Hawaii’s northernmost island is a place of wild, literally cinematic beauty -- more than 50 movies have been filmed here, including "South Pacific," "Jurassic Park," and "Tropic Thunder." Only about ten percent of the terrain is accessible by car—via the lone Kuhio Highway, which traces the coastline—so it’s an ideal destination for getting off the beaten path and into nature. The northern half of the island, with its verdant tropical forests and gnarly surf breaks, is worth a vacation in itself. Have a look.
The most quintessentially Hawaiian pastime -- apart from hula dancing or ukulele-playing -- is surfing, and Kauai’s north shore has several breaks that are just right for learning. North of Kapa’a, the half-mile crescent of Kealia Beach (past mile marker 10 on Highway 56) has a reliably clean swell, and a sandy bottom to cushion wipeouts (just avoid the extreme ends of the beach, where rocks lurk beneath the surface). A half-hour further north, at peaceful, horseshoe-shaped Hanalei Bay, Kauai-born surfing legend Titus Kinimaka runs daily surf camps right off Hanalei Pier (Weke Road, just past mile marker 5 on Highway 560). $65 will buy you a 90-minute small-group class, plus use of a foam-core longboard and rashguard for the rest of the day.
A couple things to keep in mind when surfing the north shore: first, since even “easy” shore breaks can have fierce riptides (depending on weather patterns), pay attention to signs posted by the local lifeguards. Second, always observe the rules of surfing etiquette by deferring to another surfer who’s already “dropped in” (caught a wave before you), or who’s obviously more experienced than you. Though newbie-friendly, this area is also frequented by world-class surfers; if you see a hulking, filthy black Hummer parked at your beach, superstar Laird Hamilton might be sharing your wave.
4…Get high…in the mountains…altitude-wise.
The ruggedly spectacular Na Pali coast, where jungle-choked volcanic peaks soar 4,000 feet above Kauai’s northwesterly shoreline, is the island’s gem – or its deep-green emerald, if you will. The roughly 6,000 acres here are protected preserve, and cars aren’t allowed—but if you’re fit, careful, and willing to get muddy, hiking the strenuous, 11-mile Kalalau Trail lets you explore the coast’s dazzling scenery.
The trail begins right where Highway 560 ends, at Ha’ena State Park. Even if you only plan to hike the first two miles along the trail, to secluded, boulder-strewn Hanakapi'ai beach, you’ll need to bring water and wear proper hiking shoes; the track is precipitous, rocky, and—after a rain shower—wickedly slippery. If you plan to go further along the trail, or camp overnight, you’ll also need to get a permit from the Department of Land and Natural Resources ($20 for non-Hawaii residents). Permit bookings will be available online later this year; in the meantime, apply in person at a DLNR branch office. If the preparation required for Kalalau seems extreme, well, so are the rewards: cascading waterfalls, serene tropical grottoes, and cliff-top vistas over migrating humpback whales.
3…Eat cheaply and deliciously.
Some of the north shore’s tastiest fare can be found at casual roadside stands—which means you can eat like ali’i (Hawaiian royalty) for a song. Set off Highway 56 in Kapa’a, with roll-up garage doors perpetually open to the ocean breeze, Scotty’s Beachside BBQ is justifiably famous for its slow-smoked brisket and pulled-pork sandwiches doused with your choice of secret-recipe sauces; go for the tangy-sweet plum luau option.
Further north, in the parking lot of Hanalei Pier, Pat’s Taqueria truck serves a steady stream of hungry surfers, lifeguards, and townsfolk between the hours of noon and 3 p.m. The draw: killer soft tacos, filled with savory carne asada, shredded kalua pork (cooked in a traditional underground oven), or—best of all—chunks of grilled swordfish with shredded cabbage and spicy aoli. If you’ve any room at all afterward, head a mile or so east on the highway to Wishing Well Shave Ice, another humble cart surrounded by rainbow-umbrella-shaded tables. Shave ice, a traditional Hawaiian frozen treat, comes in dozens of flavor combinations; whether you go with a safe choice (mango-papaya with vanilla ice cream) or an adventurous one (salted plum-coconut with adzuki beans) is up to you.
2…Discover local culture…and nature.
Kauai’s cultural traditions are deeply rooted in its landscapes, so it jibes that two of the north shore’s best-loved cultural centers are also botanical gardens. Just east of Ha’ena State Park, Limahuli Garden and Preserve lets you walk among relics of the island’s ancient past: gracefully carved into the steeply pitched hillsides are terraced fields of heart-shaped taro plants that are more than 700 years old. Above them, walking trails are lushly bordered by flowering trees and plants; some endemic, and others—like banana and kukui-nut trees, and agave and awapuhi plants—brought over by Hawaii’s first Polynesian settlers around 200 A.D.
East of Princeville in the town of Kilauea, Na ‘Aina Kai Botanical Gardens provide a venue for more modern-day cultural pursuits. The 240-acre property—which encompasses formal gardens, fountains, ponds, forest trails, and a hedge maze made from 2,400 poinciana shrubs—doubles as an outdoor sculpture gallery, with 90-odd bronze sculptures placed among the flowerbeds and walking paths. The gardens also host local music and theater performances, writing workshops, and seminars. Guided tours ($20 and up) are offered Tuesday through Friday only; the property is closed on weekends.
1…Tee off or bliss out.
Kauai’s north shore is known for adventure-type sports -- as well as surfing and hiking, the area’s a hub for mountain bikers, paddleboarders, kayakers, and divers. But anyone who says you have to get banged up and soggy to enjoy yourself here hasn’t sampled the pleasures of Princeville. Home to two of Hawaii’s most fabulous championship golf courses—the vaunted Prince and the brand-new Makai , this resort community is the place to log some serious Robert Trent Jones, Jr.-designed tee time. The soaring ocean views and vertiginous terrain doesn’t come cheap (green fees start at $160), but then bragging rights rarely do.
Prefer clay wraps to sand traps? Check in for some pampering at the St. Regis Princeville’s Halele’a Spa . The facility, which debuted in October 2009 and is open to non-guests, doles out decadent treatments based around native Hawaiian ingredients—like cane sugar-and-cocoa-butter body scrubs (1 hour, $175); hot volcanic-stone massages (1 hour, $170); and ginger-lemongrass pedicures (75 minutes, $110). Halele’a? How about Hallelujah?