Article: The Best Kayaking Spots of Hawaii
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Best Kayaking Spots in Hawaii Photo The Best Kayaking Spots in Hawaii

by Tom Holtey


Everyone thinks of Hawaii as a premiere vacation destination. They envision the sunny beaches, fiery volcanoes, lush jungles, and the Island’s warm hospitality. But few people realize the outstanding kayaking opportunities that are available. On many of the islands you will find remote and scenic coastlines to explore, camp and fish. Paddle sports are very popular with both visitors and kama’aina (locals). Plan a kayaking adventure into your Hawaiian vacation.

Hawaiian waters are some of the most beautiful and friendly in the world. Water temperatures are warm, clarity is astounding, and the surf is exciting. The backdrop of towering cliffs draped in tropical foliage makes every destination a perfect photo opportunity of stunning beauty. Coral reefs team with bright colored sea life in shallow, bath warm lagoons. Fruit trees and fishing can provide one with a taste of Robinson Carosoe cuisine. Cool trade winds fan the islands with ocean fresh air. This is truly a paddler’s paradise.

The Hawaiian archipelago was created millions of years ago by an upwelling volcanic hot spot deep beneath the slowly moving Earth’s crust. This chain of islands in the middle of the world’s largest ocean is populated by plants and animals that swam, flew, drifted, or otherwise hitched a ride somehow.

Polynesian people first came to the islands over one thousand years ago by double hull voyaging canoes, bringing with them their own plants, animals, and their culture. Using the strength of their paddling muscles and the winds when available, Hawaiian people paddled and fished these coasts just as many do today in kayaks. Fortunately you can fly to the islands instead of paddling. Distances between islands will also exclude inter island paddling as a recreational pursuit.

Sit-on-top kayaks are the dominant type of craft available at local outfitters. They are very well suited for the Hawaiian environment. The open-top cockpit allows the paddler to remain cool in the tropical breezes, jump in and out to swim or snorkel easily, and makes wave riding safe and fun. Most are stable, easy to get back onto and fun to use. Touring kayaks glide through the water and cut through the waves. You can expect to travel at speeds of three to six miles per hour. Kayaks are light and easy to handle. You can pull your kayak up to the high water mark and make camp on a remote beach. Touring kayaks are available at outfitters and recreational kayaks (just for fun) are available at resorts and beach concessions. Outrigger canoes are hard to get a hold of and mainland style canoes are almost unheard of. Sit-on-top kayaks are used in the same manner as their mainland cousins. You can even practice your Eskimo rolls by using knee straps.

A good outfitter will provide you a touring kayak with storage hatches, a paddle, a paddle leash, life vest, knee straps, backrest, and a dry bag(s). You should bring personal gear consisting of: aquatic footwear, wide brim hat, waterproof sunscreen, paddling clothes, mask fins and snorkel, water bottle, and a string for glasses and hat. Waterproof disposable cameras will allow you to cherish the memories of your adventure forever.

Camping gear should be appropriate for warm, but occasionally wet weather. Bedding can be very light, but a sleeping pad is important for some of the rockier beaches. It is a good idea to depend on some of your own dry bags to store your stuff in. Don’t forget to bring a water filter or iodine. There are plenty of clear cool running streams but few of them are safe to drink. Most outfitters will pick you up at an airport or hotel, bring you to the put in, and then pick you up at the take out.

Come to Hawaii and explore the rugged coastlines, tropical forests and coral reefs. Come prepared for adventure and awe. Read on to get an over view of the top kayak destinations of the islands.

The Island of KAUA’I

The Na Pali coast is the most popular of the kayak destinations in Hawaii. Located on the north coast of the island of Kaua’i, this trip is considered the best and one of the safest for beginner or intermediate paddlers. Na Pali offers beautiful sand beaches, dramatic sea-cliffs and caves, ancient ruins, spectacular snorkeling and beach combing.

Permits are required. Obtain your permits well in advance due to the popularity of the coast. Get county park camping permits for Ha’ena beach park, from county parks dept., and state permits for camping at Kalalau valley, landing permits for Nu’alolo Kai, camping permits for Miloli’i from the D.L.N.R.

