With no giant high rise resorts like Oahu and a handful of flight arrivals from the mainland, the island of Kauai only has about 10% of all the visitors to the 50th state.
This gives Kauai a more laid back feel than its more famous neighbor isles. The Garden Isle also boasts an abundance of eateries, from high-end and beach shacks, with local and organic produce on their menus.
A Short History
Kauai, like all the Hawaiian islands, was formed by volcanic eruptions millions of years ago. Kauai is the oldest Hawaiian island at about 5.1 million years, followed by Oahu which is 2.2-3.4 million years old.
The first settlers were the Marquesans, who arrived between 1400 and 1800 years ago. Tahitians arrived 500 years later.
Kaumualii, the ruler of Kauai, fought King Kamehameha’s attempt to unite the Hawaiian islands. Kamehameha’s military invasions failed twice, but in 1810, Kaumualii voluntarily handed over Kauai.
The Russian American Company, a scheme of the Russian crown to gain a trading foothold in Hawaii, built Fort Elizabeth in 1816. The Russians were expelled the following year.
American businesses built sugar plantations on Kauai. As these plantations became more and more valuable, American business interests leveraged their power and overthrew the monarchy on Hawaii in 1893. Sugar production continued to be big business through the first half of the 20th century, but business slowly declined as cheaper labor was found in places like Brazil and India.
Many of the old sugar plantations were razed and the fields were sold off as developers built resorts for the millions of tourists who flock to Hawaii each year.
Kauai, perhaps more than the other Hawaiian Islands, has a big focus on local food, especially produce. Even small, hole-in-the-wall joints seem to brag about their farm-to-table and organic offerings. All these fresh items mean that even the simplest dishes can be flavorful.
Shave Ice, a Hawaiian Sno Cone, is often overly sweet and made with artificial ingredients. But, at Wailua Shave Ice, they make their syrups and foams with real fruit. The coconut foam is a revelation.
Even the open-air restaurant Hanalei Bread Co. offers items with local honey and eggs, housemade jam, and bread made with organic flour. Don’t be put off by the long lines, the staff keeps things moving and you can almost always find a seat at one of the picnic tables on the lawn.
Hukulau Lanai not only features local ingredients on their menu, but also practices sustainability by recycling their vegetable oil, donating food to a local soup kitchen, and donating used coffee grounds and kitchen scraps to local farmers. Their five course wine and food tasting menu (available 5-5:45 only) is $50. The Swiss chard and mushroom tart is fantastic.
To get an overview of what Kauai has to offer, Tasting Kauai offers five different food tours of the island.
Loco Moco, even though it has a Spanish name, is a true Hawaiian creation, first served on the Big Island at the Lincoln Grill 70 years ago.
The dish features a scoop of rice topped with a hamburger patty, fried egg, and gravy. With a dish so simple you know there have to be a lot of variations of Loco Moco. You’ll find Loco Moco made with sausage, chicken, seafood, and, of course, Spam. This is Hawaii, after all, and it seems like Spam is everywhere.
Don’t expect to find Loco Moco on fancy restaurant menus. Loco Moco is strictly served in diners, beach huts, and snack shops. The best might be at Mark’s Place in Lihue. They also have the popular Spam Musibi.
Oh, and if you speak Spanish, you might be put off by the name Loco Moco. Literally translated, it means Crazy Mucus. But, the name has nothing to do with nasal congestion. It was simply chosen because it sounded cool.
Like I said, Spam is crazy popular in Hawaii. Locals adopted the processed meat into their diet because of all the American soldiers stationed in Hawaii during and after WWII. Soldiers were fed Spam regularly, much to their chagrin, but the Hawaiians loved it.
One of the most famous dishes to arise from the Hawaiian love affair with Spam was Spam Musibi. Slices of Spam are fried and placed outside a scoop of rice. The Spam and rice is then wrapped in Nori to make a sort of Spam sushi.
Spam Musibi is so popular that you can find it wrapped and ready to eat next to cash registers at 7-11 in Hawaii. If you don’t trust how long the Spam has been sitting there, you can get the dish at diners and take out joints all over Hawaii. Mark’s Place, once again, is a good choice.
In the late 1800s, workers from Portugal came to work on the sugar and fruit plantations of Hawaii, bringing their cuisine with them. Once of the most popular dishes was the Malasada, a donut like treat made of fried yeast dough and rolled in sugar.
The Malasada proved so popular, in fact, that Hawaiian bakeries soon adopted the donut as their own. Today, bakeries throughout the island chain have big signs in their windows advertising the Portuguese sweet.
