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Originally published Wednesday, April 18, 2012 at 3:18 PM

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A 'Descendants' tour of Kauai

On the Hawaiian island of Kauai, visitors can visit locations where the popular film "The Descendants" — starring George Clooney — was shot.

San Jose Mercury News

If You Go

Following the filmto Kauai locations

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 the film's 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 vacation-rental properties, handled by Hanalei Land. www.hanaleiland.com.

Princeville

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. 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. www.kiputours.com.

Tahiti Nui bar-restaurant

The Tahiti Nui is easy to find, right on the main highway in the town of Hanalei at 5-5134 Kuhio Highway (on the right if you're headed north). Luaus are every Wednesday, 5-8 p.m.

Movie tourism

Roberts Hawaii operates a six-hour movie tour of Kauai with a guide and clips from the more than 100 movies filmed on the island, some of them hilariously bad. www.robertshawaii.com. You can learn more about films made on Kauai from the Kauai Film Commission website. www.filmkauai.com Kauai history

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).

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More than 100 movies have been filmed on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. But in most of them, the island 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 writes in her book, "everything moves at a slow, slack pace."

And Hanalei Bay, on Kauai's north shore, 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.

On a Saturday afternoon, 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 inshore surf (which can be dangerously rough in winter/early spring) 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.

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, 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. (However, it's possible that this area, with its breathtaking views, could be developed into something like the next Princeville.)

Back in Hanalei go sip a mai tai at Tahiti Nui, the 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.

The Tahiti Nui hasn't changed much since Auntie Louise Marston and her husband, Bruce, opened for business in 1963, and it's still family-run. 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.

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