Camp at Ha’ena for your first night and use your spare time to explore the dry cave (across the road from Ha’ena beach park) and the wet caves (about 11/2 mi. toward Ke’e beach), both within walking distance from the campground. Spending the night here allows for an early morning start with plenty of time to enjoy the scenery.

While paddling from Ha’enna to Kalalau, you can explore sea caves and cliffs along the way. Landings and launching at the beaches can be somewhat rough. Plan to have the experienced paddlers land first to assist inexperienced. Most kayakers camp in a large dry cave at Kalalau beach. There are also forested camping spots as well. Hiking in the valley is a great activity for the day. You will find fruit trees, waterfalls and swimming holes. Plan to spend a day at least to explore.

Paddling on the way to Miloli’i, the 2nd camp site, stop at Nu’alolo Kai for lunch, explore the ruins and go snorkeling. Milolli is the quiet spot on the coast, offering exquisite beach combing, a hike up a serpentine canyon and dolphins frequently off shore in the early mornings. Beware of falling rocks from the canyons steep walls. Plan for a whole day to explore. The last days paddle, to the take out at Polihale beach, is usually calm and glassy.

WHERE: Ha’ena county beach park to Polihale state park on the island of Kaua’i.
LENGTH OF TRIP: Fifteen miles.
WHEN: June to August.
CAMPING: Three locations.
EXPERIENCE LEVEL: Beginner to intermediate
OUTFITTERS: Outfitters Kaua’i (808) 742-9667, Kayak Kaua’I (800) 437-3507
PERMITS: Department of Land and Natural Resources (808) 274-3444, State parks Office (808) 245-4444, County Parks and Recreation (808) 241-6670
BOOKS: Paddling Hawaii; Audrey Sutherland,
Beaches of Kaua’I and Ni’Ihau; John Clark,
On the Na Pali Coast; Kathy Valier,
Sit-On-Top Kayaking, a Beginner’s Guide; Tom Holtey

The Island of O’AHU

O’ahu is the most populated of the island chain. This is not surprising because it has some of the best beaches in the state. Even though it is largely an urban landscape it offers some superb paddling opportunities. Camping is limited to road access campgrounds, often located right on the water. There are many good day trips to take advantage of.

The Mokulua Islands are a popular and easy destination. They are twin Islands one mile off shore Lanikai beach. These islets are bird sanctuaries; please stay on the sandy beach or rocky tide pool areas.

Surfing the channel between the islands is the best activity in the winter months (use caution), Snorkeling, tide pool exploration and picnicking are good summer time activities. Beware of the tide pools and shallow coral reefs when the surf is up. Camping is not permitted at this location.

Kahana Bay beach park and Kahana Stream is a wonderful jungle destination. You can paddle on a calm jungle stream, sprinkled with blossoms and on the ocean all on one trip. This place offers an excellent place for a diverse group. Fun activities are beach combing and picnicking on the beach, kayaking and board surfing on the bay. There is serene clam water paddling in the stream. Kahana Stream is no longer than one mile. This location is excellent for beginner and advanced paddlers. Use caution here if rain is causing flooding or threatening to.

San Souci Beach is near Waikiki Beach, probably one of the most famous beaches of the world. Paddling here can be great fun. In the summer months surf comes to this shore and kayak surfing here is fun and easy. Snorkeling, sunbathing, board surfing and outrigger canoe rides are also popular activities. For most tourists who stay in Waikiki it is just a short walk to the ocean.

Waimea Bay and river are good spots to go to on the north shore. During the summer months when the ocean is calm kayaking in and around the bay is appropriate. There is a lot of good snorkeling in the aquamarine waters. The beach at Waimea is a beautiful place for a picnic. When the winter surf comes, paddling on the river is safe and fun. Waimea River has 3/8 of a mile of relaxing, scenic, navigable water. Lots of wild birds live here, including night herons.

