Travel

Hawaii: Kayaking ‘up the lazy river’ on Kauai

Guides with Kayak Kauai drag a boat ashore in a surf landing at Polihale Beach State Park, at the end of the day-long paddle of the Na Pali coast.
Guides with Kayak Kauai drag a boat ashore in a surf landing at Polihale Beach State Park, at the end of the day-long paddle of the Na Pali coast. The Seattle Times

Paddling the wild Na Pali Coast isn’t for everybody, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a kayak outing on Kauai.

I found a 90-minute paddle trip you can easily do without a guide that redefines “up the lazy river” and delivers a sweet taste of rural Hawaii.

I rented a kayak in Hanalei and paddled up the uncrowded Hanalei River, past towering monkey pod trees — some with rope swings — and thickets of hau, also known as sea hibiscus, whose bright yellow flowers turn to orange and then red over the course of a day before dropping into the slow-moving river and swirling along like tiny umbrellas in a brownish-green tropical drink.

The river follows a two-lane highway for the first stretch of paddling, though high grasses shield the view of cars. After about 45 minutes you paddle beneath the narrow old metal-girder highway bridge (with wooden planks beneath the pavement and ferns growing out of them!), a purposely preserved piece of early 20th century engineering that limits the amount of trucks and traffic on Kauai’s rural north shore.

Beyond the bridge, views open up of high emerald mountains, one with a thread of waterfall dropping a couple thousand feet down its side.

Here the river enters the 917-acre Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge, to which entry is generally prohibited other than by watercraft, and skirts the Haraguchi family taro farm, once a busy rice plantation with a historic rice mill preserved as a private museum. Cattle egrets, white and dainty, swoop overhead. Watch also for endangered water birds including Hawaiian ducks, coots, moorhens and stilts.

The occasional banana tree edges the water but, alas, no clumps of banana are low enough to snack from.

The payoff after just over an hour of paddling is a towering stand of timber bamboo, very junglelike, some 50 feet high, before the river narrows and becomes overgrown by hau. It’s a good turn-around point unless you’ve seen The African Queen too many times and feel like pulling your boat, à la Bogart.

The current makes for an easy, faster ride back to the put-in.

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