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Kauai South Side Sights

The landscape on Kauai's south side lifts from the bluffs, ledges, and beaches of the shoreline through tilted sugar cane and agricultural country to peak in sharp-ribbed ridges that began as molten lava more than five million years ago.  Wai‘ale‘ale, at the heart of the island, and the Ha‘upa Ridge, running to the southeast corner, capture moisture from the predominant Trade Winds.  The result is arid agricultural land that needs irrigation to produce crops and a warm and sunny climate to attract vacationers.  Forty percent of visitors to Kauai choose the sunny south side as the home base for their Kauai vacation.  According to a recent survey by the Poipu Beach Resort Association, visitors' biggest complaint when they leave is that they didn't allocate enough vacation time to enjoy all that the region has to offer.  

You approach the south side from Lihu‘e by following the Kaumuali‘i Highway (Highway 50) through Knudsen Gap.  This is the gateway between the Ha‘upa Ridge, or Hoary Head Range, and Mt. Kahili, the 3,089-foot peak ending a ridge running from island's center.  The gap is named after Valdemar Knudsen, a Norwegian immigrant and sugar planter who owned the property in the area.  An ancient trail led journeying Hawaiians from Kalalau through the gap and north along an inland route, crossing the gap above Anahola.  Today, the electric company runs power lines from hydro stations in the north shore's Wainiha Valley along the trail.

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A sign for Highway 520 indicates the path south to Koloa and Poipu.  Highway 520, or Maluhia Road, begins with the Tunnel of Trees.  Over the two-lane road the branches of a double row of towering eucalyptus trees, also called swamp mahogany, grow into a dense, green Gothic arch.  Alexander McBryde directed the planting of the nearly mile-long grove of trees in 1911 as a community project.


Maluhia Road leads to the old town of Koloa, which in Hawaiian means, "tall sugar cane."  Original Polynesian settlers brought sugar cane to Hawaii.  Kauai farmers had names for at least 40 varieties of sugar cane.  The tallest variety, kô, grew up to 30 feet in height.  It was perhaps not a coincidence then that the first sugar cane to be successfully grown and harvested commercially in Hawaii was at the Koloa Plantation.  Started in 1835 by Ladd and Company, the Koloa Plantation continued under a string of owners until McBryde Sugar Co. shut down in 1996.

Koloa was also busy as an early missionary center.  The Gulick family started the first station in 1835.  Thomas Lafon M.D. joined the station two years later and was the first medical doctor on Kauai.  Where the Koloa Mortuary now stands was the site of the missionary school for white children run by Daniel Dole.  Attending the Koloa School in the 1850s was Daniel's son, Sanford, who went on to become instrumental in the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy and served as president of the short-lived Republic of Hawaii.

Standing at Koloa's main intersection is a brick chimney; a relic of what was the plantation's third sugar mill, dating back to 1841.  In the center of the park, a monument immortalizes the many ethnic groups that worked the sugar plantation.  Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Portuguese, Filipino and Puerto Rican workers wearing native field dress are sculpted in bronze.  The Hawaiian worker wears a loincloth called a malo and has a poi dog by his side.  A plaque on the wall gives reference to a haole overseer.  Finding the image of a Caucasian boss seated on a high horse unacceptable, local people caused the politically incorrect depiction to be omitted from the statuary at the last minute.

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Koloa's main street is lined with false-front businesses that give it an Old West feel.  While its history is rooted in sugar, its present is unmistakably focused on tourism.  Souvenir shops, boutiques, art galleries and restaurants cater to visitors' tastes and encourage a walking tour of the town.  The former Yamamoto General Store now houses a Crazy Shirts outlet with a lifelike statue of a craggy mechanic standing next to an antique Texaco gas pump.  A huge monkey pod tree, planted by Walter Yamamato in 1925, shades the store and sidewalk.  Behind the building is a square and history center with displays of artifacts and interpretive signs recalling the town's history.

From Koloa's main street, you have two choices in routes to Poipu.  One is to turn south at the Chevron station and follow Highway 530.  The other is to turn south onto Weliweli Road and follow it to the new Po‘ipu Bypass Road.  Signs from Weliweli Road also mark Hapa Road, which leads half a mile to St. Raphael's Church, the oldest Catholic church on Kauai.  Buried in its adjoining cemetery are some of the first Portuguese immigrants to settle in Kauai.

Rising above the fields to the east of the bypass road, just before reaching Poipu is a volcanic cinder cone called Pu‘u Wanawana.  The symmetrical cone was breached on one side when a lava flow erupting from its base floated part of the cone away.


