Embrace the island lifestyle

This tropical paradise has long been calling pleasure seekers to its shores, writes John Walsh

In The Hawaiian Archipelago (1875) the Victorian explorer and travel writer Isabella Bird described the hills of Kaua'i as "more completely smothered under a profuse vegetation than those of any other island in the Tropical Pacific … [it] has an extreme beauty altogether its own, which wins one's love."

It does indeed. I'd never been to Hawaii before this summer. I've a wardrobe of aloha shirts, I've seen South Pacific and The Descendants and I can play two tunes on a ukulele, but I'd never made it to the actual archipelago. Perhaps I felt I couldn't share the American 1950s dream about Hawaii. Perhaps I was turned off by the thought of Waikiki Beach, with the palm trees, dancing girls et cetera with a backdrop of skyscrapers.

Kaua'i is different, though. You can fall in love with its simplicity. Of the major Hawaiian islands, it's the smallest and greenest. As Isabella Bird indicated, it's a profusion of shaggy mountains, forests folding into each other, palm trees, ferns, cypresses and magnolias jostling for place. The island is shaped like a hand-thrown pizza and its 60,000 inhabitants live around the perimeter, because the interior is craggy, wet, mountainous and wholly inaccessible. Partly because of the coral reefs that circle it, the authorities don't allow cruise liners to drop anchor and disgorge passengers. No dwelling can be built taller than a coconut tree. And the one main road doesn't go right round the island. Nothing could ever slice a path through the prehistoric stone canyons of the eastern Na Pali coast.

It gradually dawns on you that you've seen the place before. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the mountains and jungles stood in for South America; in Jurassic Park and its sequels, the Lawa'i Valley became the valley of the dinosaurs; and Ben Stiller's 2007 spoof action thriller Tropic Thunder injected $60m into the islands' economy.

Some tourists are wary of the north side because regular rains punctuate the tropical heat. In fact the rain is blissfully welcome, rarely lasts more than 90 seconds and leaves the mountains looking rinsed and glorious. The north side is where the richest visitors buy beachside properties. This is also where the best beaches and food are found.

Hanalei is the main attraction here. You drive through lush hillsides, with views of the undulating Pacific as it rolls into mile-long, horseshoe-shaped Hanalei Bay, while above your head flicker bright-red honeycreeper birds, and suddenly find yourself surrounded by clapboard shops selling surfer gear, skateboard impedimenta and every manifestation of hippie chic. You look at the passing multitude as they queue for burgers, boogie boards and shaved ice (a Kaua'i speciality) and marvel at the naturalised "transplants" from San Francisco and Seattle, easily recognisable by their elaborate Polynesian tattoos and abstracted, surfer-dude air. There's a couple of dozen cafés, smelling of cinnamon and vanilla, and a few restaurants – none better than Bar Acuda, which is packed in the evenings with moneyed Californians in dressed-down T-shirts, greeting each other over Smoke & Ginger cocktails. The food is posh tapas, with lots of seared or carpaccio'd local fish, salads, dates and steak skewers.

You might decide against a luau – the three-hour traditional Polynesian banquet-and-show with dancing girls and (eek!) audience involvement – and prefer to go people-watching at the St Regis Hotel in Princeville. Even connoisseurs of luxury vacations will find their jaws dropping: this former livestock ranch and sugar plantation, sold to developers in the 1960s, features a palm-tree-lined drive through million-dollar apartments, two world-class golf courses set amid lush scenery, a 10,000-square-foot spa and a panorama bar where exhibitionists congregate at sunset. It's a phenomenal hotel, though intimidating in the vast scale of the restaurants and puzzling in the paradox of being both super-exclusive and super-packed-out.

Heading west from Princeville, the road weaves around heart-stopping glimpses, through the spruce trees, of the green swell and the ice-cream-whitecaps of the languorous ocean. This is where they filmed South Pacific in 1958, using wholly otiose colour filters to enhance the sunset scenes. Mitzi Gaynor sang "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair" on Lumahai Beach, where the sands are wide, but the riptides deadly. The dramatic 1,280ft verdant Matterhorn before you is known to locals as Makana (or "gift") but in the film was Bali Ha'i.

The most beautiful beach on the island is Makua, known as "Tunnels" because in winter the waves form big, surfer's-dream tubes. It's perfect for lolling in the shade or snorkelling off the eastern rocks; surfers have to go miles out beyond the reef to catch the waves. On the journey to the crowded Ke'e Beach, where the road runs out, you pass the Maniniholo Dry Cave, echoing, dripping and claustrophobic, and gawp at 100ft cliffs down which bleached tree-roots reach to the roadway in search of water, and resemble ancient faces covered in mile-long wrinkles.

