We are seated in the back of a four-wheel-drive van, bouncing across a hypergreen cow pasture, our palms pressed against the roof to keep from flying, when Spot jams on the brakes. Spot is a burly, moonfaced twentysomething from Seattle who fiercely loves Kauai, his adopted island. He works as a guide for an outfitter in Poipu, taking small groups into the forest to leap off waterfalls and soar across rivers on zip lines—the two implausible adventures our son, Isaac, has persuaded us we need to attempt on this particular afternoon. Spot, who talks fast and smiles easily, has been regaling Isaac and the other kids with dumb-tourist jokes when he abruptly turns serious on them: "I want you to look around. Take a mental snapshot of what you see. Because when you're grown up and you come back to Kauai, all this"—with a sweep of his meaty arm he takes in the broad expanse of grasses and wildflowers racing to meet the cloud-wreathed hills—"will be wall-to-wall condos and golf courses." An ambitious new development has recently been approved, he explains.
Kauai might not be Kauai for long, Spot is saying, a message probably lost on the kids, though certainly not on their parents. Kauai bills itself as the "Garden Island," which sounds like empty brochurespeak but turns out to be absolutely and spectacularly true. For sheer intensity of floral life—picture passion vines scrambling over ficus trees, soft beds of nasturtium lining hiking trails, bougainvillea splashing the walls of houses like flung paint—you would have to be inside a flower shop to even come close.
What you hear over and over on Kauai is that this is what the rest of Hawaii looked like 30 or 40 years ago—before the high-rises, before the spring-break hordes, before the shopping malls, fast-food outlets, and Disneyfied luaus. Oh, sure, there is some of that stuff here (this is America, after all), but Kauai is so lightly developed, its landscape still so untouched, that you can't help feeling blessed for having arrived (for once!) at a place so...before.
Of course this does assume the worst, that the fall from Eden is inevitable, and it's entirely possible that Spot and I are being unduly pessimistic about the island's destiny. The state of Hawaii has set aside more than half of Kauai as parkland, and much of the island is probably too rugged and inaccessible to develop. The main road that attempts to circumnavigate the island is forced to give up for approximately 12 miles of utterly impassable coastline. Most of the interior is a roadless, trackless wilderness that can receive as much as 450 inches of rain a year, making it one of the wettest spots on earth. Time-share, anyone?
Friends who know their Hawaiian islands sold us on the place. My wife, Judith, is a landscape painter, and I write about plants, so Hawaii's westernmost outpost, they said, was perfect for us. The only kink in our plan: 11-year-old Isaac, whose idea of the perfect vacation is a swank resort with pools, palm trees, and gangs of kids armed with Game Boys. "Resort lock," Judith calls it. Our Kauai challenge was to get our son off the property. Hence the importance of a guy like Spot.
We begin our spring-break week in the less touristy north, at the extremely low-key but lovely Hanalei Bay Resort. We arrive from California late at night and wake up to a view I won't soon forget: a horseshoe of pale blue water backed by three mountain ranges ascending in great steps, each offering its own stunning interpretation of the color green. Though the peaks are banked in scary black clouds, an entirely different, much more benign morning—a morning drenched in sunlight—is unfolding down on the bay. The farthest mountain has what appears to be a jagged white tear in its dark fabric: it takes us a while to realize we're looking at a waterfall that's nearly as tall as the Chrysler Building.
Considering its size (at 550 square miles, Kauai is smaller than Maui and only slightly bigger than Oahu), the island offers an unrivaled diversity of terrain and climate. The north is comparatively challenging in both respects, which is why the brand-name hotel chains chose to build down in the drier, flatter south, around Poipu. (The exception is the Princeville Resort, a bombastic bit of Florida glass-and-marble plopped down on the eastern lip of Hanalei Bay next to our hotel.) Just west of Hanalei, the Napali Coast begins, and this part of the island has traditionally attracted end-of-the-road types: surfers, backpackers, and hippies. Hanalei, you'll recall, is where Puff the Magic Dragon lived, and my impression is that a fair amount of puffing goes on there still.
Inhabited Kauai hugs the sunny shore, arrayed along that main road that circles the island like a necklace—but an unclasped one. We start our vacation at one opened clasp (Hanalei) and will end it at the other (Waimea), 12 miles apart as the crow flies; as the rental car drives, however, it takes a good three hours. You have to trace the entire, mostly two-lane road.
Hiking the Napali Coast is high on our list of things to do. The deal with Isaac is that we'll hang by the resort in the afternoon following a morning "adventure," a word I figured would sound slightly more appealing than hike. I had no idea how accurate I was being.
After a hotel breakfast of deliciously starchy taro pancakes with guava syrup, we head out, stopping at the small grocery in Hanalei for sunblock, bug spray, and chocolate bars. (In my experience, deft sugar management can add hours to a hike with children.) The town itself is a funky couple of blocks of green frame buildings with red metal roofs housing "shave ice" and smoothie stands, open-air lunch spots, and surf shops—definitely a tourist town, but tourism from a more commercially innocent era.
As we drive west of Hanalei, the houses thin and the road narrows, brushing by little coves and going over creaky wooden one-lane bridges. Just before the end of the road, on the left, is a pair of yawning caves, one dry, the other wet, and both worth exploring. Shortly afterward, the road peters out at the parking lot for Kee Beach, one of the island's prettiest, if not its safest. Our goal is to hike two miles along the Kalalau Trail to a secluded beach, which sounds a lot easier than it actually turns out to be.
The narrow, rocky trail rises and falls almost 800 vertical feet as it clings to steep curtains of green that plunge into the sea, and is deeply creased into canyons scooped out by swollen streams. This is hiking that requires hands for grabbing overhanging vines, butts for sliding on, and a willingness to get unbelievably dirty. All of which makes the Napali Coast ideal for kids, whose low center of gravity and all-around positive attitude toward mud give them a decided advantage.