For many fans of Hawaii, there's the rest of the state, and then there's Kauai, which plenty of devotees consider the hands-down best island of the bunch. Less populous and developed than any of the other four main Hawaiian islands, this rugged stunning land known as the Garden Isle has developed a well-deserved reputation as a hot spot for all sorts of eco-adventures, from kayaking and whale-watching to beach-combing and hiking. Indeed, most of the must-see activities on this progressive, LGBT-friendly, and unpretentious island involve getting outside, even if that means simply lazing on a blanket on the beach.
It's fair to call helicopter touring a bit of a splurge, but in terms of how much excitement and joy an aerial excursion in one of these amazing machines brings participants, it's actually a great value. And Kauai is one of the most amazing places on earth to view from a chopper (I put it on par with the volcano tours of Big Island, as Hawaii helicopter tours go). Generally speaking, a 60-minute chopper tour of Kauai runs about $200 to $300 per person, but the different helicopter outfitters on the island often run significant discounts during quieter seasons. All of the companies on Kauai have strong safety records and receive high marks on TripAdvisor and elsewhere, and all operate from the landing area adjacent to Lihue Airport.
I can personally vouch for the Jurassic Falls Helicopter Landing Adventure, offered exclusively by Island Helicopters Kauai (808-245-8588 or 800-829-5999). This 75- to 85-minute circumnavigates the entire island, providing bird's-eye views of all the other key attractions outlined in this story, including the fabled Napali Coast (keep an eye out for whales and dolphins) and Waimea Canyon, as well as some sites you can't easily access except by helicopter, such as the crater of Mt. Waialeale, the second-highest point on the island and one of the rainiest places on the planet. Other Kauai helicopter companies circle the island, but this company also has an agreement with a local property owner that allow choppers by the soaring waterfall (Manawaiopuna Falls, in Hanapepe Valley) featured in the opening scene of Steven Spielberg's original Jurassic Park. It's a fun treat for movie buffs, but even if you're not a huge fan of these movies, landing in a lush remote valley and walking a short distance to the base of this 400-foot roaring cataract is quite an experience. Once you've sailed over the verdant Garden Island in a helicopter, you won't ever look at it again quite the same way.
For quite a few first-time visitors, Kauai's fabled Napali Coast is the sight that most fits the images they've built up in their imaginations of what Hawaiian paradise looks like. This 17-mile stretch of jagged high sea cliffs (na pali means "high cliffs" in Hawaiian) can't be accessed by car. However, you can drive to the edge of this range of 4,000-foot cliffs, at Ke'e Beach about 7 miles west of charming Hanalei Town, and from here you can hike the legendary Kalalau Trail into this breathtaking wilderness. Hiking the entire 11-mile (each way) trail requires a permit and camping; however, without a permit, day hikers can trek as far as Hanakapiai Falls (4 miles in). If you have just a couple of hours and want to get at least a feel for the trail and its spectacular scenery, hike just as far as Hanakapiai Beach, which is just 2 miles in. The trail is steep and rocky in places, and the beach itself is also rocky and too treacherous most of the time for swimming, but this is a wonderfully rewarding adventure - I'd say it's a tie with the Cliff Trail at Waimea Canyon (see that entry elsewhere in this article) for the best hike on the island if you have only one day. You'll find more details on permits and hiking logistics about the Kalalau here.
Other ways to take in the Napali Coast, and actually to gain a fuller perspective of the scenery, including flying over it on a helicopter tour (see the Jurassic Helicopter tour entry, above), kayaking alongside the cliffs one of the demanding but fun excursions through Outfitters Kauai (808-742-9667), or taking a relaxing catamaran sailing trip with Capt. Andy's (808-535-0830). These four- to six-hour cruises leave from Eleele on the southern end of the island include snorkeling and present some great opportunities to observe wildlife (note the dolphin photo above, which I took during a Capt. Andy's excursion).
However you experience the Napali Coast, be sure to make the drive along the north shore to the historic community of Hanalei, which is just west of the posh Princeville Resort area. This small village that was an agricultural hub (taro, sugarcane, rice) for generations and appeared in the larger-than-life Rodgers and Hammerstein 1957 musical South Pacific. It's a charming stop these days and home to several excellent gay-friendly restaurants, a couple of inns, some boutiques, and the ocean and river kayaking rental and tour company Kayak Hanalei (808-826-1881), which also offers stand-up paddle and surfing instruction and equipment. Notable food options include the hip tapas restaurant Bar Acuda (which also operates the adjacent bakery and coffeehouse, Hanalei Bread Co.), the food truck Hanalei Taro & Juice Company (great for fresh smoothies and traditional Hawaiian plate lunches), and the inviting Postcards Cafe, set in a vintage plantation-style house and exceptionally fresh and well-prepared seafood dishes, salads, and tantalizing desserts (note the sundae of coconut-crusted macadamia ice cream doused with salted-caramel sauce).
Kauai is home to some of the most magical and secluded beaches in the state. You'll find fewer crowds, for the most part, on the island's sandy expanses, and a few different beaches on the island have developed popular followings over the year among LGBT visitors. Keep in mind, of course, that as gay-friendly as Kauai is, it's not a highly populous island, so you may or may not bump into other gay folks at even the beaches with strong "family" followings. One spot that's particularly notable for its beauty, seclusion and gay popularity is Donkey Beach (Off Kuhio Highway, Hwy. 56, at mile marker 11, about 5 miles north of Kapaa). Formerly a clothing-optional beach, bathers are required to wear attire here, but it's still a nicely remote and peaceful spot on the northeastern shore of the island, extending about a mile in the shape of a crescent. From the beach, a bike path leads south to Kapaa. A pathway leads from the parking area to the beach.
