Ahh, Hanalei. I daydream about this place more than anywhere else that doesn’t involve skiing, which is funny because it’s about as far from snow as you can get. If you’ve found a more perfect beach town – anywhere – please let me know where it is. We went to Kauai for a week this summer, and although we stayed in nearby Princeville, we spent most of our time in Hanalei.
Because of it’s mountainous interior, nearly all of Kauai’s towns are on or near the ocean and connected by a single road that only makes it 3/4 of the way around the island. Hanalei is the last town on the north side, only a few miles before you reach the road’s end. It’s past the beginning of a series of one-lane bridges, on a stretch of road where going 30mph feels like reckless speeding.
Hanalei has almost everything I look for in a beach town: an ultra-relaxed vibe, lush tropical vegetation, no chain-anything, no glitz & glamour, and, of course, a beautiful beach. In the summer, when the water is calm, the swimming is great, and a bunch of boats show up to enjoy the fantastic water in the bay (the boats in the pic above are anchored in ~10 feet of water, which gives you some idea of how gently sloped the sandy bottom is). Beginner surfing and boogieboarding are good in the summer, too. There aren’t any rocks, so snorkeling isn’t very interesting, but some of the island’s best reefs are just a short drive away.
The “town” of Hanalei is really more of a village; a few blocks wide by maybe a mile long, spread out next to the long, wide beach. You can walk anywhere in about 15 minutes.
Mixed in amongst the houses (an eclectic mix of mansions and shacks), surf shops, and lush greenery, there’s a surprisingly good variety of food for a town of 450 permanent residents. There’s a couple of excellent restaurants (Bar Acuda, Postcards Cafe) – the kind that would be popular even on the mainland. For lunch, Pat’s – a taco truck right on the beach – has fast, fresh-caught fish tacos. There’s also great ice cream (Pink’s), coffee (Hanalei Roasters), and shave ice stands (too many to name). On Saturday morning Hanalei hosts one of those amazing tropical-fruit-laden farmer’s market that make those of us who don’t live in Hawaii envious: fresh pineapples, mangoes, papayas, bananas, lilikoi, pomelos, and the stereotypical fresh coconuts with a straw.
The only downside to Hanalei, and the North Shore in general, is that most of the year brings rain and powerful surf. It’s still a great place to visit then, of course, but summer – calm water, more sun – is the prime season. Still, it’s at least partially cloudy in basically every picture I’ve put in this post. People who are absolutely averse to a few clouds should probably stay on the south shore (or go to Maui, where most of the best beaches are on the dry, sunny side of the island).
During the rainier months (Oct-May), I can see that Hanalei’s appeal might be more fleeting- moments of sunny perfection interrupted by frequent downpours; the beautiful, sandy-bottomed bay scoured by large waves. For those reasons, I’m not sure I’d book an entire vacation there during those months: if I’m going to go to Hawaii, I want to swim and snorkel in beautiful sunlight-filled water. I think that short-lived time of perfect weather – the fact that it’s not always there – makes me dream about Hanalei all the more, though. I feel the same about ski mountains, too, come to think of it – thousands of miles away, but not really all that different in the strange pathways of the idle mind.