KILAUEA, Hawaii I was barefoot and drenched, holding fast to the railing of the 34-foot Sea Breeze as it zipped through the water. The jagged cliffs of the Napali Coast jutted to my right, and the Pacific, in limitless shades of blue, stretched over the horizon to my left.
Kauai is the northernmost of Hawaiis islands and gets fewer visitors than Oahu, the Big Island or Maui. Many of those who do visit see it only through the lens of a kitschy luau or a dinner theater production of South Pacific, where theyre herded directly from cruise ships.
But there are other ways to experience Kauai, untamed and authentic. One of them is to tour the islands northwest coast as I did, aboard a catamaran.
The Napali Coast is mostly a collection of cliffs, weathered and unscalable. You cant tour it by car because there arent any roads. You can see it by helicopter, but that can be pricey. Some adventurous visitors kayak, but the coastal route is 16 miles long.
Or you could hike the dramatic and scenic Kalalau Trail, but its steep and can be muddy and slippery as you climb from high cliffs and back down to the ocean. The base of the trail also gets crowded, with limited parking spots filling up early.
Another way to sightsee is to drive through Kauais Waimea Canyon, ending up at Kokee State Park, which offers a spectacular view from above of a portion of the Napali Coast.
Given the options of paddling and hiking or a car trip, I opted for the catamaran. Several companies offer the boat trips. I chose NaPali Sea Breeze Tours. At $150, it wasnt cheap, but I felt it was worth the splurge for the morning-long adventure.
The day started around 7 a.m., when we gathered for departure from Anini Beach. Captain Bob thats Bob Kutkowski already was there with his crewman, 21-year-old Britt Sanders. The two of them cracked lousy jokes, but maybe because of the sunshine or the sound of the waves lapping or the way that you cant help but feel relaxed here, everybody laughed.
Kutkowski, 62, moved to Kauai 41 years ago, when he couldnt stand Southern California anymore. He lived in a tree house, then a van, spent a lot of time surfing and eventually got his charter license.
Our tour was full with 16 passengers as we pushed off and headed west. The folks from Dallas talked football; the folks from Connecticut wondered if it was snowing back home.
Our hosts pointed out the sights and related local history and lore. We passed Tunnels Beach, where surfer Bethany Hamilton lost her arm in a shark attack in 2003; the spot that once housed Taylor Camp, a hippie commune run by Elizabeth Taylors brother; caves where native Hawaiians sheltered their canoes from strong winds, and the cliffs where they buried their chiefs.
On a lucky day, passengers will see birds diving into the ocean, as well as dolphins and whales. At one point, the captain nonchalantly pointed out the dark outline of a shark. At another, he steered the boat into a cave.
Late in the morning, we stopped where some other boats were anchored in the shadows of the cliffs and jumped in for a swim. There was snorkel gear for those who wanted it, then lunch on board sandwiches and pineapple.
The ride back was bumpier as we were going against the current. But I liked the rocking of the boat and the feel of seawater in my face. We got back to Anini Beach around noon. Sanders joked that Kutkowski did a pretty good job for his first time on the water.
A note to winter visitors: Though the Sea Breeze goes out year-round, November to March departures are dependent on the weather and surf conditions.
Other offbeat things I enjoyed doing on Kauai included visiting the Ship Store Galleries in Kapaa; an art gallery where the owners hold breakfast lectures about Captain Cook and Kamehameha the Great; and seeing the Waioli Mission House, a 19th-century home once inhabited by some of the islands first missionaries. I also liked the farmers markets and the high school ukulele bands. And I loved the fact that relaxing here is a virtue and not a sign that your boss hasnt given you enough to do, and that there is almost no place on the island that requires dressing up. Even if there was, nobody would care if you didnt.
But the feeling of being aboard the Sea Breeze was a high point. There was nothing to distract me, no to-do lists or deadlines to fill my head, only the sky and the water. I took a ton of pictures, but after a while, I put my camera away. I knew that pictures couldnt really capture what it felt like to be there.