Sugar, pineapples, and coffee were the cash crops of the Hawaiian Islands for decades, but as the locals joke, these days the main island moneymaker is tourism. The islands have been built up around tourism, tailored to what tourists want to see and do.
Kauai—also known as The Garden Isle—fought this trend decades ago by implementing building and development restrictions. There are no skyscraper hotels here, and the main road doesn’t go all the way around the island. These laws have kept Kauai quiet, lush, and distinctively “untouristy.” The roads are two-laned and sugar cane-lined, and the humid air smells like flowers.
E‘ai kakou (Let’s eat!)
It is entirely possible to survive an extended amount of time on Kauai solely on fish tacos and Mai Tais. But for those interested in diversity, the island has many other cuisine options to choose from. In recent years, the locals have turned away from their beloved Spam in favor of a more sustainable, locally sourced, and MSG-free diet. The result has been a new crop of restaurants serving delicious fresh fish and colorful island fruits and vegetables, mixed in with traditional Hawaiian flavors.
On the east side of the island in Kapaa is Hukilau Lanai, considered one of the best restaurants on the island. They offer their famous poké nachos, a huge menu of fresh fish, and an impressive wine list. Also on the east side is Monico’s Taqueria, where Monico himself will mix up a Mai Tai and serve guests Mexican-style seafood burritos with his famous jalapeño crema sauce.
In the north is The Dolphin in Hanalei, where fish burgers are perfectly complemented by a beautiful river view. For a more traditional five-star meal, check out the St. Regis Hotel in Princeville, located next to a mountain range, a golf course, and a beach.
The south side of the island is home to more traditional “tourist” fare. Brennecke’s Beach Broiler on Poipu Beach offers great happy hour prices on appetizers and the must-have Mai Tais, while also serving as a perfect place to wait out late-afternoon rainstorms. Kalapaki Joe’s, also in Poipu, makes the island’s best piña colada.
To satisfy a sweet tooth, there are countless shave ice stands throughout the island. However, Tropical Dreams Hawaiian Gourmet Ice Cream in Kapaa is worth a visit. They pride themselves on producing everything that goes into their delicious ice cream—all the way from owning the cows to the pineapple farms to the coconut trees.
Ho‘ohau‘oli (Do fun things!)
A visit to any Hawaiian island wouldn’t be complete without a trip (or several) to the beach. Every Kauai beach boasts beautiful sand, warm waves, and prime sun-soaking spots.
In the north is Hanalei Bay, which might look familiar as the backdrop for the movie South Pacific. Another northern option is Tunnels Beach, which offers arguably the best snorkeling in all of Kauai.
In the east is Kalapaki Beach, perfect for families with young children, as the waves are fairly calm. Southern Kauai has Poipu Beach, which is a beautiful beach on its own but is also a favorite napping spot of the endangered Hawaiian monk seal. Among the south’s most famous beaches is Shipwreck Beach, aptly named for its strong riptide and picturesque—but not swim-friendly—waves.
Besides beaches, Kauai offers nearly endless sights and activities for the relaxed and adventurous alike. The absolute must-do activity for any Kauai visit is a trip to the Na Pali Coast, the lush, untouched land to the northwest. It is only accessible by kayak, an 11-mile hike, or a boat tour accompanied by a certified tour guide. The steep cliffs and turquoise water make the Na Pali Coast justifiably the most-photographed area of the island, and one of the most famous sights on all the Hawaiian Islands.
The scenic and quaint Kilauea Lighthouse sits on Kauai’s northernmost point and offers some of the island’s best bird watching. Also in the north in Princeville is the Queen’s Bath—where visitors can cliff jump into warm pools of clear water (as long as they remain aware of the high-crashing waves).
Opakaa Falls and Wailua Falls are both worth a visit, and on a sunny day, rainbows can be seen through the waterfalls. Spouting Horn—another of Kauai’s most-photographed sights—is best viewed on a windy day at high tide, when the water spouts as high as fifty feet.
Additional worthwhile tours include Kauai’s national tropical botanical garden, named Allerton Gardens, which features the famous “Jurassic” Moreton Bay Fig Tree. Tours of the Koloa Rum Company and the Kauai Coffee Company both offer free tastings and flavors for purchase that are not available on the mainland.
Kauai has perfect weather, stunning sunsets, fragrant flowers, warm waters, and friendly locals. The United States is lucky to have Kauai as one of its own. Californians are even luckier to be a mere five-hour flight away from this tropical paradise.
Places to Visit in Kauai
Written by Susan Chmelir
Photography by Lexi Koch
This article originally appeared in Issue 5.5 “Feast”