Paradise is worth chasing. I know, because I found a piece of it. It’s leafy and lush, dappled with blooms as unimaginably radiant as the cliffs and meadows. The days bring lots of sunshine, sometimes interrupted by passing showers, like nature’s sprinklers refreshing the foliage. Tan people walk around in shades and sandals, replacing furrowed brows with grins and floral prints. This is life off the mainland, in Kauai.
What I discovered is that Kauai is a true tropical escape, an almost dreamlike destination, where nature isn’t just respected, but it’s exalted. One of the first things I noticed was how trees and plants seem to dominate the island.
Of course there are plenty of buildings with everything one would need in modern America, but the architecture seems hidden, something that I learned was quite intentional. Local laws limit building heights to be shorter than the palm trees (though a few high rises were erected before the law). There’s no intrusive freeway, only a small-scale highway system, connecting two-thirds of the island, and leaving the northwest area’s Na Pali-Kona Forest Reserve pristine and glorious.
Nāpali is one of the island’s great gifts, protected as a state park and a grand place to view valleys left by ancient volcanic activity. The other major natural attraction is Waimea Canyon, called “the Grand Canyon of the Pacific” for its massive, deep beauty marked by the island’s red soil, waterfalls, and verdant floor. There’s a long, winding road up to the canyon’s edge (go early to beat the midday traffic), with lookouts that inspire contemplative gazing and lots of photography that could never capture the wonder of actually being there.
Since nature is the star here, I found myself planning outdoor activities galore, as if trying to stay immersed in the environment. I enjoy heights and speed, so my first outing was with Skyline Eco-Adventures (2829 Ala Kalanikaumaka St., Poipu. Tel: 808-878- 8037. www.zipline.com/kauai) for ziplining over the valleys outside the town of Poipu (on Kauai’s happening South Shore). The zipline guides were great and tipped me off to a few spots for food and drinks. The bigger takeaway was how this dynamic duo seemed to be just as infatuated with their island’s beauty, stopping to tell us about some of the plants and trees we passed, and to take their own scenery pictures.
Conveniently, Skyline’s outpost is in the Kukuiula Shopping Village (www.theshopsatkukuiula.com) in Poipu. It’s a built “village” with cute boutiques, cafés, and weekly events like Wednesday afternoon’s culinary market, and Friday’s Kanikapila live music evenings, featuring local performers who play traditional Hawaiian tunes (ukuleles!) and more.
After a day flying between peaks, it felt good to relax with dinner at Tortilla Republic (2829 Ala Kalani Kaumcica St. Tel: 808-742-8884. www.tortillarepublic.com/poipu-kauai-hawaii), on a breezy lanai in Kukuiula Village. It’s gay-owned, and I was thrilled to visit this original Kauai location, since I’ve also enjoyed its delicious modern Mexican at Tortilla Republic’s West Hollywood spot. (Fun fact: T.R.’s executive chef Cathy Shyne is coowner John Halter’s mother.)
Kukuiula village is home to another excellent restaurant in Merriman’s Fish House (2829 Ala Kalanikaumaka St. Tel: 808-742- 8385. www.merrimanshawaii.com/fishhouse). Founder-Chef Peter Merriman was one of the first “locavore” restaurateurs in Hawaii, ensuring that his menus include locally produced ingredients and freshly caught fish. This Poipu location is one of four Merriman eateries in Hawaii, and offers casual dining downstairs, with a more upscale, upstairs restaurant and bar with views that stretch from Kauai’s foothills to the ocean.
The South Shore is home to the idyllic Grand Hyatt Kauai (1571 Poipu Rd., Koloa. Tel: 808-742-1234. www.kauai.grand.hyatt.com), an oceanfront resort that seems to have everything you’d ever want in a tropical getaway, including the recently renovated Anara Spa. I spent quality time at all of its pools (each open 24 hours a day—a welcome rarity), loved the Jacuzzis, became slightly addicted to its 150-foot water slide, and loved dipping into the ocean from its small beach. By evening time, live Hawaiian music in the open-air Seaview Terrace was the perfect place to catch the sunset over a cocktail. The hotel offers ukulele and hula dance lessons too, and hosts big, fun luaus every Sunday and Wednesday, complete with traditionally roasted pork and the obligatory sampling of Polynesian-style poi.
If ziplining was my aerial experience, the next day was way earthly. So I strapped on a helmet and goggles for the Kauai ATV (3477A Weliweli Rd., Koloa. Tel: 808-742- 2734. www.kauaiatv.com) waterfall tour. The company motto is “Do something dirty!” And our handsome guide informed us of our good luck that it had rained overnight, so our all-terrain vehicles would get plenty of mud over 23 miles of off-road trails, stopping at a WWII-era bunker and to swim in the pool of a lovely waterfall.
The best way to complement a day getting muddy (after a shower, that is) is to visit a chocolate farm. Steelgrass Farm (5730 Olohena Rd., Kapaʻa. Tel: 808-821-1857. www.steelgrass.org) is an eight-acre botanical enclave on Kauai’s east side that’s been in the Lydgate family for three generations. If you love chocolate and are curious to learn about local flora, as I am, the farm tour is a must. You’ll discover exotic fruits, stroll through rich gardens, sample freshly picked Hawaiian sugar cane and Tahitian lime, and top it off by taste-testing 11 rare, delectable chocolates.
I’m not sure where it came from, but unlike other beachy vacations, in Hawaii I was compelled to ride a horse across the sand. So I headed to CJM Stables (1571 Poipu Rd., Koloa. Tel: 808-742-6096. www.cjmstables.com) on the south shore to saddle up for the two-hour Mahaulepu Beach Ride. The stables are a working cattle ranch, and the daily horseback tours meander through shady groves, across a secluded beach, along a scenic cliff, and back through an open pasture. I’ve always loved horses but hadn’t ridden once since I was a kid. I now have a newfound respect for people who ride well; horses are majestic, but they can be challenging! Especially when they take every opportunity to stop and munch on the foliage.
For a slightly more urban experience, halfway through my visit, I relocated to the Kauai Marriott Resort (3610 Rice St., Lihue. Tel: 808-245-5050. www.marriott.com). It’s on the east shore in Lihue, Kauai’s biggest town and home to the island’s airport. The Marriott sits on Nawiliwili Bay, an enormous, crescent-shaped harbor that’s prime for swimming, paddle boarding, kayaking, and amateur surfing (the hotel will even set you up with lessons). Guest rooms face the bay and the giant, scalloped pool, with its covered hot-tub nooks and shady cabanas. Inside the resort are a half-dozen restaurants, including the famous Duke’s Kauai, where you can try fresh fish or sip drinks as you gaze out to Kalapaki Beach.
Hawaii was the first US state to legalize same-sex civil unions way back in 1993, so I rightly expected LGBT culture to be pretty ingrained here. What I discovered, when asking around about gay hangout spots, was the gritty-yet-charming Nawiliwili Tavern (3488 Paena Loop, Lihue. Tel: 808-212-1538) that locals simply call “the Tavern.” It’s a low-key bar for Kauai’s queer folks, especially on Thursday nights when the cruise ship docks in Lihue. Rob’s Good Times Grill (4303 Rice St., Lihue. Tel: 808-246-0311. www.kauaisportsbarandgrill.com) is another convivial spot with a friendly mixed crowd, live music, and other weeknight events, plus late-night dancing on weekends.
Just north of Lihue is the sweet small town of Kapa’a, where you can grab a quick bite at one of its many food trucks and stroll around for souvenirs. For an excellent sit-down meal, head to Hukilau Lanai (520 Alakea Lp., Kapaʻa. Tel: 808-822-0600. www.hukilaukauai.com), an understated restaurant by appearance, but with a great team that serves some of the island’s best cocktails, and regional dishes of fresh seafood, veggies, and other local fare.
My first visit to Kauai couldn’t be complete without a sail. So I headed to the south shore to join a Holo-Holo Charters (4353 Waialo Rd., Eleele. Tel: 800-848-6130. www.holoholokauaiboattours.com) snorkel and sailing trip. I climbed aboard Leila, a locally built, 50-foot catamaran, and we shipped out to the Na Pali coast. The water was deep blue, the sun was shining, and spinner dolphins came by to greet us just as we rounded the coast to view Kalalau Valley, made famous with a Hollywood turn in Jurassic Park. As a forest reserve, Na Pali is only seen by rigorous hiking, a helicopter tour, or from the water. And while the open water can be a bit rough, the catamaran is a pleasant way to relax and absorb this most enchanting corner of the world.
Heading home from the sail, I followed a tip from a local to stop for poké at Ishihara Market (9894 Kaumualii Hwy., Waimea. Tel: 808-338-1751. www.restaurantwebexpert.com/ishiharamarket). Just as they said, this grocery store’s deli counter serves an amazing, tasty array of poke, which you can enjoy at its outdoor tables.
On this trip, I’d learned that Kauai is geologically the oldest of the Hawaiian archipelago, and the westernmost point in America. As I sat among locals savoring Ishihara’s simple fish salads and people watching in Waimea town, I felt wonderfully far away from the US mainland. It was a welcome sense of peace that I now know is a defining feature of Kauai. In this remote land in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, paradise is possible.