Surfer heaven: Kauai’s north shore

By Korea Herald
  • Published : Aug 26, 2016 - 17:25
  • Updated : Aug 26, 2016 - 17:25
The surf instructor Rick, sitting next to us, points out to vast ocean as we sit in the crystal-clear water, where he’s pushing a few beginners into waves.

“A few months ago, there were 60-foot (18-meter) waves crashing right here,” he said, gazing out to where it looked more like a lake on a recent day in May. “This past winter was one of the best we’ve had for waves.”

As summer started this year, locals were still feeling a hangover from their epic El Nino-driven winter. Stories flowed of how wild the waves were, the best some longtime surfers had ever seen.

Hawaii is known for its surf, but most wave hunters think of O’ahu’s north shore -- home of the famous Bonzai Pipeline, Sunset and Waimea Bay -- or the legendary long waves at Waikiki. But neighboring island Kaua’i also offers world-class waves, perfect for experts and beginners alike, depending on the season, swell and which side of the island you visit.

We showed up in early summer, when waves were thankfully soft and mellow and not big enough to kill us -- perfect for the type of surf we were searching for.

We came across surf instructor Rick at Hanalei Bay, where waves were waist-high and smaller than we would have liked for the soft foam boards we were playing around with -- courtesy of the Airbnb we rented in nearby Princeville. Still, it was a mellow way to start our quick, four-day vacation from Orange County.

The setting could not be more picturesque, with turquoise blue waters, warm enough to ditch the wetsuits we are used to wearing in California. As we looked back toward land, cascading waterfalls spilled down the walls of lush hillsides looming in the distance.

Queen’s Bath, in the small town of Princeville, is home to a handful of tidal inlets. This was one enticing for adrenaline seekers taking the leap. (Laylan Connelly/Orange County Register/TNS)

This, I decided, is what heaven must be like.

It was my first trip to Kaua’i, a weekender to celebrate a friend’s wedding. It was not long before I was kicking myself for not making a longer trip out of the journey. There seemed so much to do and see on this beautiful, lush island.

Kaua’i is Hawaii’s fourth-largest island, and the oldest and northernmost in the Hawaiian chain, according to travel website

It is described as being “draped in emerald valleys, sharp mountain spires and jagged cliffs, aged by time and the elements.”

Many say casually that you can see the whole island in just three hours. That may be true, but it would take me three months, maybe three years, to go through a long list of things I wanted to see and do in Kaua’i.

I would have loved to visit Poipu Beach on the south shore, a popular area with world-class snorkeling, where you can see the endangered Hawaiian monk seals that sometimes sunbathe on shore or get an underwater glimpse at the state fish, the humuhumunukunukuapua’a.

A tribute to three-time world surfing champion Andy Irons at Kealia Beach, which had punchier surf at the beach break. (Laylan Connelly/Orange County Register/TNS)

Then there was the temptation of cruising down the tranquil Wailua River, which for 32 kilometers “weaves by gorgeous waterfalls and lush, jungle landscapes along the island’s East Side,” according to the travel website. On this trek, kayaks and boat tours will take you past Opaekaa Falls and Wailua Falls.

But because of the location of the wedding, at the tranquil Anini Beach, we stuck mostly to the north side of the islands in Princeville, a small town that also has a Westin and St. Regis for travelers looking for a more luxurious stay.

There were plenty of options around that area, too. We stopped in at Princeville Ranch Adventures, a family-owned operation sitting on 10 square kilometers of cattle ranch. They offered guided tours for zip lining, horseback riding, kayaking, hiking and even off-roading. The guides talk about the history and culture of the area.

So much to do, so little time.

Ultimately, we decided we just wanted to surf our brains out.

My husband and I rarely get to slip away from the kids (ages 3 and 9 months) these days, and when we do surf, it is in shifts, with one person in the water while the other watches the little ones on the sand. So the idea of sitting next to each other in the warm water, hooting at each other and throwing shakas as we caught waves, sounded like our perfect escape.

We spent a good amount of time surfing Hanalei Bay, about 15 minutes west of Princeville. It is a quaint beach town, with surf shops and art galleries.

A friend recommended The Dolphin restaurant and it was an ideal meal after hours in the water. Outside tables overlook a river, where kayakers and small boats cruise along.

Ambrosio Avestruz takes the plunge from a large cliff at Queen’s Bath. Be warned: this can be a dangerous endeavor. (Laylan Connelly/Orange County Register/TNS)

The shrimp tacos were delicious, crunchy from a panko coating and just moist enough, drizzled with a lime-cilantro sour cream sauce. But my favorite dish was the Tahitian poke, fresh, raw ahi in a coconut cream and lemongrass sauce served over white rice.

We found bigger surf about 40 minutes from Princeville at Kealia Beach, a punchy beach break that had plenty of peaks coming in, so crowds in the water were spaced out enough that we were not very worried about upsetting any locals. Hawaii does, after all, have its reputation for localism.

On the beach, we stopped to pay our respects at a tribute to three-time surfing world champion Andy Irons, a local, who died in 2011 at age 32. The blue sign read: “Aloha Andy Irons, mahalo for everything. Kaua’i loves you.”

It made me think about how much rich surf history came out of this green island. It is also where “Soul Surfer” Bethany Hamilton was raised, and where she lost her arm in a shark attack in 2003.

The best surf session of the trip came during our last day, when we found a secluded beach at Kahili. I have never been in waters so clear you could see every little crevice on the submerged rocks.

Despite the Sunday holiday weekend, there were a few hours of solitude that afternoon. The only things around us were lush forest and empty sand. The occasional surfer would paddle out and smile and take turns on the perfect peaks rolling in.

The only thing that would make the moment better, I joked, was a whale jumping out of the ocean in front of us. But hey, we cannot have it all, right?

We did get to see some wildlife, in the form of slow-moving, serene sea turtles, as we made our way to our last stop on our short trip, Queen’s Bath.

It was not what I expected. I envisioned a small pool with a layer of sunscreen on the top of the water from all the tourists sardined into a Jacuzzi-sized body of water.

There was little parking -- expect to wait for a spot in a small lot with heavy police enforcement -- at the start of the dirt trail down to the tourist attraction tucked within a housing tract in the quaint Princeville town. It took about 15 minutes to navigate the dirt trail and walk gingerly over the jagged and slippery rocks.

When we got to Queen’s Bath, we were taken aback by its beauty and rawness. It is actually a set of natural tide pools that have water spilling over lava rocks, rising as waves spill in and then retreating as the tides change.

One of the pools was especially enticing, where risky jumpers were lunging their bodies into the thrashing body of water from high cliffs.

I gave it a shot from one of the smaller cliffs, my adrenaline pumping as I took the leap. I could barely watch as my husband took the longer drop from the tallest cliff.

In the water, the waves were challenging to navigate, and swimmers have to wait for just the right wave to push in, to get momentum to climb back onto the slippery rocks and scramble up before the next wave whips in.

It is not for the fainthearted. Make sure you do not do this while there is big surf. Signs warn of the dangers. There have been many drownings and even those who think they are safe on the rocks can get swept off by a rogue wave.

Away from the cliff-jumping spot, we found another tide pool that was much more mellow, a still-water area that had a small trickle of ocean water feeding into it and colorful, tropical fish darting all around.

At one point during our trip, I asked my husband if we could bring our kids next time, maybe plan on spending a month out of the year here, make it a place we visited regularly. Surely, in this digital world, our bosses will let us work remotely, right?

We could only dream. At the very least, our next trip will be much longer so we can do more and see more of this heavenly island.

By Laylan Connelly

The Orange County Register