Every year on Thanksgiving our family watches The Descendants, starring George Clooney. It’s a wonderful film, and part of it is set on Kaua’i. Every year though we roll our eyes and sigh when he and his family climb into a jeep with his cousin at the airport and head north, and yet somehow end up overlooking the ocean on the south shore at Kipu Kai Ranch, a geographically impossible feat. Or, when Clooney and family walk from the St. Regis hotel in Princeville to the beach in Hanalei, making it look like there’s a seamless beach the entire way. Nope. The St. Regis sits perched on the top of a bluff to the east of Hanalei, and you’d have to cross a golf course, scramble down a wooded cliff and cross the Hanalei River at the mouth before arriving at Hanalei Beach. There are other scenes where locations are out of place, but we chalk it all up to “Hollywood magic.”
A couple of weeks ago, I was alerted to an article in the New York Times: 36 Hours in Kauai, Hawaii. They article listed a lot of interesting places to see, shop and eat at on the Island, but I was worn out by the end of reading just the first day! The author had readers start at the Kaua’i museum in Lihue, on the east side, at 3:00 p.m (after their long flight arrives), then drive out to Hanapepe on the south side to order an aloha shirt at 4:30, followed by driving all the way back to the Kilohana plantation in Puhi to take in a rum tasting at the Koloa Rum Company at 5:30 before attending a luau at the Plantation and then driving all the way back to Waimea (in pitch black darkness) for the night. The distance from Lihue to Hanapepe might not look like much (18 miles), but in the afternoon you’re going to be mixing with the pau hana (‘quitting time’) crowd heading back home to the south and west side, and that seemingly short drive can take up to an hour. It’s an exhausting schedule, especially if you decide to go with the article’s recommendation and take in some of the Hanapepe art night before heading back up to Kilohana. Maybe for someone from the mainland the driving might not seem all that excessive, but for those of us who live here it’s absolutely crazy.
The other two scheduled days are equally frenetic, and involve an insane amount of driving back and forth from one side of the island to another. The lodging recommendations are bizarre considering how long it can take to get around the island (most of the highway is only two lanes). Most of all, the 36-hour schedule in the Times misses the whole point of visiting Kaua’i. The best reason to come here is not to try to see and do as much as possible and fill every single moment, including negotiating Kauai’s traffic, but to relax, most especially if all you have is 36 hours to spend. Life moves slower here on Kaua’i, and the best and most authentic experience of all is to embrace the slower place. Enjoy a leisurely breakfast, sit on the beach for the day or go for a hike, take a nap, pick a place or two to visit, have a wonderful dinner or attend a luau, but don’t try to squeeze in everything.
Visitors are always welcome on Kaua’i, and there are lots of things to see and do here. But finding your way on Kaua’i takes a change in how one experiences time and place. Geography is more than just places on a map, or distances between towns, or times posted on Google. It’s more than pretty scenes in a film. The geography of a place is about how and where people live, and how they use the mountains, beaches, towns, roads and the surrounding environments. It’s about how local residents spend their time, and what they value about where they live. Even a small amount of knowledge about these things can make a visit anywhere more enriching.