Hawaii’s Wild Side

Yes, you really can frolic in a land called Hanalei. You can also hike amid passion vines and waterfalls, learn to snorkel, and fly (by zip line) through the jungle. Welcome to Kauai, the island developers have yet to tame.

We are seated in the back of a four-wheel-drive van, bouncing across a hypergreen cow pasture, our palms pressed against the roof to keep from flying, when Spot jams on the brakes. Spot is a burly, moonfaced twentysomething from Seattle who fiercely loves Kauai, his adopted island. He works as a guide for an outfitter in Poipu, taking small groups into the forest to leap off waterfalls and soar across rivers on zip lines—the two implausible adventures our son, Isaac, has persuaded us we need to attempt on this particular afternoon. Spot, who talks fast and smiles easily, has been regaling Isaac and the other kids with dumb-tourist jokes when he abruptly turns serious on them: “I want you to look around. Take a mental snapshot of what you see. Because when you’re grown up and you come back to Kauai, all this”—with a sweep of his meaty arm he takes in the broad expanse of grasses and wildflowers racing to meet the cloud-wreathed hills—”will be wall-to-wall condos and golf courses.” An ambitious new development has recently been approved, he explains.

Kauai might not be Kauai for long, Spot is saying, a message probably lost on the kids, though certainly not on their parents. Kauai bills itself as the “Garden Island,” which sounds like empty brochurespeak but turns out to be absolutely and spectacularly true. For sheer intensity of floral life—picture passion vines scrambling over ficus trees, soft beds of nasturtium lining hiking trails, bougainvillea splashing the walls of houses like flung paint—you would have to be inside a flower shop to even come close.

What you hear over and over on Kauai is that this is what the rest of Hawaii looked like 30 or 40 years ago—before the high-rises, before the spring-break hordes, before the shopping malls, fast-food outlets, and Disneyfied luaus. Oh, sure, there is some of that stuff here (this is America, after all), but Kauai is so lightly developed, its landscape still so untouched, that you can’t help feeling blessed for having arrived (for once!) at a place so…before.

Of course this does assume the worst, that the fall from Eden is inevitable, and it’s entirely possible that Spot and I are being unduly pessimistic about the island’s destiny. The state of Hawaii has set aside more than half of Kauai as parkland, and much of the island is probably too rugged and inaccessible to develop. The main road that attempts to circumnavigate the island is forced to give up for approximately 12 miles of utterly impassable coastline. Most of the interior is a roadless, trackless wilderness that can receive as much as 450 inches of rain a year, making it one of the wettest spots on earth. Time-share, anyone?

Friends who know their Hawaiian islands sold us on the place. My wife, Judith, is a landscape painter, and I write about plants, so Hawaii’s westernmost outpost, they said, was perfect for us. The only kink in our plan: 11-year-old Isaac, whose idea of the perfect vacation is a swank resort with pools, palm trees, and gangs of kids armed with Game Boys. “Resort lock,” Judith calls it. Our Kauai challenge was to get our son off the property. Hence the importance of a guy like Spot.

SPLASH RIGHT IN

We begin our spring-break week in the less touristy north, at the extremely low-key but lovely Hanalei Bay Resort. We arrive from California late at night and wake up to a view I won’t soon forget: a horseshoe of pale blue water backed by three mountain ranges ascending in great steps, each offering its own stunning interpretation of the color green. Though the peaks are banked in scary black clouds, an entirely different, much more benign morning—a morning drenched in sunlight—is unfolding down on the bay. The farthest mountain has what appears to be a jagged white tear in its dark fabric: it takes us a while to realize we’re looking at a waterfall that’s nearly as tall as the Chrysler Building.

Considering its size (at 550 square miles, Kauai is smaller than Maui and only slightly bigger than Oahu), the island offers an unrivaled diversity of terrain and climate. The north is comparatively challenging in both respects, which is why the brand-name hotel chains chose to build down in the drier, flatter south, around Poipu. (The exception is the Princeville Resort, a bombastic bit of Florida glass-and-marble plopped down on the eastern lip of Hanalei Bay next to our hotel.) Just west of Hanalei, the Napali Coast begins, and this part of the island has traditionally attracted end-of-the-road types: surfers, backpackers, and hippies. Hanalei, you’ll recall, is where Puff the Magic Dragon lived, and my impression is that a fair amount of puffing goes on there still.

Inhabited Kauai hugs the sunny shore, arrayed along that main road that circles the island like a necklace—but an unclasped one. We start our vacation at one opened clasp (Hanalei) and will end it at the other (Waimea), 12 miles apart as the crow flies; as the rental car drives, however, it takes a good three hours. You have to trace the entire, mostly two-lane road.

