Is Kauai's Glass Beach as colourful as I imagined? There was only one way to find out.
There are tears of sadness, tears of joy, and then there's a kind of tears that are much harder to come by. "Mermaid Tears", better known as beach glass or sea glass, are gorgeous little gems of colour, tumbled into a soothing smoothness thanks to decades in the ocean, before surfacing on a beach to bask in the sun.
Prized by artists and jewelry markers, beautiful beach glass (or sea glass, if you will) also makes for a wonderful travel quest and souvenir. I've collected tiny pieces of it from all over the world, so when I heard about a remote beach on the Hawaiian island of Kauai that was absolutely covered in beach glass, I knew I had to see it for myself. I had to explore Glass Beach Kauai.
Articles about Kauai like to claim that Glass Beach, located in Port Allen on the island's south shore, is an undiscovered gem, never mentioned in guidebooks. But it was listed in all the guidebooks I consulted (including my trusty Lonely Planet guide) and, for a small beach, there were plenty of people there when we visited both times. And Glass Beach Kauai is popular enough that you've likely already seen photos of it - in a heavily doctored form. Photo sites like Pinterest are chock full of altered images of Glass Beach, showing marble sized hunks of red, blue, orange, and purple beach glass.
So what does Glass Beach really look like? Well, the first impressions aren't too promising. To get there, you need to turn down the road to the main commercial pier of Port Allen, passing the headquarters of numerous ocean excursion operators. You'll reach Glass Beach by taking the last turn on the left before the pier road ends. You'll drive for about one minute, passing numerous unattractive industrial buildings. Then the road curves slightly to the right and becomes unpaved and a bit bumpy. There's some limited parking for about a dozen cars or so at the edge of what - at first- looks like just another ordinary beach.
On closer examination, I realize that the 'sand' I'm walking on is actually glass - millions upon millions of tiny pieces of beach glass, all just a few millimeters wide. The result of the favorable ocean currents from an old dump site, all this glass is the result of drinking bottles, cosmetic containers, broken up glass from car tail lights, bottles, and medical vials that were smashed and sanded by the sea. The tiny pebbles of the real Glass Beach Kauai are a far cry from the doctored photos of Pinterest but it only made our search all the more challenging and exciting. Already, I could see why it was one of the best free activities on Kauai.
I've read that in decades past the beach offered up much more than tiny granules and dedicated combers would routinely net much larger pieces. During our visit the largest pieces we found were about the size of a nickel, and then only in the pedestrian shades of white, green, and brown - all of the most common colours!
But with some careful combing, we did find plenty of tiny aqua and turquoise pebbles, a fair amount of cobalt blue and citron and - most precious of all - two tiny specks of true orange and a pea sized piece of rare ruby red. We also found some shards of porcelain, one of which contained faint traces of Japanese writing. (Can you take home what you find on Glass Beach? I'm not sure! There's no posted notices asking visitors not to remove glass, but I've read in some guidebooks that you're supposed to leave your finds for others to enjoy. In light of all this, I won't tell you what we did with our finds the end!)
Walking on Glass Beach Kauai is easier said than done. The glass 'sand' is even more challenging to walk in than regular sand. When we were done, our feet were as smooth as a baby's! But we're also lucky we didn't get any nicks from some of the sharper pieces of glass. I'd definitely recommend wearing wearing sneakers or sturdy flip flops (we love these Tevas) when you visit. But there was one beach bum who didn't seem to mind being coated in glass - the Hawaiian monk seal who claims this beach as his own and regularly shows up to sleep on its sunny shores.
I'll admit, I'm no fan of seals. Growing up in Nova Scotia, these giant beasts would routinely show up in my backyard each winter as they moved inland from the frozen waters seeking something fresher inland. I'm convinced they were out to get me and it was with this in mind that Ryan gleefully told me that I was sharing the beach with my Number Two Enemy.
Seals are actually my Number Three Enemy (after roosters and jelly fish, obviously), but this Hawaiian monk seal didn't look too threatening or scary at all. He just happily slept in the sun, never opening his eyes but occasionally rolling over his beach glass covered body. A wildlife volunteer was on hand to make sure the seal was undisturbed and to share Hawaiian monk seal conversation information with all beach visitors.
And take note: This rocky, lifeguard-free beach may be ideal for seals but humans shouldn't attempt swimming. For this reason, you probably won't see it listed among the best beaches in Kauai but that's okay - who needs to swim when you can hunt beach glass?
Glass Beach Kauai had one final surprise for us. Just a few steps down the road from the beach is a very old Japanese cemetery. The grave markers could have been weathered by the wind and the salty air but they looked OLD. For many, the writing and smooth edges had been completely obscured and worn away until only the vaguest shape of a headstone remained.
Visiting a cemetery may not be everyone's idea of an enjoyable travel activity, but I find them very interesting and they always provide a bit of insight into the area's history. The contrast between the tombstones - possibly over a century old - and the decades old beach glass and the modern industrial buildings seemed to sum up the area in a single glance.
Glass Beach looked nothing like its doctored Pinterest counterpart - and nothing like I expected. But in the end I think it's all the better for it. Ultimately, the only thing Glass Beach should be is a beach and its doing that just fine by playing host to the monk seal (who I will begrudgingly admit was kinda cute.) Glass Beach is likeable if you collect Mermaid Tears but utterly lovable if you collect travel experiences.
PS: In Kauai, we stayed at the Courtyard by Marriott at Coconut Beach. With a little luck and a lot of searching, we were able to book it for $100 a night -a great bargain for Hawaii! Good service, good location, good price.
Do you collect shells or beach glass? What's your favourite beach in the world?
If you're planning a trip to Hawaii, these articles will help:
Coffee Beans and Hawaiian Dreams
Maui: Cheap and Calm in Peak Season
Where to Save, Splurge, and Steal in Kauai
Our visit to Kauai was sponsored in part by Go Hawaii and we thank them for their support. As always, our writing, research, and opinions are all our own.
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