Whenever someone tells us a story about their trip to Hawaii, they tell us a story about the aloha spirit. It's everywhere, and it's a beautiful thing. Especially when it also involves noodle soup.
KAUAI – By the time my friend got back to the restaurant after a dash to the ATM, our lunch was already paid for. The generous hosts practically ghosted.
"That's the aloha spirit," our cab driver and guide for the morning, Danny, quietly said. No bragging, no swagger, no sense of awkward indebtedness to our lunch sponsors. Just a that's-how-we-do matter-of-factness to explain why perfect strangers just bought two mainland tourists lunch. The well-worn spot is located off the main drag in Lihue, where we slurped noodles and wontons while sitting on little stools around tightly configured counters. There was a 1950s suburban kitchen vibe, which gave me a warm, nostalgic feeling.
After squeezing in a visit to Wailua Falls on the eastern side, I wanted to check out Hamura's Saimin Stand (2956 Kress St., Lihue; +1-808-245-3271), a noodle shop favored by locals and tourists alike that friends recommended to me. Our driver started talking to a construction crew finishing their bowls of mild broth filled with handmade noodles and spiked with clusters of pork, fish cakes, and veggies. For anyone who wants to understand what culinary mashups in Hawaii taste like, this is a most excellent specimen. (In this case, however, the culinary roots are Japanese.)
Given that the construction crew was at Hamura's while waiting out the rain (and, therefore, for their work to begin), it was extra generous of the foreman to treat us to lunch. Especially since it wasn't just the soup that we ordered, but also lilikoi pie, a chiffon slice laced with a subtle tangy passion fruit flavor that feels like air.
"It's the aloha spirit," our driver repeated with a casual shrug. And a great reason to talk to strangers in Kauai.
HIT LIST: JESSICA'S SOUTH SHORE TOP 5
The south shore of Kauai has enough landmarks and jaw-dropping beauty to not leave a visitor with FOMO pangs about Princeville, Kilauea, and other areas that get more tourism love. (Chances are you'll experience less rain in points south, too.)
Koa Kea resort for contemporary design with a Midcentury vibe within less than half an hour's drive from Lihue Airport.
Hamura's Saimin Stand (see above) in Lihue, is a beloved local noodle shop, a no-frills spot that does Hawaii's pan-Asian culinary mashup thing so well.
Although the upscale shops at Kukui'ula won't cut it for authenticity buffs, there are lots of island goodies at the retro plantation-style retail outpost. Roy Yamaguchi's Eating House 1849 and the weekly Kaua'i Culinary Market take care of food and drink needs.
Right across from famed ocean geyser Spouting Horn is the National Tropical Botanical Garden's South Shore Visitors Center, where you can be directed to two must-see off-site attractions: Allerton Garden and McBryde research garden sites. Some might scoff at the $50 fee, which sounded steep to me until I spent two of the most memorable hours of my life in the Allerton's outdoor "rooms" that ingeniously blur the lines between art and nature. The cherished refuge is steeped in royal Hawaiian history — a real life Downtown Abbey-meets-Fantasy Island television show.
A few hours on a catamaran operated by Kauai Sea Tours is one of the better ways to see the Na'Pali Coast. Those mountains — in parts rough and craggily, smooth and graceful in others — meet the Pacific like slumbering giants. This is scenery to give Big Sur a run for its money. Also spotted: sea turtles, dolphins, and gray whales galore.
The sugar plantation era might be over in the Hawaiian Islands, but some local production still remains. Its best present use? Hooch, naturally. At Koloa Rum distillery, small-batch magic happens thanks to a vintage copper still that transforms Kauai cane. Find out for yourself at Koloa Rum's tasting room and store in Lihue.