Home to strange megaflora and the legendary Na Pali Coast, Kauai is truly a place of wild beauty. What better way to see it than on a motorcycle? Staying at the Kauai Paradise Inn near Kilauea Town, owner Jim Bray let me borrow his Suzuki DR650 to do just that. Bringing the bike up from the garage he smiled and said, “Key’s in it, have a blast.”
7:56 AM: I start up the bike and leave Kilauea headed for Waimea. It’s a beautiful morning. A couple little showers rain down on me, as will happen on Kauai, but nothing that actually gets me wet. The sun reappears and warms me as I ride.
8:30 AM: It’s possible to get lost on the smallest of islands, as I figure out a couple of miles beyond my missed turn. I stay on my diverted path and meet back up with the main highway after a small loop down to Nawiliwili Bay. From experience I recognize that sometimes it’s those little mistakes that lead to new discoveries and great fun on motorcycle trips.
9:07 AM: Arriving in Waimea, the sun is shining brightly now and the temperature has steadily risen as I’ve journeyed westward. The ocean is beaming off to my left as I ride the last few miles before I take the first (planned) detour of my trip. I turn right off the highway onto Menehune Road.
9:15 AM: I park the bike by a cool old suspension bridge with a torn up sign reading, “Menehune Ditch.” A Territory of Hawaii Historical Landmark plaque reads: “The row of hewn stones along the inner side of the road is a remnant of one wall of an ancient water-course which is said to have been made by the Menehunes” (Menehunes are Hawaiian mythological creatures). I marvel at the stones and wonder about the origin and lore of the place, as well as the current ditch that allows water to flow under the plaque. As I walk across the bridge taking pictures, a local pulls up and crosses the bridge to tend to his horse, tied up on the bank of the river. When he comes back across to find me still hanging out, he tells me a story his grandfather told him.
“Legend has it that if you make a wish and you are able to cover the whole plaque with one splash from your hands, it will come true.”
Not one to back down from such an invitation, I take off my jacket.
“I’ve only seen one person do it,” he says.
Now I’m really intrigued. I squat as low as I can on the bank of the ditch, making my wish. My best effort leaves only a small portion of the top left of the plaque uncovered. After a chat about some nearby roads, I thank the friendly local and we go our separate ways.
10:15 AM: I stop at the Big Save Market back in Waimea proper to get a drink. Next stop Koke’e State Park. Two blocks down I take a right on Waimea Canyon Drive and the fun begins almost immediately. A few turns in, up some decent grades, past the last of the houses and I’m grinning in my helmet. Up, up, up the climb begins as Waimea Canyon begins to take form off to my right, the blue gleam of the ocean getting larger behind me.
Twist after twist after turn after turn. I happily accelerate up each section, pausing a handful of times to take pictures of the amazing scenery just off the road. I am lucky not to get stuck behind too many slow moving minivans trudging up the impressive elevation change. This is an 18 mile road going up over 4,000 feet. The pavement is quite good, and I’m charging through each corner, leaning as much as I feel confident to on the dual sport tires. From gradual long sweepers to tight, quick changes of direction, this road has it all.
I am truly a happy motorcyclist.
11:22 AM: I stop at Waimea Canyon Lookout (above). Pretty good amount of tourists up here for a Thursday morning. I’m getting jealous looks from the guys in the tour busses. The view from the lookout is spectacular. I look out into a deep canyon valley of rugged volcanic mountainsides covered with tropical foliage, while a rain shower in the distance creates a great juxtaposition from my sunny perch. After a decent break I am back on the bike heading up further towards Koke’e State Park.
11:45 AM: As I near the entrance of Koke’e, there is a 4X4 road heading down a hill with signs indicating the need for high clearance vehicles. This is where the DR650 shines. If I was on a rental Harley or a scooter (the traditional Hawaiian rental options) there’s just no way I would even think about going down that road. Instead, with the accessibility a dual sport affords me, I begin to rumble down the rutted dirt road, slowing to greet and pass the hikers I find along the way. It’s mostly smiles and a couple more jealous looks from the folks I see. It turns out they’re all hiking towards a waterfall, as I find out when I reach a trailhead and can go no further. I could have parked the bike and walked to the falls, having cut a good 30 minutes off the hike in doing so, but today is for riding, so I continue on. After some meandering and exploring on a couple of fun dirt turn offs, I rally back up to the main road. Up, up, up once more, faster now as I head to the end of the road on more excellent curves.
