After reevaluating a mounting wedding to-do list, my fiance and I nixed more adventurous ideas (Croatia, Colombia, Belize) for the lush and quiet Hawaiian island of Kauai for our honeymoon locale. Other than book hotels and flights from SFO we did no preplanning, and it was the best trip of my life. We spent our days camped out at the beach, eating lots of good food, and going on breathtaking hikes. We chose to spend a few days in the south in Po'ipu, and then another few in the north in Hanalei Bay. Looking to do the same? Here are my recommendations.
Po'ipu (The South)
The area doesn't really have a main drag, but is made up of a handful of newer shopping centers, a few roadside restaurants, hotels, and the charming old town of Koloa, which is a welcome reprieve from the newer, swankier commercial areas. The weather is notoriously better here than in the north, and Po'ipu makes for a great place to start your trip and ease into island life.
It's also a great idea to hit up Costco on your way from the airport to pick up a few necessities (beach towels, an umbrella, cooler, beer) before making the short drive to Po'ipu.
Sheraton Kauai firepit
We decided to come to Kauai (vs. other Hawaiian islands) to escape the massive resort complexes but still be able to order drinks by the pool. Although the Sheraton Kauai is a big resort with Hawaiian flair, it felt totally modern, adult, and luxurious. Situated in a gorgeous oceanfront nook, the pool, some guest rooms, and the restaurant look out directly onto a pristine stretch of ocean. It's particularly stunning at sunset when the staff lights up the hotel's numerous fire pits and tiki lamps along the beach.
Three absolute favorites were 1. Puka Dog: insanely delicious "Hawaiian style" hotdog shop that serves house made, fruity relish (like star fruit and papaya) with their dogs, 2. Da Crack: food stand that makes the only decent Mission-style Mexican food, and 3. Koloa Fish Market: the best poke we had the entire time on Kauai (and I ate a SHIT load of poke) and the perfect place to stock up before hitting the beach (obviously a cooler is essential).
Less Cheap Eats:
If you're looking to class it up a bit, the Sheraton's restaurant Rum Fire was surprisingly good. Unlike most high end restaurants in Kauai, it wasn't overly "Hawaiian" themed, and had a really well-balanced menu (the Rum Fire Burger piled with mushrooms, cheddar and avocado was next-level good, as were the Sea Scallops with Edamame Risotto and Spicy Miso Butter).The neighboring Grand Hyatt also has a great indoor/outdoor restaurant called Tidepools, plus it's fun poking around the super fancy hotel where it's located. And Keoki's Paradise is the place to go for happy hour/live music/party time with the locals. Seriously, the Mai Tais are bomb and there's live music on the weekends.
A lot of the beaches around here were gorgeous but crowded (lots of kids, ick), so the Maha'ulepu Heritage Trail is a real pleasure. Starting off from Shipwreck beach, it's a stunning, four-mile costal trail that follows rocky cliffs until it hits Maha'ulepu Beach which is much less crowded than easier, more accessible options. Take a backpack (it's hot! bring water), sandwiches, and wear bathing suits. On the way you see a ton of different landscapes, get great ocean views, and keep your eyes peeled for turtles swimming in the ocean below.
Princeville and Hanalei Bay (The North)
Going from the south to the north was a nice change of scenery. The south has gorgeous rolling hills and felt arid and dry, while the north was like driving into a luscious jungle.
Princeville is essentially just a collections of condos and hotels, a grocery store, and a few little restaurants, and Hanalei Bay five minutes down the road is like an old-school beach town (think Stinson Beach).
Westin Princeville pool
We stayed at two hotels while in the north, the Westin Princeville Ocean Resort Villas and then the St. Regis Princeville. Although it was tough to leave the sound of crashing waves at the Sheraton, the Westin had wonderful features. The entire resort is centered around a spectacular pool area and massive communal lawn, and it backs up to bluffs overlooking the ocean with an insane view of the Na Pali coast. All the hotel rooms are actually suites, so they come with a full kitchen and washer dryer. We stayed in a one-bedroom room (they have studios too), and it was bigger than most SF apartments. After eating out every meal for days it's nice nice to stock up on groceries and cook your own meals. There are also high-end barbecues set up all over the property, so grilling is a great option too.
St. Regis lobby
The St. Regis was a totally different experience. It is stately, sophisticated, has a level of service I didn't even know existed, and is situated right on Hanalei Bay. Want a butler to come unpack your suitcase? They do that. Interested in french press coffee and biscotti every morning? Tell them when. Just got back to your room after a day at the beach? Your sheets have been turned down and slippers placed on either side of the bed. Not to mention the pool area is right on the beach, and the main-floor bar (don't miss ordering something from their extensive Bloody Mary menu) has an 180-degree view of the Na Pali coast and Hanalei Bay.
For the rest of my life when I close my eyes and think of my "happy" place, this will be it. Service and views don't come cheap, but it's an incredible experience if you can swing it for a day or two.
There are lots of little beachy options all over town, but favorites were the Hanalei Coffee Roasters and traditional shave ice with macadamia nut ice cream underneath from Shave Ice Paradise right next door. And Foodland grocery store in Princeville actually had a delicious poke bar and good deli sandwiches to take on hikes.
Less Cheap Eats:
For dinners, sushi from The Dolphin was a huge treat, as was tapas-style restaurant BarAcuda. It's run by Jim Moffat, the chef who started Slow Club here in SF, and you can totally tell–the menu is exciting, fresh, and totally hip. And after a week and a half of sharing a bagel every morning for breakfast, I was particularly excited about the St. Regis breakfast buffet overlooking the bay.
But the pièce de résistance was Kauai Grill at The St. Regis. It's a Jean-Georges restaurant, and will live on as one of those "best meals ever." Highlights were Salmon Sashimi with Warm Crispy Rice and Chipotle Emulsion, Roasted Ali’l Mushrooms with Jalapeno and Rosemary, and Grilled Wagyu Beef Tenderloin with Savory Onion Jam and Tamarind Mustard.
The number one highlight of the trip was the hike to Hanakapi'ai Falls. Fancy hotels and delicious food aside, this is the kind of stuff you remember for the rest of your life. The hike is eight miles roundtrip, and covers some rough terrain. If you don't feel comfortable crossing rivers, climbing up rocks, or are afraid of heights, you should skip it. The hike starts where the road north ends (like, literally) and the first two miles take you up a huge hill and down to Hanakapi'ai Beach. Many people stop there, but if you continue on the trail another two miles (over rivers, through the jungle…) you get to a spectacular waterfall. It's so tall you can barely see the top, and at the bottom is a massive fresh water pool where you can swim in the freezing water. Although the hike back was slightly less fun (so tired, so wet), it was one of the coolest things I've ever done.
The scenic beauty in Kauai is so different from what we have in NorCal, and I think, for most of us, being outside in the sunshine everyday is invigorating. We came home with a nice tan, a newfound love of tropical drinks (him: Mai Tais, me: Lava Flows), and longing to get back to paradise as soon as possible.
Have more Kauai tips? Leave them in the comments!