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Kauai is the oldest of the eight major Hawaiian Islands, with volcanic rock dating back 5.5 million years, but it displays all the beauty and vigor of youth. From lush rain forests and valleys to majestic mountains and long stretches of white sand, there's no question: Nature takes center stage here.
In fact, Kauai has 43 beaches -- more per mile of coastline than any of the other islands. Only 3 percent of the island has been developed for commercial and residential use; the rest are agricultural and conservation lands. Two-thirds of Kauai's 533 square miles are impenetrable.
Kauai is notable for many other reasons. Scholars believe it was the first island to be inhabited, around 500 A.D., by courageous voyagers from the Marquesas Islands. British Captain James Cook and his crew first landed in Hawaii at Waimea, on Kauai's west coast, in 1778.
When Kamehameha the Great embarked on his campaign to unite all the islands under one rule, Kauai alone clung to its independence. After Kamehameha died in 1819, his son, Liholiho, became king. He lured Kauai's king, Kaumualii, aboard his royal yacht and sailed to Oahu. There, Kaumualii was coerced into marrying Kaahumanu, Kamehameha's widow; thus, Kauai became part of the Hawaiian kingdom.
Kauai is the only Hawaiian island with navigable rivers; a breathtaking gorge that Mark Twain dubbed the "Grand Canyon of the Pacific"; and 22 miles of sheer cliffs rising twice as high as the Empire State Building. Hollywood has been so taken with Kauai that the island been cast in more than 60 movies and TV productions.
To ensure that concrete will never conceal Kauai's beauty, officials passed a law stipulating that no buildings on the island can stand higher than a palm tree (three or four stories). So no matter when or where you are on Kauai, nature will always reign.
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Other Hawaii Cruise Ports:
Fanning Island • Hilo • Honolulu • Kauai • Kona • Maui
English is spoken everywhere.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
There are ATM machines at the Anchor Cove and Harbor Mall shopping complexes near the harbor, but the closest full-service banks are 1 1/2 miles away in Lihue. Bank of Hawaii, First Hawaiian Bank and American Savings Bank on Rice Street, the town's main drag, can convert foreign currency for a fee. Banking hours are 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday; closing time is 6 p.m. on Friday.
Foodies should consider items from Popo's Cookies and Kauai Kookie Kompany; Kauai Tropical Fudge; and Kauai Coffee. Other good choices include Red Dirt Shirts, dyed with real red dirt from Kauai, and merchandise from Island Soap and Candle Works, including handmade soaps, body lotions, bath gels, aromatic massage oils, beeswax candles and more in tropical scents.
Great stores specializing in Hawaiian arts, crafts and gifts are Gifts of Kauai (in Coconut Marketplace), C & H Kauai Products Store (in the Kukui Grove Shopping Center) and Hawaiian Trading Post (corner of Highways 50 and 130).
Where You're Docked
Nawiliwili Harbor, on the southeast side of the island.
The 12,000-square-ft. Aloha Center is just a block away from Nawiliwili Harbor's disembarkation center. It features an art gallery, coffee shop, clothing store, helicopter tour and moped rental outlets, drawing and poetry classes, and 16 arts and crafts vendors. Wares include wooden bowls, paddles and boxes; jewelry; candles; Hawaiian quilts; slippers; and beauty products. Shoppers also will want to browse at Harbor Mall and Anchor Cove.
The best way to get around on Kauai is by rental car. Avis, Budget, Hertz and National operate free shuttle service from the pier as well as Kmart, Hilo Hattie, Coconut Marketplace, Anchor Cove, Harbor Mall and Wal-Mart. Rentals start at about $40 per day.
The Kauai Bus provides service between Hanalei and Kekaha daily except Sundays and county holidays. Stops include Lihue Airport, Kukui Grove Center and the Poipu resort area (adults pay $1.50 per trip).
Taxi companies include Kauai Taxi (808-245-9554) and Pono Taxi (808-634-4744).
