Scenic, remote Kauai isn’t the busiest isle for tourism, but it may be the best
Nobody on Kauai will give you a hard time for simply lazing on one of the island’s gorgeous beaches every waking hour of your vacation. Still, you may find it impossible to resist the countless opportunities for outdoor adventure on this lush, mountainous and least-populated of Hawaii’s four major islands. Whether you venture out sea-kayaking, helicopter-touring, ziplining, hiking or canyoneering, you won’t likely regret packing an activity or two into each of your days on what’s typically nicknamed the “Garden Island.”
For the ultimate hiking and beachcombing, many visitors to Kauai head for the Na Pali Coast, which is on the northwestern tip of the island, just beyond the picturesque village of Hanalei (the setting for such films as South Pacific). The eastern side of Kauai is dominated by the waterfalls of the Wailua River Valley, the southern end by Poipu’s breathtaking beaches and upscale resorts, and the western side by gargantuan Waimea Canyon — there’s unparalleled beauty wherever you look.
Touring Kauai by helicopter affords visitors one of the most memorable opportunities to see the entire island, and especially the remote and formidable Na Pali Coast. Several companies offer these tours. Island Helicopters is especially fun because they offer an 85-minute island excursion that includes stopping and walking around the base of 400-foot Manawaiopuna Falls, which appeared prominently in the opening scenes of Jurassic Park. This extremely informative, mesmerizing tour then circles the entire island, its capable pilots zipping in and out of tight valleys and even, weather permitting, the crater of extinct Kawaikini Peak, the island’s highest point.
Another exhilarating way to view part of the island is by striking out for an afternoon of high-wire action with Koloa Zipline, which operates an eight-line course in the verdant mountains near Poipu resort. You can opt for a classic or “Flying Kauaian” style harness (the latter is plenty more fun and well worth the $20 surcharge). As you sail above the treetops on some of the longest zip lines in Kauai (one stretches for a full half-mile), you’ll be treated to plenty of thrills.
If you’re in good shape and game for an independent adventure, you can always hike into the Na Pali highlands via the famed 11-mile Kalalau Trail. To hike the entire trail, which is steep and rugged in places, you must obtain a permit and camp overnight, as it’s not possible to cover the entire trail in a day. However, day hikers can easily venture in the first couple of miles to Hanakapiai Beach. And without a permit you can also climb up to Hanakapiai Falls, or continue for another few miles to Hanakoa campground.
Less demanding options for sightseeing include driving to the viewpoints at Waimea Canyon State Park — they don’t call this the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific” without good reason. The 10-mile-long canyon is 3,000 feet deep and is one of Hawaii’s best photo ops. If you have a few hours, drive all the way to the visitors’ center at Waimea Canyon’s Kokee State Park to pick up a trail map, and then embark on the stunning hike along the Canyon Trail to Waipoo Falls, which affords visitors an incredible perspective on the canyon.
You’ll find beautiful beaches all around the island, some of them drawing heavily among Kauai’s many LGBT residents and visitors. The easiest to reach is Lydgate State Park, just south of Kapaa off the Kuhio Highway — walk south from the parking area for the gay-popular section. Donkey Beach, off Kuhio Highway a bit north of Kapaa, is enjoyable both for sunbathing or swimming, and it draws a mix of gays and straights. Just keep in mind that the surf can be intense, so exercise caution. You’ll see the parked cars on the side of the road as you head north out of Kapaa, between mileposts 11 and 12; from here just follow the trail down to the water. Nudity is permitted at this beach as well as at 3,000-foot Secret Beach (aka Kauapea Beach), another favorite of LGBT folks that’s up north near Kilauea Lighthouse (it’s a bit hard to find, however, so ask locals for directions).
In recent years, quite a few sophisticated, urbane restaurants have opened on the island, making it a genuine favorite among foodies. One of the best is Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Kauai Grill, the refined restaurant inside the stunning St. Regis Princeville resort. If you dine here, consider visiting the terrace bar just off the lobby before your meal; this open-air perch is the place to watch the sun fall over Hanalei Bay. With friendly, solicitous service and superb food — hamachi sashimi with shiitakes and a yuzu-soy glaze, roasted Kona lobster with glazed chestnuts and pepper butter — it’s the ideal special-occasion dining destination.
Another exceptional choice for a superb, exquisitely prepared locavore-driven cuisine is RumFire Poipu Beach, which enjoys a dazzling setting on a promontory overlooking the sea at the Sheraton Kauai — try the fried Brussels sprouts with Portuguese sausage and spiced macadamia nuts or local butterfish with a plank-grilled salmon with purple potatoes and cherry-tomato jam. This romantic restaurant is also well-regarded for its extensive cocktail menu and well-chosen wine list. Other Poipu culinary highlights include the Kauai outposts of two restaurant brands that have become legendary in Hawaii: Merriman’s, which serves farm-fresh, healthful regional cuisine, and Eating House 1849, the terrific plantation-inspired restaurant operated by renowned Hawaiian chef Roy Yamaguchi.