Hiking the Napali Coast is high on our list of things to do. The deal with Isaac is that we’ll hang by the resort in the afternoon following a morning “adventure,” a word I figured would sound slightly more appealing than hike. I had no idea how accurate I was being.

After a hotel breakfast of deliciously starchy taro pancakes with guava syrup, we head out, stopping at the small grocery in Hanalei for sunblock, bug spray, and chocolate bars. (In my experience, deft sugar management can add hours to a hike with children.) The town itself is a funky couple of blocks of green frame buildings with red metal roofs housing “shave ice” and smoothie stands, open-air lunch spots, and surf shops—definitely a tourist town, but tourism from a more commercially innocent era.

As we drive west of Hanalei, the houses thin and the road narrows, brushing by little coves and going over creaky wooden one-lane bridges. Just before the end of the road, on the left, is a pair of yawning caves, one dry, the other wet, and both worth exploring. Shortly afterward, the road peters out at the parking lot for Kee Beach, one of the island’s prettiest, if not its safest. Our goal is to hike two miles along the Kalalau Trail to a secluded beach, which sounds a lot easier than it actually turns out to be.

The narrow, rocky trail rises and falls almost 800 vertical feet as it clings to steep curtains of green that plunge into the sea, and is deeply creased into canyons scooped out by swollen streams. This is hiking that requires hands for grabbing overhanging vines, butts for sliding on, and a willingness to get unbelievably dirty. All of which makes the Napali Coast ideal for kids, whose low center of gravity and all-around positive attitude toward mud give them a decided advantage.

As soon as Isaac realizes he can handle the tumultuous terrain better than his parents, he is off leading the way, splashing forthrightly into puddles we daintily try to skirt. “Surrender to the mud” is his advice, and we soon realize how sage it is, since attempting to step along the slippery edges of these quagmires all but guarantees we’ll slide in. The trail is full of children speeding out in front of their parents; you catch up at the next stream or waterfall, where the kids pause to cool off and shed a few pounds of accumulated muck.

This might not sound like your idea of fun (or, for that matter, responsible parenting). And I haven’t even mentioned that it rains on and off the whole way, or that we have to ford a rushing river two feet deep before finally reaching the beach, or that we permanently retire our sneakers at the end of the day. But Isaac will tell you that this is the best hike he’s ever taken: “It has everything I love: mud, rain, rain forest, and ocean.” My own favorite parts are the lightning changes rung by the scenery as it turns on a dime from shadowy jungle to commanding prospect, from blinding floods of sunlight to, well, floods.

When we get back to the resort, Isaac surprises us by announcing that he wants to go snorkeling, something he’s never tried. This is a kid who ordinarily only likes to do things he has already done before, so I’m not about to discourage his newfound adventurism. We’ve heard that Puu Poa, the resort’s beach, is protected by a reef that offers some of the best and safest snorkeling on the island. (Many beaches here have dangerous currents.)

We’ve heard right: the water is crystalline, the coral is painless to touch, and the shifting schools of fish arrive in colored waves like turns on a kaleidoscope. Through Isaac’s mask I can see his face, and it is beaming. After finally dragging himself out of the water, shivering and happy, he has one question: “So what’s on tap for tomorrow?”

EXPEDITIONS “R” US

And that’s the kind of week we have, a series of near daily “adventures,” most of them involving water. Isaac haunts the rack of brochures in the hotel lobby, and we spend a small fortune on outfitters and guides. We almost never do this sort of thing (just hearing the phrase adventure travel makes me want to reach for an umbrella drink), but I’ve come to see kayaks, zip lines, and even helicopters not as gimmicks but as kid-friendly methods of plunging more and more deeply into Kauai’s astounding landscape.

Our third morning we kayak along the Wailua River, which spills into the Pacific about halfway up the island’s eastern coast. After dodging river traffic for the first mile or so, our guide leads our group of maybe 12 up a tranquil tributary. With its banyans, ficus trees, and deep carpets of fern, the scene feels weirdly primordial: you half expect to glimpse a brachiosaur lifting its head above the forest canopy. (Perhaps that’s why Steven Spielberg filmed much of Jurassic Park here.)

After an hour of paddling, we beach the kayaks, cross the swollen river by clinging to a rope stretched across it, and trek through a mile of astonishingly lush—and astonishingly muddy—jungle on the way to our lunchtime destination, a towering waterfall where the kids shower off in what looks like a five-story curtain of light.

