Poipu a picture perfect island vacation

LA Times | Travel

POIPU, Hawaii -- Poipu is postcard perfect Hawaii, guaranteed. Or as closed to it as you can get in the real world. The resort strip on the southern end of Kauai is an as-advertised version of a island vacation -- endless sun, great beaches, good food, maybe some golf or snorkeling. Days filled w...

By Gary A. Warner // 08.12.09

POIPU, Hawaii -- Poipu is postcard perfect Hawaii, guaranteed. Or as closed to it as you can get in the real world. The resort strip on the southern end of Kauai is an as-advertised version of a island vacation -- endless sun, great beaches, good food, maybe some golf or snorkeling. Days filled with activity or idleness, nights of romance or just a sound sleep to the soundtrack of crashing waves.

Sure, it's a little safe. Hanalei, to the north, is more lush and beautiful -- but it can rain a lot. Waimea, to the west, is more authentic and uncrowded -- but a bit uncharted and scruffy. The Coconut Coast to the east has better prices and more to do, but is often hectic and crowded.

Poipu has that Goldilocks factor going for it -- not too much of one thing or another. Just right. When I am traveling on the company dime, I can afford to be adventurous. I can book a cottage on the North Shore and get five days of rain or a too-funky cinderblock motel on a windswept portion of the island.

But when readers are planning their own first trip to the Garden Island -- using their own real (and scarce) coin and time -- I hedge my bets. I might extol the wonders of North, West and East, but in the end I settle on aiming them at the almost always sure thing -- Poipu. It doesn't disappoint. It may not have the highs of my favorite spots around the island, but is has fewer lows. If the traveler falls in love, as I have, with Kauai, there will be return trips to stretch farther afield.

Yes, Poipu can all seem a little sterile. Beyond the copper and green luxury of the uproariously expensive Hyatt Regency, it's pretty much a sea of conventional hotels and condo resorts where the sand and surf is nice, with a few bed and breakfasts on rocky shorefronts off toward Spouting Horn.

But when you have a family of six, a two-bedroom condo with a kitchen across the street from a beach where a toddler can frolic without fear of being slapped silly by a rogue wave sounds pretty good.

If you have a little extra cash stashed away, splurge on the Hyatt. This is one of my favorite hotels in the islands. Its low-slung Arts & Crafts architecture fits snuggly into a hillside. There are parrots in the lobby and hula shows at night. It has a great spa, fine dining and golf (the resort's Poipu Bay course is the former home of the PGA Grand Slam of Golf).

But for me the dealmaker is the pool. It's different from the water-park atmosphere of the Westin Maui and Hilton Waikoloa Village on the Big Island or acres of water at the Marriott Kauai and Princeville Resort in Kauai or smaller jewel-like pools at the Halekulani in Waikiki and the Hotel Hana-Maui.

Guests can splash in a 5-acre saltwater lagoon or a couple of freshwater pools. But what gets the Grand Hyatt on my list is the wandering man-made river that flows from the hotel's terraced gardens down to a small pool next to the saltwater lagoon. Along the way are lots of inlets and grottoes for a watery version of hide and seek. On the downside, the channel is about 4 feet deep and covers a lot of territory, so keep an eye on the youngest of your swimmers.

The Hyatt requires this major water-park-like experience since it fronts the rugged, rough Shipwreck Beach, making ocean swimming an unwise proposition on many days.

Otherwise, I head for the condo hotels nearest to Poipu Beach. Kauai is making great noise this year about Hanalei Bay, on the north side of the island, being named Best Beach in the U.S. by a Florida oceanography professor who goes by the name of Dr. Beach. The secret is Hanalei isn't even the top beach on Kauai, according to Dr. Beach. The professor gives this annual award and then bars the winning sand strand from a repeat appearance in the contest. Poipu Beach won in 2001 -- seven beaches (including one in North Carolina) before Hanalei Bay.

Facing the ocean, to the left, is a small beach with good body surfing. But most people head to the right, to the lagoon like baby beach where a rock breakwater stops the waves, leaving a sandy-bottom beach that is no more than two to three feet deep. It's where many locals from around the island bring their littlest ones for that first exposure to the ocean, and there are lots of first-time snorkelers around, too. On the other side of the breakwater is a choppy small bay where the more experienced snorkelers go out.

