KAUAI – ADVENTURE AND DINING ON THE GARDEN ISLE
Our family has been to Kauai several times before, and we’d go again next month if we could get away. The oldest, greenest and least developed of the Hawaiian Islands, it’s perfect for a family vacation with a five-year-old daughter (the first time we went) or a 22 year old (this time). And at every age in between.
Most of the action on Kauai is located along the northeast coast, from Lihue up to Princeville. We like to stay on the sunnier, quieter southern tip at Poipu. From Poipu, everything on the island’s no more than 2 hours away.
We still haven’t run out of things to do on Kauai, either – or restaurants to enjoy. Every time we go, our first stop is Brennecke’s Beach Broiler. It’s also our last stop before we leave – it’s that good. But we’d been away for several years, and it’s gotten even better. Sure, it still has the casual beachfront charm, the views of Poipu sunsets through windows that never close, the folks watching a game in the bar and snacking on “pupus” (island appetizers), but Chef Dave Boucher has moved the dining room way up the scale.
Start with the appetizers. Falcon, our waiter, suggested the Kama’aina Pupu Platter. It’s a gorgeous assortment of ceviche (served in a ti leaf), Brennecke’s smoked marlin, shrimp, king crab – and fresh ahi sashimi that is consistently the best in town. So good that my daughter immediately ordered a second helping.
Following one of their delicate salads made from local organically grown greens, plus a Lava Lava Flow and a Mango Madness (featuring the locally made rum), we were ready for dinner.
We tried three of the specials on the night’s menu. The first was a fish “duo” of opah (sunfish) sautéed in a remarkable lemon caper reduction and broiled ono (wahoo) served with mango salsa. If you’re not familiar with ono, the name means “tasty” in the Hawaiian language, and boy is that accurate. Brennecke’s set us off on an ono binge, and we never found a better version, though we tried. The second special was the pasta of the night – grilled ahi served over a ravioli made with portobello mushrooms, asparagus and tomatoes, with more asparagus and pesto sauce on top. Every bit as heavenly as it sounds. The third dish was plump, sweet grilled shrimp served with fresh vegetables and a baked potato, which was my wife’s perfect dinner. At a nearby table, a party of locals was enjoying another signature Brennecke’s dish – the slow-roasted prime rib.
When it came to dessert, we told Falcon that we had a few questions. His response? “Anything you say, I’m gonna say Bob’s Pie.” Well, of course we ordered Bob’s Pie, and it was awesome. Have you ever had a Hula Pie? Bob’s Pie is so good it will make Hula Pie cry. The photo below doesn’t really do it justice – you’ll have to go to Kauai and try it for yourself.
Brennecke’s also has an activities center where you can arrange for your vacation adventures.
Brennecke’s Beach Broiler
2100 Hoone Road
Koloa, HI 9675
Tel: (808) 742-7588
Toll Free: (888) 384-8810
After dinner at Brennecke’s and a day of beach relaxation, snorkeling and surfing in front of the Sheraton at Poipu Beach, it was time for an adventure – scuba diving. If you want to go scuba diving on the island of Kauai, you need to speak to Fathom Five Divers. Their headquarters is on the south shore near Poipu, in Koloa town.
Whether you're relatively new to the sport like I am, a complete beginner like my daughter, or more like the experienced crew from Texas we met in the shop, you'll soon know you've come to the right place. Fathom Five is a completely equipped PADI store, with anything and everything you might want to rent or to buy. But it's the people who shine at Fathom Five.
My daughter and I were fortunate to draw Jeannette as our instructor and dive master. Jeannette seems to have trained half the dive masters on Kauai, and her calm demeanor, sense of humor and expertise put us both at ease and made for a fantastic day of diving. A tour of the reefs on both sides of old Koloa landing, descending to between 30 and 50 feet, was the high point of our weeks in Kauai. Neither my daughter nor I will ever forget it. A purple octopus, several lobsters, moray eels, and a fantastic array of colorful tropical undersea dwellers put on a show for us -- including the devil fish, which looks like a rock until it swims, displaying startling red and yellow markings under its fins. My daughter, who originally planned just a single dive to prove to herself that she could do it, was eager to come back for more -- partly because Jeannette was always by her side, feeding her confidence. Me? I decided, after decades of resisting, to get my SCUBA certification.