Up north, charmingly laid-back Hanalei is home to the Hanalei Taro & Juice Co., a humble food truck (with a covered seating area) in the center of town that serves delicious and authentic Hawaiian specialties, such as Kalua pork tacos and laulau chicken, plus luscious and healthy taro-based fruit smoothies. Hanalei Coffee Roasters serves some of the best java on the island. And hip and sophisticated Bar Acuda turns out delicious Mediterranean fare — it’s owned by talented chef Jim Moffat, who ran some of San Francisco’s hottest eateries in the ’90s before moving to Hawaii. House-cured chorizo, roasted squid with chili oil and fresh lemon, and seared local ono fish with shaved fennel and a blood-orange reduction are among the delicacies here.
Kauai has no shortage spots specializing in tasty short-order fare and tempting snacks, including Papalani Gelato in Poipu, and Jo Jo’s Anuenue Shave Ice in Waimea. Just north of Poipu, the Koloa Fish Market prepares super-fresh plate lunches and bento boxes to go (try the ahi poke bento) — they’re perfect for a picnic. In Lihue, dive-y Hamura’s Saimin is worth stopping by to sample hearty renditions of ramen-like saimin, a beloved traditional Hawaiian dish. Don’t pass up the lilikoi (passion fruit) chiffon pie for dessert.
If you’re driving through Kapaa, stop for a meal at Art Café Hemingway, which is run by a charming Eastern European couple, features beautiful artwork, and serves high-quality coffees and deftly prepared breakfast, lunch and dinner fare. Cozy and bustling Verde is a fun little Mexican restaurant in Kapaa, serving tasty blackened-mahi-mahi tacos and garlic-shrimp tacos.
Kauai has few nightspots, but just about anywhere on the island you’ll be greeted warmly — and there’s pretty good chance of bumping into “family” at most places. One spot that many LGBT folks frequent, especially during the “gay nights” held the first Saturday of each month, is Nawiliwili Tavern, near the Kauai Marriott. Also in Lihue, in a shopping center with the island’s only bowling alley, Rob’s Good Times Grill is Kauai’s favorite sports bar — it’s not exactly a gay hotspot, but it is friendly and fun.
Kauai has a nice range of accommodations in all prices ranges, from posh resorts to gay-friendly B&Bs. Poipu, on the south shore, has the greatest concentration of distinguished lodgings, including the aforementioned Sheraton Kauai, which hugs a spectacular point on the ocean, and has a great pool where you can also rent private bungalows for the day, a stunning beach that’s famed for snorkeling, and the outstanding restaurant RumFire. The Sheraton’s prime setting has also made it a favorite resort for gay weddings.
The Grand Hyatt Kauai ranks among Kauai’s most sumptuous full-service resorts — rooms have smart, contemporary furnishings and such cushy amenities as iHome stereos and beverage chillers. The Hyatt is also home to the superb Anara Spa — set amid lush gardens and waterfalls — as well as a top-notch golf course and several excellent restaurants.
If you wish to be close to Waimea Canyon, consider the charming and historic Waimea Planation Cottages, whose 61 private bungalows were built in the early 1900s for workers of a local sugarcane mill. They’re situated around relaxing, tree-shaded grounds that fringe the ocean. It’s a great option if you’re seeking a laid-back, old-school Hawaii experience, but with comfy accommodations that include well-equipped kitchens, private lanais, and vintage plantation-style furnishings. Also impressive and with a central location near the airport, the Kauai Marriott Resort has the largest pool in the state and spreads across 800 handsomely landscaped acres and a fabulous beachfront. It’s a favorite option of LGBT families, given all the kid-friendly resort activities and amenities.
Up the coast toward the north shore, lushly and secluded Mahina Kai B&B is a lovely getaway and the island’s only gay-exclusive lodging. The five rooms are beautifully (and distinctly) furnished, and the surrounding Japanese-inspired gardens and lagoon pool are the perfect places to relax and de-stress. There’s a fine, uncrowded beach within walking distance.
And finally, on the north shore and with unparalleled views of Hanalei and the Na Pali coast, the ultra-swanky St. Regis Princeville enjoys one of the most majestic locations in Hawaii. You enter this gorgeous property through a top-floor lobby — it’s situated high on a bluff over the ocean — where you’ll also find the inviting Halelea Spa and access to celebrated Kauai Grill and St. Regis Bar. Cushy rooms with panoramic views seemingly tumble down a hillside to the beachfront, where you can tan your hide around a large pool and open-air restaurant, or saunter out onto the beach. The surrounding Princeville resort is also home to the world-class Makai Golf Club, a number of condominium rentals, and another terrific lodging option, the Westin Princeville Ocean Resort Villas.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 3, 2015.