My Kauai experience with help from Stephanie Benson
As a self-described travel snob, I always assumed Hawaii was an overrated travel destination rife with gleaming families and spoiled kids, Waikiki cheeseballs, and big men playing little ukuleles. And so I always avoided venturing out there, until my personal Hawaii expert, Handstand Steph, convinced me to bypass Oahu and give the lesser populated island Kauai a try. And now here I am a new ukulele owner and a true Hawaii convert.
Kauai has a mysterious power; here, Mother Nature truly asserts her paradoxical disposition — one minute she’s a peaceful wave, the next a violent riptide. (Or perhaps it’s just the power of the Menehune, the mythical race of small people that Hawaiians like to blame their problems on.) Upon landing in Lihue, we were refreshed by how relatively little the island was developed. Even just outside the airport, it seems endlessly lush and unspoiled.
From the time-worn cliffs of the Napali Coast to the fresh black lava shores, from the hip town of Kapaa to Waimea Canyon — home to “the Grand Canyon of the West” — I felt as if I had stepped into a friendly, chill, and less commercial extension of a place like Northern California or Oregon — only with wild (and brash) roosters, jungle-like land, and great canyons overlooking tropical beaches.
But this didn’t feel like the United States in a lot of ways. The majority of our stay was in Kapaa, a charming town full of mom-and-pop restaurants with a DIY and progressive approach. The independent spirit is alive here — in its locals and transplants, anti-establishment politicking, and small businesses. (Many in Kauai seemed to make their disapproval of Monsanto and GMOs very clear, for example. Kudos to them!) Just check out Hoku Foods Natural Market — a socially-and-sustainably-conscious store with an incredible selection of fresh, organic foods — it puts a corporate beast like Whole Foods to shame. Or go to the coffeehouse Java Kai for a smooth cup of joe or a smoothie made with local ingredients. And for dinner, drinks, and entertainment, check out Trees Lounge; tucked behind a row of resorts in Kapa’a, this unassuming spot seems to be a local favorite thanks to a great selection of food (get the beignets!) and live music from local artists nightly.
But the real jewels of Kauai reside in its natural environment, of course. Without a doubt, the rugged and daredevil hiking opportunities offer plenty of escapist delights. The Napali Coast is otherworldly — vibrant, serene, and dangerous all at once. The trail’s beauty can take your breath away, but so can the four-hundred-feet drop to the wild Pacific Ocean just inches from your feet. Unfortunately, violent winds and heavy rains (“one of the worst storms in years,” said a local) thwarted our attempts to complete the entire 22-mile round-trip trek. (Just another reason to go back!)
Kauai also offers other less treacherous hiking: We checked out the trail to Ho’opi’i Falls, which included a trek through wild tropical vegetation overgrowth to a serene set of waterfalls.Take note: this area is filled with mosquitoes eager to suck your blood — seriously, cover up and bring bug spray! — and there are several offshoot trails that can easily get you turned around. We used the AllTrails iPhone app, which was somewhat of a guide, but the user reviews only confused us further! Use with caution. Another hiking excursion we recommend is located down on the southern coast, starting at Ha’ula Beach near the Poipu Kai resort. From the beach you climb right up to the cliffs along the coast, and from there it’s all stunning, steep drops with even a few hidden caves to escape from the sun. Aside from hiking, our other adventure involved camping at the pristine Anini Beach. We pitched a tent right on the fringe of the beach — maybe a little too on the fringe as the high tide at 3AM felt mighty close to our tiny makeshift abode.
Still, Anini was a delight — peaceful and serene, this beach is protected by Hawaii’s largest coral reef, and is a great spot for stargazing and simple reflection.
All in all, I would gladly return to Kauai — the opportunities for escape and solace are endless. If (and when!) I return, I’d plan time to see more of the island’s innards, particularly the great Waimea Canyon. I’d also rent a 4WD vehicle and hit the more banged-up roads to experience the remote beach of Polihale (only accessible via a four-mile, heavily-potholed dirt road). But for now, I’m happy to say my experience in Kauai has made me a true believer in Hawaii’s famed greeting, “Aloha.” “Alo” means to share in the present moment; “oha” is joy; and “ha” is life’s energy. Together, “aloha” roughly translates as “joyfully sharing life” — an inspiring sentiment for an island that truly embraces this ideal. Aloha!