If you think about it, Hawaiian culture is one of the most easily identified, even for those who’ve never set foot on its lush lands. How quickly we conjure up hula skirts, floral prints, tiki torches, and the soft strum of ukuleles at just the thought of the Aloha State. They’re so pervasive that visitors here might have oversimplified expectations.
As a first timer to America’s 50th state, I couldn’t help but harbor some of these stereotypical images as I — at long last — got to see it for myself. I arrived late at night into Kauai’s Lihue Airport, eager to lay eyes on the verdant beauty of the “Garden Isle,” only to have to hold off until morning.
It was worth the wait. The sun rose and my jetlag was interrupted by gem-green trees and sparkling blue ocean waves outside my window. As I breathed in the warm South Pacific air, instantly I felt the richness of this place. It was as if every sense absorbed the peaceful beauty.
The smallest of Hawaii’s four major island getaways is splendidly underdeveloped
Of Hawaii’s eight main islands, nature lovers say Kauai is the best, and it’s pretty clear why. To its east is the famous island of Oahu, home to the state capital Honolulu. Next over is ever-popular Maui, and the mountainous “Big Island” (the island of Hawaii). Kauai, meanwhile, has only a modest population (about 58,000 — a fraction of each of the three bigger islands), and remains wonderfully underdeveloped.
That’s not to say that Kauai is short on tourists. Last year, 1.2 million travelers visited its modest 552 square miles. The difference is that tourism doesn’t feel like the dominant force here. Buildings are low-rise thanks to a law limiting them to the height of palm trees. And there’s no interstate here, only two-lane highways that connect two-thirds of the island; the other third is the northwest side’s untouched, magnificent Napali Coast.
South Shore Happenings
Kauai’s small scale offers a nice balance of good restaurants, cultural and historic sites, and natural splendor. The South Shore is a prime jumping-off point, and parking yourself at the posh Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort & Spa is a good way to get your feet wet — specifically in one of its pools, hot tubs, a saltwater lagoon, or at the sandy beach — and have easy access to some of the island’s best attractions.
For starters, a catamaran sail with an outfit like Holo Holo Charters is a fun way to lay eyes on the Napali Coast State Park, where you can behold its verdant peaks (and the valley made famous in “Jurassic Park”), plus dolphin, turtle, and waterfall sightings along the way, and a chance to snorkel among a rainbow of tropical fish.
Some might say helicopter tours are best for touring Kauai’s picture-perfect terrain. If you’re keen to get up close to the cliffs and waterfalls of Waimea Canyon (the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific”) and volcanic Mt. Waialeale Crater, a chopper is just the ticket.
But real aerial enthusiasts prefer a more direct approach like zip- lining across valleys with family-owned Skyline Eco-Adventures. For less air, more earth, and a hidden waterfall, join a muddy-fun all-terrain vehicle tour with Kauai ATV based in Koloa.
Less wild but still adventurous is a horseback ride along the sandy shores of Mahaulepu Beach with CJM Country Stables, where seasoned guides will lead your group of cowpokes across the meadows and shady trails.
Break from the active jaunts with tasty tours, like the Steelgrass Farm chocolate tour, where you can sample exotic fruits and learn all about Mother Nature’s great gift to humanity, cacao. Meanwhile, java lovers will enjoy a free guided tour and tasting at Kauai Coffee Company’s historic estate in Kalaheo. And since sugar is a major crop here, why not sample some of the local spirits at the Koloa Rum Company, a distillery that also produces cocktail mixes, syrups, jams, and jellies?
When lunch or dinner calls, head to the Shops at Kukuiula. There you’ll find delicious Mexican fare at gay-owned Tortilla Republic, with its casual daytime patio or evening dining area upstairs. Merriman’s, meanwhile, offers an enticing menu of locally sourced ingredients and fresh-catch seafood. The Shops also hosts a weekly culinary market on Wednesday afternoons, so you can sample many of Kauai’s top food and souvenir vendors all in one place.
Royal Coconut Coast
Thanks to loads of coconut-palm groves, the island’s East Side has a killer nickname — the Royal Coconut Coast — and is home to the largest residential population. The hub city of Lihue (“Lee-hoo-ee”) is where you’ll fly in and probably rent your car (necessary since there’s only one, infrequent public shuttle bus). Here you’ll find the Kauai Marriott Resort, which may seem a bit large, yet it’s perfectly situated in the inlet of Nawiliwili Bay where you can swim, surf, or paddleboard in fair ocean waters or float in its sprawling, tree-lined pool.
The Marriott is in a nice spot along the public-access Kalapaki Beach, and you can stroll the shore’s promenade to relax at one of the beachside eateries like Duke’s or Café Portofino (which becomes a nightclub on weekend nights).
Around the corner is the friendly but admittedly old-school, divey Nawiliwili Tavern. The Tavern is one of the few spots on Kauai where the LGBTQ crowd clusters, usually on Thursday nights when the cruise ship docks in town. But as I expected in such a laid-back, sociable place as Hawaii — where marriage equality made its earliest, though unsuccessful progress in the 1990s — there aren’t queer-dedicated bars and clubs here. Gay and lesbian travelers will feel right at home in Kauai’s chill atmosphere anywhere they go.
That’s the thing about Kauai. It’s not trying too hard, it’s just quietly enjoying the heavenly richness of nature, weather, and community that dwell there. That includes visitors, especially the ones who arrive with open minds, grateful hearts, and adventurous tendencies.