I am standing on a rocky trail on the south side of Kauai, staring down at a beach so divine that I’m glad to be alive. There are half a dozen locals (“I’ve never seen so many people here,” says my guide), but not a tourist in sight. I have been brought to Allerton Beach by two natives of the island who know how to navigate the miles of coffee fields that lead to this trailhead. I ask if there are any beaches like this in Hanalei, to the north. A pause. “We don’t go to Hanalei,” I am told. “Too many rich haoles.”
I know the feeling. Back in my hometown of Santa Barbara--probably Southern California’s most popular getaway--I maneuvered friends away from the tourist traps and through the trapdoors to my world. Steered them from overhyped La Super-Rica up Milpas Street to Dolores restaurant for even better Mexican food. Dragged them from the plastic Paseo Nuevo to the main Post Office building, an Art Deco treasure among the city’s overwrought Spanishification.
Here on Kauai, I am grateful to hang out at a place like Allerton Beach, which evokes wide-eyed awe even among the locals. That night I eat with a friend who has been living in Hawaii for 20 years. I tell him I have been to Allerton and he laughs: “So, you’re kama’aina.” I have gone local, he is saying. I wish.
I have no illusions that I know all the secrets of Kauai. And I’m a big fan of Waimea Canyon, the Wailua River and the Na Pali coast, wonders of nature that draw the tourists in the first place. But there are quite a few other experiences to be had where the price is right (cheap or free) and the adventure excellent. I have stumbled through a few trapdoors.
1. FREE PLAY AT POIPU BAY GOLF COURSE
You’ve seen this magnificent course if you’ve watched the PGA Grand Slam of Golf held here in November. The greens fees are $185 in the morning, dropping to $120 at noon. But come with a child after 4 p.m. and the child plays for free while you play for--sitting down?--$10. Unreal. You have to carry your own clubs, and you won’t get in 18 holes before dark except in the summer. But the combination of patrician course and plebeian fees makes any amount of holes memorable. Credit for this feat goes partly to Mary Bea Porter-King, head of the Hawaii State Junior Golf Assn., who approached all the resort courses about giving kids a break. Poipu Bay director of golf Michael Castillo really delivered. Although other courses have good junior rates, this one’s the best. 2250 Ainako St., Koloa, (808) 742-8711.
2. AGOG AT ALLERTON BEACH
When the Alexander & Baldwin company converted the old McBryde sugar plantation surrounding Allerton to coffee fields, it cut off local access to the beach at the same time. The tempest that ensued was resolved with a system that gives access to local permit holders. For everyone else, there is a way to see the beach, from a distance, as part of a guided tour of the old Allerton Estate offered by the National Tropical Botanical Gardens. Originally the summer home of Queen Emma in the late 1800s, the Lawai Valley real estate around this protected bay was acquired by Robert and John Gregg Allerton in the 1930s. They turned it into a landscaping and horticultural marvel. The tour begins with a tram ride into the valley, where you begin a one-mile walk, the whole tour lasting 2 1/2 hours. It isn’t cheap at $30, but the view of the beach--a perfectly shaped half-moon of unsullied sand and lava rock caves at the edge of a palm-dotted lawn--is priceless. (808) 742-2623.
3. Penny-pinching at Koloa Farmer’s Market
Many visitors to Kauai stay in condos, so they eventually end up shopping in a Big Save market (wryly called Big Spend by the locals). For produce, you’re much better off price- and quality-wise going to one of the local farmer’s markets. There’s one, sometimes two, every day except Sunday somewhere on the island. The best is in Ann Knudsen Park in Koloa at noon on Mondays. Shoppers gather up to 30 minutes before the opening whistle so they can snap up the Manoa lettuce and suss out the best-priced tangerines, corn and long beans before the stragglers arrive. When I find huge, creamy avocados at $1 each I want to cry; I have paid three times as much on the mainland. Papayas also are a bargain at 75 cents each. Just about everything is reasonably priced, plus there’s the novelty of exotics made commonplace: the pomelos, cherimoyas, zucchini flowers, okra, watercress and macadamia nuts. At the Lihue farmers market, I puzzle over some unfamiliar greens and am told they are long bean shoots, whereupon I receive a five-minute tutorial on how to cook them from the Filipino grower. For a schedule, look for the Sunshine Markets listing on www.kauai.hawaii.gov.
