Hawaii: Cinematic Adventures

Filmmakers have an eye for beauty and drama. Write, produce, and star in your Hawaiian vacation on Oahu and Kauai. See Celebration Traveler Guide Wonders of the World: Hawaii for the day-by-day itinerary.

By Donna Peck

Water sports are the major entertainment.

Water sports are the major entertainment.

TV shows and movies are so often shot in Hawaii that its tropical pleasures may appear hackneyed, commonplace. Decades on the silver screen, it seems, has only swelled Hawaii’s celebrity status. Visitors arrive by the plane load.

Expectations run high. Our ten-day vacation started on Waikiki beach with an outdoor showing of Blue Hawaii, the Elvis Presley classic. “Take my hand, take my whole life, too,” lyrics as soft as a sea breeze entranced the audience.


Balcony with a view at the Ashton on Waikiki Beach.

How many Hawaii trips this popular 1960’s movie was responsible for is anyone’s guess. Sitting in beach chairs under plumeria blossoms, toes in the warm sand, who couldn’t help falling in love with Hawaii.

The next morning, the Starbucks barista handed us steaming lattes, “What brought you to Hawaii,” I asked her. Her answer was muffled by the spurting espresso machine, but I caught, “extended vacation.”

Hawaii has a hand in the making of everyone’s vacation. At noon, we were fleeing monstrous gray clouds that opened and cleared the beach.


Riding through Kualoa Ranch on an ATV.

The rain was as short-lived as a nose-bleed. The water evaporated, steaming the sidewalks and cleansing the air. Sunlight brought back the beach coolers and laughing children.

Each day seemed a new episode. It occurred to us to write, produce and star in our own trip.

Vacation Script: Take One

Kualoa Ranch on Oahu’s east side understands this and offers several ways to tour the ranch, a back drop for commercials, TV shows (Lost) and movies (Jurassic Park, The Descendants, Journey 2).

Horseback riders filed out of the corral toward Ka’a’wa valley, a lush wilderness enclosed by mountains. Ahead, a dozen ATV riders disappeared in a cloud of red dirt. Our safari bus rumbled behind them.


The set of Atlantis from Journey 2.

We stopped for pictures at the crumbling Atlantis set from Journey 2, posed for a group shot by the Jurassic Park sign and took pictures of the water tower from the TV series Lost. We had a buffet lunch beside a fishpond with Ka’a’wa Mountain looming in the background.

The Hawaiian stories connected to the landscape were entrancing. The Ka’a’wa ridge stretched east like a giant lizard, which Hawaiians named Mililoke. They asked him to guard their fishpond that they had fenced off from the ocean. He battled a goddess and lost; she flung his carcass on the mountain, and there he lies, ribs and skeleton covered in greenery.


Japanese tourists at Kualoa Ranch’s secret island.

We crossed the fishpond in a shuttle boat to a private island with a wide bay and gentle waves. Two Japanese girls were swinging in a hammock under a palm tree, wearing frilly harajuku-maid sunsuits and heart-shaped sunglasses. Their guide snapped their pictures.

They were starring in their vacation movie. We watched them move on to the next scene. The guide got them into life preservers and seated in yellow kayaks. She mimicked paddling movements, using a few Japanese words. She pushed them out into the calm jade-green water and pointed—paddling motions again—to a yellow buoy. Their paddles struck the water but their kayaks bobbled in one place. They giggled, took iPhone videos, playing for the camera.

Take Two: Helicopter Tour

The next day our vacation script took us to Kauai. The morning’s clapboard read: Helicopter tour. While other vacationers sunned themselves on Hanalei Bay, we whizzed overhead in a helicopter, hopping from canyon to crater to cliffs.


The helicopter tour lands at the Jurassic Park waterfall, located on private land in an unspoiled jungle.

