Chances are when you picture “Hawaii”, and the standard array of clichés crowds your mind’s eye—rainforests, waterfalls, blinding white-sand beaches—you are thinking of Kauai, the lushest and oldest of the main Hawaiian islands. Predictably enough, Hollywood chose Kauai as the backdrop for “Jurassic World” and the coming “Jungle Cruise,” in which Dwayne Johnson presumably battles more unruly wildlife. In reality, dinosaurs never roamed Kauai, though their chicken descendants have been waddling around willfully since 1992 when Hurricane Iniki freed them from their cages and triggered a poultry population explosion. Kauai has long resisted development. A deep and wide channel separates it from the rest of the archipelago as if buffering it from the luxury resorts of Maui and the urban density of Oahu. But change is creeping in. The 450-acre new Timbers resort is nearing completion, and scrappy businesses, from bohemian boutiques to food trucks to a fledgeling cacao industry, are sprouting. What remains: Kauai’s small-town feel. Humans inhabit just a fraction of the 552-square-mile island, and with just one main highway, only the truly determined can get lost—perhaps by making like a dinosaur hunter and venturing deep into the jungle.
DAY ONE // Friday
5 p.m. Arrive at the open-air Lihue airport and pick up your rental car. Kauai is roughly circular, and for your first night, you’ll head to the southern, sunnier coast, before moving up to the more verdant north shore for the following nights.
5:30 p.m. After driving 30 minutes south, check into Koa Kea Hotel and Resort, an intimate, beachfront property tucked among the bigger tourist operations in the Poipu area. All rooms have their lanai (balconies); some have ocean views. The sunset over the sea should help you shift swiftly into tropical-vacation mode: toast your new mindset with a glass of wine (a bottle is included with the room) or a cocktail by the pool bar. The nearby fire pits and hot tub ooze warmth. From about $429 a night, meritagecollection.com/koakea
7 p.m. Head to the small town of Hanapepe, whose rusty bridges and homemade mailboxes inspired Disney illustrators for the 2002 animated film “Lilo and Stitch.” Three decades ago, the downtown was mostly abandoned; now, businesses like the Talk Story bookstore, the Bright Side Gallery (with its funky pieces by local artists) and Kauai Fine Arts (where you can find vintage maps and delicate shell leis), have taken over tin-roofed, wooden buildings tinged red with Kauai’s volcanic, iron-rich dirt. Every Friday night, the sleepy main drag perks up musicians, some barefooted, play on almost every block; food trucks and restaurants unfold plastic tables on the sidewalks, and the galleries flick on their string lights and stay open until 9 p.m. (late by Kauai standards). 3785, 3876, 3905 Hanapepe Rd., talkstorybookstore.com, thebrightsidegallery.com, kauaifinearts.us
8:30 p.m. Sit for a spell at Japanese Grandma’s, a restaurant where colorful tropical upholstery meets Japanese minimalism. Here, you’ll find sushi rolls and nigiri and a meaty broiled hamachi kama—fresh homespun food meticulously prepared, as if a Japanese grandma were indeed doing the preparing. 3871 Hanapepe Rd., japanesegrandma.com
DAY TWO // Saturday
7 a.m. Take advantage of the jet lag that’s bound to rouse you at daybreak and get an early start on the hourlong drive to Waimea Canyon so you can beat the clouds and crowds. But first, coffee. Check out of your hotel and hit Little Fish Coffee, a quintessential Kauai stand, painted sea blue and surrounded by strutting chickens, that serves espresso drinks, smoothies, breakfast sandwiches and bagels (but no chicken). 2294 Poipu Rd., littlefishcoffee.com
7:30 a.m. It takes a little over an hour to drive straight from Poipu to Puu O Kila lookout, the last official perch at the end of the road in Kokee State Park. But you should turn off along the way for views of Waimea Canyon, a yawning red and brown gash in the earth 10 miles long and 3,600 feet deep. The last two main lookouts, Kalalau and the aforementioned Puu O Kila, offer some of the most impressive views. You could easily spend the day here, hiking the moderately difficult 3.6-mile Canyon Trail, which traverses a ridge to the top of Waipoo waterfall or the 6.2-mile Awaawapuhi Trail, descending into deep valleys overlooking the Pacific. For maps and to plan routes, stop at the Kokee Museum. 3600 Kokee Rd.
