I was about 45 minutes northeast of Kauai's Lihue Airport when the two-lane highway made an abrupt hairpin turn and I found myself face-to-face with paradise: a mile-wide aquamarine crescent ringed by white sand and palm trees, electric-green farms by a lazy river, jagged mountains topped with clouds pouring warm rain into thousand-foot waterfalls. I turned to my wife and kids. "Somebody please tell me why we've spent a minute of our lives anywhere else?"
That reaction, I learned, is typical.
Moments later, we pulled into the tiny town of Hanalei, at the bay's protected innermost point — 450 people, not a single traffic light. Barefoot surfers and local kids strolled past the walk-up window at Bubba Burgers, offering grass-fed Kauai beef, and the Harvest Market, with baskets of local mangoes by the front door. A green cottage had a sign that read "north shore bike doktor", so I stopped in to rent a ride. I told the shop's owner, John Sargent, how dazzled I'd been by that view. He laughed. Sargent was living in California in 1978 when a friend called. "Hey, John!" the friend said. "I just found the best place on the planet!" "Are you in the South Pacific?" Sargent asked. "He was like, 'No, I'm in the United States! I'm on Kauai!' " Sargent flew over with his surfboard. He took one look at Hanalei and never left.
Like all the major Hawaiian islands, Kauai is really like two different islands: an arid, sun-splashed south shore with big resort hotels; and a north shore with daily rains, lush jungle, big waves, and a funky, artsy vibe. But Kauai's northern coast stands apart because it's home to the world-famous Na Pali Coast State Wilderness Park, an 11-mile stretch of dramatic sea cliffs and hidden beaches fed by clean waterfalls.
I rented a longboard at a nearby surf shop and drove through a neighborhood of modest homes, stopping at Hanalei Bay Beach Park. I stepped onto the white-sand strand that makes Hanalei so special: mile after mile of clear, warm water, waves gentle enough to body surf, and people drifting around on SUP boards and outrigger canoes. Soon I had my nine-year-old daughter up and surfing the first warm-water wave of her life.
Accommodations in Hanalei are limited. The main options are vacation-rental homes (two bedrooms start at about $350 per night) and three hotels: the super-basic Hanalei Inn; the ultraluxe St. Regis Princeville Resort, tucked out of sight on the bay's eastern tip; and the relatively low-key Hanalei Colony Resort, west of town ($250 to $400 per night). We stayed in the latter, in a room that had a full kitchen, where we cooked our own meals between walks on the hotel's private beach and hikes along the enormous cliffs and secluded beaches of Na Pali Coast.
Hanalei, of course, is hardly undiscovered. Hollywood loves the place. Ben Stiller and Pierce Brosnan own homes there, and Julia Roberts put a place on the market last year for $17 million. "When you see J. Lo paddleboarding by, word is out," said Jim Moffat, chef-owner of an excellent tapas restaurant called Bar Acuda. Still, walking through town, there's not a luxury store or restaurant in sight and — at least from the outside — the homes are hardly extravagant. You'd never guess that Hanalei is becoming Hawaii's answer to Aspen. Unless, that is, you stopped to to ask yourself, "Where would any sane person live if they could live absolutely anywhere?" Spend a few days here and the answer is obvious.
Getting there: Daily direct flights to Lihue Airport from Los Angeles and San Francisco, or connecting flights through Honolulu.