I’ll be honest, I didn’t expect to love Hawaii as much as I did, or find it to be so darn sustainable, authentic, and conscious.

Hawaii for our honeymoon? What a cliché! I thought it would be all sugary drinks on the beach, kitschy shops, an overbuilt, megaresort mecca teeming with loud Americans, like a Disneyland, but with palm trees and feeble resurrections of Hawaiian culture for the entertainment of tourists.

Turns out, Hawaii is so much more than that. I mean, yes, if you are the kind of person who wants to sit on the beach or at a faux grotto inside resort grounds drinking Mai Tais the entire time,  you can do that. But there is a hidden side to Hawaii, a place of pristine beaches with nary a soul in site, real waterfall grottos where the water tumbles past your ankles on its way to meet the crashing waves of the ocean, young Hawaiian hula dancers performing for their parents at the local elementary school, organic farms growing traditional polynesian foods, botanical gardens striving to preserve endangered species of plants, and everything else a conscious traveler could want.

So make yourself a coconut-pineapple smoothie and get out your notepad. I’m about to immerse you in the sustainable world of Kauai.

Hot tip: These berries (look for the half flower shape) can immediately help soothe mosquito bites!

The Basics

First, know that Kauai, like all of Hawaii, is expensive. You will get sticker shock. So whatever level of luxury (or not) that you can afford on the mainland, I would plan on downgrading one notch on Hawaii.

Second, getting a grounding in Hawaiian history will help you a lot in your quest to be a thoughtful visitor. Pick up a copy of Shoal of Time, by Gavan Daws, in the airport. Yes, it’s a slog. Yes, it was written by a dude in the 60s. But it’s incredibly comprehensive and detailed, the definitive text. You will not find editorializing by Mr. Daws, just a dry statement of facts, drawn from extensive research in Hawaiian archives. You will be outraged by some of this history, by the way. Be prepared.

We didn’t discover its existence until Maui, but there is this amazing iPhone app called Gypsy Guide, with a Kauai edition. Download it. The voice sounds like Jeff Bridges, and he will guide you to the coolest spots the island. It totally leveled up our Maui experience!

You’ll fly into Lihue on the South Shore, which has some good restaurants and is an excellent place to stock up on groceries before you get to where you are staying (save money by eating breakfast at home and packing a lunch and your own beer for the beach!). If you drive north along the East Shore of the island, it gets sparse but pretty, and you’ll pass Kapaa and Anaholathis is the area we stayed in. Then you’ll reach Princeville, a fancypants condo resort area on the North Shore with golf courses. (Might not be your style, if you’re an EcoCult reader.) Continue past Princeville wind through a hilly region, and you’ll come out in Hanalei, a charming hippie village with some organic places to grab food and some good shopping for the conscious consumer. If you want some local’s beaches or a ridiculous hike, keep going until the road dead-ends at Kalalua trail and Ke’e beach.

If you drive west from Lihue along the South Shore, you’ll reach an old town Hanapepe, which is quite cute. Past that, it gets sparse and there aren’t many places to stay, but you’ll be rewarded with some amazing hikes at Waimea Canyon on the western side of the island.

GET AROUND

Kauai is a car island. On Kauai, it takes an an hour and a half to get all the way around the island, with the main road dead ending on the northwest corner of the island, instead of connecting, and the streets are not always bike-friendly. So renting a bike might prove frustrating, unless you are a triathlete. We looked into renting a hybrid vehicle, but it would have cost us several hundred dollars more for the week, even deducting the gas savings. If you can swing that cost, by all means, do so! There is also a public bus system, with buses stopping every half hour or hour, depending on where you are.  We did not try this out, because we tend to cram a lot into our days. But if you can be patient and take it more leisurely and want to save money, you could try it out.

