I almost lost my husband in Kauai. I already lost a friend there. No, I don’t mean lost as in—you know—falling off the side of a cliff or something. I mean lost as in disappear from the picture, start over, abandon your old life for a totally new one.
When you go to a place as near to paradise as you’re likely to find, such tempting thoughts steal in, like a mist that separates you from your senses. Not sure what I mean? Go to Kauai, the oldest of the eight Hawaiian islands, and you’ll find out. Its ancient soul renders a powerful magic that seeps in without your knowing.
I noticed it my first morning in Kauai. I woke up for an early morning run. We were staying on the east coast of the island in Kapaa, a sweet little town that’s a mix of resorts, hotels, and cute neighborhoods of tidy bungalows. When I stepped outside of our resort, a fine sprinkle greeted me and I looked up to see a rainbow over the distant mountains to the west. Overhead the sky was a patchwork of clouds—white and grey—and brilliant blue sky.
As I headed north, the sun was barely above the horizon’s edge, yet I could feel its late-summer strength and was glad I had started early. Occasional sprinkles—ubiquitous on Kauai—offered a welcome respite from the evolving heat of the day. Breaking waves on the shore and early-morning rooster crows provided the soundtrack as I pounded the pavement—first on a street that paralleled the beach, then on a newly constructed trail called the Kapaa Town Promenade, which winds along the coast and ends up in lovely green hills north of town that jut out into the sea.
It wasn’t hard to picture myself living in one of the cozy houses I passed by. Most were modest—although I would find out later the real estate prices weren’t modest at all. I suppose that’s to be expected considering the location and the fact that most of the materials needed to build a house come from the mainland, as islanders call the contiguous U.S. I spotted a few fixer-uppers as I ran and fantasized about what life would be like if my family and I went native.
Later Peter and I sat by the pool while our sons, Jasper and Ross, frolicked in the water. “I could live here,” Peter said.
“What?” I said. “You told me you never wanted to live on an island.”
“Maybe I wouldn’t want to live here forever,” he said. “But I could live here for awhile—a year or two. You could write. The kids could go to school and surf. I could find work.” Peter trailed off, lost in thought. The island magic was beginning to take hold.
Something similar happened to a friend of mine over twenty years ago. And she let it.
Musgy was a schoolteacher I knew who went to Kauai to visit a friend and decided to stay. She phoned her boyfriend in Virginia, broke up with him, and literally started a new life in paradise. Now she lives in Hanalei on Kauai’s northern side in just the same sort of bungalow that Peter and I were drooling over. We joined Mugsy for dinner one night at her place. Sitting outside on her lanai with plates full of Mexican fare, we talked about her years on the island and where she’s going next.
“Back to Virginia,” she said. “I’m ready to move on.” She paused and then continued. “It’s been great here,” she said, “but I miss Virginia and my family.”
I could understand that. Hawaii is really far away. And it’s expensive to fly home, which means you don’t get off the island much. The cost of living is also incredibly high in Hawaii. Staples like bread and milk cost twice as much, and salaries for the most part are average. In fact, most people in Hawaii seem to live from paycheck to paycheck. Not that it’s such a bad way to live—you’re in paradise, remember? But it’s not an easy life, most residents will tell you.
At the grocery store, I chatted with a clerk about what it’s like to live in paradise. She said, “It’s nice here, but it’s also hard. We wish we could live on the mainland.” Turns out her definition of paradise was different than mine. Perhaps paradise is a place that exists only in dreams. A place we long for—in theory. Once we arrive and live there awhile, the honeymoon comes to a screeching halt. We see the underbelly of the place and decide it’s not what we dreamed it to be. My chat with the grocery clerk reminded me of the importance of being satisfied wherever you are—a lesson in life I am still trying to learn.
LIVING THE GOOD LIFE
So what to people do in paradise? Folks like Mugsy work, of course. But she took a little time off from her teaching job to show us a few sights around Kauai. First, we visited Hanalei Bay Beach, considered one of Hawaii’s Top Ten beaches. Ringed by emerald mountains, the two-mile beach curves in a semi-circle that looks as if someone drew it with a compass. It’s that perfect.
The midmorning sun was already shining down with a vengeance so we immediately went for a swim in the Pacific. The water was cool and startlingly clear. Gentle waves rippled on the surface. Before long, Jasper and Ross were horsing around, like brothers do, while Peter, Mugsy and I paddled around a bit, kicking and splashing, chatting and enjoying the moment. Every once in a while we’d spot a school of fish swimming in the clear water. A truly idyllic spot, deserving of its reputation.
The next beach we visited—called The Beach at the End of the Road—lies at the end of Route 56. Further along is the famed Na Pali Coast, known for dramatic cliffs, breathtaking waterfalls and inspiring scenery. Not accessible by road, you can view it best by boat or helicopter, fairly expensive options. You can also enjoy an up-close encounter with the coast by hiking the Kalaau Trail, a physically demanding effort, the guidebooks say, and one which takes two days to complete.
That night we invited Mugsy to dine with us at our resort in Kapaa. We were staying at the Outrigger Waipouli Beach Resort, a fabulous find. Our spacious two-bedrooom condo, accented with warm-toned tropical wood and travertine stone floors, featured plush furniture and a state-of-the-art kitchen with granite countertops, a Sub-Zero fridge, Wolf cooktop and oven, and a two-tier dishwasher. The view from our balcony overlooked a two-acre fantasy pool studded with lava rock, palm trees and waterfalls.
