There may be longer beaches, or grander beaches, or beaches more conducive to ordering pineapple-garnished cocktails while rolling over in the sun, but to this day nothing cheers me quite like the memory of the brilliant little Hawaiian crescents collectively called Poipu Beach.
For two adults whose idea of bliss is a good thriller cooled by an hourly dip, and a 2-year-old who thinks half-submerged break-dancing is what grown-ups mean by swimming, a couple of weeks at Poipu last winter turned into sheer pleasure occasionally interrupted by the sort of scenery that stills all conversation except, "Look at that." Or, the voice climbing to new registers, "Look at that."
The key is Kauai, the lushest and most beautiful of the Hawaiian islands, where a two-hour drive pulls you from the fierce sunshine of Poipu around to precarious jungle hiking trails or canyon lips that open into a vast green crevasse reported by local guidebooks to be the wettest spot on earth. In the movie "To Fly" at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, there is a stunning moment when a hang-glider soars among enormous seaside cliffs that look at once soft and terrifying in their great dense foliage; those cliffs are on what Hawaiians call the Na Pali Coast, and that, too, is part of Kauai.
Poipu, the curve of southern Kauai coast favored by many visitors, is the most reliably sunny part of the island. The frequent rains that feed Kauai's exuberant foliage discourage some visitors, who opt for the more reliable constant sun of Oahu or Maui, both more tourist-oriented islands than Kauai.
There is a lot of Kauai that still seems imbedded in Hawaii's compelling and ethnically complicated history; if you need a break from languishing or windsurfing or leaping in the waves, you can explore the coast along the dirt roads of the sugar cane trucks, or head up past wood country houses along unimaginably green valley roads, or walk the grounds of a 19th-century sugar plantation -- Grove Farm Homestead -- that feels as intact as if the workers had packed up last week.
The conventional beachside pleasures are all here in abundance as well, of course. I tried my first windsurfing in Kauai, or more accurately, just off it; the water is so inviting that you don't really mind getting dumped, which happens approximately every six seconds at first, and the coastal waters vary enough to let you move from the mildest rivers out to real ocean surf. I also took an introductory scuba course on an earlier Kauai trip, and the island still seems studded both with certified dive instructors and with boat tours that will carry you to favored snorkeling waters.
We found some mesmerizing snorkeling at Poipu, where the sand beach juts out and then turns to one of those reefs where the brilliant little fish seem entirely unconcerned about the large human forms flapping overhead. The beach is also a pleasure for small children, since the rocks at one end form a shallow and surfless lagoon. The waves are a little more formidable on the other side, but not too alarming for a child to jump them in an adult's grasp, and a full playground set stands just beyond the beach sand.
If you like exploring, as we do, there is an abundance of that to be had in Kauai, where you can get almost anywhere and be back in time for supper. Rental cars are a bargain -- Budget offers a $110-per-week deal for subcompacts, and some of the local companies are less expensive. Since you don't need air conditioning on islands where the trade winds always blow, we were perfectly happy as our tiny stick shift shuttled us to enormous new beaches, cliffside bird sanctuaries, great mountaintop perches that looked out on the taro farms below and long caves that opened up in the midst of wild tangles of vines and banana trees. Our son was enchanted with one of the caves, and when we asked him why, he said, "Because it's dark. And softness."
There are several favored ways to settle into Kauai for a week or two. My husband and I are the kind of people who like sandy cottages with eating porches on the beach, and unfortunately the best of those, a small cluster of simple little beauties on a lagoon at Poipu, were destroyed in the 1982 hurricane that devastated a few parts of the island. We settled this time for an attractive if characterless condominium apartment, which is what many people seem to prefer both at Poipu and the spectacular but cloudier north shore area. Some condos front the beach, but those seem to run $100 a day and up; for our $230 a week, we got a two-bedroom second-floor place at Prince Kuhio, with a swimming pool and a palm-tree-filtered view of the sea from the huge glass sliding door to the balcony. The favored swimming and sunning beach was a mile away, but five minutes' walk down the road was a small rock-studded lagoon that made an ideal child's swimming pool.