But, the best Malasadas come fresh out of the fryer. VIP Treats & Sweets, hidden in a shop at the back of the Kauai Mall, only makes Malasadas on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. Get there early to get them hot and fresh.
Lilikoi is the Hawaiian word for Passion Fruit and is a favorite on the islands. You can find Lilikoi Malasadas, cookies, and jams and jellies. Shave Ice (like a Sno Cone but waaaay better) will often be topped with Lilikoi syrup or foam.
Lilikoi pies are also extremely popular. Lilikoi Cheesecake is particularly good, but my favorite is Lilikoi Mango Pie. The Right Slice makes an outstanding version and you get it at their bakery in Kalaheo.
The Right Slice also has an automated shop in Lihue that is simultaneously modern and a throwback. If you’re old enough to remember the old automats of the 1950s, The Right Slice has updated this concept with vending machines that are stocked daily with fresh slices and full pies. It’s also modern because they accept only credit cards, there are no humans on site, and there is a video screen that plays a tutorial on how to operate the machines.
The Polynesians brought Taro with them when they settled the Hawaiian Islands over 1,000 years ago. Taro root is a staple in the Hawaiian diet and Taro fields are found in Kauai, especially on the northern part of the island near Princeville.
Traditionally, Taro root is hand pounded into a paste called poi. But, my favorite way to enjoy Taro is as a chip. Like potato chips, Taro root is thinly sliced, fried, and salted.
In Hanapepe, there is a unique shop called Taro Ko Chips Factory. Outside, it doesn’t look like much, just a ramshackle building down the road from the art galleries of Hanapepe.
Despite the “Factory” name, this is a tiny one-man operation, making Taro and Sweet Potato Chips for those in the know. Don’t expect regular hours, the place is only open when the door is open. As a bonus, there are often mangoes from the owner’s farm on sale outside the building for the ridiculously low price of fifty cents!
Drinking in Kauai
Happy hour is a big deal on Kauai. And why not? Everyone is on vacation, right? At least that’s how it seems.
When picking a spot it’s wise to keep a few things in mind. Most importantly, no drinking and driving. With Uber available on Kauai, there’s no excuse.
Also, think about what kind of bar you’re looking for. If it’s strictly a beach vibe, Duke’s is right on the water and has what they call an Aloha Hour from 4-6. Of course, it’s also quite touristy. If you want to really feel like you’re in Hawaii, try the La Pina served in a pineapple. This is a great spot for a cocktail before dinner and a stroll on the beach.
There’s a long stretch of beach resorts and hotels on the Kapaa waterfront and each of them has a bar and restaurant. Lava Lava has $5 Mai Tais during their Happy Hour, though the food is pedestrian.
Tahiti Nui has been around for almost 70 years but it became famous as a location in the 2011 George Clooney movie The Descendants. This spot in Hanalei is a local favorite and has $3 domestic beers during happy hour. Good music and food, too.
Hawaii is the only state in the US with commercial coffee production. The best coffee in Hawaii comes from the Big Island of Hawaii. You may have seen Kona coffee in your specialty coffee shop, although Hawaiian coffee is relatively rare in mainland coffee joints.
There’s also a large coffee farm on Kauai, the Kauai Coffee Company. They offer free tastings and tours in Kalaheo.
Things to do in Kauai
As of this writing, the area past Hanalei is closed to everyone except local residents. This is due to the historic flooding in April, 2018 and was made worse by Hurricane Lane in August of that year. Currently, there is no timeline for reopening. Kalalau Trail, Ke’e Beach, and Lumahai Beach are all off limits.
Much of Kauai is inaccessible due to lack of roads or spots being located on private land. But, you can still see much of Kauai’s magnificent beauty on a tour.
There are boat tours that will take you to the rugged Napali Coast, but everyone I talked to who went on these boat tours complained of rough seas and rocking boats.
Another option is a helicopter tour. Helicopter tours are a good idea because the chopper can get closer to the waterfalls and other attractions. But, they are also more costly than plane rides and not for those who are subject to motion sickness.
Plane rides can be more economical. For about $125-150 pp, you can see most of the island in a quick one hour ride. You’ll also get lots of great pictures. We’ve done the Wings Over Kauai tour and enjoyed it a great deal.
Much of Jurassic Park and its series of sequels was filmed on Kauai. You can see some of the sites, although they are often difficult to get to. The folks at Legendary Day Trips and Culture Trip have done a good job of outlining the locations for Dino-heads.
