By Johanna Read
Kauai means “season of abundance”. The oldest Hawaiian island is also nicknamed the Garden Isle, and indeed the soil is rich and the rainfall plentiful. Kauai even boasts the wettest spot on planet — Alaka'i Swamp — which receives 37.5 feet of rainfall per year.
Private property was unknown to the ancient Hawaiians, who believed in the interconnectedness of the sea, land, and clouds. They used these resources sustainably to achieve a balanced life. Sustainability was maintained by priests (konohiki and kahuna) who, for example, imposed restrictions on fishing specific species at various times in order to prevent overfishing. The practice is still followed in today’s Hawaii, for both harvesting plants and fish.
While Kauai certainly has its share of development, the island has made extra efforts to conserve the land and manage new developments carefully. Only 10% of the island is accessible by road, and some of the most spectacular sections on the east coast can only be seen from the water.
It is easier to take on the slower more traditional Hawaiian life on Kauai than on some of the more popular islands like Maui and Oahu. A weekend isn’t nearly enough to see Kauai’s highlights, but here are a few essentials for anyone interested in a sustainable visit to Garden Isle.
After landing at Lihue Airport, you might want to rent a car. While it is possible to get around Kauai via public transportation, taxi and even bike, if you want to see the variety on this island, it is much easier with your own wheels. The rental companies will do their best to up-sell you, but there’s no need. With their limited fleet, you’re likely to get one of their higher end cars even if you book a compact.
There are plenty of generic hotel rooms and condos on Kauai, but why not try a vacation rental instead? Fern Grotto Inn has a collection of traditional cottages along the Wailua River, just a 10-minute drive from the airport. See our review of Fern Grotto Inn for more details.
As these are self-catering cottages, you’ll likely want your first stop to be for groceries. You can borrow a bike from Fern Grotto Inn if you’ve elected not to rent a car (or you can rent high quality mountain and road bikes at Kauai Cycle). Don’t buy too many fruits and vegetables, though, because you’ll want to stop at one of Kauai’s many morning farmers’ markets tomorrow.
Dinner tonight could be made to your specifications in your own kitchen at Fern Grotto Inn, or try the Kilauea Fish Market (open for lunch and dinner). They have the best poke (cubes of raw fish mixed with rice, vegetables and flavours) and ahi wraps on the eastern part of the island. For dessert, Tropical Dreams in Waipouli has 381 ice cream flavours (sadly not all at the same time), made with 85% local ingredients.
The best live music venue on Kauai is Trees Lounge Kauai, featuring performers of all styles. There are regular open mic nights where everyone is welcome to come on stage. They think of everything: guitars are provided.
Take a sunrise stroll on the beach. Kauai’s south shore is an ideal place. If you have more time to spend, walk the Ma'hā'ulepū Heritage Trail from Keoneloa Bay to Kawailoa Bay. In addition to the always spectacular views, Hawaiian cultural sites, petroglyphs, and a fossil cave, you’ll have a chance of seeing turtles and dolphins and, from November to March, whales. Avid hikers will also like the Kuilau Ridge Trail through the Keahua Arboretum. It’s 2.25 miles each way so be sure to take water and a pūpū (snack) with you.
You might want to stop at Sweet Marie's Hawaii in Lihue for breakfast or just to pick up some items from their gluten-free bakery. Be sure to find one of the island’s farmers’ markets, operated in partnership with Kauai County Farm Bureau. Paul, the owner of Fern Grotto Inn, will likely leave you a list of the locations in his welcome package for you.
Hawaii’s small apple bananas have a sweeter and more banana-y taste than the generic Cavendish you find at home. Depending on the season, you’ll likely find guava, passionfruit, mango and papaya. Ask a coconut vendor to chop the top of a coconut for you and sip the fresh water, far tastier than anything bottled. Bring the “glass” back after you’ve finished and ask them to chop the meat into pieces to bring home. Farmers’ markets also feature fresh herbs, locally-made cheeses and baked goods, as well as an abundance of seasonal fruits and vegetables. The best vendors tend to sell out quickly, so go early.
