Day trip: Kauai, das why

A dawn-to-dusk hunt for the best food finds on the Garden Isle
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A recent move means rent has cut into my travel budget, but that doesn't mean I don't have itchy feet. My solution: a day trip to Kauai. It’s been years since I’ve been there. My family used to visit and I would fly over for tennis tournaments occasionally during high school, but it’s safe to say I don’t know much about this neighbor island.

I have two main objectives: to check out NOM Kauai, a food truck-turned-brick and mortar, and to see the Grand Canyon of the Pacific. Aside from these, I'm on a hunt for good food! A work colleague who goes to Kauai regularly tells me which places are worth visiting and which ones to avoid, as well as favorite spots for local grinds.

Here’s a play-by-play of my day:

3:15 a.m. Get up for my 5:16 a.m. flight, the cheapest of the day. OMG. Why did I do this to myself?!

5:16 a.m. Flight to Kauai is empty, which is nice. But the seats don’t recline.

5:55 a.m. I land in Lihue and pick up rental car. It’s still dark, there aren’t many streetlights, and I wonder if I should have brought a flashlight.

 Tip Top’s famous macadamia nut cookies.

6:30 a.m. First stop – Tip Top Motel Café & Bakery. I know this cozy restaurant is popular for its no-fuss, no-frills breakfast, but I’m there for the macadamia nut cookies. They come in regular and chocolate-dipped flavors, and they often sell out. I grab two bags of the chocolate-dipped at $4.25 each.

Tip Top Motel Café & Bakery • 3173 Akahi St. • Lihue

6:45 a.m. I have some time to kill before breakfast at NOM Kauai in Kapaa. I stop by 7-Eleven to hunt for Goteborg musubis, whose concave-shaped smoked sausage is similar in texture to salami. It will be the first of four 7-Elevens I try, unsuccessfully. I guess luck just isn’t on my side.

NOM Kauai’s new storefront.

7:30 a.m. Breakfast at NOM Kauai, a former food truck that opened its first storefront location in late January. NOM is known for Southern food made with local ingredients. I know they sold out of food the previous weekend, so I make sure to get there early. If you go, get the biscuits and gravy, Fancy Burger, the Notorious P.I.G. (cheddar jalapeno cornbread waffle topped with braised pork belly and maple au jus) or the Ultimate.

Such comforting flavors. Such big portions. Such an incredible experience that I wish I were staying another day.

The Ultimate ($16) has a Belgian waffle bun, buttermilk fried chicken, bacon, sunny side egg, pineapple-bourbon butter and maple syrup.
The Fancy One ($18) is a medium burger topped with goat cheese and pork belly. When you're on vacay, you can eat burgers for breakfast.

NOM Kauai • 4-1101 A-4 Kuhio Hwy. • Kapaa

The lookout point for Opaekaa Falls is easy to find.

8:45 a.m. I don’t have time to do any hardcore waterfall hikes, so I stop at the lookout point for Cascading Opaekaa Falls. It’s a short drive from Kapaa and the views are gorgeous.

Opaekaa Falls • Kuamoo Road • Kapaa

9:30 a.m. The Kauai Community College Farmers Market is already full of eager customers with bags in hand. It goes from 9:30 a.m. until 1 p.m. every Saturday in the KCC front parking lot. I make a beeline for the Midnight Bear Breads stand. Minutes later, a line for the breads has begun to snake around the market.

People swarm to get first pick of Kauai sugarloaf white pineapples.

Midnight Bear Breads’ original bakery is in Hanapepe, but I’ve heard they often sell out in the morning and I’m not going to be in Hanapepe until afternoon.

There are so many breads to choose from, including raisin walnut, taro sourdough, rosemary & Hawaiian sea salt baguette and caraway rye.

The friendly lady in line in front of me turns out to be another vendor. She gives me a solid lineup of recommendations. I take her advice and get a small loaf of the rosemary sea salt bread ($4) and a fresh-baked macadamia nut cinnamon roll ($5).

When I tuck into my cinnamon roll the next morning it’s soft and chewy and the mac nuts give it a welcome crunch. The rosemary sea salt loaf turns out to be perfect for making sandwiches — it’s soft, yet sturdy enough to handle anything you pack in between slices.

Kauai Community College • 3-1901 Kaumualii Hwy. • Lihue

CVS has all the made-in-Kauai omiyage you need, in case you can’t make it to the actual shops.

10:15 a.m. In search of a bathroom before the long drive to Waimea, I drop by Kukui Grove Shopping Center. At CVS I find Anahola Granola bars (chocolate chip macadamia nut for the win) and a 2-ounce jar of Aunty Lilikoi’s famous wasabi mustard, which passes TSA muster for carry-ons. I grab a jar in case I run out of time to visit the Aunty Lilikoi store.

Kukui Grove Shopping Center • 3-2600 Kaumualii Hwy. • Lihue

11:45 a.m. It’s about an hour drive to get to Waimea Canyon State Park on Kauai’s west side. I get slightly sleepy on the way up the mountain, but the panorama views are worth the drive.

Bucket list item: see the Grand Canyon of the Pacific. Check.

Waimea Canyon State Park • Waimea Canyon Drive • Waimea

Porky’s Cart is in Kapaa, Waimea and Hanapepe — but check the hours and days.

12:30 p.m.: Driving back to sea level, I stop at Porky’s Cart at the base of the mountain. I can’t miss it — the food truck has a huge pig on its side!