Alexander Payne (Election, Sideways, Downsizing) directed the George Clooney movie The Descendants in Hawaii. Much of the movie was shot on Kauai, and there is a pricey tour that takes you to locations where many movies were shot in Kauai (Blue Hawaii, South Pacific, and others) but you can visit many of the Descendants filming locations on your own.
Tahiti Nui was the bar where Beau Bridges’ character hung out in the movie. It’s a great local spot with a good happy hour.
The family land from the movie is the privately owned Kipu Ranch. Here you can book ATV rides and zipline tours. Not exactly what George Clooney’s character had in mind…
The family cottage from the movie is available for rent at eye popping rates ($3,000 a night!!), but you can wander along the gorgeous Hanalei Bay for free.
Unfortunately, the record rainfall in April 2018 and Hurricane Lane in August 2018 caused massive damage on Kauai and several of the most spectacular hiking trails on the island remain closed indefinitely. These include the Kalalau Trail and the Hanakapiai Trail, two of the best trails for hiking along the Napali Coast.
Waimea Canyon, nicknamed the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, is one of the most beautiful natural spots on the planet. You can hike a very difficult five mile trail in the canyon or the less strenuous nature loop. Camping is also allowed by permit.
One of the best things about hiking in Kauai is the many waterfalls. Some are remote, but the short Ho’opi’i Falls hike is fairly easy to access and lets you see two waterfalls in a single hike. You might recognize the first fall as the Amber Mine from Jurassic Park. Note that the trailhead is in a residential neighborhood. Don’t park on someone’s property or you will be towed. Also, jumping from the falls or swings is very dangerous! Do not attempt.
Journey Era has done an excellent job detailing several hikes in Kauai. Remember, check to see if the trails are open before heading out.
You’re in Hawaii, you have to visit the beach, right? Luckily there are lots to choose from. Some are more crowded than others, but you’ll never see the mass of humanity like you will at Waikiki Beach in Honolulu. As of this writing, beaches like Ke’e and several others past Hanalei are closed because of 2018’s flooding.
Hanalei Bay is one of the most beautiful beaches in Hawaii. There’s two miles of sand and the beach is rarely crowded. Experienced surfers are often hitting the waves here.
Poipu Beach is a great spot for snorkeling and you might even spot sea turtles and monk seals here. Nearby Shipwreck Beach is more secluded and surfers ride the waves off the shore.
Not far from Poipu Beach is the Spouting Horn of the Ancient Lizard. A natural rock formation has eroded to cause a hole where waves rush through the rock and shoot up to fifty feet in the air. The rushing water also causes a deep “groaning” sound.
The Hawaiian legend of the Spouting Horn says that a giant lizard guarded the shore at Poipu attacking anyone who came nearby. A man named Liko was swimming in the water when the lizard attacked him, but Liko escaped by swimming up through the hole in the rocks. The lizard followed but got stuck in the hole where he remains to this day. The “groaning” sound is the lizards cries of pain.
One of my favorite towns on Kauai is Hanapepe. A single road holds most of the shops, many of which are art galleries, in tiny Hanapepe town. This is also where you can get your Taro chips (see above).
The only attraction, per se, is the Hanapepe Swinging Bridge. This rickety pedestrian-only structure spans the Hanapepe River and gets its name from the swaying motion of the span. Crossing the bridge is good fun and from the other side you’ll get a nice picture of the structure.
The best time to visit Hanapepe is Friday evening for Art Night. The town’s many galleries open their doors and lots of other vendors line the street while musicians keep the atmosphere lively.
The issue of Hawaiian sovereignty was recently in the news when five members of the Polynesian Kingdom of Atooi group were arrested for assault and harassment after storming and attempting to occupy a government building in Honolulu. The men are part of the Hawaiian Sovereignty movement which does not recognize the United States Federal Government’s authority over the islands.
The issue of Hawaiian Sovereignty is difficult to unpack and is made all the more complicated by the many groups and differing viewpoints, even among Native Hawaiians. In a nutshell, the Hawaiian Sovereignty movement says that the U.S. government was complicit in the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy and the subsequent occupation of the islands. And, they point out that the article 73 of the United Nations charter says that Hawaii was to be placed under the administration of the United States with the purpose of making the islands self-governing. Hawaiian nationalists claim this “sacred trust obligation” was never carried out and that Hawaii was always intended to be independent. On the other hand, it is important to note that over 94% of the residents of Hawaii voted for statehood in 1959.
