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Lihue & Environs

Lihue, where the airport is located, is where most visitors first set foot on the island. Not as glamorous as the resort areas or as quaint as some of Kauai's smaller towns, this red-dirt farm town, the county seat, was founded by sugar planters and populated by descendants of Filipino and Japanese cane cutters. It's a plain and simple place, where most of the island's working class residents live. It's dotted with used-car lots and mom-and-pop shops. Lihue also is the source of bargains: inexpensive lodging, great deals on dining, and some terrific shopping buys. One of the island's most beautiful beaches, Kalapaki Beach, is just next door at Nawiliwili, by the island's main harbor.

Best For: If you need to stay overnight near the airport for an early morning flight (or if you arrived very late and are too tired to drive) this is your one-night place to stay.

Drawbacks: Lihue is mainly a residential area with facilities for local residents. Very little nightlife and the town shuts down early in the evening.

The Poipu Resort & Surrounding Area

On Kauai's sun-soaked south shore, this is a pleasant if sleepy resort destination of low-rise hotels set on gold-sand pocket beaches. Well-done, master-planned Poipu is Kauai's most popular resort, with the widest variety of accommodations, from luxury hotels to B&Bs and condos. It offers 36 holes of golf, 38 tennis courts, and outstanding restaurants. This is a great place for watersports.

Best For: Travelers with money to burn, as this is one of the most expensive areas on Kauai. It offers white-sand beaches, ocean activities, nightlife at resorts with some shopping and great dining opportunities.

Drawbacks: The only drawback is that the North Shore is about 1 to 1 1/2 hours away.

Construction in Poipu -- There is major construction going on in the Poipu Resort area. If you are headed that way, be warned that the number of condominium and hotel rooms currently under construction (and not counting the ones still in the planning process) will increase the number of visitor accommodations in Poipu by 25%.

The good news is that Kauai County has very strict guidelines for noise and dust abatement, which is vigorously enforced. Just be aware that you will be facing traffic delays, construction noise, and the general problems caused by a lot of construction work in a small area.

Current construction will add 227,000 square feet of retail space, 423 condominium units, and 190 lots for single family homes to the area.

In the permit process, with no definite construction timetable yet, are plans for another 824 condominium units, 75,000 square feet of retail space, and an 11,000-square-foot spa and fitness center.

As we went to press, the projects currently under construction in Poipu are:

  • Kukui'ulu Development, between Poipu and Lawai Valley: A master-planned resort community on 1,010 acres, including a boutique hotel with 31 cottage units, a resort spa, a 75,000-square-foot commercial village, an 18-hole golf course, and condominiums and homes. Roadways and the golf course are finished.
  • Kukui'ula Village Shopping Center, off Ala Kalanikaumaka (the new western bypass road): Recently opened is a 90,000-square-foot replica of an old sugar-plantation town with plantation-style architecture which will house 45 restaurants, specialty shops, and offices including Merriman's Kaua`i, Quiksilver, the Josselin Restaurant, Palm Palm, Bubba Burgers Hawaii, Bungalow 9, and Lappert's Hawaii.
  • Pili Mai at Poipu, off Kiahuna Plantation Drive: 191 condo units. Infrastructure has been completed; more construction depends on the sales of the units.
  • Poipu Aina Estates, 2800 Ala Kinoki: Infrastructure for the 17-lot agricultural subdivision is completed.
  • Poipu Beach Estates, Poipu Road at the roundabout: Landscaping for the 106-lot subdivision is completed.
  • Poipu Shopping Village Phase II, Poipu Road: Construction of an additional 62,000 square feet of retail space is currently on hold due to the downturn in the economy.
  • Village at Poipu Phase I, Poipu Road: A 50-lot, single-family subdivision, also on hold due to the economy.
  • Wainani at Kiahuna, Kiahuna Plantation Drive: This subdivision of 70 single-family homes has recently stopped construction until the economy improves.

Projects still in the county planning and permit process include the Kiahuna Poipu Golf Resort, Koloa Creekside Estate condos, Koloa Marketplace, and Poipu Spa & Fitness Center.

For more information, contact the Poipu Beach Resort Association, tel. 888/744-0888 or www.poipubeach.org.

