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Trip Report Kauai Trip Report + photos

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Kauai Trip Report

Photos are here. Suggest clicking on “Slideshow” in upper left corner to view.


It would be a little time consuming to cross reference the locations with a map and accurately label every photo there. If anybody wants to know where anything pictured might specifically be, one of the cameras does imbed GPS data into the photo so that info may be available I believe if you are logged onto Google as you look at the photos.

After a couple of trips to Europe, we needed an island fix. We’ve been to the USVIs (St. John) and BVIs (Virgin Gorda and Anegada) several times. For years, my wife would bring up the idea of doing Hawaii but I immediately would shut it down due to visions of cheesy luaus and high rise cluttered beaches, not to mention the perceived cost and LONG flight time from NJ.

I thought it was more of a place for tourists rather than travelers, aware that Hawaii was a place that a lot of people we know who are not really travelers have been to. It’s kind of amazing how many east coast folks have been there on their honeymoon but then don’t really travel anywhere else even mildly adventurous. Conversely, they are surprised we’ve never been to HI as many co-workers and acquaintances consider us to be well traveled.

So, I started looking at Kauai to see what it might cost as compared to our fav tropical destination, St. John USVI, due in large part to several STJ-maniacs claiming that Kauai was most like their beloved STJ. I was pleasantly surprised to see that pretty nice ocean front places could be had on VRBO for much less than STJ comparables and that the car would be half or less of STJ.

On the airfare, I was also finally armed with sufficient Capital One points to defray some of the airfare costs, especially if I broke it up into 2 legs which I was also motivated to do to help break up the flight length with a stop in PHX to visit in-laws.

However, we learned that they wouldn’t be in town so we decided to do 3 nights on way back in San Francisco – a city my 19 yr old would enjoy seeing again as she was only 11 months old last time she was there. Booked Delta to OAK and Alaska Air direct to LIH for total of $623. Not bad considering airfares to STT from NJ/NY area now around $400 and up. So, we would become first timers to the Garden Isle in mid-May.

Initial flight out of EWR was delayed due to “mechanical problems”. That’s never a good sign. After second push back of departure time, I quickly went up to desk just in time to overhear a Delta gate rep tell the desk agents “this doesn’t look good – better re-book whatever you can”.

The agent couldn’t find us another Delta flight so she got us on a United flight. Good news was that it was non-stop and that we were seated in “economy plus” section with extra legroom. Bad news was that we were now going into SFO instead of OAK, that the 3 seats weren’t together, and that they had to pull the bags off the OAK plane, we had to claim them, and get over to another terminal to check in. So you had that hassle on the front end, then on the back end humping our stuff on the BART over to Oakland.

I was glad that I did get up to the Delta desk quickly though because I learned later that our original flight was eventually canceled 6 hours after it was scheduled to depart and we probably got the last few open seats on that United flight to SFO.

We got to Oakland airport hotel about 2 hrs later than planned, up early next morning for 7:30am flight to LIH that got us in before 10am local time. Kind of amazing when you fully appreciate that HI is another 5 hours/2500 miles from California.

Picked up the rental car (a Chevy Malibu – typical boring bad ergonomics Chevy with a ridiculously wide turning radius for such a small-ish medium sized car). The rental agency left our keys and “welcome packet” at the rental car counter, which is their usual practice. That’s certainly a lot different than the in-person greeter scenario in STJ.

I had booked a oceanfront condo I found on VRBO on the east side of the island near Lydgate Park, thinking it would be a good midway point between the north end and south side, both of which had not to miss things we wanted to experience.

I understood that the east side is more built up, but that also means decent shopping/provisioning and easy in-town eating options – not a bad thing in our world. The condo complex was very well maintained and our 2nd floor corner unit was really nice, great views from the lanai, complete with the intoxicating sound of the ocean, with recently updated Tommy Bahama furniture, stainless/granite kitchen etc.

