More than 100 movies have been filmed on the island of Kauai. But in most of them, the Garden Isle stands in for someplace else.
In the iconic “South Pacific,” Kauai is the mythical tropical paradise Bali Hai. In “Jurassic Park,” it’s an island off the coast of Central America. In “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” it’s a steamy jungle you don’t want to find yourself in. It’s Africa in “Mighty Joe Young,” Vietnam in “Tropic Thunder,” Venezuela in “Dragonfly” and Australia in “The Thorn Birds.”
Sometimes Kauai is just Kauai, as in Elvis Presley’s “Blue Hawaii” or “Soul Surfer,” the 2011 drama based on the shark attack suffered by athlete Bethany Hamilton.
But “The Descendants” takes Kauai to a whole new level. In the gentle hands of director Alexander Payne, the island becomes a virtual character in the film, much as California’s Santa Ynez Valley wine country did in his earlier film “Sideways.”
Payne reveals the island through the eyes of the people who live there while closely following Kauai native Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel about lawyer Matt King, who loses his wife but gains a deeper understanding of his family and a new appreciation for the huge parcel of paradise that he holds in trust for them.
A trip in the cinematic footsteps of “The Descendants” provides an intimate look at this languid tropical paradise where, as Hemmings muses in her book, “everything moves at a slow, slack pace.”
And Hanalei Bay is an excellent place to start.
The two-mile-long, crescent-shaped beach is where Matt, played by George Clooney, confronts his rival Brian Speer. Despite its broad reach, clean sand and prime location not far from the spectacular Na Pali coast, Hanalei Bay is surprisingly unspoiled, at least in the offseason. On a Saturday afternoon in February, I saw fewer people than you’ll see in the movie when Matt first spots Brian while out jogging.
About a mile offshore, expert surfers worked the winter break. A few groups ambled along the water’s edge. Some kids defied the “No Swimming” signs to challenge the churning in-shore surf with their boogie boards. And a couple posed for wedding pictures against the spectacular backdrop of the mountains that hug the bay and the quaint town of Hanalei, with its elegant missionary-era churches, funky shops and excellent restaurants.
Two fishermen tried their luck at the end of the Hanalei pier, easily recognizable from scenes in “South Pacific,” “Donovan’s Reef” and “The Wackiest Ship in the Army.” That was the extent of the activity, from the southern end where the St. Regis Princeville resort hotel perches on the bluff like a cruise ship that ran aground and became entangled in the landscape, to the scraggly low pine-topped Makani Point that forms the bay’s north end. If you look closely, the headland resembles a dragon’s snout resting on the water, while the ridge becomes his humped back. This is the landscape that once inspired the Peter, Paul and Mary hit “Puff the Magic Dragon.”
A few houses north of the pier is the trim cottage where Matt and Brian have their confrontation in the movie. The cottage, with its wraparound porch and cream-colored square columns supporting a green plantation-style roof, is screened from the beach by a low hedge. A small sign in front of the hedge says “Mahalo for respecting our private property” — a response to curiosity-seekers who sometimes get too close, hoping to catch some of the movie vibe. If you go, you would do well to honor the kapu and allow the occupants their privacy.
From the bay, glance toward the bluff on your right and you’ll see Princeville, where Matt and his daughters stay during their trip to Kauai. No need to tread lightly here. This vast, manicured resort hotel, shopping center, condo development and golf club epitomizes what happened throughout the Hawaiian islands when the descendants of missionaries, sailors and the native royal families they married into realized that the tourist trade could be an even more lucrative way to exploit their ancestral lands than sugar cane and other island crops. It’s what Matt’s cousins have in mind for the 25,000 acres they have inherited.
We get a chance to see this land for ourselves in a memorable moment in the film, when Matt and his daughters accompany a cousin to an overlook from where they gaze over a spectacular unspoiled valley that plunges down to Kipukai, the pristine beach punctuated by Kawaikeli point.
Both the viewpoint and the view itself are accessible to the public only through an ATV tour across the privately owned Kipu Ranch. Tour guide Justin Shanks says that interest has picked up significantly since “The Descendants” was released. But expect to get muddy in the rainy season and choked with dust in the dry season.
The real-life history of Kipu Ranch mirrors the story of the land that Matt and his family have inherited. William Hyde Rice, a businessman and governor of Kauai, purchased 6,000 acres from Princess Ruth, his friend and neighbor in Kalapaki Beach, in 1879. The princess sold him the land for $3,000 with the understanding that it would always remain in his family and never be developed. Though not legally binding, the agreement has been honored by three generations of the Rice family who now run about 1,500 head of cattle on the land, allow the ATV tours and accommodate filmmakers.
In fact, a highlight of the tour, in addition to the viewpoint, is a stop where you can jump into the Huleia River on the same rope swing that Harrison Ford used to make his seaplane getaway in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
Rice sold about 2,000 acres of the Kipu Ranch to his in-law Jack Waterhouse, and that’s the land Matt and his family are viewing in the film. In fact, behind them and just out of camera range is a stone monument to Waterhouse. Ironically, high taxes might force his descendants to deed their land to the government, which would likely sell it to a developer to raise revenue. So this breathtaking property might become the next Princeville.
As Matt’s cousin enthuses in the movie, “Golf courses to rival Pebble Beach. It’s all just sitting here empty now; soon the whole world will be able to enjoy it.”
