On Hawaii’s island of Kauai, the locals often speak of the mana, or life force, that inhabits this mystical island. This supernatural power is believed to cast an aura of energy over Hawaii’s “Garden Isle,” enriching life to grow and flourish under its dependable rain showers and in its rich, volcanic earth. Its stunning landscape of deep canyons, sheer mountains, hidden waterfalls, and vast, under-explored interior only reinforce the wonder and mystery surrounding this island.
To get around effectively on Kauai, you will need a rental car. To rely upon the public bus would waste a lot of precious travel time and even then, the bus doesn’t go everywhere. The car rentals are located right at the airport in the main town of Lihue, so you can pick yours up as you arrive on island and drop it off as you are leaving. If you book though one of the well known online price aggregators, you can get a good deal. I got a small four door sedan for $19 a day plus a few minor taxes and fees.
The main highways of Kauai nearly form a ring around the island from the north all the way around to the west, with only the Na Pali coast in the northwest not navigable by car. There is no highway that cuts through the center of the island, so to get from the south side of the island to the north side, you will need to take this ring highway. I’ve chosen to describe my trip below geographically; I’m starting at the farthest north one can travel by car and ending up all the way to the west side of the island, detailing all of the relevant sites to see in between.
I began my exploration of Kauai with a hike on the Kalalau Trail, perhaps the best known trek on the island. Hugging the Na Pali coast on the north side of the island, this 22-mile roundtrip trail affords spectacular coastal and mountain views. Keep in mind, however, that it is not a beginner’s hike. Steep inclines and declines, slippery rocks, and the need to ford some rivers make this a thoroughly strenuous adventure. Luckily you don’t have to do the full 22 miles. For those who just want a small taste of this trail, but still want the amazing views, do what I did and take only a 4-mile roundtrip journey from the entrance of the trail to Hanakapiai Beach and back again. While still a bit strenuous in a few places, this is much more manageable option that can be completed in just a few hours time. To get there just take Kuhio Highway all the way to the end at Ha’ena State Park. The trail entrance is to the left. The parking lots can often fill up, so you may need to park somewhere along the road.
Leaving the Kalalau Trail and going south, you will pass Hanalei, a quaint village located on picturesque Hanalei Bay. There are some shops here to stumble around in and the views of Hanalei valley’s taro fields are superb. Don’t leave before taking a dip in the calm waters of the bay.
Driving further down you’ll reach the Princeville Botanical Garden, a private family-run garden that offers small group tours showcasing their large number of fruit trees, ornamentals, and medicinal plants. The tour lasts 3 hours and it features small tastings of seasonal fruits like papaya, pineapple, and grapefruit that are grown on the estate. It also includes a half hour chocolate tasting portion which I thought was superfluous but others in the group seemed to enjoy. Nonetheless, the trees and plants are stunning and the guide was informative. I especially enjoyed seeing and smelling the clove tree, a specimen I missed when I took a spice farm tour in India.
Just a few minutes away on the north shore is Anini Beach, an unusually calm beach with a large coral reef offshore. I heard that sometimes the currents can be rough but when I visited it was as smooth as a swimming pool!
A little further along Kuhio Highway is the town of Kilauea with its historic Kilauea Lighthouse built in 1913. I think its a lovely spot to take a quick picture.
As you travel further south, you reach Anahola and will be greeted by the distinctive Kalalea Mountain, also known as King Kong due to it’s resemblance of the ape’s profile. You’ll also have two options for smoothies here. The first place, Moloa’a Sunrise Fruit Stand has smoothies, fresh juices, and some foods for sale. I got the Date with Fate smoothie and I enjoyed it.
If you drive a little further down the highway you’ll reach Kalalea Juice Hale, my favorite smoothie place on the island because of their variety of smoothies, juice, juice shots, and acai bowls. I went here almost every morning for my smoothie fix. The ingredients are all listed so the vegan options are evident. They can omit or swap out non-vegan items. The local Anahola granola contains honey, so avoid if necessary. My favorite smoothie was the Unreals because it had a nice vegetal taste. I similarly loved the neon green moringa shots.
If you are adventurous, try the noni fruit shot. Noni is a local fruit that is said to have many health benefits, but it tastes awful. Very soapy and astringent. If you do try it, remember to also get a chaser juice to quickly wash away the noni taste!
Being an island with a free spirit attitude and the right conditions for plenty of fresh produce, you’d think Kauai would be a vegan paradise. Unfortunately, it is not.
Vegan eating is generally well understood and respected, but the options, when available, can be lazy. Vegan dishes when dining out are often vegan by subtraction, not by creation. What I mean is that some restaurants will often prominently advertise the word vegan on their signage, but upon inquiring, you’ll be told you can order a standard menu item with the cheese or the meat subtracted. I did visit one place that had a couple of vegan by design dishes but it really was not good so I cannot recommend it.
Therefore I strongly suggest that vegan travelers book accommodations that have a small kitchen or kitchenette for the option of self-catering. Keep in mind that food prices, including vegetables and fruit, are incredibly high. Figure on paying at least double and sometimes triple the prices for similar things than in the mainland United States. Farmer’s markets are available some days of the week and some supermarkets have weekly sales (you can sign up for their store card then throw it out when your trip is over). Nevertheless, I’ve listed some places with decent vegan food options below.
So after Anahola, you quickly reach Kapa’a, a main commercial area on the island, with its touristy shops, restaurants, and supermarkets. Kapa’a is a good base to stay in when you’re on the island because it’s rather centrally located for driving and there are a few vegan friendly places in town. There is a good Safeway supermarket and, in the same shopping center, there is Papaya’s Natural Foods & Cafe, a small, well-stocked natural foods store that has almost everything you’ll need for vegan self-catering. I even found a bag of vegan marshmallows for an impromptu s’mores session.