Near Koloa

Just inland from the glitzy resort area of Poipu, lies this tiny old town of gaily painted sugar shacks, where the Hawaiian sugar industry was born more than a century and a half ago. The mill is closed, but this showcase plantation town lives on as a tourist attraction, with delightful shops, an old general store, and a vintage Texaco gas station with a 1930s Model A truck in place, just like in the good old days. You can get great deals here for a fraction of the price of staying in Poipu, yet close enough to use the amenities of the resort area.

Best For: People who want to be near a resort area with great beaches, golf courses, tennis, and water activities, but want a deal on accommodations and are willing to drive a few minutes to the beach.

Drawbacks: Some accommodations are located inland from the ocean. Each property lists how close the beach is.

Elsewhere on the South Coast: Kaleheo & Lawai

Further inland and about 10 to 15 minutes from Poipu Beach, the towns of Kaleheo and Lawai offer very affordable accommodations. Just a short 10- to 15-minute drive inland from the beach at Poipu, quiet subdivisions line the streets, restaurants catering to locals dot the area, and life revolves around family and work.

Best For: Travelers looking for good bargains on B&Bs, and a handful of reasonably priced restaurants.

Drawbacks: Depending on the location, it can be a 10- to 15-minute drive to the beach. Also this is a residential area with no nightlife.

Western Kauai

This region, west of Poipu, is more remote than its eastern neighbor and lacks its terrific beaches. But it's home to one of Hawaii's most spectacular natural wonders, Waimea Canyon (the "Grand Canyon of the Pacific"); and farther upland and inland, one of its best parks, Kokee State Park.

Best For: frugal bargain hunters looking for a deal and families who want to stay in the area.

Drawbacks: Some of the beaches are not conducive to swimming (the water is often murky at the Waimea River mouth); the long drive to other parts of the island; hot, dry weather; limited restaurants and shopping; and nightlife is nil.

The Coconut Coast

The eastern shore of Kauai north of Lihue is a jumble of commerce and condos strung along the coast road named for Prince Kuhio, with several small beaches beyond. Almost anything you need, and a lot of stuff you can live without, can be found along this coast, which is known for its hundreds of coconut trees waving in the breeze. It's popular with budget travelers because of the myriad B&Bs and affordable hotels and condos to choose from, and it offers great restaurants and the island's major shopping areas. The largest town, Kapaa, is the center of commerce on the east coast and the capital of the Coconut Coast condo-and-hotel district. This restored plantation town looks just like an antique. False-fronted wooden stores line both sides of the highway; it looks as though they've been here forever -- until you notice the fresh paint and new roofs and realize that everything has been rebuilt since Hurricane Iniki smacked the town flat in 1992. Kapaa has made an amazing comeback without losing its funky charm.

Best For: Budget travelers looking for deals.

Drawbacks: Limited nightlife.

This is the land of B&Bs and inexpensive vacation rentals. We recommend Opaeka'a Falls Hale (www.opaekaafallskauai.ws; tel. 888/822-9956), which has two exquisite units with pool and hot tub for $110 to $130 (plus a $50 cleaning charge).

The North Shore

Kauai's North Shore may be the most beautiful place in Hawaii. Exotic seabirds, a half-moon bay, jagged peaks soaring into the clouds, and a mighty wilderness lie around the bend from the Coconut Coast, just beyond a series of one-lane bridges traversing the tail ends of waterfalls. There's only one road in and out, a handful of tiny towns, plus a mega expensive resort, Princeville:

Kilauea  -- This village is home to an antique lighthouse, tropical-fruit stands, little stone houses, and Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge, a wonderful seabird preserve. The rolling hills and sea cliffs are hideaways for the rich and famous, including Bette Midler and Sylvester Stallone. The village itself has its charms: The 1892 Kong Lung Company, Kauai's oldest general store, sells antiques, art, and crafts; and you can order a jazzy Billie Holiday Pizza to go at Kilauea Bakery and Pau Hana Pizza.

Anini Beach -- This little-known residential district on a 2-mile reef (the biggest on Kauai) offers the safest swimming and snorkeling on the island. A great beach park is open to campers and day-trippers, and there's a boat ramp where locals launch sampans to fish for tuna. On Sunday, there's polo in the park and the sizzle of barbecue on the green. Several residents host guests in nearby B&Bs.

