Remember that scene in Jurassic Park, where Jeff Goldblum, Richard Attenborough and co. are sitting in the helicopter, and there’s triumphant fanfare-style music playing in the background as they fly over the rugged coastline of the dinosaur island and into a glorious forested ravine? That glorious tropical island is the real-life Hawaiian island of Kauai, and seeing it in the flesh is even better than on the silver screen, I promise you. I flew into Kauai from Portland, Oregon, and after a five hour flight over nothing but ocean, I was crazily excited to see a patch of bubbly clouds on the horizon, signalling the green mountains of Kauai underneath. Did I strategically play the Jurassic Park theme tune through my headphones as we neared the island? Why yes, yes I did. Did the island live up to my expectations? Why yes, yes it did, and more. Although this is quite the honeymoon destination, I was exploring Kauai as a solo traveller, and without a car, so wasn’t sure how much I’d be able to do and see with only three days to explore. Lucky for me, it was easier than I’d expected to have a brilliant time on the island of Kauai, all on my tod. And before we continue onwards- because I myself wasn’t sure until my friend’s mum graciously informed me- it’s pronounced ‘Ka-why-ee.’ FYI.
Arrival on Kauai
I’d already spent three weeks jetting here there and everywhere across the States, with not much of a difference in its Springtime temperatures, so my arrival at Kauai’s tiny airport in Lihue was a bit of a climate shock for me. I stood outside Arrivals (which is approximately ten paces from Departures; this airport is tiny), waiting for my Uber in the heat and feeling rather overdressed in my black skinny jeans and t-shirt. All black everything is just not the Hawaiian style, you know? Surrounded solely by people in denim cut-offs and floral shirts, I stuck out like a sore thumb.
I might not have been given a lei when I arrived on the island, (the traditional way of greeting visitors), but I definitely felt like I received a very warm welcome regardless. Before long, I was into the Uber, driven by a super-friendly lass in gigantic aviators who gave me a run down of every US city she’s ever lived in (there were a good few), recommendations for about ten places to eat (plus one yoga studio) in the close proximity of my hotel, an infinite list of reasons why she loves living on Kauai, and followed that up with letting me know how awesome she thought it was that I was happy to travel solo. She, too, had been a big time solo traveller back in the day, and her words of encouragement gave me a healthy dose of confidence that I would indeed have the best time ever on Kauai, despite the fact that I wasn’t on my honeymoon.
The Coral Reef Hotel and the Banana Bread Lady
I had chosen to stay at a tiny family-run hotel called the Coral Reef Resort, right on the beach in the town of Kapa’a; unlike the majority of the hotels and resorts across the island, this was not a glamorous affair. Oh no sir. I wanted a place with character. (And also, to be completely frank, a room that cost less than $200 a night, which seemed to be the minimum for pretty much everywhere I could find.)
This place was a gem, and I loved it. With the exterior appearance of a tropical motel from the 1960s, the Coral Reef had a lawn kept in pristine condition out the back, which consistently had several feral chickens and other traditionally-farmyard birds pecking their way across it, fluffy chicks in tow. This is the norm in Kauai; it’s possible in my opinion that there are more resident chickens on the island than humans, so much so that they’re considered a bit of a nuisance, and visitors are advised not to feed them as they can get rather aggressive. Over to one side of the hotel’s lawn was a gated swimming pool complete with waterfall, trees, and a no-chickens-or-non-hotel-guests policy.
My room, overlooking the chickens and the sea, naturally came complete with the sound of chickens and the sea, which lucky for me is a sound that I really appreciate. If you don’t appreciate roosters crowing at the crack of dawn you guys, maybe Kauai is not the place for you. A ginormous lanai (aka balcony) stretched the length of the room, which made a perfect place to take in the sunrise every morning, and the room was kitted out with dark wooden furniture and tropical-looking cushions, and in an extravagant turn of events the bathroom contained not one, but two sinks. Just in case I needed a spare, you know.
