Kauai, another island neighbor to Oahu, is the oldest of the main Hawaiian islands. It’s only 552 square miles, making it the fourth largest of the islands. As the 21st largest island in the U.S., it had a population of just over 58,000 in 2000. On Kauai, you’ll find everything from cities and towns to tiny rural hamlets. Encircled with beaches that make up nearly half the total shoreline, this gorgeous island is also known as the Garden Isle, because of its lush tropical greenery.
The first settlers arrived in the 5th century AD and brought with them taro, the plant that would soon become a staple of the Hawaiian diet, and remains one even today. Centuries later, James Cook would visit the island as part of his tour of the Pacific.
There is no known meaning of the name of the island – officially, that is. Some legends say that the island was named by a famous Polynesian navigator, who chose to name it after his favorite son. Kauai was once known for a very distinct dialect based on old Polynesian languages, which has since died out. The island is also known for the Legend of the Menehune – little pixie-like people who are supposedly talented in construction and engineering and who are capable of building things like aqueducts and fishponds overnight. The Menehune are believed to live in the woods and today are blamed when things go wrong, such as losing keys or getting a flat tire.
Kauai was the last island to be brought under the rule of King Kamehameha, the ruler who brought together the islands that make up the modern state of Hawaii. It didn’t join peacefully, however. Kamehameha was turned back twice before he finally managed to gain control of the island, peacefully this time. For years the people of Kauai lived as vassals of Kamehameha until their ruler, Kaumuali’I, ceded the island completely upon his death.
Kauai is a volcanic island with peaks reaching as high as 5,243 feet. At its height, Mount Wai’ale’ale is 5,148 feet. The eastern side of this mountain is one of the wettest places on earth with an average yearly rainfall of 460 inches. Because of the immense amounts of water traveling down the mountain and carving the rock, there are numerous valleys and canyons with tremendous waterfalls. The western side of the island is Waimea, which hosts the Grand Canyon of the Pacific – Waimea Canyon. The canyon is more than 3,000 feet deep and is part of Waimea State Park.
Like Maui, Kauai has a history in the sugar industry, and today its economy is supported almost exclusively by tourism. Many of the old sugar plantations are now used for ranching as well. Only the 118-year-old Gay & Robinson Plantation remains devoted to the sugar industry, although Kauai also farms tropical fruits and coffee. The island is also a wonderful place for whale watching during the winter and early spring.
For the Art Connoisseur
Kauai is not exactly a booming arts center, but there are privately owned galleries all over the island, and many of the historical museums also have art displays. One of the best galleries is the Nani Kauai, www.Nanikauai.com. It specializes in local art, and features photography, paintings, jewelry and even vintage signs and reproductions.
For the Foodie
Despite having so many rural areas, Kauai is known for some really fantastic food destinations, making it well worth the trip.
- Plantation Gardens – Sit outside in the outdoor lanai seating surrounded by tiki torches for the full feel of old Polynesian Hawaii. All the vegetables on the menu are organic and from local farms, while the fish is caught fresh daily by local fishermen. Specializing in Pacific Rim cuisine with a regional influence, this is one spot you’ll want to hit. www.pgrestaurant.com
- Bar Acuda – Food & Wine magazine called it “the one great restaurant on Kauai” – and they just might be correct. This tapas and wine bar has a menu that starts with honeycomb from the North Shore with Konana Farms goat cheese, Mizuna greens and apple. Yum. www.restaurantbaracuda.com
- Merriman’s — Chef Peter Merriman is known as a pioneer in the Farm-to-Table movement – and true to form, 90 percent of his ingredients are locally caught or grown. His innovative menu includes kalua pig, fern shoot salad and striped marlin sashimi. Take your pick of a mountain or ocean view – the dining room offers both – and pick a wine from the 1,000-bottle cellar. www.merrimanshawaii.com
- Hanalei Dolphin – Hanalei is actually two restaurants plus a fish market – and not surprisingly is known for the freshness of its fish. Located on the banks of the Hanalei River, the restaurant offers a vast menu of fish caught in local waters and served in a no-nonsense fashion – just broiled. The chefs prefer to let the fish speak for itself. www.hanaleidolphin.com
For the Nature Lover
Kauai is a nature lover’s paradise. With endless trails, parks and preserves – not to mention botanical gardens – anyone who appreciates a little time in nature will be in heaven. Many companies on the island offer guided hikes and horseback rides, as well as helicopter and airplane tours. Visit gohawaii.com for a comprehensive list of these vendors.
- Waimea Canyon State Park – This park is a huge canyon – more than 10 miles long and 3,000 feet deep in some places – located on the west side of Kauai. The canyon was formed by water from the Waimea River, fueled by extreme rainfalls on the central peak of Mount Wai’ale’ale. The 1,866 acres contain many hiking trails, but not all are easily accessible, so it’s best to do your homework before setting out into the park. More details can be found by following the links at www.hawaiistateparks.org.
