Kauai: What to Eat, See and Do in Paradise
I’ve spent every frostbitten second since departing Kauai earlier this month crafting schemes to return and support myself as a salaried beach bum. Thus far, my ideas include face painting and rhythmic tambourine playing, neither of which come with benefits and both of which would require me to develop a skill I don’t currently possess. I’m taking suggestions, because, well, just about everywhere you turn your head in Kauai looks a little something like this:
Hawaii wasn’t originally on my immediate must-visit list, but when two of Ben and my best friends moved to Kauai last July, the opportunity to visit them in paradise was too incredible to miss.
We stayed in their beautiful apartment, sipped mai tais on their lanai (which is a term I learned means “gigantic porch you can spend 85% of your life on because this is Hawaii”—I wonder why I never hear it mentioned in Wisconsin), and walked down to the beach every morning to watch the sunrise with their neighbors.
Do you see why I’m determined to return?
Although my favorite part of the trip was spending time with our gracious hosts Liz and John (and, ok, the beach), Kauai stole my heart in unexpected ways. Ben and I love the beach, but we usually opt to spend our warm-weather vacations eating guacamole, sipping margaritas, and remaining as immobile as possible in Cancun. Our trip to Kauai involved plenty of beach time to be certain, but the island is far more rugged and less resort-y than I had anticipated.
Kauai’s beauty is striking in way that does not grow old. For 10 straight days, I lost my breath every time we drove over a new hill to reveal a fresh expanse of green pasture against craggy mountain peaks, or the sun burst from behind a cloud to illuminate the canyons below. I could look at the same water crashing into the same line of rocks for hours and feel just as awestruck when we left as I did when we arrived. I don’t know if you can ever “get used to” Kauai, only that I never even came close.
My travel bucket list is long, so I didn’t go into this trip thinking I’d be in a rush to return, not because I didn’t think Kauai would be magnificent (because it is), but because I thought I’d want to use my time and resources to try somewhere new. I was wrong about that too. If you are looking for a special place to travel, I highly endorse Kauai, and I’d bet you my last sip of shaved ice that it will steal your heart too.
To help with your Kauai vacation planning—whether it’s a mental, wishful one or you have actual plane tickets booked—here’s a recap of some of our favorite activities. Note: eating might be our favorite activity of all, so get ready for a loooong list of island noshing!
Kauai has no “best” beach. It truly depends upon what you are looking for—a calm bay for snorkeling; wide sand for lounging; waves for surfacing—as well as the time of year, as beach conditions on certain parts of the island will vary by season. Your best bet to decide is a guidebook, asking your waiter, and just going exploring. My top picks were:
- Hanalai Bay. It’s ideal for being a sun bum, surfing, and day drinking.
- Larsen’s Beach. Very private and lots of whale watching while we were there.
- Moloa’a. I shouldn’t even tell you about this beach. Don’t go. Keep it a secret!
- Polihale: 17 miles of uninterrupted sand. This beach is on the far western end of the island, making it an epic spot to watch the sunset. I felt like I was at the end of the earth.
- Shipwreck’s Beach. Easy parking, plus a giant rock that Ben was dying to jump off of, but the surf was too high. Oh, and we made a friend:
Smith’s Family Luau
A traditional Hawaii luau—a ceremony and meal where a whole pig is cooked in the ground for hours (a preparation referred to as “Kalua”), then served along with a variety of traditional sides like sticky rice pudding, mmmmm—is one of the most touristy things you can do in Kauai, and I wouldn’t have missed it for a moment. Though there are several to choose from, I’m so happy that we went to Smith’s, which is operated by four generations of the same family. Though Smith’s serves hundreds of people on luau nights, the food was excellent (and the bottomless mai-tais appreciated). We were even able to watch the traditional ceremony of the pig being removed from the imu (underground oven).
Following the feast, we were entertained by a luau show spectacular (I assured myself that the luau dancers have extra hip joints that I don’t because how do they move like that?), and I also love exploring the gardens. Smith’s is housed on 30 lush acres, and luau attendees are free to arrive early and explore.
Flight Over Kauai with Kauai by Air
By far the most epic adventure of the trip. The vast majority of Kauai it too rugged to be accessed by car, so Ben, Liz and I took to the air. Our trusty pilot Preston took us on a breathtaking air tour of Kauai. We saw the celebrated Jurassic Park falls (the movie was filmed on Kauai), flew through the expansive, awe-striking Waimai Canyon, and even checked in on Liz’s house.
One of the biggest reasons to take a flight is to glimpse the elusive Na Pali Coast, a 13-mile stretch of the island that has absolutely no roads, because the cliffs are too jagged (even hiking is a challenge). Though I hiked a bit of the Na Pali on the north end, then camped by its south end, nothing compared to seeing it from the sky.
Hanakapi’ai Beach Hike
The four-mile roundtrip hike begins “where the road ends,” at the northern most part of the island that can be accessed by car (where the Na Pali costs starts and roads stop). It is only moderately difficult and leads to this rewarding view:
Hike two more miles and you’ll reach Hanakapi’ai Falls. Unfortunately I ran out of time and had to turn around, but those falls are on my list for when we return.
Camping in Polihale
On our last night in Kauai, we headed all the way west to Polihale at the south end of the Na Pali Coast to camp on its sandy dunes. (Geography review: Polihale is only 13 miles from “where the road ends” on the north side of the Na Pali, but you have to drive all the way around the island to reach it). This part of the island felt completely unique to the rest of Kauai. It was drier and felt more isolated, but in a good way that made me feel as if there are parts of the world still left to be discovered. Go to Polihale to watch the sun set into the ocean. Bring wine.