If I were in the mood to be pampered by a hotel, I would report immediately to the Waiohai, a vast and splendid place just off the nicest of the Poipu beaches. This is a sort of labyrinthine affair, with open-air atriums and great green plants and a moat-like swimming pool that abuts a bubbling Jacuzzi. Breakfast at the Waiohai's open-air terrace is a memorable extravagance: macadamia-nut pancakes, baked pineapple, guava juice, tea in heavy china pots, some exotic fresh flower on the plate and an occasional small bird lighting under the chair as you gaze out at the sea.
There are other, less sybaritic lodgings, certainly: The island has some big popular hotels, like the Kauai Surf, with terrific beaches and what felt to me like somewhat overwhelming crowds of people. Some like the jungly, far less inhabited (a series of one-lane bridges separates it from the rest of the island) terrain of Hanalei, on the north shore. And a hardy few set out on foot for the camping areas at the end of the Na Pali Coast trail, a long and sometimes hazardous foot path that is said to wind past extraordinary jungle and coastal cliffs.
When I think of the food of Kauai, it is the fruits that come to me first: I can still smell the papayas we bought from the young woman who appeared to have just cut them down from the tree behind her. I never buy papaya outside Hawaii any more, because the disappointment so broadsided me when we came back the first time -- the Hawaiian papayas are so fragrant, so dense with their sunset reds and oranges, that we used to eat them whole for breakfast or chop them into chicken dishes. The pineapples are just as good, of course, although surprisingly not terribly cheap. And because Hawaii is so strongly influenced now by many Asian cultures, the markets are full of the foods used in Japanese, Chinese and Filipino cooking. Our favorite way to eat in Hawaii is what roadside stands and casual locals' restaurants call the "plate lunch"; these are cheap -- usually under $4 -- and almost invariably delicious, with Hawaiian-style pork or Chinese-style chicken piled next to scoops of rice and a small salad.
Which is not to say that Kauai lacks what I have come to think of as the occasional lifesaver, particularly if you are towing a child whose idea of restaurant bliss is a meal at what he still thinks of, bless him, as Old McDonald's. Lihue, Kauai's closest approximation of a city, has a fast-food strip, and just outside town, a good-sized shopping center features an enormous and abundantly stocked Long's drug and variety store, as well as an excellent bookstore. The sand toys and Elmore Leonards that we carted away from that shopping center may have cost us more than our food bill.
There seem to be a great many other dubious mementos beckoning visitors, particularly at the tourist-oriented shopping centers along the east and north coasts, but what interested me most was the simple jewelry some artisans sell from small shops or roadside stands. At Spouting Horn, a coastal blowhole near Poipu where the surf shoots up in glorious noisy geysers, a few men and women arrived every morning to lay out trays of necklaces and bracelets made from richly colored coral or tiger's eye. A lot of these pieces look fine on a tan neck at the beach and then never emerge from the jewelry box again, but I found a few that for under $20 each made entirely interesting and wearable gifts for East Coast relatives. There are also blinding piles of bathing suits, of course, and things to drape over them; I did have one attack of dowdiness, after slinking amongst the sleekly gotten-up Waiohai guests, which ended with the purchase of a bathing suit so minimal that even the saleslady observed brisky, "Well, it will fit in a very small bag."
One final note about Kauai, where despite all my modern fussing with suntan lotions marked SPF 10, I still managed to get one of those tans that make your mainland friends want to hit you: It rains. They are wonderful rains, sudden and warm, and I remember gazing happily out at them from under eaves, or from inside homey Chinese restaurants, or from the little covered pavilion at Poipu Beach. One of the rains got us as we were alligator-crawling through the lagoon with our son, and we snatched him up and ran for shelter, the boy bouncing naked in his father's arms, and laughing all the way.