Before dinner Jasper and Ross took turns going down the flumed slides while Peter, Mugsy, and I sat in the sand-bottom Jacuzzis. Then we all floated along the serpentine river pool, pausing now and then under waterfalls to let the warm water cascade over our heads and shoulders.
As the waterfall streamed down my face, I thought again about paradise, what it means and how to achieve it. I realized everyone has a different definition of the ideal, whether it’s a job, a place to live, a goal or a dream. What was my idea of paradise? Was it here? All I knew was I felt free in this place somehow. Here I could forget my cares and believe anything’s possible—even starting over in a new place, like Kauai, where nothing seems normal and everything feels fine.
“I wonder whether these condo units are for sale,” I said aloud to no one in particular.
“Well, if they are,” Mugsy said, “you can be sure they cost a fortune.” So I checked online and found one for sale—for a cool $800 grand. OK, so maybe I can’t afford to live there, I reasoned, but I could afford to spend a few days living the good life in paradise.
DREAMY AND MISTY
The next day Mugsy went back to work and my family toured Kauai. One of the island’s major attractions is Waimea Canyon, which Mark Twain called “The Grand Canyon of the Pacific.” While not as large as the Grand Canyon, it measures ten miles long and a mile wide. Surrounded by Koke'e State Park, the canyon is accessible via Waimea Canyon Road, which twists and turns through lush jungles, ultimately rising ever higher with each turn in the road. We stopped at a couple of overlooks and, like the rest of the tourists there, gazed in wonder at the jagged peaks, carpeted in varying shades of green velvet, disappearing into the distance. The scene reminded me of a painting from the Hudson River School—dreamy and misty and—well, like paradise.
I had been itching to go for a hike, and Kalalau Trail near the end of the road seemed a good choice. I knew my family would never make it to the trail’s end—five and a half miles from high up in the canyons down to the Pacific Ocean below—but I hoped to cover a good part of the trail. I found a perfect walking stick near the trailhead, left I’m sure by a weary walker for the next hiker to use. The trail was all I envisioned it to be: pretty wildflowers nestled in tropical plants, towering trees, and earthy smells emanating from soil that could be five million years old. I’d read that Kauai is the oldest of the Hawaiian islands, originally a volcano that erupted from the ocean floor. It was humbling to think what a small speck we were in the large scheme of things.
Peter was the first to bail. Troubled by weak knees, he said the trail was too steep and he’d go sit in the car. Jasper was next, saying in typical teen fashion he just didn’t feel like going any further. That left Ross and me. We hiked merrily along for a little while, and then even he began to complain. “Can’t we turn around now, Mom?”
“A little further, Ross.”
As we rounded a corner, we found a woman and a girl peering intently at a leaf, where a lime-green spider blended in almost perfectly against a leaf of the same color. Ross was intrigued by the delicate spider and stared at it for a long time.
“Are you hiking the whole length?” the woman asked.
“No,” I said. “Just a small piece.”
“The views are lovely,” she said.
“I’m sure they are,” I said wistfully, knowing Ross was beginning to tire. Sure enough after another 1/4 mile or so, he refused to go any further. We headed back, and while I’d wanted to go further, going uphill was tough and I was glad when we got back to the parking lot. Before leaving, I leaned my trusty walking stick against a tree, knowing another hiker would adopt it soon.
HOW TO HULA
Kauai Coffee Plantation offered a nice diversion and excellent coffee as we continued our tour of Kauai. The plantation presents educational exhibits about coffee, free samples, and the chance to wander through a grove of coffee trees, where signs explain the coffee-making process. In the heat of the day we scurried between shady spots, trying to avoid the beating sun. Compared to the canyon, where the weather had been cool and misty, down here near sea level, the weather was tropical and warm.
On the southern coast, we found a natural attraction called Spouting Horn, a blowhole that shoots a huge plume of water thirty feet into the air with each incoming wave. A bit touristy, it still impressed Jasper and Ross, who tried hard to photograph the plume at just the right moment.
We switched accommodations midway through our stay and spent two nights at the Hilton Kauai Beach resort, another fine property that also features an amazing tropical pool. Jasper and Ross delighted in playing volleyball in the pool while Peter and I were content to sit in the shade, read, rest and relax. The Hilton features a manager’s reception most nights, highlighted by hula dancers, who sway and dip and share their culture through this beautiful dance.
In a weak moment, I let a dancer take my hand and lead me to the stage where I was joined by a few other tourists, including a mom and her two darling little girls. The performers shared a few quick how-to-hula tips with us, and the next thing I knew we were swinging our hips (figure 8, circles and side-to-side) to the Hawaiian music while the crowd alternated between laughing and applauding. I stood in the back and tried hard to concentrate on doing the right moves, but I was distracted by this mom and her daughters, so swept up in the pleasure of dancing together: the mom smiling and proud, the girls trying their best, twirling and swaying, their arms waving like the ocean.
Later my family told me I looked funny up there on stage. I’m sure I did. But for a few minutes I was lost in the magic of the moment, thinking about paradise and little girls and the past and the future, looking back at where I’ve been and wondering where I’ll end up—and then not caring at all as long as I’m dancing and laughing and happy along the way.