Kauai: What To Know Before You Go

Contributing editor Tony Perrottet describes Kauai as a "tropical version of the Himalayas" and says that the landscape has a similar kind of spirituality. He visited the island seven years earlier to hike the world-class Kalalau Trail along the Na Pali Coast. "It was arduous and death-defying," he says, "I was hanging on to roots on sea cliffs 1,000 feet high."

On this trip, he kayaked the coast for a different view. "We went into caves and under waterfalls, and were accompanied by dolphins and turtles," he says, adding that, even with the wind behind him and his guide, paddling the entire 15-mile coast in a day was "a bloody workout."

A resident of New York City, Perrottet has been writing for ISLANDS for about a decade. His new book, Route 66 a.d.: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists, will be published this month by Random House.

Photographer John C. Russell says he enjoys shooting on Kauai because it"s so different from the Big Island, where he"s been based full-time for four years. "The beauty of Kauai is that you can go from the wettest place on Earth to a near-desert in 20 minutes," Russell says. He passed on hiring a helicopter to shoot the spectacular emerald green Na Pali Coast, he says, because it"s been done so often. Russell has shot professionally for more than 30 years; he specializes in travel, skiing, and tennis photography.

Adventure Outings Because only three percent of Kauai has been developed, there"s a lot left to explore. To hike the Kalalau Trail along the Na Pali Coast, you"ll need a permit from the Department of Land and Natural Resources (808-587-0400, www.state.hi.us). For kayaking that coast (mid-May through mid-September only), Perrottet recommends Kayak Kauai Outbound ($160 per day, including lunch; 800-437-3507, www.kayakkauai.com). Island Helicopters ($204 for one hour; 800-829-5999) will give you a bird"s-eye view, and Princeville Ranch Stables in Hanalei offers horseback rides to an 80-foot waterfall (888-955-7669, www.princevilleranch.com). You can hit the Elvis trail during the Coco Palms Hotel stop on the Hawaii Movie Tour ($95 to $105, lunch included; 800-628-8432, www.hawaiimovietour.com).

Beach Time The north coast has lots of classic crescent beaches backed by tropical vegetation, while south-coast beaches tend to be drier and less lush. When choosing your beach, consider the time of year: The North Shore has big surf in winter but is calm in summer, while the South Shore gets its waves in summer. For beach adventure Russell recommends Polihale State Park, on the western side of the island, at the southern end of the Na Pali Coast. "It"s an incredible expanse, with few people and fantastic hiking," he says. The currents can be strong there, especially in winter, so get up to speed on beach safety before diving in. Ke'e is a reef-protected beach for swimming and snorkeling near Hanalei, at the northern end of the Na Pali Coast. For bodysurfing, check out Tunnels Beach in the North, and Poipu in the South.

Green Days Kauai has seven microclimates; to get a feel for the exotic flora, Perrottet recommends two gardens run by the National Tropical Botanical Garden (www.ntbg.org). To take Perrottet"s tour of Allerton Garden near Poipu, call 808-742-2623. In the north, Limahuli Garden and Preserve in Haena features wild plants from three ecozones on 17 acres of the 1,000-acre valley preserve.

Room Key Lodging ranges from luxury hotels and condo resorts to small bed-and-breakfasts. To enjoy the isolation and beauty of the north coast, Perrottet recommends Hanalei Colony Resort. "It has a lived-in feel, with a lanai overlooking the water, and access to Tunnels Beach," he says ($195 per night; 800-628- 3004, www.hcr.com). On the south coast, he recommends Makahu-ena at Poipu, where you can listen to the booming surf ($190 and up; 800-367-5004, www.castleresorts.com). Russell liked Secret Beach Hideaway, which has three private ocean-view cottages and a path that leads down to the beach ($570 per night; 800-820-2862, www.secretbeachkauai.com).

What's to EatKauai serves up everything from the low-key (roadside burger stands and noodle shops) to fine Pacific Rim dining. Russell recommends the fresh seared ahi with tofu potstickers at Caffé Coco in Wailua; the fish burritos at the Lighthouse Bistro in Kiluea; and, in Kapaa, the kahlua pig with mango chutney wrapped in a tortilla at Kauai Hula Girl Bar & Grill, which also features live entertainment. For killer burgers, stop at Ono Char Burger, a roadside stand near Anahola, and eat under a shady tree. Perrottet liked the sashimi at Sushi Blues, where he sat on a balcony overlooking the mountains behind Hanalei. For lunch he recommends Hamura Saimin, a Lihue landmark where a few bucks buys a bowl of noodles with shrimp. For breakfast, sample the famous banana pancakes at Eggbert"s Family Restaurant in Kapaa.

On the Road You"ll need a rental car to get around; expect to pay an average of $35 per day for a compact car, but consider upgrading to 4WD if you plan to venture to remote areas.

Web Headings Look for detailed Kauai hiking-trail descriptions at www.hawaiitrails.org, or join a Sierra Club group hike; you"ll find their schedule at www.kauai-hawaii.com. For travel information about the south side of the island, see poipu-beach.org.

Read It and Leap Learn Kauai"s legends from the old- timers in Frederick Wichman"s Kauai Tales. For general information, refer to The Ultimate Kauai Guidebook: Kauai Revealed, by Andrew Doughty and Harriett Friedman; Kauai Underground Guide, by Lenore Horowitz; or, from Moon Handbooks, Kaua'i, by Robert Nilsen. For adventure advice, try Hiking Kauai, the Garden Isle, by Robert Smith; Kauai Trailblazer: Where to Hike, Snor- kel, Bike, Paddle, and Surf, by Jerry and Janine Sprout; and Snorkel Kauai: Guide to the Underwater World of Hawaii, by Judy and Mel Malinowski. (It has lots of maps.)

Special Screening See the kitsch classic Blue Hawaii, starring Elvis, to set the scene, then look for new 2002 releases filmed on Kauai: Dragonfly is an eerie romantic drama starring Kevin Costner; To End All Wars is a World War II epic starring Keifer Sutherland.

Cash Flow ATMs are easy to find.