Hawaii's Garden Isle: Hollywood roles haven't spoiled Kauai just yet
Hyatt Regency Pool, Kauai (Peter Buol, For the Chicago Tribune / April 6, 2012)
So it is with Kauai, Hawaii's fourth-largest island and a vibrant, green oasis in the Pacific. Then to your horror, the island shows up in an Oscar-winning movie like "The Descendants," and you figure it's all over. It'll be overrun.
With trepidation I returned to this 33-by-25-mile Eden known as the Garden Isle to try to rediscover that sweet calm and connect with the rich vein of history referenced in the film. I hadn't been there in a decade, and I feared that its tranquil lifestyle so jealously guarded by George Clooney's movie character would be under threat.
Arriving at the main airport after a 40-minute flight from Honolulu, I picked up a rental car in Lihue for the 14-mile trip to Poipu, a resort on the south side of the island known for pristine white-sand beaches.
This was March, and upon arriving at the Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort and Spa in Poipu, I took a dive into island history.
Hawaii's beloved Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole, a crown prince of the Kingdom of Hawaii and onetime rebel, was born in Poipu in 1871. After Hawaii's annexation as a U.S. territory, he served as territorial representative in Congress. His birthday, March 26, is a state holiday and cause for a two-week string of celebrations in Poipu.
Each March the hotel's lobby and grounds are transformed into a living-history and cultural experience. Visitors and many of the island's 67,000 residents flock to free cultural demonstrations. A highlight was the Kauai-based male hula troupe Na Kane O Keoneloa, renowned throughout the islands for its booming voices and thundering beats on hand-carved wooden drums.
Venturing out from Poipu, I headed to the rugged hills of the Na Pali Coast, where the intense green of the island meets the vivid blue Hawaiian Pacific. Ten years ago I had viewed the coast's Kalalau Valley from a 4,000-foot overlook while on a mountain hike. This time I took a leisurely alternative aboard Blue Dolphin Charters, a sailing catamaran out of Port Allen, a small port on the south side of the island.
We cruised along an expanse of sand that just wouldn't quit: Polihale Beach, at 15 miles one of the longest in the state. After passing Polihale Beach State Park, we reached the beginning of the Na Pali Coast. The view from the sea is spectacular, especially where crystalline waterfalls tumble thousands of feet to the sea. Each remote valley seems more gorgeous than the next.
So far so good. Not a hint of trouble in paradise.
After two days and three nights in Poipu, I headed to the north shore. Just as on Oahu, some 70 miles away by ocean channel, the north shore of Kauai has the island's best surfing.
This surf nirvana is about 40 miles northwest of Lihue by road. Perfect weather followed me as I drove through one scenic town after another in light traffic on mostly two-lane roads.
The north shore is home to plantation-era towns such as Hanalei and Haena, including many historic and picturesque old wooden buildings along the road. Built to supply basic goods and services to sugar plantation workers, most have morphed into quaint-looking surf shops, restaurants and boutiques.
With its crescent bay, white-sand beach and a 90-year-old concrete pier, Hanalei Bay is a must-see. Try sunset on the terrace of the luxurious St. Regis Princeville.
There, hotel butler Kaleo Guerrero told guests that the Hawaiian name of the majestic mountain peak in the distance is Makana. It's an image some people might find familiar because it starred in the movie classic "South Pacific." Many refer to it by its fictitious name, Bali Ha'i.
I later got a closer look at Makana from the adjacent Limahuli Garden and Preserve. My guide was Kawika Goodale, a grandson of garden founder Juliet Rice Wichman. He explained that Makana illustrates an unwelcome change to the island, and you can see why in the classic film.
"Look at the peak in the movie," he said of "South Pacific." "It looks completely different. It's now covered with the invasive schefflera shrub" known as the octopus tree.
While on the north shore, I wanted to experience the Na Pali Coast on foot, but I had time only for a two-mile hike along the famed Kalalau Trail. Because steep cliffs can be hazardous to those unfamiliar with the trail, I made the trek with veteran outdoorsman Nick Oliver, from Hanalei-based outfitter Kayak Kauai. A guy like Oliver is even better than Googling, stopping frequently to point out native and invasive plants while recounting Hawaiian folk tales.
I spent my last night on the island at a restored plantation cottage near the beach in the historic town of Waimea. One of more than 50 that have been moved from various locations on the island, they now are the charming and comfortable Waimea Plantation Cottages.