Dance in a colorful bar, sing Hawaiian hymns in a historic church or tour Hawaii’s last rice mill.
“Defend Hanalei” says the bumper sticker on a rusty, surfboard-loaded pickup puttering slowly down the winding, two-lane road in front of my rental car as I approach a bridge into Kauai’s green, green Hanalei Valley.
The bridge itself is a political statement aimed at keeping “progress” out of this isolated community on the north shore of the Hawaiian island of Kauai. Locals successfully battled against a new concrete span to replace the Hanalei River’s one-lane, steel-truss bridge. At islanders’ behest, the state in 2003 replaced the decaying old bridge — built in 1912, the year the Titanic sank — with a close replica.
It slows traffic. It keeps out tour buses and big trucks. It helps keep Hanalei funky.
Taro’s full circle
Over centuries, Native Hawaiians farmed taro and other food crops in this fertile valley. Native crops gave way to a boom of rice farming in the 19th century. Today, waterfalls thread thousands of feet down emerald-green hillsides beyond ponds that once again grow taro, now used in traditional dishes plus everything from hummus to smoothies. With every breeze, the large, heart-shaped taro leaves wave like butterfly wings.
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Travel across the valley through Hanalei (say “haw-na-LAY”) town, then into the “Bali Hai” area of Kauai, where rainbows arch across cockscomb-jagged hills above some of the island’s best snorkeling beaches.
“South Pacific” was filmed here. A former James Bond — actor Pierce Brosnan — has a home here. Every morning, hikers by the score set out from the Kuhio Highway’s end to tackle the challenging Kalalau Trail along the Na Pali cliffs.
The old bridge doesn’t keep visitors out, so Hanalei town has its share of touristy boutiques and galleries. But even their setting, such as the rustic Old Hanalei School retail complex (check out the vintage restrooms), beats your average strip mall.
And while cafes may have plenty of visitors from Oregon or Arizona, not every Hawaiian town has local color as memorable as Hanalei’s 52-year-old island-style bar, Tahiti Nui — or “da Nui” to locals (5-5134 Kuhio Hwy.; thenui.com). Co-founded by a descendant of Tahitian royalty, this is where George Clooney and Beau Bridges hung out in the 2011 movie “The Descendants.” Under bamboo rafters, dance to a rocking island band and slurp cocktails bursting with pineapple and passion fruit.
After a hard night at “da Nui,” make your way to church.
Hanalei is home to one of the planet’s prettiest little churches, circa 1912. Sunday services (10 a.m.) at the green-shingled, American Gothic-style Wai`oli Hui`ia Church, in the heart of town, include hymns sung in the Hawaiian language.
Visitors are welcome. You might get a lei during the morning greeting. Aloha shirts, muumuus and flip-flops, with an occasional plumeria blossom in the hair, is the dress code. Pick up a handheld lauhala fan, woven from the leaves of a hala tree, from a basket by the door if there’s not enough breeze through the open windows, whose stained glass has a colorful theme of tropical flowers and banana leaves.
On the Sunday I visit, twittering birds from outside are the backup singers as Pastor Alpha Goto plays his ukulele and croons “Kei Ka Hoa O Iesu La” (“What A Friend We Have in Jesus”).
After the service, look behind the church for Christian missionaries Abner and Lucy Wilcox’s 1837-vintage home, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, with its lava-rock chimney, classic koa furniture and a master bedroom where Lucy gave birth to eight sons.
Exploring Hanalei history
For schooling in a page of unique island history, I join a tour of Hawaii’s only remaining rice mill, situated among the taro ponds. Rice was grown here commercially from the 19th century until Hawaii’s rice industry collapsed in the 1960s.
The Ho`opulapula Haraguchi Rice Mill is now in the middle of Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge, off-limits to most visitors, so if you’re a birder the tour also offers chances to bolster your life list with possible glimpses of endangered species such as the ae`o (Hawaiian stilt), `alae ke`oke`o (Hawaiian coot), `alae `ula (Hawaiian moorhen), nene (Hawaiian goose) and the koloa maoli (Hawaiian duck).
The tour is highly personal. Leading it is 35-year-old Lyndsey Haraguchi-Nakayama, whose family is in its sixth generation of farming the valley, which included operating the mill until its closure. Now, through a nonprofit, the family helps preserve the historic mill, which has been rebuilt and restored through many flash floods — you can get rain here that would impress Noah — and two major hurricanes.
“At the ripe old age of 6 I started driving tractors, to help with evacuations,” Haraguchi-Nakayama recalls as she stands by a taro pond and tells her family’s story.
Under the old mill’s corrugated metal roof, she shows how scoops of rice moved on a conveyor belt powered at first by a water wheel, later by a hefty diesel engine. Machinery dating to 1830s China includes boulders that turned together to crush and hull the rice.
I learn almost enough about rice milling and taro farming to wade into a pond and go to work.
The tour concludes with a demonstration of taro pounding using a lava-rock stone. There are samples of coconut water and fresh pa`i`ai, or pounded poi — like purplish lumps of dough rolled in freshly shredded coconut. Then comes a catered lunch of sticky rice, lau lau pork (marinated pork wrapped in a steamed taro leaf) and a sweet mochi cake.
It leaves me bulging with Hanalei culture — and its food.
Up the lazy river
To work off the lunch, a kayak paddle up the lazy Hanalei River is just the way to cap the day.
Kayak Hanalei, a family-run outfitter just off the main drag as you enter town, launches boats into a little stream that connects with the river. They make it easy and fun, no guide required. Rent a double-seater, sit-on-top kayak for a half-day (the 1 p.m. special) for $48 (5-5070-A Kuhio Hwy.; kayakhanalei.com).
A 90-minute round trip takes you under the old bridge and back up into the wildlife refuge, past towering monkey pod trees and thickets of hau, also known as sea hibiscus.
Then it’s back into town for dinner. Choices, choices: the open-air deck at Kalypso (5-5156 Kuhio Hwy.; kalypsokauai.com) for the Paniolo Spicy BBQ burger ($10.95)? Or Chicken in a Barrel BBQ, from which you can look across the road to a double ribbon waterfall tumbling down a distant mountainside? Or back to Tahiti Nui, for Kauai prawns with macadamia honey sauce over steamed bok choy ($25)?
If you stay out too late and drink too much? Back to church with you in the morning.
If you go
Hanalei is on Kauai’s north shore, on the Kuhio Highway, about a 50-minute drive from the Lihue Airport.
RICE MILL TOUR
Tours of the Ho`opulapula Haraguchi Rice Mill and the adjacent working taro farm are offered Wednesdays at 10 a.m. and last 3½ to 4 hours, including snacks and a Hawaiian-style lunch. $87/adults, $52/children 5-12, younger children free. 808-651-3399 or haraguchiricemill.org.
Hanalei Bay, fronting Hanalei town, has one of the best beaches on Kauai. As you drive westward through Hanalei, turn right on Aku Road, then right on Weke Road. Look for the beach park on your left.
Kauai Visitors Bureau, kauaidiscovery.com