Every morning, a hilarious Hawaiian lady would sit in the hotel’s reception, keeping watch over her home-baked banana bread and a pot of freshly brewed coffee, chuckling merrily and offering seconds and thirds to everyone who came to tuck in to breakfast. What a brilliant woman. ‘I do not have a drivers license. I do not have a cell phone. I do not have a passport. What would make anyone think I know how to use Facebook!?’ I really appreciated that lady, for sticking to her ways with absolute joy.
A couple of days in as I was tucking in to my banana bread and coffee breakfast, the owner of the hotel appeared, an energetic and kindly-eyed man with one of the best moustaches I’ve seen in a while, twizzled to perfection in a Victorian style. He took one look at my t-shirt, which had a massive illustration of Cher emblazoned across it, declared ‘OH MY GOD IT’S CHER!!!’ And disappeared down a hallway in search of something, reappearing with his Cher doll in mint condition. The people of the Coral Reef Hotel, are Good People.
The hippy-town of Kapa’a
The Coral Reef is on the edge of the old town of Kapa’a, which is a great base for exploring the Eastern side of the island, and is conveniently only about 8 miles from Lihue, where all the planes come in. Beware though- it may not be far from the airport, but there is basically only one main road connecting the two together, which means the traffic along there can get jam-packed very quickly. Inland from the town on the horizon, is the Sleeping Giant mountain ridge, which legend says is really and truly a giant who fell asleep one day (possibly from eating too much) and is yet to wake up. I’ve got to admit, it does look very much like the silhouette of Gulliver, so I’m all for believing this brilliant story.
Back in town the Main Street is lined with a mixture of souvenir shops selling leis and floral shirts and hula girl bobbleheads to families of tourists, boutique style stores selling $200 bikinis and $50 coffee cups, and colourful little restaurants and food trucks selling tacos and poke and açai bowls. A funny mixture of spiritual-surf-hipster and family-oriented beach town, if that makes any sense at all.
Likewise, the type of people you’ll bump into are an interesting blend of all-American families in golf visors and I heart Hawaii t-shirts, and exceedingly tanned and dreadlocked locals, shoeless and carrying longboards and macrame shopping baskets and organic produce. On the beach in front of the Coral Reef, there always seemed to be a small collection of people- either strumming on guitars and drinking beer, or a different collection of people doing yoga, or simply just standing like statues. True story. People round here seem to know each other, and life around these parts is a quiet one.
For really good coffee, delicious açai bowls and other classic hipster-cafe meals involving a healthy dose of avocado, head to Java Kai, who’s slogan is ‘Drink Coffee or Die.’ Beware though- this place clearly has a reputation so in the middle of the day the line can get rather humungous…and if you do find yourself paying them a visit, it’s worth signing up to their website in advance, just to get a free coffee. Right next to it, the Mermaids Cafe serves awesome poke from a hole in the wooden wall of their handpainted little hut. A local lady stood outside waxing lyrical about their wraps for a solid fifteen minutes while she waited for hers to be prepared.
Bubba Burger is further down the road, serving up a mahoosive selection of classic burgers and hotdogs and fries, for the best prices I saw the entire time I was in Hawaii; I became mildly addicted to this as they’re downright delicious. And the choice of food trucks in Kapa’a is massive, considering the town is on the smaller side. My favourite was El Taco Feliz, for their jolly exterior and delicious fish tacos, although there are little pods of trucks (I feel like ‘pod’ is as good a collective noun as any, for a group of food trucks), dotted up and down the entire length of the main road.
Walking the Eastern Shore
I left the hotel on my first morning without much of a plan for the day; I stepped onto the bike path that separated the hotel’s garden from the beach, turned left, and carried on going for as far as my little legs would take me. Which, it turns out, was pretty full on far.