It was quite comparable to something at Gallows Point on STJ, at about 1/3 of the cost. The owner was real helpful, trading tips via email etc. and the agency who handled the rental was a pleasure to deal with. http://www.kauaivacationrentals.com/ I already miss the sunrises, coffee, and winged visitors out on that lanai.

There was a walking path out in front of the complex and the beach stretched for a couple miles to the south in front of the Wailua Golf course. The beach was much more sit-able and walk-able at low tide than at high tide due to the larger wave and “super” full moon high tide action at the beginning of the trip and tremendous amount of driftwood strewn about on the beaches. I later found out that there much more driftwood than usual due to the really bad week of storms in early March when over 40 inches of rain fell up in the mountains, washing out roads and bridges and creating all sorts of havoc on the island.

While it was nice getting in early before 10am, we couldn’t get into the condo til 2-3pm. So, first things first: Mai Tai supplies! @ http://www.koloarum.com/ Their Gold rum is pretty good stuff – quite smooth.

Stopped off in the mall area in Lihue at a really large location of Long’s Drugs store which is one of those places that has almost everything, including Cruzan Pineapple flavor 750ml for $10.99 to supplement the high price stuff from Koloa.

Then off to lunch at Dukes located on the sands of Kalapaki Beach at the Kauai Marriott Resort. Typical large scale resort, not a particularly pretty beach. Lunch included good mahi sandwich and fish tacos, great waffle fries, and good mai tais.

Also hit the Safeway in Kapaa for condo breakfast fixins and some snackage. Even though we had very nice kitchen stocked with any tools you might need and there were nice gas grills located throughout the complex, we are not big on the making dinner on vacation thing and all the kitchen duty that entails. My wife doesn’t even care for the lack of housekeeping during the stay – says she needs a break from all that and is not interested in “playing house” on vacation, so that’s why we will never be big time villa meisters in the Caribbean or elsewhere.

Explored the property, nearby beaches, checked out the pool, etc., had some nap time to the sounds of the ocean (aaahhh!!!) and then got some plates from a couple of the small take out joints in nearby Coconut Marketplace – Harley’s BBQ and the Fish Hut – really tasty shrimp taco with slaw, ono filet platter with rice, and Cajun shrimp platter with rice. Good stuff at reasonable cost.

First full day decided to head off to explore the south shore after some awesome mocha coffees at Dolphin Espresso and some shopping at the stalls across the street.

Drove down to the charming Old Koloa Town through “Tree Tunnel” that is the gateway to the Koloa/Poipu area. Did a little shopping, briefly considered the Kauai Food Truck right there, but decided to check out the high end Beach House Restaurant in Poipu instead.

Great ocean view and really good blackened shrimp salad, chicken sandwich, veggie/tofu wrap, and DELICIOUS strawberry/banana daiquiri for the girls. Then hug the coast on a slow drive east from the Beach House, admiring some of the beautiful houses and cottages just beyond the Brennecke Beach area. Pull into the small public lot just beyond the Hyatt resort to spend some time on the lovely Shipwreck Beach. Walk through the Hyatt grounds to see how the $500/night crowd lives. It looks like it was designed by Disney engineers.

Shipwreck is pretty amazing. Enjoyed watching the local kids ride the 6-8 footers, their friends parked watching them shred while playing reggae music. I was surprised to discover that various versions of reggae is hugely popular on Kauai. Then we hiked a bit up from the beach some of the way along the Mahaulepu coast trail. Got some cool photos along there.

That’s some wild coastline and wish we had gone further. Its 2 miles long one way but unfortunately we only went partway because we wanted to get back to the gourmet market going on at Kukuiula Village.

We had a dam good shave ice there at Uncle Steve’s in that complex -strawberry/tangerine/pineapple ice with macadamia nut ice cream underneath – really good, not too sweet.

