Kauai Photo Overview

Like all Hawaii, Kauai has plenty to offer: beachy stuff, the arts, music, hiking, shopping. But this is a photo blog. My focus is all about making photography and the creative experience an essential part of your travels. So here are some key possibilities for those of you with a camera (or phone cam) who are thinking of a trip:

Waimea Canyon. This area, above the western side of Kauai, has an abundance of overlooks, pull-offs and trails along Route 550. Waimea is often called “Grand Canyon of the Pacific” but the description doesn’t do justice to either place. The Grand Canyon is hundreds of millions of years older, a vastly different geological history. But Waimea is equally beautiful, with luscious tropical colors — and way less photographed. If you go to Kauai, put Waimea Canyon at the top of the list.

1st signed Wiamea Canyon lookout

1st signed Wiamea Canyon lookout

Waimea, in western Kauai, is removed from the main tourist sights, almost at the end of Route 50 (1 1/2 hours from Princeville). Then from Waimea town, head up 550 for 20 or 30 minutes. You’ll notice two signed overlooks, each is a must see for the photographer. The second of these has some trails that are worth it for those who can handle a bit of exercise. Plus there are plenty of pull-offs on the road. (Remember other folks are on the road too, so take in the sights after you’ve pulled off not while driving.)

Kalalau & Pu’u O Kila Overlooks. At the top of Route 550 are two overlooks of the Na Pali Coast that are also classic photo locations. And the fact that they’re a few miles past Waimea Canyon means you’ll end up doing them on the same day.

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Kalalau Overlook

That area toward the top of the road has lots of trails through Koke’e State Park. The park is mostly swamp, a swamp almost a mile above sea level. But there are also trails that take you Na Pali overlooks. Once you’re in that top area you’ll notice signs for Kokee Natural History Museum and Koke’e Lodge. The museum has plenty of info on the hikes.

The two overlooks are at the end of the road. Both are of Kalalau Valley section of Na Pali. The one caution is that by noon these overlooks can get shrouded in clouds. Getting to Waimea and then up to the overlooks can take an hour from Poipu, 1 1/2 hours from Lihue — if you don’t stop.  So go early or the overlooks at the top could be wrapped in fog.

Na Pali Coast. The Na Pali Coast is the most recognizable location on Kauai — because of the movies. It seems like any film that symbolizes unspoiled tropical wilderness does some shooting at Na Pali: Jurassic Park, King Kong, South Pacific, etc. This section of the coast is all about hidden valleys and 3,000 foot vertical drops. It can’t be gotten to by road. So if you want to shoot Na Pali, you hike in, view it from a boat or take one of the helicopter tours.

These boat tours can include snorkeling or dinner. For a more serious photographer, the “sunset” tour will usually deliver the better image. But an adventure rafting tour of sea caves and the coast will be an experience in its own right and a great challenge for your outdoor/sports photography skills. I’ll cover a helicopter tour in a whole blog post.

Kauia doors off tour, Jack Harter Helecopters

NaPali Coast from helicopter

Tours

Kauai tours are one of the core entertainments. In fact, if you browse through one of the tourist handouts of the 101 Things to Do on Kauai, 99% will be some form of tour. Some choices (just off the top of the head): Snorkel tours, sunset sailing, kayak, general island, photo oriented, helicopter, tours to the nearby islands, horseback, botanical gardens….

I’ve done a bunch of Hawaiian tours. Whether the tour is physically oriented, cultural, botanical, or artistic, they tend to have high level guides, folks who know the islands. So you come away with an experience of some sort. But the tours can be a significant expense especially for a family, so choose based on your interests. And remember, a little research in a guidebook or here means you can do lots of these sights on your own.

I’ll list a few of these here, with thoughts on how a photo enthusiast might approach the experience:

Snorkeling. Whether with spouse or kids or solo (if you’re a regular swimmer), snorkeling at a good beach is an essential experience. Being suspended in the flowing ocean, hanging with the fish, being in the now. Rent some gear, do it.

As photo locations, snorkel beaches are a mixed bag. There are a few snorkel beach spots that can give you that classic beach shot and there are lots of people shots to be had. So bring your camera and at least a walk-around lens. (And keep it hidden in the car when not in use.) But my suggestion is, plan your snorkel trip to include photography before hand. Set aside some time for each experience.

Scuba Tour. I’m certified and did a scuba thing on Kauai on my second trip — I haven’t done a dive that includes photography, maybe the next time? Scuba can be amazing to do with a properly housed camera. This is Pacific Island diving in a small boat, sea turtles, fish everywhere, how cool is that. But.

But scuba is a huge skill unto itself. And if your diving skills aren’t current I wouldn’t throw the photo thing on top of it. If you’re new to diving, just dive on Kauai — do that experience to the full.

Kayaking up to the Fern Grotto. I’ve never been attracted to one of these tours. A little tour bus, a short kayak paddle, a boat with a Hawaiian music performance, a fern encrusted cave. It’s probably an entertaining family tour but I’m not the target audience.

