We leave Koloa and drive 10 miles to Hanapepe, the self-proclaimed "biggest little town in Kauai," where we find ripe piles of apple bananas, guavas, mountain apples, kale, and kabocha squash (Japanese pumpkin) at the Thursday farmers' market. It's also where we discover a blink-and-you'll-miss-it wooden storefront on the way out of town, marked only with an intriguing sign: TARO CHIP FACTORY. When we pull over to see what kind of factory could fit into that tiny little space, we discover an equally tiny, elderly Asian lady hand-frying and bagging colorful taro and sweet-potato chips. We carefully sample each variety of chip before deciding on the classic, red-speckled taro. The chip maker frowns enigmatically as she watches us, then nods almost imperceptibly when we exchange money for her crunchy snacks. Not a word has been spoken, but Ken and I both feel as if we've been let in on a big secret.
Fingers dotted with salty taro chip crumbs, we drive northwest on Highway 50 as far as we can go, down a five-mile dirt road pitted with deep holes and slick with mud. We see a Chevy convertible stuck in a ditch, wheels spinning helplessly—a two-wheel-drive rental car thwarted in a foolish attempt to tackle an unpaved trail. But we brave the tooth-rattling ride ourselves with a clear destination in mind: the 17-mile stretch of white-sand beach that is Polihale State Park. On Polihale, backed by the striking vertical cliffs of the Na Pali coast, hundred-foot dunes stack up in floury drifts, and waves roar in over the reef with gusto. We jump out of the car and tear down the deserted expanse of sand to the water. The greenish-blue curls of the ocean crash over us, and it's here, with not another soul around for miles, that we feel closest to Hawaii.
And so on to our final destination, Waimea Bay. Ken and I stay the night at the historic Waimea Plantation Cottages, where restored beach houses face glittering black-sand beaches and rows of soaring palms. Our last morning on Kauai is spent taking in the views at Waimea Canyon. That afternoon, we drive to Kalapaki, a touristy beach five minutes from Lihue Airport. We sit cross-legged in the sand, watching shirtless spring-breakers toss footballs and couples in aloha shirts drink beer after beer at the beachside bar.
But something else gets our attention: local kids in outrigger canoes are beaching their boats on the shore at 10-minute intervals. We're mesmerized by their muscular coordination, the sureness of their movements, the concentration on their suntanned faces. Their instructor, a wiry man with a mustache, barks orders while helping to pull in boats. Once the paddlers have hauled the fiberglass hulls far enough up the sand that they won't be washed away, their faces break into loose grins and they're kids again, jostling each other and trying to pull down one another's shorts. Even in this most commercial of places on the island, an authentic local flavor can be found. And you don't have to drive far to find it.
Day 1: 40 miles Fly into Lihue. From the airport, take 583 (Maalo Road) northwest to Wailua Falls. Backtrack to 56 (Kuhio Highway) and head north to the towns of Wailua and Kapaa. Make a left on 580 (Kuamoo Road) for the Powerline Trail. Return to Kapaa on 56 north and stay at Kakalina's (see The Facts).
Day 2: 50 miles Drive almost two miles down Kawaihau Road toward the ocean and make a left on Kapahi Road for a hike on the Hoopii Trail. Later, take 56 north through Kilauea, Princeville, and Hanalei. Spend the night at the Princeville Resort.
Day 3: 50 miles Head south on 56, turning onto 530 (Koloa Road), which takes you through Koloa, the famous coffee town (Kauai is Hawaii's biggest coffee producer). Make a right onto 520 and head south to the town of Poipu; stay at Poipu Plantation Resort.
Day 4: 45 miles Head west to 50 (Kaumualii Highway), passing through Hanapepe, Waimea, and Kekaha. Follow the road to the end of the highway; after you pass mile marker 32, you'll connect with the first dirt road to reach Polihale State Park. Head back east on 50 to Waimea for an overnight at Waimea Plantation Cottages.
Day 5: 50 miles Head up to Waimea Canyon on 550 north, then backtrack east on 50 all the way to Lihue.