There’s no better way to drown your disappointment about the possible fate of Kipukai than to head back to Hanalei and sip a mai tai at Tahiti Nui, the impossibly authentic tiki bar where, likely as not, you’ll be served by Julia Whitford, the bartender who poured Matt his old-fashioned when he bellied up to the bar alongside his wise, but well-pickled cousin Hugh, played by Beau Bridges. If it’s a Friday afternoon, you can enjoy listening to traditional Hawaiian slack key music by the Pone Kane Trio, which plays the indigenous guitar and ukulele sound originally composed to accompany hula. It’s hauntingly evocative of the islands, unembellished by yodeling or any other kind of singing, certainly not the kind involving tiny bubbles, little fish with big names or ukulele ladies, although if you ask them nicely, they might play a slack key version of “Puff the Magic Dragon.”
The Tahiti Nui is the real thing. It looks just like something a sailor might have staggered into during shore leave in the early part of the last century. Not much has changed here since Auntie Louise Marston and her husband, Bruce, opened for business in 1963. Their son Christian runs the place now with the help of his son and daughter — three generations, just like at the Kipu Ranch.
Crusty pressboard walls are hung with vintage posters, old family photos and pictures of island celebrities and events that have occurred there over the years. The latest is a shot of George Clooney and Beau Bridges under the bamboo and rattan roof of the horseshoe-shaped bar, with its orange countertop and raffia skirt. Bar stools are tiki carvings covered with vinyl seats. The ceiling is plaited with printed tapa cloth, its native patterns barely visible under decades of grime and soot.
The patrons are still mostly locals. Apparently, word about the movie hasn’t yet become widespread among visitors to the island. Still, the occasional tourist will pose for a photo on the stool that Clooney occupied when Bridges inadvertently gave him the information that caused him to take a whole new look at whether to allow his ancestral land to become another Princeville.
The food is surprisingly good for a place that looks as gritty as this. Kalua pork sandwiches served at lunch are made from the pig roasted whole in a pit out back for the Wednesday night luaus that offer an authenticity the resort hotel feasts don’t even try to replicate. Whitford makes an excellent mai tai. She’ll let you watch, but she won’t tell you what’s in the mix she pours from a plastic bottle to accompany the rum.
And if you happen by when the Pone Kane Trio is holding forth on the tiny stage under a koa wood model of an outrigger canoe, you’ll probably agree that there’s no better moment to be had on the island of Kauai — either on the big screen or in real life.
IF YOU GO:
Director Alexander Payne lived on Kauai for several months to get a feel for the island that he wanted to express in “The Descendants.” You can visit all the locations he chose and more in a much shorter visit. Here’s how:
HANALEI BEACH AREA
All the beaches in Hawaii are public property, so there’s no problem visiting Hanalei Bay beach and pier. There are three or four public access areas with free parking, some of them with restrooms and showers.
The house that Brian Speer rents is called the Nalu Beach Cottage, one of two that are mirror images of each other. They front on Weke Road and actually are rental properties, handled by the Hanalei Land Co. 808-826-1454; www.hanaleiland.com.
The St. Regis Princeville resort hotel can be reached via the main entrance to the Princeville condominium development. Parking for nonguests is limited, but if you do manage to score a space, the lobby is opulent and the bar opens onto a spacious lanai with a superb view of Hanalei Bay far below. The hotel has its own lovely little beach, not shown in the film, but accessible via a public footpath from the grounds. But it’s a long climb back up. www.stregisprinceville.com.
OUTLOOK AT KIPUKAI
There is no public access to Kipukai, unless you were to go by kayak. But be aware that King Kamehameha I tried twice to conquer Kauai by landing his war canoes at Kipukai, only to be blown off course by storms. So you might want to settle for the ATV tour that at least gets you to the lookout point in the movie.
Kipu Ranch Adventures offers an exclusive three-hour guided tour on single, double or guide-driven all-terrain vehicles. It starts out calmly with a drive through a tunnel of towering Captain Cook Pines, named for the 18th-century British explorer who introduced the trees as a source of replacement masts for European ships. But it quickly becomes a rollicking Indiana Jones-style thrill ride on steep, winding, rut-filled trails across a spectacular unspoiled landscape to the viewpoint. 808-246-9288; www.kiputours.com.
The Tahiti Nui is easy to find, right on the main highway in the town of Hanalei 5-5134 Kuhio Highway (on the right if you’re headed north). Luaus are every Wednesday, 5-8 p.m. Call 808-482-4829 for reservations or just stop in for a drink or a casual meal.
Roberts Hawaii operates a fascinating and fun-filled six-hour movie tour of Kauai with an expert guide and clips from the more than 100 movies filmed on the island, some of them hilariously bad. At press time, they were in the process of updating the tour and video presentation to include more information about “The Descendants,” but the current tour does include a stop for lunch at Tahiti Nui, as well as some of Kauai’s more spectacular waterfalls and beaches. 800-831-5541; www.robertshawaii.com.
You can learn more about films made on Kauai from the Kauai Film Commission website, www.filmkauai.com, and from “The Kauai Movie Book” by Chris Cook, which features spectacular landscape photography by David Boynton and information about local characters who have worked with the production crews and sometimes appeared in the films. But the book was last updated in 2008, so you won’t find anything about “The Descendants.”
The story of land grants and the commercial exploitation of the islands that forms the historical core of “The Descendants” has been told many times, most recently in the comprehensive and engaging “Lost Kingdom: Hawaii’s Last Queen, The Sugar Kings and America’s First Imperial Adventure” by Julia Flynn Siler, published earlier this year by Atlantic Monthly Press (480 pages, $30).