This laid-back resort area on Kauai’s idyllic south coast offers everything you’d expect—except huge crowds.
Sunsets in Poipu are sublime—streaky, colorful messes on some evenings, and clear, sharp drops to the Pacific on others. After a few days in this resort area draped along three miles of Kauai's secluded south coast, you'll understand why friends return from the island with too many photos of a fiery ball floating toward the horizon.
Snapshots are a poor substitute for Poipu's Rorschach sky, and they give you only a hint of the resort's golden beaches and clear water. Even in winter, when the surf gets perilously high on Kauai's north shore, Poipu's coast—protected by offshore reefs—is a series of tranquil coves and beaches lapped by tame surf. The resort's gathering spot is 5.5-acre Poipu Beach Park. Visitors come to loll in the sun, kids splash around in shallow water, snorkelers set out for sheltered coves nearby, and bodyboarders ride the waves at Brennecke's Beach on the park's east end.
Poipu doesn't have a real downtown—it's more a series of hotels, restaurants, and homes strung along the ocean between Poipu Beach Road and the coastline of powdery sand or rocks. So Poipu Beach Park and the Sheraton Kauai's waterfront serve as the area's main promenades.
On a recent trip to Kauai, I set up shop at the Poipu Bed & Breakfast, a four-room, plantation-style inn surrounded by flame-colored bougainvillaea. The B&B is a five-minute walk from Koloa Landing, a popular snorkeling and shore-diving spot that years ago served as the island's only sugarcane loading ramp.
On a morning dive with Fathom Five Divers, I greeted a few of the natives: snowflake eels splotched in blacks, yellows, and browns, lizardfish all mottled brown, silvery amberjacks striped with yellow, and huge green sea turtles snoozing on the ocean floor. Forty-five feet below the surface, we followed dive instructor Jeannette Thompson to the edge of the reef and hovered above the sandy bottom listening for the songs of humpback whales.
Landlubbers can also observe sea life in Poipu, without getting wet. For $9—the price of a cocktail at The Point, the Sheraton Kauai's oceanfront lounge (the best spot for taking in the view)—you can sip a lilikoi lemonade (a passionfruit, mango, and lemonade cocktail spiked with vodka) and watch a sunset torch-lighting, followed by Hawaiian hula and music performances. But the real show goes on in the background: Sea turtles poke their heads up for a look around, and from November through March you may see a few whales breaching in the distance.
Nicknamed the Garden Isle, the verdant 33-by-25-mile island is home to the headquarters of the National Tropical Botanical Garden, a nonprofit that operates open-air preserves and gardens in Hawaii and Florida. In the Lawai Valley, near Poipu, the Allerton and McBryde Gardens feature both rare and native Hawaiian plants, including flowering coral trees and historic "canoe plants," brought to Kauai by Polynesians. On the way to the gardens, you pass the Spouting Horn, a blowhole that shoots a plume 50 feet in the air when waves force water under a layer of hardened lava.
Poipu is also a perfect base for day trips along Kauai's rugged southern coast. I rented a convertible and headed 25 minutes west to Hanapepe, a blink-and-you'll-miss-it artists' town lined with galleries selling everything from antique map prints to koa wood carvings.
You can also find simple, authentic local food, such as taro and sweet-potato chips, at tiny Taro Ko, a wooden shack on the way to town. Down the street, the wildly popular Hanapepe Cafe serves lunches of fresh hummus sandwiches and hearty purple sweet-potato and seafood cakes with spicy aioli.
The arid, red-rock Waimea Canyon is about a 90-minute drive from Poipu on winding switchbacks. Crystalline Wailua Falls is about 45 minutes away, outside Lihue. And for beach hiking, there are 80-to-120-foot lithified sand dunes at Mahaulepu, just a couple of miles east of the resort town, that provide a rare geologic record of the island.
At the end of an action-packed day, Poipu's sunset is there, quietly waiting.
Photography by John Elk III
This article was first published in July 2007. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.