Monday, March 12, 2012

Kauai Trip - Recommendations of Where to Stay, Eat and Play

I promised a post on my Kauai recommendations, and I'm delivering on that promise. My guide on a trip to the Garden Island. It's something I wish that I would have found before we left: an outline of the not-to-be-missed spots with a lot of unique local flavor.

We had the famous Blue Book to guide us on our way, and I'd done quite a bit of research before we left, but no one blog post or book fit exactly the way we like to travel, which was something of a disappointment considering how many books I referenced. I was reading an article today in which Anthony Bourdain gave his top 5 travel tips, and number one was "eat where the locals eat." Any local I could find in Kauai that was willing to give their 2 cents, I asked for recommendations. Yelp was also a big help here.

The truth about Kauai is, you're not there for the food. Hawaii is not exactly known for it's cuisine (unless spam with rice and seaweed is your kind of comfort food) and you're probably not going to have the best meal of your life there. But there is good food to be had, it just takes a willingness to break away from the tourist spots.

So here's my Kauai quick list on where to stay, the best hikes we did, and of course, where to eat:

North Shore Lodging -
We stayed at the Sea Lodge in Princeville. A 1 bedroom condo right on the bluff overlooking a reef and several palm trees. It was a great bargain, and out of three places that we stayed on the trip, our favorite. Totally private, well-stocked, and in a great location from which to explore the North Shore, which is in my opinion, the most beautiful part of the island.

North Shore Hike -
Don't miss the Kalalau Trail. Fair warning, you don't want to hike this trail in bad weather. When it rains, the trail becomes a creek with a drop off on one side of hundreds and hundreds of feet. You need to be careful and have good hiking shoes on for this. A walking stick is highly recommended.

You can do the first 2 miles of this trail to Hanakapiai Beach. Another 2 miles from the beach, inland, will bring you to a waterfall. Keep in mind that if you go all the way to the falls, it's an 8 mile hike round trip. You'll want to bring plenty of water, and give yourself enough time to hike, as it's relatively slow going. The trail is very rocky, and incredibly slippery if wet, and you don't have the right shoes. The views, however, are incomparable. Be prepared to stop every few feet to gawk at the Napali Coast.

North Shore Eats:

Red Hot Mama's - This is a shack on the side of the road. She tells you what she has for the day, you order that (paying extra for the hot sauce) and then you buy beer at the general store next door. You then pay the lady and take your food to the beach for an impromptu picnic. What could be better than eating a freshly made burrito made with local ingredients on the beach in Kauai with your beer of choice? Nothing, my friend. Nothing is better than that.

Maybe she only has pork that day, maybe she only has beef. Who knows! Who Cares?! You do not come to a place like this for options!!! You eat what you are told and you will like it!!!

My suggestion is that you stop here before you go to Tunnels or Ke'e Beach for your picnic.

Bar Acuda - This was our favorite meal in Kauai. Come to find out later that it's owned by a former San Francisco chef and restauranteur. Go figure. I like the Slow Club, I like Bar Acuda. Basically, this was the only fine dining restaurant we ate at in Kauai that could hold it's own on the mainland. You can't miss it, and if you're staying on the North Shore, you'll probably go back more than once for dinner. That's cool, you won't miss much else in terms of food.

Fair enough pricing comparatively (much less expensive than the St. Regis). And a much better wine list than anywhere else on the Island. I highly recommend the garlic shrimp.

Bubba Burgers - The In N Out of Kauai. We tried both these and the famous Duane's Ono Char burgers. Honestly (and this is based on a basic cheeseburger) I liked both, but Bubba might have a slight edge taste and fries wise. Just get it the way they tell you. Don't try to add lettuce or tomato, they don't do that. American cheese, dude. Let's be authentic about this.

I think this place is better than a lot of people seem to be giving it credit for. Honestly, I didn't expect to find a good cheeseburger in Hanalei, so I was impressed.

The St. Regis Bar - You're going to pay $20+ for that glass of wine, but I guess you should think of it as paying for the atmosphere and the service, both of which can't be beat. So enjoy those with your very expensive glass of wine and consider two of these starts atmospheric points. Really, the beach and view here can't be beat. We were here nightly during our North Shore stay.

Tahiti Nui and Iti Wine Bar - This was a fun place to start our vacation. We just sat on the porch at night with a couple of drinks (skip the Mai Tai's and go with a beer or a basic cocktail) and enjoyed being on the North Shore in Hanalei. The live music was actually pretty good that night, and Iti Wine Bar right next door was pretty good. It was a great place to spend an evening relaxing.

