Like a pilgrim, I began the steep hike along the coastline's famed Kalalau Trail, an eleven-mile trek that leads to the magnificent Kalalau Valley. My hiking boots slipped in the mud as I passed tourists who seemed to keep turning around when they saw the long hike they were in for. Smarter travelers could be seen on Zodiac rafts and kayaks along the shoreline, and the odd helicopter whizzed overhead for the truly comfortable.
But I was stubbornly determined to experience Na Pali the way the travelers of yore did it -- on foot, albeit with sunblock, protein bars, and a camelback full of distilled water. It was late summer, a better time to face the coast since the waves are milder and the rain less frequent. But it was still tough going, the trail leading me higher and higher around steep, sweeping slopes until I thought my ears would pop.
After two miles, just when I thought my lungs would collapse, the trail emptied out on to the chaste Hanakapiai Beach. Foliage pushed its way to the ocean, round black rocks decorated the beach, and a few caves offered solace from the relentless sunshine. Only a few other hardy souls were beachcombing. I glanced at a chilling hand-carved sign with a crude tally of how many people had drowned here. Maybe I wouldn't go for a swim after all.
I found a small trail that I decided must lead another two miles up the valley to some falls I'd been told about. After another sweaty workout and thoughts of turning around as the valley walls squeezed in around me, I was finally rewarded with the sight of a necklace of water delicately cascading 300 feet down the valley wall.
No one was around, so I stripped off my clothes like a hippie or a hermit or a leper and waded into the cool water. As I floated on my back, the gentle thunder of the water obliterated any remembrance I had of a civilization that was so far away. The primordial pool and the walls of the valley cradled me like an infant, and I finally got out of the water pruned-up like a sage old man.
I felt notably different. I guess it had been an ecological baptism of sorts. Indeed, the mana of the 'aina could be transcendental.
Seeing Na Pali with a Guide
For guided hikes of Na Pali, Kauai Nature Tours (888-233-8365, 808-742-8305) leads thoughtful excursions that include history, legends, and info on native flora and fauna, not to mention equipment and a great lunch.
Lilo Kauai Cruises (888-732-5456, 808-338-0333) is owned by a native Hawaiian, born and raised on Kauai, who takes just 24 passengers on his 49-foot power catamaran along the Na Pali Coast, telling personal stories about his isle.