As we’re flying high above the kukui nut tree canopies of Kauai, my helicopter headset fizzles and an instrumental song streams into focus. I can’t quite place the score until a waterfall sweeps into view beneath me and connects the dots: the Jurassic Park soundtrack. Pilot Geoffrey Smith, who is flying our Blue Hawaiian helicopter, confirms that Manawaiopuna Falls below us was featured in the 1993 blockbuster. “It’s situated on 51,000 acres of private property held by fifth generation owners, the Robinson family,” Smith explains. They purchased the land in 1864, along with the island of Niihau, as farmland to grow sugar cane. “You’ll never guess what they paid for it.” Smith pauses dramatically. “Ten thousand dollars.”
These days, real estate on the island costs a pretty penny, and it’s obvious why: rarely is the word Kauai spoken and enthusiasm doesn’t ensue. It is Hawaii’s oldest isle and wears its “garden island” nickname with verdant aplomb; its storybook foliage is dependent upon seven microclimates. That patchwork of weather patterns allows for a huge amount of variation over its 1,400 square kilometres. In the dependably dry south, for instance, holidaymakers flock, while the north is lush and damp due to trade winds drawing moisture-rich rain clouds overhead.
Despite the requisite chain restaurants and strip malls in major centres like Lihue, conservation laws and private landowners have allowed the wilds of Kauai to age gracefully, its stony wrinkles etched beautifully across its landscape. The greatest of those, Waimea Canyon at 1,000 metres deep, is known as “the Grand Canyon of the Pacific.” Then there are the breathtaking cliffs of the Nā Pali Coast, which anchor the northwest and make circumnavigating the island by car impossible.
My helicopter’s route flies clear over Waimea Canyon before skirting the deep-blue hourglass of the north shore’s Hanalei Bay and beelining along those Nā Pali cliffs, which rise from the ocean like a forest of open-air stalagmites. With Smith at the controls, we dip inland to explore the hollowed-out core of an ancient volcano. I’m dwarfed by the Earth’s crust rising around like a prehistoric cauldron, a reminder of its fiery past.
Kauai’s stony wrinkles are etched beautifully across its landscape, and the greatest of all, Waimea Canyon, cuts 1,000 metres deep.
With some 70 per cent of the island inaccessible by foot, it’s well worth taking a half-day catamaran ride—you can set sail with friendly local institution Capt. Andy’s—or booking a scenic flight to really get a sense of the island’s 27-kilometre coastline. After that, wheels become a necessity.
I trade helicopter rotors for a Mustang at Lihue Airport, where wild roosters strut across a parking lot teeming with muscle cars and lustrous convertibles. I’m headed to the resort area of Poipu, a half hour away in the sun-drenched south by way of a distinctive turnoff from the highway: a snaking tunnel of eucalyptus trees that form a canopy overtop Maluhia Road. The passage leads me to fields flecked with white horses, some of the island’s best beaches, and the Lodge at Kukui’ula.
The first luxury property of its kind on the island and open since 2015, the Lodge at Kukui’ula (pronounced koo-koo-ee-oo-la) is a collection of homes owned by member families and managed by the Parrish Collection Kauai, through which vacation rentals also take place. (The golf-centric Club at Kukui’ula, the property’s cornerstone, opened in 2010.) The plush rentals are furnished and decorated with blooming orchids, stocked bookshelves, and artfully-designed outdoor showers. Pampering is paramount here and the ultimate venue for relaxation is the Spa at Kukui’ula, where every guest is offered a custom seven-step wet ritual.
It’s a necessary luxury. After sliding toes into slippers, I’m handed a glass of water with herb-spiked ice cubes then led outside into a glass-cube steam room set down in a tropical paradise; spears of sunlight pierce the haze. The treatment ends with a series of full-body dips in cold and hot plunge pools—a welcome wake-up call.
Later, atop a rolling hill at the Lodge at Kukui’ula, I visit the Upcountry Farm, which fuels the resort kitchens with over 70 types of fruits and vegetables. It also acts as a personal garden for guests, who can stroll through and pluck ripe papayas or eat leaves of microlettuce. “Organic is just the way of life on the island,” says Veronica Lovesy, the senior marketing manager, on a walk among the greenery.
The Upcountry Farm acts as a personal garden for guests, who can stroll through and pluck ripe papayas or eat leaves of microlettuce.
More organic vibes can be found just down the street at the Shops at Kukui’ula, one of the open-air “malls” that Hawaii does so well. It plays host to a weekly Kauai Culinary Market of more than 35 local farmers and gourmet purveyors whose stands overflow with macadamia nuts, avocados the size of melons, and lychee-like longan fruit. An island-style band plays ukuleles and people stop to chat; a feeling of aloha (welcoming) energy infuses the scene. While having dinner at Roy Yamaguchi’s Eating House 1849 on the second floor of the Shops at Kukui’ula, I overhear a server gush about his home: “I moved here from the mainland decades ago. But if you tap into Kauai’s energy, you stay.” (Book a window seat at Yamaguchi’s establishment to catch the crimson sunset while feasting on their famous rice bowls.)
The Poipu area has no dearth of fine dining that celebrates the island’s culinary heritage. At the Grand Hyatt Kauai’s Tidepools restaurant, exceptional Hawaiian fare is served in an overwater bungalow-style dining room where the sounds of distant luaus accompany colourful plates of purple yam and grilled mahi mahi with pink sea salt–dusted truffle butter.
As the days slip past as they often do in hot paradises, I find myself craving a connection to the inner sanctums of Kauai, not just the beach. Kauai ATV provides Mad Max–like drives through the hinterland, promising dirt, mud, and landscapes aplenty. After I sign my life away at their headquarters in Koloa and don a helmet and kerchief to protect my face from dust, we’re barrelling single file down a dirt road on a four-hour expedition. “Throw those headlights on,” cautions a guide as we approach an 800-metre-long tunnel through a mountain. (Claustrophobics, beware.)
After emerging from darkness, our troupe of ATVs gathers by a misty valley filled with tall leaves of lime-green grass. We’ve driven a path with reportedly the highest rainfall difference within a two-mile radius anywhere on the planet, and fertile terrain to match.
The fluorescent green recalls Vietnam’s vivid rice fields. Indeed, filmmakers have cast this very location as that country, along with the Australian outback, Costa Rica, the South Pacific, and, yes, Jurassic Park. As filmmaking lore goes, the red dust hovering in Kauai’s air makes the island appear more vibrant when seen through the lens of a camera.
The only way to find out is to visit.
Lodge at Kukui’ula, 2700 Ke Alaula St B, Koloa, HI 96756, USA.
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