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Kauai Travel Guide

Sweet Kauai: It's Time to Enjoy its Remaining "Fraicheur"

by André Gayot

Hanalei Bay on Kauai's unspoiled North Shore
Hanalei Bay on Kauai's unspoiled North Shore

If Kauai is — so far — the least-known of the Hawaiian Islands, it is also the most inspiring. It has stoked the imagination of novelists, screenwriters and filmmakers, who have used the roaming green slopes of its massive mountains and dominating volcano as the backdrop for films such as "South Pacific," "King Kong" and "Jurassic Park." Sweet Kauai, which was never conquered by strength, has found gentle ways to defuse conflicts and unwanted invasions. This quiet past infuses the ambiance and proffers a free relaxation cure: just sitting in the shade of a banyan tree and inhaling the pure breeze of the ocean deeply and slowly will significantly lower one's blood pressure. This once remote island is a place to take your time. Once remote, we say, because as time has gone by and the news has spread, Kauai is not quite the untouched getaway reserved for savvy travelers that it once was. Although a four-lane highway is not necessary to access paradise on earth, Kauai retains its charm and tranquil beauty — and now is the time to enjoy it before the developers succeed in blanketing the former sugar cane fields with condos.

A view of Kauai's coastline, as seen aboard one of Jack Harter's helicopters
A view of Kauai's coastline, as seen aboard one of Jack Harter's helicopters

Kauai is dubbed "The Garden Isle" for its exuberant collection of flora — which reaches a summit of diversity and beauty in the Allerton Garden, overseen by the National Tropical Botanical Garden. To fully capture the splendor of Kauai, take advantage of one of the island's numerous helicopter tours. A one-hour flight with Jack Harter Helicopters is visually stunning and provides an insightful look into the island's unique history, geology and biology. Highlights such as the red rock walls of Waimea and the green and black seaside cliffs of the Na Pali Coast are spectacularly framed in the floor-to-ceiling windows of the air-conditioned helicopters as they weave their way through Kauai's narrow corridors and verdant valleys.

Less demanding is a guided tour of the canyon. Roberts Hawaii's Waimea Canyon Tour (a four to five hour journey depending on hotel location) acquaints guests with some of the canyon's most captivating points of interest, from the heights of the Hanapepe lookout, to the eucalyptus groves snugly enveloped at Waimea's base. Of course, DIY travelers can also embark on their own driving tour of sorts simply by taking the scenic Highway 550, which winds along the western rim of the canyon, offering excellent views along the way.

The colorful walls of Waimea Canyon

The colorful walls of Waimea Canyon

Kauai boasts a variety of hotels. Located along the picturesque Poipu coast on the South Shore, the Grand Hyatt Kauai is every bit as big as its name suggests, suitable for families and groups. It hosts a Hawaiian festival each October, which showcases local products and dances. Within this large and luxurious property, an oasis of soothing solitude is found at the Anara Spa — a state-of-the-art facility that blends traditional Hawaiian healing with lavish amenities and a beautiful setting. At the lush spa, replete with native fauna and gently cascading waterfalls, patrons receive true Island-style treatments such as the Lomi Lomi massage in secluded open-air, thatched-roof bungalows, each with its own lava rock shower, steam grotto and soaking tub.

On the same stretch of southern coast, the Sheraton Kauai features RumFire, a relaxed beachfront restaurant where executive chef Roger Liang turns out Hawaiian- and Asian-influenced starters like Ahi poke, shrimp lumpia and Japanese pear flatbread, along with more substantive dishes like Hawaiian jerk chicken with plantain mash, roasted sweet peppers and carrots, and rosemary chicken jus. A tasty flourless sea salt chocolate cake is a great way to conclude a pleasant meal.

Having just undergone a much-needed $16 million renovation, the Sheraton features oceanfront pools and tropical gardens with winding waterways and bridges. A medium-sized hotel with 394 rooms on Poipu Beach, it's also an easy walk away from a shopping mall that's a great destination for hungry travelers.

