Just two hours of daylight left, maybe less, and I'm hurrying up a natural stairway built of rocks and jutting roots, part of the rugged but well-maintained trail along Kauai's fabled Na Pali Coast. I want to get to Hanakapi'ai Beach and back before it's too dark to tell the path from the cliff's edge, and I'll make it if I don't pause. People pass me on their way out -- some in boots, some in flip-flops -- everyone looking weary but inspired. Sword ferns and screw pines line the route. Streams of scent -- lilikoi (passion fruit) and honeysuckle -- intersect the trail as it rounds a southward bend. The foliage opens to a view along the coast. Miles and miles of overlapping cliffs plunge down from the clouds to the waterline. More than 5 million years of erosion have left these protrusions of volcanic rock, now glowing in the afternoon sun. It's stunning. I barely slow down.
On the slope above the Hanakapi'ai Valley, the trail forks, one way bare and precipitous, the other switching back and forth over more gradual grades. I take the steep route, scrambling and just managing not to tumble headlong into the trees. At the stream, I meet a couple with backpacks. They've hiked back from the far end of the trail, the Kalalau Valley, which I glimpsed yesterday from a Zodiac on the water. The emerald valley in its ring of towering cliffs looks like it was painted there. I want to go, but it's a day's walk. Next time, I tell myself. I've told myself that a lot on this trip.
Two days earlier, I walked into the open-air lobby of the Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort and Spa, tiers of foliage and stone descending to Keoneloa Bay. I could feel the elemental design -- breezes, pools, torch fire -- orchestrating my senses, and after two weeks of island-hopping, I contentedly let the symphony play on. I had a massage at Anara Spa with heated lava stones and relaxation techniques I didn't have the will to resist. I had dinner at Tidepools, koi slipping through dark water beneath my table . My stay felt like a restorative idyll before my last island tour. Then I met the Hyatt's director of Hawaiian culture, Aunty Stella Burgess. She took one look at me and said, "You seem full." She meant full of everything I'd seen, heard, tasted, done, and her tone indicated she'd seen cases like mine before. When we parted, Aunty Stella added, "Kauai's different," and she didn't try to explain.
Although it's the oldest of the main islands and farther from the rest than they are from each other, Kauai actually seems the most Hawaiian to me. Those might be fighting words on Oahu, Maui or the Big Island, but especially outside amid its irrepressible fertility, the Garden Isle feels both remote and flourishing, that essential Hawaiian combination. Hillsides explode with both native and exotic plant life, the whole palette of greens clinging to sheer vertical cliffs. I paddled between riverbanks dense with mangroves. I walked along Nu'alolo Valley with invasive but delicious strawberry guava bouncing down the trail in front of me. And then I came upon sere Waimea Canyon winding through the highlands. Unexpected awe is the whole archipelago's trademark. I stood at the overlook shaking my head with my fellow tourists, nothing to do but take in everything, let it fill me, let Hawaii converge.
I've taken in a lot, and by "talking story," generous Hawaiians have grounded my trip in a native perspective. Hawaii wields its double- edged vibe -- protecting what is sacred in both natural and human realms for the long term but appreciating the splendor right here and now. That cohesive sense of Hawaii I believe will stay with me the rest of my life, its enduring urgency. Still, I don't know when I'll get back, and like words on a page, a sense just isn't enough. With only hours left, I want to keep Hawaii in my senses now. I want to witness one more great thing.
I descend the last hundred yards stepping down the wet stones of Hanakapi'ai Stream to a jungle-fringed cove. The river parts, half the water flowing through cobbles to a lagoon behind the beach, half flowing directly into the ocean. A few people sit on the rocks or walk along the surf. A kayaker tries to rig a Hawaii state flag as a sail. Another man sits at the base of the cliff studying the tide as it eats away his path to the beach. A mother, father and son whom I overtook on the trail arrive, take in the scene and the hand-painted sign tallying the dangers of the ocean, then turn back toward the trailhead at Ha'ena State Park. Human presence clearly shapes this place, yet it feels wild, visited but not suppressed, like Hawaii itself.
Still reckoning the time I have till nightfall, I hold my hand up to measure the sun, its path already shining on the water. Even now, in one of the most beautiful spots I've ever seen, it takes an act of will not to rush on. If I ran the whole way upstream, I might make it to the falls above, but already I'll be walking out in half-light. And in the end, I realize I have to stop idealizing the places I cannot reach -- that waterfall, that mythical Kalalau -- and let the beauty amaze me where I am.
The clear water pools in the lagoon behind me with soaring cliffs behind that and waves washing over the steep beach in front. I sit down on the strip of sand. Looking west I feel like I can see thousands of miles of ocean, nothing but water till Taiwan. Hanakapi'ai feels like the convergence of Kauai. Streams run down the verdant pali as sand and estuary reflect the angling sun. On Hawaii's keen edge, I open my eyes as wide as they will go to let in the silver light.
Kauai Time: Travel frenzy turns to story time as I paddle the Hule'ia Stream with a few other guests on Outfitters Kauai's Hidden Valley Falls Kayak Adventure. Upstream we beach the kayaks, and our guide leads us into the forest, sharing what seem like secrets: edible verbena flowers that taste like mushrooms, awapuhi ginger for our hair and kukui nuts so oily they'll burn like candles. Guides divulge the island's best local food (Hamura's Saimin in Lihu'e ) and shave ice (Jo-Jo's in Waimea). Opinions vary; ask for several. They can also recommend beaches and hiking trails based on scenery or security -- anything to make visiting the island easier, safer and more beautiful. We take turns on the rope swing, plunging into a green pool, rinsing away the last homebound shreds of worry. Then the motorized canoe carries us back to the dock, towing the kayaks while we eat cookies and drink juice. This is not extreme sport. But the forest stories, the uncanny light and the cool, almost liquid shade make it extremely Kauai.