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Kauai: Hawaii's Paradise

The Napali Coast, on the northwestern side of the island.

Photo: Peter Frank Edwards

Perhaps it’s because the area isn’t developed or built up, or perhaps there are other reasons, but I can feel the power surrounding us on the beach, with the wind ripping, the waves crashing.

A few miles and a world away down the coast, I get lost in the resort development of Poipu. I’d been wondering where all the overbuilding was on Kauai. I found it. It’s sometimes difficult to reconcile places of such unaltered power like Anahola with what’s been done on the South Shore, but it’s a sight common to portions of nearly all the islands—condominiums and hotels battling for beachfront, all natural flow of the land overtaken. This often uneasy coexistence of sacred and profane is something you need to come to terms with if you’re going to spend any real time in Hawaii.

Farther west, the island reasserts itself. Out past Kalaheo, past fields of coffee trees (the last of the sugarcane, once Kauai’s staple, was plowed under in late 2009), the terrain becomes even drier, the sun stronger, and the pace considerably slower. I drive down a deserted main street in the near–ghost town of Hanapepe. Founded by Chinese rice farmers in the late 1800’s, the place has a notorious past, replete with opium dens and brawler bars—those days are long gone. I crawl through the village late in the afternoon: all the doors are closed, except one. The lights in Talk Story Bookstore are still blazing.

Sorting used books, alone inside the plantation-style single-wall-construction building, is Ed Justus. A pale, bearded man with a direct gaze, Justus could be a young college lit professor. He came to Kauai with his wife, Cynthia, from Virginia seven years ago, “because the plane ticket was fifty dollars cheaper than going to Honolulu.” The fit was immediate. “We never left. Never sent for anything. Never went back.”

We stand in the doorway, watching the day decline. Justus exchanges waves with every driver who passes. “The best part of the West Side is you get to know your community, your neighbors,” he says. A battered car with several day laborers rolls by, and the boys inside shout out greetings. “It’s a rugged island, kind of like the local culture. Respect it, and it’ll respect you.”

Although each of the Hawaiian islands garners its own loyalty, what I’m seeing here on Kauai is different. Twice, Kauai withstood assaults by King Kamehameha to take the island by force. More recently, in 2007, about 100 locals leapt into the water at Nawiliwili Harbor to prevent the unwanted interisland Superferry from docking on its maiden voyage. The ferry idea was abandoned.

That kind of pride is evident on the neighborhood level as well. In the west-coast town of Waimea, 81-year-old Nancy Golden—founder of the local family-support center Nana’s House—tells me: “The West Side is what the whole island used to be like.”

Waimea was once a home to Kaumualii, Kauai’s last great king, and it was here that Captain Cook first set foot on the Hawaiian Islands in 1778. (He was killed a year later by locals on the Big Island.) It’s got everything I need in a Hawaiian town—a friendly, authentic local scene, a few decent restaurants, and a Hawaiian place to stay. The Waimea Plantation Cottages are exactly what the name suggests: 61 former sugar-plantation cottages refitted as guest accommodations. They are scattered around 27 acres of wide lawns, where groves of ironwood and coconut palms, empty hammocks, and several massive banyan trees anchor and preside over the land. The place is pure old-school Hawaiian “aloha.” I suppose I could imagine a more comfortable spot, but why try?

The days begin to roll by unaccounted for—a hike up in Waimea Canyon State Park, a swim at a deserted stretch of beach in Polihale State Park, watching the local kids play an evening game of baseball. And then I’m on the porch at Wrangler’s Steakhouse for an early dinner, just like I was the night before. Auntie Rose greets me by name, and I settle in and look out beyond the green corrugated-iron awning of the Big Save market across the street and up into the foothills of Mount Waialeale. The clouds are briefly pink, then give way to an uneventful gray as the sun fades behind me. The few tired streetlamps come on. A pickup truck eases past. The night falls silent.


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