Kauai: Mother Nature paints in vibrant colors on Hawaii's northernmost island
On the North Shore of Hawaii’s northernmost island, the earth writhes like a topo-grapher’s fever dream — 3,000-foot cliffs, plunging waterfalls, tangled green valleys and sharp, serrated ridgelines. That’s the Na Pali Coast.
Just east of those cliffs, Kauai’s Kuhio Highway passes taro fields, a seaside village, a two-mile crescent of sand and a 300-foot pier that’s dwarfed by mountains, greenery and surging surf. This is Hanalei Bay, which Hollywood would have had to create if Mother Nature hadn’t.
You might know this neighborhood from “South Pacific” (1958). Or “The Descendants” (2011).
If Waikiki is the classic crowded Hawaiian beach, the North Shore of Kauai is the iconic coastal outpost.
But everything looks a bit different up close. So my travel companion and I arrived in February, eager to poke around when the crowds are small and the surf is big.
Our timing was not good. The waves were not just big but massive and sloppy, forcing cancellation of most water sports and boat tours. Winds gusting close to 40 mph grounded helicopter tours. Clouds filled the sky for days. Our first purchase, two bags of groceries in Kapaa, came with a bonus population of bugs.
Hanalei (population about 450) didn’t feel quite like paradise. But even then, it was easy to look at. On Kauai, Mother Nature paints with vibrant colors.
For me, the center of gravity was the Hanalei Pier, so I spent a lot of time there as fishermen angled for bonefish, local kids leaped into the surf near the “NO JUMPING” sign and feral roosters (endemic on the island) pecked at stray coconuts.
One day on the pier, I met Abe Rivera, 15, who was cradling a feral piglet that he’d caught in the mountains on a bow-hunting expedition with his dad. Another day, Erika Green of Waldorf, Md., turned up in her wedding gown, trailed by her new husband, Tim Green, and wedding planner Diana Gardner of Alohana Weddings.
“Most beautiful place on the island,” Gardner said as the Greens trod the pier like models on a runway. “And no one else on the beach!”
Well, almost no one. Jett Yarberry, a 38-year-old surfing instructor and lifelong North Shore boy, is there most days. “I grew up in that valley,” Yarberry told me, pointing west. “My parents came here as hippies in 1968 and evolved into normal people.”
These days, North Shore visitors are likely to stay in the hotels and condos of Princeville, play a lot of tennis and golf, and alternate water sports with hiking, shopping and dining in tiny downtown Hanalei.
On the north side of Kuhio Highway, the main drag, you find Ching Young Village, once the site of a lone general store, now an ’80s mini-mall that includes a grocery store, tattoo parlor, restaurants and ample kitsch. On the south side stands Hanalei Center, a snazzier collection of restaurants and shops in a set of buildings that 80 years ago held the town elementary school. On both sides of the highway and at the beach, you’ll see stickers, posters and other reminders of two homegrown heroes.
One is Andy Irons, who won three world surfing championships in the 2000s but died in 2010 at 32 when his heart failed after “mixed drug ingestion.”
The other is surfer Bethany Hamilton, who was 13 in 2003 when a tiger shark at Tunnels Beach tore off her left arm. Hamilton recovered, returned to surfing and inspired the movie “Soul Surfer” (2011).
I understand the locals who lament that tourists and the rich have taken over the North Shore. But I don’t think those people are fully in charge yet. If they were, the restaurant service would be faster. Parking on the sand would be banned at Black Pot Beach. The one-lane bridges on the highway would be widened. And that would be a shame.
It’s the weather that’s really in charge here: the big waves, the heavy rains on the erosion-carved mountains, the hurricanes and tsunamis that arrive now and then to ravage the coast.
In fact, it was an iffy decision, toward the end of our visit, to ignore the low-hanging, rain-heavy clouds, wrestle a rented kayak into the water at the river’s mouth and paddle toward the taro fields of the Hanalei Valley.
But it paid off. I got just far enough that the sound of traffic faded and the foliage thickened along the shore. I heard birds squawking and water murmuring. And I saw Kauai’s green mountains, right side up and upside down, reflected on the smooth surfaces of the river.
Bad timing? Says who?