Following a river low to the ground, the pilot landed in the jungle steps away from a 400-foot waterfall. We unbuckled our seats and stood at the edge. Water boomed off the cliffs and hit the pool, blasting us with primal energy. Even the air, mingled with waterfall mist, tasted green.

We flew low into Waimea’s vast canyon lands, which filled the view from the helicopter’s windows, doors and skylight. Our helicopter cast a ladybug-like shadow on the red dirt of the canyon floor.


Na Pali coast from a helicopter window.

The next spot was the most cinematic of our trip. The pilot maneuvered our beetle craft into a volcano that eons ago was the first bit of Kauai to emerge from the ocean. The dormant volcano is revered not only for being the womb of creation for the Hawaiian Islands but for the constantly cascading rain inside the crater.

A rain cloud above the summit released a fresh downpour right just as we flew inside. The copter whirled sideways, inching closer to the crater’s inner walls. Rivulets plunged from the summit to the depths, filling the rivers with water.

I sat behind the pilot, alarm replacing awe at being so close to the crater wall. He completed a clockwise sweep and headed over the rim smack into the rain cloud. It tumbled and shook our tiny craft, then spit us out above green farmland and the sunlit coast.


Sunrises like this brought hotel guest out in their bathrobes.

Heading north, the pilot swooped in and out of the Na Pali cliffs, tilting to pass through a slit in the cliff wall. Below, hikers were specks on a switchback that descended to a beach. We flew over wide-spreading taro fields, nourished by the life-giving water we had just seen fall from a rain cloud into a crater.

Kauai’s sunrises and sunsets also rouse emotion.

On Kauai’s north shore, we woke up in the pitch black, grabbed our camera and joined other hotel guests outside.A German couple embraced as the sun rose. The Italians thumped each other on the back, gesturing excitedly. We each exclaimed in our own language something like, “How beautiful! Isn’t it wonderful! Aren’t we lucky to be here.”

Take Three: Photography Tour


Mary demonstrates the principle of light and dark on the photography tour.

This morning’s clapboard read: photography tour. I signed up for a tour with Mary Sewell, a fine-art photographer and photography guide. She took me to a tropical garden transformed from an abandoned sugar plantation financed by an E-Trade executive.

The sanctuary was so beautiful that snapping a few well-composed images was effortless. “Let’s see what you’ve got,” said Mary, looking in my Nikon monitor. My shots were lovely but trite, what you’d see on a postcard rack. Mary told me to study the landscape.

Under her direction, I photographed a small part of the garden. The lens forced me to look closely, seeking patterns of light and dark. The light-gray bark of the swamp mahogany in front of me had a gaping black hole. I shot that. In the pond above the dam, water rippled dark olive and sunlit green. Pale yellow bamboo leaves clustered at dark nodes. Light fell, soft and golden, through the bamboo leaves.


The sanctuary guardian, draped in leis and flower petals.

I knelt beside a stone Buddha, its eyes closed in meditation. I shot upward so the head floated bodiless in a blue sky. I spent a long time photographing soft round cheeks, the wide forehead. Peaceful energy rippled from the lichen-covered face. The longer I spent with the statue, the more I wanted to capture not stone but a flesh and blood deity. We packed up and headed to another spot, but I took with me the peace emanating from the figure.

Hawaii opens up in a big way when you go with your own script. Our ten-day script began with Elvis and ended with Buddha. I skipped to the best parts. The moments of the trip ranged from public to cinematic to intimate. The waterfalls, the sunrises and, drum roll please, the Hanalei Bay sunsets, ran in the credits.


Learning to surf at Hanalei Bay. Oscars go to Oahu and Kauai, each island played a major role in our vacation script.



  1. Lovely pics! they make me get very anxious for our upcoming trip to Hawaii later this month. It’s been too long since I’ve enjoyed the Aloha Spirit.

    • Glad you liked the photos. One morning, I took 100 photos of the sunrise over 30 minutes to capture the changing light. You’ll have a great trip.

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