The drama inherent in a tour of the western side of Kauai Island comes from Waimea Canyon, the Pacific's smaller but equally striking version of Arizona's Grand Canyon. We suggest getting an early start and heading straight for the top, and then take your time winding back down.
The drive from Nawiliwili Harbor takes about an hour, but it's a pleasant ride. Off to your right is the Kilohana Crater and Mount Waialeale (the highest peak on Kauai, and one of the wettest spots in the world, with an average of 460 in/1,168 cm of rain per year); off to the left is the rugged coastline.
Once you cross the bridge over the Waimea River you'll take Waimea Canyon Road. Narrow and winding but well maintained, it has several pull-offs that provide spectacular views of the canyon. (We recommend stopping at every lookout so you can enjoy the views without worrying about driving off a cliff.) The best views across the canyon are from the Waimea Canyon Lookout, at 3,400 ft/1,035 m. Two other spots, the Puu Hinahina and the Kumuwela lookouts, offer side views of the canyon, which is about 1 mi/2 km wide, 10 mi/16 km long and 3,657 ft/1,115 m deep.
The road enters Kokee State Park and takes you to two other lookouts, Kalalau and Puu O Kila, from which you can peer along Na Pali Coast and down to the startling blue water of the Pacific. On a clear day the mix of colors—green mountains, white clouds, russet hills and blue water—is truly breathtaking. (It also can be breezy and cold up there, so take a sweater or jacket.)
When you're ready, head down, but this time stop at the Kokee Lodge and warm up with a cup of coffee, a cocktail or a meal (phone 808-335-6061; http://www.thelodgeatkokee.net). There's a small gift shop with an eclectic assortment of curios. Next door in an old log house is the Kokee Natural History Museum, which has several interesting exhibits and is a good resource for hiking information. Phone 808-335-9975. http://www.kokee.org.
As you drive down, stay to the right and take Kokee Road through former sugarcane fields (they now grow seed corn) and out to the coastal flatlands of west Kauai. If it's a clear day, you may be able to see the island of Niihau in the distance. At the town of Kekaha, you'll connect back onto Highway 50.
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