11:30 a.m. If you decide to skip the hikes, drive to Lihue to the Saturday farmers market at Kauai Community College’s parking lot. Ogle dragonfruit, spiky magenta orbs that look like they’re going through a punk-rock phase, and sample Kauai’s sweetly mild pineapple. Preserves from Monkeypod Jam are made with local fruit, like a tart lilikoi curd and a star fruit ginger jelly, which pairs well with chevre from Kunana Goat Dairy and a fresh loaf from Midnight Bear Breads. For a heartier meal, wander over to the Hanalei Poi Taro and Juice Co. truck, where you can taste taro from leaf to root in the lau lau plate, a classic Hawaiian plate lunch of lau lau (pork steamed in taro leaves), poi (milled taro) and a square of poi mochi. 3-1901 Kaumualii Hwy., kauaicommunitymarket.org
2 p.m. Drive 30 minutes north to Kapaa, an old, ramshackle plantation town where airy boutiques have taken root. Drop into Shipwrecked for slim-fitting board shorts and tailored aloha shirts for men and barely-there Acacia swimsuits for women (try them on only if you’re confident enough in your buns). 4-1384 Kuhio Hwy., shipwreckedkauai.com. Up the road, Kiko will help restore any equanimity you’ve lost, with feel-good goods ranging from wabi-sabi books to a wooden topographical map of the Hawaiian islands. 4-1316 Kuhio Hwy., kikokauai.com
3:30 p.m. Walk over to Wailua Shave Ice, served out of a 1975 Argosy RV. Created by a former line cook from Manhattan’s Per Se restaurant, this version of Hawaii’s shave ice refreshes the iconic treat with coconut foam, smooth and silky as marshmallow fluff, and lilikoi cream, made with fresh passion fruit, seeds and all. 4-1306 Kuhio Hwy., wailuashaveice.com
4 p.m. Larry’s Music next door has been in existence since 1952, though Larry himself is no longer around. Old-timers will come in and test ukuleles to buy for their daughters, and Samuel Bonanno, the owner who took over 15 years ago, is always willing to strum a few songs so you can hear the differences among the ukuleles. They range from $100 to $5,000, the latter Kauai-made with Hawaiian koa wood. 4-1310 Kuhio Hwy., kamoaukes.com
5 p.m. It’s a 15-minute walk to the nondescript strip mall that hides Jo2, Kauai’s best restaurant. Here, you’ll find Pacific Rim flavours nurtured with a delicate touch. For example, Hawaii fish—like ahi or opakapaka—prepared with anything from a green papaya salad to a coconut clam broth. 4-971 Kuhio Hwy., jotwo.com
8 p.m. Check into the Palmwood, a secluded guesthouse in the mountains of Moloaa, in between Kapaa and the hippy-chic town of Hanalei (both are about a 30-minute drive away). Palmwood has just three rooms and a pool with views of green hills in every direction. At night, stargaze from the hammock, or from your own outdoor hot tub, if you’ve snagged one of the two rooms so equipped. From $295 a night, thepalmwood.com
DAY THREE // Sunday
8 a.m. After breakfast at the Palmwood, explore the Na Pali coast, with its soaring cliffs and waterfalls, on Kauai’s northern shore. You can go by land, air or sea. By land, follow the first 2 miles of the Kalalau Trail, a moderately strenuous hike that ascends quickly via switchbacks, and then drops you down onto the rough and wild Hanakapiai Beach. No swimming here; to cool off, walk another 2 miles inland to jump into the pool of a 300-foot waterfall. By air, you’ll glimpse inaccessible waterfalls, soar into valleys and fly above Waimea Canyon. Try Mauna Loa’s private helicopter tour, $307 per person, maunaloahelicoptertours.com Early risers can opt to explore by the sea—tours leave around 7 a.m.—but only if the waters are calm. And even then, the rubber inflatable boat from Holo Holo Charters feels like an ocean roller coaster, bouncing over the waves as it skirts the coast and dips in and out of cathedral-like sea caves. The dolphins that often accompany you, at least for part of the way, make it look much easier. $199 per person, holoholokauaiboattours.com
1 p.m. Back on flat land, roll into Hanalei and make your way to the food-truck hub in the middle of town, where surfers discuss the morning’s waves over the Fresh Bite’s wraps studded with crispy chickpeas or macadamia nuts and poi bowls topped with local, tropical fruit and a coconut honey syrup. 5-5100 Kuhio Hwy., freshbitekauai.com
2 p.m. Time for a swim. The currents can be too strong for a lazy dip on several north shore beaches, but a few miles east of Hanalei, you’ll find Anini Beach, sheltered by a reef and typically calm enough for swimming or snorkelling. The same goes for Kee Beach, a golden cove west of Hanalei, right at the foot of the Na Pali cliffs.
