As one of our tour guides on Kauai said, “we’re sort of at the end of the world out here.” It’s true—there really isn’t much between Kauai and Japan. And when you’re there, you feel it. Removed, remote, and relaxed. Overall, we found Kauai seemed like “old Hawaii,” very laid-back and friendly.
Kauai’s south side is the sunniest, and most of the tourist development is at or near Poipu Beach, which doesn’t have much of history, although the nearby town of Koloa is the oldest plantation town on Kauai, and is laced with island history. The Poipu Beach* website is a solid resource for planning your trip and activities on that side of the island.
A note about Kauai’s beaches: my recent trip was not about spending time at the beach, it was about the culture and landscape of the island. Kauai’s beaches look beautiful, but to me the island is about much more than beaches. Just to clarify what I said on TV–I would recommend Kauai to anyone who wants to see a remarkable island, and yes, beaches are a part of it.
Looking for things to do on Kauai? Here are my 5 favorite activities from a trip last December (2011). Tips on lodging and more are at the bottom.
- See the Na Pali Coast. When your eyes catch first glimpse of this astonishing coastline, your jaw will drop and your brain will wonder how a place can be so gorgeous. It’s up there with the American Grand Canyon, Taiwan’s Taroko Gorge, Vancouver Island’s Tofino, China’s Guilin, and South America’s Iguazu Fallsfor most stunning scenery on earth…at least that I’ve seen. There are really only two ways to see the Na Pali Coast, 1) from the air in a tourist plane or helicopter, and 2) from a boat. We chose the latter, going out with Holo Holo Charters* on a sunset cruise that included dinner. My reason for going with a boat instead of by air–I wanted the “sea” experience, and I wanted more time to feast my eyes on the scenery (boat tours last longer than air tours–unless you’re really rich).
There are also hiking trails that take you into the Na Pali, although you won’t be able to see the “whole thing” like you can from the air or water–and we’re told the hiking is quite strenous–saving it for a future trip!
- Bike near Waimea Canyon — often called the Grand Canyon of the Pacific. Part of the canyon is essentially the “backside” of the cliffs of the Na Pali Coast.There are a number of ways you can do this, including bus tours or driving your own rental car to the canyon’s overlooks. We chose to do it by bicycle–an all-downhill bike ride, at that! Outfitters Kauai* offers this experience. Joining a group of about 10 riders, we were shuttled in a van to the lookout at Waimea–stopping to spend some time with the view. Then, just a bit higher up the road, we were put on bikes with disk brakes for the 13-mile downhill ride. We were able to glimpse the canyon a couple more times, including one stop for a really dramatic view. The ride was easy and very fun. The guides were very knowledgable about the island’s flora, and much of the info they gave us was about the plants.
- Visit a farmer’s market. If you’re like me, you enjoy meeting locals and tasting things they grow and/or make. Kauai is such a friendly place, and a farmer’s market is a great way to connect with locals. The markets happen at different locations around the island on different days. We went to the fairly busy Saturday market near Kauai Community College in Lihue, and found loads of great local produce, flowers, and more. I love passion fruit, and bought plenty of it there. We also had a classic Hawaiian “plate lunch” which included kalua pig, chicken, rice, poi, and macaroni salad from a food truck there. Here’s a list of farmer’s markets on Kauai.
- Drink coffee that’s both grown and roasted there. I can’t think of many places where I’ve actually been able to purchase great quality coffee that is both grown and roasted locally. But Kauai Coffee makes it possible. You can visit their roastery, or just pick up a bag at a grocery store–we’re still enjoying ours at home! We also enjoyed coffee from Kauai Roastery which was included at our cottage. Theyoffer both Hawaiian estate coffees and a variety of blends using beans sourced from around the world.
- Explore a historic sugar cane plantation by ATV. Normally, we wouldn’t have selected this activity–it sounds a bit redneck for my taste. But it was suggested by the Poipu Beach representative, so we gave it a shot–and we are so glad we did! The ATV was basically a 2-person dune buggy. We took turns driving, and had a blast. There was a LOT of mud, and we got very, very dirty–luckily the tour company, ATV Kauai*, provides clothes and goggles, but you should wear shoes that can be washed. The tour took us from near the beach and into privately owned land which their company has access rights for–the land is owned by Steve Case of AOL fame, who is leaving it alone and choosing not to develop for now. The tour included a lot of information on Kauai’s history, how sugar cane played into things, how and why it ended. Along the way we drove through a very cool tunnel, once used to transport cane between parts of the island, and saw scenery used in such films as Jurassic Park (many movies have been filmed on Kauai: check this list) We also stopped at a waterfall and pool for a picnic lunch. Very fun.
