Kauai actually feels like two different islands. The cooler, more mountainous and craggy north shore around Princeville is a perfect counterpoint to the warmer, beachier south shore near Poipu Bay. The shores are a one-hour drive apart, with the town of Lihue tucked between. These changes in topography allow the three signature-card courses of Kauai--Poipu Bay (in the south), Kiele (to the east) and Princeville (to the north)--to have totally different feels and playing characteristics.
Poipu Bay, home each November to the PGA Grand Slam of Golf, is a links on the cliffs along the Pacific, with views of the sea--and of the occasional breaching whale--on every hole. Robert Trent Jones Jr. designed the course to accommodate the strong, prevailing trade winds; there's no vegetation on the courses much taller than a one-iron. The scrub and beach grasses are so ridiculously colorful that they're like Scotland on LSD. The cliffs beside the fifteenth and sixteenth holes would resemble the White Cliffs of Dover if the latter were painted a blazing reddish orange. The mountains over your shoulder are more comfortable than majestic, like Scottsdale rather than Telluride.
All the glorious exaggerations of links golf are epitomized by the par-four sixteenth hole--501 yards from the tips. Downhill and downwind, it's the place to hit your longest drive. Ever. After hitting the first 220-yarder of his life, Russell pleaded, "Dad, why aren't you paying any attention to my drive?"
"Because I think Paul hit one three-fifty. You don't see too many of those," I said. Actually, only 346. "Didn't get it all," Paul groused. The next time on the course, even Paul had to admit, "Okay, I got that one." Only 347.
Less than thirty minutes from Poipu Bay is one of the best unsung courses in America--Kiele. Located on the sprawling Kauai Lagoons Resort, Kiele may be one of Jack Nicklaus's very best designs. For the average-to-good player, Kiele is an ideal test. Inspiring but not quite intimidating. Just when you feel your confidence flagging, when you've been asked to hit one tee shot too many over some primordial gorge, you get a beautiful breather or two.
You rediscover your rhythm just in time to play a hole so vividly individual that, weeks later, when you remember it, you practically jump in your chair. It is the 219-yard fifth, which seems like nothing so much as an emerald-size green in an ocean of jungle.
For raw beauty, the thirteenth through seventeenth holes at Kiele can compare to finishing holes anywhere. Some holes have a 180-degree ocean view. Or an enormous, jagged-peaked mountain wrapped in clouds dead ahead. Or vertiginous cliffs. Or a mile of beach in the distance. Or jungle from tee to green. Or a warm wind straight at your back, whispering, I'll help you. Or whales jumping during your backswing.