Just Back From

How to Vacation (at a Safe Distance) in Kauai

by Deborah Schoeneman
Hit the road. Photo courtesy of Kipu Ranch Adventures.

Think it's all sunshine and rainbows and poke bowls in Kauai? Well, you're not wrong. When it's time to shake off the cobwebs and ease back into the travel game, bring the whole family to low-key and remote Kauai, the lush and laid-back Hawaiian island where the only drama is the landscape.

KAUAI - After a year of lockdown in Los Angeles, culminating with vaccinations, my family was ready to get out, particularly before my kids (ages six and eight) returned to in-person school for the first time in a year. We wanted a place that was relatively Covid safe, and Hawaii’s numbers were low — the island of Kauai’s being almost nonexistent. The travel restrictions were intense, but that seemed like a small price to pay for a stress-free vacation after a stressful year.

We just had to fill out some forms, schedule Covid tests before flying, and complete a mandatory three-day Enhanced Movement Quarantine (EMQ) at one of about a dozen participating resorts. No big deal, right?

The 411 on Enhanced Movement Quarantine (a.k.a. EMQ Resort Jail)

Wrong! I ended up spending so much time and energy dealing with the logistics that it practically became a part-time job. So. Many. QR codes. However, this was before April 5, 2021, when Kauai relaxed the rules. Now you just need a test from an approved lab 72 hours before you arrive to skip any kind of quarantine. I’ll spare you maddening details but strongly urge you to stay current on the rules on Hawaii’s Safe Travel website and sign up for their email updates if you’re planning a trip.

Rainbows and doughnuts. It's nirvana. Photo courtesy of Holey Grail Donuts.
Photo courtesy of Talk Story.

Lay of the Land

People go to Kauai, called the garden island for its lush and rugged greenery, to surf, hike, beach, and keep it simple. It’s family-friendly and there’s hardly any nightlife or food destinations. The entire island can be driven in about an hour and a half on good, well-marked roads.

The island is also full of microclimates. It’s wild how it can be storming in the north and sunny in the south, which is often the case. Poipu is the sunniest, easiest town to navigate, down at the southern tip. That’s where you can take kids to the beach to see sea turtles and monk seals and do some shallow snorkeling. It’s so shallow, in fact, that we could tow the kids around on their boogie boards.

All the touristy stuff is easy near Poipu Beach, which my son thought was “a lot like San Diego.” Fair enough. Fair enough. However, there are also more exciting offerings near this town, called Old Koloa, like ziplining, chocolate tasting, rugged ATV tours, and a lovely botanical garden tour when you’re beached out. The west side is home to Waimea Canyon, which is Hawaii’s version of the Grand Canyon. It’s beautiful and easy to access from a parking lot, though it's more rewarding to take a hike to earn that view. Unfortunately, my six-year-old was hardly in the mood to trek muddy trails; we just posed for the classic tourist shots. More than the canyon, the kids were into the cute and weird town of Hanapepe en route to the canyon. That’s where you’ll find Talk Story, an enchanting bookstore, an endangered species of its own. The kids also loved Glass Beach, where the sand is speckled with sea glass due to its proximity to some factories — though no one could really explain why.

Up north is the town of Hanalei, which I can best describe as “magic” to the extent that it’s the home of Puff the Magic Dragon. The town features a beautiful crescent-shaped bay and the best surf break on the island. It’s also the most pedestrian and bike-friendly town. It only has one road in, which was only open for certain hours due to recent mudslides. This happened after heavy rains last March and November and will probably happen again. Still, it’s worth going; just be sure to check out road restrictions.

As with most things in Kauai, taking on challenges reaps big rewards. This was the least touristy and the most rugged vibe; where the pro surfers and rock stars waited out the pandemic. It reminded me of places like Big Sur and Bolinas — off the beaten track in the best way.

Photo by Braden Jarvis / Unsplash.
The author, on the boat ride with her family (including a sleepy daughter on Dramamine).

