Floating on the waves and hiking through the jungle are must-do activities on Kauai. But to better commune with the Garden Island, I wanted to taste the local bounty.
Fortunately, there are great ways to savor what makes Kauai unique without breaking the bank at gourmet restaurants. Visit a coffee farm, a microbrewery and a cacao farm in close proximity, surrounded by lush mountains and sandy bays.
With a bit more time, you can watch delicate taro chips sizzling in oil and buy aromatic lychee by the bag.
“We have agricultural land, agricultural history and agricultural values,” said chocolate farmer Will Lydgate, whose relatives have lived on Kauai since the 1800s. “We love selling what we grow to visitors. The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness. That’s our state motto.”
Coffee by the ocean
Whether at home or on vacation, I reach for coffee when I wake up. I was born and raised in Seattle, after all.
But I had never encountered an actual coffee tree until we made a trek to Kauai Coffee Company’s picturesque plantation by the sea. Situated near Hanapepe on the island’s south shore, the land was for 100 years a sprawling sugar estate owned by the wealthy Alexander and Baldwin families.
Their company began growing coffee rather than cane on the land in the 1980s, as sugar plantations across the state were closed down.
“Beet sugar started to replace cane sugar,” said Darla Domingo, who manages the plantation welcome center, where you can sample a variety of Kauai Coffee brews and join walking tours to see the red and yellow cherries that encase the precious beans.
“When I moved here in 1990, there were still five sugar plantations,” Domingo said. “Now there are none.”
The estate is massive, with 4 million trees covering 3,100 acres tended to by more than 100 union workers. Multinational company Massimo Zanetti runs the coffee operation, so the atmosphere is more corporate than homey, and the brews themselves are less than spectacular.
But there was something magical about strolling down rows of coffee trees, their waxy green leaves shimmering, within view of the ocean.
Because the trees need mild sun and rain, they’re mostly cultivated on shady mountainsides, like the slopes of volcanoes on Hawaii’s Big Island.
But on Kauai, a sea breeze does the trick, we learned, straining to detect some hint of salty spray as we sipped.
The master chipmaker
For a more rustic experience, try Hanapepe, a sunbaked little river town with historic storefronts.
Stomachs grumbling, we parked outside the ramshackle building with peeling paint where Dale Nagamine has made taro chips for 36 years.
Nagamine’s chips are sliced letter-thin, dusted with garlic salt, deep-fried and baked.
The sign beside the door read Taro Ko Chips Factory, but the timeworn kitchen was barely large enough for Nagamine and a pal, who were watching football when we arrived.
“My parents started the business,” Nagamine said. “Then I took over.”
Rather than use a website or Instagram account to drive business, the laconic master chipmaker counts on tradition and word-of-mouth. Flecked with purple, his crunchy snacks are understated yet addictive.
“I grow the taro in the valley over there. I make the chips and sell them here,” he shrugged. “That’s about it.”
Another laid-back option is the Kauai Beer Company brewpub in Lihue.
The suds are top-notch, the grub is tasty and the vibe set by easygoing owner Jim Greuber is friendly, attracting a mix of tourists and locals.
When we popped in for lunch, the other customers included mainland families and construction workers.
“We have birthday parties, readings, business meetings,” said Greuber, who was raised in Pennsylvania and began brewing beer in his garage back in 1978. “Everyone is welcome here.”
The hops and barley are imported, but Greuber and his son, Justin, write the recipes themselves and brew the beer on-site — about 650 pints per day.
Their mainstay is Lihue Lager, while their pride and joy, Black Limousine, combines a light taste and dark color.
“The water here on Kauai is conducive to lighter beers,” said Greuber, who moved to the island in 1996 after a career in Silicon Valley.
Cacao: ‘Branch to bar’
Dessert lovers should head for the hills above Kauai’s east shore, where Lydgate Farms raises cacao for chocolate and offers three-hour “branch-to-bar tours.”
Entrepreneurs have recently been begun cultivating coffee in California, but Hawaii remains the only U.S. state where cacao can be reliably grown — and there was a real thrill in watching our guide slice open a bright yellow cacao pod to reveal the beans inside.
We learned how chocolate came to be and how the sweet stuff gets made.
Lydgate Farms beans are grown, fermented, dried and roasted on the island, then shipped to a chocolatier on Oahu for manufacture.
Earlier, the group tour covered other plants grown on Kauai, such as vanilla and black sapote, a persimmon-like fruit with pulp like chocolate pudding.
The morning ended with a chocolate taste test, including 10 varieties from Lydgate Farms and around the world (afterward, I bought a bar of the estate’s milk chocolate with sea salt).
The tour was too pricey and long. But the chocolate was superb, the junglelike grounds were beautiful and the idea behind the farm was intriguing.