The landscape around the island is so beautiful that it wasn’t hard to get completely mesmerised by the whole set up and before I knew it I’d been walking on and on for absolutely hours. The Kapa’a Bike Path is about 8 miles long, and stretches along the seafront past golden sandy beaches, which at that time in the morning were just starting to welcome the first footsteps of surfers carving out their trails to the foam of the waves lapping at the shore. On the other side of the path you can see inland to green mountains and grassy plains, and eventually the path cuts away from the road and curves around the rocky bends of the island, with characteristic red soil of the Garden Island underfoot. Kauai is the oldest of the islands of Hawaii, and the unique red colour of its soil is caused by the layers of volcanic rock which rusted over the years and turned the dirt red- so don’t wear white shoes as you’ll just be asking for trouble.
Kauai is notorious for being a nature haven, so I kept my eyes peeled the entire time for any kind of wildlife. First on the agenda: things swimming in the sea. Whales and dolphins are often spotted from the shores of Kauai, although it’s obviously also possible to get a boat tour to take you out whale-watching. I’ve got whale-spotting down to a fine art due to my time working on cruise ships, but did I see any of these guys in Kauai? No sir, I did not. Alas. Secondly: things bathing on the sea shore. And I don’t mean my fellow human beings. Turtles can often be found hanging out on the quieter beaches, and the island of Kauai is also a hotspot for endangered Hawaiian Monk Seals. Those guys just love chilling on the beaches in the sunshine. But did I spot any whilst I was there? Nope. Zero. Nein.
My final chance to glimpse some awesome wildlife came as I was nearing the Pineapple Dump- a concrete pier built out over the sea during the 1900s, which used to be the place where unusable pineapples from Kauai’s plantations were dumped into the sea in their masses. The plan of the pineapple dump actually backfired though, as the pineapples didn’t float away, but were pushed back towards the beach where they rotted in the sun. How awkward.
Anyway pals, the eucalyptus and palm trees were stretching overhead, and the grass was swaying gently, when all of a sudden a gigantic bird crashed into that long grass destroying the peaceful atmosphere, and disappearing almost instantly in the lengthy blades. I was pretty sure, given the size of it, that it must be some kind of eagle. Or at least an albatross. Potentially even some kind of modern-day velociraptor, as this was Jurassic Park, after all. I tentatively crept towards the spot in the grass where I estimated the landing site to be. If I’m honest I was getting a little nervous, because that bird had looked large. I was mere footsteps away when the bird came rushing out, wings flapping, making all the noise it possibly could.
It was a chicken.
A really massive chicken.
Having survived my close call with nature, I spent most of the rest of the day on the beach, chilling out in the sunshine and reapplying my sun cream every fifteen minutes- but knowing full well that with my skin this would have little to no effect. Lo and behold, I made it back to the hotel looking rather patchily lobster-toned and feeling rather embarrassed.
Visiting Hanalei Bay…without a carIt was pretty much a so far so good situation on the ‘no car’ front, however I wasn’t sure whether that would last or not when I decided to head further afield. After some hefty googling which gave me mixed reviews of Kauai’s public bus network, I decided to take a chance and head for the bus stop on my second morning in the hope of getting on a bus to Hanalei Bay on the Northern Shore of the island. I perched in the bus shelter at the roadside with all my morning’s optimism trickling away as the minutes ticked by. Trucks and buses zoomed past. I started to think maybe the locals would start looking at me funny; maybe buses aren’t actually a thing here and it was all just a cruel trick? Approximately fifteen minutes after it was due, the little bus pulled into the stop. VICTORY!! MY FAITH IN THE WORLD AND IT’S PUBLIC TRANSPORT WAS WELL AND TRULY RESTORED!! The Kauai buses are funny things, very similar to the local buses I got in the Caribbean- small and a bit rattly. The driver told me to put my dollars in the box and after I stood waiting for a ticket, shooed me up the bus to sit down. You don’t need tickets on these buses pals, they’re so teeny that it’d be pretty obvious if someone hasn’t paid without needing a piece of paper to prove it. The only people already on board were some teenagers in the traditional backseat spot, a couple of old ladies gossiping animatedly to each other, and a lady sat alone on the opposite side of the bus to me, shrouded in pale blue shawls, a gigantic straw hat and sunglasses combo, and thick skin coloured tights. I wondered if she had an allergy to sunlight, because her whole combination seemed quite full on for a day as hot as that one. After about ten minutes the bus stopped for a barefoot Buddhist monk in full robes, who sat next to the blue lady, large wooden staff in hand. It was an odd posse of people to be all hanging out together on the bus, I’ll tell you that for free.
