Some things do get better with age; bleu cheese, red wine, George Clooney. But volcanic islands? Yes, it’s true. The Hawaiian Islands weren’t born good-looking; they had to suffer for their beauty. It took years of wear and tear (5.1 million to be exact) to earn the environmental battle scars we now enjoy as deep, lush valleys, razorback mountain ridges and plummeting coastlines. Kauai, the oldest in the island chain, is really just now at its prime. In fact, the island has aged so gracefully some are saying 5.1 million is really the new 4.1 million.
It is not too much of a stretch to say Kauai remains as awe-inspiring as when Captain Cook first came ashore in 1778 — albeit with better amenities. Amazingly, despite the rapid and sometimes unseemly developments in Hawaii, the island has maintained its paradisiacal (yes, that is a word) integrity. It took King Kamehameha three tries before he was able to successfully invade and conquer Kauai in 1804 and the island is still hanging tough. Somehow Kauai has managed to hold the glitz at bay and remain largely unspoiled, a mecca for those seeking nature at its finest. It has, however, opened its door to some luxurious creature comforts, welcoming world-class resorts, fine dining and PGA-caliber golf. Why, then, is Kauai not as popular with visitors as Oahu, Maui and the Big Island? The answer may lie in several rumors that have dogged Kauai for years. Let’s address those now.
It rains every day on Kauai. True and false. Kauai is the wettest place on Earth. Mount Wai’ale’ale (“rippling waters”) in the center of the island receives an average of 440.22 inches per year making it the rainiest spot on the planet. The rest of the island, however, receives a fraction of this; your golf game in Princeville or beach day in Poipu will be unaffected and a welcome by-product of this mountain mist is a never-ending rainbow.
Kauai has gone time share. False. There have been several conversions of hotels to timeshares in the last five years but hotels and condo vacation rentals remain king.
There are too many chickens on Kauai. This is a matter of personal opinion, but it is true that since it was liberated by Hurricane Iniki in 1992 the chicken population has gone forth and multiplied. How these birds seem to survive every natural disaster is one of the world’s great unsolved mysteries. Bottom line: If a Category Five storm is approaching and you can’t find shelter, grab onto the leg of a chicken. Kauai’s wild roosters will wake you up to the tune of many different time zones, so close your balcony’s sliding glass door and chalk it all up to part of your Kauai experience.
And there is no shortage of experiences on Kauai. Its varied topography is more suited to an island the size of Australia than to Kauai’s 552 square miles. So diverse is the landscape here that the island is divided into four distinct geographic areas: the East, North, West and South Shores. This can confuse first-time visitors deciding which side to book, but it really is a nonissue. Driving the entire circumference of Kauai takes a mere 90 minutes, so if you have your heart set on a South Shore resort, but like the golf on the North Shore and hiking on the East Shore, it is all within reasonable reach. One of the beauties of a Kauai vacation is that you really can do it all.
To understand why there are four distinct regions, consider that each geographic area is a gateway to an extreme and uniquely different natural wonder. The South Shore is the sunny side. Here you’ll find some of Kauai’s (and the world’s) favorite beaches including Shipwreck Beach, Maha’ulepu (three breathtaking beaches) Brenecke’s and Poipu Beach Park. The North Shore (the “Princeville Side”) was immortalized in the film classic South Pacific, but long before Mitzi Gaynor washed that man right out of her hair on Lawai Beach and gazed at Bali Hai (Hawaiian name: “Makana Peak”), explorers from around the globe were marveling at North Kauai’s magnificent Napali Coast. This 17-mile stretch of dramatic coastline with its 400-foot cliffs, deep valleys, prolific waterfalls and mysterious sea caves is something that must be experienced on your visit to Kauai. Not accessible by car, the coast can be navigated by air, land or sea and several tour companies specialize in just that. You can, however, glimpse the edges of the Napali Coast from the North Shore’s Ke’e Beach. Not to be outdone, Kauai’s West Shore is dominated by Waimea Canyon, dubbed by Mark Twain “The Grand Canyon of the Pacific.” Measuring 10 miles long, two miles across and 3,500 feet deep, its spectacular profiles and colors helped earn Kauai’s distinction as “Hawaii’s most scenic island.” There are several vantage points along Waimea Canyon Drive, but the most impressive vista is Waimea Canyon Lookout. The Eastern Shore of Kauai (the “Royal Coconut Coast”) is a mystical region filled with history and culture. Here the Wailua River takes center stage (though the celebrated golden beaches may disagree) amid dense fern grottos and majestic waterfalls.