- Napali Coast State Park – Extending from Ke’e Beach to Polihale State Park, the 6,175 acres of Napali feature cliffs rising over 4,000 feet and five major valleys. Much of the park is inaccessible by car, but hikers, kayakers and helicopters are common sights. The park also provides the only access to the Kalalau Trail and Kee Beach State Park, where there are tremendous lagoons and coral reefs perfect for snorkeling and swimming – not to mention a tropical beach surrounded by coconut trees, ironwood trees and ti, an evergreen plant native to Hawaii. Follow the links at www.hawaiistateparks.org for complete information on park access and trails.
- Spouting Horn Park – On Kauai’s south shore is what may be one of the coolest natural features of the island – a “geyser.” Water has been known to shoot more than 60 feet into the air when the waves force it up into a lava tube and out into the open, often making a rather eerie hissing noise. Ancient Hawaiians believed that a lizard goddess names Kai Kapu was trapped in the tube by a fisherman, and the hissing sound was her angry roar of frustration. GoHawaii.com has links to more information on this natural wonder.
- Na’Aina Kai Botanical Gardens – More than 200 acres of forest and farmland make up these gardens, with more than 13 themed gardens, including a hardwood plantation and a maze created out of more than 3,400 mock orange plants and topiaries. Don’t miss the Bog House, which contains an amazing collection of carnivorous plants, including bogwort and pitcher plants. Kids will love the Under the Rainbow children’s garden, which includes a tree house, slides, pond, bridges, tunnels and even a train. Throughout the gardens you’ll notice the owner’s large bronze statuary collection.
- Allerton Gardens – These gardens, found on the south shore of the island, occupy 80 acres next to Lawa’i Bay and were once home to the revered Queen Emma. The gardens concentrate on native plantings and feature special garden rooms, pools, mini-waterfalls, fountains and statues. You may recognize the gardens upon your visit: they have been the backdrop to such films as South Pacific and Jurassic Park. www.allerton.ntbg.org
For the History Buff
For those of you who prefer to while away your afternoon soaking up the history of a location, there are several places on Kauai that you won’t want to miss.
- Kauai Museum – Featuring two floors of permanent exhibits and three rotating exhibit galleries, this museum focuses on the history of the island from its earliest settlers through the territorial period. The museum frequently hosts movie nights, book signings and other events, like the May Day Lei Festival.
- Kilauea Light Station – First dedicated in 1913, the 52-foot lighthouse was hugely significant to ships making the Orient Run – it helped them navigate around the islands and stay on course. Today it’s one of the most intact lighthouses in the country and sees more than 500,000 visitors a year. The keeper’s dwelling is located apart from the lighthouse itself and is constructed entirely of volcanic rock found on the site. www.kilauealighthouse.org
- Wai’oli Mission House – The mission house was built in 1837 in the beautiful Hanalei Valley. Today it remains much the same, capturing a brilliant image of rural missionary life in the 19th century. Take a guided tour and see the historical furnishings as well as traditional plants and trees that would have been on the grounds at the time it was in use. Find out more by following the links at hawaiimuseums.org.
Kauai is full of adventure – from waterfalls to rainforest to pieces of living history. The island also hosts several festivals each year that you might be interested in checking out.
- Emalani Festival – Held each year on the second Saturday in October, the Emalani Festival offers one of the most authentic Hawaiian experiences, with hula masters and their dancers creating the event. The festival commemorates the journey Queen Emma took to the upland forests in 1871. Each year focuses on a different aspect of her legacy, so you’ll want to come back time and again to experience the live music, historical displays, dance and an appearance by “Queen Emma” herself.
- Koloa Plantation Days – This annual festival commemorates the history of the sugar industry on Kauai, including how the need for labor let to the tremendously multi-cultural population that lives there today. Past events have included golf tournaments, a triathlon, ethnic cooking demos and tastings and luaus. www.koloaplantationdays.com
- Coconut Festival – This annual festival has been featured on the Food Network’s “All-American Festivals” and is devoted to promoting and preserving the Coconut Coast region. There is a children’s stage and a market with local artisans and Polynesian products – and of course everything you can possibly imagine to eat out of a coconut.
- May Day Lei Festival – Showcasing the talents of today’s lei makers, this festival works to preserve the art form. As a visitor, you’ll be able to watch the lei-making contest, sample food and, of course, learn to make your own lei.
Although Kauai is largely known as a rural island, it had much to offer visitors. Make a weekend trip to take in a festival or hike the trails, and you won’t regret it. Check out Kauai-hawaii.org for more information on where to stay and what to do.
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