Friday, September 3, 2021


by Madeleine Kando

We are on Kauai, my husband Hans and I. It is the oldest and most beautiful island of the Hawaiian chain. If you could wave a magic wand and wish for a total sensory experience, you would certainly conjure up Kauai. The trade wind coming from the vast ocean, softens the harshness of the blazing sun. The sound of the surf is better than any lullaby. The foaming crests of the waves lapping on shore puts one in a trance.

Then, there are the clouds. They turn pink at sunset, slowly moving across the horizon, like slow motion ballerinas in pink tutus. The coral shines through the turquoise water while the feral chickens strut about, totally indifferent to the beauty around them, getting impertinently close to get fed. All of it is so intoxicating that our life back in Boston seems like it is on another planet.

Is it pathological to be infatuated with an island? Isn’t that feeling reserved for teens and film stars?  But I cannot help it. Since we first came here, almost 20 years ago, Kauai has captivated my heart.

Today, we are taking a helicopter ride. It takes us over the interior, the jungle where Jurassic Park was filmed. We approach the ‘five sisters’, a group of waterfalls on Mt. Waialeale, the second rainiest place on earth. The pilot is having fun with us. He flies straight into the huge vertical wall of jungle, but at the last minute, veers up to the top, to avoid a fatal crash. It is an exhilarating ride, plunging into the center of the volcano. It has been dead for millions of years and is now covered with green, a deep gaping hole, where all the rain from the swamp plateau above, accumulates.

Over 5 million years ago, Kauai was born, when magma spewed from a hot spot beneath the Pacific Tectonic Plate, creating a volcanic island. Like dragging the links of a chain away from the hotspot, the island moved away and Kauai’s volcano slowly became extinct. A new island moved in its place, creating another one of the Hawaiian Islands. A map of the ocean floor shows this long chain called the Emperor Sea Mount Chain, which reaches all the way to Alaska.

It is hard to imagine that for most of her life, this beautiful island was nothing but black rock. Everything that we see, blew in with the wind, on the waves, or in the belly of a bird that lost its way. Then, millions of years in the making, as if the island was ready for inhabitants, the Polynesians came in their canoes, fell in love and established a society.

The older Kauai gets, the more beautiful she becomes. But one day, she will sink into the ocean and only an atoll will remain, like a gravestone to mark the spot. How many of these gorgeous islands have sunk beneath the waves over the past millennia?

Kauai has only one road that hugs the coastline and does not connect to itself, which protects it from the worst damage that tourism creates. On the north shore, where we are staying, there are small, funky towns, like Kapa’a and Hanalei, reminiscent of the 60’s. There are shops that sell designer rash guards and other fancy beach attire, overpriced restaurants and shave ice stands.

We have visited Kauai many times and we have our favorite hikes to perform, one of which is the ‘jungle hike’. After an endless, bumpy ride over a dirt road, we park our jeep and hike to a yellow gate that is closed in extreme weather. But that’s just the beginning. We keep hiking to a pristine rocky stream, where we take our shoes off to cool our sore feet and ravenously eat our soggy Subway sandwiches.

Had we been decades younger, we would have done the whole damn thing. It leads to the ‘Blue Hole’, the center of the volcano where all the waterfalls join in a glorious get together. But we are no spring chickens anymore and we opt to loop back via a magnificent waterhole where we skinny dip and recover from having schlepped through red colored mud for hours on end. By the time we get back to our jeep, six hours have passed and I am counting my steps, hoping that I won’t faint until I get to the car. 

We went on a long hike today in the Waimea Canyon. I believe it was Jack London who gave it the name the ‘Grand Canyon of the Pacific’. On the winding road to the summit, we see the hazy outline of the ‘forbidden’ island of Nihau in the shimmering ocean. Of the vast amounts of trails in the park, we chose the Miloli’I Ridge trail, a hunter trail that winds its way to the top of one of the ridges that look like enormous fingers dipping into the ocean. It has a stunning view of the Napali coastline and the beaches 1,400 feet below.

