Kauai is no stranger to wet weather. But on April 15th, things took a turn for the torrential: In the span of 24 hours, 50 inches of rain fell. On the lush north shore, rivers rose, flooding much of Hanalei, Wainiha, and Haena, the small towns and communities that dot the region. Multiple mud slides still block the northern section of the Kuhio Highway, the island’s only highway. Until the Hawaii Department of Transportation stabilizes the mountainside, residents and travelers can drive from Lihue (where the airport is located) into Hanalei but cannot travel west—meaning that a handful of the island’s biggest draws, including most of the Napali Coast, are inaccessible until further notice.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go. Much of Kauai was unaffected by the storm. If you’ve planned a trip—or are considering one—here’s what you need to know.
Although road crews are hoping the northwestern section of Kuhio Highway will be open for residential access by the end of May, travelers may not have access until later in the summer.
“If you reserved a vacation rental between Wainiha and Haena, find another location around the island,” says Sue Kanoho, executive director of the Kauai Visitors Bureau. Road closures are affecting access to some hotels, such as The Hanalei Colony Resort. Any traveler who booked lodging west of Hanalei should confirm with the property before traveling. (If you have reservations anywhere between Kekaha and Princeville, where the St. Regis is located, you’re good to go.)
Other notable north shore stops that are closed until further notice include the Kalalau Trail (the popular hike on the Napali Coast), Limahuli Garden and Preserve, and Lumahai Beach, one of the island’s most well-known beaches. On the east side of the island, travelers can kayak the Wailua River, but for now there is no landing at Secret Falls, the waterfall located 45 minutes up-river. The rock-enclosed ocean pond at Lydgate Park—a popular snorkeling spot—is filled with driftwood, which crews plan to clean this month.
Surprisingly, after the shocking images that came out of the north shore in April, Hanalei town is open for business. “If you want to help—go to Hanalei town, shop, and have lunch,” Kanoho says. “Some people [who work in Hanalei have] lost homes.” Most restaurants and shops are open, except for Hanalei Dolphin and Postcards Café (the two restaurants closest to the river) and Hanalei Pier.
What’s Left: An Entire Island
Kauai is no stranger to natural disasters, and its inhabitants bounce back like pros. Within days of the flooding, the island was back in business.
The best way to help the community is to support locally owned businesses. Scoop up the flight deals and book a few nights in a beachfront condo through Rosewood, pretty rentals located on the east side, or snag a room at the historic Garden Island Inn, just steps from Kalapaki Bay’s summer surf break.
While Kanoho doesn’t yet recommend beach days at Hanalei—thanks to lingering sand and water contamination, which will wash away as the season progresses—the jaw-dropping view of the Bali Hai mountain as you enter town is well worth the drive north. As is the kalua pork and rice at Tahiti Nui, Hanalei’s legendary spot for live music and mai tais. Purchasing souvenirs from Hanalei vendors is a great way to support the community—both Hanalei Surf Company and Yellowfish Trading Company sell locally made treasures.
Snorkelers, take note: Water visibility is best at the south shore’s Poipu Beach Park. Spend a few days swimming with the turtles and monk seals that frequent the beach and grinding on poke tacos from the food trucks in Koloa Town. Don’t miss the massive carne asada burritos at Da Crack, or the chance to watch the sunset with a mai tai and seafood laulau on the lanai at Plantation Gardens.
Since you can’t hike the Kalalau Trail, the best way to get a view of the Napali Cliffs is on a snorkel trip with Capt. Andy’s. The cruises depart from Hanapepe, on the south shore, and travel north. Dolphins spin in the boat’s wake and sea turtles swim through the coral with you. The guides tell lively tales about the island’s history, showcasing Kauai’s survivor spirit. After your snorkel trip, hit up Japanese Grandma, which serves some of the best sushi and poke bowls on the island—check the website as it occasionally hosts kaiseki dinners in its back garden. The attached gift shop showcases local artisans, as do the dozen galleries dotting historic Hanapepe’s main drag.
Until the entire island is thriving once more, it’s our turn to give some aloha back to the Aloha State. For more ways to help the Garden Island visit MalamaKauai.org or the Hawaii community foundation relief fund.
Michele Bigley Writer, traveler, mom and activist on the journey from environmental despair to hope.