Mount Makana viewed from Limahuli Garden and Preserve.
Photo: Phil Haber
Crossing a rocky creek on the Kalalau.
Photo: Wolfgang Haehler/Corbis
Live music at Tahiti Nui bar.
Photo: Linda Ching
The Hanalei River.
Hitting the surf at Hanalei Beach Park.
Photo: Courtesy of Lonley Planet
Forget the brilliant script and acclaimed supporting cast; here’s guessing that George Clooney took the role in The Descendants so he could run around Kauai’s North Shore. It’s here, after all, that you’ll find Hawaii’s most dramatic landscape: jagged peaks plunging into a cobalt sea, taro-filled plains, and curling white-sand beaches. Hanalei, a farming community with a tourist overlay (boutiques, art galleries, yoga studios), sets a gentle rhythm for roaming this region—one that requires not a schedule but a rough outline, giving you access to the spectacular terrain (the Na Pali coast is a mere 15 minutes away), as well as the opportunity to play tourist and relax on the beach.
Set up home base at Hanalei Colony Resort. These airy apartments (with full kitchens) welcome the trade winds. You can watch—from your bed, your private lanai, or the beach—the sun rise, the mist play on nearby mountains, and the moon turn the jet-black bay silver.
Reserve mornings for activities. Kayak on the Hanalei River, where fallen hau blossoms glow gold in the morning light and native ducks, herons, and egrets bathe in the glassy water. At the end of Kuhio Highway, which almost rings the island, hike the Kalalau Trail; it switchbacks up what Hawaiians call na pali, or cliffs. The land along the coastline is impassable except for this ancient footpath, which in a couple of rigorous hours deposits you at Hanakapiai beach (look for the overgrown two-mile trail to a waterfall from here). And at the incomparable Limahuli Garden and Preserve, you can see restored centuries-old taro terraces.
At Kee Beach, sit in the shade of ironwoods, admiring their fearsome, twisting roots, or float in the water and stare at the sheer Na Pali cliffs. Closer to town, the lovely Lumahai Beach curls secretly just below the ring road and is ideal for beachcombing. The sandy arc of Hanalei Bay is a magnet for locals, who often grab a chili pepper–chicken plate lunch from the Village Snack and Bakery and watch their kids jump and shriek off the pier.
Hawaiians relax by making music, and you’ll find mainland transplants Doug and Sandy McMaster playing sweet slack-key guitar and ukulele at the Hanalei Community Center. Down the street at Tahiti Nui, the bar where George Clooney found Beau Bridges in The Descendants, is a more raucous scene: A mix of locals, surfers, and tourists flock here on Friday nights, when Kelii Kanealii brings his energetic brand of slack-key to Hanalei.
The Hanalei Dolphin Fish Market is your best bet for picking up slabs of ahi and local beef for dinner at home. Or go at lunchtime, when residents show up for the sushi and fresh poke. Don’t be surprised to see the waitress’s grandmother at a nearby outdoor table, stroking her new baby pig.
There are few better spots from which to overlook Hanalei Bay than Kauai Grill. Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten submits local ingredients to French-influenced cooking and Asian sauces. Savor his coconut panna cotta and watch the sun slip behind Mount Makana, which, long before it was christened Bali Hai in the movie South Pacific, was called “fire cliff” by the ancient Hawaiians. They threw flaming branches from its peak, letting the ocean winds create a shower of sparks.