12:45 PM: I arrive at Kalalau Lookout (above), the top of this majestic road. Off the bike and a short walk up and I’m looking down at the magical Na Pali Coastline. It’s hard to explain this type of view, and there’s really no doing it justice, but I’ll try. Imagine the most tropical green cliff ridges cutting down to the most remarkably blue water you’ve ever seen. Some helicopters flying far below provide spatial awareness as I take in the grandeur of the place. I could spend a day looking out at the view, easy, but I’m getting hungry and I’ve got a lot of turns to cover to get back down to town for lunch.
1:32 PM: After a fun ride back down to Waimea I order two seared ahi tacos at Island
Tacos and plot the rest of my day. I originally thought I’d ride up Koke’e, then out to my next stop, Polihale, and then call it a day and ride back to Kilauea. Now realizing that I’ll be at Polihale before 3:00 PM, I’m already thinking about the possibility of riding back up Koke’e one more time, depending on how much time I spend at the beach. The tacos hit the spot, and I hit the road northbound towards Polihale.
2:45 PM: Fighting the wind I pass a truck and push the bike up to 90mph on a straight stretch of road near the Pacific Missile Range Facility. I know I’m getting close when the pavement ends. Road construction equipment and a decent start to the dirt road shows they’ve been doing some grading to the surface, and I find myself going 40-50mph with ease. Here again, a testament to the DR650 and dual-sport bikes in general, there’s no way I could make these seamless transitions on any other type of motorcycle. After about 5 miles of dirt and then sand, I reach the end of the road at Polihale. Cliffs block further travel as the rugged Na Pali Coast begins.
Looking back to the South I can see Ni’ihau, the Forbidden Isle. The water here is the clearest blue water I’ve ever seen. It takes some work to get out of my sweaty clothes, but I manage and head into the water for a refreshing plunge in my underpants.
3:55 PM: On my way out of Polihale, I stop at the beginning of the dirt road to take a
picture. A Naval Police truck pulls up behind me. “Is it for sale?” asks what turns out to be a mainland expat cop from Minnesota, bushy Midwest mustache and all. I explain to him that I am just borrowing the bike from the owner as he ganders at the machine.
“What is that, a 450?…Oh, a 650? Man, it’s f’ing beautiful, looks brand new…you sure you don’t want to sell it? Damn that thing looks nice!” He seems genuinely interested, and really surprised when I tell him that this low mile, completely stock 2009 model was bought used for around $3,500. We chat for another minute and then I’m on my way. I’m on a singular mission before I head back home. I need to ride up Waimea Canyon Road one more time.
4:49 PM: I’m up at Kalalau Lookout again, 4,000 ft. This time I count the turns on the
way up. To be precise, I count each change of direction, totaling 230 turns as I reach the top. I actually found counting the turns added to my overall concentration on riding, as I was leaning further and pushing faster than I had earlier in the day. Sure, some of that comes with having ridden the road before, and some of it is motivated by having told my girlfriend I would be home already, but overall I’m surprised to find the level of riding concentration that this exercise produces. I like to be scientific about things, so I decide I’ll count on the way down as well to test my findings.
5:25 PM: Back down in Waimea, this time I count 208 turns. It’s safe to say that up and down is 400 plus changes of direction. Not bad, and definitely worth being late.
6:40 PM: I run into some traffic in Lihue and still make it back to Kilauea in a little over an hour. I’m back in time to catch the sunset and get dinner at the Kilauea Fish Market with the girlfriend. Fish tacos again, grilled ono this time. Everyone’s happy, but especially me. Just the right mix of ingredients turned the day into magic, and if you get the chance to ride a dual sport in Kauai, I think you’ll feel the same way too.
Andy Gregory is a teacher, motorcycle enthusiast and man's man based out of Seattle, Washington. You can read more by him at Man's Gotta Do.