Related: How to Cross America Without a CarAltogether the journey lasted around 40 minutes, past farms, beaches, plantations and hills. It was, basically, BEAUT, and I wish I could’ve captured the whole journey on film to remember it properly as I hadn’t seen anything quite as stunning in a while. As we got further into the North part of the island, we passed waterfalls, big tropical flowers and gigantic trees covered with tangled webs of vines and platelike leaves, and eventually the bus began to climb down a hillside overlooking the paddy fields where taro is grown just outside Hanalei. One of Hawaii’s most important crops, taro was once the staple food of the native Hawaiian diet, and it’s still a firm favourite with the people of this awesome state; the fields look pretty with taro in them too, so it’s a win win situation I’d say. Hanalei Bay is a stunner. A two mile stretch of curved white sand, with a backdrop of mountains with tiny silver slivers of waterfalls cutting their way down the greenery, it was easy to see right away why this place is so popular. Although somehow, it doesn’t have the tourist-centric atmosphere that could go hand in hand with a must-see like this. The town, surrounded by the natural beauty of the mountains either side of the valley, is filled with more colourful food trucks, surf shops and little gift stores, and has a completely laid-back vibe. And there is not a hotel to be seen! Every now and again, the sky would suddenly cloud over completely, a smattering of rain drops would fall and cool everything off, and then just as quickly as they appeared, the clouds would be gone again. Of all the Hawaiian Islands, Kauai gets the most rainfall, and the North shore is notoriously more prone to flash rainfall than the rest of Kauai. But for the most part, people seem to ignore the few spots of rain whenever they landed on the beach, probs because let’s face it- it’s pretty refreshing really. After a few hours on the beach, I walked back through the little residential streets of Hanalei, past surfboards leant against the sides of houses, and garages filled with dad-projects, open to the elements. I had a casual stroll around the town, and queued for a while at Jojo’s Shave Ice to sample an enormous rainbow creation. Guys…I have seen episodes of The Simpsons where they squirt multi-coloured syrup over things and hand them over ready to eat…but I hadn’t realised that was a real-life thing that is actually done in real life!? Macadamia flavoured ice cream (a Hawaii classic, as macadamias are aplenty round these parts), was layered on the bottom of my pot, with an enormous globe of ice scooped on top, approximately the size of my face. Three different day-glo syrups were drizzled on and I was good to go. To the average every day American, shave ice is quite a normal creation, but for me…well I never. Well. I. Never. My journey back to Kapa’a at the end of the day was shared with as equally a strange bunch of people as the journey there- this time a man got on the bus who was intent on explaining the history of Captain James Cook. Although at times the guy didn’t make a whole lot of sense, I still really appreciated his storytelling skills- as I’d actually had no idea that Captain Cook had not only potentially been the first European to step foot on Hawaiian soil, but also that on his third visit to the islands, the Hawaiian islanders killed him. Cook and his crew had previously arrived during festival time, and it’s presumed that the natives believed the sailors to be a bit on the godly side- due to the timing of their arrival. When one of the sailors happened to die whilst the crew were docked in Hawaii, the jig was up as it became clear to all that these English blokes were actually not immortal after all. When Cook and his crew returned to Big Island (ie, the biggest of the Hawaiian Islands), the natives pelted them with rocks and were accused of stealing a boat. Next thing you know, the English had attempted to use some of the Hawaiian’s sacred wood from their burial ground, shot one of the natives, and all hell broke loose, resulting in the death of the English Captain. What a story.
