Kauai – Hawaii’s Garden Island
I receive many emails a day from various travel sites that I follow – from Afar to Travel and Leisure, the overwhelming feeling right now is no, we are not traveling, but yes we are hopeful and planning and dreaming because we will again. And in light of that, I hope you can find some escape from self-isolation through my photography and words.
I’ll tell you a tale of an Island so lush and verdant that it hardly seems describable in words. I thought I knew Hawaii, from previous journeys to Maui and Oahu, but I didn’t know Hawaii until I visited Kauai, which has now become the island I will return to again and again. There’s a vibe that permeates the island – a heartbeat that feels older, more rooted, but also more adventurous and more alive. And of course there’s the spirit of Aloha, which you will find in every island. Like other Hawaiian islands, of course it is volcanic in origin, but it is the oldest – and farthest north – of the islands in the chain and it boasts everything – rivers and valleys, cascading waterfalls, rainforests and rainbows, canyons that rival the Grand Canyon for epic-ness, long gorgeous stretches of beach for walking, snorkeling and canoeing and kayaking and sea turtles and dolphins and whales oh my. There’s more to see and do than can be seen and done in one visit, unless you stay a month, and not even then. But for those of us who only have a week to play, here is my suggested itinerary for what not to miss!
- Where to stay. Despite my penchant for gorgeous hotels (this time around I chose the Sheraton Kaua’i resort in southern Poipu), I am beginning to know that choosing Airbnb and vacation rentals homes over resort hotels makes more financial sense as often these homes come with amenities that make your stay more reasonably priced (boogie boards and snorkeling gear you don’t have to rent at additional cost, or having a kitchen so you won’t need to go out to eat for every meal). Side note, my Sheraton room did have a refrigerator, and a quick stop at the airport-close Safeway allowed me to purchase some staples (including lower priced alcoholic beverages if that’s your thing!), but being on a resort still means more money spent overall, in my opinion.
- When to travel: Kauai in January is more rainy (really all of Hawaii) so I chose southern Poipu, about a 30 minute drive from Lihue airport, known for being sunnier and warmer and for more beautiful stretches of beach. I would absolutely use it as my home base again. And don’t let rain deter you – rain means more rainbows and also cloudier skies for cooler days out hiking!
- Must see first stop: Waimea Canyon – This is a do-not-miss adventure for so many reasons. First, driving from Poipu was gorgeous. There were so many opportunities to stop along the miles of road, at indicated pull-offs, to photograph the mountains, rolling hills and the 800 foot Waipoo Falls in the distance. My destination was the Canyon Overlook Trail, a 3.2 mile roundtrip hike that, following two weeks of rain, was incredibly foot-sucking muddy. But well worth it. The canyon views from the top, where this trail lead, were spectacular. The waterfall, well, not so much. If a waterfall is your goal, know that this hike has a small waterfall that is viewable, but you ultimately end up on the top of the 800 ft Waipoo falls, and the top of a waterfall is actually kind of boring visually. Just sayin.
- Unique Local Food and Drink. I am a salt lover. Truly. And I believe in flavored local salt. So a stop at the Salty Wahine Company was a must. It’s not cheap salt, but dang is it good. Highly recommend. Something I love more than salt? Coffee, of course. And as a dark roast coffee snob, can I just say I am now addicted to the Kauai Coffee Company coffee (South Shore). I spent a few hours at their facility, which you can tour, and tasted multiple coffees (tasty tip: cheapest best coffee in town. $3 gets you a cup and they have almost all their coffees for you to choose from. Try a few, or try them all). Fill your cup and take it on the self guided walk through the grounds and amidst some of their 4 million (yes, really) trees (starting to bloom with fragrant white flowers reminiscent of magnolia or gardenia in scent and color), then come back for a refill on the way out. I am so addicted that I literally am now a monthly subscriber of the Poipu Estate Espresso Roast and Kauai Sunrise Roast. Quick tip – while at the Kauai coffee company you can get 10% off your in store purchases if you sign up in real time for their email distro list while shopping there.
