Finding Your Way On Kaua’i

(Updated from a post originally published in November, 2017.)

That’s the St. Regis Hotel in the upper left of the picture, and Hanalei Beach in front. There’s no way to directly walk from one to the other.

Every year on Thanksgiving Brett and I watch 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 Clooney and his movie family climb into a jeep with a 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 he and family walk from Hanalei beach to their hotel in Princeville along Anini Beach, making it look like there’s a seamless beach the entire way. Nope. The hotel 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. And, Anini Beach is to the east of Princeville and the hotel, Hanalei Beach to the west. There are other scenes where locations are out of place, but we chalk it all up to “Hollywood magic.”

George Clooney and family look out over the south shore of Kaua’i, after heading north from Lihue and passing through Kapaa on the east side.

Back in November of 2017 I was alerted to an article in the New York Times: 36 Hours in Kauai, Hawaii (subscription required – sorry). The article listed quite a lot of interesting places to see, shop and/or dine at on the island, but I was completely worn out by the time I finished reading just the first day! The author has visitors starting their 36 hours at the Kaua’i museum in Lihue, on the east side of the island, at 3:00 p.m (right after arriving from a long flight and picking up a car), then driving out to Hanapepe on the south side to order a custom aloha shirt at 4:30. We live between Lawai and Koloa, on the south side of Kaua’i, and the drive from here to Hanapepe with no traffic takes around 15-20 minutes. Add in the time it takes to get from Lihue to Lawai, and that’s another 20 minutes. To get to Hanapepe by 4:30 when there’s no traffic, a visitor is going to have to leave the museum after only 15-20 minutes (after paying admission to the museum at $15 per person). While the distance from Lihue to Hanapepe might not look all that long on a map (18 miles), the reality is any drive at that time of the afternoon will involve mixing with the pau hana (“quitting time”) crowd heading home to the south and west sides, and that seemingly short drive can take up to or over an hour, especially on a Friday.

Anyway, if someone has somehow managed the feat of both visiting the museum and making it out to Hanapepe on time, the suggestion is to then drive all the way back to the Kilohana Plantation in Puhi to participate in a rum tasting at the Koloa Rum Company at 5:30. Oh wait – the last tasting of the day is at 5:00 p.m. However, the next stop on the itinerary is the evening luau next door at Gaylord’s restaurant (reservations required). Following the luau, readers then are directed to drive all the way back past Hanapepe and through Waimea (in complete darkness) to spend the night at the Waimea Beach Cottages.

The proposed schedule for the first day is exhausting and impossible, even more so if one decides to follow a recommendation to take in some of the Friday evening Hanapepe Art Night (which doesn’t start until 5:00 p.m.) before heading back to Puhi. For someone from the mainland the amount of driving might not seem all that excessive, but for those of us who live here it’s positively crazy and makes no sense whatsoever.

The next two days’ schedules 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). If I remember correctly, one suggestion on the second day is driving from the north shore all the way down to Old Koloa town for dinner and then back up to Princeville to spend the night. Again, insanity! Needless to say, it’s more than extremely likely that any visitor trying to follow even some of this article’s schedule will encounter the reality of Kaua’i traffic fairly quickly along the way causing everything to fall apart in a very short time.

Most of all though, 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 someone has is 36 hours to spend with a long flight on either end. Life moves slower 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, maybe pick a place or two to visit, go out for 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 one’s way on Kaua’i requires 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 Maps. 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 to Kaua’i, to anywhere, more enriching.


10 thoughts on “Finding Your Way On Kaua’i

  1. The beauty of visiting Kauai is that I slow waaaay down. From the moment I step off the plane, the air is just different, my shoulders relax (even in traffic lol, I’m on Kauai!!). The beach, some good food, visiting friends and maybe going on a fun tour involving seeing the best spot in The Descendants. That’s the way to visit Kauai!


    1. Precisely! Kaua’i is slow-paced, and place to relax and release your cares, not spend your time driving all over the place.

      I love that we got to do the ATV tour with you and see that special location from the movie. We lucked out – riding with the guides is no longer available. You either drive your own ATV or you don’t go (and the cost is prohibitive). I loved having someone else do the driving that day!


  2. Excellent post! When I’ve traveled, I’ve tried to cram it all in. ABSOLUTELY not worth it. Any Island in Hawaii is very much about relaxing and being present in the moment.


    1. Of all the many places we’ve been/lived, Kaua’i is absolutely at the top of the list of places not to try and cram it all in, most especially during a short stay. That whole article read like the author asked all his friends what to do on the island, where to eat, etc. then sat down with a map and came up with a plan to see and do it all, without any regard whatsoever for the realities of the place and life here.


  3. Love this post – those ‘do a place in 3 days’ never make sense and always miss the best bits – the sitting down in a cafe, people watching or sitting on a beach or taking a slow walk….


    1. I agree. If I’m some place for 36 hours, I pick a couple of highlights and then walk around and see what I can. If I tried to cram in all this article said I’d never want to return!


  4. We watched Grey’s Anatomy when it first came out and always laughed when they made it seem like you could see the Pike Place Market sign from the lobby. There were a lot of other scenes where they had recognizable buildings in impossible places.

    Rushing around to try and see everything is exhausting even when things are easier to access. After our walk through the Alsace wine region this spring (hopefully), we plan to spend 3 weeks in Strasbourg so we can take in all the sights leisurely. No more trying to go everywhere and do everything.


    1. We spotted some new geographical errors on this last viewing – not sure how we missed them before but they had us rolling our eyes in a couple of new places.

      We are planning to rent a car for an overnight trip to the Alsace wine region, staying for the night in Colmar. Three weeks in Strasbourg is ideal!! You will be able to see and do so much, but at a relaxing pace. Two must eats while you’re there: tarte flambée and charcroute (we recommend Porcus restaurant). The Alsatian museum is excellent as is the museum near the cathedral. Take some time and walk through L’Orangerie. And spend an afternoon (or two or three) in Petite France. I could go on and on . . . .


  5. Lovely post. Love visiting Kaua’i. The Descendants is a favorite of ours as a friend’s Aunt played the comatose wife in the movie. She got to walk the red carpet at the premiere and really enjoyed her time filming, albeit her character’s situation. Thanks for all the info about your delightful island.


    1. So interesting about your friend’s aunt’s role in the film! The woman that owns the house that was used as home of Kai and her husband was given the role as one of the cousins (the blond woman). She also had a blast doing it. The set designers left her house just as it was for the filming – the owner was worried they would damage her things but she said they left it cleaner than before they started! Same for the house George Clooney lives in.


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