The town of Hanalei, on the rainy fecund north shore of Kauai, embodies the old cinematic Hawaii of our fantasies. Well, my fantasies at least, which is why, for several years now, I have been renting a small artist’s cottage found through Vacation Rentals By Owner (vrbo.com). Located on Powerhouse Road in Wainha, five miles and five one-lane bridges north of Hanalei, the house sits on a ridge high above an emerald green valley with pools and rushing streams at the bottom. The kitchen is well outfitted, the pantry stocked with handmade ceramic plates and bowls, and the airy rooms are decorated with vintage bamboo furniture. The one drawback is that there is no place to sit outside, though the very long, sparsely populated Kepuhi Beach is only a mile away.
The cottage’s physical location is magical, nonetheless. I could have foraged for dinner on a walk to the upcountry dead end of Powerhouse Road, rife with preening wild roosters, scrawny hens tending their chicks, chicken eggs scattered in the bushes. A paradise of bananas, papayas, guavas, oranges, bread fruit and tangerines hang from the trees. In front of the house next door, buttery soft ball-sized avocados avail themselves from a basket with an honor system money jar. Around 5 p.m., as if home from the office, wild-looking pigs with piglets and snorting hairy males appear on the sides of the road, along with goats of all ages, everyone foraging for dinner themselves. Flowers–hibiscus, bougainvillea, ginger, birds of paradise, plumeria–pour off a tunnel of foliage.
The tastiest, most diverse fruits and vegetables grown on the islands can be found at Hanalei’s two farmers’ markets held on Saturdays and Tuesdays. There are bags of tiny organic mixed salad greens, Asian melon-style squashes, pineapples, mangosteens, rambutans, ripe juicy tomatoes in March, plus local goat cheese and honey.
At the Hanalei Dolphin Fish Market, an adjunct to the town’s major restaurant, I scored huge meaty filets of local fish, most at $32 a pound; imported Tomales Bay Cow Girl Creamery cheeses; and generous, well-composed sushi rolls ($12.50), big enough for two and ideally eaten on a sun-warmed concrete bench on the Dophin’s riverside lawn.
Products made with fresh taro–bread, cookies, coconut-taro pudding, pig steamed in taro leaves, delicate fresh fruit smoothies–can be purchased at a food truck right in town. The taro is freshly harvested from a breathtakingly scenic plantation at the entry to Hanalei, the 90-year-old
Haraguchi Rice Mill and Taro Plantation, now a non-profit. A tour led by fifth generation taro farmer Lyndsey Haraguchi Nakayama will deepen a visitor’s understanding of the life and death battle between federally protected wild life (such as the nene, a Hawaiian goose that eats the roots of the young plants), invasive non-native species like apple snails, and the tenuous existence of labor-intensive traditional taro farming. It’s a gripping story that visitors can experience first hand in the pulsing green taro fields with Nakayama. (Wednesdays only; $87; reserve ahead)
A self-guided tour through the Limahuli Garden in Haena, near where the Kuhio highway dead ends at the Napali coast, tells the natural and social history of Kauai through plants, bushes and trees, particularly fascinating for a tiny tropical island in the middle of nowhere. As you stroll through a canoe garden (plants brought to the island by early Polynesians), a plantation garden (post Captain Cook) and a native forest, with the excellent printed manual in hand, you sensually absorb the living, ethnobotanical story of the islands. (Admission $15).
As for restaurants, myriad articles to the contrary, Hawaii is simply not a culinary destination unless you’re a connoisseur of old-fashioned, high acid pineapples and strawberry papayas. Despite a resurgence of small island farming and ranching, the majority of food is flown or shipped in from the mainland. High prices at the supermarkets for the most mundane items reflect this reality and the many high-quality ingredients we take for granted in the Bay Area are simply unavailable here. If you’re not cooking yourself–really your best bet–I suggest the Hanalei Dolphin sushi bar for their robust, original Hawaiian-style sushi rolls made with first-class seafood. Sit at the open air bar, drink a tall, snappy “ginger rita” made with fresh ginger and tequila, and finish with the rolls. Somehow it all goes together.
On the way to or from the Lihue airport, I always stop at Bamboo Works (4-1388 Kuhio Highway) in charming old Kapaa town, right on the road to Hanalei, a shop dedicated to everything made of bamboo. I also like to have lunch at Mark’s Place (1610 Haleukana Street, Lihue), a weekday plate lunch take-out stand in an industrial park with picnic tables outside on a lawn. Mark Oyama takes the genre to its highest expression. I get the crispy, deep-fried pork cutlets called katsu, served with a juicy salsa-like chopped tomato and onion salad, rice, and macaroni salad.
On my next visit, I plan to be first in line for the Wednesday night luau at Tahiti Nui restaurant in Hanalei. I hear from reliable sources that both the food and the music is local and soulful. See ya there.