Kauai: The Top 25
How do we love Hawaii's greenest slice of paradise? Michael Endelman counts the top 25 ways, in no particular order
18. Poke dokey
The raw-fish dish poke--pronounced po-keh--is a revelation to anyone who thinks Hawaiian food begins with sour poi (fermented mashed taro) and ends with dry, salty kalua pig. Meaning "to slice" or "cut" in Hawaiian, poke is similar to seviche, consisting of raw fish mixed with marinade and spices. The typical version features tuna cubes with soy sauce, chili pepper, seaweed, roasted kukui nuts, and green onions, but even supermarket deli counters have new-school versions throwing in everything from octopus to kimchi to oysters. Then there are the ahi nachos at Hukilau Lanai, which slickly represent Hawaii's cross-cultural Asian-Californian fusion: Ahi poke is layered with crunchy wonton chips, avocado, and wasabi dressing. Kauai Coast Resort, 4-484 Kuhio Hwy., Kapaa, 808/822-0600, $11.
19. A touchy subject
Debbie Erickson, a relocated Brooklynite, sells fruit and veggies on Tuesdays at the Hanalei farmer's market, but she's also a massage therapist. She'll deliver an excellent 60-minute rubdown on your hotel-room or condo lanai that mixes in traditional Hawaiian lomi lomi massage, a deep and slow application of pressure at precise points on your body. 808/828-1174 or 808/635-2857, from $75 (price depends on how far she has to drive).
20. Bean there, done that
The Big Island's Kona region gets all the attention, but there's quality coffee grown on the Garden Island as well. The earthy-crunchy Java Kai chain, which roasts its coffee on Kauai, has four locations on the island (and several in California). Or go to the source and visit the Blair Estate, an organic farm in the hills above Kapaa. Founded by mainland transplants Les and Gigi Drent in 2001, the couple (and their 18-month-old daughter, Jessica) have a wood house on five acres of land where they grow, roast, package, and then ship beans around the globe. It's proved to be so popular that their second crop sold out in two months, so they've been roasting Kona-grown coffee until their new batch of beans is ready this winter. Call ahead for the weekly tour schedule, and the couple will give you a taste and show you around. "Everyone offers a tour, right?" says the plain-spoken Gigi. "So, whatever, we'll do a tour. But it's not much." Barefoot and with Jessica on her hip, Gigi strolls through the fields, picking fresh lychees, petting the Drents' goatlike sheep, and telling stories of the struggles of a tropical homestead. It's worth a visit for the commentary alone, though their rich, heady coffee is the best on the island. Just don't ask for sugar. 6200-B Kawaihau Rd., 808/822-4495, blairestatecoffee.com, one-pound bag $17-$35.
21. Star trek
To get a close look at the mythic Na Pali Coast, take a hike on the Kalalau Trail, which begins at Kee Beach, at the very end of Kuhio Highway on the North Shore. The full 11-mile trip is only recommended for very experienced hikers--the Sierra Club rates the trail as a 9, with 10 the most difficult--but the two miles to secluded Hanakapiai Beach aren't so hard. Start early to avoid the crowds. After climbing through deep jungle gullies and scaling windy cliffs, you'll reach Hanakapiai, a sight to be thankful for. The pristine beach is buffeted by unrelenting waves, though, so resist the urge to dive in. Swimming there is highly dangerous.
22. Sushi burrito
That's the simple concept of the ahi nori wrap at the Mermaid Cafe in Kapaa, a small outdoor restaurant with a few tables and one incredible dish that attracts fans from around the island. A hefty tortilla is rolled around barely seared ahi, a sheet of dried seaweed, vinegary sushi rice, cucumber, and a wasabi cream sauce. It's the perfect lunch: spicy and sweet, healthy and filling, crunchy and creamy. 1384 Kuhio Hwy., 808/821-2026, $9.
23. Up a creek
Four hours kayaking up and hiking beyond the Wailua River isn't relaxing: Arms ache, shoes get covered in mud, and bug bites itch like mad. But the payoff midway through--a swim in a freshwater pool under a thundering waterfall--makes the journey worthwhile. Bring a picnic. Kayak Wailua, Kapaa, 808/822-3388, kayakwailua.com, $40.
24. Really cool food
When body-conscious Hollywood types come to Kauai, they dine at Kapaa's upscale vegan-fusion restaurant Blossoming Lotus, where they can choose from several "live food" dishes--nothing gets cooked above 116 degrees--and eat in a private room upstairs. True to Kauai's accommodating nature, the food is also organic and kosher (and pretty tasty). The Garden Island salad, studded with cucumbers and maple-toasted almonds, is best accompanied, of course, by Green Goddess dressing ($8). 4504 Kukui St., 808/822-7678.
25. A drive divine
Except for the one consistently backed-up stretch in Kapaa, Kauai's sleepy highways are a dream for gridlock-weary commuters. Of all the great roads on the island, the best is Highway 550, which parallels Waimea Canyon and climbs up into Kokee State Park. The ride down is worth savoring: With a gaping canyon to the left, deep-blue ocean straight ahead, and fields of sugarcane to the right, tight, steep switchbacks give way to gentle, undulating S-curves.