Growing up, Kauai was always my family’s go-to vacation spot. We’re very lucky our family took us to the islands many times (I lost count after 16) —it was always our paradise. I’ve also been to Maui and Oahu, but we prefer returning to Kauai, The Garden Isle. It’s the most uninhabited, with almost 80% of the island being undeveloped. The Hawaiian island is very natural, with jungles, beaches and gardens left alone for a million years since the volcano that created the land.
Here’s some highlights from my recent trip this winter. I hope it inspires the nature-lover in you fall in love with Kauai, truly the best Hawaiian island. It’s definitely become more populated since we used to go when I was a kid, but Kauai is still home to wild honu (sea turtles), sea glass beaches and stormy, breezy, tropical forest.
1. JoJo’s Shave Ice
Definitely the best Hawaiian shaved ice in Hawaii—and by definition the best shaved ice anywhere. Back in the day, JoJo’s was known for having 60 flavors. They still have a ton, as well as some pre-set combinations. But I prefer choosing three flavors that I’m feeling on any given day, usually tropical lilikoi, mango and guava. You HAVE TO get it with vanilla ice cream in the bottom (yes, it costs extra and is technically optional, but it’s the way to go). They can add haupia cream on top, too, which at first doesn’t feel necessary, but it helps keep the flavor together, instead of draining to the bottom. JoJo’s sells the fluffiest shaved ice—like powder, instead of chunks of ice—for about $5 a portion. We love the ol’ red shack in Waimea.
Gaylord’s is a huge historic plantation near Lihue, Kauai in Kilohana. It has a beautiful garden where we could find geckos and butterflies among the trees, a perfect spot for photos. The mansion itself has become a home for shops, like the Banana Patch Studio famous for its colored tiles, as well as Gaylord’s restaurant. A candlelit dinner on their patio makes for a perfect night out. I had a mild catch of the day fish with lemon herb risotto and asparagus. It’s one of our favorite fancier restaurants on the island. Hint: our all time favorite restaurant is actually a hidden Chinese place in Lihue.
(I was serious about that photo shoot)
3. Kiahuna Beach
Ever since I was little, Kiahuna Beach in Poipu has always been our favorite for boogie boarding or swimming in the ocean. This time, we even brought snorkels along to see the fish below us—yes, there are big black fish and tiny yellow fish swimming below your feet. Wear reef shoes for this one. The sand is perfectly thick and soft, but at high tide, be careful as your beach belongings can get washed away.
4. The North Shore
You have to visit the wetter North Shore to experience the nature, from the mountains to the rivers to the forests near Hanalei. Of course there’s the picturesque Hanalei Bay (where we saw Will Smith’s kids surfing), along with the cute green church and green bridge in the small town.
5. Waimea Canyon
No where is perhaps more breathtaking than Waimea Canyon and the Kalalau lookout neat the Na Pali coast of Kauai. You can take some short hikes or walks in the jungle as we did— the Pu’u Kila lookout has a wide path (that can be a bit muddy) that offers overlooks into the lush mountains descending into the blue ocean. The best view is in summer, but it was still clear on a winter morning, too, before 11 a.m.
6. Watching the Sunset
A must, whether from your condo like us or from a nearby beach. It’s my favorite time of day.
7. Spouting Horn
One, perhaps, over-rated tourist spot is Spouting Horn. The ocean splashes through an underground cave to send a spray of seawater into the air as the tide swells. It’s beautiful to watch and there’s some tchotchke vendors nearby, but it really is a rather quick stop. We were lucky enough to spot some baby chicks, as the island is crawling with wild chickens.
Please don’t go to Hawaii without eating fresh fish. Old town Koloa, a former sugar town, welcomes the Koloa Fish Market with fresh poke by weight (Poke is raw fish, typically tuna or salmon, with seaweed and sauces—a sushi bowl, if you will, without the nori wrap). I tried the California poke with avocado and the Maui style, with a bit of a kick. Both are so fresh and flavorful if you love that fish taste. It comes with some rice, but you can add your own as well. Delicious.
9. Hidden wildlife
As I firmly believe, the best things are off the beaten path. Take a walk, get lost, wander through the woods. You might find a waterfall hidden behind some banyan trees like we did, or feed sweet cardinals on your porch while drinking your morning coffee. Don’t over step and don’t spoil nature, but observe and appreciate it all on the Garden Isle. Leave it as untouched as you found it, to be appreciated by others after you.