Kauai Footprints: the Dark Side of "Hidden Hawaii"
Story and photos by Michele Bigley

When a guidebook writer gets the enviable job of covering the island of Kauai, she finds the locals are not too keen on another writeup encouraging stupid tourists to do stupid things on their sacred land.

Kauai travel

Coated in perspiration, we paused to gaze at the Pacific. The ocean roared, retreated, then cast blows upon the cliffs. In the distance, a humpback breeched; an albatross skimmed the white–capped waves; sun rays streamed through plants on the Na Pali cliffs. My husband, Eddie placed a hand on my protruding belly and beamed. Even the baby seemed to somersault with glee. It was impossible not to feel the allure of Kauai, showing off her best struts like a high school cheerleader as we stood a mile into the Kalalau Trail awed, amazed and already exhausted.

Kauai waterfall

Just then, a couple with a toddler in a backpack ascended the tree root–covered trail. Red faced, with tight smiles, they asked how much longer until they reached Hanakapi'ai waterfall. Less than two miles, we warned, understanding the tantalizing pull of the cascade, the epic descent, then ascent that would require them to crawl up the unkempt trailhead that had once protected renegade lepers and still baffles local Kauai people. They grunted their gratitude and proceeded onwards only to return an hour later—to where we were still transfixed by the Pacific—to say she had twisted her ankle. I was reminded once again how Kauai remains an elusive island. She doesn't make it easy to get to know her.

And the rugged landscape is only part of the reason why.

As a guidebook writer, it is my job to dig into a destination, learn her strengths and weaknesses and then transform all the information into an easy–to–read way to find out where to eat, sleep and play—and maybe learn some history too. However, while researching my Great Destinations Kauai guide, this island and her people taught me more about sacredness than resorts, more about respect than plate lunch spots, and ultimately schooled this well–traveled writer about the nature of travel.

Let me out myself. I do not live on Kauai. I accepted the assignment to write a book about this Hawaiian island because she fascinates, lures and excites me. Like many before me, I have strong ties to the island, but I am not a local. Which is why, when I began researching my book, I reached out to transplants rather than native Hawaiians first. I imagined these lovers of the Garden Island could inform me of the real experience of being here with a perception of an outsider, so that I could offer my readers the most authentic experience they can have.

The Tourist Backlash Begins
I was shocked, however, when I had my first meeting (with a California–transplanted vacation rental proprietor) and was asked, why on earth do we need another guidebook to this island? Aren't there too many visitors already? Haven't I heard about the local backlash against guidebooks? She continued with a laundry list of places not to include in my book—including Kipu Falls, Kalalau Trail and even parts of Kokee. She instructed me to keep my head down, my mouth shut, and never try to speak pidgin. I looked around her acquired acreage, dotted with grapefruit and papaya trees, and wondered if I had it all wrong. Maybe transplants could not offer insight into a visitor's experience of the island. They are too busy fighting for their own right to be here.

Kauai beach

To understand, I have to take you back a few hundred years. The Kauai people (and really, all Hawaiians) have been colonized time and time again. It dates back to Captain Cook and his band of explorers, who introduced guns and STDs, in some cases wiping out entire villages of native people. Understandably, Hawaiian culture has a rooted distrust of outsiders.

Consider the constant flow of people trying to reap their rewards: sugar barons, Russian entrepreneurs, Filipinos, Portuguese, Americans, and now pot–bellied lobster–hued couples wearing matching aloha shirts and saying back in America, we do this. Then imagine that you are a Hawaiian—which these days means you are a stir fry of cultures—trying to survive here. You have a number of factors working against you. First off, land prices have escalated with the slew of mainlanders purchasing beachfront properties, forcing locals to have to find affordable housing in Vegas and Oregon of all places. Then, throw in the lack of jobs. With the sugar and farming industry going kaput, the best job a local can get—besides becoming one of the hundred real estate agents—is in the tourism industry.