This kind of excursion can be fun, but don’t expect great landscape images. That jungle flood plane below Fern Grotto doesn’t make landscape work easy. And any tightly manage tour adds other creative challenges — 1. you have to move with the group and 2. getting all those tourists out of the shot is more trouble than it’s worth.

Doing a straight kayak trip though, one you take at your own speed, is fun in its own right. Again, low lying river areas aren’t easy as landscape locations. But you might well get some nice adventure photos and botanical studies.

Seeing, shooting in a tropical garden. Kauai has a several botanical gardens, each full of rare or endemic flowers and trees. These spots are a treasure trove of subject matter and the enthusiast who understands macro work will have a field day.

Macro work isn’t a slam dunk, you’re applying the rules of composition at a different scale. So don’t just put the flower in the middle of the frame and push the button. Treat the flower and it’s setting as landscape in miniature. Think about relationships within the frame, foreground/background, leading lines, etc., all the good stuff.

And for a photo portfolio of the Garden Isle, an orchid is as appropriate a subject as a canyon or a stretch of coast. [No, you don’t need a macro lens.]

Doing a photo tour. We did a great tour with Nathan Sebastian at Kauai Photo Tours (more in a later post). The tour covered about 10 locations on the east and north side of the island and the experience seemed to work for enthusiasts at every levels.

If you don’t know a place as intimately as the locals, you won’t discover the less touristy photo spots on your own, not in a week. You can also cover a lot of ground doing the regular (non-photo) island tour. But with those, you get rushed onto the bus before you get your best shot. After all, a general tour company isn’t planning their locations like a photographer does. Talk about frustrating. To me, photo-oriented tours are a no-brainer.

Helicopter Tour

I understood early on that fully half the island, the mountain core of Kauai, is inaccessible for the visitor except through a helicopter tour. The density of the jungle and the sheer cliffs mean the higher Kauai locations are never seen. These nosebleed-vertical landscapes are like abstract sculptures — as complex as Antelope Canyon but on a mythic scale. I’ll do a whole blog post on the Jack Harter Helicopter tour I did.

Kauia doors off tour, Jack Harter Helecopters

Kauia doors off tour

Beach Images. To the “high art” folks, pictures of beaches are about as classy as black velvet paintings of flamingos. And that’s too bad. Nature colors, like pure harmonies, resonate with the psyche. And the lush jungle, black sand and endless blue ocean have a certain magic.

That said, the average beach photo slips all to easily into postcard cliches. But the problem lies with the photographer, not the landscape itself. It’s easy to get lost in the Fantasy Island prettiness and forget to capture the experience from within the frame. So, treat these building blocks as formal compositional elements and you’re less likely to fall into cliche.

Kealia Beach

Kealia Beach, Early Evening

One-off Kauai shot locations 

There are a bunch of smaller shot locations that are worth seeing. Your photo of this place may not be unique. Everyone who shoots Kalalau Overlook stands in about the same spot. But you’ll want to go anyway  — hey, the rules of craft apply regardless of how many others have visited that location. So take the time to breath in this moment, to see the clouds and the play of light… find your own personal response. Here’s a few of the marquee Kauai locations:

Kilauea Lighthouse, North Shore

Kilauea Lighthouse, Follow signs to lighthouse

Kilauea Lighthouse

Tree Tunnel, Road to Poipu

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Tree Tunnel, Early Morning

Capturing the human experience

People go to these islands to have experiences, to engage with nature and each other. Life happens and in Hawaii, the moments of life feel more intimate somehow. That’s something every photographer should see, and care about. For instance, watching a gang of kids riding their bikes to the Hanalei Pier after school for a swim.

Hanalei Beach and Pier

The Back Flip

You Are Here … at Hanalei Bay Pier (Nathan on camera phone)

Ft. Elizabeth (Russian) Fort, look accross river to where Capt. Cook landed

Dark Clouds, Black Sand, Ft. Elizabeth

A lot to work with.

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The lure of Kauai

Growing up an Army brat (and with parents who were brats), the Hawaiian islands were part of our family history, our travel DNA. My mother came here just before the war. And my Mom’s rendition of the old Honolulu show tune, “When Hilo Hattie Does the Hilo Hop,” seemed to capture the spirit of Old School Hawaii. I’ve often wished I had a recording of her version; the last line, “Hattie’s sure to die from too much gin,” is etched in my brain forever.

I liked our trips the the islands, in a family vaca kind of way. But as a writer of a travel/photography blog and the occasional book, I’ve begun to see Kauai, Maui, Hawaii and even Oahu with a new respect. The islands are as intriguing to me as a landscape photographer as Iceland or the Southwestern national parks. Plus, I appreciate the range of nature-related experiences that are available.