Other vegan food options in Kapa’a include:
Rainbow Living Foods is a very small, raw food place that is almost entirely vegan. I had the Rainbow Burger with a side kale salad and both were tasty. As you can see in the photo below, it looked nothing like a burger, but it was well seasoned and I enjoyed it. There are only 2 or 3 picnic tables outside to sit on, so if it’s busy you may have to take the food to go. They have a few premade desserts in the fridge, but the cookie I had was not really good. So I’d say skip the dessert and go around the corner to Java Kai for coffee instead. This busy coffeeshop on the main drag through Kapa’a offers Kona, Molokai, and Kauai coffees with soy milk option for lattes. Kona was my favorite.
Also in Kapa’a is Verde, a Mexican restaurant with two vegan options, the Verde Verde Burrito and the Vegan Tacos. They both contain the same grilled vegetables but the burrito has the addition of chunks of taro and you’ll need to specify that it be made without the cheese listed on the menu. They were both a bit dry but the flavor was ok and I think this place would be a good compromise if you are traveling with non-vegans, as they will likely find plenty to eat. The service is also very friendly. One annoying thing is that both vegan options have to pay the same extra cost for adding rice and beans as do the meat-filled dishes.
After eating, aid your digestion by swinging over to Potions Kombucha Bar for a pint of creative house-made kombucha. It’s a cozy place in a strip mall but the service is welcoming. I really enjoyed the taste of the kombucha here. It’s not too acidic or vinegary. They have four flavors on tap and they’ll let you have a little taste before committing to a whole glass.
As you head out of Kapa’a, take a quick detour to Wailua Falls for a nice photo op.
Soon you’ll find yourself in Lihue, the main town on the island and where the airport is located. There are a few big box stores here as well as the largest Safeway supermarket, a good place to buy some food and snacks to bring back to your hotel or condo. Vegan food and smoothie options are slim in Lihue, so figure on eating elsewhere. There is a nice cafe in town called Ha Coffee Bar that offers four nondairy milk options for its coffee and tea drinks, though.
Heading south you’ll reach Poipu, the main beach and snorkeling area on Kauai, other than the more popular Hanalei and Princeville on the north side. One thing to remember on this often rainy island is that the north side receives a much larger amount of rain than the south side. While the showers are usually fleeting in nature, sometimes the clouds can linger for days in the north. Kauai’s unique geography of interior mountains, coupled with the trade winds the blow in from the northeast, causes clouds to accumulate in the northern and eastern part of the island while the southern and the western parts stay drier. If the north side looks overcast and gloomy, head over to the south side, as it’s very likely that it will be sunny and clear down there.
Poipu has a few large resort hotels, but all the beaches are public. So if you find a beach you particularly like, just plop yourself down on the sand and enjoy the water. The beaches by the Sheraton and the Marriot resorts are both very nice. There is also good snorkeling in Poipu. I saw so many different vibrantly colored fish, including the state fish of Hawaii with its tongue-twister of a name, the Humuhumunukunukuapua’a!
A quick lunch option for a day at the beach in Poipu is Da Crack, a hole-in-the-wall burrito place with one vegan option, a veggie burrito without cheese. It’s not the best burrito, but it will do when you are hungry.
Past Kalaheo town is Port Allen, where all of the boat tours of the northwestern coast begin and end. The most iconic postcard image of Kauai must be the cut and hewn mountains of the Na Pali coast. These majestic mountains have been chiseled by millions of years of erosion, demonstrating the power of the surf and the flow of freshwater falls. I decided to take a sunset boat tour to take advantage of the light of the sun setting into the nooks and crannies along the coast.
The tour had around 25 people, lasted 3-4 hours, went up and back down the coast, and included “dinner” on board. Do not rely on this dinner; there is nothing for vegans to eat (maybe a few pineapple slices), so eat beforehand and bring snacks. The views on board are truly spectacular and this is the only way to see the Na Pali coast unless you opt for a helicopter excursion. If you get seasick at all, however, I strongly suggest you reconsider doing a boat tour. Unless you’re lucky to have a really calm day, the seas in the area are very choppy. The captain even had to come to a full stop a few times because of waves. If you can handle it though, you’ll be rewarded with jaw-dropping views of the mountains, secluded beaches, and maybe even some spinner dolphins.
As you travel further west, you’ll notice how the landscape changes due to the drier climate conditions. The soil turns to a deep rust color, the trees and foliage are sparser, and a film of dust coats cars and shop windows. This is most evident in Waimea, which could almost pass for an outpost town in Arizona or New Mexico.
If the Na Pali coast is the number one site to see on Kauai, then for sure number two has to be Waimea Canyon. A winding drive up to Kokee from Waimea town will take you along the edge of this massive gorge, also known as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific. The scale of the canyon is astounding and the landscape further proves Kauai’s natural diversity. Reds, browns, oranges, yellows, and greens paint a striated geological history of the island. There are several lookout points along the way that all offer a unique vantage point for viewing the canyon’s grandeur. There’s even one lookout that gives you a peek over the Kalalau Valley.
This surely is a humbling place to reflect and absorb the mana.
Spire-like mountains cast imposing shadows on verdant, thick valleys. Hues of green on this Garden Island range from damp and mossy to sunny and bleached, and every shade in between. And sunset is when Kauai puts on its most spectacular show; a showy pink sky is punctuated by the outline of Kauai’s mountains which, in their whimsy, seem almost haphazardly drawn. These unique features have convinced me of the spirit that exists here and that Kauai is, in fact, a study in the splendor of Mother Nature’s limitless palette of intense colors, grand shapes, and fanciful silhouettes.
Have you been to Kauai? If so, what were some of your favorite sights and experiences?
Check out this recipe inspired by my trip: Papaya Pineapple Sherbet