In Hawaii, it used to be that you could tell a haole (foreigner) from a kamaaina (local) by the kind of car he drove—or so says my friend Ken. He grew up in Honolulu, where the curving beachside roads were lined with beat-up surfer cars. A polished new sedan said "Just arrived," while an old VW surfmobile said "Any car that works is fine, man..." That laid-back mentality was, to me, what Hawaii was all about.
When we first started cruising the roads together, Ken and I drove around in a forest green 1974 Porsche 914. The years had not been kind to the car; Hawaii's damp air and salty sea-spray had rusted it virtually into the ground. But it still ran, so we tooled around Oahu in scruffy style. I loved impersonating a local—riding in a car with character, a plumeria blossom behind my ear, my brown skin and Chinese heritage making it easy for me to blend into Hawaii's characteristic hapa ("half") culture, located at that Pacific crossroads between East and West.
Any time we ventured to other islands, choosing a rental car was always an interesting social experiment. No matter how basic the vehicle, we always felt we were cheating if it had automatic windows or a CD player. In a place where you often spent all day in your bathing suit, a battered wreck was just what you needed.
Our last visit to Kauai was a blur of people and touristy areas; we'd brought friends along for a fast weekend holiday that I barely recall. But on our present pilgrimage—a circumnavigation of the island, from Lihue to the northern coast and then back around to the less traveled south shore—slow is the pace I want. That and the freedom to seek out all the things I might have missed on earlier trips, such as long empty beaches and farmers' markets selling my favorite regional foods. But we need a car that can off-road it, so Ken and I find ourselves thinking long and hard at the rental counter in Lihue Airport.
We opt for a Jeep Wrangler, walking a fine line between tourist and local with a current-model four-wheel-drive, and head north and inland on Highway 583 toward Wailua Falls. This is where the opening sequence of Fantasy Island was shot, and there's certainly plenty of drama in the 80-foot waterfall. We decide that the best part is not the falls itself, but the getting there: losing ourselves in miles of sugarcane fields, feeling Lilliputian when we are engulfed by the glinting shafts of green and gold.
Over 90 percent of Kauai is inaccessible by road, a paradise for hikers and adventurous drivers like us. The island is also the oldest in the Hawaiian archipelago, and it's still possible to find places that are straight out of Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, no dummy, actually cast Kauai in the film's title role). Lava tubes spout like blowholes on the shore, huge banyan trees dwarf even the tallest person, and, at the center of Kauai, Mount Waialeale is one of the wettest spots on earth (it averages 440 inches of rain a year).
Ken and I soon realize that we're going to operate as usual on this trek, which means we'll stop for any number of things: roadside guava and lychee stands, an impulsive bodysurfing session, a really good shave ice. Backtracking to the Kuhio Highway, or 56, the main road around northern Kauai, we continue up into the town of Wailua. Thousands of palm trees line the side of the road, trunks perfectly parallel while their spiky, leafy heads nod vigorously in the slanted sunlight in seeming approval of our carefree, meandering route.
When we drive inland on Kuamoo Road, we encounter the end of the blacktop and get our first chance to see what our four-wheel-drive can do. With nothing more than a throaty rumble, our little maroon Wrangler shuttles us easily over slippery tracks and through two stream crossings to where we can survey the Powerline Trail (originally cut by the island's electric company in the early 1900's, the Powerline runs through 10 miles of wilderness that stretch to the north shore).
Around 4 p.m., we stop for a late lunch in Kapaa, a sugarcane and pineapple workers' town. At under $10, the Mermaid's Café's delicious ahi nori wraps—seared ahi in a spinach tortilla brimming with seaweed and rice in wasabi mayonnaise—are the best deal on the island. We sit at picnic tables outside, watching the pau hana ("quit work") traffic. A man in a pickup truck motions to another with the shaka sign, thumb and pinkie extended, the regional hand signal for hanging loose. Things tend to move slowly on Kauai, and as the cars inch by, we're reminded that that's the way the locals like it.
We stay the night at Kakalina's, a quiet B&B on a working tropical-flower farm in Kapaa, in the foothills of Mount Waialeale. Kakalina's three acres of grounds are covered in luxuriant gardens filled with papaya and banana trees, red ti plants, wild Hawaiian ginger, and puakenikeni trees with fragrant yellow blossoms. The inn's location turns out to be the ideal launch point for an early morning hike on the little-trod Hoopii Trail. Two miles down the mountain, at the end of Kapahi Road, we pass through a yellow gate at the trailhead into a dim, eerie world of giant ferns and monstrosa vines—parasitic plants that strangle the trees they climb. We also spot some koa trees, rare Hawaiian trees valued for their gold-red wood. Ken charges ahead in his shorts and T-shirt; I, properly fearful of mosquitoes, am protected by jeans, long sleeves, and head-to-toe bug repellent. We hike in otherworldly quiet for just an hour and a half, but in my head the journey takes on a timeless quality. Above, the barely visible blue sky is interwoven with a canopy of leafy greens and twinkling yellows; when I close my eyes, the colors bloom behind my eyelids.
An hour later, we're back on the Kuhio Highway, cruising 25 miles up the coast to Hanalei, when we spy the Wishing Well shave-ice truck. How to describe this classic Hawaiian treat?A perfect one is lavish and soupy, a concoction of snowy ice shavings doused with flavored syrup, swimming in ice cream and sweet red adzuki beans. I choose a scoop of Hawaiian snow flavored with lilikoi (passion fruit) and lihi mui (preserved plum), thick ice cream, and a mash of beans. Hawaiian shave ice recalls Chinese-style red-bean ices, imported by the Japanese and given a tropical-island twist; if the Wishing Well's mix isn't perfect, it's pretty close.
In the same parking lot is Tropical Taco; once similarly housed in a green catering truck, it's now a small café, which still serves fresh fish tacos piled with avocado, salsa, and sour cream.
At Hanalei, we spend a blissful afternoon snorkeling, then check into the luxurious Princeville Resort (where the infinity pool has its own full-service bar). The next morning we drive back south. Every sign on Highway 56 casts a lure: FRIED BANANA CHIPS, FRESH PAPAYA SHAKES, MALASADAS. We can't resist stopping along the road for a bag of the last—six sizable fried-dough balls dusted with sugar and cinnamon. Though something as prosaic as a gallon of milk might cost $6 on Kauai, a few bucks can get you a pound of lychees, a fried ono (wahoo) sandwich, or a pound of Koloa coffee beans straight from the plantation. Forty miles from Hanalei, on the opposite side of the island, Koloa is home to Poipu Plantation Resort, a series of small cottages just a short walk from the famous golden beaches of Poipu. We stay overnight and at breakfast the next morning we eat fresh mango and papaya plucked from backyard trees.