We picked up a pineapple (best tasting ever) and at the urging of my daughter, my wife acquiesced to buying some great looking homemade fresh pasta and marinara sauce from one of the vendors on the condition that only DD and I make it and clean up back at the condo, so that’s what we did. It was mighty good, but I have to admit my wife has a point about flopping around in the kitchen on vacation…

After dinner we enjoy watching Modern Family. I have a photo tour planned for the next day and the girls will be on their own to do a spa, but it doesn't unfold that way...

Next day up early to go to out to breakfast with the girls prior to me taking a guided photo tour I had booked that promised to take you to some spots a little off the beaten path.

We went to Eggberts and had veggie omelet, tomato cheese omelet, GREAT banana pancakes (Jack Johnson knows what he’s singing about). The photo tour was pretty cool – the guide was a young semi-pro photographer surfer/hiker dude who seemed to know everybody on the island. Kauai Photo Tours deserves their stellar ratings here on TA.

The van tour had a mix of people, all the way from someone who had to rent a camera for the tour and get a quick tutorial on its use, to semi-serious amateurs such as guy who had a big a*s Canon SLR and used a tripod for everything.

It was a really good way to get a feel for the east and north sides of the island, and it was fun to talk “shop” about photography and pick the guide’s brain about all manner of other island related stuff. I also brought my GPS with me to save location information in case I wanted to return with the girls. We stopped at lotsa different locations.

I pitched doing this tour and to the girls (wife and daughter) doing a spa after we couldn’t come to agreement on pre-booking some other tour. The Napali daysails had just resumed from their extended winter hiatus (seas are too rough), and it appears from stories here and elsewhere that it is not uncommon for folks to get sick on those multi-hour trips.

Even though WE are not prone to that, it could be pretty unpleasant to be around others that are or who don’t take adequate precautions, so we cooled on the idea, saying maybe we can book it while on island if the seas are flat. My wife was also cool to the aerial tours by helicopter or fixed wing for various reasons. I know better at this point to push back too hard.

So I did locate some spas near the condo that they could do, and my daughter was all for it (massage etc), but my wife balked at the cost and said if she is going to drop that kind of cash, maybe shoe would rather have some nice piece of jewelry or something to remind her of the island (she does wear a St. John petroglyph necklace a lot, so go argue with that). Therefore, they were on their own to do some shopping, return to the condo beach and pool, etc. as I went off on the photo tour.

Upon my return, I was shocked to learn that my wife had come around to the idea of doing a helicopter tour after she spent some time researching them on line and seeing them fly around the island. Apparently that made her more comfortable with the whole idea.

During their shopping, they noted some vendors and booths selling various tours and luaus for significantly reduced prices posted on whiteboards, but it turns out that involves sitting through a time share spiel. That wasn’t going to happen, so we called her first choice about availability for the 3 of us the next day, and got an afternoon flight at the reduced internet pre-book price.

Conventional wisdom seems to be that morning is better before fog and clouds build up on Napali, but we seemed to be having the opposite weather patterns so we were comfortable with that. I think that I would’ve preferred the fixed wing tour as they don’t fly as close to the cliffs and everybody gets a window seat = much better for photography. My photo tour guide had confirmed this when I asked about it. But I wasn’t going to push it. So we planned out the next day to do Waimea Canyon early and the heli-tour in the afternoon, and that will be the next part of this trip report.

After my photo tour, I was stoked to show them the north shore so we drove up to charming Hanalei for dinner at the pretty cool tapas bar called Bar Acuda. The style of bar area in this joint would be right at home in any big city.

It was lovely to sit on the side porch and watch the sunset colors play while we enjoyed various small plates such as shrimp Romesco, and inventive versions of bruchetta, mahi, and roasted potatoes, small thin pizza with local goat cheese, all with their own tasty sangria. http://www.restaurantbaracuda.com/ Considering it was “only” tapas, it wasn’t cheap, but it was very good and quite enjoyable.

Next day, breakfast in condo early, drive around towards Waimea Canyon, thru rain, sun, clouds and rainbows. Stop briefly in tiny Hanapepe – the Hanapepe Café was closed due to owners personal situation.

