Let me just say this right up front: I never had any particular desire to go to Hawaii. For one thing, I’m more of a hiker than a beach lounger. I don’t like rum or boating or sunning or surfing, and men in Hawaiian shirts make my teeth hurt.
Then my dear friend Toby Neal—a wonderful novelist whose books are mostly set in the Hawaiian islands, and whose unforgettable memoir, Freckled, is about growing up on Kauai—invited me along on her research trip to that island as she gathered material for her new book.
“It’s only fair that I get to show you my island, since you’ve shown me yours,” she coaxed.
By “my island” she means Prince Edward Island in Canada, pretty much as far as you can get from Kauai both geographically and psychologically. Toby first came to stay with me there about ten years ago and has been back every year since. I’ve introduced her to lobster harbors and fiddle festivals, and the beauty of flowering fields of potatoes and lupins and red dirt roads that run straight down to the ocean.
So I agreed and got on a plane from Boston. A mere 12 hours later (the last six of which were spent in that non-reclining last row, thank you very much), I landed on Kauai and Toby greeted me, as one does, with a lei that immediately made me sneeze so hard that I had to toss it into the back seat.
Kauai is the fourth-largest Hawaiian island, so it took us another hour to drive to our Airbnb in Princeville from the capitol city, Lihue. The views were breathtaking: green mountains carved like drip castles, turquoise water, tulip trees flowering a bright orange.
“Not bad,” I said.
Knowing my hiking fetish, Toby had been quick to tempt me with the Kalalau trail, the most famous trail on the island, when she was campaigning for me to join her on this trip.
“How long is it?” I asked.
“Sure, no problem,” I said.
Fortunately, I’d had the good sense to look up the trail before packing my trekking poles. “The most dangerous trail in the world” was a phrase that appeared in every website, along with the description of something called “crawler’s ledge.”
“Um,” I said when I called her back, “how about if we just do four miles of the trail, to the river and back?”
That’s what we did, and it was plenty. Steep uphills, even steeper downhills, with lots of slippery patches. But the payoff was huge: views of the Na’poli coastline with its ridged green mountains and sapphire sea, and a nice soak in the icy river pools before we turned around and came back down to the beach, where we saw a monk seal blubber its way off the beach and into the water with all of the grace of me trying to cross those slippery stones in the river.
The best part of Day 1, though, was seeing Toby’s childhood home, a small, square green building she calls “The Forest House” alongside the park entrance, where her mother once planted a lush vegetable garden and roses still bloom, a memorial to their family’s time in the forest.
Besides the Forest House, Toby shared many other places on the island that are special to her, like the plantation that now serves as a tourist destination offering fine dining and Rum Safaris where her father was once a groundskeeper, and the farm across the street from Anini Beach, where she used to come help exercise polo horses as a teen—all of which made me understand and appreciate who Toby has become as a woman, a writer, a mother, and the best sort of adventuring friend I could ever have. She also helped me see not only what Kauai is today, but what this island has managed to preserve, despite the steady influx of selfie tourists. There is a certain wildness here that still feels untamed despite centuries of human habitation.
The island put on her best show for me day after day. When we stopped to admire the blow hole known as Spouting Horn on the south coast, for instance, I saw a pod of dolphins, a monk seal, and a pair of sea turtles.
“It’s like winning at Hawaii Bingo,” the man next to me said gleefully.
Then, when I went snorkeling along Anini Beach, I floated over coral reefs and colorful fish, of course, but then there were sea turtles, too, peacefully pecking away at the algae on the coral like hens.
“If only I could see an albatross, my trip would be complete,” I sighed happily as I climbed back into the car.
“Well, let’s see,” Toby said. “I’ve heard they’re nesting right in our neighborhood.”
By “our neighborhood,” she meant the golf-centric resort of Princeville, where we were staying. We swirled around a couple of cul-de-sacs of overly large houses, and then, all of a sudden, there they were, hanging out on a lawn just like the ubiquitous chickens of Kauai: A pair of Laysan albatrosses—and their fuzzy chick.
“Wow,” I said. “I just won at Hawaii Bingo.”