NAWILIWILI, Kauai – As the oldest of the Hawaiian Islands geologically, Kauai is the most highly eroded. The resulting landscapes of jagged peaks and ridges, canyons, and precipitous cliffs have a prehistoric feeling. Combined with thick, lush rainforest vegetation, the island appears to be the perfect setting for a movie about earth at a primitive stage, which probably explains why Stephen Spielberg filmed Jurassic Park on Kauai.
Spielberg also used Kauai as a background in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Hook. King Kong was made here as well. Hollywood apparently favors it as a useful stand-in for locations from Tahiti to Australia. Another of the island’s outstanding features, its exceptionally non-primitive resorts, was instrumental in making Blue Hawaii, starring Elvis Presley.
Kauai’s spectacular beaches and dramatic seascapes and landscapes attract celebrities such as Lisa Bonet and Alicia Keys, as well as tourists – Captain Cook holds the distinction of being the first. It recently enticed Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg — to great opposition from the locals — to attempt to build a personal 100 million-dollar estate here, unsuccessfully to the approval of the neighborhood.
Four-fifths of Kauai is isolated with roads only around its perimeter, except for the gap of cliffs and valleys of the Napali Coast (Na Pali means steep cliffs in Hawaiian) that is observable on an excursion from above by helicopter or plane, or from sightseeing boats and kayaks from the water.
Being thrifty and less adventurous, we opted to rent a car to have the flexibility to explore for a few hours on our own. For some odd reason, my request for an economy car for the day resulted instead in a beastly Ford SUV the size of a hearse. It was not what I expected, nor wanted, for climbing the winding, and windy, narrow road from sea level to 3,600 feet to view the vistas of Waimea Canyon, described as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific” by Mark Twain. As the drive is a bit arduous, it gave me an appreciation for tour bus drivers who must successfully maneuver large vehicles routinely around tight corners and over the swaying pavement of the two-lane highway.
Another of the attractions of Kauai is Smith’s Boat Tours that operates 14 flat-bottomed riverboats on two-mile cruises on Kauai’s meandering Wailua River — the only navigable river in Hawai’i. The source of the river is one of the wettest spots in the world, a crater on Mt. Wai’ale’ale.
The destination for the one-hour-and-twenty-minute round-trip cruises is the Fern Grotto, a lava cave in the midst of a tropical rainforest. Formed millions of years ago, the grotto is a geological wonder filled with tropical plants.
Along the way, cruisers on the Wailua can have a peek at Opaekaa Falls.
On my previous visit many years ago, I was able to drive along the North Coast, reputed to be one of the most scenic places in the world. Famous as “Bali Hai” in the film South Pacific, it features miles of beautiful white-sand beaches, lush rainforests, and mountain waterfalls. Unfortunately, it is not currently advised to go there as the road is under reconstruction and a tie-up could easily cause missing the boat back in Nawiliwili.
For visitors with more time to spend, Kauai’s most popular outdoor activities include zip-lining above the tropical forest canopy, hiking through the jungle, swimming in natural pools, river kayaking and tubing. Snorkeling at one of the island’s beautiful beaches or along the Napali Coast would also be a delightful opportunity for a glimpse of the incredible coral, fish, and sea turtles to be viewed offshore.
Dennis Cox is All Things Cruise Writer and Official Photographer (©Dennis Cox/WorldViews)