STAY

We ended up staying in the guest house of a private property on the Northeast side of the island, and we loved it! First, it’s ideally situated to see all of the island. Our little guest house had a kitchenette (most hotel rooms do as well, actually) which was helpful for saving money on food. The property was completely quiet and secluded, had solar panels, chickens, a rescue goat, composting and recycling. Even with all this charm, it was the most affordable option we found. It’s not publicly advertised. We found it when one of the places listed below was booked, and the owner connected us to her friend. But we absolutely recommend a homestay for your time on Kauai.

Breakfast at our homestay

Here are some other eco-conscious options:

North Country Farms

Twin Hearts Homestay

The Kauai Inn

Hanalei Bay Resort

You could also look through Book Different, which specializes in green hotels, for some ideas.

Eat

Like I mentioned earlier, eating on Maui will hurt your wallet. So I suggest saving the outings for special dinners or lunch at places that are on your list of must-visits, and making your own breakfast (save for a smoothie or two, see below) and packing lunch for when you’re on a hike or at a beach.

Once we left the airport in Lihue, we stopped 15 minutes away at a natural grocery store called Papaya’s to pick up groceries for the week. We got produce grown right in the island, like star fruit, dragon fruit, avocados, and apple bananas, plus locally made honey, tortilla chips, cookies, bean dip, tuna salad, and kombucha. (Look for the Kaua’i Made label.) We rounded it out with a few organic mainland brands for sandwich bread and breakfast. Our bill, at $175, was a shock. If I were to do it again, I would have paired down the fancy things we got and gone simpler, even though the chocolate chia pudding  mix we got was pretty heavenly!

Kauai also has some amazing farmer’s markets. I’m embarrassed to say we never got around to visiting them. Don’t make that same mistake. Plan ahead and go to one at the beginning of your trip to stock up on local produce and artisan products!

Organic shave ice Kauai, Hawaii

NORTH SHORE

In Hanalei you park at Tropical Tacos, there are several food trucks there, including one serving affordable (for Hawaii) organic tacos. For dessert, we walked a block down to Wishing Well and split an organic passion fruit shave ice over macadamia ice cream, topped with papaya. It was absolutely heavenly.

EAST SHORE

Do not neglect to stop at Moloaa Sunrise in Anahola for delicious smoothies and juices at least once! The price is actually similar to NYC when it comes to smoothies with local and superfood ingredients. I also recommend Hanalei Bread Shop, Bar Acuda for locally-sourced tapas, the environmentally friendly Lighthouse Bistro, and Naupaka Terrace at Aqua Kauai Beach Resort, which advertises itself as farm-to-fork cuisine.

Spy that paper straw in my cocktail at Merriman’s!

SOUTH SHORE

For a luxurious and sustainable dinner, you cannot miss Merriman’s, located with a view over the water, which serves locally-caught seafood prepared Hawaiian style, with the proud fisherman listed below each dish. The vegetarian option on the menu even had the traditional Hawaiian ingredient taro. I ordered a mai tai with local rum and macadamia nut whipped cream, and to my delight, it came with a paper straw.

We visited a couple other restaurants that had been recommended to us, but they aren’t worth writing about: fish flown in from elsewhere, corn-fed steaks, etc.

DO

On the way in to Hawaii, I flipped through Hawaiian Air’s in-flight magazine and found a listing for a coffee and chocolate festival on the South Shore of Kauai. It was a small affair: one large tent housing dozens of local chocolate, coffee, chai, and macadamia nut butter makers, plus a few fashion vendors. We sampled some morsels of chocolate, talked with locals, and then sat down outside to enjoy Japanese rice and chicken Onigirazu and mochi while listening to a live guitar performance.

(The girl playing) Princess Ka’iulani arrives on her horse

But my favorite part was when we arrived and parked, and saw a line of girls dressed up ready to dance, and followed them to a school yard. Kids and their parents were leaning over the white picket fence staring at the road expectantly. When I asked a mom what was happening, she said they were all waiting for Princess Ka’iulani to arrive. Two horses came around the corner, ridden by the “princess,” a young girl with a flowered hat and ruffled skirt spread graciously behind her over the horse’s rump, and her young male escort. A woman sang a song in Hawaiian to welcome her, and she was helped down off of her horse and brought inside the schoolyard to oversee hula dances to live Hawaiian music. We were probably the only tourists there, standing in the back behind all the proud parents. And I have to say, it was way better than your typical middle school recital. The music was charming, and the hula dancers were talented – elegant and beautiful. I definitely recommend looking up what little festivals are going on when you are on the island.

