In terms of scenery, the one Hawaiian island that comes closest to living up to the expectations of many first-time visitors is Kauai, a comparatively small but magnificently lush isle of rain forests, towering seaside cliffs and secluded beaches.
Hikers flock to the Na Pali Coast, which is on the remote northwestern tip of the island, just beyond the picturesque village of Hanalei (which has been the setting for such films as South Pacific, Indiana Jones, and Jurassic Park). The eastern side is dominated by the waterfalls of the Wailua River Valley, southern side by Poipu’s stunning beaches and upscale resorts, and the western side by gargantuan Waimea Canyon—there’s unparalleled beauty wherever you look. Kauai remains largely unspoiled and slow-paced, an ideal spot for devotees of the outdoors—loyal admirers often vacation here exclusively and skip the other islands.
There’s just an incredible amount to do on this island. More energetic types will want to drive the main highway encircling much of the island, from south to north, and hop out at various points of interest to hike and explore. The one section you can’t reach by car, the famed Na Pali Coast with its sheer 4,000-foot cliffs, you can access in other interesting ways. Perhaps take a catamaran cruise up the west coast of Kauai—the five-hour tours offered by Capt Andy’s Sailing Adventures are great fun and include an opportunity to snorkel right off the boat.
Outfitters Kauai offers rigorous but highly rewarding kayak tours around the Na Pali Coast as well as a wide range of both extreme and easygoing adventures—easy kayak trips up the placid Hule’ia River, bike rides into spectacular Waimea Canyon and Ziplining treks in several different areas.
If you’re in good shape and game for an independent adventure, you can always hike into the Na Pali highlands via the famed 11-mile Kalalau Trail—access the trail from Ha’ena State Park (itself home to a lovely beach), at the end of Kuhio Hawaii on the north shore. Easier options for sightseeing include driving the viewpoints at Waimea Canyon State Park—they don’t call this the “Grand Canyon of Hawaii” for nothing. The 10-mile-long canyon is 3,000 feet deep and is one of Hawaii’s best photo ops.
You’ll find beautiful beaches all around the island, including a few with gay followings. The easiest to reach is Lydgate State Park, just south of Kapaa off the Kuhio Highway—walk south from the parking area for the gay-popular section. Donkey Beach, off Kuhio HIghway a bit north of Kapaa, is enjoyable both for sunbathing or swimming and it draws a mix of gays and straights. Just keep in mind that the surf can be intense, so exercise caution. You’ll see the parked cars on the side of the road as you head north out of Kapaa, between mileposts 11 and 12. From here just follow the trail down to the water. Nudity is permitted at this beach.
Kauai has always excelled when it comes to super-fresh produce and seafood. One of the best examples of this transformation is the Beach House, which serves exceptional contemporary Hawaiian-Asian fare (wasabi-crusted snapper with lilikoi-lemongrass beurre blanc) from a dining room with stunning view of the ocean.
The Grand Hyatt Kauai has several good restaurants on-site, including romantic Tidepools steak and seafood eatery, the most elegant of the bunch. This resort is also a good option for experiencing a traditional luau—these feasts are held on Sundays evenings and are open to nonguests (reservations are recommended). In the early evening, the Hyatt’s Seaview Terrace is a breezy and relaxing spot to sip wine or cocktails and sample some terrific pupu (appetizers), and clubby Stevenson’s Library—thought known primarily as a cocktail bar—also serves a full menu of super-fresh sushi from Friday through Monday evenings.
Other Poipu culinary notables include the Kauai outposts of two restaurant brands that have become legendary among foodies in Hawaii: Merriman’s, which opened recently and features farm-fresh, healthful regional cuisine and Roy’s Hawaiian Fusion Cuisine, a longtime favorite in the area.
Up on the north shore, charmingly laid-back Hanalei is a cluster of restaurants, some of them quite good. For lunch, Hanalei Gourmet is hard to beat for fresh salads, coconut-shrimp and sandwiches from the gourmet deli. A few doors down, Javakai serves some of the best coffee on the island. And romantic Postcards Cafe is a good bet for sophisticated seafood and modern Hawaiian fare.
On the savory side, and also in Waimea, do not miss Shrimp Station, which serves super-fresh, deliciously seasoned shrimp platters—a favorite being the spicy Thai shrimp. Poipu’s Puka Dog has been featured on television’s No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain and is renowned for piquant-sweet hot dogs topped with tropical mustards and sauces. Just north of Poipu, the Koloa Fish Market prepares super-fresh plate lunches and bento boxes to go (try the ahi poke bento)—they’re perfect for a picnic. And if you’re headed north of Kapaa toward the north shore and craving a snack, be sure to check out Duane’s Ono-Char Burger in Anahola.
Kauai has no gay nightlife per se, although the entire island is so welcoming that you’re liable to bump into “family” at just about any bar on the island. One spot that many local gays and lesbian do frequent, especially during the “gay nights” held the first Saturday of each month, is Nawiliwili Tavern, near the Kauai Marriott and the airport in Lihue.
Kauai has a nice range of accommodations in all prices ranges, from posh resorts to gay-friendly B&Bs. Poipu, on the south shore, has the greatest concentration of distinguished lodgings, including the fairly new Koa Kea Hotel, a hip and stylish boutique property whose rooms surround a pool that overlooks the ocean.
Gay-owned Poipu Plantation Resort comprises an atmospheric 1938 B&B as well as nine individual rentals—it’s steps from the beaches, is run by friendly and helpful innkeepers, and has warmly furnished, reasonably prices rooms (with full breakfast included in the B&B rooms). It’s steps from the beach and several restaurants.
Other nice lodgings around the island include Outrigger at Lae Nani, which is run by one of Hawaii’s most gay-friendly hotel brands, and the similarly GLBT-welcoming Aston Islander and Aston Kauai Beach hotels. On the north shore, both the elegant Hanalei Colony Resort and ultra-swanky St. Regis Princeville are well recommended.
Another option, especially worth considering if you’re staying for more than a few days or traveling with a group of buddies, is renting a vacation house or condo. With properties all around the island, the Parrish Collection is a reliable, reputable and gay-friendly vacation rental agency, and it manages a wide variety of lodging options, from simple one-bedroom condos starting around $115 per night to over-the-top-luxurious homes with multiple bedrooms and designer kitchens.