An artfully prepared salad at Josselin's Tapas Bar & Grill
An artfully prepared salad at Josselin's Tapas Bar & Grill

The remarkable chef Jean-Marie Josselin has returned to his stove after a foray into farming, and has made this mall the home of Josselin's Tapas Bar & Grill. Don't be mistaken, this is not a bar where you sip sangria while munching small portions of raw ham, olives and anchovies. It's a smart and sophisticated establishment that happens to be in the most unlikely of places — a shopping mall — as was his original restaurant in Kapaa, A Pacific Café. While RumFire is about local flavor and a pleasant, relaxed beach atmosphere, the attraction of Josselin's is not the sand and the palm trees. It's simply the food. And what food! Josselin, a long-time Kauai resident and one of the originators of Hawaii Regional Cuisine, offers a surprisingly high level of gastronomy not expected in this discrete — almost anonymous — location. An innovative and gifted chef, Josselin could shine in New York or any other culinary mecca; however, the French-born cuisinier long ago fell in love with island life and has made Kauai his permanent home.

While Josselin has been a prominent influence on cuisine in Hawaii over the past few decades, his latest venture has him returning in a sense as a "new" chef. Nonetheless, despite an extended absence from the culinary world, his sophisticated menu shows him to still be the same talent. Much more than just tapas, the dishes of the chef's namesake restaurant are artistically presented, elaborate affairs that still manage to showcase simple, elegant flavors. During our visit to Josselin's, we enjoyed a trio of "Fish Barely Touched," and the melt-in-your-mouth "36 Hours Braised Pork Belly" served with pear kimchee.

In Lihue, the island's government hub and home to its main airport, visitors will find slices of old Hawaii in the form of beautifully preserved traditional fish ponds, stately plantation homes and museums housing pre-contact artifacts, along with upscale shopping and lively nightlife. Located just outside the city proper and adjacent to the airport, the Kauai Marriott Resort offers a convenient hub for exploring both Lihue and the rest of the island. Like the Grand Hyatt, the Marriott is a large, elegant property perfect for events and conventions. However, families will also appreciate its large pool, Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course and beach, which is situated on a protected cove, blocking the surf, thus making it safer for small children. And while dining options abound on the South Shore, a visit to one of the five on-site restaurants overseen by chef Guy Higa is rewarding. He is a master at vegetable dishes, such as a fresh farm lettuce mix and vegetables with purple lilikoi vinaigrette. He also knows how to delightfully marry roast pork with a konbu-wrapped opah accompanied by green bamboo rice and wok-fried eggplant.

Kauai Grill at the St. Regis Princeville features the fine cuisine of Jean-Georges Vongerichten

Kauai Grill at the St. Regis Princeville features the fine cuisine of Jean-Georges Vongerichten

While the commercial activity and increased infrastructure for transportation of all forms around Lihue may point to the changing pace of life on Kauai, the laidback, country-style atmosphere of old Kauai persists on the island's North Shore. Located at the northern edge of the scenic Hanalei Bay — also the focal point of Kauai's surfing scene — the elegant St. Regis Princeville offers lavish, classic luxury in a rural setting. While the whole island makes for a honeymooner's destination, this posh property, in particular, is a dream for newlyweds with breathtaking ocean and mountain views to be found from nearly every window in the hotel. The cuisine, too, is on par, with the Kauai Grill offering sweeping bay views and a menu overseen by superstar chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Run on a day-to-day basis by French-born chef Maxime Michaud, the restaurant features elegant, creative cuisine that makes use of fresh, local ingredients. Over dinner at Kauai Grill, we tasted the Indian-inspired samosas with spiced chicken and cilantro yogurt, the sautéed keahole lobster and the Japanese-influenced Makana Roll with shrimp tempura. The setting, the architecture, the service, the snug comfort, the food, and the refined service all help to make the St. Regis the best hotel on the island and probably elsewhere.

In spite of the changing times, the Kauai of old has not vanished. In the creative cuisine of top local and imported chefs, in the quiet countryside and amongst the grand natural wonders that are spread from shore to shore on this tiny island, the sweet Kauai is still there to be relished. But for how long?

Related Content:
Kauai Restaurants
Kauai Hotels
Kauai Honeymoon
Hawaiian Food Terms


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