No Place Like Hanalei

Our fifth visit to Kauai's gorgeous North Shore feels very much like coming home. With two weeks here -- our longest stay to date -- some island attitude adjustment naturally takes place.

True Taste of Kauai

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Idler on December 28, 2008

I was standing in the grocery store in Hanalei, contemplating the produce, when my husband handed me an overpriced mango.

"Let’s get a papaya instead," I told him. "Mangoes aren’t even in season now. This is probably from South America."

A young woman standing nearby turned to me, and in a crisp tone clearly meant to educate an outsider admonished, "All this fruit is from Kauai. Mangoes are available year round."

I mumbled something innocuous in reply, but I mentally pegged the young woman as an arriviste. Both the sticker on the fruit and her rudeness clearly marked the whole episode as non-Kauai. Plus, I knew for a fact that mango season is in the summer, and here we were a day after Christmas.

Strange as it seems, even on the "Garden Isle" the supermarkets stock a lot of off-island produce. For a true taste of Kauai, you need to visit a farmers’ market. Happily, this isn’t hard to do. There are markets every day but Sunday on some part of the island or another, as this page of market listings will testify.

In Hanalei, there are two each week: on Saturday mornings from 9:30 to around noon near the center of town by the community center, and on Tuesday afternoons from 2:00-4:00 a couple miles outside town heading towards Haena in a clearly marked field on the left. The choicest and hardest-to-find items sell fast, so I’d encourage you to get there at the start of the market for the best selection. Don’t be disappointed as I was when the last bunch of cilantro was sold to the man just ahead of me at the herb stand.

In addition to just about every citrus fruit imaginable – oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruit, pumelos, tangerines – there are local pineapples, papayas, guavas, passion fruit, bananas, starfruit, and avocadoes, just to name a few. You’ll see varieties of these fruits that rarely make it to the mainland (most don’t ship well, an attribute that seems to go hand-in-hand with being particularly tasty). At the most recent market I attended, I spied an astonishing large yellow fruit that turned out, upon inquiry, to be a Madagascar lemon. There might be rambutan, which look positively satanic, bristling with bright red (but soft and harmless) spines, each round fruit containing a fruit similar to a lychee, for indeed they’re in the same family. Don’t miss trying some of the little local bananas – they may look unpromising, but they are incredibly tasty. Or perhaps try some egg fruit, with its yam-colored flesh as creamy as an avocado but with a faintly sweet taste. Trying new things is all part of the adventure, and almost all the vendors have samples to try.

Speaking of the vendors, this is an off-islander’s chance to interact a bit with the locals, not to mention a great way to pick up some insider tips. Every time I’ve gone to one of these markets or stopped by a roadside stand, I’ve learned something interesting, not to mention that usually I walk away with a few freebies tossed in – an extra lemon here, and, today, a pumelo that the vendor couldn’t vouch for – "It’s from my neighbor’s tree, so I don’t know what it tastes like. He told me to pick whatever I wanted while he was gone, but I’m giving these away because I really don’t know if this tree is any good or not. Let me know what you think." That’s all part of the spirit of the market.

In addition to a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables, farmers’ markets are great places to buy honey, goat cheese, baked goods, fresh tropical bouquets and leis, and all manner of local crafts. My husband was especially pleased with a beautifully sewn Hawaiian shirt, purchased directly from the seamstress, who had painstakingly matched the print on the pocket to the background print on the shirt. You can find exquisite leis, bracelets, and earrings made of miniscule shells – all called "Niihau jewelry," for the craft originated there, but the tiny shells are common on Kauai as well. There might be objects carved from local exotic woods, hand-screened T-shirts, pottery, or woven baskets, just to name a few.

Even if you’re not planning on doing any cooking while on Kauai, you should try to make it to one of these markets. While I’ve got nothing against the "tourist retailers" like Hilo Hattie and shops in the various shopping centers, it’s a much nicer experience to buy directly from the grower or craftsperson. Not only are prices generally lower, but the aloha spirit prevails as well.

Resort Update

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Idler on December 28, 2008

I last reviewed this resort in 2003, and since six years have passed and the resort has changed ownership, perhaps an update is in order.

Happily, most of the things I originally liked about Hanalei Bay Resort are just the same. The grounds are still meticulously maintained by a crew of diligent groundskeepers, and no new structures encroach upon the stunning views of Hanalei Bay and Makana Peak. The two-bedroom unit we're staying in is located in the "Bamboo" building, a little closer to the center of the resort than where we've stayed previously. Buildings down the hill have a slightly more central view of the bay, but the trade-off is the walk down and up the hill. It's my understanding that many of the condos are being renovated, but this particular unit's furniture and appliances looked much the same. One nice difference is the earth-toned wall paint in the kitchen and bedrooms - considerably less sterile than the white walls remembered from our last three stays.

With tourism down some 40% on the island, there seem to be fewer people staying at the resort, and those that are seem to all have children. Frankly, I'd be all for a few buildings being designated child-free, as even with decent soundproofing the pitter-patter of little feet overhead is an irritant, but then I'm notoriously cranky when it comes to ambient noise. I've made a curmudgeonly mental note to myself: "Stay during school year, not Christmas holidays, next time."