Two days later, after a computerized education series, I spent a day learning pool skills with a different instructor -- Ben. Again, his professionalism, humor and overall attitude put me at ease, and his rigorous training will serve me in good stead when I first go diving without an instructor. Their rental equipment is first rate, obviously well cared for, and they'll take the time to make sure you're completely comfortable with what you get.
Thanks to George Thompson and every single member of his staff for a memorable experience.
Fathom Five Divers
3450 Poipu Road (in old Koloa town)
Of course, scuba diving made us hungry, and Keoki’s Paradise was right up the road. Keoki’s looks like a beautiful Hawaiian movie set – it’s a multi-level wooden building, open to the air, there’s a waterfall and a brook flowing through, and everyone’s dressed in floral patterns with a fresh island tan. We were easily convinced to try the Tropical Itch (“a rash of passion fruit, pineapple, vodka and a dark rum float”) and the Shipwreck’s Martini, a vodka-and-tropical fruit concoction named after a local surfing beach with a brutal reputation. Fingers crossed, we survived, and moved on to the next recommendation – I’a Maka, which is a raw fresh fish platter, and Kai – a long plate of delectable cooked seafood (see the photo below). There’s also ‘Aina, with Koloa pork ribs, beef satay and kahlua pork spring rolls. The cooked platter featured a new taste for us – ceviche made with edamame (soybeans). What an inspired combination. The ceviche complemented the shoyu poke (a uniquely Hawaiian dish made from raw ahi and seaweed marinated in soy), more fresh sashimi and delectable crab cakes served on soba noodles. The photo gives you a hint – a seafood lover’s dream.
Moving on to the main course, we continued our search for the perfect ono dinner, and we may have found it at Keoki’s. My wife chose the grilled presentation, served with an outstanding creamy polenta, and a relish made from local tomatoes and garlic. Another standout was my daughter’s seafood linguini; fresh local shrimps, scallops and fish (mahi-mahi) served in a white wine cream sauce with just a touch of ginger. Taking a brief break from our all-ocean diet, I tried the prime rib. It’s certified Angus, served hot and fork-tender and I somehow managed to finish every delicious bite. For dessert, we had a sinfully rich, homemade chocolate mousse and an island sorbet selection that included lillikoi (passion fruit) mango and coconut. Derek, the restaurant manager, came by each table to make sure that everyone was enjoying themselves and their food, and we were happy to reassure him.
2360 Kiahuna Plantation Drive
Koloa, HI 96756
Kauai offers more than just food, and beaches, of course. One hidden gem that we visited the next day is a Hindu monastery tucked high in the mountains above the sacred Waialua River. It’s a beautiful, calm oasis and a great way to spend a morning walking through a meticulously tended tropical rain forest. The monastery residents are happy to explain the sculptures and images in the small temple on the grounds (and they supply insect repellent). Spectacular views of the kayakers on the river far below reminded us of our next adventure – a kayak cruise up that river, past the legendary Fern Grotto and on to the Secret Waterfall. We made plans to take that trip the following day.
There are many ways to explore the Waialua River, but if you’re up to it physically, a self-guided trip in a two-person kayak is by far the best. As with most things in a vacation paradise, you’ll want to start early. We were first at the kayak rental shack, and when we paddled into the Fern Grotto a leisurely hour later, we were alone, sharing the silence and natural magnificence with peacocks, frogs and chatty mynah birds. As we left, the first tour boat of the day came chugging in. Another half hour of paddling and a 45-minute hike brought us to the Secret Waterfall. It’s not so secret any more, but it’s still a lovely spot to take a swim under a waterfall that splashes cool water on your head from about 130 feet above. Take a sandwich and some water for a picnic.