So we stop in at the cute and funky Small Fish Café up the street and get a latte, a mocha, and a delicious fruit smoothie.

Take the first turn up to the canyon, stop and walk about the overlooks with varying degrees of clouds and sun, but thankful that when we hit the last turn off in Kokee, that the Kalalau Valley clears for just few minutes to experience that awe inspiring vista.

Back down the other fork, to lunch at the Shrimp Station for shrimp tacos, garlic shrimp with rice, fried mahi sandwich. The shrimp plates were tasty (they're hard to screw up as long as you don’t overcook the shrimp). It surprised us that the mahi was fried and was probably our least favorite piece of otherwise outstanding fish we had all week. Maybe stick to the shrimp at their locations here Waimea and Kapaa.

Onto the airport area for our semi-spontaneous helicopter tour with Safari. Wife and daughter get to go up front, I go in the middle left in the back figuring I’m taller. I give my daughter the better PowerShot and my wife takes my daughters camera. Unfortunately either in passing the cameras back and forth and showing my wife what to do, the setting on the PowerShot gets moved from the Av setting to the Tv setting screwing up those pix beyond fixing.

Although it was a challenge shooting from where I was sitting and I wish I had asked the pilot Ian to swing wider from the coast (see my other comments related to this in my recent post re Helicopter Photo Tips), the Sony a55 performed admirably, especially in regard to its ability to rip off up to 10 frames per second.

Although I do loves me some photography, don’t think I didn’t take the time to take it all in – it was way cool especially how they combine it with the music and use Bose noise cancelling headphones. The pilot Ian was great as was the other folks at Safari. The girls were also buzzed – they should be – they were up front!

On way back to the condo, stop by Café Coco and Mermaids Café to scope them out and are intrigued by Mermaid. Back to condo for some killer homemade rum drinks, a dip in pool, even (briefly) check out the news to make sure the real world is still in place.

Out to the hole in wall known as Mermaids Café along the main street there (its nice that we didn’t have to fuss over our dinner appearance LOL). Grab a couple of big Blue Moon beers across the street at the ABC store after we order. We hang at one of the small sidewalk tables to watch the world of what feels is similar to other “surf” or beach towns I’ve spent time in.

We thoroughly enjoy super fresh high quality mahi focaccias with pesto spread and an ahi cilantro wrap and talk about upcoming days. The stir frys others are getting look and smell mighty good too.

Back at the condo enjoy a clear night out on the lanai, marvel at the stars (shooting and otherwise). Couldn’t make out any constellations, so made a few of our own like Jack Johnson suggests.

Next day breakfast at the quasi-Bohemian Small Town Coffee in Kapaa. We had bagel sandwiches = 2 Mexican egg and one veggie egg. Pretty good but kinda pricey, very small coffees with no refills – only full price for refill. What’s up with that? Wouldn’t it even make sense to offer refills at say $1 each?

Head out to North Shore – make stops at overlooks, then one lane bridge, the girls shop the Hanalei outdoor market while I take some pictures of the highly photogenic Waioli Huiia Church. I would be quite happy to just set myself up in a lawn chair across the street from that church and watch the sun and clouds play across the mountains in the background.

Drive all the way out to Ke’e Beach. Crowded parking, lots of roosters and chicks. We tackle the 2 mile out/2 mile back Kalalau Trail hike to Hanakapiai Beach.

While we are not “hikers”, my wife and I do daily fast pace walks of 30-45 min and my daughter is a runner, so we are all in decent physical condition. I thought we had a good idea of what to anticipate, but were still a little surprised at how challenging it was if you don’t want to take all day to do it (not that we were passing by tons of people on the trail). As a non-hiker, the thing you don’t anticipate is not necessarily the physical aspect of the hike, but the mental aspect i.e. the concentration required to carefully navigate the slippery rock and root strewn sections, thinking “Jeez if I step wrong here or have my foot slip off this rock, I could twist an ankle pretty bad and screw up the rest of my vacation”.

