I have visited some beautiful destinations. Some that linger in my thoughts year after year after year. And you know, after year. But I have never been to a place as mystical and other-worldly as Kauai, Hawaii.
This was my first trip to Hawaii and now I am left uncertain how the other islands could possibly compare. (Relax. I am sure they’re all just darling.) As the oldest of the Hawaiian islands, the “Garden Isle” is magnificent and spectacular at every turn. There are lovely (so very, very lovely) resorts on Kauai, but the island is considered far less commercial than its larger counterparts. Resorts are nestled into hillsides, rather than towering over the trees. Everywhere you look, you see shades of green, mountains, hidden beaches, and waterfalls. What you don’t see is vast parking lots and buildings.
As we left the airport in Lihue for our drive to island’s exquisite North Shore, we were almost immediately faced with glorious mountain views. I watched carefully for a pterodactyl to fly out of the peaks toward us. After all, parts of Jurassic Park were filmed here.
We had the pleasure of staying at the perfect St. Regis Princeville. We were greeted with valet service (and treated to it all week) and beautiful shell leis. The most pleasant surprise of our arrival was the view from the huge window of our luxurious room — out over Hanalei Bay with sweeping views of the waterfalls from Mt. Namolokamo to the sunsets over iconic Mt. Makana (Bali Hai). We could have never left our room and still have been happy.
We watched each sunset over Bali Hai during our time on Kauai — from the window seat in our room (armed with a glass of Ulupalakua Vineyards Maui Blanc’s delicately yellow pineapple wine), the beach, the pool, and the ever-popular St. Regis Bar. Sunset is an event on Kauai. As it should be. Each evening, crowds gather in the St. Regis Bar for a champagne toast at sunset. When sunset is just barely upon the island, revelers rush to the terraces and decks to catch the day’s final light.
We watched from one of the terraces at the bar one evening, and then headed to Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Kauai Grill, noted for one of the most scenic dining views in the world. Our dinner was romantic and delicious.
That elegant meal would be our last fine dining experience on Kauai and here is why — we could not keep ourselves awake past 8 P.M. for anything because of the time difference from our home. And quite honestly, once we sampled two particular delicacies on Kauai, we knew what we wanted.
Enter Hawaiian Shave Ice and Fish Tacos. But more on that later.
This was a different kind of trip for me. As I usually do, I had researched restaurants, made a couple of reservations, and mapped out options that were logical for what portion of the island we intended to visit each day. But Kauai is so casual and simple, that casual and simple cuisine is what hit the spot. And now that I’ve been gone from there a few months, it is what I miss most.
We had been advised the best way to see the island was by air, so we had reserved a private helicopter tour with Mauna Loa Helicopters early in our trip. I had never been in a helicopter before and found it exhilarating – particularly takeoff! One moment the engine is warming up and the next, we are lifting slowly into the air.
Some late morning storms meant part of the island was under dense cloud cover, so we were unable to see Waimea Canyon by air, but the good news is rain is what makes the waterfalls go ’round. And the waterfalls were pumping and fantastically beautiful. Our pilot wove in and out of the mountains, and right along the stunning Na Pali Coast. The island is stunning from every angle, and you will never see it from above without an air tour. I’d highly suggest booking with Mauna Loa Helicopters as we did. Our pilot was so knowledgeable and capable, and we loved being able to experience the flight without other guests. (For more, see my Trip Advisor review of Mauna Loa Helicopters here.)
On the way to meet our tour in Lihue, we stopped in Kapaa Town for a leisurely breakfast at Ono Family Restaurant. My diligent research indicated that banana pancakes were what we should order, and so we did. They were fresh, delicious, and filling, and we could probably both have lived with the short stack.
Now, we came to Ono Family for the banana pancakes, but we stayed (and returned three times) for the shave ice. Oh my goodness. I dream of shave ice now. Each time, I ordered the Bali Hai (of course…) — a lovely trio of grape, guava, and mango (or was it pineapple?). Either way, it was delicious. (Read more about my experience at Ono Family here.)
Ordering a shave ice and taking a walk to the beach or just sitting to soak up the Hawaiian sun became an integral part of our daily routine. We tried other shave ice on the island but thought Ono Family made a superb treat and their price was the best we found. For those who haven’t enjoyed shave ice before, the serving below may look large and you may consider sharing. Don’t. That’s just silly.
The name Pat’s Taqueria had popped up repeatedly as I conducted my scientific Kauai food research. Food & Wine magazine, travel guide books, and friends who frequent the island all pointed us to Hanalei Bay for spectacular fish tacos. We drove to Black Pot Beach Park where we found Pat’s Taqueria truck in the parking lot by the pier. For about $5 per food item and $1 for a drink, this is a steal of a lunch on Kauai. We tried the fish tacos, the pork tacos, and the (perfectly spicy) jalapeño cream cheese quesadillas. All were fresh and tasty.
You can grab a seat at the few tables next to the truck, or do what we did and tote your lunch onto the beach or pier and take in the glory that is Hanalei Bay. Pat’s has limited hours (when we were there, it was noon to 3 P.M., Monday through Saturday), so you can’t go everyday, but you should go most. Because fish tacos. (You can read more about our visit and Pat’s here.)
