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Kauai, HI: Rich History & Culture

a tree next to a body of water with a mountain in the background


Learn about Kauai’s history, and you’ll discover that the oldest Hawaiian island has a culture and heritage as captivating as its landscape. Kauai was formed by lava when it shot up from a hot spot beneath the Pacific Tectonic Plate over five million years ago. A deeper look into Na Pali Coast history reveals that volcanic lava, combined with many years of erosion, is what gives the island’s northwestern edge its rugged beauty.

But there are also fascinating myths surrounding its look. Here’s Kauai’s origin story, from its earliest settlers to local legends—read on.

Kauai’s History: The First Settlers & Last King

The first settlers sailed to Kauai on Polynesian canoes as early as 200 and 600 A.D. They traveled over 2,000 miles from the Marquesas Islands, finding their way to the tiny island in the middle of the Pacific using only the stars and trade winds to navigate.

Hundreds of years later, Tahitians arrived. Tales about Kauai’s history explain that the Tahitian settlers were strong and may have forced Kauai’s original settlers out. Their religion and culture greatly influenced traditional Hawaiian beliefs and customs.

Then, in 1778, British explorer Captain James Cooke became the first European to “discover” Hawaii when he landed his ships on Kauai in Waimea Bay. Cook named the islands “Sandwich Isles” after the Earl of Sandwich. His statue stands in Kauai’s Waimea Town. Legions of European travelers would soon follow, bringing new ideas, beliefs, and foods.

Hawaii was ruled by kings and queens until 1894, but Kauai is “the kingdom that was never conquered.” King Kaumualii was Kauai’s last ruling chief. He surrendered to the ruler of Hawaii, King Kamehameha, to spare his people from an attack and keep peace. In 2021, a bronze statue of King Kaumualii was installed at Pa’ula’ula, the Russian Fort Elizabeth State Historical Park, in Waimea.

Kauai Keeps Hawaiian Traditions Alive

Kauai history is alive and well, as festivals celebrate native Hawaiian traditions. The Kauai Mokihana Festival in September features traditional dancers and a hula competition. The Coconut Festival in October “stars” the iconic tropical tree fruit with contests and crafts as dancers and drummers entertain participants.

The Kauai Museum also preserves the island’s history. It showcases native Hawaiian artifacts, historical photos, and the work of local artists.

The Legends of the Na Pali Coast

The Na Pali Coast’s stunning look is also linked to Kauai’s culture, myths, and legends. “Na Pali” means “cliffs” in Hawaiian, and this northwestern coastline is known for its jagged-edged emerald cliffs towering 4,000 feet above the sea. Majestic waterfalls, lush valleys, and pristine beaches add to its allure.

Stories about the Na Pali Coast’s beauty explain how the gods formed certain geographical features. Kauai’s first settlers, the Polynesians, believed its beauty was a gift from the gods. A legend about a warrior, Kawelo, says he fought to protect Kauai from a giant intruder. He threw a spear but missed. The spear went through a mountain just below the peak. The “hole” in the mountain is a tribute to Kawelo’s strength, which can still be seen today.

Another tale reveals a bit of Kauai history, one about a sleeping giant. You can spot the sleeping giant if you look closely for his outline along the ridge on the Na Pali Coast. He lies stretched out, waiting for the sound of a child’s song to awaken.

The Na Pali Coast is also known for its sea caves. According to legend, the Fire Goddess, Pele, created these deep caverns while searching for fire at the Earth’s core.

Uncover Kauai’s Hidden Gems with Na Pali Riders

Drift by a sea cave and discover more stories about Kauai’s history as you explore the Na Pali Coast by boat — the way the earliest settlers did. There’s no better way to immerse yourself in the island’s culture.

Let Na Pali Riders show you Kauai’s hidden gems. Contact us today to learn about our tours.

Image Source: IndustryAndTravel / Shutterstock

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