This 10-million-year-old volcanic isle is small enough to drive around in an hour, and getting smaller as the cliffs are eaten away. Apparently this is the fastest-eroding land on earth - probably due to the run off from Mount Waialeale, the globe's wettest spot. Fortunately, visitors can easily escape the wet weather. A 15-minute drive brings you to Waimea Canyon, a cactus-fringed semi-desert that could easily pass for a (slightly greener) section of the Grand Canyon.
The drama and variety of the landscape has made Kauai a particular favourite with Steven Spielberg - who filmed there for Raiders of the Lost Ark, Hook, and both Jurassic Park films - although you might recognise it better from South Pacific, the TV series Fantasy Island, or one of Elvis Presley's most popular films, Blue Hawaii.
These films were all shot in some of the more accessible locations on the island, but film buffs need not go to too much effort to track down their favourite locations since Hawaii Movie Tours offers an enjoyable guided trip round the island. In fact, even if you are not a great film buff, this is a worthwhile introduction to Kauai as it includes places that the public is not normally admitted to.
One such place is the Coco Palms resort where most of the big movie stars used to stay. It has been closed for seven years, since much of the island was devastated by Hurricane Iniki - which shaved a century's worth of development off the island in the space of just one day.
The biggest coconut plantation in Hawaii, Coco Palms was formerly the site of Kauai's capital. In its resort heyday, the cabins had giant clam shell wash basins and some even had outrigger canoe-shaped beds. The Presley Foundation is said to want to buy it and make it an Elvis-themed resort, but all such plans are being left on hold until the outstanding insurance claims from the hurricane have been settled.
This does not deter devoted Elvis fans, though, including 600 from Britain who arrived at the resort on the 20th anniversary of the King's death - eight of them to get hitched there, as their idol did in Blue Hawaii (weddings in the Rita Hayworth Chapel cost $1,500 or pounds 930). The King would have appreciated that. Apparently he felt so at home at Coco Palms that he would sometimes help out in the restaurant, cleaning tables, pouring water and seating guests.
Elvis's effect on the tourist industry extends to the helicopter tours that circle the island all day. Ironically his character in Paradise Hawaiian Style was one of the first to take tourists aloft. The idea has since taken off on all the Hawaiian islands, but it is especially worthwhile on Kauai, as helicopter is the only way to see its spectacular cliffs and mountains. The downside is the price; the 50-minute flights aren't cheap and ours went past far too quickly as we struggled to take in the vistas around each ridge, but we wouldn't have missed it.
Paradise Hawaiian Style was shot in Hanalei, Kauai's prettiest town. Set in a wide bay surrounded by mist-shrouded volcanic mountains, the landscape inspired the song "Puff the Magic Dragon" (who frolicked in the autumn mists in a land called Hanalei). Once the setting for the "Nothing Like A Dame" and "Bali Hi" scenes in South Pacific, these days it is an altogether more mellow location, home to an artistic community and holidaying celebrities such as Sylvester Stallone, Barbra Streisand and Michael Crichton who want somewhere they can slink off to and escape attention.
Back on the route of the Hawaii Movie Tour, our driver Jerri and her partner Bob, made the van ride fun, cracking jokes, showing video clips of the movies and television series, and conducting singalongs to South Pacific. We also learned a lot about Hawaiian culture, customs and plant life, and made time to unwind for a while on several pristine beaches.
One of the beaches was the original setting for Gilligan's Island, the second-biggest money spinner in US television history (after I Love Lucy), we were told. We discovered that the pilot episode was not aired until 1992 (when Ted Turner bought it) because network executives didn't like three of the actors and wanted it reshot in LA - what a waste of a great location.
An equally deserted beach was the setting for the Six Days Seven Nights' Tahitian resort. The bay has since been bought by the producer of Batman, Peter Guber - who made few friends by blocking access to the beach.
Compared to the other Hawaiian islands, Kauai doesn't have the glitz and vibrancy of Oahu; it lacks the geographic variation and the primal feel of the Big Island; and Maui probably has a better mix of things to see and do. But, if you want a real tropical experience far away from any continent, with eye-popping scenery, rainforests that lack either oppressive heat or irritant bugs, and sandy beaches without the crowds, Kauai is without doubt Fantasy Island.
David Fox paid pounds 380 for return flights from London Heathrow to Honolulu with The Travel Bug (0161-721 4000). Current return fares on KLM cost pounds 480. Inter-island flights with Aloha Airlines (001 808 484 1111) cost pounds 58 one-way.
Comfortable double rooms cost from pounds 80 at the Outrigger Kauai Beach hotel (001 808 245 1955) and from pounds 165 at the Kauai Marriott (001 808 245 5050). Hawaii Movie Tours (001 808 822 1192, www.hawaii movietour.com) cost pounds 53 including lunch (deluxe tours with helicopter trip and sunset cruise, pounds 184). 50-minute Ohana Helicopter Tours (001 808 245 3996) cost pounds 90 per person.
More information: The Hawaiian Visitors and Convention Bureau (0181-941 4009) or the website http://www.visit.hawaii.org/