It may have been the ultimate soft opening.
At least that’s what Vivien Davenport, of Lihue — who said she was the first person at Ke‘e Beach at 4:45 a.m. Monday — had to say about the grand relaunch of Kuhio Highway and Haena State Park, which reopened after a lingering shutdown of more than a year.
There was no ceremony. No cutting of a ribbon. No gate swinging open. No first car gliding away from Hanalei bound for Haena. No speeches. No crowd.
“My plan was to be able to just get in, and congratulations on a very soft opening,” Davenport said. “It’s nice to be here before the flood,” she said of the broad expectations for an overwhelming number of tourists to descend on the North Shore west of Hanalei, which local residents have largely had to themselves since the disastrous storms and floods of 2018.
By 9:30 a.m., the Ke‘e parking lot was still only about half full, with many locals stopping by briefly to check out the scene and a slow trickle of tourists. Between 6:30 a.m. and about 9:30, personnel from Republic Parking, which is managing the parking lot and visitor access, encountered few people who lacked either a reservation voucher or a local driver’s license for admission to the parking lot.
Volume picked up during the day. About noon, only a couple of parking spaces remained unoccupied. Both then and earlier, it was clear many visitors came to see what was happening and not necessarily to park and go to the beach. Short bursts of cars continued to line up briefly on the highway, but it was far from gridlock.
Pedestrian volumes suggested that Monday’s visitor count would be below the 900-person cap put in place by the newly implemented Haena State Park Master Plan, for which Monday was the debut. However, visitor volume is expected to increase when a shuttle goes into operation Thursday.
Word of Monday’s comparatively light volumes of people and vehicles might also encourage heavier usage on subsequent days.
The shuttle will be mandatory for anyone who doesn’t get parking reservations, unless they are to be dropped off by a vehicle that is not parking. Vehicle entry to Haena State Park is $5, along with $1 per person. Parking and shuttle reservations can be made online at: www.gohaena.com. Reservations are not necessary for Hawaii residents.
The system is designed around the parking lot, which has about 100 stalls, 30 of which are set aside for local residents with Hawaii identification. By Monday morning, the first four days of this week were completely sold out, but the actual yield of cars and people at the park itself seemed less than the sold out status suggested.
Sisters Mary and Miriam Rotter, visiting from Oregon, said they hadn’t been aware of the reopening until someone on a hiking trail three days before told them about it. Their objective was to hike the Kalalau Trail.
When the hiker who tipped them off did so, Mary Rotter got on her smart phone and made a parking reservation on the new website created for entry into Haena State Park. They had no trouble getting their parking pass.
Still, even some locals who agreed that Monday’s reopening was a tranquil affair lamented that the North Shore’s year of isolation had finally come to an end.
“They had us sealed in all weekend (by a three-day total closure for bridge repair work) and then, all of a sudden, we wake up on Monday morning and we’re living on the freeway,” said Gil Nieto, who lives near Camp Naue.
“We went from living in a very rural area to the freeway all in one day.”
Charlie and Claudia Cowden, proprietors of the Hanalei Surf Co., agreed that the morning’s festivities had been mellow, but Charlie Cowden lamented that, with a vastly improved parking lot at Ke‘e and hundreds of new no parking signs on the highway, an era had ended, regardless.
He said he came to out on the morning of the reopening so he could explain better to his customers what to expect. But as successful as the opening seemed, he said, “my main thing is beach access and this (the parking lot and the parking restrictions taken together) is limiting beach access.
“This is the new tourist zone,” he said.
The day’s most substantial obstacle appeared to have been unrelated repair work on the hillside just east of the Hanalei River Bridge. Slope-clearing operations caused backups of 15 to 30 minutes, a result of which was that long streams of vehicles were released into and leaving Hanalei.
As the vehicular streams rippled toward Haena, the traffic manifested itself as bursts of six to 12 cars at a time, possibly implying that apparent traffic counts were momentarily higher than they really were. If there was gridlock, it was at the Hanalei bridge, though minor delays were also encountered at two of the three bridges under repair and replacement.
Back at Ke‘e, Susan Chamberlain, of Wailua Homesteads, said she’d been planning to come on the first day of the reopening “for a couple of weeks.”
“I wanted to beat the crowds and see what’s going on,” she said. “We need to show that we local people need access, too.”
She said she hadn’t been to Ke‘e in about three years because crowds and congestion had rendered the Haena area almost inaccessible on some days. She said she also came because she thinks it’s important for Kauai residents to remember that “locals” live all over the island and not just on the North Shore.
“We spent our summers here with our grandparents,” she said.
Reaction to the new boardwalk and hiking path that led from the parking lot to the beach seemed positive.
Jessica Powell and Jaden Green, recent high school graduates visiting from Santa Barbara, Calif., said the Kalalau Trail hike was what attracted them. They had followed coverage of the road and park closure situation they said, because, Green said, “we’d been wanting to go on it.”
At least five officers from the state Department of Land and Natural Resources and the Kauai Police Department were on hand for parking enforcement and general law enforcement needs, but by 10 a.m., no cited vehicles could be seen by the roadside anywhere between Hanalei and Haena.
At nearby Makua (Tunnels) Beach, parking spaces were still readily available. Farther down the road, the newly reopened tourist end of Lumahai Beach had plenty of spaces unoccupied, as well.