Weather and ocean spurred the resort development of the south shore area of Poipu.  So reliable and consistent is the sunshine that it has earned the often-used nickname of Sunny Poipu.  There is no traditional town in the area, rather a collection of exclusive resorts, time-share developments, condo complexes, multi-million-dollar homes and a shopping center.  Probably nowhere on Kauai do homes and hotels encroach so closely on the ocean.  That fact slammed home when Hurricane Iniki struck in 1992, hitting the south shore first and hardest.  Buildings and beaches were devastated.  The buildings have been rebuilt and nature has healed its wounds.

Resort development at Poipu began in the early 1960s when the Wai‘ohai Hotel was constructed as a branch of the exclusive Halekulani Hotel at Waikiki.  The Wai‘ohai sat empty and damaged for many years after Iniki until Marriott bought the property and developed it into time-share units.  The Sheraton Kauai became the island's first hotel managed by a national hotel chain when it was built next door in the mid-1960s.  Hyatt Regency added its luxury resort and golf course to the east, in front of Shipwreck Beach.  Development continues to the west of the Sheraton.  A subsidiary company of Alexander & Baldwin is building a sprawling resort and residential complex on its property near Kukui‘ula Bay.

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In 1938, when Poipu was part of a sugar plantation, manager Hector Moir and his wife started a garden of cacti and exotic flowers and plants.  Over the years, the gardens grew larger and more lavish.  Now the Moir Gardens are surrounded by the Kiahuna Plantation Resort (across from Poipu Shopping Village) and are maintained by two dozen gardeners.  Thousands of varieties of flora and a lagoon adorn the 35-acre gardens, which also act as landscaped grounds for the Plantation Gardens Restaurant.

When Poipu Road passes the Hyatt Regency it turns into a dirt cane road.  If you follow the dirt road for 1.8 miles to a stop sign and turn right you will end up at the wildly beautiful Ma Ha‘ulepu coastline.  The coastline, marked with three beaches (see Beaches chapter), features lithified beach rock and cliffs.  A group of sand dunes were probably actively moving here until sea level rose rapidly at the end of the last great ice age, about 11,000 years ago.  The sea submerged the dunes and cemented the sand into solid limestone.  Centuries of wear from waves and rain have twisted and channeled the stones.  Hawaiian monk seals frequently come ashore at Ma Ha‘ulepu.  

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A walk along the Ma Ha‘ulepu coastline provides interesting, up-close views of the lithified beach rock.  Walk east from the Hyatt Regency parking lot, where a trail leads to the top of Makawehi Point, the bluff at the end of Shipwreck Beach.  Follow the trail as it winds a path between the golf course and the uniquely eroded beach rock.  The trail will take you to Gillin's Beach, Kawailoa Bay and Ha‘ula Beach (described in Beaches chapter).  If you follow the beach trail about 100 yards east of Kawailoa Bay you will come across a small blowhole just six feet mauka (inland) of the trail.  The trail you are walking on is on a shelf undercut by the sea waves.  Waves rolling into the shelf forces air through a small crack in the shelf causing a whoosh of air and spray that is sure to surprise unsuspecting hikers.

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According to legend, Ma Ha‘ulepu was the scene of a fierce battle in 1796 between local inhabitants and an invading squadron of Kamehameha's war canoes.  The king, who was attempting to unify the Hawaiian Islands by force, led the attacking fleet that launched from Oahu.  While crossing the treacherous Kauai Channel, strong winds and high seas swamped the canoes.  Reluctantly, Kamehameha ordered his warriors back to Oahu.  Some of the squadron didn't receive the order to return and continued on to Kauai, landing at Ma Ha‘ulepu Beach, exhausted from fighting the storm all night.  While they slept on the beach, waiting for their comrades, armed men from Ma Ha‘ulepu attacked, clubbing most of the invading force to death.  A few of Kamehameha's men managed to escape on their canoes.  Ashamed of their defeat and afraid of facing their king's wrath, the men headed directly to the big island of Hawaii to hide out with their families.  The ruse worked as Kamehameha historians mention only that the fleet returned to Oahu or perished at sea.

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An interesting geological feature, a sandstone sinkhole, is close to Gillin's Beach, the first of the three beaches at Ma Ha‘ulepu.  A small stream empties into the ocean at the west end of the beach.  Cross the stream and head uphill along the trail for about 100 yards.  To the right of the trail is the large sinkhole.  The hole is about 50 feet deep and wide.  It has sheer walls and openings to caves on its floor.

