Why you should care
It may be the adventure of a lifetime. Or the worst $250 you ever spend.
They call it the Everest of sea kayaking.
While that metaphor may not be entirely truthful, I did have blisters on my hands for weeks; it was harder than the marathon from the month before; and it may have triggered a mild case of PTSD (I still cringe at the sight of the narrow-tipped boats). But for masochistic travelers who like spending their vacations looking for new backdrops against which to abuse their bodies, kayaking Kaua’i’s Nā Pali Coast is worth every ounce of hard-earned misery. “It’s not for everybody,” says Miguel “Micco” Godinez, owner of Nā Pali Kayak Tours. To be fair, after 15 years of doing the trip, my guide, Godinez’s nephew, calls ours the worst conditions he’s ever paddled through.
Foliage-cloaked, red-rock cliffs shield a primeval valley of cerulean streams, plunging waterfalls and dense tropical jungles.
The Nā Pali Coast is a 17-mile stretch of coastline on the island’s sleepy north side, where foliage-cloaked, red-rock cliffs shield a primeval valley of cerulean streams, plunging waterfalls and dense tropical jungles. It’s paradise, and there’s perhaps no better way to take it in than by gazing up from the lapping water below, the spray of sea resting on your eyelids. There are four ways to experience Nā Pali: The first is to backpack it. But that’s only accessible to visitors who plan ahead and get a permit. Then there’s a catamaran, a helicopter tour or kayaking. National Geographic regularly names the kayak route one of its top 10 trips of a lifetime.
Don’t worry if you’re not a paddler; the outfitters say this isn’t a deal breaker. While Godinez makes sure his clients don’t have any illusions about how grueling it is, the only prerequisite, he says, is a “reasonable” level of fitness. The trip costs $250 per person, and it’s a full day — meet at 6 a.m., on the water by 8 a.m., with the only stop a lunch break on a small beach 12 miles in. But the wind helps carry the burden. And you’re in a 16-foot, two-person kayak. (Or, as Godinez refers to them: home breakers. Pick your shipmates well, he cautions.)
Be warned: Weather can be a big factor. On the day we took to the seas, there were not one but two hurricanes circling the Hawaiian Islands. So instead of the typical tailwinds propelling us through the water, there were 14-knot headwinds thrusting us backward if we dared rest our arms — or stopped to go to the bathroom. (Doug Tompkins, philanthropist and co-founder of North Face, just died last week in Chile when his kayak capsized in heavy wind and rough waves.) The tour behind us ended up spending the night on the beach until they could be rescued the next morning. Seasickness is another risk. A woman in our group spent the morning hurling over the side.
Looking back, though, it’s the epic struggle that made the adventure so memorable. Sure, the sea caves we ventured through and century-old turtles that floated by were awe-worthy, and that stomach-dropping feeling of rolling over waves will last a lifetime. But working for your soul candy makes it so much sweeter.