Kilauea Bakery & Pau Hana Pizza - Best spot we found for a low-key breakfast. Great pastries, even better pizza and salads. Fresh coconut too. We went back twice after the first time. The cinnamon roll wasn't quite as good as Java Kai, but it was the best pizza we had on the island.

Java Kai - Crazy good cinnamon rolls, good coffee and fresh fruit. We had egg and bagel sandwiches that weren't anything special, but they hit the spot for a day of exploring. The cinnamon rolls are worth bragging about.

East Shore Lodging -
For our 2 days on the East Shore, we stayed at The Dilly Dally House. A Bed & Breakfast inland, outside of Kapaa. Some friends came here on their honeymoon and highly recommended it to us.

Our hosts were great, very laid back (as most on the island are) and were happy to provide us with everything we needed/wanted and more. You basically won't need anything but your clothes when you come here, they provide everything else you could think of.

The grounds and pool are lovely, and the house itself is great. We stayed in the Suite, which came with a wonderful king size bed, sitting room with futon couch, a tv fully stocked with cable (including HBO) and there are tons of DVD's that you can borrow.

Both days we stayed, the breakfasts were great, and the hosts were more than willing to offer up suggestions on things to do and see. Much appreciated.

To top it all off, it was more affordable than any of the hotels near by, or in Poipu. We got so much more for our money, and such a unique experience. I'd definitely go back.

East Shore Activities -
Don't miss kayaking up the Wailua River. We also did a hike from the midway point of our kayak trip, to a waterfall called Secret Falls. The amount of other people there belied the name, it's certainly not secret, but it is incredibly beautiful.

East Shore Eats -

Duane's Ono Char Burger - I didn't expect to have good cheeseburgers in Kauai, but I did. Both Duane's and Bubba's were good. Bubba's might have been a little better, but we're splitting hairs at this point. They were both good.

To be fair, I didn't have the suggested pineapple teriyaki burger, which apparently is their specialty. I had a basic cheeseburger. As stated: very good.

I'd recommend taking the food to go as the atmosphere leaves a bit to be desired. Why sit next to the highway when some of the best beaches in the world are so close? If you do sit there, be prepared to shield your food from the deranged roosters that you've by now become very familiar with.

Monico's Taqueria - I was surprised that this place didn't get an ONO in the famous Blue Book. It was pretty decent, and fairly priced. Much better than Scotty's BBQ, and it seems the locals agree. It was packed with local folks.

Was it great Mexican food? No, but it was better than I expected it to be, and much better than a lot of the highly recommended restaurants we tried, without the insane price tag.

Get yourself a Negro Modelo and order up some tacos. They'll keep you stocked with chips and salsa. Really good service.

South Shore Lodging -

So here's where I think we went wrong: we stayed at the Sheraton, which I wouldn't go back to. My problem with the South Shore is that it felt, by far, like the most touristy part of Kauai. We were missing the North Shore as soon as we got here. That said, the South Shore does have the best weather. So if you're set on staying South, I'd recommend looking for a good deal, and spending as much time out of your room as possible.

Same was true for food. The one place we tried here that we liked was a tiny little deli in Koloa, The Koloa Deli, that had great bagels and Italian sandwiches that we took with us on a hike near Waimea Canyon.

West Side Hike -

Kokee State Park - Keep driving to the very end of the road. There, you get to the Puu O Kila Lookout, and you can hop on the Phiea trail, which connects to the Aleka'i Swamp Trail. The views from here are probably the most incredible you will ever see. Totally jaw dropping, and not to be missed. This hike was one of the highlights of our trip.

That being said: do not attempt this trail if it's been raining or is raining, or else you'll be in for it. One cannot say enough about the mud: it is all encompassing. You will not escape it, and it will ruin anything it touches! The red Kauai dirt/mud on this trail has the consistency of clay, and it's like walking on oil when it's wet. That, combined with steep, boulder covered passages, makes for a very challenging trail. But, you can go as far as you like. The views stay with you from beginning to end. Just be prepared before you attempt. We found this to be true with all the hikes we attempted in Kauai ;) That said, we did have a lot of rain while we were there. But I hear that's true throughout most of the year.

Other notable mentions: Waimea Canyon Lookout on the West Shore, Spouting Horn on the South Shore, Maha'ulepu Beach on the South Shore, Waiula and Opeaka'a Falls on the East Shore.

Favorite Beaches: Ke'e Beach, Tunnels Beach, Hanalei Bay, the beach at the St. Regis, Rock Quarry Beach, Hideaways Beach, all on the North Shore

Maha'ulepu Beach on the East Shore was a favorite, as well as a great hike.

So those were the highlights for us. If you have any questions, just leave them in the comments. I'm happy to make other recommendations if I can!