Drive clockwise around Kaua'i's emerald clockface on the Kuhio Highway, and see how the scenery changes. At two o'clock (so to speak) you're in Anahola, which is Hawaiian homeland territory: look out for houses on stilts and shacks glimpsed in the jungly undergrowth. At three o'clock, you're in charming Kapa'a, the only walking town on the east side and the most densely populated on the island. It's a sprawling Western film set; a charming township of shabby-chic clothes, furniture and antiques. I loved it: breakfast in the wooden booths of the Olympia Café, where they serve papaya and melon with your scrambled eggs; the old Liquor & Wine Store, festooned with photos of Kyle, the proprietor, and his family in the 1950s; the shining ukuleles and "slack key" guitars at Kamoa (1310 Kuhio Hwy); the simple box-lunch at Pono Market, showing the island's Japanese influence: pineapple-glazed chicken, ahi poke (raw tuna) with sticky rice and a salsa of salmon and tomato. Further south, the shops turn into malls, but a right-hand turn, by the ruins of the Coco Palms Hotel (where Elvis Presley shook his booty in Blue Hawaii) brings you inland, following the Wailua River, to check out the impressive Opeaka'a Falls and find spiritual refreshment at the impressive Hindu monastery.

The south side is dry and parched. Acres of former sugar plantation lie fallow, and the landscape's all African-style red clay. At the southern tip the big hotels, condominiums and time-share properties of Po'ipu have been joined by the massive 1,000 acre Kukui'ula tourist development. Follow the main highway to Hanapepe Valley. Salt Pond Beach Park is a safe and family-friendly spot and, every Friday evening, the island's art lovers congregate in Hanapepe for a passeggiata along the galleries in the main street. But there's only one real serious tourist attraction down here, and it's a stunner. Head for Waimea, a small town where Captain Cook landed in 1778, turn right and drive for half an hour, up through twisty serpentine roads: you'll find yourself staring, like stout Cortez, at the chasmal magnificence of the Waimea Canyon, a distant but awesome cousin of the grand Arizonan ravine.

Every year, hundreds of people hike or trek their way through the canyon floor on the 45 miles of trails, though rain makes conditions hazardous. Far better, if you can afford it, to take the indulgent option: a helicopter ride over the whole island. You'll soar over the gigantic Mount Wei'ale'ale, officially one of the wettest places on Earth, over the fabulous double waterfall shown in the opening scenes of Jurassic Park, over Waimea Canyon and the Na Pali coastline before dropping you back for an hour of surfing, shaved ice and a siesta on Hanalei Beach – marvelling to find that such a charming and restful island is essentially a great, jagged, unconquerable, volcanic monster with a lot of lucky people occupying its mild and paradisical perimeter.

Travel Essentials

Getting there

Kaua'i can be reached from Heathrow via Los Angeles on United Airlines (0845 607 6760; unitedairlines.co.uk), Delta (0845 600 0950; delta.com) and American Airlines (020-7365 0777; americanairlines.co.uk). For further details, see page 5.

Staying there

St Regis Hotel in Princeville (001 808 826 9644; stregisprinceville.com). Doubles from $490 (£306), room only.

Eating there

Bar Acuda (001 808 826 7081; restaurantbaracuda.com).

Seeing there

Sunshine Helicopters (001 808 245 8881; sunshinehelicopters.com) offers aerial tours of Kaua'i from Princeville Heliport for $249 (£155) per person.

More information


Life and Style
Fans line up at the AVNs, straining to capture a photo of their favourite star
life Tim Walker asks how much longer it can flesh out an existence
Life and Style
Every minute of every day, Twitter is awash with anger as we seek to let these organisations know precisely what we think of them
techWhen it comes to vitriol, no one on attracts our ire more than big businesses offering bad service
Professor David Nutt wants to change the way gravely ill patients are treated in Britain
people Why does a former Government tsar believe that mind-altering drugs have a place on prescription?
Norway’s ‘The Nordland Line – Minute by Minute, Season by Season’ continues the trend of slow TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Jonny Evans has pleaded not guilty to an FA charge for spitting at Papiss Cisse
Life and Style
Kate Moss will make a cameo appearance in David Walliams' The Boy in the Dress
The image released by the Salvation Army, using 'The Dress'
Liverpool defender Kolo Toure
football Defender could make history in the FA Cup, but African Cup of Nations win means he's already content
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Automotive Service Advisor - Franchised Main Dealer

    £18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful, family owned m...

    Recruitment Genius: Product Advisor - Automotive

    £17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to the consistent growth of...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Automotive

    £18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity exists for an ex...

    Recruitment Genius: Renewals Sales Executive - Automotive

    £20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity exists for an ou...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable