Kauai for first-timers, in March
January 21, 2014 12:36 PM   Subscribe

Help two Alaskans make great travel decisions in Kauai.

You guys had awesome advice for our previous trips to the Big Island and Maui. We are staying in Poipu and have a car.

As I said in the Maui question, we love snorkeling, mild kayaking, hiking, biking, wildlife/nature/tidepools etc., most active-type things, farmer's markets, shave ice, good restaurants with a decent vegetarian option, and enjoy a limited amount of beach-sitting. What should we not miss?
posted by charmedimsure to Travel & Transportation around Kauai, HI (9 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Kauai has the only navigable rivers in the Hawaiian islands, which are great for mild kayaking.

Since you'll have a car, driving down the Holo Holo Koloa Scenic Byway will get you to a lot of interesting places.

Hiking in Waimea Canyon State Park is not to be missed.

My absolute favorite hikes were on the clifftop trails of the Na Pali Coast, starting from either side. Truly amazing.

(My favorite vegetarian restaurant there closed a while back, but I believe some new ones have opened since then; however, I'd just be googling them at this point so I'll leave that for others.)
posted by kyrademon at 1:01 PM on January 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

I love Tunnels beach, but the water can be rough in the winter. I also love the malasadas that are fried up and sold right outside the Kmart in Lihue. There's a farmers' market there on Monday.
posted by Ideefixe at 1:07 PM on January 21, 2014

If you are coming soon, it'll still be humpback whale season! Kaua'i is my favorite neighbor island to visit, in part because we booked a 3 or maybe 4 hour Zodiac boat tour coming up the south side of the Na Pali Coast and ran into a pod of 60+ spinner dolphins and then a humpback whale mama and her baby (with attendant uncle/aunty as guard). Winter seas can be quite rough, our boat had some pukers, so take dramamine.

Kalaheo has a great cafe. In town in Lihui, Hamura's Saimin is a stand by favorite and the best saimin I've had on the islands. Last rec via a friend who grew up part time in Kaua'i -- Koloa Fish Market.
posted by spamandkimchi at 2:40 PM on January 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

We were just in Poipu for several days over New Year's. It is a very, very different experience from the other Hawaiian islands.

For one, there's that rooster thing. They are literally everywhere.

Bring all of the cameras. At least one. For sure. Kauai is beautiful.

Did you get a guidebook already? I have the Kauai Revealed app on my iPhone and it was very helpful when navigating, and they have an iBooks book as well. I am guessing you are familiar with the series already since you've done Maui and the BI.

On the way into Kauai, if it's daylight, try to sit on the left hand side of the plane, so you can catch a quick glimpse of Ha'upu Mountain Range as well as Kipu Kai.

Rent a small car. No, really. SMALL CAR. We got "upgraded" to an SUV and it was a pain to park nearly everywhere we went. Spaces in Kauai are tight. Economy/compact is best.

Where are you staying? I hope you're somewhere that you can easily walk onto Poipu Beach. You must check out the tidepools and Hawaiian Monk Seals that like to rest/sleep on the beach and sun themselves (they're endangered, so keep 10 yards away or further). Tons of people taking surfing lessons and/or snorkeling here as well. Some turtle spotting as well.

Weather wise, it is winter in Kauai but Poipu is one of the sunniest parts of the island. It rained almost every night we were there but was done by the time we woke up. It poured rain one afternoon/evening due to a big storm but was done by the next day. Humidity never bothered us. There were almost always refreshing breezes. We waited until it was really nice one day to drive up to the lush, gorgeous, amazing North Shore.

Check hawaiiweathertoday.com daily which is a forecast done by someone on the islands who is very knowledgeable about their microclimates.

Did an amazing helicopter tour as well with Blue Hawaiian. Our pilot, Brad, was excellent and even went out to sea over the Na Pali Coast looking for whales -- we found 2 different groups of whales and circled around a bit.

Saw Waimea Canyon, Na Pali Coast, Wai'ale'ale crater, Hanalei Bay, "Jurassic" Falls, etc. Kauai is stunning. Wonderful once in a lifetime tour. Would definitely recommend to anybody who can afford it. We also did it early on in our trip and it helped orient us to the island's geography.

If you are really a thrill seeker, you can do a "doors off" helicopter tour, which makes for better photos because there's no reflections/glare. If you are doing a "doors on" tour, wear dark clothing, take off your phone case if you are using it as a camera. No hats since those are liable to blow up into the rotors. Watches/jewelry can reflect as well. Cameras and sunglasses are OK. There is also a company that is the exclusive helicopter tour operator who can physically land at Jurassic Falls. For a price, of course, but it looks fun (we didn't do it).

Book a helicopter tour early on in your trip so you can reschedule if the weather is bad.

I'm going to try to go through the things we saw in a counter-clockwise fashion...

Unfortunately, it may be too rough to go out and see the Na Pali coast on a boat in the winter, but March might be OK. If you are interested, I'd book a boat trip and wait and see. They may cancel because of weather and rough waves, they might not. This is a bad idea if you get motion sick easily, though.

In terms of Waimea Canyon, it's really neat, with a bunch of lookouts on the way (some after a short trail) but you need to make sure you go early before the cloud cover sets in, often after 10am. Wake up early (since you'll probably be on Mainland time anyway) and check the forecast / look out the window. Otherwise, if you go on a cloudy day or get there too late, the famous overlook and ones above it will be completely fogged in.

On your way down from the canyon, you can stop at Jo-Jo's shave ice or Aunty Lilikoi's retail store. There's actually two Jo-Jo's. The one on the highway was started a while ago, the owner sold it, regretted selling, and then re-started the shave ice business a few blocks away with the same name. Confusing!

Hanapepe is really neat (lots of history) but a lot of things (such as the art galleries) are not open except on Fridays / Friday nights. Also you can get a custom made Aloha shirt there by Jacqueline on Kauai, for $65. She completes them in about 48 hours. Neat! Call ahead, and leave a message, as she's always busy working & screens her calls. Little Fish Coffee is neat, too, and I think they are vegetarian friendly. Talk Story Bookstore is worth a stop as well. The western-most book store in the United States! They have lots of Kauai history and Kauai-specific books and are happy to chat.

Hanapepe Valley Lookout is worth a short stop on the highway as well.

Dorky, but you might want to stop at McDonald's (I know there's one in Eleele) and get one of their only-in-Hawaii pies. I believe it is taro pie right now.

We also had fun at the free tasting room at the Kauai Coffee Co's plantation. They have a self-guided tour that you can take at your own pace as well.

We also enjoyed the Koloa tree tunnel and poking around Old Koloa Town (also lots of history).

Big Save is good for groceries/snacks/liquor and has a large deli section in the back.

Sueoka's is a smaller, family fun grocery store with some interesting Hawaiian specialty items. They also have a takeout window off the side of the grocery store with cheap eats (takeout) but may not be all that vegetarian friendly: loco moco, teri beef, fried chicken, burgers, etc. Cash only.

Koloa Fish Market is also nearby and awesome but, obviously, very fish focused, so not sure if they have anything for you. They specialize in raw fish to cook, poke, poke bento boxes, fish-based plate lunches, Hawaiian (pork/fish plate lunches. Also cash only. Not really vegetarian friendly.

Da Crack (Mexican takeout window), which you'll pass on the way to/from Koloa town from Poipu is vegetarian friendly, and cheap.

Don't miss Spouting Horn either, it's a very short drive from Poipu.

In Poipu, there is an upscale shopping center (The Shops at Kukui'ula) with Living Foods Market, Tortilla Republic, Josselin's, Savage Shrimp, Dolphin Fish Market, Merriman's, and more.

The farmers market on Wednesdays is held at this shopping complex and is more focused on cooking demos, local honey, coffee, gourmet salt blends, kim chee, tropical pies and jams, tropical flowers and produce, etc. There's live music and a beer garden. Try The Right Slice for dessert.

If you want a more "locals" focused farmers market, go to the one in Koloa. Be prepared for crowds. Koloa Sunshine Market, Koloa Ball Park (Knudsen) Maluhia Road, noon. Produce only. Get there early, line up for the "whistle blow" that tells you it's OK to shop.

We ended up at The Shops at Kukui'ula for dinner a few times. Tortilla Republic and Josselin's were excellent. Make reservations for Josselin's. They have a fair number of vegetarian items on the menu. Tortilla Republic has a more formal upstairs (but not that formal) and a more casual downstairs. It's fairly hip but the food is excellent and I think they could accommodate vegetarians well, but to a lesser extent than Josselin's. Their rice & beans are excellent and I see that the casual downstairs "bar" has a vegetarian burrito on the menu. Only the upstairs has the tableside guacamole, though.

I don't think Savage Shrimp or Dolphin Fish Market in this shopping center would have anything for you. Avoid the pizza/burger downstairs cafe of Merriman's, it's not good. The upstairs is more formal but I had been advised that it is not as good as the Merriman's on Maui, so we didn't go. (Kauai is not really known for having amazing food.)

Breakfasts at Living Foods Market (kind of like a Whole Foods, with a made to order food counter, split the pineapple brioche french toast) & Red Salt (lemon souffle pancakes, takes a while to bake) at the Koa Kea hotel were pretty good. Not cheap, though.

At the Poipu Shopping Village, you'll find Roy's, Keoki's Paradise, and my favorite... Puka Dog! Choose your type of sausage (veggie for you), how spicy you want your garlic sauce, a tropical relish, and of course add on lilikoi mustard. They will place everything in a long circular roll and serve it in a paper sleeve. We loved it here and went three times. You can also get some simpler fare (I think I saw sandwiches, muffins, fruit salad, etc) from the little convenience store there, Whalers General Store.

We didn't spend much time in Lihue or Kapaa but we did get stuck in traffic in Kapaa a bunch of times. Look up the "Kapaa Bypass Road" if you don't need/want to go through town.

In Kapaa is Hawaiian Blizzard shave ice. If you are shave ice afionciado, you should make note that alongside Hawaiian Blizzard in Kapaa, Wishing Well Shave Ice in Hanalei, and Jo-Jo's in Waimea are generally considered to be the top 3 in Kauai. Clearly more research is needed...

In Lihue, Hamura's Saimin is famous for their BBQ sticks, saimin, and lilikoi chiffon pie. Since you're a vegetarian, stick to the lilikoi chiffon pie.

Wailua Falls is an easy drive from Lihue.

Definitely drive up to the North Shore. Sleeping Giant, Bali Hai, Hanalei Bay, Hanalei Valley, Ha'ena Beach Park, etc. it is one gorgeous sight after another. The surf may be high since you're coming during the winter. So less swimming and more soaking it in and watching the surfers.

Be prepared for some twists and turns driving on the north shore (not as scary as the Road to Hana since there are plenty of guardrails), and some one lane bridges (etiquette is that groups of 5-7 cars go at a time).

We unfortunately didn't have time to see Kilauea Lighthouse. I've also heard that Kilauea Bakery has addictive lilikoi danishes.

Wishing Well Shave Ice is very famous and has odd hours; it was closed when we tried to go. We liked Hanalei Coffee Roasters as well as drinks at Tiki Iniki in Princeville. Friends of ours love Bar Acuda and Tahiti Nui, but we didn't get a chance to go.

As you can see, weather plays a big role in what you'll end up doing in Kauai (boat tour, helicopter tour, Waimea Canyon, hiking), especially in the winter. Be flexible, get up early, and try to schedule the really important stuff at the beginning of your trip so that you can reschedule as necessary. Trails can quickly be closed due to poor conditions.
posted by kathryn at 3:03 PM on January 21, 2014 [7 favorites]

Forgot to note: the Koloa farmers market is only on Mondays.
posted by kathryn at 3:10 PM on January 21, 2014

@Spamandkimchi: the OP is from Alaska and did whale watching on the Maui trip so perhaps less of a priority on Kauai.

Also, I've always thought the whale watching in Maui is supposed to be generally better because of the shallow and warm water between Maui, Lanai, and Molokai (Auau Channel). Water is also calmer in the Auau channel during the winter than near Kauai. Kauai has its many charms, but whale watching is generally considered stronger in Maui, no?
posted by kathryn at 7:12 PM on January 21, 2014

I just went to Kauai in December. I'm going to mention something nobody else has so far: have you booked a hotel yet? If so, try to pick one that is ah, centrally located to where you plan on going the most. There is essentially the one long 2-lane freeway that you will be crawling back and forth along every dang day with no other road options or shortcuts in order to go anywhere in Kauai. We stayed in Princeville on this last trip and ended up hauling ass at least an hour every day to get to other things, even longer when we were going to Waimea. When we stayed in Poipu it was a lot easier to get to things by comparison. So think out where most of the things you want to do are and pick a spot nearby.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:46 PM on January 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

I would second the Holoholo Na Pali Coast sunset cruise. We had SUCH a good time on that boat ride!! The views were gorgeous and it was a great experience and the sunset was amazing.

We stayed in Hanalei, so we spent a lot of time at Tunnels Beach and Ke'e Beach. We watlked down the beach quite a ways past Tunnels and saw SO MANY sea turtles!!

We rented a convertible but ended up wishing we had a Jeep or something. The parking lots are kind of insane.
posted by orangek8 at 10:16 AM on January 22, 2014

I have to second Polihale State Park. We spent a week in Kauai several years ago, and Polihale was my favorite part. We camped there for two nights and hiked north along the beach and back into some side canyons. It seemed completely deserted--we really had the place mostly to ourselves (this was in December). Be forewarned it is relatively primitive--I vaguely remember cold showers being the extent of the facilities there. Anyway, it was a nice change of pace after being on the wetter, (slightly) cooler north side of the island. The south & southwest side of the island is drier and warmer, and more down-to-earth as I remember it.
posted by bennett being thrown at 1:17 PM on January 22, 2014

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