The greenest and oldest island in the Hawaiian archipelago, lush and timeless Kauai is essentially a single massive volcano that rises 3 miles from the earth’s floor, and has provided a scene-stealing vision of Paradise for many a Hollywood movie and TV show, including Jurassic Park, Blue Hawaii, King Kong, and Fantasy Island. With just 5 percent of the state’s population, Kauai’s people are known as the friendliest in the fiftieth state, and tend to live a rural and unrushed old-time Hawaiian lifestyle, in which natural beauty and not overly plush Maui-style resort life is the focus.
About 30 miles at its widest (you can drive around it in two hours), the relatively small island is two-thirds impenetrable, but what a wallop that final third delivers. The island’s beauty peaks at the north shore, possibly the most beautiful spot in all Hawaii. Its Na Pali (“The Cliffs”) Coast is said to be some of the fastest eroding land on earth, with deep folds and sawtooth 3,000-foot-high seacliffs un-breached by roads, though hiking trails lead down to the coast’s exquisite beaches and secluded sea caves. Helicopter tours are available, but the best way to experience the stunning 15-mile stretch of thickly jungled shore at the foot of these craggy palisades is by inflatable boat, kayak, or (for experienced hikers) via the strenuous Kalalau Trail.
Princeville Resort is one of the state’s largest and most challenging golf destinations, offering two different Robert Trent Jones Jr.-designed courses: the Makai Course, with its three 9-hole loops, and the 18-hole Prince Course, named Hawaii’s number-one course by Golf Digest. It comprises a series of tiers leading down a seaside bluff, and is every bit as beautiful as the forested cliffs and Hanalei Bay it overlooks.
Kauai lays claim to Hawaii’s most dazzling beaches, among which Hanalei’s 2-mile strip—Kauai’s surfing central—is the finest and the most famous. This is where Mitzi Gaynor washed Rossano Brazzi right out of her hair in the 1957 classic South Pacific, and also the fairy-tale home where Puff the Magic Dragon frolicked in the autumn mists. Poipu Beach, at the center of the island’s southern coast, is another of the island’s legendary beauty spots, famous for its diving opportunities and for glam resorts such as the 50-acre Hyatt Regency Kauai Resort and Spa, with its lavishly landscaped and environmentally sensitive grounds, open-air spa, and Robert Trent Jones Jr.-designed championship golf course. Nearby Kapaa, whose population of 5,000 makes it the largest town on the island, offers another winning beach on the island’s Royal Coconut Coast.
Waimea, known chiefly as the place where British captain James Cook first dropped anchor in Hawaii in 1778, is another strol-lable town. Located at the mouth of the 14-mile-long Waimea Canyon, it was dubbed the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific” by Mark Twain. Belvederes look out over the 2-mile wide, 3,000-foot-deep gorge, painted in rich ocher, russet, and amber. The only accommodations to speak of on the west coast are Waimea Plantation Cottages, a collection of fifty workers’ homes from the early 1900s that have been restored and relocated here within a lovely beachside coconut grove. Enveloped in an old-time plantation atmosphere (sugarcane remains one of the island’s major agricultural products), they still feel like homes.
Mount Waialeale stands at the center of the nearly round island, its 5,148-foot summit said to be one of the wettest spots on earth with an average annual rainfall of 444 inches, leaving it perpetually hidden by clouds. The rest of the island receives far less precipitation (with parts getting only 35 inches per year), though on average it gets more than the rest of Hawaii. As a result, the island is known in Hawaiian lore as the birthplace of the rainbow. It’s so extravagantly covered with flowers and dense hothouse vegetation that it seems like one large botanical garden, earning it the nickname of the “Garden Isle.”