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Kauai Island

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Lights, Camera, Aloha

Jessica Sample

Photos by Jessica Sample

I stand at the top of a breathtaking, jagged-cliffed valley that unfolds to the distant sea like an impressionist painting. It may be the first time I’ve been here, but it’s not the first time I’ve seen this mesmerizing Kauaian vista. That was in a movie theater, where it played a central role as a disputed piece of family property in The Descendants.

In Hawaii’s career as Hollywood’s “tropical back lot,” the world’s most remote island archipelago has doubled for tropical locations on just about every continent. The Hawaiian filmography includes everything from Oscar-winning films such as The Descendants and From Here to Eternity to blockbusters such as Jurassic Park and Pirates of the Caribbean to hit TV shows such as Lost and Hawaii Five-O.

And movies mean big money for the state: According to the Hawaii Film Office, the film industry directly generated $245 million in 2012 (which translates to $400 million in overall economic activity) and employs about 2,500 people annually. This year alone, Hawaii has portrayed the apocalyptic world of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the stomping grounds for Godzilla and itself in director Tim Burton’s Big Eyes.

        Click to listen to our Hawaiian filmography-inspired playlist.

“The world has come to know and love the state over the last century through hundreds of films and TV shows,” says Hawaii State Film Commissioner Donne Dawson. “It has everything to do with the truly unique beauty and diverse landscape that is Hawaii, along with the warmth of our people and the native Hawaiian culture that really doesn’t exist anywhere else.”

And all the time on the silver screen hasn’t hurt the state’s tourism industry: As viewers have seen the islands’ splendor onscreen, they’ve flocked to Hawaii to experience those delights in person. “Without question, having the Hawaiian Islands showcased in this way inspires viewers and can motivate them to travel to the Aloha State for a vacation,” says John Monahan, president and CEO of the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau.

So here, just in time to plan your winter escape, Sky takes you on an island hop of this vibrant state via its iconic film locations and destinations.


There's a hotel for every taste and budget in Hawaii. For luxe accommodations on Kauai, there's the St. Regis Princeville resort.


Hawaii’s Garden Island of Kauai is one of the most popular destinations for filmmakers (and visitors!). It has more shades of green than a jumbo Crayola box, plus otherworldly peaks (seen in 1976’s King Kong), unspoiled beaches (Six Days Seven Nights) and phantasmagoric wonders such as the cliffs of the Na Pali Coast and the crevices of Waimea Canyon.

Soon after Hawaii was granted statehood in 1959, the Elvis Presley classic Blue Hawaii was filmed at the legendary Coco Palms Hotel in Kapa’ak, on the east side of Kauai. Hurricane Iniki destroyed the resort in 1992, but arrangements can be made to tour the devastated property, and couples still get married next to the lagoon where the King crooned the “Hawaiian Wedding Song.”

For one of the most dramatic (and fun) demonstrations of Kauai’s versatile cinematic qualities, take the ATV tour at the privately owned, 3,000-acre Kipu Ranch, located near the lavish resorts of Poipu. You’ll stop next to the wide green field that served as the stampeding ground for a group of Gallimimus dinos in the first Jurassic Park. Within viewing distance are locations used as Vietnam (Tropic Thunder), Central Africa (Outbreak), Africa (Mighty Joe Young) and South America (Raiders of the Lost Ark).

On Kauai’s North Shore, at the tony St. Regis Princeville Resort, sharp-eyed visitors will recognize the décor from scenes in The Descendants, as will visitors to the funky Tahiti Nui bar in nearby Hanalei (the picture on the wall of George Clooney and Beau Bridges sitting at the bar is a giveaway).

Roberts Tours features a special movie-themed tour of the island, which takes in a variety of film locations while an onboard monitor shows the actual scenes from the finished films. Another movie tour bus was even a featured performer—or more accurately, a victim—in the 2004 Roger Corman B-romp Dinocroc, where the gigantic mutant jumps on the bus, smashing it flat as a pancake.


Maui's Haleakula Crater.


The Valley Isle of Maui is more populated than Kauai, but that hasn’t stopped Hollywood. The 2011 Jennifer Aniston/Adam Sandler romantic comedy Just Go with It showcases the spectacular, Botero sculpture-laden Grand Wailea resort. Farther up the coast, in Lahaina’s historic Pioneer Inn, a vintage poster from The Devil at 4 O’Clock pays homage to the 1961 Frank Sinatra/Spencer Tracy thriller that filmed scenes in the hotel (you’ll also find Alex, the loquacious gray parrot who holds court in the bar every day). Clint Eastwood used Lahaina’s Front Street to double for Phuket, Thailand, in the terrifying tsunami sequence of 2010’s Hereafter.

Among Maui’s top attractions are the 1,500 to 2,000 humpback whales that make an annual winter appearance in the waters encircled by the islands of Maui County. They starred in a shoot earlier this year by MacGillivray Freeman Films, producers of IMAX documentaries that celebrate the natural world. Humpback Whales 3D will hit theaters in 2015. If you can’t wait that long, Captain Steve, owner of Captain Steve’s Rafting, has a comfy zodiac and an unerring sense of the whales’ locations—and when they’re ready for their close-ups.

