When many people think of Kauai — the “Garden Isle” — they think of tall, verdant cliffsides dotted with towering waterfalls or perhaps a tropical wilderness. Kauai is, after all, the least populated of Hawaii’s four principal islands. It also has the wettest place in the United States, with one location collecting over 400 inches of rain per year. No wonder Kauai is so green! There is plenty of natural beauty to see, in fact, but there are also a number of interesting places to visit and unusual things to do on Kauai. Many of these places you would never guess were even in Hawaii! If you want to break away from the Kauai beaches for a while, check out some of the unique Kauai attractions below.
Perhaps the most unexpected site on Kauai is this state park exhibiting the ruins of a Russian fort built in 1816. “How did the Russians ever stake a claim in Hawaii?”, you might ask. In 1815, a Russian trading vessel from Alaska shipwrecked on Kauai’s North Shore. It happened at a fortuitous time for Kauai’s King Kaumuali’i, who was trying to prevent his small kingdom from being conquered by the powerful Kingdom of Hawaii. Kaumuali’i’s men captured the cannons and other weapons from the Russian shipwreck and sent the surviving sailors back to Alaska.
Soon the Russian American Company (RAC) sent the ambitious surgeon Georg Anton Schafer to negotiate the return of the cannons. In doing so, King Kaumuali’i agreed with Schafer that it would be advantageous for the Russians to establish trading forts on Kauai to help protect his kingdom from Hawaii. Schafer and his men built three forts on the island, but when the Russian czar learned of Schafer’s escapades, he wanted nothing to do Hawaiian politics and withdrew all support. When Kaumuali’i found out, he and his warriors ran Schafer and his men off of Kauai.
Today, there’s little left of the two Russian forts built on Kauai’s North Shore, but the ruins of the renamed Fort Elizabeth (it was Fort Alexander under the Russians) on the southwest coast are still visible and open to the public 24/7. You can climb the low-slung fort walls made of red volcanic stone and see the foundations of some of the interior buildings. In the center is a new statue of King Kaumuali’i commemorating his rule. Fort Elizabeth makes for an interesting and unusual outing! Visit the Russian Fort Elizabeth website here for more information.
The Spouting Horn
One of Kauai’s more dramatic sites is this geyser-like feature that shoots water up to 50 feet in the air. Located on the rocky South Shore, this amazing blowhole is actually formed by ocean waves barreling through an ancient lava tube and shooting through a narrow opening on top. Legend says the Spouting Horn was the inspiration for one of the most famous stories in Hawaiian mythology. When the volcano goddess Pele learns that a mo’o, a mythical shape-shifting dragon, captures her mortal lover, she sends her youngest sister Hi’iaka to rescue him. To free the lover, Hi’iaka chases the mo’o into the lava cave, where it gets stuck and she’s able to slay the creature. The spouting water of the blowhole, along with its strange moaning sound, is said to be the dying breaths of the dragon.
This remarkable water feature is reachable by taking the Lawai Road about two miles west of the South Shore town of Poipu. It’s in Spouting Horn Park, and you can learn more about it at this webpage. Adjacent to the park are the beautiful McBryde and Allerton Gardens, part of the nonprofit National Tropical Botanical Garden. It’s worth taking the guided tour there to learn about all the tropical plants and flowers of Kauai. For visitor information on the gardens, go to this webpage.
For some insight into Kauai’s long sugar plantation history, make a stop at this cemetery that was only recently discovered. The McBryde Sugar Company, established in 1899, brought in hundreds of workers from all over Asia to work its sugarcane fields and process the sugarcane into sugar. The sugar industry was the mainstay of the Kauai economy for most of the early and mid-20th century. The McBryde plantation employed 1,500 workers by 1920, and as you might expect, many of them died and were buried here.
The cemetery was rediscovered in 2013 when a local resident found a single headstone on the site of the shut-down plantation. She began clearing away the thick brush until she found dozens of gravesites with headstones engraved in English and Japanese. Many descendants of those buried here have returned to restore or replace the weathered headstones. The cemetery is a tribute to all those workers who helped build Kauai’s modern economy. It can be found at the end of Aka Ula Street heading south from the South Shore town of Ele’ele
Close to the McBryde Sugar Plantation Cemetery is this aptly-named beach made up almost entirely of small pieces of polished glass. Before the industrial area nearby started using a landfill, companies used to dump all their trash–including glass bottles–into the ocean. Most of the trash disintegrated, but over time, the powerful ocean waves broke up the glass and polished the pieces smooth. It’s certainly an unusual site!
At the southern end of the beach are lava rocks that are interesting to explore. You can even find sea glass embedded into some of the rocks. Tread carefully, however, because the rocks are slippery and waves can create sudden blowholes that can knock you off your feet! Glass Beach is about a half mile south of the little town of Ele’ele on the south shore. Visit this website for more information.
Fishing at Waita Reservoir
Most visitors to Hawaii who like to fish immediately go for the many ocean-fishing excursions available. Few think of fishing in local lakes and streams. But if you like to fish, and like catching interesting local varieties, consider fishing at the well-stocked Waita Reservoir in southern Kauai near the town of Koloa. One of the most delightful catches is the colorful peacock bass. Others include tilapia, catfish, and big mouth bass. Note that the fishing is catch and release only. Waita Reservoir, the largest body of fresh water in Hawaii, is very scenic and far away from crowds, so it makes for a perfect day of relaxation on the water. To book an excursion, visit the Koloa Bass Fishing website.
Enjoy your time exploring this most beautiful island. And when you're ready to explore other facets of your Kauai vacation, check out our Kauai Vacation Planning Guide here.