Writer David Hanson explores the stunning island of Kauai, the best place in the Hawaiian archipelago to capture island magic on the beach, from the air, and at the table.
"Let's do something Hawaiian," Almeida says. My underwater experience swimming with the sea turtle in her coral reef home feels relatively Hawaiian to me, but I find myself following him to shore, anxious for more.
Sitting at the top of the Hawaiian archipelago, with only the "Forbidden Island" of Niihau and the tiny, distant fragments of bird sanctuary islands to the northwest, Kauai is different. It's the wild, salty-haired, and stylishly bohemian sister of the flashier Oahu, Maui's Hollywood scene, and the always bustling Big Island.
I walk a few steps out the door to the clubhouse spa, an impossibly decadent little world of indulgence. A deep and rhythmic Hawaiian lomi lomi-style massage (the traditional method uses forearms, elbows, knees, and even sticks or stones) is particularly effective—especially when it is followed up with a cold pool rinse.
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We head straight toward towering green walls, the ramparts of this island that seems to be thrusting itself out of the sea. Razor-sharp ridges define the mountainsides like fins. Between them, the shadowy vertical valleys are streaked with white waterfalls. Cascades plummet into perfect pools that have likely never seen a human, their perches having rendered them unreachable.
A friend of mine lives on the north shore, and she recommends I stop at The Garden Café at Common Ground fields for a truly organic experience. I turn down an unassuming driveway at the sign for Common Ground and see that the 46 acres of low-lying farmland are rich with vegetable gardens climbing out of red-clay fields surrounding a modern, clean-lined restaurant.
Minutes later I'm devouring a raw, fibrous kale-and-green-papaya salad softened by miso vinaigrette, and a grilled mahi sandwich on a Pueo Breads bun with a house-made tropical fruit salsa.
Nearby, Aloha from Hanalei is paradise for the pampered, selling soaps and lotions made with milk from the goats at Kauai Kunana Dairy, plus jewelry in varying shades of cream, off-white, and dark brown crafted out of the island's calcite mineral. The well-curated Hula Beach Boutique & Sarong Shop has hand-painted Anushka leather handbags and last-minute swimsuits.
Leaving Hanalei's palm-fringed village behind, I drive on until the road ends at Kee Beach. A lifeguard stand looks out over the white sand beach that curves to one side and, on the other, ends abruptly at the soaring cliffs that mark the beginning of the Napali Coast.
Even a half-mile on this trail is worth it, but I push on for a dip in the cool ocean at wild, cliff-sided Hanakapiai Beach before the last two miles through the jungle to reach the falls.
A dozen people lounge on the rocks, snacking and drying off after a swim. I follow suit, floating under the thin curtain of the waterfall.
Everything on my plate comes from this lush little island. If I concentrate hard enough, I can smell the wild ginger growing near the river, just steps away. Only a remote island, it seems, can offer such a sensual connection to the land. Sitting here at dinner is another instance like that first afternoon with Almeida and the sea turtle swim—wild, unique, and refreshing. Kauai's got that.