An incredible adventure in Kauai, Hawaii

There is no place in the world quite like Hawaii.

It’s a world far removed from the concrete jungle, with friendly people, a relaxed pace, and nature rules. Ancient canyons, valleys, and forests, with verdant beauty that remains untouched: Hawaii’s got them all in spades. It is a place that is literally awe-inspiring. Aloha, welcome to Hawaii!

Date of trip: 5/Aug/2017 – 16/Aug/2017

This post focuses on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. See my other posts on Big Island [soon!], and Oahu [few more weeks!].

My friends and I personally incurred all expenses and planned our own itinerary for this trip; no component of this post was sponsored.

Table of Contents

Trip Map

Intro

Activities / Sights

Nounou Trail – The Sleeping Giant
Kilauea Lighthouse
Hanalei Valley Lookout
Kalalau Trail & Hanakapiai Beach
Sunset at Hanalei Pier
Honopu Ridge Trail
Awaawapuhi Trail
Waimea & Surrounds
Miscellaneous Helicopter Photos

Food

Ha Coffee Roasters
Fish Express
Kauai Grill at the St Regis
Lei Petite Cafe & Bakery
Wishing Well Shaved Ice
Hanalei Bay Pizzeria
Anuenue Cafe
JoJo’s Shaved Ice
Ishihara Market Poke
Gina’s Anykine
Hamura Saimin

Trip Map

Intro

Despite hopping on planes out of Sydney more than 13 times this year, I have to call it: Hawaii takes the gong for the most beautiful place I’ve visited in 2017 – and there’s stiff competition.

Actually, scratch that. I’m selling it short: Hawaii is one of the most beautiful locations I’ve ever visited.

Hawaii Kauai

Just one of Hawaii’s magical waterfalls

Why Visit?

The 50th state of the USA was violently forged from a series of volcanic eruptions, with two volcanoes remaining active to this day. Similar to other island nations, Hawaii is a collection of many islands, with eight primary ones on which residents call home.

Its tumultuous geological past, combined with its positioning in the tropical latitudes has imbued it with a lush, natural and unspoiled beauty. Geologically ancient countries such as Australia simply cannot compare (though we certainly have our own kind of beauty). From formations comparable to Arizona’s very own Grand Canyon, to towering waterfalls, and fields of lava stretching as far as the eye can see – resembling nothing short of an alien landscape – Hawaii is a landscape traveler’s dream.

Hawaii Kauai

Magnificent

James Cameron famously filmed the Jurassic Park series of movies in Kauai. I’m glad I saw with my own eyes what he did: for its beauty certainly justified the choice.

And then of course, there’s the food! Unlike my Top End Northern Territory trip, where the isolation and tyranny of distance meant that my stomach was forced to take a timeout, Hawaii’s smaller size meant our stomachs were taken care of just as well as our eyes.

The Food

Hawaiian food is very much representative of its people: a pastiche of flavours and ingredients with influences from multiple Asian cultures, plus a little bit of that Western excess that America is so (in)famous for. It’s simplistic nosh, where presentation takes a backseat, with no over-engineering. The focus is instead on freshness of seafood, maximum flavour, and comfort.

Let’s dig in.

Timing / Climate

Hawaii’s tropical location renders the concept of ‘summer’ moot: bring sunscreen no matter what. The heat & humidity was easily the part I disliked the most about my trip, but at least that means the best time to visit is any time you’re able!

Getting Around

Rent a car. Drive around, my completely-biased opinion is that Hawaii should definitely be done DIY style. Car rental rates are reasonable, and you won’t be subject to the lasso of tour groups, inflexible itineraries and constant tipping (sorry, I’m Australian – what is tipping?) Sure, you’ll have to do some research – but that’s why you’re reading this post, right?

Inter-island flights operate at a frequent clip between four of Hawaii’s major islands. They’re serviced by a variety of carriers using turboprop aircraft – a new experience for me. We flew via Island Air, which consistently provided a great (and short!) flight experience every time. The best part? Those free POG juices 😉

Activities / Sights

Much like my Tasmania trip, our time in Hawaii encompassed far too much to be covered by one post. This first entry outlines our adventures on Hawaii’s oldest island: Kauai.  Of the three islands we visited, it is the most pristine, with the most striking landscapes I’ve seen. You won’t be surprised to hear that it was by far my favourite!

