The appeal of Napali Coast State Wilderness Park on the island of Kauai is its striking beauty. The pali, or cliffs, rise dramatically up to 4,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean. Hidden beaches are dotted among its many sheer amphitheater-like cliffs rising above secluded green valleys, while waterfalls tumble down its walls from great heights.

It attracts all types of people from all over the world – day hikers, backpackers, trail runners, free spirits and hermits. The park, which stretches from Haena to the Milolii Valley, can be seen by air, land or sea – each a unique adventure I’ve had and none of which gets old.

The 11-mile Kalalau Trail is an arduous but incredible journey to secluded white-sand Kalalau Beach that takes six to 10 hours, depending on ability. (Most people are familiar with the trail for the first 2 miles to Hanakapiai Beach.) The helicopter tour takes you in and around the valleys, allowing you to look over the coast in a way that you wouldn’t be able to see otherwise. The boat tour is the better of the two in many ways, as it takes you right into the scene with very little effort, which is what I chose to do this time around.

Sunny skies are clear and spray hits me as we ride out into the open sea. Makana Charters’ 32-passenger catamaran passes Polihale Beach to my right, the last beach accessible by car from the west side. I see campers lining the wide white sand beach and dunes to the start of the towering cliffs.

The light begins to change, as we continue in the shadow of those rolling cliffs and the ocean turns a vibrant turquoise blue like I’ve never seen. Dolphins appear, jumping and twirling in front of our boat – I count at least seven or 10 – and I feel like nothing could be as idyllic as this moment.

The Milolii Valley is where the first secluded beach on the coast is spotted. A small valley, it was once a place of sustainable living, like other valleys, as Hawaiians grew taro and fished for food. It has also been said before that Milolii, which means “fine twist”, is known for its stringing. The valley was apparently named after an expert sennit weaver who once lived there. This is also where Bishop Museum acquired an abandoned pili (grass) house which is currently on display at the Honolulu Museum.

Located on the Napali Coast, Milolii Beach is only accessible by kayak during the summer months.

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Boat landings are not permitted at any of the Napali Coast beaches, but during the summer months adventurers can kayak and land on Milolii Beach to camp for up to three nights with a permit. I daydream how many stars in the sky must be visible from this remote location at night, but it isn’t long before we enter the next section of the Napali coast known as Nualolo.

From Nualolo to breathtaking Honopu

Turtles emerge from the water as we slow down to marvel at the sandy shoreline and fringing reef of Nualolo, the largest on the Napali coast. Isolated by cliffs on all sides, it is made up of two parts: Nualolo Kai (“kai” means ocean) is the coastal part that can be seen, and Nualolo Aina (“aina” means land) is the part that I have never seen . It is not visible because Nualolo Aina is a hanging valley that does not touch the coast.

Nualolo Kai from the air on Kauai's Napali Coast.  The Hawaiians who lived here would cross the cliffs to reach Nualolo Aina, the small valley in the upper left.

Nualolo Kai from the air on Kauai’s Napali Coast. The Hawaiians who lived here would cross the cliffs to reach Nualolo Aina, the small valley in the upper left.

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In the past, Native Hawaiians who lived on this coastline easily scaled these mountains and ridges. There was no 11-mile Kalalau Trail along the coastline – which was built in the late 1800s. Instead, an elaborate system of footpaths once linked the various valleys of the Napali Coast between them. to each other by climbing the cliffs to the top – in an area known as Kokee (above the Waimea Canyon) – and back down to a different valley. None of these other Napali trails exist today.

At Nualolo, Hawaiians would traverse between the fishing village of Nualolo Kai and the farming village of Nualolo Aina by scaling steep cliffs.

One of these cliffs, Kamaile, was famous for its oahi (fire projection) show. Similar to the fireworks, people gathered in canoes in the ocean off Nualolo Kai and watched the men light up pieces of wood and launch them 2,500 feet. Lightweight, the wood sailed through the air spectacularly until it hit the water – possibly where our boat is.

Nualolo’s cultural sensitivity is evident, which is why only a few motorized raft tours have permits to land on the beach for an archaeological tour and to educate visitors to the area. Kayak landings are prohibited.

