Escape to the Wilcox Estate on Kauai

Perhaps you’ve seen it: A cluster of cottages seemingly in orbit around a plantation-era home directly facing Hanalei Bay on the island of Kauai. Strolling to the beach park at sunset, bottle of wine in hand, maybe you’ve pondered: “Exactly who gets to live there?”

This question is far from original – it has been asked about this pied-a-terre for more than a century.

Albert Wilcox, the son of an East Coast transplant, was among the first foreigners to be born on Kauai in the mid-1800s. He spent time between his parents’ home in Lihue – when the road didn’t go much farther – and Hanalei, which was only reachable by sailboat. After success in real estate holdings and sugar, Wilcox married Emma Kauikeolani, and together they built the seaside home to entertain friends and family. He named it Kauikeolani after his much-adored wife, the translation of which also befits the home, “A beautiful vision that comes in the early morning mist.”

Passed down from Wilcox to Wilcox for more than five generations, the estate is still owned and managed by the family. Yet, according to property manager Keola Sheehan (Albert Wilcox’s great-great-grandson), rising land taxes contributed to the family’s decision to open Kauikeolani’s doors to the well-heeled as a vacation rental.

Recently unveiled after a year-and-a-half of renovations (“From the roof to the furniture coverings,” says Sheehan), this six-bedroom, six-bath home is perched directly across the street from one of Hawaii’s most picturesque vistas.

Beginning with the private access to Hanalei Beach, there are extensive, manicured gardens that lead throughout the property. An authentic fishpond, maintained by the Wilcox family, is ideally suited for guests with small children.

“You can take a small kayak into the fishpond or wade around,” says Sheehan, walking past the many tangerine, lychee and banana trees that dot the property.

Inside, the home is laden with artifacts. Early 19th century missionary-style furniture fills the main parlor, which serves as the home’s central gathering place. Original artwork is framed on the walls; some of the paintings were commissioned by various ancestors who resided in the home. A collection of original stone adzes (ancient tools used by Hawaiians to shape ocean-voyaging canoes) were found in a nearby pond and are displayed. The vibe here is authentic, like a living gallery or museum, albeit tasteful and inviting – livable.

Yet it’s the many bookshelves (including those in the library/study) that excite Sheehan the most.

“There is a neat collection of old books from the very early 1800s that my grandfather collected,” says Sheehan. “They talk about all the different flora and fauna of Hawaii, as they were being discovered and recorded by settlers here. We left them for guests to thumb through, and really get a feel for how my ancestors enjoyed their time here.”

Keeping with the nostalgia, there is a wall in the master bedroom (which also features a massive four-poster koa bed) that boasts relics from the family’s photograph collection. These include old aerial pictures of Hanalei and Kauai’s North Shore when there were merely a half-dozen homes on the bay.

Surrounding this main house are six adjacent cottages, each for rent, and all within eyeshot of Kauikeolani’s expansive wrap-around porch.

“We really tried to keep the spirit of this property intact,” says Sheehan. “Just as my relatives used to gather at Kauikeolani for meals and parties, and all the guests would stay in the surrounding cottages. That’s still the vibe here today.”

Surely this will be the scene in May, when George Clooney and film-maker Alexander Payne take over the home to begin production on The Descendants. The film is based on the novel by local (Oahu) author Kaui Hart Hemmings.

Yet, Kauikeolani is no stranger to the rich and famous.

“In 1902, Prince Kuhio was a guest at the house, invited by my grandfather. They were here with the Republican State Convention, and they had a raging party,” says Sheehan, adding that Mitzi Gaynor even filmed a scene from 1958’s South Pacific on the property. More recently, TV writer John Wells uses the home for his annual writer retreats. It isn’t uncommon to see throngs of weavers or artists seated on the lanai, too: The Wilcoxes are thrilled to offer the home to local artisan groups throughout the year.

Whether you’re a silver screen demigod, a pensive author or in charge of the next family reunion, keep in mind that Kauikeolani books up fast, despite its $15,000 per week price tag. Most guests have signed on the dotted line for next year’s stay before they’ve even checked out.