The Wilcox family made significant contributions to Kauai in the realms of business, politics and community service. Get a glimpse into the lives of two generations of Wilcoxes on a tour of their gracious sugar plantation manor, Grove Farm (808-245-3202). There are stories behind every item in the home, from the handsome koa furniture to the bookcases filled with hymnals, Bibles and other works in the Hawaiian language to glass cabinets showcasing an eclectic assortment of curios, including shells, coral, lava rocks, even a preserved Hawaiian bat.
The island's fascinating history is showcased at the Kauai Museum (808-245-6931) through a variety of permanent and changing exhibits of ancient tools, implements, tapa, featherwork, furniture, china, clothing, shells, bird specimens, scrimshaw, photographs and original paintings by esteemed Island artists, and much more. Interestingly, all the museum's acquisitions have been generous donations and bequests from individuals, businesses and organizations in the community.
More than 200 breathtaking seaside acres at the northernmost spot in the inhabited Hawaiian Islands are managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) at the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge. It was established on February 15, 1985 to protect and encourage the propagation of migratory seabirds and native coastal plants. Naupaka, ilima, hala, aheahea, akoko and the rare alula flourish here, along with six seabird species and Hawaii's state bird, the endangered nene (Hawaiian goose). Spinner dolphins, Hawaiian monk seals and green sea turtles also are commonly seen here.
The verdant Kokee State Park sprawls over 4,345 acres on Kauai's west side. A network of 19 hiking trails extends over 34 miles between the cool 3,200- and 4,200-foot elevations. Free guided WonderWalks are scheduled on weekends during the summer (reservations are required). They range from two to four miles in length and from easy to strenuous in terms of physical challenge. The park also offers a wonderful natural history museum and annual special events including the Eo E Emalani I Alakai Festival in October, which honors Queen Emma, wife of King Kamehameha IV.
A botanical masterpiece, Na Aina Kai Botanical Gardens showcases 21 acres of gardens; a 45-acre exotic fruit farm whose crops include rambutan, lychee and atemoya; and a 117-acre plantation where teak, rosewood, mahogany and other tropical hardwoods flourish. Winding paths meander past trellises, gazebos, topiary, colonnades, arched bridges, a Japanese teahouse, and 70 life-size bronze sculptures of people and animals. The gardens are linked by a koi-filled lagoon, waterfalls, streams and other water features.
Soaring more 3,000 feet above the undulating Pacific, the cliffs of Na Pali form an impregnable 22-mile wall along the northwest coast of Kauai. The 10 gorgeous valleys tucked along these magnificent green ramparts are all uninhabited and accessible only by foot, boat or helicopter. The magnificent panorama is accented by graceful lava arches, white sand beaches and caves hidden by waterfalls. Several companies offer tours along Na Pali, usually only during the summer months (winter conditions are too rough for recreational craft).
Founded in 1964, the nonprofit National Tropical Botanical Garden is comprised of five gardens -- Allerton, McBryde and Limahuli on Kauai; Kahanu on Maui; and the Kampong in Florida -- and three preserves on the Big Island. It is the only institution chartered by an act of Congress to protect and study rare and endangered tropical plant species. Visitors are welcome on guided tours of NTBG's Kauai gardens, which display their own distinct beauty. For example, in McBryde Garden's Canoe Plants of Ancient Polynesia collection are plants that voyagers of long ago carried across the Pacific to provide food, medicine, building materials, clothing and shelter.
Ten miles long, one mile wide and more than 3,500 feet deep, Waimea Canyon is one of the seven wonders of Hawaii. It was carved over eons by rivers and floods flowing from the summit of Mount Waialeale, which, with an average of 460 inches of annual rainfall, ranks among the wettest spots on Earth. You can enjoy breathtaking views of the gorge from numerous lookouts along Waimea Canyon Drive or get a bird's-eye view of it from a helicopter. Hikers can choose from 11 trails, the most difficult of which is the five-mile (round-trip) Kukui Trail, a steep trek that drops 2,000 feet to a campsite on the canyon floor.