Nounou Trail – The Sleeping Giant

There are literally hundreds of trails on Kauai alone, each promising impressive views – with equally impressive cardio workouts. However, don’t say no-no to Nounou: the Sleeping Giant trail takes less than an hour for those with moderate fitness, offering a near 360 degree view of the Eastern end of Kauai. In fact, the only reason it’s not a perfect 360 is due to the ‘Giant’s Head’ itself: a towering, moss-covered rocky formation jutting out from, and thus defining the mountain.

Nounou Trail Sleeping Giant Walk Kauai

Kauai’s East Coast

Nounou Trail Sleeping Giant Walk Kauai

Kauai’s East Coast

Nounou Trail Sleeping Giant Walk Kauai

The sleeping giant’s head is to my right

Nounou Trail Sleeping Giant Walk Kauai

Accidental posing – hi Jamberryx!

Nounou Trail Sleeping Giant Walk Kauai

Looking into the distance, because that’s what’s cool these days

Nounou Trail Sleeping Giant Walk Kauai

Being an idiot at the top

Nounou Trail Sleeping Giant Walk Kauai

Panorama from the top – looking inland

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Kilauea Lighthouse

The best part about Kilauea Lighthouse is that you don’t have to hike to get there. The downside? Arriving to find out it’s closed. I suppose it was ambitious of us to start off our first day having coffee, then lunch, trekking up the Sleeping Giant, and then hopping off to the Lighthouse. That said, the coastline is clear to see, and as you’ll see multiple times later, it’s a beautiful one:

Kilauea Lighthouse Kauai Hawaii

Kilauea Lighthouse

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Hanalei Valley Lookout

A downside of hiking up a mountain is that sometimes I fail to actually appreciate the beauty and magnitude of my surroundings: a literal case of missing the forest for the trees, as it were. Hanalei Valley Lookout presents a cardio-free viewing experience. It’s cliched, as it’s one of the most photographed lookouts in Kauai. But then again, it is extremely accessible.

Low cost, low effort, and low time investment: get the shot, without going off the beaten track.

Hanalei Valley Lookout Kauai

Hanalei Valley Lookout – note the ‘no drones’ sign to the bottom right LOL

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Kalalau Trail & Hanakapiai Beach

In trekking circles, few trails attract as much notoriety as the Kalalau Trail. With the dual distinction of being the most beautiful and most dangerous hike in the world, it’s the kind of place that attracts the right mix of the brave and the stupid. I consider myself to be neither (well, maybe just a bit stupid), making a group decision to exercise caution in terminating our hike at Hanakapiai Beach, just 3km in. This is honestly good enough for most people – the beach is beautiful (though perhaps slightly overrated), and I already managed to take in excellent coastal vistas along the walk despite the early wuss-out. Besides, excellent photo opportunities can be had via a helicopter ride (highly recommended), or drone (also me, heh).

The full round trip, should you take on the challenge, is 35 km. Most hikers are expected to camp overnight at Kalalau Beach (which requires a permit). The dangerous part starts at the 7km+ mark, where extreme erosion has made the trail so narrow at points that one misstep will literally send you tumbling to your death. There are no lower cliffs or rocks to catch you: it’s straight into the water. People have died attempting the Kalalau trail: you have been warned.

Anyways, enough fear mongering: time to show off just how pretty this place is in the photos below. It really is one of the greatest highlights of Kauai, and I highly recommend doing the trek up to Hanakapiai Beach as a minimum.

Kalalau Trail Kauai Hawaii

20 minutes in and the view is already awesome (Ke’e Beach)

Kalalau Trail Kauai Hawaii

Hanakapiai Beach Kalalau Trail Kauai Hawaii

Drone selfie!

