Islands magazine sent me to the Garden Isle of Kauai to write a feature for its Dream Trips issue which marked the magazine’s 25th anniversary. I was honored to have my essay appear among stories written by Pico Iyer, Don George, Patricia Schultz and Jeff Greenwald, but most of all appreciated the opportunity to write about my favorite island in the world. To read the story, see the text below or better yet click here.
KAUAI: FINDING MANA
By Michael Shapiro
Towering above the north shore of Kauai, just west of Hanalei, is the soaring spire of “Bali Hai,” known to Hawaiians as Mount Makana. Made famous in the 1958 movie South Pacific, the verdant pinnacle of Makana juts skyward above 700-year-old taro terraces. Centuries ago, Makana was one of only two places where ‘oahi – fire-throwing ceremonies – were held on special occasions, such as the arrival of a visiting chief or a hula school graduation. Young men climbed the treacherous 1600-foot peak carrying light, tapered logs from papala or hau trees. After dark they set the shafts on fire and hurled them into the night. Caught by updrafts, the javelins seared tracers into the darkness, often traveling a mile or more before sizzling into the sea.
The ‘oahi ceremony is history, but it was this image that burned itself into my memory after my first visit to Kauai and pulled me back to the island last spring. At Mount Makana, I could sense, almost like a type of gravity, what Kauaians call mana, a spiritual power.
Naturally I yearned to return to Kauai’s uncrowded golden beaches, to swim in its warm clear waters, and to snorkel with rainbow-striped fish and tranquil sea turtles. But first things first: coming back to Kauai’s north shore, I went straight to the slopes below Mount Makana. Gentle, floral-scented breezes perfumed the air as my wife and I walked among the native plants and Polynesian imports at Limahuli, the botanical garden below Makana. Carpeted with lush green shrubs, Makana reached heavenward and I found myself drawn closer to its base. Standing still I could almost feel a low vibration, a sense I’d finally returned to a sacred place that had been calling me back for years. I silently thanked the ancestral guardians of Makana and moved on.
On the other side of Mount Makana is the dramatic Na Pali coast: Picture a 4,000-foot-high green accordion, tilt it at a 45-degree angle, and squeeze it tight to get an idea of the shape of Na Pali’s steep, sharp cliffs that plunge into the Pacific. Our senses came alive as my wife and I hiked along Na Pali’s narrow Kalalau Trail: vivid doesn’t begin to describe the shades of green covering much of its iron-red slopes. Contrasted with the turquoise and royal blues of the ocean, Na Pali provides a feast for the eyes. Our ears were enraptured by the rhythmic concert of waves pounding against the cliffs. Our skin tingled, caressed by soft, salt-tinged gusts, while the scent of plumerias and a bouquet of red, orange and yellow flowers turned the trail into a natural aroma-therapy treatment.
Climbing and then descending along a muddy ribbon of trail, we reached the seaweed-covered rocks of Hanakapi’ai Beach. At the blissfully uncrowded beach, we took a few deep breaths of the bracing sea air and turned inland. Clambering over rain-slicked boulders for a couple of miles, we came to the fern-shrouded 300-foot shower of Hanakapi’ai Falls, immersing our mud-spattered legs into its chilly pool. After the grueling hike, this instant refreshment felt deeply cleansing. We were ready for the return trip.
Retracing the four miles trail, we made our way back to one of the most magnificent trailheads in the world: Ke’e Beach, which offers the drop-dead view of the Na Pali coast and easy swimming and snorkeling. At this northern tip of the Na Pali coast, a reef subdues the breakers and provides food and habitat for all sorts of colorful fish. After longing to return to this mystical outpost for four years, I simply waded waist-deep into the warm, buoyant sea and planted my snorkel into the water. Surrounding me were foot-long fish with neon blue and yellow stripes and boxy fish with dorsal polka dots.
A four-foot-long green sea turtle swam a couple of feet in front of my mask, gracefully paddling above the reef. This encounter felt like a gift – I’d never have gotten so close to a turtle but this one approached me, took a quick look at me and seemed to nod, I imagined as a blessing, and nonchalantly swam on. As in the Galapagos Islands, animals in Kauai, ranging from red-headed cardinals to the Humuhumunukunuku apua’a (the official state fish), are comfortable among people and don’t seem to mind close encounters.
But when an endangered monk seal hauled itself onto the beach, officials set up barrier tape around it to keep onlookers at a safe distance. Just when we thought it couldn’t get any better, a pod of humpback whales appeared in the distance, slapping tails and fins on the ocean’s surface. Suddenly one of these huge animals heaved itself out of the water and then another whale soared into the air – then they both slapped sideways against the sea.
