Compare the lush, time-worn cliffs of the Napali Coast with the fresh black lava shores of Hawaii’s Big Island and you’ll understand what makes Kauai the oldest island in the Hawaiian chain. Kauai’s distant past is filled with legends, and the most well known tells of the Menehune, a mythical race of small people talented in construction and engineering who created Kauai’s aqueducts and fishponds, often in a single night. They were believed to have lived in the woods and were shunned by Hawaiians. Today, you can still see their work at Hawaiian fishponds like Alekoko, known as Menehune Fishpond, near Lihue.
In 1778, British explorer Captain James Cook landed in Kauai’s Waimea Bay for the first time. Cook’s discovery of what he called the “Sandwich Isles”, named after the Earl of Sandwich, introduced Hawaii to the world. A statue of Captain Cook stands today in Waimea Town.
During this era of western discovery, King Kamehameha I was attempting to unify the Hawaiian Islands under his rule. Kauai and the small neighbouring island of Niihau (part of Kauai county) were the only islands to deter his efforts. Eventually, Kauai’s King Kaumualii decided to peacefully unite with Kamehameha and join the rest of the Kingdom of Hawaii.
In 1835, Old Koloa Town opened its first sugar mill. Follow the Koloa Heritage Trail in Old Koloa Town today to learn about Kauai’s plantation past. On the North Shore, tour the Waioli Mission House, on the National Register of Historic Places, to get a glimpse of missionary life in the 19th century. You can also visit the Kauai Museum for a fascinating exploration of exhibits, artifacts and murals portraying the history of Kauai, its people and its unique culture.