Haena resident Nalani Kornfeld and her boyfriend, James Davis, walked slowly along Kee Beach, a world renowned destination with legitimate claim to some of the best sunsets on Earth.
It’s called the “end of the road” beach because, well, it is.
In ordinary times, Kornfeld and Davis would have arrived at Kee on this Sunday morning, struggled to find parking and found dozens of people were already there. There would already be disputes over parking spaces, with angry tourists venting at one another.
Many of them would have turned out early to begin day hikes on the legendary Kalalau Trail, which today is blocked by caution tape and signs warning reading “trail closed.” On the beach, while human footprints can readily be seen, bird tracks seem far more recent and pervasive.
Only two people were on Kee Beach, where access is severely limited since last spring’s floods severely damaged the road past Hanalei.
Allan Parachini/Civil Beat
Instead of the crowds, Kornfeld and Davis found they had Kee entirely to themselves.
Their vehicle was the only one — other than mine — in the parking lot that used to be bursting at the seams from early morning to late evening. In an hour on a recent Sunday, though, only six cars and one bicycle entered.
On toward 10 o’clock, lifeguards arrived to begin their required vigil over the few swimmers and snorkelers able to get to Kee these days.
It’s a far cry from images of Kee in tourist guides and magazines, which depict a place so busy that, before the storms, there were fears that the flora and fauna might be unable to recover, ever, from being loved and visited to death.
These are far from ordinary times for Kee. It’s been cut off from the rest of Kauai by severe damage to Kuhio Highway during some of the worst storms in the past century, in mid-April and then again in late August when the dregs of Hurricane Lane brought new heavy rains to the area. The April rains were the most severe ever recorded on Kauai.
A great deal of attention has been focused on desperate efforts to rebuild the highway. Hurricane Lane threw a monkey wrench in those plans at summer’s end and there is considerable worry about what may happen if major storm activity returns in the coming rainy season.
Not often described, though, is the utter silence and tranquility — sometimes entirely free of any human presence — that, today, has descended on Kee Beach. Kornfeld, who runs a landscaping business that requires her to daily negotiate the vehicle convoys that are the only way for residents to get to and from their homes, and Davis found themselves on Sunday morning the only two people on the beach.
Anthony Davis and Nalani Kornfeld of Haena have Kee Beach on Kauai virtually to themselves.
Allan Parachini/Civil Beat
A Time Warp
The rest of Kauai, starting with Hanalei, is sometimes called “the Mainland” by Haena residents. When you go out in one of the convoys (provable local residence or legitimate business proof required, with no exceptions for tourists), it’s called, as Kornfeld says, going “on the other side.”
The empty beach is far from the only manifestation of the time warp Kee is currently in, leaving the area as it must have been when Native Hawaiians lived here for hundreds of years.
Nature is taking the highway back.
A stream crossing that must be negotiated to get to Tunnels (Makua) Beach, just east of Kee, is down to only about three feet of asphalt paving. The rest of the channel is rocks and broken concrete.
Vegetation regrowth has reduced the usable traffic width of Kuhio Highway near Kee to as little as only about 12 feet — even less in some isolated spots. In the Tunnels parking area, a trashed and abandoned Saturn and a parked SUV were the only vehicles.
A traffic sign is nearly covered by overgrown vegetation.
Allan Parachini/Civil Beat
Kornfeld loves the isolation, but she knows that, eventually, the road will probably be repaired and tourists will return.
“It’s inevitable,” she said, “but we can enjoy this while we still can.”
Davis, visiting Kornfeld, also works in landscaping. He nodded in agreement.
An overwhelming feature of Kee today is the quiet. It’s hardly silence, since the sound track ranges from a plethora of birdcalls to crashing surf. But motors, laughter and raised voices are seldom heard on Kee Beach right now.
The convoy ride from the Hanalei area underscores how long-term — if not permanently — the isolation may continue.
Although repair crews have made significant progress in building new retaining walls in at least two places where the highway was, essentially, wiped out and other crews are midway through regrading a hillside and covering it with mesh, the remnants of Hurricane Lane carved out a few new drainage channels that didn’t exist even after the April storms. State highway personnel have had to refocus their plans.
A separate project to simultaneously replace or rebuild five one-lane bridges complicates the situation, as does uncertainty about how bad storms may get later this year and into 2019.
The Hawaii Department of Transportation, which for months had issued revised timelines for completion of all of the various repairs and reconstruction, has essentially given up and promises on a special website to provide updated information “soon.”
Until “soon” gets here, nature will continue to reclaim Kee and the quiet will remain a magical re-creation of what being here must have been like in olden times.
Sign up for our FREE morning newsletter and face each day more informed.
Will you help us?
There are upsides to being a nonprofit as we carry out our public-service mission. We don’t have a paywall on our site, charge a subscription fee, or clutter our articles with ads. But this also means that reader support sustains every aspect of what we do. Without you, we don’t exist. It’s as simple as that. By donating, you’re supporting everyone on staff—and allowing unbiased, factual, honest journalism to thrive. If you value our work, will you make a tax-deductible donation today?