Also, in retrospect, at the risk of rubbing the hikers and adventurers the wrong way and/or seeming somewhat wimp-ish, I would argue that for some it is totally not necessary to go all the way down to Hanakapiai Beach. IMO the “payoff” at that beach is not worth the extra effort of that last descent, stream/rock crossing to the beach, and ascent back up. When you get to the part of the trail where you can finally see the beach and it starts to descend to it, that could be a good spot to turn around and save yourself a good 45+ minutes and the extra mental and physical effort associated with that, perhaps making the overall experience less arduous and more pleasant.

We couldn’t help but make a comparison to another awesome, even longer, but maybe not quite as arduous coastal hike we did last year in the Cinque Terre in Italy. But the nicer thing about that one is that it is ONE WAY and a charming village awaits you at the end with awesome pesto focaccia-like pizza, wine, and the best gelato - LOL.

After the Kalalau hike, we were hungry and thirsty so headed back towards Hanalei to a fruit stand where we supplemented our Cliff Bars with large waters, 2 chocolate dipped bananas rolled in mac nuts, a pineapple/strawberry/banana/guava smoothie, and a chocolate banana milkshake. My daughter says the running magazines claim that bananas and chocolate milk are good post workout stuff to have and I would have to say it did hit the spot and help us recover quickly.

Then we backtracked a bit for some quality beach time (reading, relaxing, swimming) at beautiful Lumaha’i Beach. After beach time, we drive along Hanalei Bay and stop near the pier for a bit of a walkabout, then get back to the condo to get ready for dinner reservation at Hukilau Lanai. Waiting area is a bit of a odd hybrid of lounge/bar/hotel lobby, but we did have a great Wailea Bay Breeze drink: pineapple vodka/pineapple juice/cranberry juice drink. Finally seated after short wait. Dining tables look out on a nice lit tiki torch area, we have really good focaccia bread and salads that came with entrees, plus awesome cashew crusted Opah with mashed potatoes, panko breaded Mahi with mashed potatoes, and a veggie lasagna – all really really good, especially that Opah.

Next day is Mothers Day so daughter and I up early and to round up some surprise goodies. First stop is the shopping area by the Shell station intending to stop at bakeries but both are closed, so we go down to Small Town Coffee to get bagels and baked goods, but not coffee because yesterday we thought they were too small.

There is an odd bit of shuffling around to get the bagels which they finally hand over and ring me up @ $14.25 for the 3 bagels, a blueberry muffin and a piece of banana cake. Really? I’m taken aback at that which is hard to do because we are not inexperienced travelers and do on occasion indulge ourselves in pricey “artisan” pizza back home in NJ; brunch in Greenwich Village in NYC; etc. etc. and so we are somewhat immune to sticker shock. Anyways, I don’t want to be the ugly tourist so I don’t challenge at the register but as I’m walking away I am trying to do the math in my head since the prices on non-menu items weren’t clearly marked, and at about the same time realize that the bag holding the bagels is cold. What? Frozen bagels at that price? Give me a friggin break.

So I allow myself to go off (limited to 5 minutes) on that whole tattooed/organic/Boho-chic vibe they are peddling there. And The Guidebook That Shall Not Be Named opines that this is the place where “diehard regulars hang out solving the worlds problems among themselves” Really? At those prices? And, you can't even get your coffee refilled? Makes you wonder if the regulars/locals are treated differently here. Sorry for the mini-rant – I just don’t like feeling ripped off.

In another effort to go local we had also intended to get those great lattes again from Dolphin Espresso but that was closed too, so we said screw it - lets go to Starbucks for the big coffees. Also picked up a cute Hawaii themed mug there.

We also had to run into Safeway and Longs as we wanted to get some small juices to help maybe re-create that excellent Wailea Bay Breeze drink we had at Hukilau Lanai. Saw the $.69 bagels in Safeway and joked that Small Town probably buys their bagels there, freezes them, and unloads them on unsuspecting tourists at a 200% mark up.