The intriguing landscape’s overall appeal is the sum of its many different parts; diverse yet existing side-by-side in harmony. Similarly, the approximately 60,000 people living here may come from different backgrounds, but most choose Kauai for the same reasons: tranquility, relaxed routine and pristine environment.
The lifestyle on Kauai is laid-back in the extreme, and both residents and repeat visitors like it this way. When people say “there’s nothing doing on Kauai,” they mean it in a good way. It is a true getaway and ideal for those seeking relaxation, romance or a reconnect with the family. Kauai has done a very good job of keeping the country in country. Charming villages and family-owned businesses are the island’s answer to mega-malls and designer shopping. Quaint on the exterior, these tiny townships boast fine-art galleries, one-of-a-kind boutiques and fabulous restaurants, often run by celebrated chefs who “gave it all up” to make paradise home.
One industry Kauai has embraced, and vice versa, is the film industry. Hollywood discovered Kauai years ago and production companies from all over the world have followed suit. As you drive around the island, keep your eyes peeled for familiar landmarks used in scenes from Jurassic Park, Honeymoon in Vegas, Body Heat, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lord of the Flies, Throw Momma from the Train, The Thorn Birds, Donovan’s Reef, South Pacific, Girls! Girls! Girls! and more.
Kauai remains ready for its closeup and travelers are encouraged to catch it while they can. It is, as many famous writers have observed, Hawaii’s answer to the Garden of Eden — minus the snakes, but with plenty of chickens.
WAIMEA PLANTATION COTTAGES
If you want seclusion, this oasis of bungalows in a 27-acre coconut grove is a good fit. The one-, two- and three-bedroom cottages, originally built in the early 1900s, have been restored and decorated in keeping with the charm of the original Hawaiian plantation home. Waimea Plantation is situated on a black-sand beach; great for photo ops, bad for swimming. However, Salt Pond and Kekaha Beach are 10 minutes away and many guests make do with the swimming pool. Hart Felt Spa offers a full spa menu including massages, Hawaiian salt scrubs and acupuncture.The Waimea Brewing Co. on property serves pub fare and hand-crafted beer. Adorable Waimea town, five minutes away, has restaurants, cafés and groceries. Guest services include wireless Internet access, a business center, and (per request) a personal shopper to stock your cottage kitchen in advance of your arrival. $$$
WAIMEA PLANTATION COTTAGES
tel 800 992 4632, fax 808 338 2388
GRAND HYATT KAUAI RESORT AND SPA
Formerly the Hyatt Regency Kauai, this resort remains one of Hawaii’s finest. Its low-rise buildings and bungalows are built into the cliffs overlooking the Pacific and Shipwreck Beach, where guests can watch expert surfers and the protected Hawaiian Monk Seals who call this beach home. Award-winning dining options include Tidepools serving contemporary Hawaiian cuisine (try the mango, lobster and crab rice cake), Dondero’s for Italian dining al fresco and many other charming cafés, lounges and bars. The full-service Anara Spa features a 900-square-foot cardio complex, open-air meditative lounge, body and massage treatments and more. Two-thirds of all guestrooms offer ocean views and all are equipped with every conceivable amenity. $$$$
GRAND HYATT KAUAI RESORT AND SPA
tel 808 742 1234, fax 808 742 1557
HANALEI BAY RESORT
This resort’s pristine white-sand beach was the location for the filming of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific. Guests can choose from luxury guestrooms or one-bedroom suites with full kitchens. There are two swimming pools, eight tennis courts, access to four secluded beaches and special rates at neighboring Princeville’s award-winning Prince Golf Course, named by Golf Digest as Hawaii’s No. 1 course. Dining options include island favorite Bali Hai Restaurant, famous locally for sunset views and Pacific Rim cuisine. The open-air Happy Talk Lounge and Restaurant is one of the few places on Kauai that offers nightly entertainment, including Sunday Jazz. $$$$