Princeville -- A little overwhelming for Kauai's wild North Shore, Princeville Resort is Kauai's biggest project, an 11,000-acre development set on a high plain overlooking Hanalei Bay. This resort community includes a luxury St. Regis Hotel, 10 condo complexes, new timeshare units around two championship golf courses, cliff-side access to pocket beaches, and a shopping center.

Hanalei -- Picture-postcard Hanalei is the laid-back center of North Shore life and an escapist's dream; it's also the gateway to the wild Na Pali Coast. Hanalei is the last great place on Kauai yet to face the developer's blade of progress. At Hanalei Bay, sloops anchor and surfers play year-round. The 2-mile-long crescent beach, the biggest indentation on Kauai's coast, is ideal for kids in summer, when the wild surf turns placid. Hanalei retains the essence of its original sleepy, end-of-the-road charm. On either side of two-lane Kuhio Highway, you'll find just enough shops and restaurants to sustain you for a week's visit -- unless you're a hiker, surfer, or sailor, or have some other preoccupation that just might keep you here the rest of your life.

Haena  -- Emerald-green Haena isn't a town or a beach but an ancient Hawaiian district, a place of exceptional natural beauty, and the gateway to the Na Pali Coast. It's the perfect tropical escape, and everybody knows it. Old house foundations and temples, now covered by jungle, lie in the shadow of new million-dollar homes of movie stars and musicians like Jeff Bridges and Graham Nash. This idyllic, 4-mile coast has lagoons, bays, great beaches, spectacular snorkeling, a botanical garden, and the only North Shore resort that's right on the sand, the Hanalei Colony Resort.

Best For: Travelers with platinum credit cards, as the North Shore is one of the most expensive places to stay on Kauai. It also has the best range of accommodations from luxury hotels to quaint bed-and-breakfast places, wonderful dining options, great shopping, numerous land and ocean activities, and plenty of nightlife. Also home to Kauai's most gorgeous white-sand beaches.

Drawbacks: It is not cheap to stay here; everything from accommodations to dining is pricey. During the winter months it rains, a lot (like everyday).

Rosemary Smith, of Rosewood Kauai (www.rosewoodkauai.com; tel. 808/822-5216), has a range of properties from country homes and cottages to fabulous beach homes and affordable condos. Also try Ocean Front Realty North Shore Rentals (www.oceanfrontrealty.com; tel. 800/488-3336 or 808/826-6585; fax 808/826-6478), which handles all kinds of weekly rentals -- from beachfront cottages and condos to romantic hideaways and ranch houses -- along the North Shore. The Parrish Collection Kauai (www.parrishkauai.com; tel. 800/325-5701 or 808/742-2000), has recently opened an office in the Princeville Shopping Center and is gaining the superb reputation for North Shore rentals that they have on the South Shore. Renting a home is a great way to enjoy the area's awesome nature, especially for those who like to avoid resorts and fend for themselves. Shopping, restaurants, and nightlife are abundant in nearby Hanalei.

Wailua--Wailua Falls  (seen in the opening credits of “Fantasy Island”), the twin cascades of Opakeaa Falls , and a riverboat cruise to Fern Grotto  are highlights of this former royal compound, which includes remains of stone-walled heiau (places of worship), birthstones, and other ancient sites. Kayakers flock to Wailua River, which also offers wakeboarding and water-skiing opportunities; the municipal Wailua Golf Course  is routinely ranked as one of the top in the state; and hikers can choose from three trailheads to ascend Nounou (Sleeping Giant) mountain. Highway 56 also passes by the decaying structures of the Coco Palms resort, featured in Elvis Presley’s “Blue Hawaii,” closed after being damaged by Hurricane Iniki in 1992, and still awaiting restoration at press time. The family-friendly destination of Lydgate Park  connects with one leg of the popular Ka Ala Hele Makalae coastal path .

Kapaa--The modern condos, motels, and shopping strips of Wailua and Waipouli along the Kuhio Highway eventually segue into Old Kapaa Town, where funky boutiques and cafes share plantation-era buildings with mom-and-pop groceries and restaurants. An all-ages hostel and other inexpensive lodgings attract many international and budget travelers, including scruffy hikers returning from Kalalau Valley, all of whom seem equally grateful for the laundromat, taquerias, and other signs of civilization. There are sandy beaches here, but they’re hidden from the highway until the road rises past Kealia Beach Park, a boogie-boarding destination and northern terminus of the coastal bike path.

