My husband and I just came back from a 10-day trip to Kauai. We were planning to take a trip of some sort to celebrate his return from deployment, and a 30-minute hop to another island sounded like just the adventure we needed.
Our focus was on hikes, beaches, and the natural beauty of the Hawaiian wilderness -- namely, activities that were free. But of course, we had to eat, and I took plenty of notes on where to go and what to get for delicious, real food.
Kauai is so different from Oahu. The island is much smaller, and the towns are tiny and quaint. Instead of skyscrapers and highways, there are incredible canyons and cliffs, mountains that snag the clouds, and plenty of open farmland. If you're an outdoorsy person looking for an active vacation, this place is definitely for you.
We managed to squeeze in four epic hikes on this trip, and we would have done more if it hadn't been for a little bout of sickness. If you find yourself looking for a vigorous trek, try:
Kapa'a - Sleeping Giant Hike: This is a short hike with excellent payoff. At the top are 360 degree views of the entire eastern portion of the island. Get started before 9 a.m. if possible; otherwise, it will be too hot. I heard that this was a great hike for sunrise but we never managed to get up that early.
Waimea Canyon - Canyon Trail to Waipo'o Falls: This was a moderate 4-mile hike that we did on a drizzly day. It was a pleasantly challenging walk through forest, jungle, and onto a finger of land that juts out into the canyon and makes for an incredible view of the landscape.
Waimea Canyon - Kuku'i Trail: This is a challenging 5-mile hike that takes you 2.5 miles straight down into the canyon and, you guessed it, 2.5 miles straight back up to the summit. The payoff is minimal compared to the effort, but the views of the canyon along the trail are excellent. Bring sun protection, LOTS of water, and grippy shoes that will sustain you on a steep, dusty descent and ascent.
North Shore - Kalalau Trail: The entire trail is a 22-mile round-trip endeavor that requires serious backpacking gear and plans to camp. We didn't try this but have plans to do it on another trip someday. We got a late start and thus only completed the first two miles of the hike (4-miles or so total), but it was my favorite of our Kauai trip. The trail winds up and around part of the Na Pali Coast, tracing the water and the mountains the entire way. It was moderately strenuous and really lovely.
A note on supplies - for most of the hikes on island you won't need any special gear, but I would encourage you to pack a sun hat, some SPF (this and this are my favorites), your favorite comfortable hiking shoes and a reusable water bottle that you can refill and take with you.
Although we didn't have a chance to do any of these structured, payment required activities, I would recommend kayaking or paddleboarding up the river or along the Na Pali Coast, and going on a Na Pali Coast cruise or catamaran ride. We've had friends who have taken a helicopter ride over/through Waimea Canyon and it's supposed to be amazing. There's a paved path that runs along the beaches from Kapa'a up to Anahola, affording beautiful views and a chance to get moving. Inexpensive bike rentals are commonplace - you can pick up a beach cruiser and hit the trail no problem.
If you're an early riser, sunrise along any of the east-shore beaches is incredible. Sunset is even more amazing, particularly when viewed from Polihale Beach at the edge of the Na Pali Coast. Watching the sunset from the balcony of the St. Regis on the north shore was a great experience -- as the sun begins to set, a man blows a conch shell while another fellow sabers a bottle of champagne. Very fancy, and worth a trip.
Speaking of fancy resorts, we started what we called "resort-crashing" on this trip -- we'd pick out a nice beachside resort, explore the gorgeous interior, and park on a patio or beside the beach with our books and towels and enjoy the luxury, the scenery, and the people-watching. The key to doing this is to be respectful of the resort rules, and it probably won't hurt to buy a cocktail from their beach bar to show goodwill. Oh, the sacrifices...
The Kilauea Lighthouse and wildlife preserve requires an inexpensive admission fee but offers some interesting information about local species and has an incredible view. The Limahuli Botanical Garden has a pricey admission fee, but is a great way to learn more about the native Hawaiian flora and fauna, as well as ancient Hawaiian agricultural and ecological practices. It takes about an hour to hike through the garden, and affords some beautiful views, interesting plant species, and a startling look into how invasive species are effectively colonizing the islands.
