© By Robert W. Bone

When my family moved to Hawaii, in 1971, I did not believe that any of its islands could be all that  different than any other island in the group. Seen one beach and palm tree, seen 'em all, I thought.

Sure, tiny dollops like uninhabited Kahoolawe, and almost-uninhabited Niihau would surely be special in their own way. Casual human access is forbidden on those two. But what characteristis could possibly separate Oahu, Molokai, Lanai, Maui, and the Big Island of Hawaii from each other? All had sun, sand, surf, and tropical plants, fruits and flowers -- along with lovely music and dance -- to offer the visitor to the 50th state.

But I soon learned how wrong I was. Oahu (containing Honolulu, the capital), with its near-million population and slick tourist facilities, dominated for better or worse all the other islands, culturally, politically, and economically.

The sparsely populated Big Island was at once influenced by science (the volcanoes and astronomical observatories there) and by the cowboy culture, due to the predominance of the cattle industry, although super-deluxe resorts began to sprout along its sunniest and driest coast.

Little Lanai was  then known as the “Pineapple Island,” since it was one single plantation from one shoreline to the other. Today it is largely devoted to two exclusive resorts and their associated golf courses.

Molokai, dubbed the “Friendly Island,” seemed to be rugged, rural, unexplored and largely unemployed – even more so now that pineapple is no longer grown there, either.

And Maui has always represented the more “hip” island to me. Its population of about 100,000 enjoys the theatre, many fine restaurants, and considerable cultural indoor and outdoor activities. It also attracts an amazing number of visitors for its small size. At any one moment, about 35,000 non-residents are also in residence, often including a sizeable number of Canadians.
But then there’s Kauai.

Kauai has always been the most remote, geographically and psychologically, from the rest of the state. Known as the Garden Island, many of its residents seem to compete fiercely to keep up a close-the-earth, independent lifestyle that some say is considerably unreceptive to other elements in the state, especially those in relatively urban Oahu. Honolulu with its skyscrapers and aggressive, forward-looking population is seen by many Kauai folks to be the antithesis to their laid-back, fun-loving lifestyle.

When Hawaii was an independent monarchy, Kauai was the only island which was never conquered by military force. Kauai was always different, that’s all. And today it remains special enough to attract visitors who especially appreciate this bucolic spirit of independence.

A few years ago, a large demonstration by many on Kauai managed to keep the new $300 million Hawaii Superferry from landing people and vehicles from Oahu.  Ostensibly it was a grass-roots effort to insist that the Superferry be officially evaluated first for its potential adverse impact on the environment. Meanwhile, visitors to the island were welcome to continue flying there, as usual.

Some saw the massive, metal monster, which could disgorge more than 100 Honolulu vehicles and nearly several hundred Honolulu passengers on their island, as more an undesirable sociological impact than an environmental one – a floating Trojan horse which they fear would soon impose undesirable changes in the rural lifestyle on Kauai, perhaps creating unwanted congestion on the roads and beaches.

Environmental activists on the other islands took the lead from Kauai, and eventually the state supreme court indeed put the final nail in the coffin in 2009, declaring the Superferry illegal since it had not obtained an environmental impact statement. The would-be ferry left the islands for good.

On the map, Kauai is almost a perfect circle, centered around a single extinct volcano called Waialeale, which means, vaguely, lots of water. This 5,148-foot mountain receives a tremendous amount of rainfall and may be, as it is claimed, the wettest spot in the world.

The oldest island, geologically speaking, is heavily eroded and it is the only island which has developed a pair of genuine rivers.

Kauai is also said to have been the ancestral home of the legendary menehune, a small, lighter-skinned minority of Polynesians, who apparently disappeared long ago. Legend has it that the menehune accomplished several engineering projects on the island, still in evidence today. One of the many green gashes on the rugged eastern coast of the island is called the Valley of the Lost Tribe, perhaps in their honor.

The menehune may be gone, but they are regularly replaced by many who vacation there, embracing the special tropical rural atmosphere on Kauai, embracing it as almost a therapeutic contrast to their busy lives at home on the mainland.

Kauai is subtly but surely different – different even from the four other major Hawaiian islands.


Travel writer Robert W. Bone lived and worked in Hawaii for 38 years before recently moving to a new home near San Francisco. Now he revisits Hawaii as often as he can. Bone is the author of the Maverick Guide to Hawaii, which was revised annually for 25 years from 1976 to 2001. He also wrote three other travel books, and continues to write magazine and newspaper articles covering cruising and other world travel subjects. He maintains web sites at and

Note: This is another column in a new series of short pieces on Hawaii. Others:

#1 Downtown Honolulu

#2 The Park of Fire

#3 Maui Captures the Sun

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