This creates an interesting dynamic. Local people, who take pride in their island, are being forced to work for folks who march in and out, bulldozing sacred sites and then charging more outsiders ridiculous prices to sleep there. These same local people, who cater to the whims of those affluent aloha shirted vacationers, have to encounter tourists on their days off hiking trails they are not prepared to hike and jumping off cliffs they are not fit to jump from.

Kauai turtle

Keeping Kauai's Hidden in Hiding
The week before I arrived on a research trip to Kauai, a friend's sister–in–law (and a mother of a toddler) followed the advice of a certain guidebook that I will not name, hiked an unkempt trail, and fell to her death. Local people were in an uproar, blaming the guidebook, blaming tourism, and throwing up their hands to the many gods that protect them. Their relationship to tourism and ultimately to tourists was being challenged dramatically. How can they respect the people whose money sustains them if the people cannot respect the land and people of Kauai?

This became my mission when researching my book. I met the stink eye of locals with a smile. When I contacted a local writer asking for Kauai advice and he turned me on to an anti–tourist website he had created, I thanked him kindly and informed him that no, I would not be sharing his thoughts on throwing tourists to the sharks with my readers. But I will show them how to do their part to be mindful of their footprint on this fragile island.

Not an easy feat I soon learned. This dichotomy between local's love and hate of the tourism industry runs deep. Not only do they have a collection of well–intentioned mainlanders turning farmland into bed and breakfasts, but there are also destinations the Kauaians want to remain hidden. As one local transplant informed me, "When we want a day off, we don't want to have to deal with stupid tourists doing stupid things." Though this might be a tad harsh, she is right.

Kauai private

Kipu Falls, for example, happens to be one of those Kauai gems that guidebooks don't have to twist your arm to visit. Hordes of tourists hike the short (and privately owned) trail to get to this waterfall that locals have been using as a diving board for years. Unfortunately, visitors do not understand the water levels or mood of the water flow and have (on more than one occasion) plummeted into some serious doctor bills. Because of this, locals are very territorial of the falls—which you can tell by the graffiti scrawled on the rocks. Who wants to clean up some drunken Iowans bloodied body on your day off?

Kauai mountains

So what do we travelers do? How can we respect the land and still have our authentic experience? I had to start with changing my perception of travel here. Usually I am the gal who wants to hike every secret trail to every secret beach, but in Kauai, that might not be a safe or welcoming experience. As a mainlander (and a San Franciscan) I may not understand the idea of being territorial about a place—how am I going to get all worked up if some visiting Brit's kid is on the swing at the playground or some stroller is hogging the trail in Tennessee Valley? But in Kauai, they only have so much room, and each day that space is lessening due to development. This land literally is their land. It is what they have, love, and believe in.

Some places are sacred to their roots. And where an Oregonian may see a pile of rubble, a Hawaiian will take a moment of peace and pray to Pele for her gifts. Where a New Yorker might hike through patch of native plants wearing boots that have wandered through trails near Rye, a local might see invasive plants brought in on well–traveled shoes that strangle, deplete and ultimately kill the native ones. If we as visitors to this sacred and fragile land cannot understand the impacts of our footprints—both positive and negative—we have the potential to destroy Kauai. Not something any of us want to think about with a Mai Tai and a Technicolor sunset.

Michele Bigley is the author of the guidebooks Great Destinations Kauai and Northern California: An Explorer's Guide as well as the iPhone travel apps Family Friendly SF and Napa/Sonoma With Kids. She currently lives in the sunny part of San Francisco with her family.

Related articles:

Apocalypse Soon: On the Lemanak River of Sarawak by Graham Reid
Salmon and Red Cedar by Pam Mendel
The Backpackers' Pilgrimage: Ko Phangan by Joel Carillet

Other U.S. and Canada travel stories from the archives

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Great Destinations Kauai

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Northern California: An Explorer's Guide

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