Hiking back out through the dense green tropical forest, and the one-hour paddle back down the river naturally made us hungry. No problem – we had reservations at the Plantation Gardens restaurant that night.
The Plantation Gardens will give you a taste of what elegant old Hawaii must have been like. It’s an historic manor house – built in the 1930 on Hawaii’s first sugar cane plantation. Surrounded by the storied Moir Gardens, the restaurant has two lanais outside – the front lanai for formal white tablecloth dining, and a more casual atmosphere to one side.
After sharing a Mango Madness (vodka, mango puree and lime juice) we followed the recommendation of our server Brad and ordered the Plantation Style Sampler. This impressive plate featured shrimp spring rolls, ahi tuna sashimi (raw), BBQ Kalua Pork Manapua and Corn Fritters. The corn fritters disappeared in a matter of moments. The pork Manapua is a steamed bun with Kauai’s signature slow roasted sweet Kalua pork inside.
Next came an unusual and tasty salad of locally grown pears, arugula and almonds. My daughter felt like comfort food, and the pot roast with purple mashed sweet potatoes and green beans fit the bill perfectly. My wife continued her ono quest, and the Plantation Gardens version, served as the Plantation Special came with a fresh salsa, a drip of crème fraiche, and polenta in a caper and cream sauce. Did I mention that “ono” means “delicious?” I went for the Chef’s Trio, a sampler of the Lau Lau, skirt steak and fresh local ahi. For those not familiar with Lau Lau, it consists of fresh fish, scallops, prawns and vegetables steamed inside a ti leaf. The Plantation Gardens presentation included steamed brown rice, sprinkled with seaweed and sesame, and an aioli sauce made with horseradish. As you can see, it was another winner.
Somehow, we still had room for the Gardens’ signature dessert – Baked Hawaiian Cheesecake with Lillikoi (passion fruit) sauce. No “to go” bags for us.
2253 Poipu Road, Koloa, Kauai HI 96756
808 742 1908
Just as there’s more to Kauai cuisine than seafood, there’s fun to be had on dry land. My daughter’s a horse lover, so the next day we took a long trail ride out of Princeville, through vast rolling meadows to yet another secret waterfall. Just the two of us, our guide, and a honeymooning couple from the English hill country. The hike to and from the waterfall was more a ladder than path, but the clear, cold water was a welcome refreshment for the middle of the ride.
The horses were very well cared-for and quite spirited, and we did our best John Wayne-Little Annie Oakley imitations. After the ride, I spent several hours on pool dives with Ben from Fathom Five, and we headed home, hungry all over again.
That night, we had the extreme good fortune to have a reservation at Roy’s Restaurant in Poipu, home of Roy’s unique “Hawaiian Fusion Cuisine.” Lucky us. First of all, Roy’s Restaurant is gorgeous. Just sitting in such a spacious, elegant room with 20-foot ceilings, and floor-to-ceiling bay windows open to the ocean breeze, it’s impossible not to feel elegant and pampered yourself. The thoughtful attentive wait staff appears when you need them, and disappears when you don’t.
If you’ve never eaten at Roy’s, you can expect a certain core group of signature dishes that you can order at any of the locations and know that you’re in for a treat. But what sets Roy’s even further apart from the competition is that each executive chef is free to create his own menu, changing daily, based on the best of local, seasonal ingredients.
After polishing off the edamame in pink salt (which Roy’s serves instead of a bread basket) we started with the appetizer canoe, a dazzling array of tastes including seared ahi, pot stickers topped with crème and roe, locally raised koloa pork ribs, shrimp skewers and the irresistible spring rolls. It was meant for two, and there were three of us so we had a little negotiating to do, but everyone came away happy. Every bit as delectable as it looks
Another truly amazing dish, a specialty at Roy’s Poipu location is the Ahi Tuna Poke. Again, the presentation is spectacular, matched only by the flavor. My daughter really, really didn’t want to share this, but I persuaded her.
