Adventure Island: Sarah Wilson’s Kauai Guide
When researching my Hawaii trip I got a case of analysis paralysis trying to decide which island(s) to visit. I didn’t want to spend my precious 11 days scooting to all of them. I wanted to prioritise, to focus. To bunker down and get to know one place at a time (I always travel with the “light” attitude – if I like the place, I’ll come back and explore more).
A few factors drew me to Kauai. First, it’s a hiker’s paradise. It’s also quieter than the other islands. Plus, pretty much every second person I follow on Instagram comes from Kauai, and the images that fill my feed paint the island as the ultimate “wellness” escape, which is what my holidays are mostly about.
I was on the island for six days. Not long enough, even though Expedia’s Aussie travellers usually spend 3-4 nights on the island, but in that time Kauai still managed to pack some serious wellness travel punch. Here’s how it went…
I flew into Lihue, grabbed a hire car (you’ll need one) and set out south. I totally recommend “doing” the southwestern part of the island around Waimea as well as the northwestern part, exploring the east coast a little on the way.
From the airport I stopped in at the farmer’s markets (Saturdays 9.30am-1pm). I stocked up on cooking supplies including local pawpaw, avocados, bitter greens and macadamias. Kauai is the place to do a bit of self-catering – many of the great properties to stay are bungalows or cottages fitted out for folk who want to cook up their own fare. En route to my cottage I stopped at Living Foods for extra supplies and to check out some local products (chocolate!). If you’re not a cook, they also have a “salad” bar where you buy pre-made meals. Or, better yet, wait until you get to Waimea and stop off at the Ishihara Market and grab yourself some of the best poke (raw tuna salad) in the state from their massive deli selection.
Where to stay
Like I said, I recommend bunkering down in a bungalow and having a true “local” experience while in Kauai. Waimea Plantation Cottages were perfect for this. In fact, they were just plain perfect. A collection of old cottages that have been done up in a rustic way and set in beautiful gardens facing the ocean, they’re exactly what you expect when dreaming of a Hawaiian escape. You don’t cook? The restaurant on site is quite an experience, especially on locals’ karaoke night.
Now, the main reason you head down this way is for the canyon hiking. Check out my fit and healthy guide to Hawaii for details on the hikes here. I share in this post that the best guide for the area is the Kauai Island Atlas and Maps brochure that you can pick up for $8 from the Kokee Cabins and Museum (most of the online guides are not very helpful). The hikes are tough, rustic and often muddy, but so worth the grunt. They’re also a bit of a drive from Waimea. If you want more of a mountain vibe, consider spending at night at The Cabins at Kokee (in the park). One of the best things about this part of the island is the weather – down this way it’s always sunny, even when the rest of the island is in downpour.
Exploring the Na’Pali Coast
When you’re done (three days is probably enough to get the most from the area), drive back up the east coast toward the Na’Pali Coast. Along the way are some great little towns worth stoping at. Plan to have breakfast and lunch en route because many of the great eateries are dotted along this stretch. Try Rainbeau Jo’s Food Truck near Lihue for kooky health food (a great stop-off near the airport) and Kauai Juice Co for seriously wholesome vegetable juices and homemade kombucha. Save room for Tiki Tacos and stock up on salad items at Papaya’s Natural Foods. These spots all have a whole food, local and mostly sugar-free slant! The girls at Kauai Juice Co also recommended doing the Sleeping Giants hike nearby.
Most people head to Hanalei Bay when visiting Kauai. I’d describe it as the Byron Bay of Hawaii – everyone’s wearing yoga leggings and drinking green juices. I stayed about 15 minutes beyond Hanalei, closer to the hiking, at the Hanalei Colony Resort, another cluster of bungalows with kitchens (and amazing views of the ocean and jungle). While in the area, I “ran” (again with no shoes) the Okolehau Trail and did some stand up paddle boarding (SUP) out in the bay. If the weather had been better I would have done some snorkelling too.
Food-wise, make sure you try the laulau (slow-cooked pork wrapped in taro leaf and steamed) at the Taro & Juice Co food truck on the main strip. It’s a fantastic farm-to-picnic-table-in-the-car-park experience. Bar Acuda is also fabulous for mindful eating, seafood and general fun vibes. The Dolphin Restaurant is great as well; I ate Ahi poko at the bar. It’s a great locals hangout, with picnic tables on the river and lots of fairy lights. Also, if you’re there on Tuesday, the farmer’s market is great for stocking up on produce.
Finally, to wrap things up, I did a helicopter ride around the island. I totally dug it and it was great to do after traversing chunks of the island on foot – to see things with bird’s eye perspective. Was it cheesy/touristy? A little. But the experience actually brought me to awe-some tears. In fact, the whole Kauai experience did. There is a very particular energy to Hawaii – the sheer dense and dramatic nature of the landscape has a lot to do with it. So does the chilled-out attitude of the locals. All of it is a wonderful reminder of what life is meant to be about.
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