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Katherine Nichols

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Adventure and Luxury on Kauai's Na Pali Coast

Posted: 07/21/10 06:59 PM ET

Having two Ironman Triathlon World Championship races in my recent past didn't mean I could hike all 22 miles of the Na Pali Coast to remote Kalalau Beach and back in one day. People thought it was a little nuts (my ambitious, athletic boyfriend's idea! I quickly pointed out). My triathlon training partner, an experienced Kauai trekker, offered the most encouragement: I don't know... you might make it? But I wanted peace, and for me the quest for serenity has never been about sitting still for extended periods. Rather, it revolves around finding and seizing quiet moments amid challenge and adventure.

Lured by the majestic scenery and the lore of the rigorous trail to a beach 11 miles deep into the north shore of Kauai -- accessible only by foot or boat -- David and I planned carefully. How much daylight did we have? What kind of pace should we maintain? How many calories and ounces of water would we consume? Were our day hike permits in order?

Because the Sierra Club rates the difficulty at 9 out of 10 (and, of course, it's stunning, so why rush?), people usually stay overnight at Kalalau. However, two factors motivated us to attempt the round trip in one day: A lighter load and therefore a faster pace, and a Prince Junior Suite at the St. Regis Princeville, featuring a marble Jacuzzi tub with glass windows overlooking Hanalei Bay, high thread count linens instead of a tent, and steaks and seafood rather than than protein bars.

David and I each carried about 20 pounds of water (four gallons between us), food, dry socks, headlamps, Leatherman multi-tool, Gore-Tex shell, GPS and topographical map, first-aid kit, and cell phones (which turned out to be useless) when we left the grandeur of the hotel lobby and drove to the trailhead at Ke'e Beach.

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The first light of day sent local roosters strutting and scurrying; an air of excitement hung between us as we lathered on sunscreen and bug repellant, and launched into the popular early miles to Hanakapi'ai Beach. Recent rains had soaked sections, sending me sliding through mud on my rear end at one point, and causing David to slip on a hill and tweak an already tender knee. For a moment, our friends seemed a lot smarter than we were.

Na Pali means "Sea Cliffs" in Hawaiian, and these ridges soar 800 feet above the ocean in places. There are five valleys, and at the base of some, stone wall terraces where ancient Hawaiians cultivated taro plants still exist. The trail -- sometimes narrow, treacherous, and exposed -- pitched up or down the entire way. Occasionally, we navigated stream crossings under signs that left little to interpretation or attorneys: "Warning: Strong Current. You could be swept away and could drown."

As we gained and lost altitude at every turn, the terrain shifted from lush rain forest to barren, slippery silt, leading to some frightening areas. On one of these, David trotted ahead, unaware of my psychological meltdown. I fought tears and struggled to regulate my breathing. Look where you want to go, I repeated in my head, unable to pull my gaze from the crumbly, soaring edge that I was sure would leave my children motherless. I wanted to go back and order lunch by the pool. With a big basket of fries. But trails usually serve as apt metaphors for life. And going back, I reasoned, was not really how I wanted to live. So I inched forward, terrified, humbled, euphoric.

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After five and a half hours of moving at a solid clip (aside from my temporary paralysis), we caught our first glimpse of Kalalau Beach. Though my quadriceps quivered from the constant elevation changes, my spirit had found its equilibrium again. The red dust and rocks surrendered to a green, grassy hillside that afforded views of the coastline we had traversed. Crushing waves, a fixture on north shore beaches in winter, warned against entry into the ocean, even at the shallowest depths.

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When we planted ourselves in the unmarred sand, it differed from all of the beaches that have formed the fabric of my life in the ocean. It was empty, save one shirtless fisherman casting into the surf, and his very naked female companion (trust me -- it sounds more intriguing than it was), who seemed to wander in and out of his scope of attention. David and I disappeared into our own space. We sat in silence for a few minutes. Facing the water, we spoke of gratitude. Then we shared our goals, one at a time, and celebrated the journey toward them. Impossibly, our surroundings felt like both the edge of the earth and the center of everything in our lives.

Yet it wasn't perfect. There was also an uncomfortable element embodied in society drop-outs self-medicating in hammocks hidden among the trees, and the subtle feeling that we, as law-abiding, environmentally-aware citizens, were trespassing. However, the tranquility that arose from the landscape, and the endorphins that got us there, overpowered the outsider status. Besides, nobody seemed inclined to bother anybody else.

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On the way back I managed the harrowing area with aplomb, moving through with dry eyes and purpose. We arrived back at Ke'e Beach just in time to see the sun -- fiery orange and appearing as though it might set in our laps -- dip behind the whitewash blooming on the horizon. After removing our mud-caked shoes, we lowered ourselves into the cool, shallow water with the grace of an elderly, infirm couple, letting the calm wash over us.

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The next morning we awoke immobilized by our aching bodies and the arresting view. Across the 820 square-foot room, past the console where the flat screen TV disappeared, past a full living area with windows that also slid away, reality looked like a photograph. It seemed like we could dip our toes into Hanalei Bay from our bed. Beyond the cerulean water sat the beginning of Na Pali Coast, the source of our filth and physical exhaustion, appreciation for lavish amenities, and lifetime memories.

And those feelings of serenity? They fade, but rise again with every reminiscence and anecdote. That's the thing about a good adventure. It has a decent shelf life.

 

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