We managed to tear ourselves away from the appetizer menu, and on to the main courses. My wife was still expanding on her island ono experience, and at Roy’s it came smothered in crisp local vegetables with a wild rice risotto. Again, it was difficult to snag a single bite.
My daughter tried the vegetarian entrée (Roy’s is very friendly and accommodating to almost any special taste or dietary restrictions), which was a kind of deconstructed crepe, again covered in a delicious blanket of local vegetables. She blew her cover as a vegetarian, though, because she saw a plate of crab cakes go by. Light and airy with a panko (Japanese bread crumb) crust, nestled in a pool of lobster cream sauce…. Mmm.
Finally, I continued my attempt to taste as many things as possible on the menu, with a Local Boy Trio. Koloa ribs, mahi-mahi (dolphin fish) and ahi tuna. Each was perfectly cooked, and as you can see, beautifully presented. Part of the magic of Roy’s, along with the localized menus, are the endlessly inventive sauces, delicious in their own right, which complement but never overwhelm the freshness of the main ingredients.
A special note about ALL Roy’s Restaurants – your server will mention that, if you want the famous chocolate soufflé, you’ll need to order it in advance. Don’t hesitate for a moment – go for it. No one has ever regretted ordering Roy’s chocolate soufflé (or left behind a bite).
The service was impeccable without being intrusive, and after dinner we had the privilege of meeting the restaurant manager Apoli, and the general manager Natural-Lee. Restaurants always reflect the people who work there, and Apoli and Natural-Lee were delightful. Thanks, guys, for a memorable evening.
Roy's - Poipu Bar & Grill
2360 Kiahuna Plantation Drive
Koloa, HI 96756
Our trip winding down, we decided to make the next day an “everyone for themselves” day. My wife and daughter took the car to charming old Koloa town to walk around, perhaps shop, and just spend a lazy day. Me? A totally unexpected south swell had shown up out of nowhere (the south shore normally gets waves in the summer, and the season had passed), presenting 14-16 foot wave faces on some of the offshore reef breaks. Frankly, that’s out of my league, but I did find some places where the faces were more like 6-8 feet. Particularly a break called “Left-Lefts” was going off, so I paddled out. There are two stories about that name, “Left-Lefts.” One is that you take off about a foot to the left of a huge underwater rock, go left and dodge another huge underwater rock, and then have a lovely long reef break to enjoy. Left, then left again.
Then there’s the tale about an inexperienced surfer who once paddled out, and tried to go right because he couldn’t compete with the more experienced folks. As he took off, everyone screamed, “No, Left, Left!!!!!!!” Apparently he survived.
In any case, I spent 4 hours in the water with surprisingly accommodating locals, got my share of waves (lefts, all of them) and came out hungry. Good thing, because we had a special treat awaiting us – 22 Degrees North.
22 Degrees North is located on historic Kilohana Plantation, in the magnificent plantation house. This 16,000 square foot mansion was built in 1936 by sugar baron Gaylord Parke Wilcox, and has been meticulously restored. It is open to the public, and it’s a great place to stroll around for an hour or two before dinner. There are shops upstairs, featuring unique jewelry pieces and handmade Kauai mementos. You can even tour the plantation grounds on a lovely old train, which includes a hike through the rain forest, a picnic lunch under the jungle canopy, and a chance to pick exotic fresh local fruit for dessert.
