by George Oxford Miller

After shooting across four zip lines over jungle gullies and bouncing across a suspension bridge, we end up at a scenic jungle waterfall with a twenty-foot drop. “Remember the first scene in ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark?’” our guide asks. “Harrison Ford was looking at a map right here in front of Kipu Falls.”

If some of the waterfalls, beaches, sea caves, and arches on the island of Kaua’i look familiar, it’s no wonder. You’ve probably seen the same breathtaking view on the silver screen. Dozens of movies, from King Kong and Jurassic Park to South Pacific and Elvis’s Blue Hawaii, have been filmed on Kaua’i, one of Hawaii’s most scenic yet least developed islands.

With 3,500-foot-tall sea cliffs, towering waterfalls, lush jungles, jagged mountain peaks, and the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, almost every corner of Kaua’i holds a surprise. For our holiday, we explore some of the most popular natural wonders by boat, hiking, kayaking, zip line, and helicopter. In the process, we visit many of the movie locations loved by both the stars and the locals who know the island best.

In a very real way, the volcanic events that formed Kaua’i 5 million years ago determine what we schedule for our island adventure. Over the eons, the relentless force of pounding waves have chiseled the lava slopes of the western shoreline into sheer cliffs. Then streams rushing down from the 5,000-foot peaks carved deep valleys that slope to pristine beaches. Seeing the rugged Na Pali coast rates as one of the signature experiences on Kaua’i. But no roads lead to the pristine wonder.

To see the dramatic shoreline, we book a 5-hour sailing-snorkel cruise tour with Holo-Holo Charters at Port Allen. The 28-foot catamaran, with twin hulls like the double-hulled canoes of the ancient Hawaiians, takes us around the southern tip of the island past the Pacific Missile Range with its silos and radar domes. Pods of spinner dolphins tag along and ride our bow wake. They race beside us then burst into the air and spin like an Olympic diver. We cheer each performance and burn memories into both our minds and cameras.

Once we reach Na Pali, which means “the cliffs,” we enter a land little changed since the first inhabitants build small villages on narrow beaches and farmed taro in the steep valleys. The towering cliffs blot out the morning sun and loom above the boat like a dark wall. Then the sun lasers through a canyon in the cliff and illuminates a giant arch on the beach.

“In one scene of ‘King Kong,’ they race through the arch trying to escape the gorilla,” the captain says. It’s not hard to imagine bizarre creatures living in the hidden canyons that disappear into a maze of spires and twisted ridges. Almost every beach boasts a movie résumé. We sail past locations for “Jurassic Park,” “Dinosaurs,” “Mighty Joe Young,” and Harrison Ford’s “Six Days, Seven Nights.”

The north shore of Kaua’i has plenty to brag about, too. Besides being home of “Puff the Magic Dragon,” Hanalei Bay is the quinsentential surfing spot and another icon of the island. “The waves have perfect breaks and the view of the mountains is as picturesque as any in the Pacific,” Mike Freiberg, a Neiman Marcos chef on holiday, says. The laid-back Hanalei town, reached by ten one-way bridges, rests in the cradle of the blue-water bay surrounded by serrated ridges and finger-like peaks.

Limahuli Gardens on the edge of town preserves a treasure of rare, native plants, ancient rock terraces built by early inhabitants, and patches taro, the island staple and source of poi. The tranquil setting made the perfect setting for “South Pacific” and “Jurassic Park,” while another nearby beach hosted “The Lord of the Flies.”

With more than 420 inches of rain annually, the high mountains of Kaua’i rate as the wettest place on the planet. Torrents of water rushing to the sea created the third icon of the island, Waimea Canyon, called, for good reason, the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific.” Koke’e State Park preserves the six-mile-long, 3,600-foot deep gorge and offers miles of trails along the scenic rim and to the canyon depths.

We hike a short but steep trail to Waipo’o Falls, which plummets 800 feet over the rim. The trail meanders through dense forests then opens onto a ridge with a stunning view of the canyon. Iron oxide colors layers of lava turn the cliffs into a palette of Technicolor hues. Erosion has sculpted conical peaks, cinder cones, and natural arches. After seeing the ribbon-like waterfall from the roadside viewpoint across the canyon, I stand on the lip and peer over the cusp into the misty void. It’s a fantasy land Disney would envy.

With so many canyons, cathedral cliffs, mountain valleys, and remote beaches, a helicopter tour offers one of the best ways to get a feel of the natural splendor of majestic island. On our last day we join Island Helicopters for the grand overview. Chief pilot Gary Peterson takes us up for one of the most awesome flight-seeing experiences of my lifetime.

“Kaua’i is 90 percent state property with public access, but the landscape is so rugged that the only way to see most of it is by air,” Peterson says. To prove his point, we fly into Hanapepe Canyon and hover over Manawaiopuna Falls, a ribbon of water that seems to tumble from the sky. “This was the opening scene for ‘Jurassic Park,’” he tells us as we stare in awe.

At the north end of the rugged coast, a picturesque thumb protrudes from the mountain ridge. “That’s now called Bali Hai after the song from ‘South Pacific,’” Peterson tells us. Next he points out several large estates. “Celebrities like living here because it’s so far away from the Hollywood crowds. Pierce Brosnan has had a house here for seven years. He built a playground for the school his son attends. Michael Crichton lived here fulltime [he died November, 2008]. That’s why they filmed the Jurassic Park movies here.”

We turn inland and fly to the 5,200-foot high point of the island, Mt. Wai’ale’ale. The chopper ducks under the clouds and circles around the interior of the volcano’s extinct caldera. Ferns blanket the sheer 3,000-foot walls and dozens of lacey waterfalls stream down from the clouds. With such magic it’s no wonder that Hollywood keeps coming back to the “Garden Island.” So will I.

The natural splendor of Kaua’i makes it a popular movie location.
Déja vu on Hollywood’s 
Secret Island

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