4. Sushi-hopping at Restaurant Kintaro
The date place and hangout for locals of all ages who, along with the tourists blessed to have found this pearl of a restaurant in Kapaa, have mobbed it for years. Recently owner Chung Kim closed the gift shop next door and expanded and renovated the restaurant, and the new interior is softly sophisticated. One night I sit next to a local developer who’s been eating at Kintaro for 20 years--he calls it the best sushi on the islands. And it’s cheap. When I point out that the owner could charge twice as much, he quips: “The pig gets fat, but the hog gets slaughtered.” Important to make reservations on weekends or you may be in for a long wait. 4370 Kuhio Highway, (808) 822-3341.
5. SPIKING AT THE MOIR PA’U A LAKA GARDEN
By the time Ganna Walska began concocting her ultra-quirky Lotusland gardens in Santa Barbara in the late 1940s, Sandie Moir had her own version flourishing at her manor house at the old Koloa sugar plantation. The cactus garden, stuffed with prickly pear, hedge cactus, aloes and agaves that Moir discovered thrived on the island’s dry side, is now bordered by the condos of the Outrigger Kiahuna Plantation resort. But it’s still open to the public free of charge, just as it was in the 1950s when it was proclaimed one of the 10 best cactus gardens in the world. The manor house is still there, operating as the resort office and offering brochures on the cactus and adjoining orchid garden. 2253 Poipu Road, (808) 742-6411.
6. A RIBBING AT JOE’S ON THE GREEN
There are 13 ingredients in the sauce on the ribs turned out by chef Michael Stauber at this golf course cafe, and they blend with the same insouciance as the island’s own cultural mix. Patrons come from the homes surrounding the golf course and the nearby Kiahuna Plantation and Poipu Kai condo resorts. And while the Roy’s just down the road packs the tourists in, with the exception of Roy Yamaguchi’s incomparable chocolate souffle, I think you get more flavor bang for the buck at Joe’s. Co-owners Joe Batteiger and Caroline Frederiksen have kept the atmosphere homey. The ribs, at $18, and coconut shrimp appetizer, at $7, are always on the menu, but the rest changes every couple of weeks and can feature such non-Hawaiian dishes as osso buco and Wienerschnitzel. Regular customers think nothing of calling from the mainland to request their favorites for the week they visit. Open daily for breakfast and lunch, Wednesday and Thursday for dinner. And don’t miss the ribs. 2545 Kiahuna Plantation Dr., at the Kiahuna Golf Club, (808) 742-9696.
7. TURNING TURTLE AT KEONELOA BAY
Neither the mega-expensive Hyatt Regency nor the view-dulling Embassy Vacation Resort at this Poipu locale has deterred the sea turtles from a favorite feeding ground. You can find the turtles by following the coastal access sign in the Embassy parking lot to a walkway down to lava rocks where there’s a mind-bending view of the reptiles, which don’t reach sexual maturity until the age of 25. The turtles never leave the water as they feed on algae growing on the rocks, and it takes a while for your eyes to discern what’s a turtle and what’s a wave. Then a head pops up for air and you’re really hooked. Look but don’t touch: They are protected by the Endangered Species Act, making it a crime to harass or disturb them in any way. 1613 Pe’e Road.
8. Noodling at Hamura Saimin
Everyone has a story about their favorite hole-in-the-wall restaurant, in which the food gets better at each retelling. For many on Kauai, it’s this decades-old purveyor of traditional saimin dishes--bowls filled with the long Japanese noodles, broth, green onions, bok choy, wonton, fish cake, egg and pork, starting at $3.75 and topping out at $6.50. A complete absence of aesthetics--from the S that’s dropped off the sign out front to the placard inside exhorting patrons not to stick gum under the U-shaped counters--will either make tourists queasy or happy to be somewhere that doesn’t serve overpriced seafood. Dessert is either lilikoi (passion fruit) pie or Hawaiian shaved ice, the latter served at a stand inside the restaurant. 2956 Kress St., (808) 245-3271.