WHERE: The island of O’ahu
WHEN: Year round.
EXPERIENCE LEVEL: Beginner to intermediate, depending on surf.
CAMPING INFO AND PERMITS: Department of Land and Natural resources, Division of State Parks (808) 587-0300
OUTFITTERS: Go Bananas (808) 737-9514,Kayak O’ahu Adventures (808) 593-4415, San Souci (808) 923-0539, North Shore (808) 623-8189, Kailua Sailboards and Kayaks (808) 262-2555
BOOKS: Paddling Hawaii; Audrey Sutherland,
Beaches of O’ahu, John Clark,
Sit-On-Top Kayaking, a Beginner’s Guide; Tom Holtey

The Island of MOLOKA’I

The island of Moloka’i is a wild and enchanting place. The north coast of the island is a paddler’s paradise. There you can kayak below towering sea cliffs, the tallest in the world. You can explore remote valleys, sea caves and paddle among Islets and sea stacks.

The trip begins at Halawa valley at the far eastern side of the island. The launch is in the calm water of Halawa bay, but this is the last reliable calm water you can expect for the duration of the trip. Papalaua valley is the first landing. To find this spot look for a large sea arch and paddle right trough it to point you to the landing. There are a few tent spots in this narrow valley, and a good hike to be had. A large swimming hole and 300 foot waterfall is the hiker’s reward. Warm rains fall often on this coast. Be prepared with a tarp to keep dry.

The next valley on the coast is Wailau. There is often a summer time settlement of people who walk in on the only foot trail into this coastline. The next location on the coast is Pelekunu. This place makes an excellent base camp for hiking in the vast valley, and kayaking the bays, coves and islets of the area. Plan to spend the bulk of your time here.

From Pelekunu you have to choose one of three options for the duration of your trip. The first is to paddle back the way you came if the winds are light. The next options are to paddle around Kalaupapa peninsula. This can be a long and difficult paddle. The strong currents and waves off the tip of this peninsula are often challenging. If you chose options 2 & 3, it is wise to rest in the lee of Mokapu Island before rounding the point. Use this time to make sure that your kayaks are ship shape and free of bilgewater. Once you have made it around Kalaupapa you can land on the western shore only if you have permission in advance. Kalaupapa is still a Hansen’s disease settlement and a permit is required from the board of health. There is no threat of contracting the disease, but access to the area is strictly controlled. To get permission to land contact one of the tour guides that operate there. If you have an inflatable kayak you can land on the eastern shore of the peninsula, and carry your kayak up to the road for a pick up.

If you opt to paddle clear of Kalaupapa then you have a long trip to make all the way to Kawa’aloa. There is no place to land until you reach this destination. Strong paddlers are the only ones to make this long trip. There is no fresh water along this part of the coast so bring as much as you can carry from Pelekunu. The fishing is outstanding and the land here is like a desert with sand dunes marching off to the foothills.

From here you paddle around ‘Ilio Point to Kawakiu Nui, a small cove in cow country. This is also Kiawe county. The Kiawe bush has long sharp thorns, beware of bare feet and sleeping pads. The snorkeling is great here and you may still find the sunken ruins of a boat in the cove’s water.

From this bay you have only a short paddle over to civilization. The Sheraton Moloka’i Hotel here will be a welcome sight for lunch or an over night stay. If you wish to by pass the hotel you can land at Papohaku beach and get your shuttle crew to take you out there.

WHERE: The island of Moloka’i, from Halawa bay to Papohaku beach.
LENGTH OF TRIP: Twenty to Forty-five miles
WHEN: June through August
CAMPING: Plentiful locations, no permits needed.
EXPERIENCE LEVEL: Advanced to expert.
OUTFITTER: Go Bananas (808) 737-9514,
PERMITS: Dept. of Health (808) 567-6320, Molokai Mule Ride (808) 567-6088, Father Damien Tours (808) 567-6171, Ike’s Scenic Tours (808) 567-6437, Nat’l parks service (808) 567-6102
BOOKS: Paddling Hawaii; Audrey Sutherland,
Beaches of Maui county, John Clark,
Sit-On-Top Kayaking, a Beginner’s Guide; Tom Holtey

The Island of HAWAI’I

Hawai’i, commonly called the Big Island, beckons tourist and Kama’aina alike to it’s fiery volcanoes and great open spaces. There are also wonderful places to paddle along vast coastlines. This island has the least amount of people, and the largest landmass.