On a sunbaked boulder beneath the thundering falls, I think about Kauai’s great theme: water. Basically the island is an elegant contraption for extracting water from the trade winds and recycling it back into the Pacific—but not before using it to grow flowers, carve canyons, build waterfalls, and generally beautify itself. Kauai was the first in the series of volcanoes that once upon a time sprang up from a vent in the Pacific floor to create the Hawaiian archipelago. Think of that episode of island-building as a terrestrial challenge to the watery status quo; the water has been working ever since to erase these upstart islands, and is further along in that project on firstborn Kauai than on any of its siblings. The moist trade winds bump up against Kauai’s highest mountain peaks, which causes the clouds to drop 37 feet of rain every year, and as all that water works its inexorable way back to the ocean, coursing down the island’s rivers and streams and bounding over its falls, it is slowly but surely bringing the island with it. It might take another million years to wash Kauai away completely, but that’s the plan. (And I was worried about overdevelopment!) Once we realize that we (like the island) have no choice but to yield to the water, Kauai’s occasionally torrential rains, which never last very long, stop feeling like an affront to our vacation.

DRYING OFF

Yet in the south, where we spend the latter part of our stay, you can pretty much escape the downfalls. Here, in the rain shadow of the interior mountains, the terrain is not nearly so spectacular. But the Hyatt Regency Kauai in Poipu does its best to compensate by simulating a tropical landscape with a riverine pool that meanders among ferns and flowering ginger on its way to an elaborate two-story waterslide, which Isaac pronounces “hellatight”—at the moment the highest praise a kid from California can bestow. In addition to the resort’s two lovely pools (one is restricted to adults), the Hyatt also has a five-acre saltwater lagoon with a white-sand beach and palm-studded islands.

Because the Hyatt Kauai is such a handsome and well-managed resort, with decent food and plenty of activities for both kids and adults (lei-making workshops, luaus, water sports), the place is a breeding ground for resort lock. Isaac quickly joins a pack of kids and is more than happy to stay put. So while he plays volleyball in the pool and charges soft-serve cones at the snack bar, I take off for a 2 1/2-hour tour of Poipu’s wonderful Allerton Garden. We do manage to tear Isaac away for a two-mile hike to Waipoo Falls along the precipitous lip of Waimea Canyon, through a stark red-desert landscape that could not have contrasted more sharply with Napali’s lushness (the relatively arid western side of Kauai looks uncannily like the American West, with plunging canyons, pastel geology, and sublime prospects). But we almost surely would be pinned down at the Hyatt for the rest of our vacation had we not already made a reservation to go on that zip-line safari, an expedition Isaac has been looking forward to all week.

My own expectations are not high (a zip-line safari?!), but our afternoon with Spot proves to be one of the most exhilarating of our trip. After a 10-minute hike in from the trailhead where Spot parks the van, we find ourselves at the bottom of Kipu Falls. Someone has rigged up an aluminum ladder on one side of the falls; the ladder meets a rope swing hung from a huge banyan limb high above. Spot nudges the adults in the group to “get outside your box” and make the leap, but most of us demur, preferring an unadventurous swim in the deep, cool pool below. Isaac, however, needs no prodding; he scampers up the ladder and, after a moment’s hesitation, throws himself off the rock cliff. “The first time was hella scary,” he confides later. “When you’re falling your stomach rises in your torso and you go, ‘Oh, my God, why did I do this?’ You feel like you’re going to fall forever. Then you’re underwater and you say, ‘Hey, I’m not dead!’ That’s when it starts to feel good. And then you say, ‘I’m going to do it again!’” Which he does, again and again and again.

After an hour or so, Spot leads us downriver to the zip line, 100 yards of steel cable strung between a tremendous banyan and mango tree on either shore. Around the ancient tree on our side of the river Spot’s company has erected an elaborate four-story structure of wooden platforms, linked by steps: the ultimate in tree-house architecture.

We don rock-climbing harnesses and helmets and mount to the highest platform, where Spot tests our gear. When my turn comes, he clips my harness to the zip line and asks if I want to go facing forward or backward. (Backward?!) All that is left to do now is jump. Out of a 50-foot-high tree. Spot convinces me that the rig is safe (it’s been designed, built, and certified by something called the Association of Challenge Course Technology, which for some reason I find reassuring), but I guess I still have my box to climb out of.

Spot whispers exactly the right word of encouragement, and I duly proceed to jump, face-first. After a few nanoseconds of heart-stopping free fall, I feel the line suddenly seize up and throw me forward in a headlong Tarzan swoop across the river to a platform on the far shore. I can’t quite believe this is me, flying like a big awkward bird, screaming like a complete idiot—but an ecstatic idiot. Hokey it may be, but zip-lining turns out to offer quite a rush—and not a bad way to be in these wonderful woods.

As we head back to the van, Isaac and Judith and I recapping the afternoon, I realize that Isaac is as proud of us for trying the zip line as we were of him for his intrepid Napali hike earlier in the week. “This has been one of my most perfect days ever,” Isaac declares. And that is perhaps Kauai’s greatest gift: the island’s excellent adventures have aligned an 11-year-old’s idea of the perfect day with our own.