On the positive side, the lovely central lagoon pool area now has a new filtration system based on mineral salts rather than chlorine. This is our fourth stay here, but it's the very first time I've actually used the pool. Before, the overwhelming smell of chlorine always put me off, and with the ocean just a few minutes' walk down the hill, I never much saw the point. The new system, though, is fantastic, leaving hair and skin nice and soft and no itchy "chlorine skin" feel. I've taken to having an early morning swim before we head out for the day. (I'd take a later swim, but, well, you know, the aforementioned pitter-patter is augmented by high-pitched shrieks later on in the day. We curmudgeons will go to great lengths to avoid high-pitched anything.)

We were also told that the tennis courts had been resurfaced. As I'm among the slow-twitch-muscle-fiber set, I really can't give you the full scoop on the tennis scene at the resort, but it does seem that there are more tennis players out there on the various courts this year, and they do look happy.

Before leaving home, we were called not once but twice by a resort representative to inform us that both the on-site Bali Hai Restaurant and the Happy Talk Lounge were closed for renovation. Apparently, there had been some complaints about this, but it affected us not one whit as neither place was ever a favorite haunt. However, one thing we did like was to strolling over to have an evening cocktail at the swank Princeville Hotel adjacent to the resort, but that entire place is being renovated. Alas, we rather miss that amazing sunset view from the balcony bar, not to mention the piano or slack-key accompaniment. (Never mind... the same view can be had by walking down to the beach.)

Golfers take note: it seems that about half the Princeville course is also being worked on, which, again, hasn't affected us, as if there's any activity I find less appealing than tennis, well, it's golf. However, I feel duty bound to report that the golf course is currently being resurfaced or reconfigured or whatever it is that they do to golf courses.

Finally, I should mention that the reason I'm writing this right now is that there is cable internet in all the units... for a fee. There are a couple of free computers up in the business center, but if you want to use a laptop in your condo, it's around $10 a day or $40 a week. We're paying $56 for two weeks... don't ask me how that works, exactly, or why use of internet can't come FREE given the maintenance fees we pay, but what the heck. We're happy to have access to our IgoUgo and Facebook accounts.
Hanalei Bay Resort
5380 Honoiki Road
Kauai, Hawaii
(808) 827-4427

Hungry in Hanalei? Try this Casual Outdoor Eatery

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by Idler on December 26, 2008

The self-proclaimed "heart of Hanalei" is Ching Young Village – a small shopping center with a bohemian feel that serves as a gathering place for locals and tourists alike. Anyone who comes to Hanalei ends up spending some time here, browsing the boutique shops or having a shave ice or fruit smoothie at one of several stands. There’s no shortage of eateries in the immediate vicinity, but the Polynesia Café is arguably one of the most popular. It’s easy to spot as it anchors the right side of Ching Young Village and features plenty of outdoor seating under umbrella-shaded tables and up on a open-sided platform. It’s easy to be drawn in, too, by the scent of barbecue or grilled ahi.

We hadn’t set out originally to have lunch or dinner here, but we ended up doing so twice while stopping at Ching Young Village on some other pretext. And in each case, we enjoyed a quick, tasty meal that featured fresh ingredients and good-sized portions at a reasonable price.

The area where patrons place orders is under an open-air tiki-style thatched hut, more of the ambience of a taco stand that a restaurant per se. The mantra here is "gourmet food on paper plates," and while "gourmet" may be an exaggeration, the food is definitely a cut above the usual take-out fare. The menu is tripartite: salads, sandwiches, and "plates" (main entrees with sides), with the average cost around $10-$16 for a main item.

On our maiden visit, I ordered a barbecue pork po’ boy, which was served with a pile of so-so fries and a pickle. While calling this sandwich a po’ boy would be risible in New Orleans, where po’ boys are a subculture unto themselves, this was still a decent sandwich. I especially liked the taste and texture of the whole wheat sandwich roll, a good foil for the spicy pork mixture. I’m not a fan of sloppy barbecue sauces, so I was happy that the barbecue was more along the lines of a dry smoked type. It was, in truth, a little too salty for my taste, but I still found it superior to most barbecue found outside of the "barbecue belt" (e.g., North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, etc.). My husband had the featured plate lunch of the day – stir-fried coated chicken (similar to General Tsao’s chicken) with rice and broccoli. Service was quick and friendly, just the ticket for a meal eaten on the fly.

Finding ourselves at Ching Young Village and hungry once again a few days later, we had a light dinner. The café was hopping, but we still managed to place an order and get served in about twenty-five minutes. This time we both opted for the grilled ahi sandwiches, which were accompanied once again by the pile of fries and served on the nicely textured whole wheat buns. The fish was nicely grilled, not over-cooked, and had that fresh just-caught taste that inspires fond memories once we’ve left the island. I’d ordered a chocolate macadamia nut cookie to split for dessert, and this was the one thing I wouldn’t repeat – neither the taste nor texture hit the mark.

With the evening rush, the young women behind the counter were obviously too busy to do much in the way of bussing tables, which is to say that the counter we ate on could have used a once-over with a damp rag. But, hey, we were both a bit grungy from a day at the beach, so it wasn’t as if we were candidates for the Felix Unger cleanliness award ourselves.

So here’s the verdict: if you’re in the market for a casual, quick meal and not terribly fussy, this place will probably suit you.
Take a look at what’s coming out of the kitchen and chances are you’ll see something that makes you think, "Hey, it’s been a while since I’ve eaten. I’m hungry."

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