The North Kohala coast is beautiful and wild. Paddlers will be challenged by this coastline that is exposed to the trade winds and the wind swell that they generate. Those kayakers that are brave enough to venture here will be rewarded with a remote and lonely place scattered with deep valleys and steep sea cliffs sculpted by rains that fall on this windward shore.

Start the journey at Waipi’o Bay. You will need a four wheel drive vehicle to take you down into this picturesque valley. Launch your kayaks in the Waipi’o river and paddle out the river mouth. Beware of the strong currents and surf here.

From here your next stop is Waimanu Valley. The Camp sites here are very rocky and a good sleeping pad will be invaluable. Paddling up Waimanu Stream makes for a great day trip. Portage your kayak around the turbulent river mouth, due to the strong currents and surf. The portage is a short distance and easy. The stream is navigable for a little more than a mile. You will see towering water falls on the valley walls.

Your next jump along this coast brings you to Laupahoehoe Nui. This peninsula juts out from a high cliff, sprinkled with waterfalls. This topography makes it only accessible from the sea. Be prepared for surf landing on the boulder beach. Here you will find wild goats and a banana forest. This location is the best camping on the coast. There are shaded groves for tents, plenty of fresh water and lots of terrain to explore.

Honopue valley offers the next place for camping as you continue your journey down this coast. The landing here, like most of the coast, is rocky. Directly behind the beach and visible from the water you can see the terraced gardens and house sights of a deserted village. Off shore you can paddle among a group of three islets. One of these islands has a hole right through the middle of it, giving it the name Mokupuka. Moku meaning island and puka meaning hole.

From here you will paddle to the take out at Keokea Beach Park. Unlike the put in you can drive in with regular vehicles. Look for a breakwater that protects a small boat launch. For a less hazardous trip on Hawai’i try the Kona coast as described in "Paddling Hawai’i"

WHERE: Waipi’o to Keokea Beach Park on the Island of Hawai’i.
LENGTH OF TRIP: Less than twenty miles.
WHEN TO GO: June through August.
CAMPING: Three Spots along the coast.
OUTFITTER: Aquatic Perceptions (808) 935-9997, Kona Boys Kayaks (808) 322-3600
PERMITS: Waimanu, State parks (808) 961-7200
BOOKS: Paddling Hawaii; Audrey Sutherland,
Beaches of the Big Island, John Clark,
Sit-On-Top Kayaking, a Beginner’s Guide; Tom Holtey

The Island of MAUI

The island of Maui is known as the valley isle. Haleakala dominates the eastern half of the island and the Western Maui Mountain Range is on the other side of the island. These high mountains and valley create strong winds that make Maui’s wind surfing famous, and challenges kayakers. Early morning will be the best time of day to avoid the stronger winds.

La Perouse Bay, on the southern coast of the island, can be a year round destination, depending of surf and wind conditions. The ‘Ahihi-Kina’u Natural Area Reserve encompasses much of the area. The reserve was set up to protect the fragile ecosystem that is there. Please treat the flora and fauna here with respect. You will find rare plants that are found no where else in the world, schools of tropical fish, and pods of dolphins frolicking in the bay.

The bay is encircled by a curtain of cliffs thirty to fifty feet high. Access is by Makena road, at the end of the pavement. West of the lighthouse is easy beginner and intermediate paddling in the bay and among the rock gardens. The snorkeling at this sight is some of the best on the island.

Advanced kayakers can paddle east of the lighthouse to Kanaio beach for camping. The landing here can be difficult due to the shore break, but sit on top kayaks, used here, are easier to land and launch then their sit inside cousins. This is dry country forested with the thorny kiawe trees. You will need to bring all the water you wish to consume.

For those who wish for a little turf with their surf the King’s Highway starts near La Perouse Bay. This is dry, hot and rough terrain. Only well prepared hikers should attempt this walk. The hardy will be rewarded with a landscape of wild rock formations. They will also be privileged to walk on a road built by the Hawaiian people almost one hundred years ago.

