But it’s around the point, along a narrow path, then down a hundred-foot descent, reached by clinging to a fraying twine anchored to a rotting palm tree, that I find a piece of sandy paradise. Pali Ke Kua Beach, known to the locals as Hideaways, is tucked under a canopy of false kamani trees beneath 30-foot-high black lava-rock walls. At dawn each day, I watch the sky soften and the sea take form. One morning, with the sun not yet over the cliffs, my eye catches something far down the beach. It’s coming up out of the water. A closer look reveals a green sea turtle lunging its way up onto the sand. It’s huge, at least three feet long and several hundred pounds. In the sea the turtle is power and grace in motion, but hoisting itself up by its front flippers and flopping back down onto the sand, making only a few inches’ progress, this is tough going. I settle in for a closer look. The turtle lifts its head to turn my way. We blink at each other. It lunges another few inches up the beach. Sea turtles saw the dinosaurs come and go, but up here on the sand, even under the armor of its massive shell, it seems vulnerable and exposed. We sit silently together, the waves lapping the shore. I relax in its patient presence and feel myself land fully on Kauai. I experience the same sensation I have so often felt in Hawaii while doing seemingly nothing—the feeling that my time is being well spent. As the sun breaks over the cliffs, I take a morning swim and leave my friend to its solitude while I head back to the mansion on the hill.
Sitting on the Makana Terrace at the St. Regis, watching as the clouds reveal a half-dozen waterfalls deep in Waioli Valley and seeing a double rainbow materialize over the early morning surfers in Hanalei Bay, I find myself thinking: life is sweet. But eventually having my every whim met begins to get under my skin, and I need to move.
Just a few miles along the coast road, past the beach where Mitzi Gaynor washed that man right out of her hair in South Pacific back in 1958, is the most famous of Hawaii’s places to hike. The Kalalau Trail clings to the Napali Coast for 11 untamed miles of killer views and switchbacks. I set out in the sun, soon the wind picks up, then sheets of rain lash down, then sun again. I pass bamboo and ohia trees. Ocean views from vertigo-inducing drop-offs open up. I step across streams and past waterfalls—all within a half-mile of the trailhead.
An hour further on, after rising and falling and twisting and rising again, the trail descends. I can hear the growing sound of running water—the runoff from Hanakapiai Falls. I come upon a hand-carved wooden sign, nailed onto a guava tree.
Do not go near the water
Unseen currents have killed 83 visitors
I get a stronger sense here that nature is still calling the shots than I’ve felt on any of the other islands.
Rock ’n’ roll icon Graham Nash and his wife, Susan, became North Shore locals back in 1976, and they’re well acquainted with nature’s power. “I remember after Iniki....” Susan starts to tell me before her voice trails off. (Hurricane Iniki destroyed or damaged more than half the island’s homes in 1992.) “It’s very precarious out here. Hawaii is the most isolated population center on earth, and we’re at its far edge.” Like so many I meet on Kauai, Susan speaks with fervor about the island. “There’s an accountability here—it’s all about the community,” she tells me from the lanai of their house, amid the guava, banana, and avocado trees. “Even though our family has lived here for over thirty years, we’re relative newcomers,” Graham adds. With views deep up into the Wainiha Valley and out to the sea, they’ve created a low-key, eclectic idyll.
Over on the windward coast, just after the ring road begins to turn south, the sun asserts itself on a more consistent basis and the Anahola Mountains begin to dominate the terrain. Spike-shaped Kalalea Mountain is considered sacred land, and the village of Anahola rests comfortably in its shadow. It was here that the Dalai Lama made an unscheduled visit during his trip to the islands in 1994. “Anahola is the portal where the souls enter the earth,” Agnes Marti-Kini, a longtime resident, tells me somewhat portentously. Marti-Kini and I are on the beach near her house. She asks permission from unseen spirits to bring an outsider to this sacred Hawaiian spot, then offers an incantation. Marti-Kini recently published a definitive book on Anahola, and she’s brought me to see several large lava rocks with circular bowls hollowed into them—“A mano [shark] altar,” she explains. “It was here that the ancestors would leave offerings to the spirit world to ensure an abundant catch and a safe journey.”