Hanakapiai Beach Kauai Hawaii

Hanakapiai beach in the context of the coastline. Amazing

Kalalau Trail Kauai Hawaii

Parts of the Kalalau trail, as seen from helicopter

Na Pali Coast Kauai Hawaii

The Na Pali Coastline as seen from helicopter near the Kalalau Trail

Kalalau Trail Kauai Hawaii

The Na Pali Coast: beautiful!

Kalalau Trail Kauai Hawaii

Hanakapiai Beach from above

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Sunset at Hanalei Pier

Romantic? Nah, just crowded. Hanalei Pier does however deserve the crowds. A great place to see the sunset, it’s yet another low-effort way to take in another slice of Kauai’s beauty without investing blood, sweat & quad burn in hiking. This should easily be on your list.

Hanalei Pier Hawaii

The pier from above: why take the same photo as everybody else?

Hanalei Pier Hawaii

Hanalei Bay from above

Hanalei Pier Hawaii

Spot the lantern!

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Honopu Ridge Trail

One of the longer hikes on Kauai, Honopu Ridge is 3-5 hours of your time that is well worth the investment. It is one of few ways to see the incredible Honopu Ridge (the lazier way is via helicopter), and trust me: you really want to see this with your own eyes. It’s a scene that’s taken pretty much straight out of Jurassic Park, a valley that looks literally the same today as it did 65 million years ago. I would not have doubted my eyes if Pterodactyls were flying across the valley. It is that kind of a place. Pro-tip: wear long pants. If you do, you’ll thank me later. If you don’t, you’ll wish you did once you’re on the trail.

Photos don’t do it justice, but I’m sure as hell going to try anyway.

Honopu Ridge Trail Kauai Hawaii

Honopu Ridge Trail Kauai Hawaii

The stunning ridge

Honopu Ridge Trail Kauai Hawaii

More stunning Na Pali coastline shots from the end of the Honopu Ridge Trail

Honopu Ridge Trail Kauai Hawaii

These formations :O

Honopu Ridge Trail Kauai Hawaii

Who’s this goofhead

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Awaawapuhi Trail

The Awaawapuhi Track runs almost parallel to the Honopu Ridge Trail, yet offers a completely different vista at the end: an incredible view of the Nualolo & Awaawapuhi Valleys. Like the Honopu Ridge Trail, it’s also rated at around 3-5 hours with moderate difficulty, a time that’s a little generous if you’ve got some modicum of fitness. Most of my readership (oh hey, that’s you!) would blitz it in three hours, no problems (but also no pressure).

The only downside with this particular walk, at least when compared to the Honopu Trail, is that it is very boring – with trees the entire time until the view at the end presents itself. We have a name for these: an all-or-nothing trail.

Better give it your all!

Awaawapuhi Trail Kauai Hawaii

Not recommended to go down to where I am (loose dirt), but try if you dare!

Awaawapuhi Trail Kauai Hawaii

The valley, from above. To show scale, a helicopter would be but a speck in this photo.

Awaawapuhi Trail Kauai Hawaii

More Na Pali Coastline shots from the end of the trail

Awaawapuhi Trail Kauai Hawaii

The dark depths of the Awaawapuhi valley

Awaawapuhi Trail Kauai Hawaii

‘the hand’ – I just made this up. The coastline does look like a sleeping giant’s fingers from above, does it not?

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Waimea & Surrounds

If you only have one full day to go sightseeing in Kauai and aren’t keen to get a little sweaty, then Waimea and its plethora of sights in the area would be my absolute first recommendation. In fact, it would be recommended even if you are into hiking: all sights can be accessed from the arterial Kokee Road and its offshoots, you could literally drive for a day and tick them all off – with plenty of time for selfies.

While the entire area is beautiful beyond compare, do not miss the Waimea Canyon Lookout. It will make you think twice on whether or not Grand Canyon really has a monopoly on canyon grandeur.

Waimea Canyon Kauai Hawaii

It’s a big canyon.

Note: some of the following photos were taken from a Helicopter. If you can spare the money, I highly recommend taking to the skies!