In the 70s and 80s, when the indigenous peoples’ movements gained traction, Hawaiian Sovereignty came to the forefront of island politics. In 1987, activists occupied the land near Makapu'u Lighthouse on Oahu, claiming it as ancestral land. Eventually the dispute was resolved and the group was granted nearby land called Pu`uhonua O Waimanalo. They cleared the mosquito infested property and built homes where a couple hundred people live today. Most are Native Hawaiian and formerly homeless.
On Kauai, Hawaiian Sovereignty became an issue when a couple dozen Native Hawaiians began camping on the abandoned Coco Palms Resort (this is where much of Elvis’ movie Blue Hawaii was filmed). They claimed ownership of the land and said they had proof to support their position. Lawsuits were filed and in 2018 the Native group lost and was removed from the resort which was due to be renovated and reopened (it has been vacant since Hurricane Inika in 1992) but the current owner recently defaulted on a loan, so the property’s future is in doubt.
You can’t visit Coco Palms Resort, it is fenced off as a construction site. Although some folks, like the guy in the video below, ignore the signs and enter anyway. You can take pictures from the street.
Mark Zuckerberg became the face neo-colonialism in Kauai when he bought a 700 acre estate and used a third party shill to file lawsuit against fractional landowners of adjacent property which had been handed down over generations. The lawsuit was dropped after public outcry, but sale of the parcels was done amid protest in March, 2019.
Around Kauai you can still see symbols of Hawaiian Sovereignty. An upside down Hawaiian flag is one. Or, these signs proclaiming independence on these trucks we saw in Hanapepe.
Not an attraction, but a local oddity. Feral chickens are everywhere on Kauai; all over Hawaii actually, but especially on Kauai.
Chickens were originally brought to Hawaii by the native Polynesians over 1,000 years ago as a food source. With no natural predators, chicken populations surged. But, when Hurricane Iniki hit in 1992 and destroyed many structures on Kauai, including the cages where the chickens were kept, the feral chicken population exploded and now you can find the cluckers everywhere. And I mean everywhere. We saw them in the parking lot at the airport, at the beach, and even at outdoor dining restaurants.
Locals try to keep the population in check by asking tourists not to feed the chickens, but it seems to be a losing battle. Tourists find the birds irresistible and their presence charming. And, chickens do a lot of good for the ecosystem, mainly by eating a lot of insects.
But, there’s a downside to all these chickens. They can be aggressive towards humans, especially when they feel their offspring might be threatened. Also, traffic accidents have been reported due to drivers trying to avoid hitting the fowl.
Lastly, the barbaric activity of cock fighting is still practiced on Kauai. There was even a bill in the Hawaii legislature which would have recognized cock fighting as a cultural activity. Luckily, it did not pass. Still, this violent venture continues.
Lihue Airport (LIH)
Kauai’s airport with flights to other islands and the mainland.
3901 Mokulele Loop, Lihue, HI
Uber is widely available on Kauai. Renting a car is the best choice if you’re going to be seeing a lot of the island.
The Kauai Bus is reliable with service all over the island. However, service can be infrequent, leaving you waiting for the next bus.
Tasting Kauai offers several food tours of the island.
Kauai Movie Tours
Expensive tour of Kauai movie sites (including Blue Hawaii, South Pacific and many others).
Wings Over Kauai
Plane tour of Kauai.
3651 Ahukini Rd, Lihue, Kauai, HI
The “Grand Canyon of the Pacific” offers hiking, waterfalls, and rainbows.
Waimea Canyon Dr., Uninc Kauai County, HI
Rugged hiking and high cliffs offer spectacular views for experienced trekkers.
Polihale State Park
Beautiful sandy beach, difficult to reach, must have a 4x4.
Lower Saki Mana Rd., Waimea, HI
Beautiful beach that attracts surfers.
Hanalei, Kauai, HI
Very popular beach on the far north of the island. As of this writing the beach is closed due to 2018 flooding.
Highway 560 Kauai, North Shore, Kauai, HI
Great for snorkeling and scuba diving. As of this writing, the beach is closed due to 2018 flooding.
7640 Kuhio Hwy, Kauai, HI 96714
Ancient Lizard at the Spouting Horn
Rocks and erosion cause natural “geysers” to spout with ocean waves.
South Shore, Poipu, Kauai, HI
Good beach for swimming and spotting sea turtles and monk seals.
Hoona Rd, Poipu, Kauai, HI
Secluded beach near Poipu Beach.
End of Ainakoa St, Poipu, Kauai, HI
Wailua River State Park
Great spot for kayaking and paddleboarding.
Highway 56, Wailua, Kauai, HI
Beautiful spot. Later in the afternoon is less busy and the best time to go.
