Visiting one of the many magical islands of Hawaii has been high on my list for the last few years.
Instagram envy definitely played a role. For a while in there, it seemed like everyone I knew was posting cones of fresh fish sprinkled with nori flakes, and epically decorated heaps of shave ice. Every beach frolicked and cliff scaled was imbued with a special filter that made every hour look like magic hour. And don’t even get me started on the rainbows…
Luckily, my mom chose Lanai as the special destination to celebrate her 70th birthday, and even better, invited Charlie and I to join. Before making our way to this slice of paradise, we decided to take a few days to ourselves to explore Kauai.
Though we only had 72 hours to see every waterfall and taste every kombucha the island had to offer, our time there blew our damn minds. It turns out there is no Hawaii filter. Every inch of scenery is more saturated in this stretch of the Pacific. The foliage, greener. The skies at sunset glistening an ahi scarlet. The papaya and mango smoothies a perfectly natural creamsicle orange.
We’re already planning our return.
First things first: Kauai is pronounced with a hard “e” at the end. It rhymes with Hawaii. The island is small, and without traffic, takes about 2 hours to drive from end to end. But it boasts an incredible range of climates and scenery, including the Hawaiian version of the Grand Canyon!
Where to stay depends really on what you want to do, which I’ll get into more below. We chose to spend two nights in the north around Hanalei, where most of my recommendations are situated, and then spend our last night near Waimea Canyon on the western side of the island, so we could maximize hiking there before heading to the airport.
As for the food, Kauai is a healthy hedonist’s paradise. After accumulating countless recommendations from friends, we concluded mid-way through the trip that you could literally go anywhere and eat anything and chances are it would be fabulous. When even the gas station has kombucha on tap, it’s a pretty good sign that you’ve found heaven.
Read on for some of my favorite eats of the trip (I promise they aren’t all poke), hiking trails worth muddying yourself through, the best beaches to sun, snorkel and inhale poke on, and activities flagged for next time.
From one healthy hedonist, to another,
WHERE TO STAY ON KAUAI: NORTH OR SOUTH, HOUSE RENTALS OR RESORTS?
As I mentioned above, Kauai is the perfect place to design your stay around activities. If you’re more of a beach bum and not looking to move around, you’ll want to get a hotel at one of the larger resorts in the south, which is the sunniest part of the island. If you’re craving adventure, hiking or a more low-key vibe, the north can be your hub. Hanalei is where the famous Napali Coast trail head begins and where most of the surfing is done. It’s also where you’ll see the most stunning scenery, in large part thanks to the fact that it’s the rainier side of the island.
We found that none of the rain showers lasted more than 20 minutes and it was warm enough to still enjoy activities mid-sprinkle (especially the water ones). But if the rain does end up bothering you, luckily you can just drive south to Kapa’a (on the eastern side) or Poipu (on the southern tip) in less than an hour to find sunshine.
Which brings me to the most important piece of advice: no matter where you stay, you’ll need to rent a car. It takes only 2 hours to drive from end to end of the island, but allow for more, since traffic can be bad in the high season. Uber technically runs on the island, but I was unable to find a car when I landed at the airport. For a taxi, pick up the yellow phone outside the airport and request one. It comes within 10 minutes, but costs as much as a car would for a day, so you might as well rent.
If you’re staying in Hanalei village, which reminds me of what Hawaii might have looked like in the 70’s, rent a bike at Peddle and Paddle. All of the best beaches in the north are only a mile or so apart, and you’ll save yourself the hassle of parking during the day.
As for what type of lodging, in the North there are plenty of fabulous airBnB and VRBO options. Renting a house is by far the most comfortable and affordable way to enjoy your time in Hanalei. We stayed at Hanalei Colony Resort (pictured above at sunrise) which was fabulous and is on a nice stretch of beach, but a little bit further afield from town. They offer a free shuttle during the day which helps you avoid parking congestion. And the rooms have kitchens, which means you’re self-sufficient.
For our last night, we stayed at Waimea Plantation Cottages on the west side of the island (pictured above). This is definitely the sleepier corner, with only a small town, but we wanted to avoid having to drive to and from the canyon in one day. The cottages are quaint and charming, if a little on the shabby side on the interior. It’s a great option though if you like to cook and are looking to get away from it all. The property has shuffle board, bocce, hammocks and grills galore.
People start and end their days early on Kauai–often opting for 6 hour hikes, boat excursions, or other types of outdoor adventuring–and grab low key bites along the way before returning home soon after sunset.
If you plan on hiking in the North, or throughout Waimea canyon, the first thing to keep in mind is that it will be muddy and slippery. Pack accordingly! It’s one of the few places where I wished I’d brought actual hiking boots instead of sneakers, or a pair of walking sticks…neither of which I own.
Definitely designate a day just for beach hopping, paddle boarding or surfing, and plenty of juices along the way.
The famous Kalalau Trail begins at Ke’e Beach on the northern most edge of the island. You can pretty much just drive to the end of Kuhio Highway, park in the lot, and walk the 1/8 mile to the trailhead. If you plan on getting one of those coveted parking spots, it’s best to start first thing in the morning – before 9am.
