Wild Thing

Give in to temptation and go feral

Mar 1, 2005
Outside Magazine

One of Kauai's Fountains of Youthful Jubilation.    Photo: Comstock

SHORTLY AFTER LANDING IN KAUAI—the island air like a balm, the route north flanked by soft beaches, the impossibly green mountains poking through the mist—I can't help but notice all the chickens crossing the road. Cattle egrets, red-footed boobies, and a lot of surfer dudes, I expected. But chickens?

"They're everywhere, man," says the smoothie maker at Banana Joe's Fruit Stand, near Kilauea, as he hands over a to-die-for blend of locally grown papayas, bananas, and pineapples. "Chickens, goats, cows, pigs—they all went wild here."

What he didn't add was this: "Everything does." It's Kauai's mojo, it's the cosmic undertow, it's the bizarre unseen force here that somehow invades your synapses and returns you to a state of primordial bliss. Centuries ago, Polynesians introduced moa (chickens) to the Garden Island, as Kauai is called, and now the cluckers are everywhere, bold and cocky in the sheer delight of shedding their domesticity.

For me, the shedding takes about a day. By the time I wake up to aloha music in the sweet oceanfront condo at the Hanalei Colony Resort, in Haena—just up the road from Hanalei, the north shore's epicenter of surfing, biking, kayaking, coffeehouses, and barefoot locals—I've already lost it.

How else to explain the sudden urge to get in a helicopter, when in normal life I can barely sit on a swing without Dramamine?

"Loook at zee waterfalls!" croons Maurice, the Brazilian-born chopper pilot for Heli USA, after liftoff from the tiny Princeville airport, a few miles east of Hanalei. "Zo many, you can't count!" We buzz deep into the untouched interior—about 90 percent of Kauai is inaccessible by road—where clouds snag on volcanic cliffs and rivers spout spontaneously above the rainforest.

We ride the spine of Mount Waialeale, one of the soggiest places on the planet, which divides the island's arid west from its moist, lush north. We hover over the Alakai Swamp, a rainforest that's home to wild boar and some of the world's rarest plants. We swoop into 12-mile-long, 3,567-foot-deep Waimea Canyon (the "Grand Canyon of the Pacific"), and then head north to the sublime Na Pali Coast. Jungly 3,000-foot spires rise like buttresses on an earthly cathedral, and the 11-mile Kalalau Trail—famed for its Pacific views—hugs the cliffs above the pounding surf. Nothing could be mo' betta—until it is. A rainbow circles us: not just an arch but an entire, brilliant ring of color. Is this even possible?

On Kauai, the answer is yes—and then some. It's the oldest of Hawaii's main islands (dating back about six million years), so crashing waves have had time to create more than 50 miles of beaches—more sand per mile of coastline than on any island in the state. And with less than half as many visitors as Maui and none of the massive condo clots, traffic jams, and high-rises, a low-crowd shoreline is a fact of life.

I drive to Secret Beach, a lovely half-mile-long haven of white sand near the Kilauea Lighthouse, and Anini Beach, where the exposed reef draws summer snorkelers. I check out Hanalei Bay, a rapturous crescent of coastline framed by the cliffs of Mount Makana. I swim at Tunnels Beach and Kee Beach, and each new strand tempts me to explore another. There's no question that this is as good as Hawaii gets.

Even when it rains.

On a stormy north-shore day, I take the coast road to the sunny south, music blaring from the radio like the soundtrack to the greatest movie I've ever seen—which happens to be my life at the moment. In bustling, resort-filled Poipu, I snorkel with sea turtles at Hoai Beach, then it's onward to the 1920s-era Waimea Plantation Cottages, a banyan-treed beachfront oasis in the tiny outpost of Waimea. It's not easy to leave after a lomi lomi massage at the resort's spa, a mai tai at its brewpub (to the tunes of Ambrose, the seventy-something ukulele player), and an ono taco at the Shrimp Station, in town, but there's more exploring to be done.

A long, jolting drive down a rutted road brings me to Polihale Beach, 15 spectacular miles of sand on the far western edge of the Na Pali cliffs, with only ten other people in sight. When I park near the dunes, I hear what sounds like a goat bleating beyond the vast surrounding sugarcane fields, which can't be right—there's no farm in sight. And then I remember: It's wild.

Access & Resources
Hole Up: Hanalei Colony Resort's spacious condo living, on the North Shore, is the closest lodging to the Na Pali Coast. It's totally unplugged (no TV or phone) and right on the beach. Two-bedroom condos from $210; 808-826-6235, www.hcr.com » Whaler's Cove, in Poipu, offers oceanfront luxury with its glass, marble, and private-terrace condos. Hot tubs and full kitchens (complete with blenders) round out the swank. Doubles from $349; 800-225-2683, www.whalers-cove.com » The gorgeously restored 1920s-era Waimea Plantation Cottages sit amid banyan trees and coco palms on a black-sand beach on Kauai's remote western side. Hawaiian-style massages ($80 and up; 808-338-2240, www.hartfeltmassage.com) at the on-site spa are amazing. Doubles from $195; 800-992-4632, www.waimea-plantation.com

Dine: For a quick and delicious breakfast, try the Hanalei Wake-Up Cafe, the north-coast locals' hole-in-the-wall favorite. It closes at 11 a.m. so employees can go surfing. 808-826-5551 » Sit under the thatched veranda at Hanalei Bay Resort's Bali Hai restaurant, overlooking the water and Mount Makana. 808-826-6522, www.hanaleibayresort.com/about-hanalei/dining.html » When you're ready to splurge, the torchlit, tiki-chic Plantation Gardens, in the Kiahuna Plantation Resort, in Poipu, is famous for dishes made with locally grown produce. 808-742-2216, www.pgrestaurant.com

Get Out: Hike the steep and strenuous, sometimes muddy, and always gorgeous Kalalau Trail, on the Na Pali Coast. Camping permits are available from the Division of State Parks. 808-274-3444, www.hawaii.gov/dlnr/dsp/dsp.html » Rent a kayak or take a guided tour of Hanalei Bay with Kayak Kauai, in Hanalei. From $28; 800-437-3507, www.kayakkauai.com » Head out on horseback across 400-acre Silver Falls Ranch, in Kilauea, to a waterfall pool where you can take a dip and eat a picnic lunch. $100; 808-828-6718, www.silverfallsranch.com » On the south shore, swim and lounge at Mahaulepu Beach, three miles east of the Hyatt Regency in Poipu. The draw? Two miles of unspoiled dunes and golden sand.

Shop: Check out Aunty Lilikoi's award-winning passion-fruit sauces in Waimea. 866-545-4564, www.auntylilikoi.com