“Kauai is different. It’s the wild, salty-haired, and stylishly bohemian sister of the flashier Oahu, Maui’s Hollywood scene, and the always bustling Big Island.”
The world is quieter and moves more slowly when you are floating in turquoise water 10 feet beneath a giant green sea turtle. The turtle looks at a spot somewhere beyond me, with eyes as calm and wise as an old storyteller. I rise to the surface to find Bertram Almeida, my Hawaiian guide, treading water while waiting for me.
“Let’s do something Hawaiian,” Almeida says. My underwater experience swimming with the sea turtle in her coral reef home feels relatively Hawaiian to me, but I find myself following him to shore, anxious for more.
Almeida throws me a shaka (the sign for “hang loose,” a fist with thumb and pinky finger extended) as he climbs out of the calm water and walks barefoot onto the rocks at PK’s, a little cove and surf spot in the popular Poipu Beach Park of Kauai. Almeida is a native Kauaian. He grew up spending every Sunday surfing and spearfishing with his father and brothers in nearby Kukuiula Harbor while his mom and auntees prepared food for the Sunday supper.
We find a volcanic basalt rock, white and smoothed by the surf, at the water’s edge. Almeida pries an opihi (a limpet shellfish) o the rock. With his dive knife, we scoop the sea-green body from the incandescent shell’s interior and eat it. The meat’s texture is more calamari than oyster and has a briny taste that seems to embody the Pacific Ocean.
Sitting at the top of the Hawaiian archipelago, with only the “Forbidden Island” of Niihau and the tiny, distant fragments of bird sanctuary islands to the northwest, Kauai is different. It’s the wild, salty-haired, and stylishly bohemian sister of the flashier Oahu, Maui’s Hollywood scene, and the always bustling Big Island.
I stay at Kukuiula, a development composed of impeccable bungalows finished in the finest details but constructed in plantation-style cottage architecture. With vertical, cream colored wood paneling and a soft, muted palette throughout, the interiors let the vivid Garden Isle colors shine through each window. I walk a few steps out the door to the clubhouse spa, an impossibly decadent little world of indulgence. A deep and rhythmic Hawaiian lomi lomi–style massage (the traditional method uses forearms, elbows, knees, and even sticks or stones) is particularly effective—especially when it is followed up with a cold pool rinse.
On my second day I take a helicopter tour over the island, the only way to see much of the rugged interior landscape and the road-free Napali Coast. The flight leaves at 8 a.m. from Lihue. Shortly after we rise from the pad, Jimmy, the helicopter pilot, points out the place where the scientists and kids first saw dinosaurs in Jurassic Park—a big meadow above the farmlands. Then he takes us over the beach where Harrison Ford fled from pirates in Six Days Seven Nights.
We head straight toward towering green walls, the ram- parts of this island that seems to be thrusting itself out of the sea. Razor-sharp ridges define the mountainsides like fins. Between them, the shadowy vertical valleys are streaked with white waterfalls. Cascades plummet into perfect pools that likely have never seen a human, their perches having rendered them unreachable.
I’m realizing that the island of Kauai has many personalities. The south shore, where Kukuiula sits, has taken on a more posh, all-inclusive character relative to the laid-back, nature-based north shore. So on my final day, I drive north up Highway 56, the island’s peripheral artery. The road ends at the Napali Coast, a seven-mile stretch of famously rugged shoreline where adventurers come to hike or sea kayak. It’s as though Napali’s wildness has seeped down the northeast side of the island. The towns here are small and rural, and red dirt caked pick-up trucks with surfboards poking out of the beds outnumber shiny SUVs.
A friend of mine lives on the north shore, and she recommends I stop at The Garden Café at Common Ground fields for a truly organic experience. I turn down an unassuming driveway at the sign for Common Ground and see that the 46 acres of low-lying farmland are rich with vegetable gardens climbing out of red-clay fields surrounding a modern, clean- lined restaurant. Minutes later I’m devouring a raw, fibrous kale-and-green-papaya salad softened by miso vinaigrette, and a grilled mahi sandwich on a Pueo Breads bun with a house-made tropical fruit salsa.
After lunch, I continue down Highway 56 to Hanalei Town, where the historic buildings have been converted into an eclectic shopping mix around the highway. I find classic Hawaiian style in Yellowfish Trading Company’s selection of 1940s and ’50s memorabilia; everything from vintage patterned bark cloth textiles to Hawaiiana furniture and rare island jewelry. Nearby, Aloha from Hanalei is paradise for the pampered, selling soaps and lotions made with milk from the goats at Kauai Kunana Dairy, plus jewelry in varying shades of cream, o-white, and dark brown crafted out of the island’s calcite mineral. The well-curated Hula Beach Boutique & Sarong Shop has hand-painted Anushka leather handbags and last-minute swimsuits.
Leaving Hanalei’s palm-fringed village behind, I drive on until the road ends at Kee Beach. A lifeguard stand looks out over the white sand beach that curves to one side and, on the other, ends abruptly at the soaring cliffs that mark the beginning of the Napali Coast.
I take the four-mile hike to Hanakapiai Falls. The red-dirt trail climbs steeply at first and then meanders along curves with jaw-dropping views down the coast. Even a half-mile on this trail is worth it, but I push on for a dip in the cool ocean at wild, cliff-sided Hanakapiai Beach before the last two miles through the jungle to reach the falls. The canopy opens to reveal a 300-foot-tall cascade, which becomes a light mist by the time its wide veil reaches the pool. A dozen people lounge on the rocks, snacking and drying o after a swim. I follow suit, floating under the thin curtain of the waterfall.
The long hike builds a perfect appetite for dinner, and I drive back into Hanalei Town and find an outdoor table at The Hanalei Dolphin Restaurant, which I’ve been told has the island’s best sushi. The restaurant is still casual Kauai, but most people pull out their designer flip-flops here. I relax in my seat on the deck and go straight for the sunset roll: a strip of ahi tuna, cucumber, avocado, white onion, and spicy aïoli topped with salmon and a thin slice of lemon.
Everything on my plate comes from this lush little island. If I concentrate hard enough, I can smell the wild ginger growing near the river, just steps away. Only a remote island, it seems, can oer such a sensual connection to the land. Sitting here at dinner is another instance like that first afternoon with Almeida and the sea turtle swim—wild, unique, and refreshing. Kauai’s got that.