The first thing that greeted me as I stepped into the sleepy but crowded open-air baggage claim area at the little airport on Hawaii’s “Garden Island” of Kauai was a brochure declaring: “Change your beliefs … Change your life”. Inside, an “Avatar Belief Management Mini-Course” was advertised, for $40 a pop, in which new age mysticism, Harvard MBA strategies and 21st-century impatience (the “mini-course” could be completed in just three hours) were all thrown together in an improbable mix.
Next to this pamphlet, Hiyaguha Cohen – not a name I’d expected to encounter – was offering her services as The Life-Change Coach and promising to “heal the previous chapter of your life”, to help you “meet your inner guidance” and even to assist in “accelerating deep de-stressing”. I’d always imagined acceleration and de-stressing to be somewhat incompatible. Somewhere near the literature devoted to car rentals and tourist attractions, Krystal was offering “energy cleansing and balancing”, while a card for the Dolphin Touch Wellness Center assured me that “joy, happiness, and self-love can be found” thanks to the “energy and vibrations of the dolphins”.
I drove to a tatty motel filled with pictures of surfboards and hula girls, the sound of slack-key guitar and ukelele lulling us all into a kind of sleep perpetual. When I awoke the following morning, it was to find that I had been resting yards away from an idyllic beach – the kind of beach I’d travelled all these miles to enjoy – last night’s lights still flickering on the distant headlands, with cars parked on the sand so that couples could snuggle to the sound of the surf.
Kauai is celebrated as the emptiest, the least built-up and the most low-key of all the low-key Hawaiian islands; its entire population (67,000) is barely larger than the workforce at Los Angeles international airport. The Garden Island was the place where Elvis got married in the film Blue Hawaii; its 53-metre waterfall plunged behind the credits of the American TV show Fantasy Island; and it is the island on which South Pacific was set.
Yet when I opened the “Paradise Pages” – elsewhere known as the Yellow Pages – I found they began with 13 pages on “Disaster Preparedness”, the little maxim “Life is good in paradise” inserted at regular intervals between the alarming entries. When I turned to my guidebook, I learned that parts of Kauai rank among the wettest places on earth and that it is regularly devastated by hurricanes. After Captain Cook sailed back for a second trip to Hawaii he’d enjoyed an unexpectedly sumptuous welcome – until he went back out into storms and, upon his next return, received a frosty reception and was killed.
So, as I began driving around the island, I almost felt as if I were back in college, wondering whether satan or a brighter spirit would win the contest in Paradise Lost. Breezing along the single coastal highway that leads up through great green tunnels of foliage and over rickety bridges to hidden valleys and the famous 11-mile walk to the Na Pali Coast, I found it impossible not to think of gods; the looming immensity of the forested rocks above, the lowering clouds, the long stretches of empty golden beach along the side of the road made me think I was back in a place where Adam was a broad-shouldered surfer and Eve a dark-skinned sylph with flowers in her hair.
Then I stopped to get some tea and found that page two of the local paper, The Garden Island, featured an “Arrest Log”, while signs around me announced, “This Breath is Life. This Breath is Aloha. This Breath is Expanded Clarity.”
Sometimes one can leave snowstorms and high-rises and freeways far behind, as George Clooney notes at the opening of the latest film to be set in Kauai, The Descendants, and still find reality at one’s doorstep. Adam now seemed to be selling $10 dirt shirts (made out of the island’s singular red dirt), while Eve had put on several stone and was serving up cappuccino smoothies at a “shave-ice” stand.
Much like that other equivocal Eden, Bali, Kauai is conveniently divided into three parts so as to satisfy differing versions of paradise. Along the sunny southern coast around Poipu, you will find upmarket shopping centres, palmy beaches and huge echoing resorts where couples celebrating their 25th anniversaries wonder whether they should have stopped at five and screeching kids scream about the good time they’ve been promised. To the north, in the green and misty areas around Hanalei, seemingly sealed off from the world, you run into “ayurvedic juice specialists” and “Course in Miracles” graduates who are finding themselves on a lifelong circuit that runs from Byron Bay to Santa Cruz to, as it happens, Ubud in central Bali. And in the middle, along the eastern coast, are the Hawaiians themselves, perched among peeling bungalows and fast-food stands under signs saying “Jesus Coming Soon”, living half-reluctantly off the visitors 45 minutes to the north or south.