If You Only Do One Thing

While in Hanalei, we shelled out for a boat tour of the Nā Pali Coast, where we saw dolphins, whales, sea turtles, along with stunning rock formations and beaches. A friend connected us to a local guy who let us jump off his boat and swim to a spectacular beach, walk under a rock arch with a waterfall, and swim back to the boat. It’s pricey (we split the $2,000 fee with another family) but worth it if you want to get the big Kauai experience. If you’re going to spring for one touristy thing, let it be this. Also, take some Dramamine and ask your captain a lot of questions about the forecasted wind and swell before you embark on your journey.

What I Wish I Had Known on the First Day

Ask around for the best local beaches or just drive around and pull over when you see a bunch of cars parked on the side of the road, a sure sign that you’ve found one. There are tons, and the hardest to get to are the best ones, as they’re often empty. Our local friends clued us into Rock Quarry Beach which was our favorite, complete with a rope swing over the river and great boogie boarding.

Photo courtesy of Timbers Kauai at Hokuala.

Photo courtesy of Kiahuna Plantation Resort.

Where to Stay

When I found out we had to do the three-day EMQ upon landing, I asked my friends who had been in Kauai for a year for guidance. They said by far the nicest place on the list was also the nicest place on the island: Timbers.

If you have to be in a “resort bubble,” you want that bubble to be big. Timbers is the biggest, with 450 acres of trails and a sprawling golf course. Also, it’s hardly a traditional hotel; it’s more of a place where you can short-term rent a very fancy condo or even own one. The only evidence we were quarantined was our QR-code bracelets; that, and we were only allowed to dine outside. Timbers handled our Covid testing appointment and our mandatory online check-ins with the travel bureau. It was like having very competent parents — which is really the greatest gift for any frazzled mom or dad. It’s also less than ten minutes from the airport, which makes for a soft landing after traveling with kids.

The star service actually started before we arrived when they asked us for our grocery list and stocked our fridge with gifts from their organic farm — like fresh kale and honey. They also asked about which activities we may want and booked them for us, like kayaking on the lagoon with someone named Adventure Dave. (When you’re ready to leave the compound, he can advise or even accompany you on excursions).

The kids loved something called “soccer golf” on the sprawling course, but most of all they enjoyed the two pools. One is an infinity pool and hot tub overlooking the ocean where we saw whales breaching by the lighthouse. That pool is near Hualanis, a great restaurant with our favorite happy hour. The kids were into the fries with shredded pork, which essentially became their dinner most nights, while we tested out the discounted cocktail menu. The other pool features a rock waterfall that was fun for the kids to explore.

Our room was a truly luxury condo with three big bedrooms that had their own bathrooms, terraces, a big kitchen, dining and living rooms, and laundry. The thread count is high, the blackout shades do their job, and maid service is daily, a rare luxury on Kauai, particularly during a pandemic. The property also features a sophisticated gym and a fully loaded kid club. This came in handy on rainy days. When the weather cleared up, we checked out their organic farm, complete with cute bunnies and sugarcane the kids could taste.

After completing our EMQ, we headed to the sunny south side in search of better weather. We landed in Poipu at Kiahuna Plantation Resort, which is part of the Outrigger chain. It was far less luxe than Timbers but the perfect home base for the most kid-friendly beaches on the island. There’s even a kiosk offering excellent surf lessons and beach gear rentals. A major bonus is across the street at Poipu Athletic Club, with tennis, drop-in fitness classes, camps, and a pool with a waterslide.

Note that there’s no air conditioning, and you need to request a unit with a washer/dryer. It’s ideal if you’re looking for a relatively inexpensive place for a big group of friends or family where everyone can be fairly independent.

Another option is to rent a house up north in Hanalei, Princeville, or Kilauea. Keep an eye out for the 1 Hotel Hanalei Bay opening up in Princeville next year in the old St. Regis site.

Photo courtesy of Bar Acuda.
Photo courtesy of Little Fish.