5 p.m. About a 15-minute drive from Hanalei, the bar at the St. Regis Princeville Resort, on a bluff overlooking Hanalei Bay, celebrates every sunset by beheading a bottle of Champagne over the bayfront balcony. The sabering is somewhat pointless, but watching the sun slip below the horizon, cocktail in hand, is not. 5520 Ka Haku Rd., stregisprinceville.com
7 p.m. Back in Hanalei, try the perpetually packed Bar Acuda, which specializes in small plates. Though the menu changes often, the plate of honeycomb, Humboldt Fog cheese and apples is a staple, as is the mai tai, mixed with a macadamia nut orgeat syrup. 5-5161 Kuhio Hwy., restaurantbaracuda.com. If there’s no space at Bar Acuda, head across the street to Tahiti Nui, a quintessential tiki bar, for poke and pizza. thenui.com
DAY FOUR // Monday
7:30 a.m. Kilauea Point, a 15-minute drive from the Palmwood, is closed on Mondays, but it’s still worth coming out here early to view the lighthouse built in 1913 on the promontory. The headland is also a wildlife refuge, which means you may see and hear seabirds like the koae ula, an elegant white bird with a streamer-like red tail (fashionably colour-coordinated with the lighthouse), swooping above.
9 a.m. Hawaii’s first commercially successful sugar plantation was established on Kauai in 1835. Sugar shaped the islands in every way—in landscape and culture, and it even led to Hawaii becoming a state. But Hawaii’s last sugar plantation closed in 2016, and farmers have been looking for the next big thing to cultivate in the empty acres. Steelgrass Farms (soon to be Lydgate Farms), a 15-minute drive inland from the town of Kapaa, is betting on cacao, though on a much smaller scale. The three-hour tour of its cacao and exotic-fruit orchards is a tutorial on how chocolate goes from tree to bar, as well as a tasting class in chocolate and tropical fruits, all layered with a bit of Kauai history. $75 per person, steelgrass.org
1 p.m. Because chocolate alone does not make a meal, head to Oasis on the Beach, in Kapaa. Its chefs are often seen frequenting the farmers’ markets, hunting for breadfruit for a ragout or fresh fennel for a curried lamb dish special. 4-820 Kuhio Hwy., oasiskauai.com
2:30 p.m. For one last excursion before flying out, rent bikes from Coconut Coasters and take to the Kapaa bike path. Head north for about 3 miles, stopping along the way at the Kapaa Lookout to glimpse humpback whales breaching in the distance from December to May. Turn around at Paliku beach and head back to your car to the airport. 4-1586 Kuhio Hwy., coconutcoasters.com
Getting There: Starting this year, several airlines offer new direct routes and increased service from mainland cities to Lihue airport, making Kauai even easier to get to. United flies nonstop from Denver to Lihue, and Alaska, Hawaiian and Delta connect some West Coast cities (including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Portland, Ore.) directly to Kauai. Flying from the East Coast, though, still requires at least one stop.
Credit: Martha Cheng for The Wall Street Journal, 21 March 2018.