HANALEI, Hawaii -- On the North Shore of Hawaii's northernmost island, the earth writhes like a topographer's fever dream -- 3,000-foot cliffs, plunging waterfalls, tangled green valleys and sharp, serrated ridgelines. That's the Na Pali Coast.
Just east of those cliffs, Kauai's Kuhio Highway carries you past taro fields, a seaside village, a two-mile crescent of sand and a 300-foot pier that's dwarfed by mountains, greenery and surging surf. This is Hanalei Bay, which Hollywood would have had to create if Mother Nature hadn't.
You might know this neighborhood from "South Pacific" (1958). Or "The Descendants" (2011). Or -- attention, TV geeks -- the pilot for "Gilligan's Island" (shot in 1963).
If Waikiki is the classic crowded Hawaiian beach, the North Shore is the iconic coastal outpost.
But everything looks a bit different when you get up close. So L.A. Times photographer Mark Boster and I arrived in February, eager to poke around when the crowds are smaller and the surf is bigger.
Our timing on this trip was not good. We rolled in amid sluggish traffic, thanks in part to Kuhio Highway's many beloved one-lane bridges and in part to high occupancy in the Hanalei-adjacent resort area of Princeville. The waves were not just big but massive and sloppy, forcing cancellation of most watersports and boat tours. Strong winds, sometimes gusting close to 40 mph, grounded helicopter tours. Clouds filled the sky for days. Our first purchase, two bags of groceries in Kapaa, came with a bonus population of bugs.
Greater Hanalei (population about 450) didn't feel quite like paradise. But even then, it was easy to look at.
For me, the center of gravity was the Hanalei Pier, so I spent a lot of time there as fishermen angled for bonefish, local kids leaped into the surf near the "NO JUMPING" sign and feral roosters (endemic on the island) pecked at stray coconuts.
One day on the pier, I met Abe Rivera, 15, who strolled up cradling a feral piglet that he'd caught in the mountains on a bow-hunting expedition with his dad. Another day, Erika Green of Waldorf, Md., turned up in her wedding gown, trailed by her new husband, Tim Green, and wedding planner Diana Gardner of Alohana Weddings.
"Most beautiful place on the island," Ms. Gardner said as the Greens trod the pier like models on a runway. "And no one else on the beach!"
Well, almost no one. Jett Yarberry, 38, a surfing instructor and lifelong North Shore boy, is there most days. "I grew up in that valley," Mr. Yarberry told me, pointing west. "My parents came here as hippies in 1968 and evolved into normal people."
This is not an uncommon North Shore story. About 45 years ago, Howard Taylor, the brother of actress Elizabeth Taylor, bought several acres at the end of Kuhio Highway by Haena Beach, eight miles west of Hanalei. He couldn't get permission to build, so he invited a band of hippies to live on his land.
For most of the '70s, Taylor Camp housed dozens of free-thinking refugees from the mainland. They built treehouses, raised kids, celebrated nudity, smoked pot and annoyed many islanders before state officials finally bought the land, chased them away and burned down the treehouses.
Now the site is part of Haena State Park, but many of those families remained on the island. (The tale is told in "Taylor Camp," a 2010 documentary directed by Robert C. Stone and coffee table book of the same name by photographer John Wehrheim.)
These days, North Shore visitors are more likely to stay in the hotels and condos of Princeville, play a lot of tennis and golf there, and alternate watersports with hiking, shopping and restaurant exploring in tiny downtown Hanalei.
On the north side of Kuhio Highway, the main drag, you find Ching Young Village, once the site of a lonely general store, now an '80s mini-mall that includes a grocery store, tattoo parlor, several restaurants and ample kitsch and grit. On the south side stands Hanalei Center, a snazzier collection of restaurants and shops in a set of buildings that 80 years ago held the town elementary school. On the south side of the street, you can pay $7.75 for a macadamia nut shake at Shave Ice Paradise or browse antique Polynesian weapons at Yellowfish Trading Co.
On both sides of the highway and at the beach, you'll see stickers, posters and other reminders of two homegrown heroes. One is Andy Irons, who won three world surfing championships in the 2000s but died in 2010 at 32 when his heart failed after "mixed drug ingestion."
The other is surfer Bethany Hamilton, who was 13 in 2003 when a tiger shark at Tunnels Beach tore off her left arm. Ms. Hamilton recovered, returned to surfing and inspired the movie "Soul Surfer" (2011). On March 21, she won the Surf N Sea Pipeline Women's Pro at Oahu's Banzai Pipeline.
Other stickers we saw all over the North Shore say "Defend Hanalei" -- part of the debate over a developer's plans to build an 86-unit hotel and 34 homes on the ridge between the Hanalei River and the St. Regis. That ridge held the Hanalei Plantation Hotel in the '60s and a Club Med in the 1970s but has been idle for more than 30 years. One morning we hiked up there, and when I found the stage where staffers and guests must have danced to the old Club Med "Hands Up" song, I felt like Charlton Heston spotting the Statue of Liberty at the end of "Planet of the Apes."
I understand the locals who lament that tourists and the rich have taken over the North Shore. But I don't think those people are fully in charge yet. If they were, the restaurant service would be faster. Parking on the sand would be banned at Black Pot Beach. Those one-lane bridges on the highway would be widened. And that would be a shame.
It's the weather that's really in charge here: the big waves, the heavy rains on the erosion-carved mountains, the hurricanes and tsunamis that arrive now and then to ravage the coast.
In fact, it was an iffy decision, toward the end of our visit, to ignore the low-hanging, rain-heavy clouds, wrestle a rented kayak into the water at the river's mouth and paddle away from the tidal tug toward the taro fields of the Hanalei Valley.
But the move paid off. I got just far enough that the sound of traffic faded and the foliage thickened along the shore. The clouds hung heavy but did not burst. I heard birds and murmuring water. And I saw Kauai's green mountains, right side up and upside down, reflected on the smooth surfaces of the river.
Bad timing? Who said that?