Kauai, Hawaii: The West Side
Kauai is the 4th largest island in Hawaii, nicknamed “The Garden Isle”
Popular destinations on the west side include Hanapepe, Waimea, Polihale, Waimea Canyon and Kokeʻe
Kauai is like my second Hawaii home, and it’s my favorite island besides my hometown on Oahu.
In my opinion, it’s the most beautiful island in Hawaii, if they could ever be ranked, and has what just about any visitor to Hawaii could want aside from an active volcano. People often ask me where in Hawaii they should visit. Well, there’s my answer.
My family’s roots are based on the island’s west side in Waimea, so many of my childhood summers were spent there. We’d fly there along with other Oahu relatives, stay in the mountain cabins of Kokeʻe, have bonfires at Kekaha beach and check out the local Japanese bon dance festivals. There were a lot of fond memories made on the island.
I finally went back for a visit in 2017, after more than a decade. My life had changed enormously during that time - I had lived in San Francisco, then moved to Japan, living in Yukuhashi, Fukuoka and now Tokyo. I wasn’t sure how I’d react being on Kauai again, but it was really nice returning to a place that played a considerable part of my childhood.
Kauai is the fourth largest island in the state and has a big range in landscape.
There are lush greens and rivers on the northeast side in Hanalei, and dry, red dirt and vast beaches out west in Waimea and Kekaha. Then heading up the mountain, you’ll go through Hawaii’s “mini Grand Canyon” or Waimea Canyon before hitting the foggy green peak of Mt Waiʻaleʻale that’s known as one of the rainiest places on Earth.
While I visited most places growing up, there wasn’t enough time to do everything I wanted to this time around - Missed Hanapepe, didn’t fully walk around Waimea, and so on. These are a few places that I prioritized though, places that I think are worth checking out on the west side of Kauai.
Waimea is basically the last town in west Kauai and the fork point to my two west Kauai recommendations below. It has a couple of supermarkets like Ishihara (bottom) and Big Save, places to eat as well as shops and tourist attractions that I used to visit as a kid like the Menhune Ditch, the Swinging Bridge and Russian Fort. For a glimpse of local life though, the Waimea Landing is a pretty good place to get that.
The now downsized version of what was a former port, the pier often has locals hanging out fishing. The waters aren’t the picturesque blue that people might imagine in Hawaii because of the nearby Waimea River mouth bringing down dirt from Waimea Canyon, but it’s a nice place to stop by while roaming the town as it’s only a block away from the main street. There are some amazing sunsets here, I’ll need to go back and take a proper photo of one.
KOKEʻE & WAIMEA CANYON
Hawaii’s mini Grand Canyon, the Waimea Canyon is a view many might not expect to see in Hawaii but in my opinion, is a must. Nowhere else in Hawaii has a similar view and Iran one of my favorites.
From Waimea town, there’s a road that goes up to Kokeʻe which is towards the summit of Mt Waiʻaleʻale, the main volcanic mountain on Kauai. The drive up goes through the ridges of the canyon and there are scenic lookouts to stop at.
Towards the top of the Kokeʻe area, there’s Kokeʻe State Park as well as another amazing lookout of the Kalalau mountain range. Contrasting the red dirt scenes of Waimea town and the Waimea Canyon, some of the most beautiful greens and blues in all of Hawaii are here. Definitely go up to Kokeʻe early though for the best view as the clouds and fog roll in.
One of the best beaches in Hawaii, I feel. Polihale beach is a long, wide, white-sanded beach area at the most western point of Kauai with a clear view of neighboring Niihau island.
It’s not the easiest to get to and it’s best to go in a truck or SUV because you have to drive off-road a while after the pavement ends. When you hit the fork in the dirt road at the Monkeypod Tree [MAP], go right and when you undoubtably question if you’re going the right way as I did the last time I went, just keep going. There will be a small parking area with a few tables that eventually shows up.
The waters here are beautiful, sunsets amazing, and it’s not crowded at all. It’s a more of a local spot and almost like having a semi-private beach. Definitely bring some sun protection though as the sun is piercing on this side of the island.
Waimea was always the main area that I would spend my Kauai summers growing up, and it was the hub on this last trip to Kokeʻe, Waimea Canyon and Polihale Beach as well. It’s a small town but has a lot of character. It also has some great places to stop at for some food or snacks. Here are a couple.
Some of the best poke in Hawaii. Ishihara Market was a local, family-owned market before being taken over by the same owner that runs Foodland, one of Hawaii’s major supermarket chains.
Ishihara has remained pretty much the same according to reports, which is a good thing because they have a small town vibe and great local, Hawaii-style takeout foods. Their poke is the best and they have a wide selection in the back of their store. My personal favorite is their hamachi poke - uncommon and so good.
JOJO’S SHAVE ICE
JoJo’s became a staple shave ice spot since when I’d visit Waimea growing up and they still should be.
One thing about the westside of Kauai is that it is hot and dry, so shave ice really hits the spot. Their serving sizes are generous and they have 34 different flavors to choose from as well as set combos. I’m sure any of them are good but mix in some local Hawaii flavors for sure.