On Location: Duke in Paradise

The second installment of On Location with John Wayne visits the Aloha State.

Written by Jenn Thornton

Having cast Kauai as the stand-in for the fictional South Seas oasis in his film “Donovan’s Reef” (1963), director John Ford called in the big guns as its stars—his friend and frequent collaborator John Wayne (as “Guns” Donovan himself) and Lee Marvin (as “Boats” Gilhooley).  Although the film was finished nearly 60 years ago, it’s never a wrap on Kauai. 

Hawaii is, of course, heaven on a regular day, but it’s a haven for John Wayne fans too. Our man Duke barnstormed into paradise more than a few times in his life, including to marry Peruvian actress Pilar Palette in a 1954 ceremony in Kona, then to shoot “Donovan’s Reef” and Otto Preminger’s “In Harm’s Way” (1965). Kauai was especially good to Wayne and the whole cast. They all hunkered down at the Kauai Inn, a boutique, plantation-style stopover that, while not as swanky as today’s hotels in shiny Princeville and Po’ipu, is true to its authentic, increasingly rare tropical charm. It is here where Wayne and Marvin and company are said to have swapped stories with locals by the pool. Despite the traffic jams in Lihue, Kauai has not lost its island way of life. Buildings keep a low profile (by law), and you can easily travel the coast by car. If you’re not laid-back when you get here, give it five minutes (maybe less). Because, while Kauai is not immune to development, it is stubbornly clutching to its old Hawaii bona fides, including a kind of “end of the road” vibe. If only.

With “Donovan’s Reef” primarily shot on Kauai, Ahukini State Recreational Pier and Hanamaulu Beach were both popular backdrops in the film. Scenes shot at Wailua River were merged with those filmed at the Allerton Estate (now a National Tropical Botanical Garden) where the summer “cottage” of Hawaii’s former Queen Emma served as the white beach house of the film’s island governor. Making the mother of all cameos is Waimea Canyon. Called the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” this hot spot for hiking and helicopter tours is, like its iconic neighbor to the north, the Napali Coast—which is great to behold by catamaran or kayak—a spectacle of magnitude only known to the very few. To that end it’s the John Wayne of natural wonders. 

While Kauai is an outdoor paradise with water and land activities galore, it’s also surprisingly rich in historical and cultural highlights. There’s a little of everything here, from a Hindu monastery complex that comes out of nowhere when you’re lost in Kapa’a (because you will get lost) to the remnants of the ancient Hawaiian village Kaneiolouma. Hanapepe Town is a hoot, drawing comparisons to an Old West town for its main drag of 1930s and ‘40s storefronts. It’s about three seconds before you start looking around for a lanai and a cocktail. “Kauai’s biggest little town,” as Hanapepe is also known, was abuzz back in the day when the Westside outpost saw its fair share of sailors and GIs. Today the vibrant plantation community hosts galleries, eateries, a tasty farmers’ market and a weekly art crawl. Watch out for the Instagrammars at Swinging Bridge and enjoy some R&R for yourself at Salt Pond Beach Park.Leaving Kauai is difficult under the best of circumstances, but easier if making the hop to Honolulu, Oahu, to salute the troops that had a no. 1 fan in John Wayne. Shot in Honolulu, “In Harm’s Way” is one of a dozen WWII flicks that Duke made in his day, and also home to the Pearl Harbor National Memorial (site of the USS Arizona Memorial) and Punchbowl Cemetery. Known formerly as the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, the latter is one of the headlining attractions in Hawaii and a moving tribute to American sacrifice in WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. To those who served, we say mahalo. And to you, aloha!

John Wayne with his friend and mentor director John Ford on the set of Donovan’s Reef.