Poipu has all the great places to eat -- including one of the award-winning outposts of Roy's, the gourmet Pacific Rim fusion foodie haven. But just when you think your wallet is about to break under the strain, there is the road to Koloa Town. Unlike so many resorts on the island, there is a real town with real-people prices just a short drive from Poipu.

After absorbing a few $25 resort breakfasts, I find myself driving daily to Koloa to stock up on cheap grub. If you have a condo with a kitchen, it's the place to guy to pack your pantry. I usually grab some decent takeaway sushi and a bag of Kauai ground coffee from Big Save supermarket. Some ribs and chinese noodles from TomKat, Macadamia Nut ice cream and an espresso from Lappert's. By the time I get back with my stash -- much less than a room service meal -- my only worry is that in the time I have been gone the family has fallen asleep after a day in the sun and surf.

While wandering Koloa, check out the town's History Center, set off behind the shopping district. It shows that life wasn't always easy and fun in the area. Workers brought over from Japan toiled in the sugar cane fields, then spent the evenings in their communal bathhouses soaking away the aches and pains of field work. They were part of an immigrant workforce that also came from the Philippines and China, as well as foremen often hired from Germany.

Evidence of the workers' impact on the island can be found at the Jodo Mission, a Buddhist temple built in 1910. The workers would probably feel at home among the ramshackle buildings of the town, though the tourist businesses today selling swimwear, gourmet coffee and dolphin sculptures would be alien

My favorite Poipu spot is Brennecke's Beach Broiler, with a second-floor dining area that allows ocean breezes to waft in as you enjoy fresh fish or a juicy hamburger. It's also a great spot for that Mai Tai, Rum Punch or other sundowner cocktail. If you find yourself on quiet Kauai for the Super Bowl or World Series, Brennecke's bar is the place for joining other can't-skip-my-sports lovers. There are T-shirts with the Brennecke fish logo in a football helmet carrying a ball made especially for each Super Bowl.

If you have a car, make the drive down to Spouting Horn, where waves crash through a blowhole making a whistling water spout. It's especially active in the more turbulent summer months when the southern swells are largest. There is usually a large collection of tented curios shops where you can get Red Dirt T-shirts or, my favorite, shark's tooth necklaces.

Typical of Poipu fans are Roger and Stephanie Strickland of Willits, Calif., hanging out at the beach near Brennecke's on a recent winter (80 degrees, cooling trade winds) day, listening to a CD of local musician Rev. Dennis Kamakani. They've tried other places in the islands, but keep returning to Poipu.

"We went to Molokai last year because we heard it was smaller and slower paced, but there wasn't enough for us to do there," Stephanie said. "We really like Poipu. We rent a place for two weeks and just relax. And go to Lappert's a lot."



Grand Hyatt Kauai, 1571 Poipu Road, Koloa, Hi. 808-742-1234. grandhyattkauai.com. Rates from $395 per night (check for special packages).

Other accommodations: The poipubeach.org Web site has great links for condos, bed & breakfasts, and vacation rentals.

Roy's Poipu Bar & Grill, Kiahuna Village Shopping Center, Poipu, 808-742-5000. I've never been disappointed by meals at this Roy's, unlike some of his other spots. roysrestaurant.com.

Brennecke's Beach Broiler, Poipu Beach. Whether it is for a tasty burger or a sundowner, this is the one place that I have never missed on a half-dozen trips to Poipu. Brennecke Beach, Poipu, 808-742-7588 or brenneckes.com

Kalaheo Cafe and Coffee Company. A little off the beaten track, but great for quick lunches and fantastic coffee. I always seem to be passing through before their acclaimed dinner menu starts at 5:30 p.m. 808-332-5858 or kalaheo.com

Lapperts, 5242 Koloa Rd., Koloa, 808-742-1272. lappertshawaii.com

Tomkats, 5402 Koloa Rd, Koloa 808-742-8887.

Koloa Heritage Trail. Driving and walking tour of historic highlights of old Hawaiian and sugar plantation era sites. Koloaheritagetrail.info.

Great freebie:Tahitian Dance Shows every Tuesday and Thursday at 5pm at the Poipu Shopping Village. 808-742-2831

Also Check Out: Poipubeach.org or kauaidiscovery. com.


? 2009, The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.).

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