Kauai's close-up: Taking a 'Descendants' tour of Hawaii
Actors Shailene Woodley as Alexandra, from left, George Clooney as Matt King and Amara Miller as Scottie are pictured on the set of "The Descendants," in Hawaii. (Courtesy Merie Wallace, MCT / March 30, 2012)
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."