Pu’u o Kila Lookout

Pu'o Kila Lookout Kauai Hawaii

Pu’o Kila Lookout

Waimea Canyon Lookout

Waimea Canyon Kauai Hawaii

Waimea Canyon Lookout (just one of many, really)

Waimea Canyon Kauai Hawaii

Kalalau Valley Lookout

Jurassic Falls

Yep, the famous waterfall from Jurassic park: accessibly only by helicopter.

Jurassic Falls Kauai Hawaii

Jurassic Falls: the size of this photo should give an idea of just how large this waterfall is

Wailua Falls

You can technically get to Wailua Falls by car and see it up close. However, a helicopter ride will give you the best vantage point, observe:

Wailua Falls

Wailua Falls from the bridge

Wailua Falls

Wailua Falls from helicopter

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Miscellaneous, helicopter-only photos from Kauai

At this point, if I haven’t convinced you of Kauai’s beauty, I have one last ditch attempt to do so. Get ready to scroll here: time to prove to you the worth of a helicopter ride over this beautiful island.

Kauai Hawaii

Kauai Hawaii

Kauai Hawaii

Kauai Hawaii

Hawaii Kauai

Kauai Hawaii

Kauai Hawaii

Kauai Hawaii

Kauai Hawaii

Kauai Hawaii

Kauai Hawaii

Kauai Hawaii

Kauai Hawaii

Kauai Hawaii

Kauai Hawaii

Mt Waialeale: one of the wettest spots on earth

Waimea Kauai Hawaii

Sunset at Waimea

Waimea Kauai Hawaii

Waimea Pier from above

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Food

Ha Coffee Roasters

I don’t want to be that guy, but speaking on behalf of all coffee lovers in Australia, American coffee is not going to inspire any Aussie that takes their golden brew seriously. More often than not, coffee came in pot form – i.e. the instant stuff any of us can do at home in an inexcusably lazy moment. Sure, you get free refills, but seeing that on a menu serves as more of a warning sign than an encouragement on the quality of the coffee.

However, that’s the rule – and exceptions are what prove it. Ha Coffee Roasters is one such exception, serving proper barista-pulled brews and most of the familiar names that Aussies would be right at home with. Lattes, long blacks, and espressos are all par for the course here. Of course, it’s not like this is Melbourne laneway coffee in Kauai: Hawaii is actually a very large exporter of locally grown coffee, and local brews definitely exhibit local flavour profiles, most notably a certain acidity that borders on bitter citrus, with a very dark, intense finish. It’s not to my palate, but it’s not bad coffee either.

As a spot for a coffee break, the spacious interior and staff serving the ‘proper stuff’ easily earn my recommendation: your coffee mileage may vary.

Ha Coffee Roasters Kauai

Ha Coffee Roasters’ spacious interior

Ha Coffee Roasters Kauai

Ha Coffee Roasters Kauai

Real coffee!

Ha Coffee Roasters Kauai

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Fish Express

If you don’t know what poke is, then I’m not even sure what you were planning on eating in Hawaii. The rustic seafood salad has swept across Australia like a tsunami bearing all the umami of the sea: fresh cubed fish, seaweed, and an Asian grandma’s pantry’s worth of colourful, healthy, and delicious toppings. I fully expected that the poke in Sydney would be substantially different to what I would find in Hawaii, and I was right: the options are localised, more plentiful, and the extreme specificity in which you can construct your very own bowl is something that Sydney cannot reproduce. Not to say that Sydney poke sucks – it’s an evolution –  you just can’t miss out on Hawaiian poke when in Hawaii.

Enter Fish Express: my first Hawaiian poke experience. It embodied everything I eventually came to understand about poke: accessible, cheap, a ton of variety, and I was the god of creation in bringing my poke bowl to life – down to the amount of sauce! Other than the rather run-down building in which Fish Express resides, I don’t hesitate in recommending it.

Fish Express Kauai

That variety tho

Fish Express Kauai

Such good poke goodness

Fish Express Kauai

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Kauai Grill at the St Regis (no photos, oops)

Whether it’s $8 poke or $120 fine dining, Kauai’s got you covered. For those with a partner to impress (you’re probably here on your honeymoon/anniversary, right?), poke will do just fine. If he or she’s not going to be happy with that, then they don’t deserve you to treat them to the upmarket Kauai Grill anyway.