Hawaii’s an easy trip from the West Coast, not too pricey if you go the condo route. More important, the islands work on lots of levels: cultural, personal, creative/artistic. But 2 or 3 months ago, when I was trying to imagine the shape of our next little trip, Kauai in particular kept coming to mind.

We’d been to the other 3 islands in the last five years. But M had never done Kauai, so she wondered how it stacked up against The Big Island and Maui (her fav). I hadn’t been on Kauai in over 15 years, when I did an outdoorsy solo trip.

I’ve come so many times and know the basics, beach, luau, snorkel tour, restaurants, a smidgeon of Hawaiian culture and ecology — all that good stuff. And all those choices become more personal if I add in photography and a helping of creative exploration. That was my idea.

Anini Beach, Afternoon Swim

Anini Beach, Afternoon

An Old Photo in an Album

My first Kauai experience had been a family trip there in the mid-90s, a few years after Hurricane Iniki had leveled much of the island. That trip didn’t do much for me, no time on my own to explore.

The second trip to Kauai did stay in my head, partly because of a photograph. That trip had included a scuba trip, the NaPali Coast hike, the Waimea Canyon and Overlook drive and general forays around in my rental car. I started to see that deeper side of the island that time, but I never went all that deep.

But the thing from that trip that stayed in imagination was when I took that photo of the Waimea Canyon overlook and a little helicopter.

Waimea Canyon, @2002

Scan of old photo

I only had a P&S, not 35mm; film, so no Lightroom or Photoshop. But I loved that shot. I so clearly remember that overlook. Seeing those cliffs and valleys glowing in late morning light. Zooming in on those massive barrel shaped canyon walls, all that iron-red lava. The “Grand Canyon of the Pacific” indeed. I was just starting to around with composition back then and when the copter entered the frame, well…

I blew it up to 8×10 and plopped it into an album. The quality looked fine to me then. Now, with the photo technology, post prod tools — and more important, with my training and experience, something is missing. The image isn’t flashy, I’d delete it these days. But it has a core of experience. Obviously, on a technical level the image is flat and crude. The moment of creative discovery held so much more than was captured with a mid-90s point and shoot.

That was another motivation for wanting to visit Kauai again, to shoot that location now — now that my equipment is landscape photography grade and I’m a bit better at seeing composition. I wanted to go back, to do justice to Kauai as photo location. So I returned and M came with me.

1st signed Wiamea Canyon lookout

Wiamea Canyon 2017

Going Deeper into a Place

Ultimately, the idea of returning to Kauai for a third time (first for my wife) kept pulling my attention. Most of the earlier trips to Oahu, Maui and Hawaii happened as family vacations. Three generations of family. Everyone did beachy stuff and sightseeing, the occasional museum, snorkeling, a little hiking.

And don’t get me wrong, these were great as family vacations. But all the photography-oriented trips I do now, my  blog posts on Iceland from this last March (or my Zion/Bryce and Arches/Canyonlands books) have taught me to see these classic locations as places of self discovery.

I think the best shot locations have a balance or geology, light, compositional elements, culture, experience. So another motivation for Kauai was to see the island at that level.

And as I sit here in Poipu, I’m starting to figure out what pulls me in. On some level, I’m becoming more enticed by the simple. I’m not letting myself get as sucked into the media-driven angst and the political. Yeats’ line, “… the center cannot hold” is a true statement of our out-of-sorts time. But I won’t let that be my reality.

I’m learning to not let the endless media hand-wringing define me. Instead I’ve been staying more centered, doing stuff that’s as close to fully positive as I can muster. And part of that process is maintaining a creative focus that mirrors the sense of balance I choose to move towards. Kauai seemed a good choice for that internal work.

Hanalei by Farmers Market

Taro Field, Hanalei

Garden Isle

Kauai, the “Garden Isle,” is spoken of as the most fully Hawaiian of the four main islands — because it’s the least touristy, most laid back — closest to the Hawaii of old. Not surprisingly, it’s the least populous of the big 4 with about 70,000 residents. Oahu, location of Honolulu, has about a million folks and gets the lions share of visitors. And the lack of population density allows nature to become primary, to take center stage.

Kauai has also practiced been a Hawaiian Island longer. The island was formed about 6 million years ago as the Pacific Plate shifted and volcanos created new land. Oahu formed a couple million years later, Maui a couple million years after that. The baby, The Big Island, was formed half a million years ago and continues to have lava flows.

As the older sibling, Kauai has a more lived in attitude. Six million years of tropical rain have hidden the lava base under thick jungle and create weathered valleys — the most obvious being Waimea Canyon. So the density of nature and natural colors creeps into your spirit when you’re here. And when a photographic artist puts the attention on these elements, it can have a healing effect on photographer and audience.

And after all, that’s a core value of landscape photography, using nature to remind us that harmony and order exist. Going to Kauai allows me to immerse myself in this aspect of life.

Kauia doors off tour, Jack Harter Helecopters

The weathered core of time

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