Paradise In Kauai: The Nā Pali Coastline

June 6, 2017

Sandy beach and mountains in Kauai

It started chaotically. The waves raged; a deep muffled bass echoed in our ear canals that windy morning. The ocean crashed against the shore with authority. And even though we stood on land, distant from the beach, the ocean’s rumble demanded that we knew that it was powerful. One of our drivers said, “big swells for this time of year.” The plan was to hike the 11-mile Kalalau Trail along the Nā Pali Coastline of the Hawaiian island of Kauai for my friend Katrina’s 29th birthday party. Far from civilization, our camp would sit on a sliver of bliss between the light-blue ocean and a cathedral of jagged, green mountains.

This special place fits the ideal image of paradise: wide, sweeping beaches, a lush jungle, and frequent rainbows. The hike along the Nā Pali Coastline hijacks its visitor’s attention with rugged vertical ledges, fresh ocean breezes, and dramatic cliff-induced rushes. Massive ferns, flowering trees, and thick growth defend the trail’s entrance from all forms of transportation—except one’s own two feet.

Victor’s sweet drone footage of our trip!

There were 18 of us in total: 17 from the former Soviet Union who now live in America, and me, the only member of the group originally from America, now living in the former Soviet Union. Because I know some of the ensemble cast quite well, I knew this had all the makings of an epic adventure, despite the ocean’s temper and other unforeseen human elements.

If we were just going to hike into paradise with all our gear, the rough water wouldn’t have been a factor. But since we were staying on a remote beach for many days, we planned to have our provisions boated in to our campsite, where they would be waiting for us at the end of a long day of hiking.

Upon meeting our captain, we realized we had dropped the ball—the normal trash bags in which we’d wrapped all our goods needed to be upgraded to hefty contractor trash bags. He told us there was a slight possibility of the bags “hitting the water.” The distinction between normal-thick plastic and contractor-thick plastic became very important; it meant the difference between wet or dry.

Green plants and people in the mountains of Kauai

Hiking in

Within the first few minutes of meeting the captain, I realized his personality closely mirrored the swells of the sea. His intensity came in short bursts—through fiery commands—before settling into a calmer state, then rising again—quickly and with more force. He had the look of a seaman, but an air of stability that called Evil Knievel to mind. There wa­­­s a frenetic hurry to repack and get our underprepared, over-packed bags onto the boat. I thought the captain would snap.

Two members of our group—Yuriy and Olya—went with the captain and his small crew to help with the mission. They would arrive at the campsite about a half-day earlier than we hikers would.

The rest of us started the trek with misty rain, positive motivation, and good group vibes. The scenery pulled us in with fragrances of exotic flowers blossoming on trees, salty air, and mountain goats in an uninterrupted environment. The trail led us across rivers and along steep ledges, through canopies of rich green and over rocky hillsides. The chirping of birds lifted music through the air.

Five Americans in Kauai

River crossing

We filled our water bottles at streams as the oxygen-rich environment purified our city lungs. My desire to live in an urban setting overrides the need for daily contact with nature. But the Nā Pali Coast’s dose of nature came heavy and pure, replenishing my supply/stock for my eventual return to the world of concrete.

Meanwhile, Yuriy and Olya arrived at the campsite, where they witnessed a performance of the bizarre. The captain and his mates heaved the bags into the water, far from the beach. One by one, the bags caught the waves in, surfed, and were tossed around—eventually ending up onshore.

The “nautical team” had their point man on the beach; his job was to collect the bags. Instead of using his hands, he defaulted to using the “hands of God.” With conviction and a strong dose of psycho baked into his sermon, he prayed the bags in with passages from the Bible, Jesus Christ guiding him through the process. The power of the mind can be an unstoppable force, but it wasn’t powerful enough for our point man to move bags with his gospel. Yuriy and Olya ran around the beach plucking bags from the water as the Messiah continued his “work.” Unfortunately for us, hikers, we missed the performance.

Coastline in Kauai

Rugged coastline

Daylight began to fade as we weaved through the Hawaiian jungle; our remoteness set in as we gazed at the softly setting sun and the nearby “Forbidden Island” of Niihau, where only Native Hawaiians can go.