Suitably located at the 5-star St Regis resort is a restaurant that’s your ticket to an impressive meal with an incredible view of the Kauai coastline. While the view is already deserving of the price at dining here, it’s the food that really impressed me beyond expectations. Head chef Christopher Kim’s signature menu comes in at 5 courses, starting with perfectly balanced ahi tuna carpaccio, demonstrating the freshness of Hawaii’s seafood produce. Then there’s the thoughtfully-prepared local Kauai beef – crusted with coffee & served with black garlic, no less. It’s then followed by a slightly naughty dessert of fromage blanc cheesecake that makes it a meal to remember. Memories of that beef still linger to this day. Pair this with the American way of highly hospitable service (notwithstanding the occasional cutlery/plate fumble), and the tip is well-earned.

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Lei Petite Bakery Cafe

Not too far from Hanalei Valley Lookout is Lei Petite Bakery Cafe – a cute, rustic little joint churning out the classics: eggs benedicts, jaffles, and barista coffee. Service is a bit slow due to its popularity, but that’s just how this island rolls. Besides, you’re here to relax, right?

Lei Petite Bakery

Lei Petite Bakery

Simple but effective

Lei Petite Bakery

Lei Petite Bakery will do an omelette any way you like

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Wishing Well Shaved Ice

If poke is the one savoury dish you must try to pass the ‘did you even go to Hawaii?’ test, then shaved ice is the dessert equivalent. Let’s not overcomplicate it: shave some ice, add some flavoured syrup(s): BAM, and the heat is gone. Of course, it can’t be too icy, and the balance of syrup(s) used greatly influence the sweetness of the final product.

So, where can you get it? Pretty much everywhere; however, as this section has already spoiled, Wishing Well Shaved Ice is a particularly popular institution. There are over 30 types of syrups, and with this variety, endless possibility – try go local and order naturally flavoured versions with fruits such as lilikoi (passionfruit), mango and guava. They also do great acai bowls too!

Wishing Well Shaved Ice

Expect a wait in line at any time of year!

Wishing Well Shaved Ice

Shaved ice with tropical fruit syrups

Wishing Well Shaved Ice

I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but the acai bowls are legit

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Hanalei Bay Pizzeria

Jokes about Hawaiian pizza in Hawaii aside (you can thank Canada for that particular invention), actual pizza in Hawaii has much more to do with the delicious slices from mainland USA: each feeds a family, with a side of cardiac arrest. Okay, it’s not that bad – we’re Aussies after all; our pizzas aren’t exactly wuss-sized. In any case, I was drawn to Hanalei Bay Pizzeria by smell alone, and when my nose leads, it does not lead me astray: the pizza here is damn good. It’s freshly made to order (pre-made slices are also available to purchase), comes in piping hot, and even though each slice is basically a mini-hike’s worth of calories, ’twas totally worth it.

Hanalei Bay PIzzeria

Hanalei Bay PIzzeria

Hanalei Bay PIzzeria

Pizza bigger than your face

Hanalei Bay PIzzeria

Don’t forget the buffalo wings! Oh so moreish.

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Anuenue Cafe

Getting to Waimea in the south from Kilauea in the north doesn’t take long, but a well-timed breakfast stop at Anuenue Cafe, near the old town of Koloa made for a great pitstop. The menu is varied, but the focus is clear: comfort food. I was somewhat apprehensive: the coffee is pot stuff, the burrito was bland, requiring a ton of sauce, but what saved it was the kalua pork fried rice. Kalua-style refers to an old Hawaiian slow-cooking method involving the use of an underground oven, a process that these days is undertaken by the slow cooker. Much like a loco moco in richness, Anuenue’s kalua pork dish is clearly where all the flavour went. Oh goodness, it’s worth visiting just for this.

Anuenue Cafe

Anuenue Cafe

Anuenue Cafe

Kalua pork fried rice: literally the one good dish we had, but good enough to make up for the

Anuenue Cafe

Forget the acai bowl, and rewind back to the kalua pork yo

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Jo Jo’s Shaved Ice

What, you thought I was only going to get shaved ice once? Please, when the addiction starts it’s hard to stop (don’t do drugs kids).