Been There, Done That
With 46,560 trees on 480 acres, Guava Kai Plantation (808-828-6121) grows and processes more than half of Hawaii's guava crop -- about 10 million pounds per year. At a viewing area outside the processing plant, you can observe fruit being washed and sorted. The adjacent visitors' center offers an array of guava merchandise, from spreads, syrups and sauces to lotions, soaps and lip balms. An ongoing video chronicles the history of the plantation and the harvesting and puree manufacturing processes while you sample guava juice and delicious (ono) preserves. Wrap up your visit by taking a walk in the plantation's pretty botanical garden, which winds past a lake, stream, fishpond, and dozens of trees and shrubs -- including hibiscus, coconut, ilima, plumeria, bird of paradise, ginger, heliconia, kukui, strawberry guava, soursop, starfruit, banana and, of course, guavas!
Hanapepe, Kauai's "Biggest Little Town," invites visitors to take its 1.5-mile self-guided walking tour, which encompasses 69 key historic sites. Forty-three of them meet the criteria to be listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places, including being at least 50 years old; having a tie with significant historical events or people; and possessing high artistic values or displaying the distinctive characteristics of a type, period or method of construction. If you can, do the tour on a Friday afternoon so you can linger in town for Friday Art Night, which is held weekly from 6 to 9 p.m. Sixteen galleries participate, offering pupu (appetizers), demonstrations and special exhibits. Artists are available to discuss their work, techniques and inspirations, and most nights, a strolling musician adds to the ambience.
The Kauai Heritage Center of Hawaiian Culture and the Arts. This is a hidden gem that doesn't get the recognition it deserves. It offers ongoing classes in Hawaiian oral traditions and performing arts, including Papa Oli: The Art of Hawaiian Chant; Beginning Hula for children and adults, both kahiko (ancient) and auana (contemporary); and Introduction to the Hawaiian Language. A per-class payment option is available, and you can register 30 minutes prior to the session.
The only remaining rice mill in Hawaii, Haraguchi Rice Mill is set on a wetland taro farm within a national wildlife preserve on Kauai's lush north shore. With the peaks of Namolokama, Hihimanu and Mamalahoa providing a dramatic backdrop, you'll take a short walk amid the taro fields while learning about Hawaii's most important cultural crop, endangered native birds, island agriculture and the wetlands ecosystem. You may also see rare water birds, including stilts, gallinules, ducks, coots and the nene, Hawaii's state bird. From the taro fields, it's a five-minute drive to the mill, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Because of its setting in a wildlife refuge, tours of the mill are strictly regulated to just once a week -- Wednesdays.
Doug and Sandy McMaster present Friday and Sunday afternoon slack key guitar concerts at Hanalei's Hale Halawai Ohana o Hanalei (House for the Gathering of the Families of Hanalei). A portion of the proceeds from their 90-minute concerts supports the community center, which perpetuates the Hawaiian culture through art, hula, music, dance, and health-related classes and clinics. Concert themes are rotated; on the day you attend it may be Legends of Slack Key (stories and songs of slack key's celebrated masters); Songs and Stories of Kauai; History of Slack Key; Hawaii's Cowboy Music; Slack Key Tour of the Islands; Menehune (race of small people who worked only at night); Moo (legendary lizards and dragons); Slack Key Love Stories; Sea Turtles and Other Endangered Species; or Ahupuaa (land division extending from the mountains to the sea).
For Fine Dining: Gaylord's is named after Gaylord Wilcox, the second president of Grove Farm, his family's sugar plantation. Lunch items include fresh local fish and chips, a teriyaki ahi sandwich and kilohana meatloaf, mixed with secret spices. 3-2087 Kaumualii, Lihue; open for lunch and dinner daily.
For Fun Dining: Brick Oven Pizza is pure fun, with red-and-white vinyl checkered tablecloths and a ceiling covered with old car license plates from all over the world. Pizzas are cooked on a brick hearth, and you can choose from a long list of toppings. Servers pass out a mound of dough for children to play with while they're waiting for their pizza to bake. Closed Mondays; open 11 a.m. - 10 p.m. 2-2555 Kaumualii Hwy., Kalaheo.
