Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Operation Kauai Thunder (a.k.a. Kauai honeymoon) summary and recommendations

When we were planning our honeymoon, we wanted to go to a place neither of us had been to before. It had to be somewhere with gorgeous scenery, a peaceful atmosphere, outdoor activities, comfortable housing options (i.e. not camping), and plenty of great food options. We considered traveling internationally, but as we didn't want to spend more than 10 or so days on this trip, and had to factor in travel time between Sacramento and LA on both ends, we ruled out Europe and Asia.  We considered a 10-day tour of New Zealand and got excited when we found a tour package that apparently included all flights and accommodations for a very reasonable package price, but then we read the description more closely and realized that most of the trip would actually be spent car camping in a "cozy" trailer, so that sounded less appealing.  As Andrew had never been to Hawaii, I had never been to Kauai, and this island met all of our criteria, our destination was then set.

We rented a 1-bedroom condo in Wailua Bay View in Kapa'a, on the East side of the island, through Homeaway (thanks to our friends and fellow Kauai honeymooners E & M for the tip!).  The first picture shows the view from our lanai (balcony).  Because the Na Pali coast is car-inaccessible and the rest of Waimea/Koke'e State Parks occupies the Northwest corner of the island, it is impossible to drive completely around the island.  The one highway, Highway 50 / Kuhio Highway, runs from Ke'e Beach in the North (the start of the Kalalau trail on the Na Pali Coast) to Polihale State Beach on the Southwest (near the Southern end of the Na Pali).  Our home base in Kapa'a was a convenient option for the week, being about 45-50 minutes by car to either Hanapepe and the Waimea park entrance on the southern side or to Hanalei on the northern side.

Sunset at Hanalei Bay

Kapa'a has plenty of grocery stores, good coffee, reasonably priced restaurants, and a nice beach path, along with some of the best shave ice (Hee Fat General Store) on the island.  Our vacation rental was also much more reasonably priced than any resort available, allowing us to enjoy more tours and restaurants, and had useful features like an equipped kitchen and beach/snorkel equipment. In summary, we definitely recommend that first-time Kauai visitors stay in Kapa'a.

I'm going to share a day-by-day account of our trip with more details, posted serially, but below are our favorites and our recommendations in a single compilation. We didn't try every option on the island, of course, but I did quite a bit of research before we arrived and I'd like to think that we had a relatively comprehensive experience for our 7.5 days and 8 nights there.

Coffee or other drinks:
Java Kai (Kapa'a)
Kauai Coffee Company (Kalaheo)
Coconut Cup (Kapa'a)
Hanalei Coffee Roasters (Hanalei)

Inexpensive food (<$10/person):
Pono Market (poke and plate lunch, Kapa'a)
Kauai Family Cafe (local and Filipino food, Kapa'a)
Kilauea Fish Market (fish in various forms, Kapa'a, though there is also one in Kilauea as the name indicates)
Sueoka Snack Shop (plate lunch, Koloa)
Ishihara Market (poke and plate lunch, Hanapepe)

Medium-expensive food (~$15/person):
Kalaheo Cafe and Coffee Company

Expensive-ish food ($20-30 entrees):
Hukilau Lanai (Kapa'a; recommended with full enthusiasm)
Bar Acuda (Hanalei; recommended with some caveats)

Hee Fat General Store (shave ice, Kapa'a. My favorite, and not just for the name.  Get the real fruit topping and ask for macadamia nut ice cream at the bottom).
Lappert's Ice Cream (multiple locations. I tried their signature Kauai Pie and it was too sweet for me.  Their macadamia nut ice cream was perfection.)
The Right Slice (pie, Lihue and Kalaheo)
[Not recommended: Ono Ono Shave Ice in Kapa'a. Their ice is way too coarse and just not right.]

Guided tours:
Wings Over Kauai (airplane tours)
Captain Andy's Na Pali boat tours (we did the BBQ sail/snorkel tour)
Wailua Kayak Adventures (we did the 7am kayak/hike/swim tour)

Na Pali Coast

On-our-own activities:

Waimea Canyon lookout: around mile 11 on the canyon road

Awaawapuhi trail: starts at mile 17 on the canyon road.  A difficult but doable out-and-back 6.5 miles round-trip, with lots of muddy sections, and a gorgeous view of the valley and Na Pali coast.  It feels like the end of the world.  Relatively quiet in the morning, so start early.

Kalalau Trail: 2 miles from trailhead at Ke'e beach to Hanakapi'ai beach and another 2 miles back.  The entire trail is 11 miles each way and requires a permit for camping unless you're an insanely fit and experienced backpacker who can do all 22 miles in one day. The first 2 miles is challenging but a must-do for amateur hikers for its unparalleled coastal views. Hiking shoes strongly recommended. I think this trail could actually be quite dangerous in wet weather.

Hanakapi'ai Valley trail: 4 miles round-trip, starting from Hanakapi'at beach and ending at the waterfall. Very difficult; we had read that it had some "technical" sections but weren't really prepared for it, though we got through it without injury beyond a couple blisters and mild heat exhaustion by the time we got back to the Kalalau trailhead, 8 slow miles in total. Definitely need good hiking shoes if not boots for this, with extra water, and be prepared for lots of mud, some clambering, and several stream crossings.

Kauai Mini Golf in Kilauea: The prettiest mini golf course either Andrew or I had been to. It's essentially mini golf in a botanical garden, with informative placards for the plants and regarding Hawaii's history as you go through the course.

Kauai Coffee Company: informative and easy/short self-guided walking tour, plus free samples of about 20 different coffees.

Koloa Rum Company: free tasting with some history about the island's sugar mills and rum production, and details about the different rums.