Kauai’s wind swept southeast shoreline with its craggy sand blasted cliffs is unlike any other destination in Hawaii. Nothing compares to the Mahaulepu coast, which offers miles of untouched vistas decorated with limestone slabs and barbed pillars that have stood the test of time against a hostile ocean.
Few people are inclined to venture beyond the Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort and Spa at the end of Poipu Road on the South Shore, but those who don’t are missing out on spectacular geological wonders, millions of years in the making.
You can encounter this jaw-dropping landscape three different ways. The first is by vehicle, which is actually the least recommended as you’ll miss a majority of the sights, and because car rental companies usually deter visitors from driving on unpaved roads. Still, plenty of people forge the dirt road after the pavement stops to find the secluded Mahaulepu Beach, located after about 20 minutes of dodging sneaky pot holes and pesky rocks.
The best way to get to this beach and experience all that this gorgeous side of the island has to offer is by hiking the Mahaulepu Heritage Trail. The trail begins at Keoneloa Beach, otherwise known as Shipwreck Beach, which you’ll find by making a righthand turn before Poipu Road ends. The scenic trail breaks apart into different footpaths that all ultimately lead you along a raged cliffside, past flaky sand dunes and near wild ocean currents that rage more than 100 feet below. On this moderately easy trail, which is around two miles one way, you’ll come across all kinds of impressive scenery including lava tubes and blow holes. Just make sure to slater on sunscreen beforehand because, although the wind blasts you here and a constant mist of sea spray clings to your body cooling you down, UV rays still find their scorching way to unaware hikers.
If you’re fully prepared for all that this adventure entails, including wearing a solid pair of closed toed shoes and bringing plenty of water, then get ready to also discover some historical surprises along the way, like an ancient heiau (temple). You’ll come across this natural structure of boulders after passing Makawehi Point or Paa Ridge and its ancient sand dunes that have since solidified into jagged points protruding from the ocean.
After this point, you’ll have to dodge golf balls when the trail momentarily intersects with Poipu Bay Golf Course—another fun activity to consider participating in along this vast coastline—until you eventually come upon the Makauwahi Cave Reserve. Those who are lucky enough to be here when it’s open can crawl into Hawaii’s largest limestone cave also known as the most abundant fossil site in the state. At least 10,000 years of archeological findings have been discovered here including bones of large birds that once roamed the island. Volunteers regularly man the cave and are happy to tell visitors about its rich history like the story of a kahuna (priest) who allegedly used the movement of smoke through the cave’s opening to predict the future.
Adjacent to this gem is the famed Mahaulepu Beach, which won’t have nearly the same crowd some of the more popular spots on the island have, like Poipu Beach. Unless it’s a particularly calm ocean day, however, this is not the best place to swim. Rather, it’s a great spot to stop and enjoy the view and have a mid-hike picnic. Word has it that this was one of the sites fearless Kauai warriors resisted the invading forces of King Kamehameha the Great in one of his attempts to conquer the island hundreds of years ago.
The third, and arguably most unique way to visit this incredible place, is to saddle up and ride the trail by horseback. CJM (Come Join Me!) Country Stables, owned by legendary paniolo (cowboy), Jimmy Miranda, is located on that tricky dirt road about halfway to Mahaulepu Beach, thankfully before it gets problematic. On one of the many daily tours offered, you’ll traverse unchartered sections of the trail and learn about the area’s rich history, all while riding an easy-going horse that gently ambles among sand dunes and across the shoreline.
It doesn’t matter which mode of transportation you choose, just try to pick at least one during your tropical vacation. From Mahaulepu’s fortress-like limestone spires to the unparalleled ocean vistas, this journey on the sunny side of the island does not disappoint.