I can’t surf. So instead of riding waves, I decided to ride the cliché of drinking Mai Tais in Hawaii—letting both the lore and the lure of a strong, tropical drink guide my navigation of the island of Kaua’i.
The oldest island in the Hawaiian archipelago, it is widely regarded as the most beautiful. Even its Wikipedia entry gushes that “it’s almost as if you’ve stepped into a separate kingdom.” Flying into the airport as lush, irregular mountain ridges (fringed with multi-colored beaches like leis of every hue) soar into view, it’s easy to see why. You’ll press your smartphone to the tiny airplane window, compelled beyond reason to try and capture its stunning beauty, despite knowing it’s only a small fraction of what awaits.
Magnificent natural beauty aside, the people of Kaua’i are also unique among Hawaiians. From a large population of natives whose ancestry goes back hundreds of years, to “expats” who will wax poetic about what made them call the island home, Kaua’i locals cherish the slower pace of life and their connection to nature. You will find the whole island friendly—from sleepy saloons in the “wild” west Waimea town, to a gem of a hotel bar hidden inside in a tourist-laden outpost.
Also you will find everywhere: the Mai Tai.
Of contentious tiki-era origin and named in pigeon Tahitian, the Mai Tai is enthusiastically embraced as Hawaii’s official cocktail. The first one I ordered (they handed out free ones at 9am on my flight from San Jose, but we will ignore that odd detail) was at Kalapaki Joe’s in Waimea. About as far west as you can get on the island, this bar is located in one of the most historic settings in Hawaii. Tucked inside the authentically vintage and completely charming Waimea Plantation resort, Kalapaki Joe’s is nonetheless a divey sports bar. Lucky enough to be calling one of the Plantation cottages home for the night, I had driven by the spot on my way to explore Polihale beach earlier in the day and noticed the promising Happy Hour sign: $5 Mai Tais, $3 fresh fish tacos.
While the sun is out, Kalapaki Joe’s is pleasant: its coconut grove atmosphere and lazy, tropical ceiling fans harken back to a bygone era. But after nightfall, the oddly bright florescent lighting kicks in and suddenly the TVs showing local football games seem at odds with the surfboards on the wall. But that’s what’s to love about the place—it’s not trying to be anything it’s not. The Mai Tais, in kind, are exactly like the women who tend the bar: strong, no-nonsense, and without fanfare. Here the booze is not hiding behind the sweet, tropical juices, but instead cuts through them like a delicious, hard-hitting anchor.
A few very tasty and simple fish tacos to keep me sober, I strolled back to the private lanai (Hawaiian balcony) of my cottage, beguiled by the scent of flowering pikake trees and the sound of the Pacific. The next morning, after a sunrise stroll on the black sand beach in front of the resort, I headed East towards Poipu and then up to Kapa’a.
Second only to my obsession with drinking Mai Tais, I must admit, is eating fish tacos on Kaua’i. There is something perfectly Hawaiian about the classic surfer snack – a combination of succulent, insanely fresh fish, the salty richness of a homemade tortilla, the crunchy coolness of the slaw topping, and the bang of spicy salsa. If it sounds like I might be describing a particular taco, you are correct: this fine specimen is found at Da Crack in historic Koloa town, a perfect pit stop halfway between Waimea and Kapa’a. Despite the fact that its name references its tiny size, Da Crack’s reputation among locals is huge. You might be eating on a tiny bench overlooking a parking lot, or in your car, but it won’t matter because you’ll pound those tacos with record speed, and dream about them the rest of the way to wherever you end up.
When I finally got to Kapa’a, I stumbled upon Oasis on the Beach on my way to the lovely stretch of sand that the bar and restaurant shares with The Outrigger Waipouli Beach, one of the nicest resorts on the east side of Kaua’i. I paused by the open-air, thatched roof space to glance at the menu, my expectations low given its location. But when I remarked at their Mai Tai containing the unlikely lillikoi (Hawaiian passion fruit), I was advised to speak to Joel, the head of the bar program. Popping up from behind the bar on cue, Joel, a tall, tattooed surfer boy with a booming voice, chimed right in.
Never missing an opportunity to exuberantly “talk shop,” he spoke about the spirit of the tiki drink as many Hawaiians might speak about the spirit of “aloha.” His Mai Tais were the perfect expression of this philosophy: extremely nuanced and exotic, evocative of the island in all the ways that a true tiki drink should be. And, of course, very, very boozy. The high calibre rums are assertive without being harsh and are also dangerously drinkable—especially when complimented by the luscious, house-made orgeat and an ingenious mist of rose and orange flower waters. Whether basking in the ocean breeze or in a New York basement bar, I have never had a Mai Tai this good. Oasis on the Beach is just that—an oasis hiding in plain sight, too easily overlooked within the property of a luxurious but sanitized resort—and Joel’s Mai Tai is worth an island pilgrimage in and of itself.
Speaking of ukuleles. Ok, right, they were never actually mentioned, but in Hawaii there is always a ukulele playing somewhere. And at Tahiti Nui, there is likely one playing right now.
Up on Kaua’i’s North shore, the town of Hanalei is famous for its breathtaking bay, its bohemian vibe, a dragon that didn’t grow up, and its taro farms. Tucked right in the center of town (and right next to the beloved Hanalei Taro & Juice truck), Tahiti Nui is the ideal kind of dive bar. The one that hasn’t changed a wick in 50 years and doesn’t seem to notice that it was featured prominently in any guidebooks or Hollywood movies. If you were to ask the Tahitian mom and pop owners what the defining feature of their bar and restaurant was without hesitation they would answer that it’s an old school, local music venue.
Though the music changes nightly by genre, there is a humbling sincerity to the quality and cadence of the local performers that play and sing their hearts out in the back corner of the bar. Despite the din of clanking dinner plates and the jovial voices of the bar patrons, while I sipped my sweet Mai Tai (and here, the original Tahitian name roughly translating to “very good” made perfect sense) this time I kept my back to the bar, mesmerized by the kī ho`alu, slack-key guitar, and the silky croon of the woman who sang so earnestly of her beautiful island home.
At the Waimea Plantation
9400 Kaumuali`i Hwy. Waimea, Hi 96796
Hours: 8am – 10pm every day
Happy Hour 3-6pm every day
Live music Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays
The Waimea Plantation Cottages
9400 Kaumuali`i Hwy. Waimea, Hi 96796
Starting at $170 per night
2827 Poipu Rd
Poipu, HI 96756
Hours: 11am-8pm Mon-Sat
until 4pm on Sunday
Oasis on the Beach
At the Outrigger Waipouli Resort
4-820 Kuhio Hwy Kapa’a, HI 96746
Hours: 12-9pm, every day
Happy hour 4-6pm, every day $5 signature cocktails
Live music on Wednesdays
5-5134 Kuhio Hwy, Hanalei, HI 96714
Hours: 11am-10pm every day
Feral Pig in Lihue
Hanalei Taro & Juice Co
5-5070 Kuhio Hwy Hanalei, HI 96714
Hours: 11am-3pm every day
Hanalei Surfboard House
5459 Weke Rd., Hanalei, HI 96714
Starting at $325 per night