Anahola--Just before the East Side becomes the North Shore, the highway dips and passes through this predominantly Native Hawaiian community near Kalalea Mountain, more widely known as King Kong Mountain, or just Kong, for its famous profile. Farm stands, a convenience store with homemade goodies, and the roadside Duane’s Ono Char-Burger  can supply provisions for a weekday picnic at Anahola Beach Park  or Aliomanu Beach; weekends draw local crowds. (Give the poles and nets of local fishermen a wide berth.)

South Shore

After a short drive west from Lihue on Kaumualii Highway, a well-marked right turn leads to a mile-long tree tunnel of eucalyptus trees, planted in 1911. The well-shaded Maluhia Road is ironically the primary entrance to the sunniest of Kauai’s resort areas, Poipu; the South Shore also generally has the calmest ocean conditions in winter. Among outdoor attractions are the geyser-like Spouting Horn , the McBryde and Allerton gardensat the National Tropical Botanical Garden , family-friendly Poipu Beach Park , and other sandy beaches, including those in rugged Mahaulepu . Pocket coves, surf breaks, and dive sites also make the area ideal for watersports. The only downside: The North Shore is at least 1  1/2 hours away.

Koloa--Before the Poipu Bypass Road (Ala Kinoiki) was built, nearly every South Shore beachgoer drove through Hawaii’s oldest sugar plantation town, founded in 1835. If you’re staying elsewhere, it would be a shame not to visit at least once, to browse the shops and restaurants in quaint storefronts under towering monkeypod trees. Historical plaques on each building give glimpses into the lives of the predominantly Japanese-American families who created the first businesses there. Those staying in South Shore condos may find themselves making multiple trips, especially to stock up on produce at the “sunshine market” at noon Mondays, to buy fresh seafood from the Koloa Fish Market , or purchase other groceries from two locally owned supermarkets.

Kalaheo & Lawai--These more residential communities on either side of the main highway are just a 15-minute drive to Poipu Beach Park. On the way, you’ll pass through the green fields of rural Omao along Koloa Road (Hwy. 530). Visitors en route to or from Waimea Canyon often refuel at the locally oriented restaurants here; others find lodgings in the relatively inexpensive (but often unlicensed) bed-and-breakfasts. The higher elevations are mistier, with wild chickens roaming even more freely than on the manicured resorts below. On the west edge of Kalaheo, look for the turnoff for Kauai Coffee ,whose 3,100 acres produce a dizzying variety of coffees, with free samples at the visitor center.

West Side

This arid region may have the fewest lodgings, destination restaurants, or swimmable beaches, but the twin draws of Waimea Canyon State Park  (rightly hailed as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific”) and the Kalalau Overlook  in Kokee State Park make up for the long drive (80 min. to the latter from Poipu). Most Napali snorkel tours are also based here, not to mention two swinging bridges, a weekly art festival, and other good excuses to pull over. Those who can manage the bumpy, unpaved 5-mile road to Polihale State Park  are rewarded with views of Niihau and Napali, as well as a 17-mile stretch of sand (including the restricted-access Barking Sands Beach on the Pacific Missile Range Facility).

Eleele & Port Allen--The main highway from Kalaheo passes by Eleele’s plantation homes and several miles of coffee trees before the intersection with Waialo Road. Turn makai (seaward) and the road dead-ends a few blocks later at Port Allen, the island's second largest commercial harbor; nearly all boat tours launch from here. Although the area is fairly industrial—and its once-vaunted "Glass Beach" by the oil tanks no longer has enough polished sea glass left to recommend it—the affordable dining and shopping options in Port Allen and adjacent Eleele Shopping Center are worth exploring post-snorkel or pre-sunset cruise.

Nihau--Just 17 miles across the Kaulakahi Channel from the West Side of Kauai lies the arid island of Niihau (pronounced "nee-ee-how"), nicknamed “The Forbidden Island.” Casual visitors are not allowed on this privately owned isle, once a cattle and sheep ranch that now supports fewer than 200 full-time residents, all living in the single town of Puuwai, and nearly all Native Hawaiians. Nonresidents can visit on hunting safaris and helicopter tours. Half-day helicopter tours ($385 per person, five-person minimum) depart from Kauai’s West Side and include lunch and several hours on a beach snorkeling or swimming as well as shell-hunting. You’re more likely to see the endangered Hawaiian monk seal than Niihauans, which is how they like it. For more about Niihau culture, visit www.niihauheritage.org.