If you’re looking for something to do on a Monday, Wednesday of Friday morning, take a cacao farming tour with Steelgrass Farm to learn about diversified agriculture and growing cacao, vanilla, bamboo and hundreds of local species on this fertile island.
On the way back home, stop at the Menehune / Alekoko Fishpond, south of the town of Lihue, near the airport. The Menehune people — who traditionally started and completed projects in one night — built the rock-enclosed ocean pond 1000 years ago to trap fish until they grew big enough to harvest and eat. The pond was supposedly built by a 25-mile long human chain passing rocks from person to person.
For lunch, try Monico's Taqueria (also open for dinner), which has freshly made and affordable dishes. Hamura Saimin in Lihue (lunch and dinner) is another possibility, with local noodle soup saimin (with Chinese roast pork, green onions and fish cake). Don’t miss their liliko'i (passionfruit) chiffon pie for dessert.
After lunch, how about some beach time?
Fern Grotto Inn is within walking distance of two beaches. If you’re a surfer or just like to walk a long beach and admire the crashing waves, head to Waipouli Beach. If you want to swim and if you have kids, walk south of the bridge to Lydgate State Park and Beach.
Lydgate has an incredible locally-built 16,000-square-foot wooden playground complete with mirror mazes and a castle, perfect for anyone with a sense of adventure and imagination. In the middle of its two long stretches of beach, Lydgate also has an area protected from the crashing waves by a semi-circle of lava rocks. These protected areas are some of the only safe places to swim on Kauai, especially in winter when the waves are more suited to expert surfers. There’s an abundance of friendly fish to be admired with snorkel and mask within the enclosed area too.
At the beaches, and all over Kauai, you’ll see plenty of wild chickens, sometimes charmingly hanging out with cats. The birds were primarily bred for cockfighting, outlawed since 1884 but continuing underground. Two hurricanes destroyed many of the island’s chicken coops and blew the birds all over Kauai. The roosters aren’t too noisy though, and the birds eat Kauai’s poisonous centipedes, which can grow up to a foot long (they hide under dead wood and leaves in the daytime so you’re unlikely to see them).
After your swim, dinner options abound if you don’t feel like cooking in your kitchen.
Local-favourite Kintaro features sushi and teppanyaki. Caffé Coco fuses Asian, Middle Eastern and north African flavours into healthy dishes and has live local music every night. Hukilau Lanai draws residents from all over the island with its reasonable prices, menu featuring local products, nightly live music, and open-air views of the ocean. For an elegant night out, drive down to Poipu Beach to the Red Salt restaurant at Ko’a Kea Hotel and Resort. Red Salt is well known for quality and for using local ingredients.
The Wailua River is believed to be where the first Polynesians arrived in Hawaii. For ancient Hawaiians, the Wailua River was one of the most sacred places in the whole Hawaiian archipelago. The mouth of the river, near Fern Grotto Inn, was the home of high chiefs and ruins of ancient stone temples, called heiau, remain today.
On Sundays, the river is closed to commercial tours and rentals, but not to local people including the residents of Fern Grotto Inn, no matter how temporary. Borrow one of the Inn’s kayaks and slip into the small canal backing onto the property. A few short paddles and you’re on the wide, flat river, perhaps shared with the paddling teams from the nearby high school. If you head out early enough and have directions, you can paddle along the river to a place where you’re a half hour hike up to Uluwehi (Secret) Falls from the river.
If you’d rather have a big brunch instead of a big paddle and hike, try Oasis on the Beach in Waipouli.
While better for a full day trip than just a half day, a drive north to famous Hanalei can’t be missed during your stay in Kauai.
The drive is beautiful and, in winter, the beaches here are even more dramatic than those on the eastern and southern parts of the island. Almost at the end of the road you’ll find two lava tubes, one wet and one dry, for an interesting look into Kauai’s volcanic origins.
There’s a little town at Hanalei Bay where you can stop for provisions. Taro is traditionally grown here — some say it is the best in Hawaii — so Hanalei is the place to try poi. JoJo’s Shave Ice serves traditional Hawaiian shave ice with their own house-made flavours. They donate half their profits to Makanalkani Kids Camp, which supports underprivileged youth, and the other 50% to various youth outreach and neighbourhood programs.