There’s no equivalent in English for the word ‘komorebi’, a Japanese noun representing the moving, dappled light filtered through the leaves of the trees. It’s a rather whimsical concept, an acknowledgement of a simple yet beautiful phenomenon. With heavy eyes, I watch komorebi dancing beneath the table, the flowing, wave-like strokes of lomi lomi massage and the sound of gently rustling palm fronds lulling me into a sedative state.
Spoiler alert: I’m not in Japan.
I’m in Kaua’i, the fourth largest of the seven inhabited Hawaiian islands.
Where Oahu is the Los Angeles of the island chain, Kaua’i is the Big Sur: sparsely populated, slower-paced, and renowned for its rugged landscapes. It’s even earned the moniker ‘the Garden Isle’ for its patches of dense rainforest, made famous in films like Jurassic Park and Tropic Thunder.
I’m enveloped by a more manicured display of monstera and palms as I lay in my garden hale at the Grand Hyatt Kaua’i Resort and Spa’s Anara Spa. It’s open to the breeze, but the garden provides an excellent privacy barrier between us and the remainder of the sprawling complex. It’s busy with women sunbathing and celebrating birthdays. But today, it’s just me in the hale, relishing my hour of nature-bathed self-care.
Cruising the coastline
Rejoining the real world and our group a few hours later, we head towards the port of Eleele, where we board Holo Holo Charters’ twin-hull catamaran bound for the craggy peaks of the Nā Pali coastline.
As we hit the open water, the weather looms, with thick black cloud and surfable swell threatening the illusion of the perfect sunset cruise. The pitching is enough to make the stomach flip. And, depending on your level of protection from the onboarding waves, enough to soak you through. A chance to rinse away the salt comes when Captain Cole manoeuvres the bow beneath the tumbling Waiʻnapanapa Falls. His caveat comes minutes too late, the cool, fresh ‘waterfall of fertility’ already beating down on my head and shoulders.
As if on queue, the ocean calms and the clouds break, the sun making quick work of my saturated hair and clothes. We catch the first glimpses of the Nā Pali cliffs just minutes later, the deck a flurry of activity as the mad scramble for cameras and phones begins.
It’s, perhaps, Hawaii’s most recognisable section of coastline. Norwegian mountains are soft and rounded; Mauritian steeply tapered and jagged. Here, on Kaua’i, the mountains have their own identity, emerald and sharply ridged, a near vertical 900m of vegetation-covered rock that oozes into the ocean below.
From the air, we’re privy to parts of the Nā Pali Coast State Wilderness Park you wouldn’t otherwise see, as only around 20 per cent of the island is accessible by vehicle. Showcasing that other 80 per cent is the distinct pleasure of our Kaua’i-born and raised Blue Hawaiian Helicopters pilot, Barrett Daligdig. We’re the least distinguished of his guests — he’s flown Johnny Depp and Ben Stiller around — but we’re up there with the most grateful.
My stomach lurches as we pitch into the Waialeale Crater, the mountainside dropping away into a seemingly endless valley more than 1500 meters deep. Countless waterfalls surround the helicopter, a collection of long, spindly streams cascading down the cliffside. There’s never a day they’re not flowing, with some 350 days of rainfall recorded annually in this part of the island, earning it the Guinness World Record for ‘the most rainy days per annum’.
It’s nothing short of spectacular.
In the local tongue, ‘I’ve got chicken skin’; the magnitude and mystique of this remote site not lost on me. Our helicopter of seven sits in a stupor, unable and unwilling to speak. Instead, we sit, watch, and snap away at the falls, bottling our thoughts for a debrief once we’re back on the ground.
A cultural immersion
From one valley to the next, we go from heli-touring to lei-making. Our session with Leina’ala Pavao-Jardin Kumu Hula student Jayna is in the McBryde Gardens, a tropical oasis in the cool shade of the Lawa’i Valley. I’m humbled to learn a deeply traditional art from someone so connected to their culture, a culture deeply rooted in nature and the environment. There’s a deep respect for the land the kama’āina live on, ensuring its preservation for the privilege of people like me to see.
On the table are three large baskets, each brimming with plumeria and bougainvillea, ready to be threaded into a lei one by one. There’s an art to adding each bloom: the needle has to pierce the plumeria through the base of the stamen and out through the centre, and bougainvillea right through the woody heart. Picking and sticking the flowers is meditative, allowing plenty of space to mull over our previously collected thoughts. Jayna shares stories of her Kumu Hula (hula teacher) journey thus far, accompanied by the gentle rustling of the palm fronds in the breeze.
It’s the baseline to the soundtrack of Kaua’i, inescapable and atmospheric, the epitome of the Hawaiian island’s natural beauty.
More to see and do on Kaua’i
Thick rainforest epitomises Kaua’i, but there’s just as much arid area as densely vegetated. Head towards the island’s southwest, where you’ll find the gaping gorges of Waimea Canyon, also known as the ‘Grand Canyon of the Pacific’. With flat-topped buttes and rugged, red-tinged crags, the 22-kilometre-long and 1000-metre-deep canyon is like nowhere else on the islands. Drive up to the Waimea Canyon lookout for the best views, or set out on one of the many hiking trails to see the surrounding landscapes more intimately.
Kaua’i Rum Safari
Fletcher and Tanji are a contradictory pair. One is big and boisterous, and the other delivers his one-liners deadpan and dry. Together, their joker personalities make the Kaua’i Rum Safari: two hours of non-stop laughter, Kōloa Rum tastings, and sightseeing around the 27-hectare Kilohana Plantation. Precurse the tour with lunch at Plantation House by Gaylords. It’s a favourite local restaurant housed in the property’s heritage 1930s Tudor mansion. Then, climb aboard the safari truck to see the working plantation through the comedic duo’s eyes.
From a pineapple canning factory to a flourishing creative marketplace, Warehouse 3540 has had quite a glow-up. Pop in for a coco spice latte (coffee, coconut cream, and pumpkin spice) from Kind Koffee Company, and browse for a piece of Kaua’i to take home — some Lili Koi jewellery or one of Robin McCoy’s oil artworks, perhaps. All stores and food vans are small, locally-owned businesses, an eclectic mix that promises hours of perusing.
Hualani’s at Timbers Kaua’i
Farm-to-table isn’t a term thrown about lightly at Hualani’s, with much of the fresh, seasonal produce on the menu coming from Timbers’ 6.7-hectare onsite farm, The Farm at Hōkūala. It’s tended to by Samuel and his wife, their morning harvest paired with the daily catch and transformed by executive chef Alex Amorin into the likes of stuffed local ahi with crab salad and lilikoi (passionfruit) creme brule. Pick a few dishes from the a la carte menu, or enjoy a five-course tasting menu with paired wines and unparalleled ocean views.