Hanapepe--An easy detour off Kaumualii Highway, Hanapepe looks like an Old West town, with more than 2 dozen art galleries and quaint stores, plus a couple of cafes, behind rustic wooden facades that inspired Disney’s “Lilo and Stitch.” Musicians, food trucks, and other vendors truly animate the quiet town during the weekly “Art Night” on Fridays from 6 to 9pm. The other daytime attraction is the swinging footbridge  over Hanapepe River (rebuilt after 1992’s Hurricane Iniki, and marked by a large sign of Hanapepe Rd.). On the other side of the highway, family-friendly Salt Pond Beach  is named for the traditional Hawaiian salt pans in the red dirt, which gives the salt ([‘]alae) its distinctive color and flavor.

Waimea--Hawaii’s modern history officially begins here with the landing of British explorer Capt. James Cook on Dec. 20, 1778, 2 days after his ships sailed past Oahu. Despite Cook’s orders to the contrary, his sailors quickly mingled with native women, introducing venereal disease to a long-isolated population. Foreigners kept coming to this enclave at the mouth of the Waimea (“reddish-water“) River, including a German doctor who tried to claim Kauai for Russia in 1815, and American missionaries in 1820. Today Waimea is attuned to its more recent history of plantation and paniolo (cowboy) culture, as well as its Native Hawaiian roots, all of which can be explored at the West Kauai Technology & Visitor Center . Waimea Canyon and Kokee State Park hikers flock to Waimea’s shave ice stands and moderately priced dining choices in the late afternoon, while locals seek out Waimea Theater, one of the island’s few places to catch a movie or concert.

Kekaha--Travelers heading to or from Waimea Canyon may be tempted to go via Kokee Road (Hwy. 55) in Kekaha as a change of pace from Waimea Canyon Road. Don’t bother. There’s not much to see in this former sugar town, whose mill operated for 120 years before shutting down in 2000, other than Kekaha Beach Park, a long, narrow strand with often-rough waters suitable only for expert surfers. You do have to pass through Kekaha on the way to Polihale State Park ; if the latter’s access road is impassable, stop by Kekaha for a striking view of Niihau, 17 miles offshore, or a brilliant sunset. Just don’t plan on sticking around for dinner.

Wailua--Wailua Falls  (seen in the opening credits of “Fantasy Island”), the twin cascades of Opakeaa Falls , and a riverboat cruise to Fern Grotto  are highlights of this former royal compound, which includes remains of stone-walled heiau (places of worship), birthstones, and other ancient sites. Kayakers flock to Wailua River, which also offers wakeboarding and water-skiing opportunities; the municipal Wailua Golf Course  is routinely ranked as one of the top in the state; and hikers can choose from three trailheads to ascend Nounou (Sleeping Giant) mountain. Highway 56 also passes by the decaying structures of the Coco Palms resort, featured in Elvis Presley’s “Blue Hawaii,” closed after being damaged by Hurricane Iniki in 1992, and still awaiting restoration at press time. The family-friendly destination of Lydgate Park  connects with one leg of the popular Ka Ala Hele Makalae coastal path .

Kapaa--The modern condos, motels, and shopping strips of Wailua and Waipouli along the Kuhio Highway eventually segue into Old Kapaa Town, where funky boutiques and cafes share plantation-era buildings with mom-and-pop groceries and restaurants. An all-ages hostel and other inexpensive lodgings attract many international and budget travelers, including scruffy hikers returning from Kalalau Valley, all of whom seem equally grateful for the laundromat, taquerias, and other signs of civilization. There are sandy beaches here, but they’re hidden from the highway until the road rises past Kealia Beach Park, a boogie-boarding destination and northern terminus of the coastal bike path.

Anahola--Just before the East Side becomes the North Shore, the highway dips and passes through this predominantly Native Hawaiian community near Kalalea Mountain, more widely known as King Kong Mountain, or just Kong, for its famous profile. Farm stands, a convenience store with homemade goodies, and the roadside Duane’s Ono Char-Burger  can supply provisions for a weekday picnic at Anahola Beach Park  or Aliomanu Beach; weekends draw local crowds. (Give the poles and nets of local fishermen a wide berth.)

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.