This is where Frodo runs into Jackie Collins, I thought, as I saw how chief executives and their trustafarian kids alike seemed to have arrived here, separately, to secede from reality in opposite ways. Yet who could resist the sheer beauty of a place where, on a single day, you can enjoy clear-water snorkeling at Lydgate Beach, eat carrot cake parfaits at the bakery in Hanapepe, in a funky one-street town of art galleries, and then take in the immensity of Waimea Canyon, a kinder, gentler Grand Canyon that stretches for 10 miles, sometimes as deep as 900 metres?
Drive down route 550A from the Waimea Canyon Lookout, and you surge towards tiny beach towns with the great blue expanse of the ocean on one side of you and the ancient folds and striated colours of the canyon on the other. As so often on Kauai (which has some of Australia’s red-dirt intensity amidst the lush tropical foliage of New Zealand), the one-lane road is entirely empty of traffic as it swoops up and down among rolling hills. Enjoy dinner near Shipwreck Beach and, as you drive north again, you pass through a canopy of rainforest shower trees on a stunningly spotless road.
There’s something for every last fallen taste, it can seem, on this compact island that encompasses four separate botanic gardens, seven microclimates and at least 45 distinct beaches (one of which, at Poipu, was chosen by the Travel Channel as the finest in the world). You can zipline through the forest canopy or visit a half-constructed fort that remembers the time in the early 19th century when Russian ships were sent to the island to help Kauai’s king.
You can play golf on one of nine courses, or just bask in the glassy sanctuary that is the St Regis’s luxury property at Princeville. Fifty-foot humpbacks breach full force off the Na Pali Coast, and the only navigable river in Polynesia is to be found here.
The lowest ocean temperature I saw recorded – for the year – was 22C and Kauai Baby Rentals turned out to be not an adoption racket (as I’d imagined from its name) but a business renting out cots and other equipment to meet “peace of mind” needs. You can even take in the locations of the more than 60 Clooney-less films shot across the island – though it’s not everyone who wishes to see where Outbreak, Lord of the Flies and Throw Mama From the Train were made.
And so I kept on going back and forth through Milton’s great poem as I wandered across Kauai in the balmy 20C midwinter days. Sometimes I felt that a film about the place should be called not The Descendants but “The Ascendants” – so eager do many here seem to be to prepare for the rapture or some launching-pad to higher consciousness. The only ad in the personals section of The Garden Island newspaper was a message for Jesus and along the main road a sign said “U-Turn for Christ”. Everywhere I went, there seemed to be churches – the Aloha Church, the Hope Chapel, the Island Worship Center – and when once I passed a large barn with a sign saying “Gym” on it, and an ad for daily aerobics classes, it, too, turned out to be a church, the All Saints’ Episcopals trawling for new customers.
The girls called Sparrow and Dawn at the Bikram yoga house not far from my hotel seemed convinced they could remake themselves through good intentions alone. The ones calling 245-8088 for “Dial-a-Prayer” may have been seeking protection from the next tsunami. And at the 99-year-old Kilauea Lighthouse near Princeville, where you can see frigates, red-footed boobies and nesting albatrosses, an elegant Italian man, volunteering at the place, greeted me in perfect Japanese and told me that this was a great place to retire, “but you really need to get away for at least 15 days, a month, once a year.”
Paradise makes demands on us, I thought, and asks questions that we’re not always ready to answer. How will you be worthy of its setting, or its limitless promise? And isn’t becoming a new you in fact highly stressful, however accelerated your de-stressing?
Among the collagen rejuvenators and pilates reformers on the north shore, where ageing men in Bob Marley T-shirts were talking, very slowly, about divinity, I chanced to see, one dazzling afternoon, a notice that had been carefully written out by hand. “Please enjoy your stay in Hanalei by connecting with the moment, not the net. As far as we know, there is no internet service in Hanalei.” Just across the street, another rival shack, selling pina colada smoothies, had posted a large sign: “Free Wi-Fi”. Knowledge doesn’t always seem to stretch very far on the beautiful island of Kauai.
Pico Iyer’s latest book is ‘The Man Within My Head’ (Bloomsbury)