By Jackie Olsen
Escaping the ordinary and emerging into the laidback culture of island life offers an opportunity to reset your mind, body, and soul. Fortunate to have family relocated from California to Kauai, my husband and I recently spent a week enjoying the quintessential beach town of Kapaʻa, Kauai.
A refreshing change from the hustle of daily life and work, Kapaʻa captures your soul and shows you what it really means to be on Hawaii time. The main street running through the downtown offers shopping, dining, coffee shops, food trucks, tattoo parlors, and beach access. Having escaped the rain back home, we arrived just in time for a week of sun on Kauai’s east side of the island. Surf, sand, and shaved ice were on the agenda, but with a flexible schedule and open minds, we experienced more than we imagined and truly fell in love with all Kapaʻa has to offer for a retreat to paradise.
The two-lane road running through the town is heavy with traffic flowing in either direction. Roaming the sidewalks and garden terrain are wild chickens searching for food and protecting their baby chicks. Brightly painted shops and food trucks line the streets adjacent to the parallel parked cars filling every possible spot along the road. A mix of locals and tourists wander the sidewalks and flow in and out of the stores and restaurants enjoying the weather and laid-back culture of this town. The outdoor seating is limited but full of people indulging in food and drinks while engaging in conversation or working on laptops.
The weather is perfect. Wearing shorts, a t-shirt, and flipflops I feel entirely content. Glancing over the people I pass on the busy streets it is easy to separate the tourists from the locals. The tourists are dressed in Hawaiian style shirts, flowy floral dresses, some even with red sunburns from too much time in the sun or not enough sunblock - who wants to leave a Hawaii vacation without the perfect suntan anyway? The locals are casual in style, worn in flip flops, workout clothes paired with swimsuits, sporting local brands including apparel from the towns surf shop Tamba.
Monday afternoon’s Kapaʻa offers a local farmers market with fresh produce, honey, spices, and an adorable white goat walking around among the children playing at the market. Cauliflower, lettuce, carrots, and herbs were the common produce items available for purchase. Shopping with my mother-in-law, she purchased the turmeric, and I took photos of the packaging so I would remember to learn more about the farm and what goes into making these spices. The market was located under a three-wall building resembling the look of an old bar with extra high ceilings. Vendors were tightly packed together displaying their good on foldout tables. Unlike my familiar farmers market back home in Monterey, California there were no food vendors selling ready to eat food.
Anywhere one can access a sandy coastline people were enjoying the ocean shore. Kealia beach was the closest drive from the house we were staying in, so we spent most of our afternoons enjoying the warm sun and watching the surfers attempt to catch waves. Like many beaches in Hawaii, it is wise to observe the pattern of the waves and check for rocks and coral reefs below. There was a lifeguard on duty, and all newcomers were secluded to a small section of the ocean for water sports as the current was safer for those with less experience. A continual flow of surfers and bodyboarders’ parade in and out of the water providing hours of entertainment as I watch them position themselves for the best waves. Close proximity to the Lihue airport my father-in-law points out every plane departing Kauai as though they leave at the same time every day, “see that plane, the 2:45pm leaving the island” he said pointing to the only plane flying across the seemingly endless Pacific Ocean.
There is little to no shade at Kealia beach, but plenty of room to spread out and relax in the warm sand. Chickens run across the beach searching for food which is an unfamiliar sight from my usual display of seagulls at home crowding the ocean shore. Packing a lunch or snacks is your best bet for an extended period at the beach as there is no food vendor’s insight. Leave your food unattended and easily accessible, and you will be feeding the countless chickens that will charge your blanket.
Restless of sitting on the beach but interested in appreciating Kauai’s beautiful coastline, one can explore the Kauai Path. The path runs along the coast with easy access to beaches, bike rentals, and plenty of parking along the way. Strolling the path in the early evening the weather is almost perfect, with a light coastal breeze and plenty of sunlight to illuminate the path - an ideal combination of light exercise and beautiful scenery.
The food truck scene in Kapaʻa is a staple with permanent trucks intermittently parked throughout the town. Mexican, traditional Hawaiian plates, crepes, pizza, and shaved ice are a few options one will find from the Kapaʻa food trucks. The first morning on the island we had breakfast at the El Rey Del Mar food truck. We met Victor, the cashier at the food truck, "welcome to Kauai when did you arrive?" he asked. Although we were not old friends, we immediately felt at home. Breakfast tacos with eggs, rice, beans, salsa, inside fresh corn tortillas set the bar high for any other food truck we would experience that week. Like my experience at the beach, it is vital to guard your food and be mindful of the chickens roaming the seating areas adjacent to the food trucks.