HANALEI BAY RESORT
tel 800 827 4427, fax 808 826 6680
True to its name, most of the furnishings here are made from coconuts, giving the restaurant a very 1950s retro-Hawaii feel. The Pacific Rim menu uses a lot of fresh local seafood as well as pasta and chicken dishes. The calamari and shrimp cakes, tempura ono and seared ahi are a good way to start, but save room for dinner and the great bread that goes with it. Very popular; arrive early. $$$-$$$$
4-919 Kuhio Hwy, East Shore
tel 808 823 8777
BEACH HOUSE RESTAURANT
The ocean and sunset views here are exceptional.The seafood is superb and the lamb and steak entrées are treated with equal expertise. The wine list is impressive to even the fussiest of connoisseurs. This restaurant is one of the best on the South Shore. Make your reservations days in advance. $$$-$$$$
BEACH HOUSE RESTAURANT
5022 Lawai Road, Poipu
tel 808 742 1424
This place is as about as romantic as it gets with a lush garden setting, views of Hanalei Bay, Bali Hai and full-blown sunsets. Most of the herbs and vegetables used in preparing the exquisite Pacific Rim cuisine are organically grown on-site. The wonderful First Course menu includes the seafood martini and crab-stuffed button mushrooms. $$$-$$$$
Hanalei Bay Resort, Princeville
tel 808 826 6522
The close shore break and strong currents at some Kauai beaches make them less than ideal for swimming. Poipu Beach Park (South Shore), Lydgate State Park (East Shore/Wailua) and Salt Pond Beach (Hanapepe/West Shore) are reliable alternatives if surf conditions prohibit swimming at other locales. Check with your concierge for beach advisories or go to http://www.kauaiexplorer.com for daily updates. Kauai is the only Hawaiian Island to offer river trips. Take a guided tour or paddle your own kayak. For a real adventure, consider a kayak trip down the Napali Coast with Kayak Kauai (tel 808 826 9844, http://www.kayakkauai.com). For boat tours of both Napali coast and Niihau contact Holoholo Charters (tel 808 335 0815, http://www.holoholocharters.com). Smith’s Motorboat Service (tel 808 821 6892) offers other beautiful routes. A new must-do on the Kauai adventure scene is mountain tubing, which includes inner-tubing down the old 19th-century sugar cane irrigation systems. Kauai Backcountry Adventures (tel 808 245 2506, ) has opened up 17,000 scenic acres of former plantation lands to this new sport and other eco-tourism activities. To experience Waimea Canyon, visit Kokee Museum (tel 808 335 9975, http://www.kokee.org) a great resource for guided tours and/or maps. Luaus have made a resurgence on Kauai and Smith’s Tropical Paradise (tel 808 821 6895, http://www.smithskauai.com) is considered by many the best in the state. Kauai is not exactly known for its nightlife, but try telling that to that to people here on holiday. Your best bet for a lively evening out is at the island’s resorts. Stevenson Library or Seaview Terrace at the Hyatt (tel 808 742 1234) have nightly music; Sheraton’s Point (tel 808 742 1661) is a happening place for an early cocktail and occasional live entertainment; and Rob’s Good Times Grill (tel 808 246 0311), mostly a local spot, has entertainment every night. When scheduling your departure at Lihue Airport (LIH) leave enough time prior to your flight to stop by Hamura Saimin (2956 Kress St., tel 808 245 3271) for a slice of Lilikoi chiffon pie. For more information, visit http://www.kauaidiscovery.com.
INFO TO GO
While some carriers offer direct flights to Kauai there are more travel options if you fly into Honolulu (HNL) and connect to Lihue (LIH). Hawaiian Airlines (tel 800 367 5320) has numerous daily flights from Oahu to Kauai. It also has 135 daily flights to Honolulu from mainland U.S. West Coast cities. There are several rental car companies in Lihue but with limited inventory, so book in advance. Note that gasoline prices on Kauai are among the highest in the nation.
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