While shaved ice can be great when done properly, I can’t say I went yo yo for Jo Jo’s. While it is one of the highest-rated ice dispensaries in South Kauai, it didn’t stack up to say, Wishing Well’s shaved ice – the syrup wasn’t consistently applied, leading to some spots being particularly devoid of flavour, while other parts had my taste buds bouncing off the proverbial wall.

Jojo's Shaved Ice Kauai

Jojo’s Shaved Ice

Jojo's Shaved Ice Kauai

Looks can be deceiving – these were a bit too icy for my liking

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Ishihara Market Poke

You know poke is truly part of a society’s lifeblood if dedicated poke serving areas are integrated into supermarkets, just like delis in Australia. Ishihara Market‘s poke is the cheapest I’ve encountered – though as we visited in the late afternoon, most of the good stuff had sold out. Still, there aren’t many places where you could buy buy an entire pound (uh, 453g – have I been converted to freedom units?) of fresh tuna or kingfish for just $10. Ishihara’s is one of those places. Clean ’em out, guys.

Ishihara Market Poke

Ishihara Market Poke

They even have sea snails! (bottom left)

Ishihara Market Poke

Yasss

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Gina’s Anykine Cafe

I don’t know who Gina is, but she’ll forever be remembered as the one to have introduced me to loco moco, a drool-inducing mishmash of hamburger patties, fried eggs, and gravy all atop white rice. In many ways, loco moco truly showcases Hawaii as America’s multicultural melting pot, combining the state’s Asian palate with American gluttony. Japan already serves ‘hamburg steak’ with rice, but I’m certainly not complaining about the Americanisation done to it: who doesn’t love sunny-side up eggs and gravy?

I ended up having loco moco several times on the trip (with Gina’s Anykine Cafe being an excellent one with which to start), and of course – it’s always a regrettable, ‘why did I just order that?’ experience in the best possible way.

Gina's Anykine Cafe

Gina's Anykine Cafe

Loco Moco: the true definition of comfort food

Gina's Anykine Cafe

Kauai beef burger: also extremely comforting. Those crinkle fries though!

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Hamura Saimin

If you’ve read this post in order, then you’ve learned that poke, shaved ice and loco moco are rite of passage dishes in order to consider yourself to have truly visited Hawaii. Let me add another one to that list: saimin. If loco moco is one side of the (deeeelicious) coin representing Hawaii’s multiculturalism, saimin is the other. It’s not quite Japanese ramen, Chinese la mian, or any other Southeast Asian noodle dish. Yet, it’s all of them at the same time. Saimin is a perfect example of a dish that evolved from well-defined beginnings, but that has blurrily evolved through the passage history. Like many great modern noodle dishes, saimin was the product of austerity, where predominantly Asian plantation workers toiling away in the fields would use whatever they had to communally create a dish that was nutritionally passable, and of course delicious.

Our first taste of it was at Hamura Saimin. Let me tell you: despite Hawaii’s warmth, a tasty, umami-rich noodle soup never goes out of style. Like shaved ice, loco moco, and poke, saimin is perhaps not as ‘refined’ as say, ramen (or kakigori for shaved ice, and chirashizushi for poke), but you’ll never really get anything quite like saimin anywhere else in the world. Savour the delicious simplicity!

If you have the stomach, do also try the ethereal lilikoi cheesecake. Tart and refreshing, this goes down so easy.

Hamura Saimin Kauai Hawaii

Hamura Saimin

Hamura Saimin Kauai Hawaii

An interesting seating layout at Hamura Saimin…

Hamura Saimin Kauai Hawaii

Saimin: a cross between ramen, lamian, and god knows what else.

Hamura Saimin Kauai Hawaii

Hamura Saimin Kauai Hawaii

Lilikoi Cheesecake

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And there we go: Kauai in 3500 words and countless pictures. There’s even more to see, do, and eat should you choose to spend more time here. But for now, it’s time for us to move onto Kauai’s fiery big brother: Big Island! (pending)

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