Kauai is the oldest of the eight major Hawaiian Islands, with volcanic rock dating back more than 5 million years. But the island still 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 more beaches 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 is agricultural and conservation lands. Two-thirds of Kauai's land area is impenetrable.
Kauai is notable for many other reasons. British Capt. 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 clung to its independence. After Kamehameha failed twice to take the island by force, Kauai's king finally agreed to cede his island to the Hawaiian king. 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, further ensuring that Kauai would remain under Hawaiian rule.
Kauai is the only Hawaiian island with navigable rivers; it also has a breathtaking gorge that Mark Twain dubbed the "Grand Canyon of the Pacific" and 15 miles of sheer cliffs rising along an uninhabited coastline. 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.
Cruise ships dock at Nawiliwili Harbor, on the southeast side of the island, not far from the airport.
There are no services at the port -- just pickup areas for tour buses, rental car shuttles and free shuttles to shopping centers. You can walk or take a free shuttle to the nearby Harbor Mall and Anchor Cove Shopping Center with restaurants, shops, ATMs, bathrooms, Internet access and tour bookings. Kalapaki Beach (with watersports rentals) and the Kauai Marriott Resort are located next to the mall areas.
Look out for roosters -- and their families. When Hurricane Iniki hit in 1992, coops were blown apart and many chickens were released into the wild. The chickens appear to be thriving on this freedom, and you will see them everywhere -- at the car rental parking lot, the beach, public parks, etc. They don't pose a serious threat, especially because you're unlikely to be overnighting in a hotel, listening to the roosters crow at many times other than sunrise. Watch out for them while driving or when leaving food out on your beach mat, though.
By Car: The best way to get around on Kauai is by rental car. Major car rental agencies operate free shuttle services from the pier.
By Shuttle: Kmart, Hilo Hattie, Coconut Marketplace, Anchor Cove, Harbor Mall, Kukui Grove Center and Wal-Mart also offer free shuttle services from the pier. Both the Anchor Cove and Harbor Mall shuttles will get you to Kalapaki Beach, and they run every 10 minutes; the beach is adjacent to Anchor Cove and across the street from Harbor Mall.
By Taxi: Taxi companies include Kauai Taxi (808-246-9554) and Pono Taxi (808-634-4744).
On Foot: It's about a 10-minute walk along a sidewalk to the nearby shopping and beach areas, but if it's hot, you might as well take the free shuttle if isn't too crowded.
ATMs are located at the Anchor Cove and Harbor Mall shopping complexes near the harbor, but the closest full-service banks are 1.5 miles away in Lihue on Rice Street.
English is the official language, but try your hand at any Hawaiian phrases you pick up. Aloha means hello and goodbye, mahalo means "thank you," and aloha ahiahi means "good night." If you hear Aloha, e komo mai, don't panic. It means "Welcome!"
Dine out in Kauai, and you won't be surprised to find fish and seafood in abundance on most menus. Various meat dishes from kalua pork to Korean barbecue-style kalbi short ribs are also popular, and fresh fruit (including pineapples and coconuts) are always a good bet.
The plate lunch is a typical Hawaiian meal. It consists of two scoops of rice, a scoop of macaroni salad and one protein: choose from options such as barbecue chicken, kalbi ribs, hamburger steak, beef stew or the fish of the day. A mixed plate lets you choose two meats. For a perfect dessert on a hot day, stop in a shave ice shop. Hawaii's version of the snow cone consists of ice shaved off a large block then topped with flavored syrups. You can even order them with a scoop of ice cream in the center.
For Fine Dining: Gaylord's Restaurant is named after Gaylord Wilcox, the second president of Grove Farm, his family's sugar plantation. Lunch items include ahi poke, beer-battered fish tacos, roasted chicken crepes and a red wine braised beef short rib "dip" sandwich. (3-2087 Kaumualii Highway, Lihue; 808-245-9593; open 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday and 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday
For Fun Dining: Brick Oven Pizza is pure fun, with red-and-white vinyl checkered tablecloths and a ceiling covered with old 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. (2-2555 Kaumualii Highway, Kalaheo, or 4-4361 Kuhio Highway, Kapaa; open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, buffet nights 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Monday and Thursday)
For Island Ambience: The decor at Keoki's Paradise includes cascading waterfalls, lush foliage, thatched booths and surfboards and framed old Hawaii posters on the koa-paneled walls. Fresh island fish and pork are highlighted on the menu. For lunch, you might try a trio of sliders (cheeseburger, barbecue pork and crab cake) or sashimi grade ahi tuna; for dinner, try fresh fish dusted with macadamia nuts, steamed with ginger and cilantro, or baked in a garlic, lemon and sweet basil glaze. (2360 Kiahuna Plantation Drive, Koloa; 808-742-7534; the Bamboo Bar and Cafe is open from 11 a.m. daily, the dining room opens for dinner at 4:45 p.m.)
For Beachside Dining: Duke's Kauai, named for the Olympic swimming medalist who is credited with being the father of international surfing, is located right on Kalapaki Beach at the Kauai Marriott. Its outdoor dining area, called the Barefoot Bar, serves appetizers, salads, sandwiches, burgers and "island favorites" like an ahi poke wrap and mango barbecue baby back ribs. The dining room focuses on steaks and seafood for dinner. (3610 Rice Street, Lihue; 808-246-9599; "barefoot bar" from 11 a.m., dinner from 5 p.m.)
For a Taste of "Old" Hawaii: Go early to snag a stool at the U-shaped formica counters of Hamura's Saimin Stand, 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 (noodles cooked in a meat or fish broth) topped with char siu pork, 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. (2956 Kress Street, Lihue; 808-245-3271; open from 10 a.m. daily)
You can get all the typical Hawaiian souvenirs in Kauai: aloha shirts, chocolate-covered macadamia nuts, etc. For something a bit more local, stock up on Red Dirt Shirts (4350 Waialo Road, Eleele), dyed with real red dirt from Kauai and decorated with Hawaiian-inspired designs, and merchandise from Island Soap and Candle Works (in Kilauea, Princeville and Koloa), including handmade soaps, body lotions, bath gels, aromatic massage oils, beeswax candles and more in tropical scents. If you're looking for consumables, consider items from Kauai Kookie Kompany (factory store in Hanapepe) and Kauai Coffee Co. (tasting room and store at 870 Halewili Road, Kalaheo).
It's best to go with classic tropical drinks -- try a Lava Flow (a cross between a strawberry daiquiri and pina colada, made with light and coconut rum plus strawberries, bananas, pineapple juice and coconut cream) or a Blue Hawaii (a concoction of rum, curacao, pineapple juice and sweet and sour mix). Any fruity drink with mango or pineapple or other tropical fruits and flavors will get you in the island spirit.