Side note for the coffee lovers out there – can I just say, this is nothing like Kona coffee. I tried and tried to love Kona but never really could. So I thought this would be the same. It wasn’t! In talking with the staff on hand at the facility, it’s to do with the weather and the soil. Despite Hawaii being a chain of islands, Kauai is the northernmost, and still around 300 miles from Kona – thus the resulting beans and coffee are much different! And of course go for the freshest fruits – Passion Fruit, Pineapple, Mango – whatever is in season – and the freshest of fish (think Poke! And Sushi!). If you come across it, try the fried banana egg rolls – a decadent dessert or tasty snack – or homemade pies (like from The Right Slice!) Mac Nut, Coconut, Lilikoi, Banana – endless varieties! And you know, because it’s the beach, have a Pina Colada or a Strawberry Daiquiri. Extra rum. Not into alcohol? Kauai Juice Co mint coconut pineapple refresher- better than any energy drink out there for reinvigorating.
- Kayak: I took a guided tour with Kayak Kauai, into Hanalei Bay and the open ocean. Despite it being January (which generally brings unpredictably rough water) we were able to go out into the open ocean to a place called Hideaway Beach and snorkel with a plethora of colorful fish and sea turtles chilling amidst the coral. Snorkeling can be challenging in Kauai because of the coral-ridden shallows, but this location had some deeper waters allowing for a clearer path and better turtle finding. The two guides on the tour were fantastic and the packed lunch provided was just right, especially when topped with fresh cut pineapple!
- Hāʻena State Park: This park has one of the longest uninterrupted stretches of sand on the island, great for walking and laying out. It also has hiking trails that lead to additional beaches, a waterfall, and deeper into the wild for camping. Due to the recent rains the hiking trails were closed. However the beach was lovely. Note: you have to pre-book parking for this park and slots open up one month in advance. Parking is $5 per time slot per car, and there are 3 time slots per day. I suggest booking at least two at a time if you know you want to hike. And be sure to print the passes – they do require printed copies.
- North Shore Shopping and Eating. If you’re heading to the North Shore of Kauai with plans for Hāʻena park, I suggest planning in half a day for shopping in the small towns (Hanalei and Princeville) on the way and for food-truck hopping. I did and had some amazing shrimp (heads on) from Trucking Delicious, Passion fruit (Lilikoi) Shave Ice from The Wishing Well Shave Ice, famous Hawaiian Plate Lunch platters (pork and rice) from Hanalei Taro & Juice Co. A fantastic dinner suggestion – Bar Acuda – small plates Hawaiian styl. Sooooo good! Make a reservation though!
- The Kilauea Lighthouse and Wildlife refuge. If you’re a birder, or love lighthouses, this is a great little stop. $10 gets you in but if you have a federal land pass you can get in with the pass. It’s not a long stop, but the lighthouse is super pretty.
- Sunset Cruise: Kauai Sea Tours was my sunset cruise operator and the captain and his 3 person crew were AMAZING! The captain (whose name was Kauai) was this totally chillaxed native Hawaiian who loved loved loved his job. The whole point of the cruise was sunset and dinner (pretty decent fare) but the hope was to a) see whales because it was January (and yes we did!) and also b) to see the stunning Napali coastline from the water. We only made it halfway because the seas were very rough, even for the Catamaran we were sailing (expected for January), but the little we did see – incredibly beautiful. I was invited to sit inside the Captain’s cabin as he navigated the rough waters – and boy was I glad! I was able to see the horizon as though I was the captain, and that combined with my Gin Gins ginger candy, DigestZen essential oil and anti-motion sickness acupressure Sea Bands managed to keep me upright and not nauseous. But buyer beware – be prepared for rough winter seas and be sure to book accordingly.
- Hike Shipwreck Beach and Mahaulepu Coastal Trail, part of The Mahaulepu Heritage Trail – an absolutely incredibly photogenic, awe-inspiring and breathtaking coastal hike that takes you from the south east corner of Shipwreck Beach (South Shore) on as far as you’re willing to go. Truly the most memorable of hikes and I am only sad I discovered it on my last day. I’d go back here again and again. Epic. For this and so many other great hikes check out https://www.kauai.com/hikes
- Journey’s end. Often flights from Hawaii to the west coast of the contiguous US leave late at night, which leaves travelers at a loss for what to do after checking out of hotels but with still hours to kill. Having a rental car helped because I was able to do the less activity intensive drive-by stops that were closer to Lihue Airport such as the Opaekaa Falls and Wailua Falls, both which can be seen from parking lots. Dinner can be found also airport close, and gas stations near rental car returns are easy to find.
Kauai holds a special place in my heart, and I know for certain I will go back. To plan your own adventure, head to https://www.kauai.com/