The trail takes you 2 miles along the coast. You’ll ford a river to reach the first stopping point, where you can decide either to chill on the beach, rinse the mud from your legs, and hang out before heading back, or continue on another 2 miles to the waterfall inland along the HanaKapi’ai Falls Trail.
We chickened out after the first leg and didn’t make it to the falls because we prioritized tasting as many poke places as possible in the afternoon. The entire hike to the falls and back is 8 miles round trip, and takes about 6 to 8 hours when the path is muddy from rain (which appears to be always?). The views are unbelievable though and you’ll likely see whales popping up and down right off shore.
Go Whale Watching on a Catamaran
Speaking of whales…if hiking isn’t your thing and you want to see those big boys front and center, take a boat excursion up the Napali coast! We didn’t end up having time for this, but I’ve heard you’ll see dolphins and hammer heads and turtles. I’ve also heard that in winter it can be choppy, and if you’re sensitive to motion sickness, you might puke on the return. Try Captain Andy’s for bookings.
Beginning on the undeveloped western side of the island, and stretching towards the northern entry point of the Napali Coast, Waimea is Hawaiian’s version of the Grand Canyon. The cliffs are breathtaking (if, not quite as remarkable as the mainland version) and the foliage is different than the other side of the island. You’ll see redwoods and eucalyptus trees!
As for hiking, we tried the Alakai Swamp Trail beginning on the Pihea Trail and turned back after the first two miles because it was so muddy. You have to scale clay boulders, which was fun but also slightly terrifying and I wiped out on my butt several times. If you have 4WD you can take Mohihi Road to the Alakai Swamp Trail by Sugi Grove campground, which makes a 6.4 mile round trip hike and apparently skips most of the trecheaurous part. The lookout was amazing, so you can always simply drive to the Pihea trailhead and take pictures.
Paddle Board or Kayak the Hanalei Rivers
Hanalei is surrounded by peaceful little canals that cut in towards the mountains. Hawaiian Surfing Adventures delivers and picks up the boards at the river so you don’t have to carry them. For kayaking, do a daytrip to Secret Falls which is a 2 mile Kayak & then 1 mile Hike to a beautiful waterfall (go through Kayak Kauai).
Surf in Hanalei Bay
Likened to the bunny slope of surf beaches, this is the perfect place to learn. Hawaiian Surfing Adventures has great teachers and will shuttle you to and from the beach. They will also put you on a longboard that is the equivalent of a sofa.
Ride Horses at Silver Falls Ranch
They have a ride that ends at a waterfall along the trail where you can go swimming. I seriously regret not going this route and having the horse do all the work!
Take a Helicopter Ride
These tours at Sunshine Helicopters are supposed to be very cool but they are also pricey, windy, and sometimes depending on the weather, terrifying. Still, maybe next time!
Public beaches are a dime a dozen on Kauai and it’s one of the few places I’ve been where the best options are not necessarily dominated by resorts. Especially in the North, the whole waterfront is made for hopping. I’ve listed some options below, and their accompanying must-eats.
- Tunnels Beach – great for snorkeling and also for eating your sushi burritos from Sushi Girl, since it’s close by.
- Ke’e Beach – a beautiful place to watch the sunset. But parking gets tough because it’s the beginning of the Kalalau Trail, so go early and note they do ticket cars here. Bring wine and beer for sunset and don’t be alarmed if a rooster tries to steal your snacks.
- Hanalei Bay – Where all the surfers go, both newbies and more experienced folks. You can sit on the pier and watch them eat shit / shred accordingly. It’s a great place to go around lunchtime because of Pat’s Taco truck! For surfing, use Hawaiian Surfing Adventures – we loved them!
- Anini beach: Great snorkeling, really swimmable and shallow.
- Kaupea Beach – In Kilaueau near a cute little shopping complex. A great place to go with your lunch or juice.
- Shipwreck Beach – Further south near Poipu, there’s a fun trail that starts on the beach. It’s an easy walk with great vistas and you can reward yourself with a beach hang afterwards. There’s also a cliff jump you can do into the water here (monkey with hands over eyes emoji).
Get a Lomi Lomi Massage
My biggest regret is not having time to get a rub at Angeline’s Kauai. Especially after a long few days of hiking and surfing, this 4-handed (!!) massage would have been such a treat. It came highly recommended as a unique experience by Liz Moody, food editor at Mind Body Green, who I would trust to plan any one of my healthy hedonist vacations.
This island is all about fast casual eats, and most people have dinner before 8pm. We mostly stayed away from high-end restaurants and stuck with local grub. You can pretty much walk in anywhere, including most markets and grab an affordable acai or poke bowl. Not to mention cup of locally brewed kombucha on tap. Since we were in Hanalei for most of our trip, these recs are primarily in the North. But as I said before, you really can’t go wrong.
If you’re staying at a house with a kitchen, I recommend stocking up on nibbles from the local markets for pre-hike breakfasts. Depending on your activity, you can get a poke lunch mid-day and then end the evening with a sunset meal in town.