On the good advice of nearly everyone we passed, my husband and I decided to set aside one day to hike along Kauai’s spectacular Na Pali Coast, on the Kalalau Trail. We began our hike at the trailhead in Ha’ena State Park (near Ke’e Beach) and continuing along the breathtaking ridgeline to Hanakapi’ai Beach (4 miles roundtrip). From the beach, we continued back along the jungle trail to Hanakapi’ai Falls (an additional 4 miles roundtrip). The entire experience took us 7 hours, and we did not linger terribly long (or swim) at the falls.
The Falls were a spectacular reward for our efforts, but certainly the more challenging leg of our adventure. This portion of the trail (and beyond on the Kalalau Trail) is recommended for experienced hikers only. Which brings us to an important note: we are not experienced hikers.
Everyone we met said it was an easy trail but it became apparent that was not quite the case. The Hawaii Division of State Parks rates the trail as “difficult”. In fact, a number of publications have called this trail one of the most dangerous in America and one of the world’s scariest. But you can do it. Just plan ahead, don’t hike solo, mind the weather conditions, and respect the trail.
The frequent rains on Kauai can significantly increase its difficulty (do not go if large rainstorms are in the forecast), as well as your own fitness level and experience. Both of us were in reasonably good shape to meet the physical requirements of the hike, but as a novice hiker, I found the elevation on the trails and some narrow passages near the cliffs to be a bit daunting. Also, as I’m a smaller gal, crossing the streams and climbing the rock faces along the stream was a challenging and slippery task. We got caught in a downpour on our way out from the falls and that meant many slips in mud and a tumble in the stream for me (see hiking shoes note in next section).
A few tips for this portion of the trail:
- I would suggest visiting the trailhead in advance to familiarize yourself with the route, and then trying to arrive before sunrise the day of your hike to find parking and leave yourself plenty of daylight to complete your hike. Because when the sun sets on Kauai, it gets dark in a hurry.
- Pack: sturdy hiking shoes (tennis shoes may be sufficient but you’ll feel much more secure in a hiking shoe if things get muddy or while crossing the streams), more water per person that you think you’ll need (we took 4 water bottles each and wished we had more), hearty snacks and decent lunch (we took 2 packages of nuts and 2 nut/granola bars per person, but again, wished we had more), a sack for trash (take it all out with you), basic first aid supplies (bandages, an ankle wrap, ibuprofen, alcohol wipes), bug spray. Optional: A walking stick will definitely come in handy, particularly for crossing the stream. We did not pack our own but found large sticks others had discarded near the trailhead and used them heavily.
- Nice things to keep in the car for your return: more water, more snacks, clean shoes, change of clothes (if you’re a stream-slipper like me)
- If it is rainy or dark – don’t. Go get shave ice instead.
We came off the trail around 3 in the afternoon and drove straight to Tropical Taco in Hanalei for an early dinner. The restaurant interior is really cute (as is all of Hanalei) and we silently soaked the surroundings in and simply stared, happy to be alive (seriously…that hike!). We were exhausted. And the hearty fish tacos we ordered (fried!) were a great reward. We followed it up with a shave ice at the Pho Love truck across the parking lot. Back at the hotel, we showered and were in bed watching college football by 6 o’clock. We ate chocolate from the turn-down service as dessert and fell asleep.
After our hiking adventure, we opted to spend the next day in a more restful fashion. We drove over to Kilauea to explore. Stops of note included Kilauea Bakery – Pau Hana Pizza, and the Kilauea Lighthouse and Wildlife Refuge. We visited on a day the lighthouse was closed so we weren’t able to do more than take pictures. Kilauea Bakery was a busy place and you may wait a spell for your pizza (or pepperoni and pineapple calzone, in my case) but it is worth your time. There are shops very nearby that can be wandered while you wait, and a used book cart you can pick through.
I browsed through the titles on said cart and walked away with a serendipitous trophy for $2 — a very old paperback book about handmade windmills in Nebraska’s history, many of which are near the farm where my father grew up. It was an unlikely but much appreciated souvenir for him. I exclaimed, “What are the chances I would find that book a world away on Kauai?” My husband remarked, “What are the chances someone finally bought it?”
We spent a few afternoons wandering the dreamy surf town of Hanalei. It was a great place to visit the grocery store, grab a bite to eat, and pick up a t-shirt. One day, we sat out a large downpour eating shave ice inside Puka Dog Hawaiian Hot Dogs and Shave Ice, and went back at what we felt was a respectable 4:30 dinnertime to try a Puka Dog. Puka Dog was a feature on Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations Hawaii.” At the time of this writing, Puka Dog’s Hanalei location has permanently closed but you can still try the Polish sausage and fruit relish (I picked pineapple) stuffed into a Hawaiian sweet roll at their Koloa location on Kauai’s Southern shore. Puka Dog or no, still visit Hanalei’s shops and restaurants. It is so charming and picturesque.
Kauai is full of beautiful beaches to explore and hikes and other adventures. But after a week of this beautiful life, it was time to point our rental car back to Lihue. Our last stop before checking in at the airport was a TripAdvisor find, Hamura Saimin Stand. Saimin is a Hawaiian noodle soup, and this diner-style restaurant was a nice little cheap eat to end our vacation. You may have to wait a little for a seat at their serpentine counter, and it can be a little warm inside on sunny days, but get over it. It’s delicious and authentic and you should swing by. You should also bring cash, because that is all they take. (You can read more about our experience here.)
I will never forget our time on Kauai. I think about it all of the time. Even if I never have a chance to return, part of me will always be there. As will the shoes I had to throw away after our hike.