnels break visible offshore. I was pleased to find that little has changed and I was overcome with remembrances as I pitched our tent upon the very same place that I had so many years ago. We watched the tourists slowly disappear until only a few of us were left to view the sun fading away. It was our first night on Kauai’s magical north shore and Mother Nature was already putting on a remarkable display.
A bank of high, wispy clouds had filled the sky above the Ha’ena Beack Park and brought me down to the beach with my camera. Suddenly, realizing I was ill-prepared, I went running for my tripod just as the sun began to drop behind the lush mountains that rise behind the beach park. Always my trusted companion, Rachel was already running my way with the necessary equipment in hand. I went right to work photographing what we could all see was going to be an outstanding sunset.
There were several stops difference in the exposure between the lighting on the beach and that of the sky so I knew that I would bracket my exposures, thus giving me the opportunity to combine them later as High Dynamic Range (HDR) photographs. What I had not taken into account was the amount of motion that I would be dealing with photographing an ever-moving sea and people on the beach. That begin a deeper exploration of HDR for myself that would continue throughout this trip.
I was not certain how the HDR processing would handle images with movement so I made certain to record a good amount of images that would be able to stand on their own, without the HDR treatment. That being said, I was so pleased with the resulting photos (which you see pictured here) that I cannot imagine finding a single exposure from that evening which could compare. Aside from personal tastes regarding HDR, I feel that the vividness and almost unreal quality of these images is an entirely fair representation of what we saw that night.
Also, notice in the image below the way in which the HDR processing complimented the photograph. I was photographing this man on the beach as he viewed the sunset in almost meditative state. After several minutes remaining still, the man began to walk slowly down to the ocean while I happened to be taking the five images required to produce the photo. When processed with HDR software, the resulting photo was produced which gives him an almost ghost-like appearance at he walks toward the ocean.
As the sun dropped lower in the sky, the colors only grew more intense. I soon found myself knee-deep in the ocean with the waves crashing all around me. The volcanic rock at the water’s edge made for an exciting foreground element with color and texture so unique that it really added to the scene. Between the clarity of the water below, the palm trees that lined the beach, and the steep-sided cliffs rising to a brilliant sky, I barely knew which direction to point my camera.
In a grand finale, the sun dipped below the horizon and the clouds above became aglow in brilliant light. It seemed as if the whole North Shore was momentarily bathed in the colors of fire. I stood knee-deep in the rising surf with my tripod planted firmly in the sand and stood transfixed on the scene before me. There are times when you look upon nature’s beauty and realize that there are wonders in this world that happen everyday and we need only to open our eyes to see them. Luckily, on the island of Kauai, these wonders seem to happen all the time.