On our way back, a hunter’s pick-up truck passes us, with a furry, bloody mass in the back. He just killed a wild boar. His dogs are sitting next to their catch, panting in the heat. There is a problem on Kauai with abandoned hunting dogs who don’t live up to their owner’s expectations as boar catchers. They leave them to fend for themselves in the wild, some of them of course don’t make it and die.

The next day, we hike down to Sea Lodge beach.  Nestled in a small cove, it has a coral reef that stretches out into the ocean, and is a good place for snorkeling. I put on my fins and snorkel mask and maneuver my way through the narrow channel leading to deeper water. Oh, hello little ‘Humuhumunukunukuapua’a’. That means ‘trigger fish with a snout like a pig’ in Hawaiian. He looks like a bandit with a black stripe over his eyes. 

Holy moly! A whole school of yellowfin goatfish, all lined up as if they were training for the military, are frozen in place, close to the bottom. Are they sleeping? Waiting their turn to be cleaned by the cleaner fish? Yes! I recognize the blue and yellow ‘cleaner wrasse’. They are small but industrious little things, feeding on the parasites of other fish. Unbelievable. I am looking at a ‘cleaning station’ in the wall of the coral, all manner of fish waiting in line to go through the car wash.

As I swim away, a black sting ray breaks rank and follows me. Judging by his size, he must be a juvenile. He swims underneath me for a while, then moves to my

Another one of our favorite beaches, is ‘Secret Beach’. It takes some climbing down to get to, better done on a dry day. The beach is long, with clumps of black lava rock dotting the shore line. Large waves crash into them, creating a thundering explosion of water and foam. A few brave souls have ignored the large sign at the entrance of the trailhead. It mentions how many lives this beach took over the past decade. As I watch them disappear under an oncoming monster wave, I wonder if they will bob up again. They do. They are young, strong and stupid, but their guardian angels are probably watching over them. 

Hans and I take a walk down the beach to a spot where spring water comes down from the cliff. Huge yellow garden spiders hang from the wet rock, but they are too busy webbing to pay any attention to us, so we drink and take a shower. 

We walk on. A shape close to the edge draws our attention. Who would want to sunbathe so close to the waves? As we get closer, the shape morphs into a monk seal. He is peacefully resting, his chin on a mound of sand, meticulously gathered to form a pillow. His eyes are little slits. He seems to sense that disturbing him or even approaching him is against the law in Hawaii.

Against my advice, Hans ventures out into the waves. I hold my tongue and my breath, as I watch him jump up with each wave and try not to think of a life without him.

Back at the condo, sandy and sweaty from the climb back to the top, we sit on the grass and wait for the show to begin. It has been raining and a double rainbow spans the sky from east to west. God must have had Kauai in mind when he created the sky and the ocean. 

But Kauai’s crown jewel is Hanalei Bay, the place where I go almost every day, to do my laps. The light is slowly waning from the sky, only outlines are visible. The sun has gone to bed, but still emanates an afterglow giving the contours of the mountain peaks a halo. Like giant, benevolent saints, they watch over this small piece on earth, while the waves lazily lap onto the sand. They have been busy all day, vigorously bobbing swimmers up and down. Now they deserve a rest. Watching their rhythm puts me in a trance.

A young couple, sitting so close together that they merge into one, is watching the ocean. They stand up as one, slowly walk into the waves holding hands and sink into the vast mirror, embracing the world and each other. This image, their love and the peacefulness of the ocean brings tears to my eyes.

I turn to my husband. ‘This is it for us’, I say. ‘How much better can it get from here on?’ In this brief moment, before darkness engulfs the island, Kauai shows its absolute beauty.

Kauai is born out of the ocean and will return to the ocean. Why did Mother Nature take the trouble to create such a tiny speck of land in this infinite amount of water? The constant environmental battle with the rain, with the wind and the waves, have left deep scars that make this island so incredibly beautiful.

It is the Hawaiian chain’s destiny to remain in motion, at the rate of about 3.5 inches per year while slowly eroding and declining. But while they last, it is a crime not to pay them a visit, at least once in a lifetime. leave comment here