A plantation vibe imbues Koloa's boutiques and eateries. // © 2015 HTA/Tor Johnson
Feature image (above): The historic Waioli Huiia Church is one of Hanalei's most picturesque landmarks. // © 2015 HTA/Tor Johnson
Even the biggest towns in Kauai feel small. The island itself is less populated than neighboring Oahu, Maui and Hawaii Island, so its urban centers have a homespun vibe and easy-going pace. Plantation-style structures set a timeless stage for visitor-friendly shops, restaurants and galleries.
Thanks to Kauai’s manageable size, travelers can easily visit all four of these towns during one vacation.
Tucked between mountains and a crescent beach, Hanalei has nature on its side. No wonder so many artists have opened galleries here, setting up shop in quaint old buildings with welcoming porches. Outfitter shops help visitors explore the beauties of the north shore, from stand-up paddling in Hanalei Bay to kayaking the Hanalei River. Dining ranges from food-truck tacos to fresh sushi. The 19th-century Waioli Mission House lends historical context, and the lively Tahiti Nui luau adds a dose of aloha.
Calling itself Kauai’s "Biggest Little Town," this hamlet on the southwest side has evolved from an ancient agricultural hub to a cute and quirky destination in the present. Old-time buildings look like a movie set, and rightfully so. Flicks such as “The Thorn Birds” and “Flight of the Intruder” were filmed here. Each Friday night the town’s shops and galleries stay open late, with food trucks and strolling musicians delighting passers-by. Don’t miss the Hanapepe Swinging Bridge, a classic suspension span across the river.
Sugar’s roots run deep in Koloa, where Hawaii’s first plantation opened in 1835. Today, clapboard storefronts attract visitors with pizza, ice cream, souvenirs and boutiques. A history center shares artifacts and vintage photos. Visitors can follow the Koloa Heritage Trail, with 14 stops at cultural, historical and geological points of interest. A great time to visit is July, when the week-long Koloa Plantation Days celebration honors the region’s past with games, live entertainment, a parade and an outdoor party.
This little west-side gem has a big backstory. British captain James Cook landed here in 1778, and today his statue presides over the town center. A Russian fort — whose ruins are still visible — was built here in the early 1800s. New England missionaries arrived here in 1820. A once-thriving sugar plantation was launched in 1880. These days, travelers can learn about this must-see Kauai town during walking tours with the West Kauai Visitor Center, which also presents hands-on arts, crafts and cultural classes.