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