Where to Eat

You'll see macadamia-crusted fish, poke bowls, and taco trucks everywhere. It’s delicious at first and then gets a bit repetitive. When you want something more sophisticated, check out the best food on the island: Bar Acuda in Hanalei. It’s a casual but classy and fun environment that was hopping on a random weekday. Since we didn’t have a reservation, we showed up when they opened and snagged a high top at the bar and ordered Hawai’ian-inspired takes on traditional tapas made from seasonal ingredients, most of them local. The owners also have an adjacent ramen place, Ama, but it was closed while we were there due to road restrictions. They also used to own Hanalei Bread Company in the same shopping center as the restaurants, a perfect organic bakery and coffee shop that opens early with excellent croissants and coffee.

Other breakfast treats include doughnuts made with taro and passionfruit at the Holey Grail food truck. (Order in advance through the website. The truck is popular.) It’s parked in a lot with a bunch of other great food trucks offering everything from Thai to Brazilian fare for pretty cheap. Just get there before 2 p.m., as trucks tend to run out of the best stuff early. (I witnessed the salad truck run out of lettuce.)

The most inspired sushi on the island is at Japanese Grandma’s Cafe. Definitely make a reservation. The charming patio is often full of people eating their spectacular sushi, ramen, and bento boxes.

In Poipu, check out Little Fish, a charming café painted an unmistakable turquoise. They’re open from 7:30 a.m.-1 p.m. for bagel sandwiches, açai bowls, and inspired superfood concoctions. Poipu also features a large high-end outdoor mall called The Shops at Kukuiula, where you’re far more likely to find Lululemon pants on sale than any local trinket worth buying. However, there’s a good farmer’s market on Wednesday afternoons. After that, you could hit happy hour at Eating House 1849 by Roy Yamaguchi and polish it off with ice cream in candy-coated cones at Lappert’s.

Java Kai, a local breakfast spot for smoothies, matcha, and avocado toast, has two locations on the island, including one in Kapaa next to Shipwreck, a cool boutique. Nearby is my favorite shave ice at Wailua Shave Ice (in an uninspired corner of a strip mall). Unlike most places on the island, Wailua uses real fruit instead of sugary syrups to flavor the ice and is infinitely better for it. Follow the local’s lead and order the purple taro with coconut foam.

Photo courtesy of Hunter Gatherer.
Photo courtesy of Kauai Juice Co.

Where to Shop

I fell hard for Hunter Gatherer in Kilauea, a small town on the way north to Hanalei. I bought an overpriced but amazing sweater and sweatpants and wanted everything else in the perfectly curated store. (It seems like my purchases passed what I like to call the zip code test, meaning I happily wear them at home.) It’s also conveniently located in a shopping center with a coffee shop, a great fish market, an excellent specialty grocery store, and an outpost of Kauai Juice Co, which has several locations on the island.

Main Takeaways

While it was a lot of hassle for us to travel to Kauai before they lifted the Covid restrictions, the benefit was that we hardly had to worry about Covid once we landed. I fell in love with the northern town of Hanalei — a particularly great place if you surf or want to learn — and would love to go back during the dry season. Pay close attention to weather, road closures, and Covid restrictions should they tighten up again. Plan to be there for at least a week, that way you’re not bummed if there’s rain.

How to Get There

Fly into Lihue on Delta, American, Hawaiian Air, Alaska, or United. Rent a car at the airport.

Rest easy, you made it! Photo courtesy of Timbers.
The kids dig the coconuts. Photo by Deborah Schoeneman.

When to Go

I thought it would be no big deal to travel there at the end of the rainy season. However, it was a particularly rainy year — and it rained for at least part of every day of my three-week trip. There were a lot of closures due to muddy conditions. If I were to do it again, I’d go in May, August, September, and early October when the weather is more likely to cooperate.

What to Pack

There’s hardly any reason to bring footwear beyond sneakers and sandals. You’re going to want a backpack, water bottles, sunscreen, snorkel gear, and hats, though you can also buy all of that, along with groceries and booze, at the Safeway and Costco in Lihue.

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