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

By , Tuesday, Oct 18, 2005, 3:27 PM

Hanalei's is an especially sweet farmer's market

(Amanda Friedman)

1. Fruit loopy

Every day of the week--except on Sundays--there's a farmer's market happening somewhere on the island (for a schedule, see realkauai.com/FarmersMarkets). Hanalei's (pictured) is especially sweet, with dreadlocked, barefoot moms buying lychees, mountain apples, and eggfruits in a pretty jungle clearing. Kuhio Hwy., Tuesdays at 2 p.m.

2. Nature's alarm clock

Legend has it that 1992's Hurricane Iniki freed hundreds of roosters and chickens from their coops. They scattered all over Kauai and started breeding with impunity. Because they don't have any natural predators (Kauai is the only Hawaiian island without mongooses), roosters now roam everywhere, even on the fanciest of golf courses. Regardless of how they managed to get the run of the place, your wake-up call will likely be a feathered friend crowing as soon as the sun rises.

3. Fifty miles of sand

Kauai claims more than 40 white-sand beaches, so you never need to fight for a spot. Many of the established beaches (Poipu, Kee, Lydgate) have changing rooms, bathrooms, and freshwater showers; remote, secluded bays offer a more rustic experience. Just look for a cluster of cars pulled over on the highway--a beach is probably nearby. For descriptions, directions, and safety information, buy a copy of the Kauai Underground Guide (explorekauai.com, $13).

4. Friday night lights

Hanapepe is an oasis of sorts: It's the unofficial art capital of the island and, as a highway sign touts, KAUAI'S BIGGEST LITTLE TOWN. It's no metropolis, but an actual main drag is lined with small shops and art galleries in plantation-era wooden storefronts, and they all stay open until 9 p.m. for a Friday Night Art Walk. That's considered very late in these parts. And, notable for the west side of Kauai, there's some excellent vegetarian food at the Hanapepe Café (3830 Hanapepe Rd., 808/335-5011; reservations essential for dinner Fridays, entrées from $16), best followed by ice-cream at the original location of local favorite Lappert's (1-3555 Kaumualii Hwy., 808/ 335-6121, $3.35 for one scoop).

5. Cottage living

In 1983, the Waimea Sugar Mill Company plantation--on the sleepy west side of Kauai--was turned into a resort. Waimea Plantation Cottages, as it's now known, features 54 spacious, tastefully renovated 1930s-era cottages (each with kitchens, grills, and lanais), as well as five hotel-style rooms and two studios. After a morning of scrambling through Waimea Canyon or hiking the nearby Na Pali Coast, the resort's shaded hammocks are the best possible reward. Note: The surf at the hotel's black-sand beach is too rough for swimming. 9400 Kaumualii Hwy., 808/338-1625, waimea-plantation.com, from $140.

6. All the island's a stage

With scenery like this, it's no wonder that directors favor Kauai when they need a stand-in for an exotic Asian destination or a spooky jungle lair. So many films have been shot here that there's a five-hour minibus tour that points out locations used in South Pacific, Jurassic Park, Honeymoon in Vegas, Blue Hawaii, and other motion pictures. 808/822-1192, hawaiimovietour.com, $101, includes hotel pickup/drop-off and lunch.

7. Five-star sundowners

Don't blow your nest egg on a $500 room: The Princeville Resort's famous view of crescent-shaped Hanalei Bay (with the emerald Bali Hai coast rising above it) is available for $9--the price of a mai tai at the Living Room, Princeville's indoor/outdoor lobby bar. Brilliant purple-orange sunsets bring out the shutterbugs, so get there early for a seat. Live music starts nightly at 7 p.m. 808/826-9644, princeville.com.

8. Hawaii untamed

Kauai's premier attraction is the 15-mile Na Pali Coast, a dramatic stretch in the island's wild northwest corner. Waimea-based Na Pali Explorer leads a five-hour tour on a 48-foot, hard-bottomed Zodiac that's small enough to maneuver into sea caves and isolated snorkeling spots. Upon reaching Na Pali's westernmost point, you'll be dazzled by cliffs, waterfalls, beaches, and emerald valleys. When the captain declares, "Welcome to my office," you'll cry with envy. 808/338-9999, napali-explorer.com, $125.