Porky’s is known for hot dogs loaded with pulled pork. The #1 is the best-seller: a grilled pineapple pork sausage in a toasted French roll topped with kalua pork, sautéed sweet onions, housemade pineapple relish and Porky’s sauce. I get #2 and #3. The fact that they're not #1 doesn't mean they’re any less tantalizing.

#2 is an all-beef hot dog in a toasted French roll, topped with kalua pork, sautéed sweet onions, housemade pineapple relish and Porky’s sauce.
#3 is a grilled cheese sandwich stuffed with kalua pork, sautéed sweet onions and Porky’s sauce.

Porky’s sauce can either be spicy or sweet. The sweeter sauce complements the ultra savory grilled cheese perfectly — it’s laden with umami-rich Muenster and Havarti cheeses and is tangy, sweet and meaty all at once, an absolute must-have.

The hot sauce goes well with the hot dog, especially if you opt for the #1, which I’m told has lots of pineapple. Each item comes with a drink and is a hefty meal for $9.

Pro tip: If you’re going on a neighbor island day-trip, bring a cooler bag. In cases like these, it’ll come in clutch. I order my Porky’s items to go and pack the leftovers in my cooler, as I’m still kind of full from breakfast.

Porky’s Cart • 9620 Kaumualii Hwy • Waimea

1 p.m. Ishihara Market in the same area is good for some good poke or a snack. Since I'm full, I cross the street to check out Aunty Lilikoi Passion Fruit Products. Lilikoi lovers, take note: you can find anything and everything passion fruit here. Aunty Lilikoi is known for the passionfruit wasabi mustard that I found at CVS, but there’s tons more to choose from in this flagship store.  

The store shelves are lined with everything from passion fruit jelly and passion fruit butter to passion fruit Kiawe barbecue sauce.

Ishihara Market • 9894 Kahakai Rd. • Waimea

Aunty Lilikoi Passion Fruit Products • 9875 Waimea Rd. • Waimea

Next stop — the quaint town of Hanapepe.

1:30 p.m. I plan to visit the Taro Ko Chips Factory (which turns out to be a small shack, not an actual factory) and the Hanapepe Swinging Bridge. Unfortunately, Taro Ko is closed, so I can’t get any of their famous $5 bags of chips. The walk takes me past a string of mom-and-pop shops, including Midnight Bear Breads — and yes, they’re all sold out for the day.

The Hanapepe Swinging Bridge.

The thought of crossing the bridge makes me nervous, since I’m scared of heights. But walking across isn’t all that bad. It doesn’t rock as much as I thought it would, but I still hope there aren’t termites in the old wood.

Taro Ko Chips Factory • 3940 Hanapepe Rd. • Hanapepe

Hanapepe Swinging Bridge • 3857 Hanapepe Rd. • Hanapepe

Lappert’s single scoop ($4.25) of Kona lava java and the Heavenly Hana, a decadent rendition of rocky road.

1:45 p.m. If I lived any closer to Waikiki, visiting Lappert’s would be a regular thing. I can’t get enough of their ice cream. It’s easy to find the standalone shop, and I get in line behind a huge group of middle schoolers. The day is hot and the creamy treat tastes that much better.

There are several stores on Kauai, but I visit Lappert’s Hanapepe flagship.

Lappert’s Hawaii • 1-3555 Kaumualii Hwy • Hanapepe

2:15 p.m. Even though crunchy cookies aren’t my jam, I can’t visit Kauai without stopping by one of the Kauai Kookie stores. This one is smaller, but they still have boxes of their famous guava macadamia flavor.

The store has bags of bite-sized cookies, perfect for omiyage.

Kauai Kookie • 4350 Waialo Rd. Unit 1 • Eleele

2:30 p.m. Any self-proclaimed chocoholic has to visit Kauai Chocolate Company. Since it’s warm outside, I don’t want to buy too much chocolate to take home, but I do get a few signature opihis — macadamia nuts coated in luscious caramel atop a shortbread cookie, and covered in either milk or dark chocolate.  

Watching the opihi candies being covered in milk chocolate. 

Kauai Chocolate Company • 4341 Waialo Rd. • Eleele

Self-guided tour of Kauai Coffee Company.

2:40 p.m. I didn't think I'd have time to visit Kauai Coffee Company, but I do. Since it’s close, I figure why not?

Little did I know Kauai Coffee is the largest coffee estate in the U.S. I take myself on the free tour around the grounds and read up on some of the blends, as well as how they roast their coffee. Best part: Unlimited samples of all the different coffee blends.

Kauai Coffee Company • 870 Halewili Rd. • Kalaheo

if you make it to Sueoka's earlier in the day, visit the snack shop (which looks like a walk-up window to the right).

3:30 p.m. Sueoka’s is a well-known local market. Even though the snack shop — where you can get hamburgers, musubis and local plate lunch — is closed, I take a spin around the market. At this point, I’m starting to feel tired and regret not ordering a larger cuppa joe at Kauai Coffee.  

Sueoka Store • 5392 Koloa Rd. • Koloa

Taking a break at Poipu Beach.

4 p.m. No interisland trip is complete without hitting up a beach, and I know Poipu Beach is a popular destination. It’s also super close to where I am in Koloa, so I find parking and relax a little. The weather is a little overcast.

Poipu Beach • 1959-2177 Hoone Rd. • Koloa

5:30 p.m. Time to return the rental car. I head to the airport a little early for my 7 p.m. flight home. It was a packed day, but strangely relaxing at the same time. It was nice to have a change of scenery for a day. Next Kauai trip, I’ll visit the other end of the island and hike part of the Na Pali Coast.