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What to See, Eat and Do on the West Side of Hawaii’s Majestic Kauai

I headed west in search of a new option for the Garden Isle. And then something wonderful happened…

In the last few years, I’ve been lucky enough to visit Kauai several times and on each visit the question is the same: north or south? The lush north is the picturesque place of dreams, except when it rains, which it does frequently.

The south is defined by the perfect beaches of Poipu, kissed with abundant sunshine and a swack of resorts to match. But what if there was another option? So I headed west in search of a new option for the Garden Isle. And then something wonderful happened…

Those brave souls who do venture to the west side almost always take the turnoff to Waimea Canyon, but the intrepid who push on along Highway 50, as I did,  reward themselves with the delight that is Polihale Beach. To reach it, drive past the military base (you can’t miss it) and keep going until the pavement ends. At that juncture the road turns rough and unpaved, but unless there’s been a torrential rainfall it is easily doable in a two-wheel-drive sedan, as long as you avoid the temptation to follow the locals with their four-by-fours right onto the beach.

It doesn’t get any better than the large, empty expanses of Polihale Beach State Park, the longest beach in the state of Hawaii and a perfect place to get lost.

After 20 minutes you’ll see a few areas to pull off, and it’s only a 100-metre or so walk to the ocean. And there before me was not only the longest beach in Kauai—it’s a 24-km stretch—but also the longest beach in the state, and if that weren’t enough, the sheer face of the Napali Coast provides a stunning backdrop, too. The only drawback is that the surf is usually too rough for swimming and there are no lifeguards, so we had to be content with sunning and walking and nodding at the locals having their cookouts.

If the west side has any Achilles heel it’s the lack of accommodation. Your best bet is the Waimea Plantation Cottages which, weirdly, are part of the Coast Hotel group. The 61 period cottages are all unique and come with one to five bedrooms and, as converted homes formerly used by farm workers, all are wonderfully original. What they weren’t was luxe like the digs in Poipu, and the black-sand beachfront is gorgeous but definitely not safe for swimming.

The Waimea Plantation Cottages.

Still, revelling in our not-following-the-usual-path ethos, they made for a cool option. If you need serious luxury then the private club Kukui’ula is not only the closest to the west side, it’s also hands-down the nicest digs on the island. The cottages—they’re about five steps up the luxe chain from Waimea—have two or three bedrooms and start at $1,000 (U.S.), which is not crazy pricey (if we had a few couples to split the cost) given what a standard room goes for at most nearby resorts.

The Plantation House at Kukui’ula channels a more genteel vibe than crowded resorts at Poipu.
The expansive farm at Kukui’ula lets you know that this isn’t your regular approach to tourism.

Food used to be an negative in these parts, but the opening last year of the quaint Japanese Grandma in Hanapepe has gone a long way to alleviating that situation. The small spot seats only a dozen and a half  and has an eclectic fashion boutique attached to it, but the menu—we had ahi poke wonton tacos and cold soba salad—is both reasonable and well executed, plus they allow corkage at night, so if you happen to stop at Lihue’s Costco on your way from the airport, this is the place to enjoy that bottle of Tignanello (which we did, thank you very much).

Ahi poke wonton tacos from Japanese Grandma.

And if you’re already in Hanapepe, stop in at Talk Story (both the biggest bookstore in Kauai and the westernmost bookstore in the U.S.). It’s that classic Hawaiian mix of new and used, so while it’s easy to find the latest David Sedaris, a bit of digging turned up a first edition of Somerset Maugham essays at a start-the-car price of $10.

The quiet stacks at Talk Story bookshop, the westernmost in the U.S. (Photo: Edgar Sevier Justus IV)

Even more casual is the DIY stalwart that is the Ishihara Market. At this circa-1934 grocer the more self-reliant can head to the back counter where poke of every stripe—ono, scallop, octopus—is available to go at the lowest prices on the island. Cold beer (how does a little shop like this have such a good selection?) is also available to go, and there’s a beach a short drive away. Just sayin’. 

Also worth a stop is the Waimea Theater, itself an 80-year-old leftover from the plantation era, but one that gave itself a new lease on life by mixing in special screenings (like whatever the current releases are: you can skip these) with one-off showings of local surf and outdoor adventure movies (these you should go to).

But you are still going to Waimea Canyon, right? It’s the biggest tourist spot on the West Side for a reason; it’s arguably the most striking canyon in the entire country and, yes, I’m including you-know-what in Arizona.

Waimea Canyon has long been the major tourism driver for west Kauai thanks to its jaw-dropping vistas and challenging hiking.

Just driving the crazy, twisty 22.5-kilometre road and getting out at the viewpoints is worthwhile, but, really, you should throw on your hiking boots (they’ll get covered in red dirt, even on dry days) and go for a stroll. There are dozens to choose from, but a few winners are the Kalepa Ridge (if it hasn’t been raining and you’re not afraid of heights) or the Canyon Trail (if it has, and you are). Both are great options in this land less travelled.

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