I was in the Kauai airport ladies' room when my adventure began. In the first 90 seconds of my overly anticipated (and partly dreaded) vacation alone in Hawaii, I heard on the loudspeaker, "Would Martha McCully please come to the security desk immediately." I was surprised to learn that I had dropped my wallet with a thousand dollars in cash, my credit cards, driver's license, car registration—my total lifeline.
THIS WAS NOT THE KIND OF EXPERIENCE I HAD IN MIND when I decided to venture solo to the Garden Island. Ever since I watched The Thorn Birds—the miniseries was filmed there—I'd wanted to see Kauai. I was intrigued by the island's laid-back attitude and over-enthusiastic vegetation, waterfalls, mountains, and rainbows. I spent a solid decade developing the fantasy: a hike along the rugged Na Pali coast; a plantation cottage with a ceiling fan; personal transformation; freedom from shoes, work, the gym; maybe even a priest who would break his vows for me. But how does a single person put together an adventure trip without relying on an outfitter?And how could I travel without someone more daring to egg me on?I quickly learned that true adventure can't be planned at all.
Of course, I tried. I treated my vacation as a business project: I began on the Internet; I networked, researched, analyzed, and compared. I booked it.
I started the trip in my super-charged mode. After retrieving my lost wallet at Kauai's Lihue Airport, I picked up my rented Jeep Wrangler (reserved way in advance), loaded up on groceries at Safeway (after joining the store's discount club), and drove directly north on Route 56 to my rental house on Hanalei Bay (I'd pored over maps to learn its exact location). I had to ask for directions only once and arrived at 11 p.m. (4 a.m. New York time) to find what seemed like a bordering-on-bland house. Still buzzing, I unpacked, studied my guidebooks and maps, and figured out which hike to conquer the following day. Throughout it all, I barely noticed where I was.
It wasn't until the next morning, when I woke to the sound of waves just a few yards away, that I began to pay attention to my surroundings. My simple, sweet house, perched on cement pilings like so many other Kauai dwellings rebuilt after Hurricane Iniki in 1992, fit in perfectly with the other plantation houses on the bay. Venturing outside to see the quiet Hanalei Bay, I suddenly stopped and stared.
But that meditation lasted no more than a few seconds before I resumed my overzealous overplanning. I had already decided to spend the first week in lush Hanalei, and the second on the sunny western side of Kauai in Waimea, with a side trip to a famous hotel on the Big Island—a pupu platter of hiking, sun, and resort time. My mind was made up and my deposits were paid.
TO CRAM ALL MY HIKING INTO THE FIRST WEEK, I started off at a frenzied pace, taking my cues from descriptions in The Ultimate Kaua'i Guidebook. The Sleeping Giant hike was a good introduction. I forged ahead when the book said, "Stop at the picnic table unless you are very brave, very foolish and very well insured." Piece of cake; it was nothing more than a thin spine of a trail with a vertical drop of a few hundred feet on either side. I turned the first leg of the eight-mile round-trip along the Na Pali coast into a mere half-day hike, following the well-marked (and heavily trampled) trail from Kee Beach to Hanakapiai and Hanakoa Falls and back. I strolled through sleepy Hanalei, loving how few tourists there were. I discovered the farmers' market and the Hanalei Dolphin Restaurant & Fish Market. I made friends with the geckos in my house. I battled a grotesque centipede in the middle of the night and won. I was doing okay on my own.
I was still on my type A rampage when I charged into Kayak Kauai, an adventure company. Upon learning that the guided hikes of Na Pali promised in The Ultimate Kaua'i Guidebook, my bible, were not actually offered, I started to berate the staff. But when the owner asked why I didn't try sea kayaking the entire 17-mile Na Pali coast the following Monday, I couldn't come up with an answer—or an excuse. He bragged about the trip, their first of the season, saying it was designed for the brave and daring. But I was leaving Hanalei. There was only one spot left, he told me. I had wanted adventure, and now it was staring me in the eye. I would have to change all my well-laid plans—my reservations in Waimea, my rental car on the Big Island—and that required a totally unfamiliar trait: flexibility.
The truth?I was scared. My only kayaking experience had been on Georgica Pond in the Hamptons—hardly life-threatening. But before I realized what I was doing, I'd rented a second plantation house (my own had been booked by a new set of guests), canceled the hotel in Waimea, and bought motion-sickness pills for a trip that had been billed by National Geographic Adventure as the number-two adventure in the world. (Rafting the Grand Canyon was number one.) This was more than an adventure; this was a personality challenge.