Ma Ha‘ulepu's future as an undeveloped, natural area is threatened.  As early as 1974, Grove Farm officials, who owned the land, proposed a residential community that included four hotels, four golf courses and thousands of homes.  The State Land Use Commission denied permit application.  When the golf course was built adjacent to the planned Hyatt Regency Resort in 1988, an environmental group sued; on the grounds that it was an illegal use of zoned agricultural land.  The Hawaii Supreme Court ruled in favor of the developer.  Shortly after AOL's founder, Steve Case, bought the Grove Farm property, the Kauai County Council passed a resolution committing Kauai County to work with state officials on a plan to preserve the 2,900-acre ahupua‘a (Hawaiian land division).

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At the intersection of Poipu Road and Highway 530, the road also branches west to become Lawa‘i Road.  Half a mile from the intersection is Prince Kuhio Park.  A monument in the park marks the birthplace of Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalaniana'ole.  Kuhio was a great grandson of King Kaumuali‘i and nephew of Queen Kapiolani, who adopted him.  Prince Kuhio took an active part in the attempt to restore the monarchy in 1895 and was imprisoned for his actions.  Later he was elected as the Territory of Hawaii's delegate to Congress— a position he held for 20 years.  Although he didn't have voting power in Congress, Kuhio worked hard to benefit the Hawaiian people.  He spearheaded the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act, which provided homesteads for native Hawaiians.  The three-acre park has terraced lava rock walls and a pond.  Also on the park are an ancient Hawaiian house platform and the Ho‘ai Heiau.

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A short distance farther down Lawa‘i Road is Spouting Horn blowhole.  Ocean waves created the blowhole by cutting under a flat lava shelf.  Waves surging under the shelf are forced through a lava tube, escaping as a geyser of water and air, sometimes 30 feet high.  Depending on the force of the south swell, the water and air can emit a plaintive groan or make a loud "whoosh" as it erupts through the blowhole. Spouting Horn is most spectacular in the summer when the surf is highest on the south coast.  At any time it is usually more impressive than the blowhole at Koko Head on Oahu.  Spouting Horn is one of the most-visited sights on Kauai.  Tour buses bring loads of visitors and a shopping bazaar is set up next to the parking lot. Signs warn viewers not to leave the elevated viewpoint and go down to the lava shelf for a closer look.  Occasionally a large wave will pour over the top of the shelf and retreat down the blowhole.  Deaths have resulted when people have been swept into the hole and down into the crashing waves below.  Hawaiian legend attributes the moaning sound of the blowhole to the mourning of a sacred lizard, mo‘o, over the death of his two sisters on the island of Ni‘ihau.  

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Across the road from Spouting Horn is the visitor center for the National Tropical Botanical Garden.  Converted from a 1920s plantation-style cottage, the visitor center offers information about tropical plant conservation, research, new discoveries and the garden's efforts to save Hawaii's endangered species.  The center also serves as the departure point for tours of the Allerton Garden and the McBryde Garden.  The visitor center's gift shop is stocked with handcrafted items made of natural materials and made by Kauai artists, such as feather leis and hatbands, wood carvings and jewelry.

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Of the five gardens that make up the National Tropical Botanical Garden, three are on Kauai, and two are here, adjacent to each other on the banks of the Lawa‘i Stream.  The NTBG has assembled what is believed to be the largest collection of federally-listed endangered plant species anywhere, including the largest collection of native Hawaiian flora in existence.  They have pioneered propagation techniques and established growing protocols for more than 45 percent of the existing Hawaiian flora.  

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A guided tour of the Allerton Garden or the McBryde Garden begins with a bus ride along an old railroad grade overlooking the once private estate and Lawa‘i Bay.  Tourers of the Allerton Garden leave the bus and follow the direction of expert volunteer guides on a leisurely mile-long walk through the 100 acres.  Queen Emma started the garden in the 1870s and built a summer cottage there.  Later, Chicago industrialist, Robert Allerton, bought the property and expanded the garden.  Allerton Garden has landscaped features, fountains and statues to set off its natural splendor.  Guides will point out plants brought to Hawaii by voyaging Polynesians 1,500 years ago.  The breadfruit tree provided a staple food and the rough underside of its leaves was used to provide a sandpaper finish to wooden boats and bowls.  Ti plants of many varieties were used to wrap foods and build homes.  When the small red globule of the miracle berry is eaten, your taste buds are altered for hours, so that a lemon tastes sweet.  The massive buttress roots of the Moreton Bay fig trees, a member of the ficus family, suggest prehistory.  Guided tours of the Allerton Garden begin four times a day, Tuesday through Saturday and last two and a half hours.  The cost is $30; reservations may be made by calling 742-2623.