A favorite and must try of the food trucks is Wailua Shave Ice. Savoring every bite, I had the strawberry coconut with coconut milk, strawberry puree, and coconut flakes. The best part is the vanilla ice cream in the bottom of the bowl, but this is extra, so don’t forget to order the ice cream. Made with fresh fruit purees and stacked in a bowl heaping with shave ice and pure goodness, Wailua Shave Ice will have you coming back for more.
Specialty & Surf Shops
Kapaʻa offers a variety of shopping options including boutiques, succulent and specialty gardens, a bamboo shop, surf rentals, and an ABC Store with Hawaii souvenirs. If you have never experienced an ABC Store, imagine the essential souvenir shop with local treats, clothing, first aid, quick snacks, and alcohol. After each purchase made the ABC Store clerk reminds you to keep your receipt for a free gift. Reading the fine print on the receipt, I learn that after spending $100 or more I will receive a free calendar.
A common item found throughout the specialty stores, and surf shops are shirts with the island of Kauai and a chicken. There are a few surf shops in town but judging by the number of Tamba branded attire found on the locals, Tamba is a favorite. Offering surf rentals, mainly men’s attire, and surfboards for purchase, Tamba is must stop for the surfer in your life. My husband and I made three separate stops at the shop before he purchased a used surfboard from the rack of boards lining the outer wall of the store. “Buying a board is better in the long run than renting because I am leaving it at my Mom’s, and we will be back,” he told me as though to justify why we are purchasing a surfboard. Plus, it was cheaper than a four day rental.
A block away from Tamba is Kapaʻa Beach Shop offering snorkel, scuba, and spearfishing equipment for sale or rent in addition to bike and beach cruiser rentals. The owner of the shop is amiable, and his dog will great you at the front entrance of this beach shack style building. While looking at the limited surfboard rentals available the owner encourages us to check out Tamba for more boards and surf rentals. “It’s a small town, and no one wants to take away business, so I don’t carry many surfboards. Tamba is where you go for surf” said the Beach Shop Owner. Surprised by this response coming from a town where businesses will do anything to survive, we are pleasantly appreciative of this attitude and support for one and other.
Staying with my in-laws, I had an opportunity to experience island life on Kauai like a local. Having lived on Oahu for four years, I was no stranger to the food, culture, and Hawaiian way of living. One evening we were invited to a family dinner across the street from my in-laws’ home needless to say I was thrilled to be invited and looking forward to authentic local food. When we arrived, there was a spread of lettuce wraps for tacos, an assortment of meats and fish, and a giant bowl of Hawaiian mac salad. Not quite what I expected, but I came to find out the men at the party were in the middle of a bet centered around the keto diet to see who could lose the most weight. The competition was serious as there was $1,500 going to the biggest loser. As my husband is a big believer in the keto diet, I was aware of the diet restrictions. “Keto is hard. Every day I use to eat rice, and my wife bakes the best food,” said Ryan, a local I sat with at dinner.
Before visiting the island, my husband planned to get a new tattoo. With several shops to choose from in Kapaʻa, he ultimately settled on Kukui Street Tattoo. We were greeted the moment we walked in the shop. Jason, an apprentice of one of the lead artists, set up our appointment asked us about our stay, plans for the island, and provide several recommendations. Born and raised on Kauai, Jason also taught surf lessons at a nearby beach. Between the first visit and the actual appointment, we spent more time talking with Jason than we did for the reason we were there, the tattoo. Everyone who worked in the shop was over the top friendly and eager to hear your story and share some advice and guidance about the island.
Located on the fourth largest of the Hawaii islands, Kapaʻa is on the east side of Kauai, the garden island. Lush terrain, plenty of rain, and breath-taking coastline make up the islands serene landscape. Accessible by plane through Lihue Airport, there are a few airlines to choose from including Alaska, Hawaiian, and soon Southwest Airlines. Upon arrival you will be asked to declare what you are carrying with you in your carry on or stored luggage. As the environment in Hawaii is extremely protected, the state is particularly adamant about what you can and cannot bring to Hawaii. If you love to travel with your dog, leave the pooch at home, as Hawaii will require you quarantine your pet before arrival.
If Kauai is on your travel list, then plan to spend time in Kapaʻa. Kapaʻa is ideally located between the islands popular destinations to visit including Waimea and Hanalei. There are hotels a short walk from the downtown area and plenty to explore for the entire family. Consider renting a home as you will be more likely to meet some locals staying in a neighborhood rather than a resort. Just be prepared no matter where you stay or what you do there is chance while visiting the island that you will feel outnumbered by chickens, but not to worry, because this is all a part of the Kapaʻa, Kauai experience.