Floating on the waves and hiking through the jungle are must-do activities on Kauai. But to better commune with the westernmost of the well-populated Hawaiian Islands, I also wanted to taste the local bounty.
Fortunately, there are great ways to savor what makes Kauai unique without breaking the bank at gourmet restaurants. There may be nowhere else on Earth you can visit a coffee farm, a microbrewery and a cacao farm in such 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 litchis by the bag.
A friend and I managed all of the above in between naps at the beach, and our farm-to-table adventures introduced us to people and places we would have otherwise missed.
“We have agricultural land, agricultural history and agricultural values,” said chocolate farmer Will Lydgate, whose relatives have lived on Kauai since the 1800s.
Coffee by the ocean
Whether at home or on vacation, I reach for coffee when I wake up. But I had never encountered an actual coffee tree until we made a trek to Kauai Coffee Company’s picturesque plantation by the sea (kauaicoffee.com). 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. “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.
The estate is massive, with 4 million trees covering 3,100 acres tended to by more than 100 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.
For a more rustic experience, try Hanapepe, a sunbaked little river town with historic storefronts.
There, inside a ramshackle building with peeling paint, Dale Nagamine has made taro chips for 36 years. The taro root plant is a staple in native Hawaiian cuisine, and Nagamine’s chips are sliced letter-thin, dusted with garlic salt, deep-fried and baked. Flecked with purple, his crunchy snacks are understated yet addictive.
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.
“I grow the taro in the valley over there. I make the chips and sell them here,” he shrugged. “That’s about it.”
Cacao, from 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” (lydgatefarms.com).
We experienced a real thrill in watching our guide slice open a bright yellow cacao pod to reveal the beans inside at this small-scale operation near Kapaa. We learned how chocolate came to be and how the sweet stuff gets made.
The group tour also covered other plants grown on Kauai, such as vanilla and black sapote, a persimmon-like fruit with pulp like chocolate pudding.
“Treat it like nature’s Jell-O shot,” suggested our guide, a surfer from California, as she introduced rambutan fruits — lychee-like balls with translucent flesh and spiny red skins.
The morning ended with a chocolate taste test, including 10 varieties from Lydgate Farms and around the world.
Farmers markets abound on Kauai, where tables are piled high with pineapples, coconuts, avocados, star fruit and more.
For $5 at a Saturday market in Hanalei on the north shore, I bought a bag crammed with two dozen rambutan. (Various websites maintain farmers market schedules, including Tasting Kauai: tastingkauai.com/farmers-markets).
Then I struck up a conversation with Matthew Cummings, who learned how to drive a tractor on his family’s 10-acre orchard.
“I helped out a lot when I was a kid,” Cummings said. “Kauai is a really good place to grow so many different fruits. We get a lot of sun and a lot of rain.”
When he wants a snack, Cummings reaches for soursop fruits, spiky green ovals with creamy flesh that taste a bit like tangy bananas.
Farmers markets are important to Kauai residents because they promote healthful eating habits, he said. Many vendors sell only organic products.
Wandering through the Hanalei market later, I browsed handmade artwork and clothes. It was a misty morning and a local musician was singing Hawaiian songs while plucking a ukulele. Taro leaves planted between the market and the mountains swayed in the breeze.
Finished with my fruit, I lingered longer than intended, which was OK. There was nowhere else I had to be.