The McBryde Garden (South Shore) part of The National Tropical Botanical Garden, was magical. It was practically deserted (supposedly because it was the first sunny day in a while) and full of endangered Hawaiian plant species, plus information on medicinal plants, and educational material on plant evolution. The old Hawaiian who drove us from the ticketing center to the garden was full of stories about himself and the island. We wandered for two hours in magical silence; except for the birds and a grumpy bullfrog or two. (Bring bug repellent and a water bottle!)

The couple that owns Moloa’a Bay Coffee & Cacao

We paid a visit to Moloa’a Bay Coffee & Cacao, a small family-owned coffee and cacao shop in Kapa’a. There is no official tour, but one or both halves of the adorable older couple who owns Moloa’a will show you how the roaster works and chat with you for a while about the ecology and farms of the island. We walked away with $50 of chocolate and magazines on farming in Hawaii.

We did not have time to spot some of the 1,200 endangered Hawaiian monk seals  that swim off of Poipu Beach (south shore), or take a kayak to Secret Falls. Please try them and report back!

Swinging on the rope swing at Secret Beach

BEACHES

Kauai excels when it come to quiet, secluded beaches! Pack all your beach stuff into a backpack and wear comfortables sandals (read: Teva’s) – a couple of these require a short hike.

Hannalei Beach was quiet, with big waves, and nothing developed except a couple of volleyball nets. You can park within a three-minute walk of the sand.

Ke’e Beach: Located at the head of the amazing Kalalua Trail, it’s the best place to watch a stunning sunset. It reportedly also has the best snorkeling at sunset, when turtles come out, and there is a trail to blue hole 200 yards before Ke’e Beach. it is not marked, but is located across from the parking lot. (It may not be safe in the winter).

Love tropical getaways? Try my guide to Bali, Indonesia. Or my guide to the Dominican Republic

Secret Beach – This was one of our favorites! Ask Google maps for directions to Secret Beach Road (not “Secret Beach,” that is a dead end) in between Princeville and Anahola. Then you’ll walk ten minutes down a steep path to a quiet, secluded beach with a rope swing. It’s dangerous to swim, so just enjoy the scenery with the five other people there. – Queens Bath in Princeville – Finding parking can be hard, so go early. Wear your Teva’s to hike down the muddy path, and travel light.

Hideaway Beach – This was the fanciest beach we went to, and the most crowded, honestly. You can valet park at the St. Regis (just give them a couple dollars when you get back to car), walk inside and take two elevators down to beach in front of the hotel. Nobody stopped us from walking through the hotel with our cooler and beach chairs like the cheap bums we are. But if you feel like throwing down some cash, there’s a bar serving tropical drinks. (Just specify no plastic straw.) I did not check to see if you have to rent some of the shaded lounge chairs. The proximity to a vast hotel and the tourist vibes weren’t my favorite, honestly.

Queens Bath – Finding parking can be hard, so go early. Wear your Teva’s to hike down the muddy path, and travel light.

HIKING

We were told to do the Napali Coast by boat, where you can usually go into caves. We decided against this pricey tour, since it was winter and, with the rough tides, we couldn’t even be guaranteed that we could go into the caves with the rough tides. We also forgoed the helicopter tours. Instead, we hiked to the places we wanted to see. Hiking is free, and instead of using oil to get somewhere and looking at it from afar while someone narrates it to you and a hoard of tourists, you take in the expansive views quietly, smelling the flowers, stretching your limbs, feeling accomplished.

With the dog we borrowed from Kauai Humane Society for the day at Waimea Canyon

Ah, and before you leave on your hike, stop by the Kauai Humane Society to take an adoptable dog out for a day of hiking. We brought out a beautiful but shy dog named Pika, and it brought our hike from an 8 to an 11!

