Wailua Falls // © 2012 HTA/Tor Johnson
Kauai Museum // © 2012 HTA/Robert Coello
Hamura Saimin // © 2012 HTA/Tor Johnson
Kalapaki Beach and Menehune Fishpond // © 2012 HTA/Robert Coello
Grove Farm and Kilohana // © 2012 Kauai Visitors Bureau
Kauai Concert Association (KCA) // © 2012 Suesue Okada
Some people overlook Lihue without realizing it. While the city serves as Kauai’s hub of tourism transportation by jumbo jet and cruise ship, arriving visitors usually collect their bags, pick up their rental cars and head straight to their accommodations in other parts of the island. That’s a shame, because a lot happens in Lihue. Not only is it the core of Kauai’s business, government and tourism, it’s also home of what Kauai Visitors Bureau executive director Sue Kanoho calls a “cornerstone of history and culture.” Happily, Lihue is centrally located and easy to reach from around the island, so clients can set aside a couple of hours to explore it or make a day of it.
1. Wailua Falls. Just north of town, this spectacular natural attraction is best experienced in the early morning for two reasons: Fewer crowds make for peaceful viewing, and the lighting causes rainbows to arch over the 80-foot cascade. Unlike many waterfalls on the island, this one is a drive-up attraction, viewable right from the road. If its double-barreled drop looks familiar, you probably watched the television show “Fantasy Island,” whose opening credits featured its rushing waters. Ancient Hawaiian men proved their manhood by jumping off the top of the falls, but today’s visitors find fulfillment from simply gazing at the never-ending flow of water.
2. Kauai Museum. More than 50 years old and still going strong, this treasured landmark features exhibits, artifacts, photos and films about the geology, history and culture of Kauai and its sister island, Niihau. Throughout the year, it hosts special events, displays and workshops appealing to all ages. Check it out on May 1, when its Lei Day event reels in the crowds with a remarkable presentation of handcrafted floral garlands strung by talented residents. Or visit during its weekly Saturday Ohana (Family) Day, when admission is free and activities with multigenerational appeal connect to cultural themes. The building itself — a two-story structure made of lava rock — is worth the visit.
3. Hamura Saimin. For tasty insights into Kauai cuisine and lifestyle, look no further than this simple 1952 diner specializing in saimin, Hawaii’s beloved noodle soup. Throughout four generations of family ownership, hungry patrons steadfastly have lined up for a seat at one of the U-shaped Formica counters, where visitors sit cheek by jowl with the locals. A common bond is forged as clients slurp steaming bowls of broth and fresh-made noodles swimming with trimmings such as vegetables, shrimp, sweet barbecued pork, won tons and hard boiled eggs. The teriyaki barbecue sticks have earned a devoted following and the lilikoi (passion fruit) chiffon pie is nothing short of heavenly.
4. Kalapaki Beach and Menehune Fishpond. Head south from the airport to Kalapaki, Lihue’s best beach and a great bodysurfing and boogie-boarding haven. Stop by the seaside Kauai Beach Boys headquarters for outrigger canoe rides, board rentals and sailing, surfing and paddleboarding lessons. Play a round on the neighboring Kauai Lagoons Golf Club, with the longest stretch of oceanfront holes in Hawaii. Stroll the docks of adjacent Nawiliwili Harbor, where stately cruise ships come and go on a regular basis. Then drive a half-mile inland to the overlook at Alekoko, also known as the Menehune Fishpond. Built 1,000 years ago, it’s a great example of ancient Hawaiian aquaculture.
5. Grove Farm and Kilohana. Kauai’s thriving sugar industry spanned 150 years, and these two Lihue attractions provide a glimpse of that bygone era. Take a guided tour of the buildings and grounds of Grove Farm, a lovingly preserved 19th-century plantation homestead. At Kilohana, site of a handsome 1935 mansion, check out the arts and crafts boutiques; visit the tasting room for Koloa Rum, made from island sugar; and take a ride on a restored sugar train that winds through 100 acres of working fields, exploring the history and future of Kauai agriculture. End the afternoon at Kilohana’s Gaylord’s restaurant, savoring fresh local ingredients and live music in an open-air courtyard.
6. Kauai Concert Association (KCA). As night falls the music swells in Lihue, thanks to this arts organization, which recently ramped up its events for visitors and residents. At the Kauai Community College Performing Arts Center, enthusiastic audiences applaud top-notch artists during annual seasons of classical, dance, jazz and world music. In the coming months, check out the chamber group El Mundo (Jan. 27, 2013), Tony Award-winning singer/actress Lea Salonga (Feb. 26), the Afiara String Quartet (March 3) and Canadian folk duo Dala (April 21). KCA’s sixth annual Red Clay Jazz Festival (June 26) offers yet another harmonious way to appreciate the many lures of Lihue.