A collection of restored 19th and 20th century cottages, many of them residences of former sugar plantation workers, Waimea Plantation Cottages offers peaceful, rustic and historic lodging by the sea.(Meghan Miner Murray)
In downtown Hanapepe, Blu Umi boutique features imported apparel and décor from L.A. and Japan; the shop shares space with sushi restaurant Japanese Grandma’s Café.(Meghan Miner Murray)
Though many days the Kalalau Lookout affords a bird’s eye view of the valleys, when we visited it was obscured by clouds.(Meghan Miner Murray)
Island Soap and Candle Works has been making handmade soaps, candles and botanical products and salves on Kauai since 1984.(Meghan Miner Murray)
Fish tacos from Chalupas.(Meghan Miner Murray)
Sleepy Waimea town, in western Kauai 20 miles from the resorts in Poipu, is a remote but ideal base for exploring Waimea Canyon (the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific”), the Kalalau Overlook atop the green wrinkles of the Na Pali Coast and the quaint towns of Koloa and Hanapepe. I hit Kauai’s red dirt roads on a solo adventure spanning three days and two nights in late July and early August.
The tab: I spent $617, excluding shopping splurges, on accommodations, mostly budget-conscious meals and a low-cost car rental from local secret DiscountHawaiiCarRental.com.
From LAX, American and United offer nonstop service to Lihue, Kauai, and Hawaiian, United, Delta, Virgin America and American offer connecting service (change of planes). Restricted round-trip fares from $656, including taxes and fees.
Waimea Plantation Cottages (9400 Kaumualii Highway, Waimea;  338-1625. $25-a-night resort fee; from $179), a collection of restored workers’ homes relocated from three Kauai sugar plantations, offers peaceful accommodations fronting a dark sand beach. I stayed in No. 46, Gregorio Udarbe, named for a worker at the former Kekaha Sugar Co., where the bungalow was built in 1905. All 52 historic dwellings are outfitted with kitchens, a lanai and a blend of modern and antique furniture.
After several mediocre breakfast and lunches I found Chalupa’s Mexican Food, a bright orange Mexican food truck parked on a Koloa back road. The fish tacos — corn tortillas stuffed with light, flaky caught-that-day waloo and topped with locally grown avocado and a house-made cilantro cream sauce — were divine. The scavenging flocks of feral chickens that prowled the picnic table seating provided the entertainment.
Hanapepe, seven miles southeast of Waimea, is a treasure trove. The town’s ramshackle paniolo-style (Hawaiian cowboy) buildings house Talk Story, the island’s eclectic bookstore; Puuwai Gallery, with crafts by a collective of Kauai artists; and beach-chic Blu Umi, My favorite Hanapepe discovery was the tiny, green Taro Ko Chips Factory and the men inside, friends Stanley Sakoda and Dale Nagamine. Nagamine’s relatives have been farming taro to create thick small-batch kettle chips for more than 30 years. Their selection, offered from cardboard boxes, includes Molokai purple potato salted and fried in soybean oil as well as standard taro crisps (3940 Hanapepe Road; $5 a bag, cash only).
The lesson learned
To make the most of a short trip, schedule beach days and visits to natural sites on Sundays or Mondays when many shops and restaurants are closed but popular stops such as the Kokee Museum remain open. Resist the temptation to stop first at Waimea Canyon and drive on to Kalalau Lookout. There, at the culmination of Kokee Road (Highway 550), vistas of the dramatic Na Pali Coast are best visible before frequent afternoon fog conceals the view. Waimea Canyon rewards the wait: Late afternoon light makes its oxidized striations pop.