You and your camera, everywhere, all the time in Kauai. As I mentioned this place will continually take your breath away. Get clicky.
Here it is—the grand Kauai restaurant review. Two seafood lovers trapped in a landlocked state, Ben and I made it a personal mission to eat it as much and as often as possible. We succeeded.
Tidepools at the Grand Hyatt Resort
Although we were not overnight guests at the Hyatt, I’m so glad we came in here for dinner and could have easily made a night of floating between the hotel’s different bars and restaurants. I started with a fresh pineapple julep at the Tidepools bar. In case you are wondering, bourbon does tropical very, very well.
Every element of our dinner was perfectly and thoughtfully prepared, both in flavor and in presentation. The ono ceviche appetizer was some of the best seafood we tasted, and my baby green salad was so artistically arranged, I almost felt bad devouring the entire plate. Almost.
After some menu decision agony, we picked two different fish, both of which were fabulous. I didn’t need to stress—I honestly don’t think Tidepools serves a bad meal. Though neither of us ordered steak, I did thoroughly oogle my neighbor’s, and I’m confident meat would be an excellent choice too.
My only regret of this evening: not ordering the coconut crème brulee in addition to the flourless chocolate cake. We’re coming back.
Beachwalk Restaurant and Grill
Located in bustling Kapa’a, charming Beachwalk Restaurant and Grill offers a laid-back atmosphere, open air ocean views, and $5 (almost) all day margaritas and mai-tais. Life fan, right here.
We actually went twice—once for fish tacos at lunch, then again for dinner on our last night where we both ordered (prepare yourself): crab cake encrusted tilapia. Yes, it is a thing. I shed a small tear of joy.
Al Pastor Tacos
We ate the best tasting and best value fish tacos of the trip out of a truck. Visit Al Pastor on a sunny day (all of them in Kauai) for a plate of the catch of the day tacos grilled on order, served on a Styrofoam tray with rice and beans. Eat it on one of their colorful picnic tables, stare out at the great blue Pacific, and marvel that life can be so, so good.
What? You thought we were done eating fish tacos? Tropical Taco makes a quick and convenient stop in Hanalei on your way to the northern beaches. Though these were our least favorite tacos of the trip—portions were a bit small for the price—they were undeniably fresh and fortified us for a hard afternoon of lying in the sun.
If you’ve seen The Descendants, you’ve spotted this gem of a local bar and restaurant. George Clooney hangs out at The Nui a few times, and if I lived on Kauai I would too. The atmosphere is relaxed and local, there’s live music, and they serve some of the best pizza I’ve had anywhere. Fly to Kauai for pizza? Why not.
Though there is nothing gourmet about it—it’s mostly burgers and sandwiches—the Hanalei Gourmet (located down the street from “The Nui”) is solid. Fair prices, local art on the walls, freshly caught fish the in fryer, and a decent beer selection. Really, what else do I need in my lunch?
Ishihara Market is the ultimate proof that a dining establishment should not always be judged by appearances. The deli in the back of this roadside grocery store serves up what is widely regarded as some of the best poke on the island. Think of poke as Hawaiian sushi, without the fuss of the rice and the roll. Incredibly fresh fish is served in carefully cut, raw pieces that are marinated in different varieties of citrus juices and spices. Poke might also include different sorts of veggies and other sea creatures too (baby octopus anyone? It’s actually pretty good. Chewy, but good). We loved this meal so much, we went twice, both times eating ourselves into a semi-coma on fresh fish for $20 total.
I’d say we were too full for another bite, but across the street is…
Jo Jo’s Hawaiian Ice
Listen very carefully: go to Jo Jo’s. Order the combination of passion fruit, mango, and guava shaved ice over a scoop of macadamia nut ice cream. Spluge for the coconut cream drizzed over the top. Repeat the next day. Then repeat the day after that. Not that I know from experience or anything…
Jo Jo’s, I love you. Until we meet again, my friend.
Kauai Nut Roaster
Follow the heavenly scent freshly roasted nuts into the Kauai Nut Roasters. I dare you to try to leave with fewer than three bags of their small batch, hand roasted, and fabulously flavored nuts (we made it out with four). Flavors range from Butterscotch Almonds to Coffee Coconut Macadamias to Maple Bacon Pecans. Samples abound, which turned out to be our detriment. We found far too many “favorites” to leave with just a bag or two.
You didn’t think I’d leave Kauai without stopping into at least one bakery did you? Kilauea Bakery is a bit of a hidden gem that Liz recommended and was mostly filled with locals. At the recommendation of the woman in line in front of me, I opted for the Passion Fruit Lemon Bar and half of Ben’s chocolate macadamia cookie (his fault for picking an in opportune moment to refill his water bottle!).
It was a tasty 10 days. Next trip, we’re hitting Jo Jo’s four times, minimum.
This world is a beautiful place, and I feel so fortunate to have been able to spend time with one of its brightest jewels, the garden island of Kauai. Even more, I’m grateful to have shared the experience with best friends.
Dear Kauai, we will be back!
This recap is based solely on my opinions and experiences during our trip. Thank you to Tidepools restaurant and Smith’s Family Luau for hosting our evenings with you. We hope to return!