The beach on Kalalau Trail

Kalalau Trail – Hiking the Na’pali coast is an absolute must if you at all enjoy physical exertion and beautiful views of the ocean. It’s four hours round trip if you’re trying for the beach, six hours if you want to make it to the waterfall. (We got a late start, so we made it to the beach, where we cavorted in the sand along with a total of four other hikers. Beware, this hike is only for experienced hikers with hiking shoes. We passed two separate middle-aged women with twisted and broken ankles (they were both wearing loose-fit Teva’s) who had to be medi-vac’ed out. (Also: have insurance!) Finally, rumor has it you should not lock your car, and not leave anything obviously valuable inside.

Waimea Canyon – This is a long drive around the West Coast. It’s about four hours round trip to get to the refreshing Waipo’o Falls, and you can choose to keep going from there. Just know it’s actually easier to hike in than out, since it’s downhill to enter. So plan accordingly, and turn around before you get too tired.

Wai Koa Loop Trail: A super easy, beautiful loop. Start at Common Ground or the mini golf/botanical garden.

Powerline Trail: Another gorgeous, strenuous hike into the interior.

Also: Fern Grotto, Sleeping Giant

Picking invasive apple snail eggs off the taro

FARMS

Ho’opulalupula Haraguchi Rice Mill and Taro Tour: Take a farm tour in the beautiful, green taro fields to see how kalo (taro), an important Hawaiian root starch, is cultivated. After a light snack of taro and strawberry smoothies and Kauai coffee, our tour guide, the lovely Lyndsey Haraguchi-Nakayama, drove us from Hanalei to the taro fields, and shared information on endangered bird species that call the taro fields home, plus invasive species.

Apple snails, native to South America, probably escaped from a pet aquarium and have since taken over the streams and ponds of Kauai, damaging taro plants and competing with native species for food. We took small buckets and homemade snail pickers and picked clusters of bright pink snail eggs off the taro plants, but it seemed like trying to move a beach using a teaspoon. Apparently, Lindsey’s mom and daughter went picking one sunset and got 80 pounds of snails just from the edge of one field. How could they ever be eradicated?

Feral hogs, as distinct from domesticated hogs, another scourge of Hawaii, will rampage through the fields and root up acres of taro plants. They can also injure people and children once they grow tusks, and start charging people. Native Hawaiians hunt feral hogs as a source of protein – Lindsey’s brother is an accomplished archer, having made it to the Hawaiian Olympics for archery. (Illich and I decided someone needs to open an invasive species café on Hawaii that serves escargot, deer, feral hog pulled pork sandwiches, and other ecologically-beneficial protein.)

After our quick stint as invasive species-pickers, we drove up to the only rice mill left on Hawaii, which dates from the 1800s, and learned about how the rice mill functioned, and had some delicious taro balls topped with coconut. Our tour ended back in Hanalei with the included traditional Hawaiian lunch, which was actually one of our favorite meals of the whole week and practically justified the price of the tour in itself.

We regretfully didn’t have time to do the Kaua’i Farmacy Herbal Tea Tour, or the Steel Grass Chocolate farm tour. Please try them out and tell me how they are in the comments!

Kauai Coffee is a working coffee plantation, the largest one in the United States. It is not organic (they do use herbicides) but is GMO-free and uses drip irrigation, puts coffee cherry pulp back into the soil, plants hedgerows to reduce erosion and runoff, and other sustainable practices. You can sign up for a guided tour, but there’s also a self-guided walking tour that can be done in 20 minutes if you prefer peace and quiet. It felt a little too touristy and impersonal to me, however, so I would say check out one of the other farms instead.

The Barn 808

Shop

Weird, between all the hiking and eating and beach-ing and farm touring, I was unable to drag Illich on a clothes shopping trip. But Shipwrecked Kauai in Kapaa came highly recommended, and The Barn 808 in Hanaeli had a lot of handcrafted, artisan items  that I would love in my own home.