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Kauai, Hawaii: North Shore Heaven

A traveler offers 11 reasons why Kauai's North Shore is the dreamiest part of the Hawaiian islands.

  • Girl holding Banana Joe's frosty, Kauai, Hawaii, image
    Photo caption
    A Banana Joe frosty, a thick shakes made with seasonal fruit, is a good way to cool off.
  • Kayakers on Hanalei River, Kauai, Hawaii, image
    Photo caption
    Kayakers approach a dock on the Hanalei River.
  • Lumaha'i Beach, Kauai, Hawaii, image
    Photo caption
    Kauai's lovely Lumaha'i Beach co-starred in South Pacific.
  • Polynesian figurines, Yellowfish Trading Co., Kauai, Hawaii, image
    Photo caption
    Polynesian kitsch beckons at Yellowfish Trading Co.
  • Taro fields, Kauai, Hawaii, image
    Photo caption
    Taro fields yield the Hawaiian staple poi, an acquired taste.

Choosing a favorite Hawaiian island is like picking a favorite grand cru champagne. All the options are good, so why be particular? Because it’s fun. In that spirit, I’ll tell you that while I would never turn my nose up at, say, Maui, my hands-down favorite island is Kauai. And Kauai’s North Shore, the 15-mile stretch of coastline from the former guava-farming town of Kilauea to rugged Ke‘e Beach, is hands down my favorite part of Kauai. Eleven reasons:

1. The BEACHES here have a primeval beauty. With its turquoise waters and creamy sand, Lumaha‘i Beach is so lovely, it practically hurts to look at it. Almost as pretty and better for snorkeling: Tunnels Beach, where an extensive reef shelters parrot fish and sea turtles. And at Ke‘e Beach, sitting alone one early morning with the jungle-covered mountains at my back, I feel like a happy castaway.

2. Or I would, but for the noisy CHICKENS foraging nearby. The colorful wild chickens of Kauai descend from domesticated birds that flew their coops and, in the absence of predators, multiplied unchecked. Tiny chicks wander across hotel patios while cocky roosters fertilize the golf courses in Princeville, the North Shore’s largest resort community. For me, the North Shore’s chickens keep it funky.

3. So do the narrow old bridges. HANALEI, the offbeat little beach town that boasts dozens of restaurants and shops, has stayed offbeat and little because enormous construction trucks can’t traverse the skinny one-lane bridge into town.

4. Hanalei’s inaccessibility explains its lack of grand hotels. In their absence the most striking structure in town remains the petite 178-year-old WAI‘OLI HUI‘IA CHURCH, a green-shingled American Gothic chapel where United Church of Christ services incorporate Hawaiian hymns accompanied by the ukulele.

5. I could spend an entire day at Hanalei’s YELLOWFISH TRADING CO., a trove of antique Hawaiiana. Treasures include painted chalkware hula girls and vintage menus featuring artwork by Eugene Savage, an Indiana-born painter whose idyllic depictions of Polynesian life helped shape mainland daydreams about the islands.

6. The agricultural bounty here is no daydream. At the FARMERS’ MARKET in Hanalei, I sample tangy local goat cheese, honey, mangoes, and chico, a tennis ball–size fruit that tastes like a persimmon crossed with a banana.

7. At the broad, agate-green HANALEI RIVER, bamboo and hibiscus grow right down to the edge of the water. One afternoon I climb into a kayak and paddle, then drift as the current pulls me seaward. I hear the ocean’s distant roar. A sea turtle dips below the surface so quickly it might be a mirage. The roar grows louder, and suddenly I’m floating at the river’s mouth, alone in a kayak, gazing in awe at the Pacific.

8. After such a paddle, a drive to Banana Joe’s just north of Kilauea for a restorative FROSTY—a thick shake made of seasonal fruit such as banana, papaya, and pineapple—is practically a requirement.

9. Another requirement: visit the 1913 classic revival KILAUEA POINT LIGHTHOUSE. Built on a finger of lava jutting into the sea, the tower reminds you that you are small, the world is large, and the ocean—lashing the rocks 200 feet below—is mighty. Stroll through Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge and you may see a nene, the Hawaiian goose; about 1,800 remain on the planet.

10. Even rarer than the nene is a species of loulu palm that grows only in LIMAHULI GARDEN AND PRESERVE, an arboretum situated in a remote, steep-sided valley. Other specimens include a nearly extinct hibiscus whose pale blossoms are white in the morning, turn pinkish by the afternoon, and last but a day, and the alula, a goofy-looking endangered succulent that also goes by the fitting name “cabbage on a stick.”

11. But the plant most vital to the North Shore—economically, culturally, culinarily—is TARO. Local people use the tubers to make poi, the starchy Hawaiian staple. The root also yields sublime sweets, such as Hanalei Taro & Juice Co.’s kulolo, a velvety coconut-taro pudding that tastes a bit like caramel, a bit like carob, but mostly just like kulolo. The only trouble with trying this exotic confection: You will love it and never find anything quite like it anywhere else in the world. Likewise, the only trouble with visiting Kauai’s North Shore is that you will love it and never find anything quite like it anywhere else in the world.

Photography by Douglas Peebles (Lumaha’I Beach); Ben Davidson (4)

This article was first published in January 2012 and updated in September 2012. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.