Our large group had broken up into subgroups during the daylong hike; I was in the last group. It was early evening when the magical trail loosened its grip and released us onto a massive beach—our temporary home. It gave us a true feeling of “now that you’ve done your work, here’s your reward.”

Snack break of American tourists in Kauai

Snack break

The ocean beat hard against the beach—at the volume of a rock concert at times. The bass of a drum from a wave hitting the shore morphed into the bright treble of cymbals as the water withdrew over the fine sand into the sea.

As I looked out at the massive waves crashing onto the shore, I thought to myself, “Thank god we repacked our goods in durable trash bags.”

Our bags were scattered sparsely across the sand with a few blown open like they had been dropped in for stranded survivors on a desolate island. And in a modern-day and comfortable way, that was the case.

“Everything’s wet” were the first words out of my friend Pasha’s mouth as he began setting up his tent.

Americans smiling in Kauai

Happy people!

When I reached my belongings, they were twice as heavy as they had been when I’d put them on the boat that morning. This meant that my pasta had taken up water, as had my sleeping bag and clothes. But this inconvenience was manageable in the tropics; it wasn’t like we were going to freeze that night.

Nothing—not even the wetness—could faze the group; most of us were smiling as we set up camp near the beach that we’d call home for the next five days. Our only responsibilities during that time would be to connect with each other and the surrounding nature, to laugh late into the night, to take showers under a refreshing waterfall, to shift the fine sand between our toes….

Americans organized camping in Kauai

Camping in paradise

It takes time to slow down from a task-driven mindset to one of uncluttered observation. But, like a gravitational pull, the Nā Pali ­­Coast benevolently induces this effect upon its fortunate guests. The nature there is hypnotic; it entices its inhabitants into its determined flow. There is no avoiding its rules once technological distractions have ceased gripping the senses.

Days revolved around laughter and stories, tea, walks on the beach, adventures into the jungle, special and “enhanced” chocolate, picking ripe cherry tomatoes, eating uncooked nuts (known by locals to cause diarrhea), yoga in the morning, more laughter and stories, playing in the waves, connectivity, humanity….

Expansive beach and the ocean in Kauai

Expansive beach

However, one incident had all the makings of a “trouble in paradise” narrative. One evening, I was washing up at the waterfall alone. I felt something behind me. Looking at me. Peering into me. I turned around, and it was our point man. His eyes burned intensely into my skull as he sped into a diatribe on ISIS, the fact that he wanted to kill 1000 people, passages from the bible, delivered in his “preacher gone mad” voice, and various other rants.

I’ve come across this type before—people who size up their prey to see how they’ll take the insanity… getting into one’s personal space, looking to inflict more fear through the reverb of fear. And, if successful, they amplify their projected negativity and intimidation. The panacea to this game is to act like everything is normal and unthreatening. I used this soft-power manipulation as my weapon of choice while nodding my head and agreed to his comments with a simple “yeah I know what you mean….” Defusing the situation took calm energy and a lot of affirmative body language.

The rest of the group and I managed to end our interaction with the point man unscathed during those five days. Tragically, someone else wasn’t so lucky. Later, only two days after our return to civilization, we found out that he had left his deserted existence in paradise, returned to society, gotten into a truck drunk, and run into a killed a 19-year-old girl. Time in nature limited the point man to crazy talk, but machines and alcohol in civilization allowed his darkness to spread.

Three men in the water near Kauai

The day after, I went on an adventure with my bro, Alex. We bushwhacked up a river valley, only stopping for what natural goodies we could find, like the sweetest oranges, taro root, or nuts (which tasted good at the time, but had unexpected consequences). Eventually, we ran into the almost-vertical spines that make this sliver of the world so special. The water-drenched moss dripped at a high cadence into the nascent start of a stream. We sat in the stillness and drank it in.

Two Americans are hiking in Kauai

Hiking to the base of the spines

That evening, we fried taro root and mashed the fresh-picked cherry tomatoes into a rich and lively pasta sauce. Simplicity takes on new meanings in these situations and becomes the essence of everything.

