Think back to Fantasy Island and Tattoo shouting "Da plane! Da plane!" Remember the waterfall—in all its picture-perfect, quintessentially Hawaiian glory? That was Wailua Falls, one of the most photographed places on Kauai's East Shore, a must-see for visitors and a fitting start for a tour of the island.
To get there from the airport, drive on Ahukini Road (Highway 70) until it ends at Kuhio Highway. Turn right and drive north about 0.5 mi/0.8 km to Kapaia. At the bottom of the hill, turn left on Maalo Road and follow it as it winds and twists through former sugarcane fields. There's a marvelous view from the overlook, but we strongly advise against climbing over the fence to take pictures or hiking down the steep trail to the top of the falls.
Highway 56 (Kuhio Highway) is the only highway that serves the east side and north shore. At the point where the highway crosses the Wailua River is the Wailua Marina. It's the starting point for boat trips to Fern Grotto (a favorite wedding spot). A riverboat takes you upriver for about 2 mi/3 km, while you're regaled with Hawaiian legends and songs. (Don't be surprised if you're asked to try the hula.)
The grotto is lush and beautiful; several types of ferns form a natural curtain. Once you're inside the grotto, musicians serenade you with the "Hawaiian Wedding Song," which resonates off the fern-covered walls. (The experience has an amusement-park aura.) Contact Smith's Motor Boat Service for a tour. The company also offers tours of a 30-acre/12-hectare botanical garden, as well as the island's best luau and a Polynesian dance show. Phone 808-821-6895. http://www.smithskauai.com.
After you cross the Wailua River on Highway 56, turn left on Kuamoo Road (Highway 580). Because the river area was the home of Kauai's ruling alii (chiefs), a number of sacred sites stretch from the Wailua River to the top of Waialeale. They include heiau (temples), a bellstone, birthing stones and a place of refuge. Some of these archaeological sites can be seen from an overlook off Kuamoo Road, southeast of Opaekaa Falls.
The view from the overlook is stunning, and if you cross the road and look down the river, you will see grass huts and what appears to be a small village. It's Kamokila Hawaiian Village, a re-creation of a typical old Hawaiian settlement. Admission is US$5 adults, US$3 children ages 5-12. Canoe tours (US$20-$35) are offered daily on the hour 9 am-5 pm. The steep entry road begins just across the bridge at Opaekaa Falls. Phone 808-823-0559. http://villagekauai.com.
Back on Highway 56, look to the left and try to spot the "Sleeping Giant" that is represented in the shape of Nounou Mountain. (Legend has it that the giant will someday wake up again.) Bustling Waipouli and Kapaa are the places to shop and eat. The highway is lined with a dozen or more resorts, strip malls, shops and island-style eateries, including the Coconut Marketplace.
The scenery gets increasingly more beautiful and the towns get smaller as you skirt the edge of the craggy, intriguing Kalalea Range outside the Hawaiian Homesteads community of Anahola and continue north toward Kilauea, Princeville and Hanalei.
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