On a dead-end street adorned with red Hibiscus flowers, I stare at the velvet jagged mountains of the Na Pali Coast. I am supposed to hike a section of Kauai’s renowned Kalalau Trail, nestled against red cliffs thousands of feet above the Pacific. But on this gray November morning, clouds loom.
The night before, I lie awake in my room at the newly refurbished Sheraton Kaua’i Coconut Beach Resort in Kapa’a. Lightning cracks the black sky. Trade winds bend the coconut palms. Water drenches the terrace, the swimming pool. It is raining hard, as it often does in the Garden Isle. The rain is why Kaua’i is lush, the island’s unruly wet forests a hundred shades of green. It is also why the oldest island in the Hawaiian chain remains in some ways inaccessible, largely uninhabited, divinely remote. Kauai’s unspoiled beauty is also what attracted the island’s most controversial new resident, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Beginning in 2016, he has amassed 700 acres of pristine oceanfront property on the north shore. I doubted I’d see him trekking in the wilderness.
The Kalalau Trail, narrow, terrifying in places, holds some of the most gorgeous natural scenery in the world. I last hiked the trail years ago in my twenties, so I’m determined to do it again. Especially since the North Shore has recovered from 2018’s catastrophic storm.
In April that year, an historic 28 inches of rain fell overnight, battering the small community of Hanalei. Houses were washed away. Bison were seen floating in the waves. Kauai resident and big-wave surfer Laird Hamilton plucked stranded neighbors from rooftops. For a year the beach town, a haven filled with artists, surfers, funky tiki bars, food trucks and pricey boutiques, was cut off. Now, Na Pali Coast State Wilderness Park has finally reopened.
But as I get close to Hanalei, two metal traffic signs block the road. I park, walk toward three burly men in orange construction vests and jeans. They’ve been there since last night, when it began pouring in the mountains about 11:30. It’s not raining now, but the road, the park, the trail, are closed. No one can go in. I am bummed. Just two days ago, I wandered happily around Hanalei in the tropical sun. I sipped a Mai Tai at Tahiti Nui’s, bought a bikini by a local designer, had dinner at AMA, an Asian-style noodle house in the shadow of the mountains.
The wonder of Kauai, though, is its abundance. Even when it rains, there is so much beauty and history to experience. Although I couldn’t hike the trail, I already had a plan. I would go find Larsen’s Beach, one of the three secluded beaches below Zuckerberg’s private oasis. Zuckerberg doesn’t want you to get there, and you have to go down a steep slope to reach them. But he can’t stop you from trying. The beaches are public.
Since I’d been in Kauai, I’d heard a lot of talk about the reclusive Facebook billionaire. He wasn’t particularly sensitive to Kauai’s friendly, community-oriented culture. It was said he honked at locals. He didn’t mingle. Unlike volunteers for the Surfrider Foundation, you didn’t see him collecting trash on the pretty beaches below his $200-million bluffside estate. He’d first upset locals when he’d sued to get the names of hundreds of Hawaiians who owned the last four parcels of land adjacent to his property. “This is the face of neocolonialism,” Kapua Sproat, a law professor at the University of Hawaii, originally from Kauai, told The Guardian. He’d further enraged the community by enlisting an estranged family relative to buy the ancestral parcels at auction.
A few days before, I’d gone on a kayaking and hiking trip to reach magnificent Wailua Falls. It was a startlingly clear morning, the moon high and bright. You could see Mt Wai’ale’ale, usually smothered in clouds, in the distance. Our guide, Cole, whose family owns Wailua Kayak Adventures, had been in Kauai for decades. His tiny, gray-haired mother had carved out the trail we trekked on through the dense muddy jungle. Unlike Zuckerberg, Cole typified the island’s mellow style. Tall, lanky, he had on shorts and wore his dreadlocks piled on his head. For luck, he kept a huge banana peel tied to his backpack. During the hike, he pulled out a big bag of organic popcorn and fed gangs of excited ducks. “Bro!” he said, as they swarmed him. He fed us organic snacks, too.
Cole was an endless source of stories about ancient Hawaii, the rivalries between kings, the reign of Hawaii’s last monarch, Queen Liliuokalani, deposed in 1893 by rapacious politician Sanford Dole. Based on what he’d heard, the guide didn’t think much of Kauai’s latest wealthy colonizer. He’d only seen Zuckerberg once, on the Wailua River, where Kauai’s kings had famously settled because of its fertile land. Cole said the CEO had roared into the royal waters on a high-priced hydrofoil.
Zuckerberg’s kingdom lies on Ko’olau Road, off mile marker 20 on Kuhio Highway. I knew I’d found it when I saw the six-foot-high lava rock wall. It completely blocked the magnificent view of the ocean, another sore point for neighbors. It snaked for a mile along a sprawling piece of green pastureland dotted with coconut palms. No one was around. A lone white heron strutted along the road. A guard house and some trailers sat beyond a gate. There were a few “no trespassing signs,” including a blue and white one reading “Private Property,” and in smaller letters below, “Larsen’s Access 1 Mile South,” with an arrow pointing right.
The day before, when I’d first tried to find the beach, I’d missed it. This time I saw a small hand-drawn wood sign nailed to a telephone pole. “BEACH” it read; an arrow pointed left. Near it another sign read “FAST=CHOKE DUST,” referring to the island’s notoriously stubborn red dirt.
A few minutes later, I stood on a cliff, gazing at the long, crescent-shaped coastline, the high surf. A thick tangle of pine trees, buffalo grass and shrubs spilled down the steep hillsides. I’d never seen a coastline so empty and untouched. Except for a woman and man and a young girl, I was the only one around. It was lightly raining. A guy with long wet hair, surf trunks, and a towel across his shoulders, suddenly appeared from the trail. Engulfed in foliage, I began walking down the muddy slope.
Fifteen minutes or so later, I emerged from the trees to find Larsen’s Beach. I was ecstatic. I sat down on a log, took off my hiking boots and socks, plunged my feet into the golden sand. Nearby endangered monk seals snoozed, hidden in the low-growing mangrove trees. Roosters stalked the beach, pecked at the sand. The surf broke over an outer reef, loud and strong. In summer the water was usually aqua, calm enough for snorkeling. But now the ocean was gray and wild, dangerous. Several swimmers had drowned in the area.
For a while I walked along the shoreline in the warm, shallow water. Off in the distance, two Hawaiian fishermen headed toward me. After they passed me, they stopped near a pile of lava rocks down the beach. Then they threw their large fishing nets out to sea. Mark Zuckerberg’s Kaua’ian oasis rose high above me, but I had my own slice of paradise on the beach.