For Island Ambience: Decor highlights at Keoki's Paradise include cascading waterfalls, lush foliage, thatched booths, and surfboards and framed old Hawaii posters on the koa-paneled walls. Fresh island fish can be prepared your choice of five different ways: baked in a garlic, lemon and sweet basil glaze; baked in fresh local ginger, orange zest and macadamia nuts; sauteed with a citrus, shoyu, sesame butter sauce; seared with a hoisin lime vinaigrette; and grilled with butter, olive oil and selected seasonings. 360 Kiahuna Plantation Dr., Koloa, open for lunch and dinner daily.
For Local Favorites: One loyal customer claims the Aloha Diner (808-822-3851) serves the best Hawaiian food on the planet. You be the judge. Putting it lightly, the setting is unpretentious, but locals flock here for the poi; kalua pig; laulau (pork or chicken wrapped in young taro leaves); lomi salmon (diced salmon mixed with tomatoes, onions and sea salt); pipikaula (smoked beef), fried whole akule (scad) and even opihi (limpet) if it's available. Open for lunch Monday - Saturday, 10:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m., 971-F Kuhio Hwy, Waipouli.
For Vegetarian Specialties: Even self-avowed carnivores are raving about Blossoming Lotus' "Vegan World Fusion Cuisine." One top seller is the Heavenly Hamakua (a caramelized onion risotto cake, maple-cayenne roasted baby beets, shimeji mushrooms, organic sauteed greens and grilled marinated ginger-tamari tofu with a lemongrass-basil coconut sauce). Open for lunch daily, 11 a.m. - 3 p.m. 4504 Kukui Street, Kapaa.
For a Taste of "Old" Hawaii: Go early to snag a stool at the U-shaped formica counters of Hamura Saimin Stand (808-245-3271), which date back at least a few decades. This down-home place usually is packed with folks yearning for island-style comfort food: a steaming bowl of saimin topped with char siu, sliced egg, vegetables and wontons, and accompanied by a few teriyaki beef sticks. The recipes for the noodles and broth have been in the Hamura family for more than 50 years. Save room for a slice of homemade lilikoi (passion fruit) pie. Open from 10 a.m. daily, 2956 Kress St., Lihue.
Best Overall Excursion: Waimea Canyon, Wailua River & Fern Grotto is a great introductory for first-timers and nature lovers alike, featuring visits to two of the area's most dramatic natural attractions (the canyon and river); guests are serenaded at Fern Grotto by a choir -- an island custom.
Best Choices for Active Traveler: Kauai Mountain Safari Adventure takes you by four-wheel-drive vehicle to Waimea Canyon, Kalalau Valley and Kokee Forest Reserve along scenic back roads. 7 1/2 hours.
Best Choices for Families: Tubing the Ditch is a two-mile tubing expedition down a tropical waterway of open ditches, tunnels and flumes, hand-dug circa 1912. There's a "hole" for swimming and a snack to keep the kids happy. 3 hours (kids must be at least 5 years old).
Best for Seniors: Wailua River Cruise & Luau Luncheon: After visiting some of Kauai's most popular natural attractions, board a riverboat for a cruise up the Wailua River. At fern Grotto, join a traditional luau with Polynesian songs and dances. 5 1/2 hours.
Staying in Touch
Hawaii Link Internet at Harbor Mall (808-246-9300)
Computerweb at Kauai Village Shopping Center in Kapaa (808-821-0077)
For More Information
Contact the Kauai Visitors Bureau at
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Hawaii
The Independent Traveler: Hawaii Exchange
--By Honolulu-based Cheryl Tsutsumi, who writes "Hawaii's Backyard," a weekly column for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. She's also written seven books about Hawaii, the most recent of which, "Hanauma Bay: Hawaii's Coastal Treasure," was just released by Island Heritage Publishing.
Photos of Wailua River and Kilauea Point Lighthouse are copyright Robert Coello. Photos of Hawaiian monk seal, Hanalei church and Anini Beach Park are copyright HTJ.