Soon we entered a valley brimming with waterfalls. “Kauai has thirty-three different microsystems,” Karen Tilley, an off-duty Sierra Club leader, said as we climbed over tree branches slick with moss. Like all Kauaians, Tilley is passionate about protecting her home from the commercialism that has overtaken Maui and Oahu. I’d noticed that Kauai had successfully fended off sprawl while still allowing for a handful of resorts, housing developments, and intimate restaurants to flourish. I found out later that Kauai’s protectionist spirit dates all the way to 1796, when King Kamehameha of the Big Island sent ten thousand troops to invade its tiny neighbor; eventually Kauai’s king, Kaumualii, surrendered to Kamehameha in 1810.
It felt like swimming in a giant eighty-degree aquarium.
After our hike, Birch and I drove to the trailhead to check out the Queen’s Bath, a ten-foot-deep tidal pool just east of Hanalei in the town of Princeville. A quarter-mile hiking path dumped us out at the ocean, and we walked ever carefully on the jagged black volcanic rock, arriving just in time to see two daredevils launching off the fifteen-foot-high rocks above the tide pool. We jumped in, too, and swam around in what felt like a giant eighty-degree aquarium—we saw a sea anemone, a couple of blue-eyed damselfish, and a school of sergeant majors.
After a few days of rest at Hanalei Colony Resort, we ventured by car five miles east to Hanalei Bay, home to Kauai’s best surfing. Though Birch and I had surfed before, we signed up for a practice lesson and a session of stand-up paddleboarding with Hawaiian Surfing Adventures. On the yellow-sand beach of Hanalei Bay, we got a quick refresher on technique, stretched, and then bellied onto our boards. Despite the morning’s (relatively) calm conditions, we caught at least a dozen waves. Between swells, I lay on the board and gazed up at the sky and at the mountainous cirque beyond the beach. From here, Mount Hihimanu, the scene of our treacherous first hike, looked almost benign above a stand of casuarina trees, which shaded a Jack Johnson sound-alike strumming a guitar.
For the first time since we arrived, I realized that Kauai had another, more tranquil side. I wasn’t hiking, paddling, swimming, or exploring, but simply letting the island’s mesmerizing peacefulness wash over me.