WHERE: The island of Maui, south coast La Perouse Bay.
LENGTH OF TRIP: Less than Three miles.
WHEN: Year round, depending on summer surf.
EXPERIENCE LEVEL: Beginner to advanced.
OUTFITTER: South Pacific Kayaks 1-800-776-2326, Maui Sea Kayaking (808) 572-6299
BOOKS: Beaches of Maui county, John Clark,
Paddling Hawaii; Audrey Sutherland,
Sit-On-Top Kayaking, a Beginner’s Guide; Tom Holtey

Maui’s north coast is the place to go for paddlers who are looking for an extended journey. Your adventure begins in the small town of Hana and ends in the city of Kahului. Maui’s north coast is on the windward side and gets a lot of rain that feeds its lush tropical jungle. Launch your kayaks at Hana Bay.

The coast is peppered with waterfalls, off shore islets, and beautiful camp- sites. One of these campsites is Waianapanapa State Park. There is a well-developed camp ground and road access. Other campsites along this coast are too plentiful to describe them all. A careful look at a topo map, and some scouting in the field will reveal these Hawaiian hideaways.

The weather on this coast can be a little wet and windy. Early morning paddling will be the most enjoyable and easy. Some hiking and exploration can be done, but you will find that there is much more to do on the water. Paddlers will encounter numerous sea-caves, and sea arches. The whole coast seems to resemble a giant size sandcastle with cathedral type spires, Gothic arches, rings of cloisters, niches and dome shaped grottos. On a small islet off Pauwela Point there is a spiral shaped cove, as if a large seashell, split in half, washed up and partially submerged on this shore.

Once passed Ho’okipa Park, famous for wind surfing, paddlers can choose a landing spot. Places for a take out can be: Maliko Bay (before Ho’okipa), Lower Pa’ia Park, Baldwin Park, Spreckelsville Beach, or all the way to Kahului.

WHERE: The north coast of Maui; Hana to Kahului.
LENGTH OF TRIP: Forty-five miles.
WHEN: June through August.
CAMPING: Plentiful locations.
EXPERIENCE LEVEL: Intermediate to advanced.
OUTFITTER: Maui Sea Kayaking (808) 572-6299, South Pacific Kayaks 1-800-776-2326
BOOKS: Paddling Hawaii; Audrey Sutherland,
Beaches of Maui county, John Clark,
Sit-On-Top Kayaking, a Beginner’s Guide; Tom Holtey

The Island of LANA’I

Lana’i is the smallest of the populated islands in Hawaii. It is a small town and has genuine old time Hawaii charm. The relaxed pace of life on this island is a welcome relief from the hectic urban lifestyle.

The best way to paddle on Lanai is to bring an inflatable kayak. There are no outfitters, and planes that fly to the island are very small. It is possible to ship a kayak by barge to Kaumalapau Harbor, but the schedule is very limited.

The West coast offers the best paddling on the island. The put in and take out is a Kaumalapau Harbor. This is a working harbor, but it is not very busy. From here you will paddle north along a coast dotted with coves, sea-caves and sea-cliffs. Snorkeling in these waters is spectacular. Dolphins often frequent this coast. They jump out of the water spinning in mid air, and travel in large pods.

The Nanoha sea stacks make for a nice lunch spot. These small islets look like castles in the sea. They have a rocky, yard like, apron to pull your kayak up onto for a landing. One of the sea stacks has a shady cave complete with front and back doors, a window and a table like rock in the middle of the room. The snorkeling around these islands is very good. It is a simple matter to paddle back to the harbor at the end of the day.

WHERE: The Island of Lanai.
LENGTH: Six miles round trip.
WHEN: Year round, depending on weather.
CAMPING: Manele Bay.
PERMITS: State parks.
BOOKS: Paddling Hawaii; Audrey Sutherland,
Beaches of Maui county, John Clark,
Sit-On-Top Kayaking, a Beginner’s Guide; Tom Holtey

For further information about paddling in Hawaii:

Hui Wa’a Kaukahi Kayak Club
P.O. BOX 11588
Honolulu HI 96826
D.L.N.R. Dept. State Parks
P.O. BOX 621
Honolulu HI 96809
Hawaii Tourism Office (808) 586-2550
Hawaii Visitors bureau (808) 923-1811
MAPS OF ALL ISLANDS: University of Hawaii Press


© 1998, Tom Holtey

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