Our final night revolved around a hike to a wide, sweeping point over the ocean under a theater of rainbows. There were two colorful arcs simultaneously enriching our experience. It was Katrina’s birthday celebration, and like all the things she does so well, she had planned for her birthday party to reach its climax at just the right time when many disparate parts fused together to create something surreal. The rainbows, the setting sun, our chocolate ceremony, the fire, the perfect skies, and the beautiful and meaningful toasts that Russians excel at….

A group of American tourists in Kauai

A group of people are celebrating a birthday in Kauai

Katrina’s birthday celebration

As our time in paradise came to a close, I felt the need to etch every bit of nature into my core before going back to urban life. I got up early that morning and made the hike out alone. I connected with nature that has been deeply rooted inside me from childhood—something I occasionally miss in the urban environment I’ve chosen to live in. Nobody was on the trail—just me and some of the most stunning scenery on Earth. It was a different experience than hiking with the group. Both were special, but each fulfilled a different need: one, social, and the other, introspective.

I followed the coastline at a rapid pace as the sun crested over the horizon. Meanwhile, the captain was traveling in the opposite direction to retrieve the group and our stuff. And so, the window to paradise closed at the end of my 11-mile journey. The setting of the adventure shifted back into the world of roads and electricity.

Peter Santenello near the water in Kauai

Hiking out early in the morning

Back at the captain’s staging ground, he teed off on me, saying things like “everyone is trying to nickel and dime me” and “I’m doing this all for you guys.”

I looked him square in the eye and said, “$150 per person. We have your money and we’re paying you.”

“But I’m taking all of the risks,” he replied like he didn’t know what he’d signed up for.

“High risk, high reward. This is how it works,” I rebutted.

The captain paused for a second and thought about what direction he was going to come back at me from: would his response be a smashing wave, or would he recede back to sea? His distressed expression turned into a smile. I had finally learned how the captain operated. If enough of his dialogue was pushed back at him, his swells flattened out and everything became calm.

“You know, the Russians are good people,” the captain said out of nowhere.

“What an odd comment,” I thought to myself.

“I like the Russians,” he continued peacefully, like the water pulling back into the ocean. I didn’t understand his hang-up; it was like he had some old, Cold War-esque perception of Russians.

Mountains in Kauai

It was only after this adventure that I learned what people associated with the word “Russian” meant in that part of Kauai. A couple of weeks prior to our visit, a Russian billionaire had bought a large swath of land and was trying to evict locals from the contested property.

The captain smiled widely as our—for that moment—chief Russian oligarch, Alex, paid him with a nice stack of hundies. The captain’s job was done. Despite his anxiety and yelling, he had a calm, cool, and very likable side to him.

We drove to the southern part of the island, where a suburban house waited for us with all the comforts of contemporary American life. We recalibrated our bodies and minds to the modern world.

One man near the water in Kauai

Alex, feeling it

We were grateful for the basic amenities of hot showers and clean sheets. Those old essentials now seemed like new luxuries. But it was the Nā Pali Coast that gifted us with a healthy dose of the natural world and undisrupted time to connect with friends on a deeper level. These are the true treasures that remote escapes provide.

A few days later, we each got on our respective flights to various cities in California, and I made my long journey back to Kyiv. I walked into my apartment and glanced out of the window, at the muted daylight coming into the expansive city skyline, at the glass and concrete. For the first few hours it all felt new, my thoughts were still in the world of Kalalau… memories of waterfalls, laughs, and sand reflected clearly in my mind. I grabbed a cup of tea and some chocolate; I looked out at the urban jungle and smiled.

Beautiful sunset in Kauai

Cherry tomatoes in Kauai

Fresh cherry tomatoes near our campsite

Two Americans are cooking without light

Cooking with Alex and Ilya

Happy Peter Santenello with two other guys and the rainbow in Kauai

Feeling the high

Spectacular waterfall in Kauai

Our shower

A man on the sandy beach in Kauai

Ilya in the moment

A group of tourists hiking in Kauai

Almost to the end of a long and rewarding day

Peter Santenello and crazy people around in Kauai

A group of wild tourists in Kauai

Campsite of American tourists in Kauai

One man riding Peter Santenello in front of the rainbow in Kauai

Peter Santenello and beautiful nature in Kauai

Sunny beach and beautiful ocean in Kauai

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