9. Mark Twain's approval

The 3,567-foot-deep Waimea Canyon was impressive enough to the well-traveled Twain for him to call it "the Grand Canyon of the Pacific." Lazy sightseers can pull over at any of the lookouts along Highway 550, but the alternately barren and lush landscape is best explored on the many trails in Kokee State Park. Pick up a map at the Kokee Natural History Museum (on Hwy. 550, just past the 15-mile marker; 808/335-9975, kokee.org, free). If you get an early enough start, drive to the end of the road for a peek into the Kalalau Valley and the Na Pali Coast beyond. Later in the day, however, rain and fog are likely to ruin the IMAX-worthy view.

10. Quicker and easier

Both American and United offer nonstop service to Lihue, eliminating that frustrating transfer in Honolulu. There are daily flights from Los Angeles and San Francisco, which makes getting to paradise that much less of a hassle.

11. Pigging out

To fill up like a local, find a "plate lunch," an only-in-Hawaii experience that matches a hefty portion of protein (maybe teriyaki chicken or barbecue ribs) with two sides (usually giant scoops of rice, potato salad, or macaroni salad), for under $10. The plate lunch at the Koloa Fish Market is a gourmet experience hidden inside a Styrofoam container: roasted kalua pig with sides of ahi poke--raw ahi tuna tossed in soy sauce and spices--and salt-cured lomi salmon salad (5482 Koloa Rd., Koloa, 808/742-6199). In Hanalei, the simply named Mixed Plate serves a kind of hippie-fied version, with brown rice and tofu stir-fries alongside the salty and deep-fried entrées that Hawaiians love (5-5190 Kuhio Hwy., 808/826-7888).

12. Boobies on parade

Red-footed boobies are some of the countless rare seabirds that flock to the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge--and if you're lucky, you'll also spot seals and whales. Home to the 1913 Kilauea Point Lighthouse, the refuge is the northernmost spot on the island, as well as the first sight of land for ships sailing in from Asia. End of Kilauea Rd., 808/828-1413, $3.

13. King Kong

Browse for minimalist, Asian-style housewares at Kong Lung Co., which describes itself as a "Pacific Rim emporium" (Lighthouse Rd., Kilauea, 808/828-1822). The adjoining boutique, Cake, might be the only place in Kauai where fashionistas can feel truly comfortable (808/828-6412). Just down the road in Hanalei, the Yellowfish Trading Co. sells a mix of vintage beach-inspired furnishings, kitschy exotica, and aloha shirts (Hanalei Center, 808/826-1227).

14. Condomania

The south side of the island has plenty of giant resorts and chain hotels, but 65 percent of repeat visitors gravitate toward cottage or condo rentals. A condo is almost a necessity on the North Shore, where it can be difficult to nail down a hotel room for under $200. Regency Pacific Realty is a good place to begin looking; it represents lots of North Shore properties, including condos beginning at $99, and most important, it has a website with up-to-date photos and virtual tours of every rental. 800/826-7782, regencypacificrealty.com.

15. Hello, Mrs. Chips

In a dilapidated Hanapepe house, Shizuko Nagamine and her son, Dale, hand-fry taro, sweet-potato, and potato chips to a perfect crisp. Bet you can't eat just one (bag, that is). Taro Ko Chips factory, 3940 Hanapepe Rd., 808/335-5586, $2.50.

16. Summer school

Plenty of tourists attempt to live out their Endless Summer fantasies by taking two-hour lessons at easy-going Poipu Beach (Kauai Surf School, 808/651-6032, kauaisurfschool.com; $75, includes surfboard rental). Those who'd rather try windsurfing can opt for three hours with Celeste Harvel, who has 25 years of teaching experience and the tan to prove it. "The most important thing is that you won't embarrass yourself," she says at the beginning of the lesson at the North Shore's Anini Beach, which has a shallow, sandy bottom and a steady wind. Two hours later, the entire class is smoothly skipping across the bay, while Harvel scoots around giving pointers with her dog, Kahili, riding shotgun on her board (Windsurf Kauai, 808/828-6838, $85, includes equipment rental).

17. The bright side

You don't get a nickname like the Garden Island without plenty of rain. Even in the drier summer months an afternoon shower is common, but don't let it bum you out--the drops won't come down for more than 30 minutes. Stronger storms do occur in the winter, but even then, an hour's drive to the opposite shore will usually find sunny, clear skies.

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.