Restaurant Bar Acuda (Hanalei)
This Mediterranean tapas spot is considered the best meal on the island and would hold court alongside any of the top restaurants in LA or New York. Much of the seating is around two bar counters, and the cocktails are phenomenal. Our favorite dishes were the vegetable tagine, lamb chops, and seared scallops. This place is the hottest place in town, so book in advance. I’m also embarrassed to admit that I did not get the pun until I said the name out loud…
Hanalei Dolphin Fish Market (Hanalei)
The best place in Hanalei for poke to go. The restaurant, The Dolphin, has lovely seating on the side of one of the rivers, and it’s a great place for an early sushi dinner of ridiculously fresh fish while watching the sunset. Also, it sounds strange but their warm artichoke appetizer was crazy good. Like, one of the best whole artichokes I’ve ever had.
A new ramen spot in Hanalei that uses gluten-free tamari and rice noodles! Now if I could only convince them to move to Brooklyn…
Pat’s Taco Truck (Hanalei)
Parked punctually from noon – 3pm in the parking lot of Hanalai beach, this food truck is a cult favorite. A friend of mine is so devoted to the burritos, he books his flights around Pat’s schedule so he can pick up a few extras on the way to the airport and take back to LA.
Sushi Girl (Wainiha)
A few switch-back turns and bridges North of Hanalei, this little stall has the best sushi burritos on the island. The poke, mixed with rich coconut milk and macadamia nuts, was amongst the most creative. If you go, make sure to pop into the general store next door while you wait and get one of the kombuchas on tap! The cherry lavendar was my favorite.
Kilaueau Fish Market (Kilaueau)
A few towns south of Hanalei, Kilaueau has a fabulous little shopping area that includes this fish market. It was hopping when we went, so we popped into the local shop to buy black salt while we waited. Trilogy Coffee Shop has a lovely tea selection and lots of gluten-free raw treats. If you’ve forgotten your Moon Dust or other adaptogens, you can find them here too. As for the fish, their poke was cooked on the griddle instead of raw which was a nice change of pace. They also have a gluten-free tamari dressing or salad.
Fish Express (Lihue)
Right by the airport in an unassuming stretch of Lihue, this was our favorite poke of the trip! They didn’t have gluten-free soy sauce, but many of the fish options were gluten-free and they were so flavorful, you didn’t need much else. Like at other fish markets, you simply choose how many types of fish you’d like (a scoop each) and then help yourself to veggie toppings at an adjacent bar. I liked adding guac, pickled ginger, kimchi, and cucumbers (first picture in this post).
Harvest Market (Hanalei)
For food shopping in Hanalei, this health food store cannot be beat. Kombucha on tap, GF muffins and scones, Acai bowls in the back – they’re all fabulous. If you don’t overlap with the Hanalei Farmer’s Market on Tuesdays, get everything here.
Kukuiula Market (Poipu)
Another great market in the south with under-the-radar poke bowls and a full acai / juice bar situation in back. If you get there early enough, they have lots of gluten-free prepared breakfast foods like overnight oats and chia pudding available in mason jars.
Hanalei Bread Co. (Hanalei)
Akamai Juice Bar (Hanalei)
Right next to a funky tiki bar (Tahiti Nui) and Hawaiian Surfing Adventures, this little bar has a limited menu and a few different options for everything but the kitchen sink green juices. I got the green dragon, which has a lovely kick to it. Perfect to warm you up after surfing!
A little further down the highway, between Hanalei and the airport, by mile marker 17, you will experience the best smoothie you’ve ever had in your life. It’s called the ‘date with fate’ and the ingredients make no sense. I have no idea how to recreate it at home, but will be dreaming about it for eternity.
Kauai Juice Co. (Kilaueau + Kapaa)
This is the largest juice operation in Kauai with locations in Kapaa and Kilaueau, and many markets that carry their jewel colored concoctions. They also have fabulous Kombucha (lemon tumeric ginger – the best) and homemade HOT SAUCES! If you’re checking a bag, you must take one home. If not, just pour out half the bottle, and the Lihue TSA will let you through. If the grassy area by arrivals smells like sriracha, it was me.
Princeville Wine Market (Princeville)
This little town that neighbors Hanalei is mainly known for the St. Regis, which is the fancy resort of choice on the north side of the island. Perhaps this is why it also has such a fabulous wine store! There’s an excellent selection to take back to your airbnb or directly to the beach.
JoJo’s Shave Ice (Hanalei and Waimea)
If Hawaii is famous for its poke, it’s other national dish is Shave Ice. Not to be confused with Shaved Ice. On Hawaii we eat our dessert in the present tense! Shave ice is similar to a sno cone, with many types of flavors, and even more decadent toppings. To be honest, we didn’t end up trying it because we are ice cream people and wanted to save our healthy hedonism points for other things. But if you’re going have some ice, you best do it at JoJo’s. For a healthier options, The Fresh Shave has options without artificial flavors.
Have any of you recently been to Kauai? Any spots that I should add to my list for next time? I’m dying to go back! Let me know in the comments section.