There is only one road from Hanalei to Haena, a narrow, winding road that hugs the coastline through some of the finest scenery in the Hawaiian Islands. So, fortunately, it is—by necessity—always a slow road.
What a blessing! There is the occasional local who has the pedal to the metal, late and in a hurry. But, on most occasions, the road to Haena is a journey back in time. It’s like driving used to be all over the Islands circa 1955: slow, rural, scenic and absolutely wonderful.
Forget the traffic lights, high-rises, freeways and frantic pace. Here are towering coconut trees, remote white-sand beaches, native plants and an azure sea graced with the white spray of surf. There are rows of taro growing in irrigated fields and wonderful views of mountains with poetic names like Hihimanu and Mamalahoa. This is Hawaii at its pristine best.
It’s the one-lane bridges that have been the blessed roadblock to development on this North Shore coast and, as things stand today, this will be the future for years to come. Kauai’s entire community and return visitors support this future wholeheartedly.
The round trip from Hanalei to Haena is less than 20 miles, but, if properly done—slowly, at leisure—it should take the better part of the day. Early birds will miss some of the visitor traffic. Folks who opt for an afternoon drive can enjoy the unique sunset at road’s end. There is a roadside store at Wainiha where you can pick up drinks and snacks, but it’s not a bad idea to pack up picnic fixings from a restaurant or store in Hanalei before hitting the road.
The first stop along two-lane Kuhio Road is Lumahai Beach, one of the most famous scenes of film classic South Pacific, where Mitzi Gaynor washed Rossano Brazzi right out of her hair. Parking—just past the 5-mile marker—is a little tricky between the ironwood trees that grow tight to the cliff, so choose a spot with room off the road and safely away from the precipice before descending the path to the beach (and never leave valuables in your car).
Lumahai Beach is a spectacular stretch of white-sand beach, but there are no lifeguards and the currents can be treacherous in this area, so save the beach at the road’s end as your designated swim spot. On the other hand, this is a great strolling beach, where an hour can easily pass while beachcombing or sunbathing (lather up generously with a high-SPF sunscreen, even on a semi-cloudy day). On particularly hot, sun-intense days, some reading in the shade can alternate with your sunbathing time.
At Wainiha Bay, you’ll come across the last-chance general store on this remote coastline, Wainiha General Store, where you can stock up on any last-minute items, such as bottled water, juice and sunscreen. Stop in no matter what just to see what a bona fide plantation-era general store is all about. It’s no easy feat to keep this outpost stocked with goods, and there are no real bargains here, but interesting it is. Who knows how much longer the real McCoy will be around?
Next up is Tunnels Beach, where locals come to surf, snorkel and sunbathe. Hawaiians named this place Makua, but, in modern times, it became Tunnels, famous for its tubing waves and undersea caves.
Although there are no amenities at Tunnels, parking and public bathing facilities are available at nearby Haena Beach. The other popular stops along this road are at Maniniholo Dry Cave and the wet caves at Waikapalae and Waikanaloa. The water is brackish and the caves are rather shallow, dark and a bit spooky, especially if you have read the tales of “Kanaloa’s water” (wai means water and Kanaloa was an important god in Hawaii’s mythology).
The reward of a drive along this coast, literally at the end of the road, is Ke‘e Beach, a spot so popular with residents and visitors, beachgoers and hikers, that parking is rarely easy in the middle of the day, which is why we like to arrive here either early in the day or near sunset, when most day trippers are packing up for home. This is one of the most scenic spots in the Hawaiian Islands, the beginning of the trail into the spectacular Na Pali coastline (Hawaiian for “cliffs”). On the best summer days, the shallow, reef-protected waters at Ke‘e Beach are ideal for families to snorkel in, looking back to land at a wall of lush green cliffs. Parking is limited, but there are showers and bathroom facilities, a welcome relief after a day in the sun and water.