On my third visit to Kauai, it was time to embrace the wilder side.
Instead of lolling on the Hawaiian island's delectable beaches last month, I hurtled through the air on ziplines; kayaked down a river into the ocean; and zoomed along the wild Na Pali coast aboard an inflatable boat.
Throughout Hawaii, there's a boom in such small-group adventure tours. Most last a half-day or day. Some have an ecological or cultural focus. Some are just adrenaline-fueled fun. They're all an enticing way to enjoy Hawaii beyond the pool or beach.
Zip through the air: "Aaaahhhhhh" squealed one of a dozen adventurers as she surged along a zipline at Princeville Ranch on Kauai's lush north shore, zooming high above a stream and trees.
Ziplines have been popular for years in Costa Rica, where visitors soar through the tropical forest along the steel cables, dangling from individual pulleys. Now Hawaii is on the bandwagon, and Kauai alone has four zipline operators.
The 2,500-acre Princeville Ranch (www.adventureskauai.com or 808-826-7669) offers ziplining and horse rides, yet it's still a working cattle ranch. A fenced-in bull gazed balefully at the ranch van as we headed down a dirt road to the nine-line zipline course, set on a rolling bluff above the ocean.
Each zipliner dons a helmet and a sturdy harness with a detachable pulley. A guide clips the pulley onto the zipline. Then, taking turns, each zipliner launches off a small platform and careens along the cable.
Each zipline trip takes under a minute -- even though Princeville Ranch's longest cable is 1,200 feet -- since zipliners hurtle along at up to 40 mph. Gravity takes zipliners whizzing down the cable that sinks in the middle: Momentum propels them up to the landing platform on the other side where another guide awaits to help them land. Some zipliners shriek and yodel; the more blase pose for photos, arms flung out.
For Joelle Machia, a Seattle cancer-research nurse and frequent visitor to Kauai, it was her first time ziplining.
"My family had done it before and I remember thinking 'No way.' But they came back intact, didn't ache and they were so exhilarated."
"This year I decided to do it. You're out in the scenery ... it's fun and special. It's safe, but feels like you're taking a risk. For me as a 50-year-old, it's something I thought I'd never do," said Machia.
The Zip Express is $125 per person; it has nine ziplines. Other zipline tours and horse-riding are available.
There have been cattle operations in the area since the 1830s; the sprawling Princeville Resort, with luxury hotels, condos and golf courses, is next door.
Other adventure-tour companies with ziplines are Outfitters Kauai, www.outfitterskauai.com; Just Live (which also offers rappelling and a rock-climbing wall), www.justlive.org; and Kauai Backcountry Adventures, www.kauaibackcountry.com.
>The Na Pali coast
The Na Pali coast is Kauai's natural crown jewel, a wild and staggeringly scenic 16-mile coastline of no roads, no buildings, nothing but 3,000-foot cliffs and narrow furrowed valleys that plummet to the turbulent sea. A handful of sea caves and white-sand pocket beaches pierce the rugged shoreline.
Tropical downpours and mist can sweep across this northwest shore of Kauai, preserved in the Na Pali Coast State Wilderness Park. But wait a bit and the sun will poke out again, making rainbows glisten and turning the waterfalls that cascade down cliffs into shimmering skeins.
Truly adventurous visitors can backpack part of the Na Pali coast on the 11-mile (one-way) Kalalau Trail or kayak the whole coast in a marathon day (summer only; winter seas are too fierce).
At the other end of the tour spectrum, big motorized boats cruise the coast on half-day tours, some carrying almost 50 people. Flight-seeing helicopters (so prevalent they've been nicknamed Hawaii's state bird) and even ultralight aircraft soar overhead. You won't be alone however you explore the Na Pali coast.
My muscles weren't up for the long kayak trip and I couldn't get a backpacking permit. So I opted for an adventurous half-day ride along the coast with North Shore Charters (www.kauainorthshorecharters.com or 808-828-1379) aboard a 27-foot, rigid-hull inflatable boat.
The Zodiac-like boat, powered by two growling 140-horsepower outboards, can hold 14 passengers and surge along at up to 30 mph. We perched on the rubber sides of the open boat, gripping safety ropes when it hit big waves on part of the ride.
Bouncing and getting soaked with spray mean it's not for the faint of heart, the pregnant or anyone with a bad back or neck. But it's an exhilarating way to see the Na Pali coast, and the teenagers in the bow hooted with glee. We all ooh'ed and aah'ed when a half-dozen spinner dolphins leapt above the waves just off our bow.
Our captain, Glenn Stalker, expertly steered us through reefs and waves. He gently nosed the boat into sea caves, darkly spooky chambers of stone carved out of the dark lava by pounding surf. Along with showing us the natural beauty, he told of ancient Hawaiians who sheltered in the caves while canoeing the coast and of fishing villages and taro fields that once were tucked into the remote valleys.
Like many Na Pali boaters, we stopped at Nu'alolo Kai beach to snorkel. Donning masks and fins, we slipped over the sides of the boat into a tropical water world. Convict Tang fluttered past, an aptly named yellow fish with black stripes. The blue-gray Hawaiian Chub nosed around the coral reef -- and us. But it was the Lagoon Triggerfish I liked best, with its pig-shaped, yellow-streaked snout and wonderful Hawaiian name: Humuhumunukunukuapua'a.
Back on the boat, I practiced pronouncing it -- HOO-moo-HOO-moo- NOO-koo-NOO-koo-AH-poo-AH-ah.
I'm still practicing.
North Shore Charters' Na Pali boat tours last 4 to 4 1/2 hours and depart from Anini beach on Kauai's north shore, just 20 minutes from the start of the Na Pali coast; cost is $140 per adult.
