The Great Sacred Wailua, often called the Wailua Complex, is a National Historic Landmark and is situated on the east side of the island of Kauai along the Wailua River. The entire area was the land of the Ali’i, who were the ruling class of chiefs on the Hawaiian Islands from the mid 13th century AD until 1893 when the dynasty was overthrown by the United States government. Wailua means ‘two waters’ in the Hawaiian language, and the area at large was named Wailuanuiaho’ano in the 14th century after the great chief of the same name who ruled during that era.The last King of Kauai, King Kaumuali’i, took residence in the Wailua River area. The region was one of the most significant and largest ahupu’a, or traditional subdivisions, on Kauai. Important remnants of the Ali’i still exist within seven sacred sites that are located along the river, from the river mouth at Lydgate Park to the top of Mt Wai’ale’ale, the second highest mountain on the island. It is worthwhile spending at least an entire day exploring the area via a self-drive tour, and there are a number of ways to explore by river with various companies offering comprehensive tours.
Inside Lydgate park, (which is a beach park just south of the town of Wailua) and situated at the river mouth, is the Hikinaakala Heiau, meaning Rising of the Sun. Within the Heiau is the Hauola Place Of Refuge. There are also some Ki’i Pohaku, or petroglyphs, that are fascinating to see. To locate this area, drive all the way to the end of the road at Lydgate Park, past the Keiki Pond and playgrounds, to the parking lot near the river mouth. Looking towards the highway, walk along the path and you will find the heiau and petroglyphs. Always be respectful at these sacred places, and refrain from moving or removing rocks. The second temple on the Wailua River is the Malaae Heiau, located on the south side of the river. It is not encouraged to try to visit this heiau as there is no direct road access. The third sacred site is very accessible by car and is located right on Kuamo’o Rd on the left (south) side heading towards the mountains, about a quarter mile from Hwy 56. This is the Holoholoku Heiau, and it is right near the Pohaku Ho’ohanau (Royal Birthstone). The stairway near the heiau leads to the top of a small hill overlooking the river where there are Japanese gravesites. Further up Kuamo’o Rd and after travelling up a steep hill, you will come to a ridge with the Waliua river on the left side and another river valley on the right side. On the left side of the road lay the remains of a large temple, this is the Poli’ahu Heiau. Nearby there are more petroglyphs and Bellstones.
A little further up on the right side is a parking lot where you can access the viewing platform at Opaekaa Falls. This is a 150-foot waterfall and its name means ‘rolling shrimp’ from the days that many shrimp were seen in the river. There is another waterfall in the Great Sacred Wailua that is worth a visit, and that is Wailua Falls. Geographically it is in the vicinity of Opaeka’a Falls, however rather than being accessed along Kuamo’o Rd, its access road is on the Lihue side of the river gorge. A grand 85 foot double-tiered waterfall, it has been featured in the show ‘Fantasy Island’. From Lihue, take Highway 56 and then take a left at Ma’alo Rd (Hwy 583). Look for the signs to the falls.
Across the road on the left side is another viewing platform where you can see an excellent view of the Wailua River, and on a clear day, Mt Wai’ale’ale. Wailua Valley is 20 miles long, and an extremely fertile area. The Wailua River is the only river in the state of Hawaii that is deep and wide enough to be navigable by motorized commercial vessels. The river is a hub of activity for visitors and locals with kayaking, boat tours, motorboats and waterskiing being quite popular.
An excellent way to experience the Wailua River is by kayak. Many kayak tour companies operate along the Wailua river with the most popular destination being Uluwehi Falls (aka Secret Falls). Our recommendation is Kayak Kauai who have been doing a great job guiding people on Kauai since 1984. It is a 45-minute paddle up river to the place where you pull out your boat and then a 25 minute walk along the forest floor to Uluwehi Falls. It is also possible to rent a kayak and paddle the river on your own; however be aware that going down stream is often more challenging than going up because when paddling back downstream you are often headed directly into the wind.