My wife and I found that every day in Kauai made us swoon: one day it was a rainbow plunging into the pellucid sea, the next day a sunset that turned the sky into a smoldering fire. Another day we gaped at Waimea Canyon, often called the Grand Canyon of Hawaii, a dark red cleft in the earth carved over millions of years by the Waimea River. Ten miles long, a mile wide and 3600 feet deep, the sculpted canyon is laced with waterfalls that project rainbows when illuminated by the setting sun.
Kauaians have managed to live on their tiny circle of land without dominating it. By law, no building can be higher than the tallest palm tree (about 40 feet). But it’s not laws that keep Kauaians from despoiling their island – it’s reverence for the beauty of their island. The locals’ appreciation for the land and its bounty is part of Kauaians’ daily lives: on a Saturday in Hanalei we visited the farmers market, where spikes of red-ginger flowers glowed like torches and spiky red rambutan (the fruit is similar to lychee) went for $5 a bag.
We passed one rainy afternoon (the north shore can be rainy; sun worshipers may want to stay down south around Poipu Beach) at a slack-key guitar concert. Twice a week at the Hanalei community center, Doug and Sandy McMaster play the authentic acoustic music of the islands (he on guitar, she on ukulele) and discuss slack-key’s roots. The mellifluous slack-key sounds seemed to bring out mynah birds who chirped along with the songs. Perfected suited to the languid pace of the island, slack-key developed after a few Mexican cowboys shared their guitars with Hawaiians in the 19th century. The music transported us to a simpler time on the island, when families gathered around suckling pigs and entertained one another with their own music and stories.
Not surprisingly, slack key tunings come from relaxing the guitar’s strings. Before leaving the Big Island of Hawaii, the Mexican vaqueros gave their guitars to Hawaiian paniolos (cowboys). The Hawaiians loosened the strings by turning the guitar’s keys and made them slack. “They created tunings that sounded good without chords,” Sandy said, adapting the guitars to Hawaiian vocal stylings and improvising to make the guitars their own.
Our too few days on the North Shore flew by. Paul Reiser writes that even when a dog is on a walk, you can shout “walk” and the dog will get excited. That’s how I feel about Kauai: mention the idea of a trip there and my heart jumps – even if I’m on the island. As our departure approached there seemed only one sensible course of action. I called the airline, extended our trip, and savored the prospect of two more days on Kauai.
For our final Kauai sunset, we returned to Ke’e Beach with a bottle of Korbel Brut. We weren’t the only ones with Champagne: down the beach a couple was getting married as the sky turned shades of burgundy, mauve and pink. In the distance, Mount Makana loomed over us. As the sky darkened, a streak of light shot across the foreboding sky. Logic would say it was a bolt of lightning, but in this magical place, where anything seemed possible, I imagined an ancient warrior atop Makana, hurling fiery javelins into the night.
Where to Stay
The Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort & Spa on sheltered Keoneloa Bay on the east side of Poipu has superb restaurants, bars, and an inviting spa and pool. $275 and up, 808-742-1234, https://www.hyatt.com/en-US/hotel/hawaii/grand-hyatt-kauai-resort-and-spa/kauai
The Hanalei Colony Resort, five miles west of Hanalei and on the ocean, rents two-bedroom condos with kitchenettes, $210-$375. 800-628-3004 or www.hcr.com. Also on the north shore is the upscale Princeville Resort with golf course and spa, from $465 a night, www.princeville.com.
The Sheraton Kauai Resort is on Poipu Beach. Lu’au are held beachside on Monday and Friday evenings. The $25-per-night resort fee includes breakfast for two, free Net access in the library, and mai-tais at cocktail hour. From $355. 866-716-8109 or www.sheraton-kauai.com.
The Waimea Plantation Cottages, one to five bedrooms, $140 to $730. Call 800-9-WAIMEA or visit waimea-plantation.com.
Naniwa at the Sheraton in Poipu Beach offers fresh sushi – the poke appetizer is outstanding, from $25 per person. Tuesday to Saturday from 6pm, 808-742-1661.
Waimea Brewing Company features upscale pub grub from $12 a plate, on the grounds of the Waimea Plantation Cottages. 808-338-9733.
Postcards Cafe in Hanalei features fresh local fish (the wasabi-crusted ahi is to die for) and organic veggies in an old plantation house, 808 826-1191.
Hamura Saimin in Lihue has the best noodle soup on the island. Counter seating encourages diners to meet the neighbors, but observe the sign: “Please do not stick gum under the counter.” 2956 Kress St. Open for lunch and dinner until 10pm, till midnight on Friday and Saturday nights, 808-245-3271.