Even though rearranging plans is upsetting to any control freak, and especially so when the freak is traveling alone, I felt a sense of relief. I was getting used to marveling at the sunset over Hanalei Bay, early-morning shark-watching from the shore, counting rainbows after the daily showers, and walking the rocky coast without a destination. I moved into the cottage across the street. This one, which survived Iniki, had original hardwood floors and ceiling fans in every room. I lived on ahi poke (marinated chunks of raw tuna eaten with a miniature spear), spicy taro chips from Pono Market in Kapaa, and fresh mango and avocado. I stopped hiding my nose in the guidebook and began noticing how lush and green Kauai really was, with the approach to Hanalei like a descent onto a jungle planet from Lost in Space. Slowly, I was being seduced by Kauai.
THAT'S NOT ALL I WAS SEDUCED BY. Being alone, I felt a sense of freedom, not limitation. I loosened up and started talking to people. I met more men in two weeks on Kauai than during all of last year in New York City. And I grew braver. One day, I gathered the courage to hitchhike back to town after an especially long and rocky beach hike from Hanalei Bay deposited me at Haena State Park. (I finally had to ask a sweet couple if they would give me a ride. They drove me to my door.)
I started to forget I was on an adventure quest, and instead of trying to turn Kauai inside out, I began to live there. I threw out my Safeway card and shopped at the local Big Save. I wore Quiksilver Baggies, as if I were a real surfer. I went on a nature walk with a geologist who was so enthusiastic about the limestone content of the sand that I actually became interested in tectonic plates and reefs. Like all of the other hippies in town, I stopped combing my hair and wearing a watch. I found (in the Yellow Pages, of all places) a charming store called Bambulei that had the most authentic Hawaiiana on the island. The song in my head changed from Steppenwolf wailing "Born to Be Wild" to Peter, Paul and Mary's "Puff the Magic Dragon" (who, like me, lived in Hanalei).
Of course, the day of the Na Pali kayak trip I wasn't so calm. A 6 a.m. starting time included a practice session on the beach. Standing there with 10 crunchy-granola kayakers, I learned how to paddle in the air. The paddles looked like toothpicks. How would we conquer waves with a toothpick?I couldn't imagine 10 hours of paddling, embedded in the kayak by a rubber skirt. And although I had prayed for one of the guides to be my partner, I ended up with the less-than-encouraging Ivan.
Ivan was a shining example of the Kauai attitude that true adventurers lived without shelter on Kalalau, the Shangri-la beach on the Na Pali coast, and killed goats bare-handed to survive. To Ivan, New Yorkers were just tourists looking for a Disneyland experience. (Of course, 27-year-old Ivan had grown up in a wealthy suburb of Chicago, and had probably landed in Hanalei while his parents vacationed in the glitzy Princeville Resort nearby.)
The adrenaline surged inside me as our kayak was pushed offshore. But within seconds, a huge wave erupted, drenching me and sweeping away my camera, sunscreen, and the snacks that I had amateurishly fastened to the kayak. That swift move clearly placed me in the Disneyland category. Ivan, disgusted, wanted to drop me off at the quarter-mile mark. I resisted. We argued. Only 163/4 long miles to go.
It was worth putting up with Ivan, though. Within minutes, dolphins and flying fish were zooming past our kayaks. The entire 17-mile stretch of Na Pali is accessible only by boat, which makes it both pristine and raw. The clay-colored cliffs rise dramatically out of the water. From the Jurassic crags of the Waiahuakua sea cave to the deserted Milolii beach and the white sand of Polihale, experiencing Na Pali from the vantage point of a kayak is humanizing, exhilarating, and humbling.
I admit that I felt I belonged in Ivan's cult of Kalalau after the grueling excursion. I valued each drop of sweat and every ounce of fear. I had survived Na Pali, even if just for a day. Hanalei had seeped into my soul in a most intimate way, and I didn't want to leave.
Nonetheless, I reluctantly stuck to one portion of my original schedule and flew to the Mauna Kea resort on the Big Island for two nights. But I couldn't bear the stark, dry moonscape there. I made a heartfelt decision to return to Hanalei for my precious last 36 hours before heading back to the mainland. After all, I was practically a local. I had never before driven to an airport without a ticket in hand. For me, that kind of spontaneity signaled a sea change.
Dozens of flying fish, eight tiger sharks, six dolphins, four sea turtles, two gargantuan cockroaches, and one slimy centipede later, it was time to go home. I had found my adventure, external and internal, and my Thorn Birds fantasy was pretty much fully realized. Just as I had imagined, Kauai is an island whose emerald water and ruby cliffs pull more strongly and deeply than a low tide at full moon. Now, whenever I send my hundredth e-mail, suffer in stilettos, or force myself to go to the gym, I will think of Hanalei. I'll remember my plantation cottage and the liberation from my own intensity. And I'll begin to plan my next trip to Kauai, where I too will sleep without shelter on Kalalau. Just you wait, Ivan, I'll be back.