Also picked up a bag of Hawaiian Host Dark Chocolate Macadamias. Holy smokes are they GREAT. And we are kinda dark chocolate snobs – a trip to Switzerland in 2005 spoiled us forever!

Finally back at the condo my wife appreciates our efforts and we need to toast our semi-frozen BoHo-chic bagels in order to eat them. Pretty average bagels. At least we had found our fav Kerry Gold Irish butter in Safeway to go with them. I wonder what they would’ve charged at Small Town for a few pats of extra organic hand churned butter from gently milked lei wearing cows? LOL

Drive out to North Shore to spend some time on lovely Tunnels Beach. I finally get a chance to do some snorkeling and confirmed what I had anticipated – it doesn’t compare well to the snorkeling you find in the USVI and BVI that we are quite familiar with. I did spend some time with some turtles on the way back in and got some decent photos of them so that made it worthwhile. We enjoy our beach time with our books and my recreation of the Wailea Bay Breeze I had prepared.

Leave beach for late lunch in Hanalei at Dolphin Fish Market. Very nice seating outside near river in full view of mountains. We had salad with Cajun marlin, salad with Cajun Ahi, and a Cajun Marlin sandwich washed down with reasonably priced ice cold tall Japanese bottled beers. The fish was super fresh and perfectly cooked with an exceptionally tasty version of Cajun spices. Others have noted here recently that they thought this place was too expensive. Yup, not cheap by any means but we thought the quality received was worth it. Often we find lunch to be a much better value at higher end or “gourmet” restaurants - also the reason we had lunch at the Beach House on the south shore on Day 2. And when we do a pricy lunch like these, we try back off on a dinner to help manage the budget.

After lunch we just kind of meander along back towards the condo while cranking our island playlist. Go into St. Regis area, consider humping down to Hideaways Beach, but really limited parking, long walk down (and our legs would bark at that from the previous day Kalalau trail hike). We do enjoy great view of coast from top of the stairs to Hideaways. Check out Anini Beach – pretty crowded with locals, nice view of lighthouse at end. Drive down to lighthouse – nice view.

Back in Kapaa begin to realize dinner choices very limited because possibilities Monico’s and Eastside both closed, and we get to Café Coco when it is open (stopped by other times when closed and could never find menu). The hostess kind of gives us the stinkeye when she thinks we were going there to sit down immediately looking like we just came from beach (which we had, but we weren’t). We are told that Mother’s Day special is a “$50 per person Farm to Table pre fix menu”. There is some really odd stuff such as duck ragout so the price point and funky choices make it easy to eliminate that place.

So back to condo to shower and decide to go back to Mermaid Café. Unfortunately, it seemed like the “B” team was at the counter and in kitchen, and they were out of numerous important items so all 3 of us get stir fry - 2 with chicken, one with tofu - as a change up from the loads of fish we’ve been eating. Pretty average, not super flavorful, but at least with lots of fresh veggies and not too oily or salty.

Dessert at Lappert’s Ice Cream in that semi-vacant Coconut Marketplace. Moms get free scoop so she gets chocolate mac nut and daughter gets Kona coffee swirled with chocolate sorbet - both excellent. I save my desert calories for those awesome dark choc covered mac nuts back at the condo.

The last day in Kauai before we flew off to San Francisco for 3 days was rather uneventful.
Overall, we very much enjoyed Kauai. It has pretty amazing vistas around almost every corner. The few towns that ring the island range from small to tiny. It was real laid back and everybody had that aloha friendliness. Even in “traffic”, people are very cool about merging etc.
From the hole in the wall joints to the nicer restaurants, the Mai Tais and fish (mahi, opah, wahoo) were outstanding. And it is certainly another one of those places where you can really say “if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes”.

San Francisco was a nice stopover on the way back. We stayed at the Argonaut right at Fisherman’s Wharf, enjoyed some great food, did the ferry and cable car, and walked across the Golden Gate Bridge which was celebrating its 75th year.

That’s it. Thanks for reading.

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