Not only is Maui a coveted destination for film crews, it’s long been a magnet for stars as well. Willie Nelson, Woody Harrelson, Steven Tyler and Owen Wilson have homes on the island, and Fleetwood Mac co-founder/drummer Mick Fleetwood has a restaurant, Fleetwood’s, on Front Street. Oprah Winfrey made headlines when she bought more than a thousand acres on the slopes of the 10,000-foot Haleakula dormant volcano, as well as additional land in the remote tropical paradise of Hana, a favorite retreat for solitude-seeking celebs. Comedian Richard Pryor used to live here, as did Beatle George Harrison, who was known for taking his ukulele to Hana Bay on weekends and playing with the locals. You, too, can be as reclusive as you want to be in one of the elegant plantation-style bungalows at the Travaasa Hana, which offers a dual way to experience the legendary twisty road to Hana: fly over the scenic road one-way and the resort will give you a car for the drive back.


The most famous movie scene ever shot in Hawaii (or maybe anywhere)? Oahu's Halona Cove is where Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr rolled in the pounding surf in From Here to Eternity (1953).


Last season’s premiere of Mad Men treated viewers to gorgeous views of Waikiki’s The Royal Hawaiian, as Don and Megan Draper beached and luau-ed their way through a vacation. Although the iconic 86-year-old resort doesn’t need help with bookings, spokeswoman Diana Su says the Royal Hawaiian’s guest-starring role sparked plenty of chatter. “[Guests] wanted to know where the cast stayed, how long they filmed in Hawaii and if the Drapers’ suite really existed.” It doesn’t.

Past Diamond Head, the fabulous Kahala Hotel and Resort has been a longtime destination for the jet set. It’s also famous for the dolphins that live in the hotel’s lagoons and—to Magnum P.I. aficionados—for once providing a bar setting for the Tom Selleck TV classic. The fictional King Kamehameha Club (and the resort bar used as the setting) are just memories now, but a plaque at the hotel commemorates the days when TV cops could afford to drink at swanky hotels.

On Oahu’s North Shore, the world’s best surfers appear each winter to ride the waves at such legendary spots as Waimea Bay, Sunset Beach and Ehukai Beach. The big waves that pound those beaches have been immortalized in surf films such as North Shore, Riding Giants and Blue Crush. During surf season, you’ll find many big board names hanging at Surfer, The Bar—a collaboration between Surfer magazine and the iconic Turtle Bay Resort. The enormous 800-plus-acre North Shore institution includes golf courses, horses and a bunch of beaches for swimming, standup paddling, surfing and just sightseeing. Want a previsit peek at the fantastic grounds and cerulean waters? Rent Forgetting Sarah Marshall, the hysterical 2008 Judd Apatow comedy that has lured so many visitors that staff automatically point out some of the film’s more memorable on-site locations.

If you’re looking for a way to see Oahu and Honolulu the way they look during the fantastic flyover shots on the updated version of Hawaii Five-O, book a helicopter ride. Family-owned Paradise Helicopters, located on the Turtle Bay property, is the only company that doesn’t originate flights at the Honolulu airport. One of its tours involves a stop at the majestic and highly recognizable Kualoa Ranch (also reachable by road). Spanning 4,000 acres, the three valleys running from the mountains to the sea have been featured in Lost, Pearl Harbor, Windtalkers, 50 First Dates and numerous other productions.

Of course, Hawaii Five-O is a ubiquitous Honolulu presence during its shooting season, and you’ll often find Alex O’Loughlin (aka Steve McGarrett) and his posse chasing bad guys through Waikiki’s International Market Place or strolling near the King Kamehameha statue in front of the Hawaiian State Supreme Court Building, which doubles as Five-O headquarters. The historic Iolani Palace is right across the street and worth a visit—a reminder that Hawaii was once a sovereign nation before its murky “annexation” by the United States in 1898. Don’t miss the Polynesian Culture Center, celebrating its 100th anniversary, for an illuminating look at Hawaiian culture.


Kilauea volcano erupting at Kupapa Point.


In the 1987 noir thriller Black Widow, Debra Winger hiked through lava fields while a volcano erupted in the distance. This year marks the 30th year that the volcano, Kilauea, has been erupting. Since 1983, Kilauea has produced some 500 acres of new land and is the only volcano in the world to have sporadic lava flow for such a time period. Since conditions change by the day, visit nps.gov to determine whether a Winger moment is in your future.

On the island of Hawaii, the scenic beauty and luxury destinations of the Kona and Kohala coasts have been featured in everything from films to reality shows. Resorts such as the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, the Fairmont Orchid and the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai have pampered visitors and challenged golfers for years.

But don’t forget the tropical splendor that is Hilo. Filmmakers haven’t. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was shot in the jungle areas outside of one of Hawaii’s wettest and most verdant areas. And farther north sits the exquisite Waipio Valley, home to the 1,450-foot Hi’ilawe Falls, wild horses and locations used in films such as Predators and Waterworld.

To scout some of these Big Island locations by bike, LifeCycle Adventures offers custom designed, self-guided tours complete with concierge service for luggage transportation, lodging and dining assistance. //

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