And then came the rain…On my third day in Kauai, I ran into a slight problem. I was really, really intent on getting further afield, deeper into all the natural beauty that Kauai has to offer; I mean, outdoor pursuits are basically the main reason that people visit the island. And the Waimea Canyon is the number one hotspot of all these natural beauties that visitors arrive for; the ten mile long Canyon is located in the West of the island, and was born when the volcano that created Hawaii collapsed, and heavy rainfall eroded a deep pathway through the land. The only way I could have possibly seen the Waimea Canyon without a car, would have been to join a tour. But I’d also heard that cloud coverage was particularly thick at the time that I was visiting (in fact, it often is), and that there would be a good chance that I’d see nothing at all. So I scratched that plan. Risky business. Instead, I planned to wake up extra early hike the Sleeping Giant trail which wasn’t too far from where I was staying. Bad times pals, as I was awoken at approximately 5.30am by an insane torrential downpour outside, coupled with the sound of the wind whipping through the skinny palm trees, giving them the appearance of somebody who’d just had a ride in an open-topped car going at 100mph. Poor little things. This was not a case of spotty, cooling rain drops like the day before; it was basically biblical in its extremity. There was no way I was going to attempt to climb up a mountain in that. Every half hour or so, the rain would suddenly disappear, the sun would blast out from the clouds with all its might, and then half an hour later the wind would whip itself into a frenzy again and the downpour would return. So, do you know what I did, pals? Naturally: I watched Lilo and Stitch. Because Lilo and Stitch is also a film set in Kauai, and if I couldn’t physically get outside then I might as well get as close to it as possible via the medium of DISNEY, you know? Later in the day, I didn’t venture further away than the confines of Kapa’a, out of fear that the rain would return. (It did). But actually, it was nice to have a chilled out day roaming around the town, occasionally legging it to the nearest shelter, and naturally purchasing a Hawaiian shirt of my own. I mean, you can’t not get one while in Hawaii, surely? So guys, whilst my third and final day on Kauai had been a bit of a wash out, I was still overall pretty satisfied with what I managed to do in three days, especially because I’d been on quite a strict budget. Would it have been easier to see the island with the use of a car? Undoubtedly, yes, it would. But for three days, there was plenty to see and do either nearby, or via public transport- so I’d say it was a success all round. This island is absolutely stunning, with an incredibly laid-back vibe about it, and arriving in the busy city of Honolulu after three very peaceful days on Kauai was quite the culture shock. Kauai is my kind of place.
- I won’t beat around the bush here; Hawaii in general is an expensive place, and when in expensive locations, my go-to accommodation of choice is hostels. However, outside of big cities in the USA, the hostel selection is minimal, and on Kauai, the selection is even more minimal. Be prepared to either book your hostel or Airbnb far in advance, or pay more than your usual if you’re normally a budget traveller.
- Even snacks are expensive here; it’s worth stocking up before you fly to Kauai just to have things to nibble on between meals that won’t cost a small fortune.
- Although the network isn’t extensive, public buses in Kauai cost a mere $2 per ride! Bargain.
- Be prepared for rain! Parts of Kauai are amongst some of the wettest places on Earth.
- But also- don’t forget your suncream, and if possible go for one that doesn’t contain reef-harming chemicals. Hawaii has recently passed a law banning the sale of any suncream containing these crazy chemicals that protect our skin but destroy coral reefs, so I’m a full on fan of that.
- If you find any seals or turtles hanging out on the beach…leave them alone! Part of the reason they come to Kauai is because they tend to be left well alone.
- Like everywhere in the USA- tax is not included on the price labels of anything you buy. Similarly, tipping 20% is expected.