Before continuing, our guide points to a large 400-foot-tall X apparently etched into the side of the 2,000-foot cliff. It’s not a marker, he says, but a natural formation made by lava flow. I never would have guessed that.

An aerial view of the Napali Coast open-ceilinged cave from the air.  Small tour boats can enter the cave, depending on conditions.

An aerial view of the Napali Coast open-ceilinged cave from the air. Small tour boats can enter the cave, depending on conditions.

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Our next stop, an open-ceilinged cave, is where I’m most looking forward to seeing, as only small boats are allowed inside, depending on conditions. Slowly our boat propels itself through a large natural arch. All eyes straight ahead as we enter the large round cavernous space with a huge ceiling open to the sky. It’s so much bigger than I expected as we go full circle around its borders.

The water is crystal clear and no photo can capture its full width – nonetheless, I tried.

Pukalani, the guide says the Hawaiian name for the place is called, which loosely means “hole to the heavens”. It was once believed to be the home of a shark god. Makana Charters is Hawaiian-owned native to the area, and much of the guides’ knowledge does not come from books but is passed on through stories from friends and relatives, so these details amplify my experience.

The scenic beauty of the Napali Coast really doesn’t stop, as Honopu (meaning “conch bay”) comes next. Often considered the most photographed beach on the Napali Coast, it has also appeared in numerous films. “King Kong”, “Six Days Seven Nights” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides”, to name a few.

An aerial of Honopu Beach and its valley hanging above.  The beach is bisected by a natural arch, often seen in movies.

An aerial of Honopu Beach and its valley hanging above. The beach is bisected by a natural arch, often seen in movies.

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From the ocean, I enjoy the view of its magnificent white sand beach and its dunes cut in two by a natural arch and backed by the steep cliffs of Napali. Incredibly scenic, the beach is only part of Honopu, as it also has a hanging valley where Hawaiians once lived further inland.

As beautiful as it is, the beach is only accessible by water and landings from boats or kayaks of any kind are not permitted.

Majestic Kalalau Valley

Then we come to the jewel of the coastline, as some would say, Kalalau (meaning ‘the lost’, used to describe someone doing a silly thing). I take the whole scene: a long white sand beach with an incredible backdrop of these steep cliffs with large pointed spiers like that of a cathedral, and a waterfall flowing down one side. There are a few people on the beach – licensed backpackers who have completed the Kalalau Trail to get there and enjoy the secluded beach. It is illegal to be dropped off by boat.

Kalalau Beach on Kauai's Napali Coast.  It can be reached by hiking the 18 km Kalalau trail.

Kalalau Beach on Kauai’s Napali Coast. It can be reached by hiking the 18 km Kalalau trail.

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The Kalalau Valley is larger than any other on the coastline, with an abundant amount of natural resources. It’s clear why this has had such a thriving Native Hawaiian population for generations.

Western society has upset the old way of life. By the start of the 20th century, most Native Hawaiians on the Napali Coast had left to study or work elsewhere. The last inhabitant of Kalalau left in 1919 – other Napali residents are believed to have left before that date.

Since then, many historic sites along the Kalalau Trail—from Haena to Hanakoa to Kalalau—have been disturbed by grazing cattle and horses, other agricultural enterprises, and people.

The Kalalau Valley on Kauai's Napali Coast once had a thriving native Hawaiian population.  It is only accessible by hiking the 11-mile Kalalau Trail.

The Kalalau Valley on Kauai’s Napali Coast once had a thriving native Hawaiian population. It is only accessible by hiking the 11-mile Kalalau Trail.

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Although it is now a state park, Hawaiians help preserve and care for their ancestral home through the nonprofit Na Pali Coast Ohana, which tackles problems of illegal campers and visitors who “[leave] behind untold tons of abandoned campsites and trash in Napali’s farthest reaches.

During my many visits, I have always felt that I view the Napali Coast as a privilege – and the preservation of its pristine environment and cultural history is of the utmost importance, especially for those whose genealogy is tied to the earth.

Stopping for more than a few minutes to allow photos with Kalalau Beach in the background, our captain changes direction and I take one last view of the famous coastline as we quickly return to the marina.

Editor’s Note: SFGATE recognizes the importance of diacritics in the Hawaiian language. We cannot use them due to the limitations of our publishing platform.