Fall in love with Kauai at this laid-back boutique beach resort.
Ko'a Kea Resort on Poipu Beach in Kauai (Courtesy of The Meritage Collection).

Fall in love with Kauai at this laid-back boutique beach resort.


The tradewinds blow strong and sweet as the first fingers of light are etched across the dark sky. I stretch my arms, saluting the rising sun from the oceanfront lawn at the Ko’a Kea Resort’s morning yoga class, waves lapping gently against the shore just a few dozen feet away.

Arriving tired and travel-smudged last night, the morning hits me like a warm embrace welcoming me to the island of Kauai. It’s the most beautiful island in the Hawaiian archipelago, I’m told over and over when friends hear where I’ll be spending the long weekend. So far, they’re not wrong.

Hawaii and I have an uneasy relationship. It’s gorgeous, of course, and the culture and history is endlessly fascinating, but the state’s charms are also its curse. There aren’t many other places in the U.S.---or even the world—with a tourist landscape so dominated by behemoth beach resorts and pasty Midwestern families. Even in Kauai, the least developed of Hawaii’s large land masses, bloated brand-name hotels are obnoxiously common.

That’s why I was drawn to Ko’a Kea Resort on Po'ipu Beach on the island’s southern side. It has the luxury of a major resort—including a spa, a poolside bar, onsite snorkel and surf gear, and an excellent restaurant—but, with only 121 rooms and suites, only a fraction of its guests. Even at peak sunbathing hours, there are always loungers available on the oceanfront lawn or around the pool.

The pool deck and palapa bar at the boutique Ko'a Kea Resort. (Courtesy of The Meritage Collection)

The boutique resort’s location on Poipu Beach, where green sea turtles and monk seals make their evening bed, is another point in its favor. When yoga ends, I walk east along the sea towards the Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail, a gorgeous two-mile path across ancient sand dunes and through scrubby headland woods. To my right, the turquoise water sparkles and mountains rise green and lush in the distance. The only way to see the entire island, they say, is by helicopter, but Kauai’s extraordinary beauty is already coming into view.

Back at the resort just in time to catch breakfast, I dive into a plate of lemon pineapple souffle pancakes, a decadent stack of sweetness topped in caramelized pineapple compote, one of rising star chef Noelani Planas’ signature dishes at the Red Salt restaurant.

Later that evening, I collect more evidence of Planas’ prowess with rich housemade ricotta, local honeycomb, and truffle oil on smoky grilled naan; perfectly seared ahi steak dripping in soy butter and laid over lemongrass-and-coconut-infused forbidden black rice; sweet monchong dressed in a crust of blue crab and drizzled in lemon beurre blanc; bright passion fruit creme brulee. The sommelier pairs an eclectic tour of global wines for the meal. I’m pleased to see a couple small brands from right here at home out in the wild.

Luxuriating in my room that night wrapped in a soft robe, my balcony door thrown wide to let in the music of the ocean, I contentedly sink into a stack of pillows. The rooms at Ko’a Kea were just renovated into a pleasing palate of greens, corals, and bronzes that lend a serene, sophisticated air. Each has a patio or balcony with cafe seating and a gray marble bath with dual-headed showers and bath products in island aromas. I can’t think of a thing that could make the space any more complete.

A recently renovated guest room at Ko'a Kea Resort. (Courtesy of The Meritage Collection)

The next day is my chance to see the island in its entirety. Below Blue Hawaiian’s helicopter, the earth rolls from rain-drenched jungle to arid red-rock canyon to sheer coastal cliffs. They weren’t lying: Kauai is truly unreal.

The landscape is still cartwheeling through my imagination as I relax on the beach and make a stop at the spa that afternoon, where a masseuse works magic with her powerful hands. I hear that the snorkeling in front of the resort is excellent, and the gear is literally at my fingertips at Hoku Water Sports, but the chilly January breeze chases me from the water before I get a chance to see what all the fuss is about.

Ko’a Kea is just a few miles from The Shops at Kukui’ula and, since there’s a free party shuttle from Poipu Beach, spending my final evening at Hawaiian culinary staple, Merriman’s (2829 Ala Kalanikaumaka, Koloa), is a no-brainer. Chef Peter Merriman was one of the first pioneers to elevate Hawaiian food into Hawaiian cuisine back in the late ‘80s and his eponymous, sustainably-minded restaurant is now found on four islands, including Kauai. With towering mai tais and heaps of poke, locally grown greens, and fresh catch enveloped in macadamia nuts, I toast to the bounty of the island.

As is true with all beach vacations, the last day at Ko’a Kea comes too soon. But Kauai has one last show stopper in store. As I re-fold my clothes and force them into suitcase form, a double rainbow appears above the resort, one arm erupting right out of the waves so close to shore that if there were a pot of gold at the bottom, it would take just a minute to swim out to find it.

After just three days, I now know that what they say is true. The next time someone asks me my favorite Hawaiian island, the answer will be Kauai.

// 2251 Poipu Rd. (Koloa), koakea.com

An oceanside spa cabana at Ko'a Kea Resort. (Courtesy of The Meritage Collection)

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