Other things to do on Kauai:
- Explore by car. We spent the better part of a day driving to see the east and north sides of Kauai, including the hippie hangout town of Hanalei. It’s pleasant to just drive and stop wherever you like. There are many gorgeous beaches on the eastern side, although this wasn’t our focus.
- History buffs will enjoy the Kauai Museum in Lihue. It’s a bit of a time warp as museums go, but very enjoyable for an hour or so. And has a greatgift shop.
- Shop. We didn’t have a lot of time for this, but did enjoy the fairly touristy shops around Poipu Beach. We’re now big fans of Na Hoku Jewelry, likely to be the makers of our wedding rings.
- Snag some Malie body care product. It’s luxurious, it’s made on Kauai, and the scent of the native Maile leaf is out of this world. We discovered it in our cottage, and bought it at a gift shop in Poipu Village.
- Get a massage! The spa at the Grand Hyatt Kauaiis lovely, with cabanas that open to garden settings (although very private). We enjoyed a lomi lomi massage there*, side by side. Bliss.
- Go to Art Night in Hanapepe–unfortunately we learned about this too late to attend, but it gets rave reviews from locals. We definitely plan to return to Kauai, and this will be waaaay up our list.
Places to stay on Kauai.
Kauai offers a wide variety of accommodations, but compared to the other islands, it has relatively few major hotels–in fact, the only real biggie is the gorgeous Grand Hyatt Kauai.
We were guests of The Parrish Collection*, a property management company which represents some really gorgeous properties on Kauai. We stayed in a one-bedroom (could expand to three-bedroom) seaside house called Spouting Horn, and it was bliss. The Parrish Collection offers a wide variety of property types covering many budgets, ranging from condos to luxury mansions. Below are photos from the Spouting Horn Cottage:
The Koa Kea is a cheeky, fun, hipster hotel for those who want a traditional hotel that’s not big and corporate.
Places to eat on Kauai.
The food on Kauai was generally very good. I liked the fact that there were tropical fruits available, and other dishes in restaurants that I hadn’t seen elsewhere. This is not chain-restaurant country, like so much of the U.S. has unfortunately become.
- Brunch at Red Salt Restaurant in the Koa Kea Hotel. We ordered the pineapple souffle pancakes, and the macadamia waffle. Both were so good we could hardly stand it. Great location and views, too.
- Lunch at any spot serving a “plate lunch.” We really enjoyed it at the farmer’s market near Lihue.
- The kalua pig calzone at Pizzetta in Koloa is amazing. Enough for one hungry person, or 2 to share with a salad or appie. They also have gelato.
- Dinner at Koeki’s Paradise* is fun. It felt like a bit of a throwback to a tourist’s Hawaii of 1975, complete with artificial lagoon and a local Hawaiian music group playing, but we really enjoyed it and the service was exceptional. The food is good–I enjoyed the ribs–but next time would request all sauces on the side as they’re a bit overpowering.
- For something quite unusual and excellent, the Mexican food at the trendy new Tortilla Republic in Poipu is an option. The upstairs dining area is really pleasant, and the mole, made tableside, is soooo good.
- Go for Shave Ice!!!!! It’s all around the island (and other islands as well), and nothing else in the world tastes quite like having it there. It’s Hawaii’s unique take on the snow cone. My fave combination: guava syrup, coconut syrup, and a “snow cap” of sweetened condensed milk. It’s paradise in paradise!
* Disclosure: As is customary in the travel writing business, some of the providers mentioned in this story (marked with *) provided complimentary admission, samples, or other services in order that I might review their product(s). There was, and never will be, any advance promise of positive coverage. I strive to remain objective. My travel expenses were partially covered by the Poipu Beach Resort Assocation, who covered airfare from Honolulu and my rental car.