Many other companies offer Na Pali tours -- by kayak, motorized catamarans and more. See the Web site of the Kauai Visitors Bureau, www.kauaidiscovery.com (click on Activities). The state parks Web site also lists some tour-boat operators, www.hawaiistateparks.org/parks/kauai.
Many other tours depart from ports at the south end of Kauai; they have farther to go to Na Pali and some may not cover the whole coast.
>Paddle to the sea
Bright-yellow kayaks skimmed along the Hanalei River as it meandered through the junglelike greenery of Kauai's north shore. Some paddlers followed the leader, a guide from Kayak Kauai. Others in rental kayaks headed off on their own along the gentle river.
I'd signed up for a guided half-day of kayaking down the river and out into the open waters of Hanalei Bay.
"Don't take the waves sideways," hollered the guide at two first-time kayakers as our group emerged from the river mouth into the bay's waves.
We all made it in our sit-on-top plastic kayaks, sturdy but heavy boats that are easier for rookies than conventional kayaks with their sit-in, closed cockpits.
Hanalei Bay stretched around us, a two-mile curve with white sand beaches backed by steep, deeply green mountainsides.
Mount Makana, arising beyond the bay, served as the mystical island of Bali Hai in the 1958 film "South Pacific." Sailors frolicked near the pier that pokes out into the bay from the laid-back little town of Hanalei. Actress Mitzi Gaynor washed that man right out of her hair at Lumahai Beach, just beyond the bay.
We landed at Hideaways Beach, a pocket beach tucked under a bluff and reached only by boat or a steep trail, and spent a 45 minutes snorkeling and lazing in the sand.
Heading back, our guide -- who had been informative on the way down, telling us of plants, landmarks and Hawaiian legends -- paddled rapidly and far ahead, rather like a horse bolting for the barn. We didn't care. We'd had our happy time in Hanalei.
Prices range from $60 per person for the three-hour "Blue Lagoon" river/bay kayak tour with snorkeling to $95 for a five-hour version. The company also offers the rigorous all-day Na Pali sea-kayak trip and a popular and family-friendly Wailua River tour.
>Wet and dry
All the major Hawaiian islands have a wetter windward side, where the tradewinds blow and drop rain, and a drier leeward side.
On Kauai, the north shore, including the communities of Hanalei and Princeville, is much rainier and lusher than the Poipu Beach resort area on the south coast. The small town of Hanalei gets about 80 inches of rain a year, so expect rain squalls (but, hey, it's a warm rain, with summer daytime temperatures in the 80s).
Kauai has one of the world's wettest places, Mount Waialeale, in the rugged, remote center of the island. Clouds slam against the 5,148-foot mountain and dump more than 400 inches of rain a year. Yet a dozen miles away, some areas in the rain shadow get less than 20 inches of rain a year.
>If you go:
Kauai is roughly 33 miles wide and 25 miles long. It's home to about 58,000 people.
It's less developed than Oahu or Maui, more compact than the Big Island of Hawaii, and has some of the state's loveliest secluded beaches.
Where to stay: I stayed in a condo on the island's north shore, in Princeville. The lush north shore is a good base, particularly in summer, when beaches such as Ke'e and Tunnels have excellent snorkeling. In winter, the ocean swell and surf intensify, making many beaches too rough for many visitors to swim. The Poipu side of the island has much calmer waters in winter (and less rain).
More information: The Kauai Visitors Bureau has information on activities, accommodations and more: 800-262-1400 or www.kauaidiscovery.com
"The Ultimate Kauai Guidebook" (by Andrew Doughty, Wizard Publications, $16.95) gives detailed and useful visitor advice, including on outdoors adventures and accommodations (and its Web site, www.wizardpublications.com, has aerial photographs of resorts so you can check out hotel/condo locations and views.)
The Kauai Explorer Web site has outdoors information, including on ocean safety and hiking; www.kauaiexplorer.com
Kauai hiking: To enjoy Kauai's natural beauty cheaply, take a hike. Trails lace the island, with particularly scenic routes along the Na Pali coast and in Koke'e State Park.
Na Pali: Backpacking the entire Kalalau trail on the Na Pali coast (11 miles one way) is physically demanding and a permit is required. However, day hikers can walk the first two miles from the trailhead at the end of Highway 56 to Hanakapi'ai Valley, where there's a lovely pocket beach (but with dangerous currents, so don't swim) and a sidetrail to a waterfall. No state park permit is required for the short hike to Hanakapi'ai, but start early to get a trailhead-parking place at Ke'e Beach at the end of the road. Don't leave valuables in your car; there have been break-ins. For Na Pali hiking information and camping permits, see www.hawaiistateparks.org/parks/kauai.
Trail closure: The Kalalau Trail beyond Hanakapi'ai will be closed from Sept. 7 through Oct. 31 for an erosion/rockfall safety project and trail repair. No hiking or camping will be permitted past Hanakapi'ai. See www.hawaiistateparks.org/ announcements/index.cfm
Koke'e trails: Another excellent destination for day hikes is Koke'e State Park on Kauai's west side. Trails (and some roadside viewpoints) have excellent views of the deep gash of Waimea Canyon and the furrowed Na Pali coast. The park is at an elevation of around 3,600 feet and parts of it get lots of rain; be prepared for some muddy trails.
Wander for a quarter-mile or take an all-day hike with dramatic views of cliffs and ocean by creating a loop trip on Awa'awapuhi and Nu'alolo trails. See www.hawaiistateparks.org/parks/ kauai/kokee.cfm.