On this day, though, we had come to check out the restaurant, 22 Degrees North (the name refers to the latitude in Kauai, just 22 degrees north of the equator), which occupies a special niche in the island dining scene. The vast majority of the fruits, vegetables and herbs used by the kitchen are grown right on the plantation’s two-acre farm or on the plantation itself. Paired with locally grown meats and the bounty of the ocean surrounding the island, the result is an eclectic farm-to-table menu unique to 22 Degrees North. The setting is also unique – the restaurant occupies the entire u-shaped ground floor lanai at the back of the mansion. Outdoor dining surrounding fire pits and tiki torches make for a quintessentially Hawaiian setting. The restaurant manager Tamara (a recent Las Vegas transplant who can’t think of a single reason to ever go back) showed us around and to our table. On the way, we passed by the blackboard listing all the fresh and unusual vegetables plucked from the garden that very day. Watermelon radishes? Amber jewel tomatoes? Manoa lettuce? Four different varieties of mushrooms? All sounded promising.
The food lived up to the promise. Among the appetizers was something I’d never tasted before -- olive poppers. Locally grown olives, stuffed and quickly fried. An unusual idea – and simply delicious. The watermelon radish and fennel salad, ahi poke ceviche and the island sampler magically disappeared. The menu at 22 Degrees North changes every day, depending on what’s seasonal and available, so some of the things we enjoyed may not be served when you go. Be adventurous – everything we sampled simply delicious. Mostly we followed the recommendations of our servers, and there’s also a three-course, prix fixe menu every day.
My wife enjoyed the pan seared ahi tuna (perfectly rare), served with stuffed mushroom smashed potatoes, sea asparagus (!) and cherry tomatoes, all with a delicate sherry vinaigrette. As you can see, the presentation added to the pleasure of the meal.
My daughter was in the mood for comfort food again, so she went for the island mushroom meatloaf. It was made with beef (raised on a ranch less than a mile away), local mushrooms, smashed potatoes, tomato gravy, home made ketchup and green beans.
I feasted on my favorite type of dish – a local seafood trio. In the case of 22 Degrees North, it consisted of pan-seared ono, rare ahi tuna, and crispy kekaha prawns. Kabayaki glazed veggies (a slightly sweet and salty flavor based on soybeans) and buckwheat noodle salad completed the plate, and a sriracha aioli sauce added a little bite to the robust ocean flavors. Simply delicious, and perhaps my favorite ono of the trip.
Deserts also change daily, but the one constant was another cool surprise – a bag of fresh, hot, chewy donuts with a cinnamon dusting. Gift of the house, and we loved them. And ate them again for breakfast the next day.
22 Degrees North also pays more than lip service to sustainability. The odd-looking water glasses are old wine bottles, ground down and polished. The placemats and coasters are whimsical shapes cut from cardboard boxes. Along with the impeccable service and the relaxed island atmosphere, it all sets 22 Degrees North apart from the other restaurants in the Lihue area. Unique, and well worth seeking out. Be sure and call or check MapQuest for directions – the highway in front of the plantation is under construction, and it’s easy to miss the turnoff – and you don’t want to miss dining at 22 Degrees North.
22 DEGREES NORTH
3-2087 Kaumualii Highway, Lihue, Hawaii 96766
Our last day, we decided to take a leisurely stroll through the Allerton Gardens. One of only five National Tropical Botanical Gardens in the United States, Allerton Gardens is tucked away at the end of a one-lane road at the southern tip of Kauai. As the literature describes it, “It is a garden paradise, transformed through time by the hands of a Hawaiian Queen, by a sugar plantation magnate, and most significantly by an artist and an architect.” The grounds encompass a pristine beach, indigenous Hawaiian ruins, a huge collection of rare native Kauai plants, and some of the world’s most spectacular garden architecture. Here’s a small sample of what you’ll see:
When you take the tour, Dave the guide will point out the trees where the dinosaur eggs were discovered in “Jurassic Park” and the beach shared by Johnny Depp and Penelope Cruz in “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.” It was a great way to spend our last day in paradise.
We had a last dinner at Brennecke’s and headed back to the mainland. There’s so much to do on Kauai that we barely scratched the surface. I haven’t raved about kayaking the Na Pali coast. Or bicycling in Waimea Canyon. Or a thousand other things. Oh, well. I guess we better go back.