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Stillness, Stars, and Sea: A Few Days in Kauai

Moloa'a Bay (Photo: Dara Continenza)

 

An island of many distant and unpeopled places, despite its small size. Remote and romantic, wild and relaxed by equal measure, where, by law, no building can be taller than a palm tree.

Kauai is the least commercially developed of the Hawaiian Islands. It's also the oldest. Somewhat removed from the other islands by distance, yet easily reached by air, it has a small population of around 60,000 and even its own native Hawaiian dialect. In many ways, Kauai feels removed from the rest of the planet and the limits of time. Islanders whisper about hidden beaches, where cell service is but a distant fantasy and small wooden signs display six notches—the number of visitors that year.

Here is a circuitous tour of Kauai, free from the constraints of direction, set to its own distinct rhythm.

The Weeping Wall

Mt. Waialeale is one of the wettest places on Earth, with 350-some rainy days each year. Its summit hovers just below a layer of trade wind that traps the moisture-laden air and turns it into near-constant rain interrupted by moments of sunshine. The volcano is exceptionally remote, and while trails exist near its base, the ground is so sodden that safe trekking is difficult. So I got up close and personal—via helicopter. As we lifted through the clouds that topped the crater like a jar lid, the rain began to fall, lashing the rotor blades and wetting my toes through a three-inch gap in the windshield. Leaden haze obscured the windows. Then, as suddenly as they gathered, the storm clouds broke, and we were suspended beside Waialeale, hundreds of feet above ground. I could almost reach out to touch the spouts of water that rushed down its fuzzy green sides (its "Weeping Wall").

Something Rugged and Grand

More than just a natural formation, the Na Pali Coast holds awe-inspiring mana, or spiritual power. On the cliffside outcroppings, ancient Hawaiians performed rituals and dances that, according to legend, King Kamehameha himself attended. From the cliffs, they shot flaming arrows into the Pacific Ocean.

For me, this coast was one of those wonder-restoring natural features that, until I saw it, seemed to exist only in dreams. The towering cliffs stretched out high above sea level, high enough that I felt breathlessly small both above and below them. (For scale, the white speck in the photo is a boat.)

To see this spiritual area, fly in a helicopter, charter a catamaran, or hike the coast via the Kalalau Trail, which provides Na Pali's only land access. The craggy trail crosses five valleys before ending at Kalalau Beach, where its progress is abruptly ended by the sheer, fluted cliffs (or pali). Many hikers break up the trail into two days and camp overnight between segments. Visitors are cautioned to leave the place as they found it: Trash can accumulate on the otherwise-perfect but hard-to-reach beach.

Artful Digs

Imagine a lavish mansion like Hearst Castle or Gatsby's Gilded Age abode in West Egg. Now imagine it outside, with walls of moss and nautilus shell, roofs of bamboo and palm fronds, and Moreton Bay fig trees, whose roots loom high above ground. Such is Allerton Garden, the work of wealthy Chicago philanthropist Robert Allerton, who made this place his home (with an actual house nearby). Towering trees and plants form elegant "rooms" where Allerton held parties and Thanksgiving dinners, and an area planted with a soaring bamboo canopy was a space for reading and quiet contemplation. Dotted by Romanesque statues, burbling fountains, and loggia bleached by the sun, the whole garden, wedged in the Lawai Valley, feels somehow planned and unplanned, wild and yet as polished as a museum wing.

Princeville, Paniolo Style

Kauai's North Shore is a pretty landscape of taro fields, sea cliffs, and rugged hills speckled with grazing cattle. Princeville, where upscale hotels and condos are clustered, stretches along the sea, while wide-open spaces set inland make room for Princeville Ranch and its backcountry adventures.

Despite a tinge of equinophobia, I saddled up for a relaxed group trek on horseback. Astride a half dozen horses, we ambled through lush valleys and hills to a hidden waterfall, hitching our rides to posts deep in the forest. Sliding into the falls' still, icy pool was welcome after an hour or two of irrepressible sun. We picnicked at the crest of the 80-foot falls before climbing a steep rock wall on the return trip through the hilly countryside.

Complete with lazy Brangus cattle nibbling on grass and sunning themselves along the hills, this is the outlands, Kauai's Wild West. (Speaking of wild, Keoki, pictured above among his friends, enjoys the occasional unscheduled meander in search of a snack.)

Surf Towns and Mai Tais

Hanalei Town and its galleries, surf shops, and cafes are rather charmingly tucked into the foot of the mountains, in the midst of taro fields. "The village is sleepy, but at a family-style luau at Tahiti Nui, a shack of a restaurant, the strains of Hawaiian slack-key guitar gave Hanalei some pick-me-up.

Pre-luau, mai tais flowed, sweetly strong with dark rum and Curacao. There was hula and fire dancing, and then plates of kalua pork, sweet macaroni salad, and the most contentious side dish known to man: poi, the sticky mashed taro root whose viscosity is gauged in one-, two-, or three-finger measures. The luau's traditional entertainment was moving, the vibe akin to a family dinner party with three parts genuine aloha spirit to one part cultural experience.

Finding Tahiti Nui was characteristically charming as well. According to its official directions: "Drive through Kapaa Town, then Anahola, then Kilauea (cross a large bridge over the Kalihiwai River), continue on passing Princeville, then down the hill into Hanalei Valley. Once you cross the bridge (over Hanalei River) you will see fields of taro on your left … you have officially made it into Hanalei."

Indeed. Luckily, there is a mai tai waiting at the other end.

Far-Flung Falls

It's hard to choose a favorite thing about Kauai, where every sugar-soft beach seems pristine, every mountain or volcano unfathomably tall. But entering the Manawaiopuna Falls (or Jurassic Falls, nicknamed after the film in which they make a cameo) by helicopter is certainly in the running, at least for most dramatic experience. The helicopter hovered precariously on a canyon and landed, bug-like, on a wee precipice choked with grass. We disembarked, crossed a small bridge, rounded a corner, and the falls came into view. After the chopper's blades were switched off, a kind of tentative hush, punctuated only by bird calls and rushing water, settled over the clearing. The falls themselves are not particularly tall or loud or wide, but what struck me as so remarkable was that so few people will ever see them or feel the soft spray on their bare skin. Only one outfitter can touch down here, and there is no land access at all.

On the flight back toward Waimea Canyon, our pilot provided play-by-play and a soundtrack that included "Over the Rainbow" as we flew, rather literally, over a post-storm rainbow.

... And a Cautionary Tale

Hawaii's state bird is the nene, a rare goose with a distinctively soft, buzzing call that sounds like a rusty porch swing blowing in the breeze. But islanders joke that the official bird of Kauai should be the ubiquitous wild chicken. These plump little jungle fowl were likely brought here by the Polynesians as a food source. Many years later, when Hurricane Iniki tore through the island, the chickens sprang free from their overturned coops and cages, celebrating the end of their human overlords. With no mortal enemy on the island, the fowl went forth and multiplied—a lot. They are as much a part of the landscape as the coconut palms and koa trees, strutting around the resorts with puffed-up little chests and occasionally ruffling tourist's feathers (they enjoy masquerading as alarm clocks).

Jet-lagged travelers who step out to enjoy a coffee and the waning of the stars on their lanai may experience this singular morning ritual, which I captured below.

A Few More Photos

Have a question for Dara about her trip to Kauai? Planning a trip yourself and need advice? Want to share your own Hawaii experience? Leave a comment below or contact her via editor@smartertravel.com. You can also follow Dara on Google+.

(Photos and video by Dara Continenza)

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