The Last Sunset: Kauaʻi’s Keʻe Beach

There’s a place in Hawaii on the Island of Kauaʻi that I like to think of has having the last sunset in the United States. The place is called Keʻe Beach, and it forms the northern terminus of Highway 560, the Kuhio Highway, part of the hodgepodge of highways and roads which partially circumnavigates the island. Partially.

First, a point on pronunciation. To pronounce words in Hawaiian, you pronounce all of the letters, including the [ ʻ ], called the ʻokina, which is a little pause or technically a phonemic glottal stop. If I call the place Kee Beach, most readers would incorrectly think of it as a monosyllabic word homophonetic with the English work “key.” This is wrong. The correct pronunciation is closer to kay-eh, as two syllables. The ʻokina also informs the pronunciation of the Hawaiian dress the muʻu muʻu, which most non-islanders would call a “moo-moo,” but which is more accurately pronounced moo-oo moo-oo, with four syllables.

Keʻe Beach is not the last sunset in the United States. First of all, it’s not as far west as the Aleutian Islands, and it’s not even the furthest west spot on the island of Kauaʻi (did you notice the ʻokina? Yes, you pronounce and spell Kauaʻi with an ʻokina). And it’s not even the western-most of the inhabited Hawaiian Islands, with the “Forbidden” island of Niʻihau, home to some 200 or so native Hawaiians, lying 18 miles off Kauaʻi’s western shore. But when you’re at Keʻe Beach, knowing you’re at the end of the highway, watching the sunset over the beautiful but poorly named Pacific Ocean, knowing that this is no mere channel between islands, the sunset feels like one of the last ones in the world.

Kauaʻi is the oldest of the main Hawaiian Islands, and stands apart from the others in many ways. The Hawaiian Channels are the waterways that separate the various islands, and they are all named. The Kaiwi channel separates the islands of Oʻahu and Molokaʻi, and is about 26 miles wide. On a clear day, you can see Molokaʻi from eastern stretches of Oʻahu. Likewise, the Alenuihaha channel separates the islands of Maui and Hawaiʻi Island, and is some 30 miles wide and a few thousand feet deep, frequently with treacherous currents and heavy seas. From many places in Northern Hawaiʻi Island, you can see the towering peaks of Maui’s massive Haleakala, the great shield volcano that rises in the east of the island. But even this great channel pales in comparison to the Kaʻieʻie Channel, separating Kauaʻi from Oʻahu. At 72 miles wide and over 11,000 feet deep, this channel, sometimes called simply the Kauaʻi channel, is essentially wide open ocean.

Kauaʻi’s moniker as the “Garden Island” stands in tribute to the strong agricultural influence on the island, and importance of the rugged natural beauty of the island in its history and today. Visitors can see countless taro fields forming a patchwork across the island, growing the plant known in Hawaiian as kalo, from which is made the traditional Hawaiian dish poi, among other foods. There is great tradition and symbolism to the kalo and the poi, linked to the Hawaiian concept of ʻohana or family, which comes from the word oha, the young green stalk that grows from a kalo root.

Taro farm on Kauaʻi

Kauaʻi is separated from the other Hawaiian Islands by vast stretches of open ocean, and by rugged, diverse ecology. Kauaʻi is so rugged that there is no encircling highway as there are on the three larger islands. There is a 16-mile stretch of shoreline on the northwest coast of Kauaʻi that is utterly inaccessible by car, and can only be seen on foot, from a boat, or from the air. This place is called Na Pali, and it is one of the most spectacular, dramatic coastlines in the world. No road can or ever should mar this beautiful coastline, so visitors by car can only travel as far as Keʻe Beach in the north, or Polihale Beach in the south (though road access to Polihale is questionable at times). Beyond there is a vast wilderness of jagged, steep canyons and wild open ocean. You have traveled as far as the roads in Kauaʻi will take you, lending the location a remoteness, a feeling of isolation, of distance. That’s why Keʻe Beach feels like the last sunset, the last place that will see the sun until tomorrow.

Na Pali by helicopter

There is much more that can be said about the island of Kauaʻi. I’ve spent a great deal of time on Kauaʻi (though not as much as others), and there are many more stories to share about the beautiful, remarkable locations on the island.