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Since the McBryde Garden is spread over 252 acres, guided tours use a bus to transport visitors between sections.  The McBryde Garden doesn't have buildings or sculptures, as does the Allerton, giving it the feel of a wild preserve.  It is home to the largest ex situ collection of native Hawaiian flora in existence.  Extensive plantings of palms, flowering trees, heliconias, orchids and many other plants have been wild-collected from other tropical regions of the world.  The tour takes you down to beautiful Lawa‘i Bay, where green sea turtles return to lay their eggs.  Guided tours of the McBryde Garden are given at two times, only on Mondays and cost $30.  Reservations are essential and may be made at 742-2623.vacation rentals condo


Travelers leaving Poipu have two choices when returning to Koloa.  If you are headed to Lihu‘e, then Highway 520 is the route to take.  Those heading west can turn left at the Chevron station and take Highway 530, or Koloa Road, to Highway 50 and the village of Lawa‘i.  Farmers in the rolling hills of this area and west to Kalaheo raise cattle, poultry, fruit and coffee.  In 1860, a Scotsman by the name of Duncan McBryde leased land in the Kalaheo countryside to start a cattle ranch.  He married Elizabeth Moxley that same year and together they had six children.  When Duncan McBryde died in 1878 his widow and his son, Walter, took over operations and added sugar cane to their ventures.  In 1899 his property was incorporated into the McBryde Sugar Company.  Walter turned over a large tract of land to the territorial government with the agreement that it would be used for homesteading.  Between 1906 and 1914, families were able to buy land near Kalaheo for between one and five dollars an acre.  To qualify for ownership, the homesteaders had to live on the land, cultivate small crops and plant trees.  Today, many of the residents of Kalaheo are descendants of Portuguese immigrants who came to homestead and work for the McBryde Sugar Company.  In its early years, Kalaheo was called "Homestead."  By 1918, the Postal Service was having difficulty directing mail because other communities went by the same name so the name was changed to Kalaheo, which means "proud day."

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Immediately west of the intersection with Highway 540 at Lawa‘i, Kaumuali‘i Highway is crossed by Wawae Road, the entrance to the 88 Holy Places of Kobo Daishi, a Buddhist shrine.  Follow Wawae Road, makai of the highway past a few houses to the hillside shrine or follow a short footpath from the highway, 200 yards west of Wawae Road, next to utility pole #344.  The setting for 88 miniature cement shrines, a steep, rocky hillside under the shade of eucalyptus trees, reflects the traditional aesthetic sense of the Japanese worshippers.  Each shrine is named for a Buddhist saint and in each are small offerings.  Under the shrines are buried the sacred sands brought from the original 88 Holy Places that was erected by Kobo Daishi, a great teacher of the Shingon sect of Buddhism in Japan more than a thousand years ago.  The number of shrines signifies the 88 sins committed by man.  Buddhist pilgrims believe worshiping here will release them from the 88 sins.

Kukuiolono Park, once the estate of Walter McBryde, is one of the oldest gardens and golf courses on Kauai.  It is situated on the crest of a broad hill to the south of Kalaheo.  To find it turn left at Kalaheo's only signal light and follow Papalina Road for three quarters of a mile. Walter McBryde built an elegant park on his hilltop, laying out trees, shrubs, flowering plants and expanses of lawn open to the superb views.  A Japanese garden, with its carefully selected and placed rocks, is a key feature.  Nearby lies Walter McBryde's grave.  McBryde gathered legendary stones significant to early Hawaiians from around the island and assembled them into an interesting collection of Hawaiiana.  Among them is Pohaku Awa or the fish stone.  Fish being taken from Nomilo Pond near the coast to pools in higher land were kept overnight in cool water in the bowl-shaped stone.  A flat-topped rock with raised edges was used to obtain salt by evaporating sea water on it.  Tree moulds were formed when lava poured over trees in the Lawa‘i Valley about two million years ago.  There are rocks that were used in games similar to shot putting and bowling and a stone shaped like a map of Kauai.  Tallest among the stones is Pokakuloa, which symbolized the fish god.  Surrounding the park is the Kukuiolono Golf Course.  McBryde, an enthusiast of the game invented by his father's countrymen, built a nine-hole course that he and his workers could enjoy .  

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