Another even more secluded option for tanning and soaking up the rays is what's often called Secret Beach (unpaved road off of Kalihiwai Road, which is just off Hwy. 56 about), and this spot is absolutely a stunner. The turnoff onto Kalihiwai Road is just beyond Kauai Miniature Golf and Botanical Garden in the small town of Kilauea, at the northern end of the island (it's about 5 miles east of Princeville if you're coming from the other direction). You park at the end of the dirt road and follow a somewhat precipitous and not well-marked pathway to the beach (which is also known as Kauapea Beach). To the far right of Secret Beach (which has become less and less secret over the years, as its popularity has increased, but it's still rarely crowded) is a section that's clothing-optional and that also tends to draw more gay folks. Highlights at this half-mile-long stretch of sand include potential dolphin sightings, hilly and scenic terrain, and stunning sea cliffs. Be aware that the current here is powerful and, especially in winter, dangerous - swimming is not recommended.
Many other fantastic beach options on Kauai aren't necessarily all that popular with gay folks but are absolutely perfect for relaxation and sunshine include. Lydgate State Park Beach (4470 Nalu Rd., Kapaa), near the Hilton Garden Inn and Wailua Golf Course - on the island's calmer eastern shore, it's generally a good bet for swimming and snorkeling. At the end of Hwy. 560 near the trailhead for the above-mentioned Kalalau Trail, Ke'e Beach in Haena State Park (End of Kuhio Hwy/Hwy. 560) is another beauty. And of course, you'll find some lovely beaches in the resort areas around Princeville to the north and Poipu to the south.
You could hike for months - maybe years - in Kauai without running out of amazing, take-your-breath-away hikes. The terrain on this island is incredibly diverse, and although you might think more of tropical rainforests and treks along sheer sea cliffs (there are plenty of those - see the Napali Coast entry in this article), Kauai is also home to otherworldly Waimea Canyon, an immense and relatively dry, 3000-foot-deep gorge on the western side of the island that stretches for about 10 miles in a southerly direction to the sea. With its sheer canyon walls and dramatic red-rock coloring, it reminds many visitors of the U.S. Southwest, hence its "Grand Canyon of the Pacific" nickname. Home to a pair of parks - Waimea Canyon State and Kokee State Park - this stunning hikers' paradise is accessed from historic Waimea Town, at the southwest edge of the island. It's about a 40-minute drive to Waimea Town from Lihue, and then another 30 minutes' drive up winding Hwy. 550 (Waimea Canyon Dr./Kokee Rd.) to the easiest place to gain a grand view of the canyon, the overlook at Waimea Canyon Trail Trailhead, which is well-marked off Hwy. 550 a little under 14 miles from Waimea Town. There's ample parking here, and if time is short or you're not up for a full-on hiking adventure, you can easily hop out here for a quick look and to snap some photos.
If you have two or three hours, however, and are up for a moderately challenging hike, hop back on Hwy. 550 and continue up the another few miles to Kokee State Park, stopping first at the Lodge at Kokee and the Kokee Museum. From here you can pick up advice and trail maps, and then circle back to the parking area for a highly rewarding trek, the Canyon Trail, which brings you out onto a majestic red rock canyon ridge and then down to Kokee Stream near where it rushes over the ridge to form Waipoo Falls. Here's a detailed story I wrote on the hike, with tips on parking, mileage, and other logistics.
Situated on the sunny southern shore of Kauai and flanked by fantastic beaches and a backdrop of lush mountains, the Poipu Beach Resort community is one of the best areas of the island to stay, but even if your lodgings are elsewhere on the island, it's well worth spending a day or evening in Poipu, taking advantage of the wealth of restaurants and outdoor recreational opportunities, from world-class golf resorts to zip-lining to relaxing on the beach. If you are seeking some highly inviting, gay-friendly places to stay, Poipu does have a number of stellar hotels and condo rentals.
For outdoor recreation, Poipu is perhaps best known for its stunning 210-acre Poipu Bay Golf Course, which adjoins the most upscale of the communities resorts, the stellar Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort and Spa, itself a top destination for enjoying spa treatments at Anara Spa and dining at its wealth of fine restaurants and bars, from steak and seafood amid serene lagoons at Tidepools to sushi and cocktails in the worldly and refined Stevenson's Library bar. Other fun adventures include partaking of the eight-line tree-tops course, which includes three of the longest zip lines on Kauai, offered by Koloa Zipline - these 3.5-hour tours afford dramatic views from the foothills just north of the resort of the Poipu shoreline (for an extra thrill, go ahead and pay the extra $20 for the "Flying Kauaian Harness" upgrade, which gives you a bit more of a sensation of flying through the air. Koloa also offers ATV tours. You can look to Outfitters Kauai, which is right in the heart of Poipu, for kayak, paddleboard, and bike rentals as well as tours of all kinds.
And then there are the considerable opportunities in Poipu for shopping and dining, including the above-mentioned Grand Hyatt but also outstanding RumFire Poipu Beach at the Sheraton Kauai (with some of the finest ocean views of any restaurant on the island), plus myriad eateries at both Poipu Shopping Village (we like Papalani Gelato, Puka Dog, and Keoki's Paradise in particular) and the newer and swankier Kukui'ula Village Shopping Center, an open-air retail and entertainment village with a Wednesday-afternoon farmers market as well as several excellent restaurants, including Tortilla Republic Grill, Merriman's Fish House, Roy Yamaguchi's Eating House 1849, and Living Foods Market & Cafe.