I'm rarely strict Paleo when I travel, but I try to stick with real, whole foods and gluten-free meals if I can. I feel better and have more energy for adventures. One thing we did to save some cash and avoid eating out every day was to pick up a few groceries at the nearby Foodland for breakfasts in our rental and snacks. We grabbed eggs, butter, coffee, veggies and hummus, some apples and bananas, Aidell's sausages, some greens, and a few fun things like dark chocolate and chips and salsa. I recommend only buying small amounts of what you need -- if you run out, you can get more supplies, but it's a horrible feeling to have to throw away good food at the end of a trip just because you can't take it on the plane home with you.
These were some of my favorite places, many of which had great options for special diets.
(Key: P = Paleo; GF = Gluten-free; RF = Real Food)
Kauai Juice Co. has incredible branding and an amazing product - we kept going back for their fresh-pressed juices and house-brewed kombucha. Try the Glow juice or the Ginger-Turmeric kombucha, and don't forget to bring back your glass bottle for a 50-cent refund. (P, GF, RF)
Art Cafe Hemingway was by far my favorite place on Kauai. It has a very European cafe-inspired feel to it, with Weck jars and linen napkins, whitewashed walls and little bistro tables. I can't say enough about their breakfast (The Sun Also Rises and The Old Man and The Sea were favorites, with a side of their house-made gluten-free bread please!) or the quality of their espresso. We managed to eat here for lunch and dinner too and it was always incredible. Not only that, but Markus and his staff are so friendly. (P, GF, RF)
Potions is a darling kombucha bar built around the premise of a traditional English pub, but instead of stout the owner Gadhai slings pints of his house-brewed kombucha. It's the best I've ever had. With flavors like Ginger & Ginseng and Chocolate Monkey, Potions will definitely expand your definition of kombucha. Give it a try -- the bar is located in the back of an Indian restaurant just outside of Kapa'a.
Rainbeau Jo's is a sweet little food truck nearby the Lihue airport, serving up local bagels, incredible smoothies, and Bulletproof coffee. Even more impressive than the grinds were the owners and operators, Beau and Jo - the people of Kauai are known for their friendliness, and these two were no exception. (P, GF, RF)
Mermaid's Cafe is a little place in historic Kapa'a town, and we found it to be a great place for lunch. I was craving veggies and got my fix there with a HUGE salad, while my husband enjoyed a fresh wrap with more veggies and seared ahi tuna. (P, GF, RF)
Java Kai is right next door to Mermaid's, and has excellent espresso in addition to yummy breakfasts and gluten-free baked goods. Order an Americano, the Power Bowl, and a GF Banana Mac Nut muffin, and grab a bag of their house-roasted coffee beans to take home with you for good measure. (P, GF, RF)
Cortado Coffee is a tiny shack in Koloa, an adorable town on the south shore of Kauai. The coffee was great and the folks running the place were friendly and really helpful. (P, GF)
Paco's Tacos and Tege Tege are two food trucks located in Kilauea that offer a great lunchtime pit-stop. Tege Tege is THE best shave ice I've ever had - hand-shaved ice like a pillow of snow, topped with homemade sweetened condensed milk and organic, house-made, fruit-only topping? Yes please. (GF, RF)
Midnight Bear Breads is a tiny bake shop in Hanapepe that is a gem. If you're gluten-free, do not go here, as the delicious smells will only frustrate you. If you, however, appreciate the time and care that goes into an artisan loaf of sourdough bread, stop in during the morning and pick up a freshly baked rustic loaf, and devour it right there with cold pats of butter. (RF)
Annatta's Authentic Thai food truck is parked in the Ace Hardware parking lot in Lihue, and was the best Thai food we had on the trip -- granted, we tried some pretty abysmal Thai food. (GF)
It goes without saying that you should stop at the roadside stands selling "ice cold cocos." There's nothing better after a strenuous hike than chilled coconut water, and a bonus if you can get them to cut the meat out for you after the liquid is gone. Average prices run from $5-$8 per coconut.
LODGING + TRAVEL
We stayed at an Air BnB listing in Kapa'a, and found it to be the perfect central location for exploring the entire island by our rental car.
The Hawaiian islands are very casual, and unless you're planning on going to a nice event, a resort, or a gourmet restaurant, you can get away with your favorite comfortable, low-key summer clothes. For this trip I packed all of the basics I rely on in my daily life on Oahu: casual, lightweight day dresses and separates like a white tee and some denim cutoffs; Lululemon shorts and cotton tanks/tees for hiking; bikinis, sandals, a sun hat, and hiking shoes. My husband packed land/water shorts, t-shirts, a couple of casual collared tees, and sandals. Easy.
I'd love to hear from you! Have you ever been to Kauai? What was your experience like?