9. The royal treatment at the Hyatt
Most visitors to Kauai check out of their hotels or condos about noon. But their flight from Lihue may not leave for several more hours. What to do? Thirty dollars gets you a day pass at the spa at the southern side’s toniest hotel, the Hyatt Regency at Poipu. That entitles you to use the good-size gym, the locker room with its lava rock showers and mango shampoo, the outdoor pool with its comfortable chairs, the Jacuzzi, steam room and dry sauna. If there’s time left, check out the orchid-resplendent garden in the lobby atrium or order something to drink at the Seaview Terrace and ponder not going home. Ever. 1571 Poipu Road, (808) 742-1234.
10. Playing with fire at Kekaha Beach
Unless they’ve missed the turnoff for Waimea Canyon, or are adventurous enough to head for that 5-mile teeth-grinder of a road to the Polihale State Park beach, most tourists don’t visit the sandy strands at Kekaha on the island’s west side. The locals have made this a favorite beach for nighttime bonfires, particularly at one of the widest points at the Mile 26 marker on Highway 50.
One thing you’ll find in almost every Hawaiian home
Hawaiians can’t live without rice, specifically Asian-style rice. That makes a rice cooker the most important appliance in the house. The Tiger brand from Japan is the No. 1 seller at Hawaii’s Wal-Marts, where it retails for about $95 for the 5-cup version. Critical to the Tiger’s popularity is the built-in warmer, absent in many cheaper brands. During the summer, Hawaiians add vinegar to the water so the rice won’t ferment in the heat as it sits in the cooker. At the Kmart in Kauai, where Tiger is well-represented, there’s an entire aisle of rice cookers, many with floral patterns. Although a stainless steel version is becoming more popular with Japanese, floral patterns rule in most Asian households, where the rice cooker is part of the kitchen decor, says Kuni Sanada of Tiger Corp.'s U.S. office in Torrance. On the mainland, your best source for a Tiger rice cooker is at Marukai, the Asian goods supplier with stores in Little Tokyo and other Asian communities.
One thing you’ll find on almost every Hawaiian
Depending on your age or geography, you know them as flip-flops or zoris or go-aheads, but please don’t call them thongs. “It makes me crazy when tourists call them that,” says a Big Save checker as she rings up low-priced rubber slippers at the Hawaiian supermarket chain. “It makes me think of underwear.” While Reef and the new kid on the block, Irvine-based Sanuk (Thai for “happy”), compete for tourist dollars, Hawaiians, for whom slippers are the shoes of choice, are loyal to Scott, the Honolulu-based company that has been making the footwear since the 1930s. “We don’t have all the bling-bling that the others have,” says Steve Scott, whose parents founded the company, and whose simple designs don’t attempt to compete with the reflexology-meets-kaleidoscope of Sanuk or the hip designs of Reef. What Scott does sell is comfort and longevity. “People have sent us letters about wearing the slippers seven, eight years,” says Scott. “One guy sent us a picture of himself after he hiked 500 miles of the Rockies in his Scott’s.”
One thing you’ll find in almost every Kauai garden
Crotons--In Florida they’re known as weeds because they grow so easily. They’re just as prolific on Kauai, where the plants, native to Indonesia, have flourished since they were introduced. The Filipino gardeners who predominate in Kauai have croton propagation down cold, a fairly easy routine of cutting off a not-too-thick branch, trimming most of the leaves and then an inch of bark from the base and sticking it first in a rooting solution and then in a pot of cheap soil mix. The babies should be kept in a shaded area and watered heavily, but otherwise they require no nurturing. The reward is a plant that comes in an array of colors (green with red stripes, green with pink stripes, green with yellow stripes, green with yellow polka dots) and numerous shapes, from feathery to curly to banana leaf. Grown as a hedge, they give new meaning to the word rainbow.