3580 Kilauea Rd, Kilauea, HI
Huge beach. Tons of parking (though the lot has tons of potholes)
Highway 56, North of Kapaa, Kealia, Kauai, HI
Kauai Coffee Company
Massive coffee farm with tastings and tours.
870 Halewili Road, Kalaheo, Kauai, HI
Coco Palms Resort
Closed since 1992, this is where Elvis filmed much of Blue Hawaii and was ground zero for a Hawaiian Sovereignty land case 2016-18. Site is not open to the public.
4-1219 Kuhio Hwy, Kapaa, HI
Russian Fort Elizabeth
Ruins of an abandoned 19th century Russian fort.
Highway 50, Waimea, Kauai, HI
Food and Drink
The Fresh Shave
Organic syrups are used in their shave ice.
3540 Koloa Road, Lawai, Kauai, HI
Good happy hour.
2253 Poipu Rd, Poipu, Kauai, HI
Kauai Culinary Market
Wednesday farmers market
2829 Ala Kalani Kaumaka St, Kukui'ula Village Shopping Center, Poipu, Kauai, HI
Italian restaurant and wine bar.
5492 Koloa Rd, Koloa, Kauai, HI
Great breakfast menu.
2-2560 Kaumualii Hwy, Kalaheo, Kauai, HI
Food truck with great pizza. Next to Wailua Shave Ice.
4-1306 Kuhio Hwy, Kapaa, Hawaii
Eat Healthy Kauai
Healthy vegan food.
4-369 Kuhio Hwy, Ste 110, Kapaa, Kauai, HI
VIP Treats and Sweets
Fresh malasadas Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday only.
4-831 Kuhio Hwy., Ste. 439, Kapaa, HI
Lava Lava Beach Club
Good happy hour, great beachside location.
420 Papaloa Rd, Kapaa, Kauai, HI
Passion Bakery Cafe
Croisscones, cross between a croissant and a scone.
4-356 Kuhio Hwy, Ste 121, Kapaa, Kauai, HI
Papayas Natural Foods
Salad bar and wraps hidden in the back of this natural food grocery.
4-901 Kuhio Hwy, Kapaa, Kauai, HI
Koloa Rum Company
Hawaiian rum distillery with tasting room.
3-2087 Kaumualii Hwy, Lihue, Kauai, HI
Mexican food. Veg options.
4454 Nuhou St, #501, Lihue, HI 96766
Hamura Saimin Stand
Unpretentious cafeteria-style Japanese restaurant with lilikoi pie.
2956 Kress St, Lihue, Kauai, HI
Kalalea Juice Hale
Great acai bowls.
4390 Pu'u hale Loop, Anahola, Kauai, HI 96703
Fruit stand with local fruit, smoothies, and frosties.
5-2719 Kuhio Hwy, Kilauea, Kauai, HI
Hanalei Bread Co.
Good sourdough at this cafe in Hanalei.
Hanalei Street Eats
Food truck court with many choices.
5-5100 Kuhio Hwy, Hanalei, Kauai, HI
Little Fish Coffee
Funky coffee spot in Hanapepe.
3900 Hanapepe Rd #D, Hanapepe, Kauai, HI
Midnight Bear Bakery
Good breads and pastries.
3830 Hanapepe Rd, Hanapepe, Kauai, HI
Lots of seafood, sushi, and tempura.
3871 Hanapepe Road, Hanapepe, Kauai, HI
Taro Ko Chips Factory
Tiny shack where they make Taro chips. They’re open when the door is open.
3940 Hanapepe Rd, Hanapepe, Kauai, HI
Talk Story Bookstore
New books, used books, vinyl.
3785 Hanapepe Road, Hanapepe, HI
Hanapepe Art Night
Weekly event with open galleries, vendors, and musicians.
Hanapepe, Kauai, HI
3905 Hanapepe Rd, Hanapepe, Kauai, HI
Havaiki Oceanic and Tribal Art
Museum quality tribal artwork from Polynesia with local made pieces as well.
5-5161 Kuhio Highway, Bldg G, Hanalei Center, Hanalei, Kauai, HI
Tiny shop and cafe with great jams and scones.
2-3687 Kaumualii Highway, Lawai, Kauai, HI
Kauai Shores Hotel
Reasonably priced (by Kauai standards) and right on the beach.
420 Papaloa Rd, Kapaa, HI 96746
Renovated Studio near Hanalei
Hanalei Hale Nalu
The cottage from the movie The Descendants is available for rent at wallet-draining prices.