Hawaii's small towns pack big character

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Kapaa on Kauai boasts a plethora of restaurants and shops to explore.
Kapaa on Kauai boasts a plethora of restaurants and shops to explore. Photo Credit: Hawaii Tourism Authority

Hawaii is known for its resort-studded beach destinations, from bustling Waikiki on Oahu, to laid-back getaways like Hawaii Island's Kohala Coast, and luxury-laden enclaves such as Wailea on Maui. While those areas boast the largest properties and draw in the lion's share of visitors, particularly Waikiki, there are many small towns in the Aloha State packed with character, along with a plethora of unique attractions, shops and restaurants.

They offer boutique hotels, independent shops, quirky diners and walkable streets while also relying heavily on tourism. When travel restrictions are lifted and life returns to normal following the Covid-19 pandemic, here are some Hawaii small towns on each of the four most populated islands that have something special to offer. 

Oahu

The surf town of Haleiwa serves as the social and cultural hub of the North Shore, and is peppered with knowledgeable surf shops, eclectic boutiques and eateries. The colorful buildings in the main commercial area house numerous galleries, and the town holds an art festival every July. Last year, North Shore Eco Tours launched a tour and a shuttle service from Waikiki to Haleiwa that runs Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays for $50 per passenger. Check out sunset from Alii Beach, sample the food from one of the many shrimp trucks in town, and snap a photo at Haleiwa's Rainbow Bridge.

Just west of Honolulu and close to the airport and Pearl Harbor, the town of Kapolei added three hotels in the past three years: the Residence Inn by Marriott, Embassy Suites and Hampton Inn & Suites. Nearby attractions also include the Kapolei Golf Course, Wet 'N Wild Water Park, and Coral Crater Adventure Park, which features ziplines, ATV tours and a climbing wall. Kapolei is also closer to Ko Olina and Oahu's leeward coast than Waikiki, and is a good option for both business travelers and those who expect to rent a car and explore greater Oahu. 

Maui

As the old plantations have given way to smaller and more diversified farms, Kula, on the western slope of the dormant volcano Haleakala, has seen a boom in specialty growers and purveyors in recent years. Many of the goods from the farms, distilleries and producers here can be found on not only Valley Isle menus, but in restaurants across the Aloha State. Surfing Goat Dairy, Ocean Vodka Organic Farm and Distillery, Alii Kula Lavender and MauiWine all welcome visitors and have a variety of tours. Oo Farm attracts visitors for both organic farm tours and farm-to-table meals. For the adventure seekers, there is also a ziplining course and paragliding launch site nearby, and the Kula Botanical Gardens feature carnations, orchids and other tropical plants and trees.

A north shore surf town, Paia holds a condensed district of shops and cafes with plenty of souvenir crafts and clothing options. Baldwin Beach, just west of the old town, offers roughly 17 acres of coastline to explore. The Paia Fish Market is a local favorite since 1989, with fresh catch specials and loaded fish tacos. Inside the boutique Paia Inn, the restaurant Vana opened in 2019 with a menu of Japanese-inspired creations employing locally grown ingredients. Paia is also home to the famed Mama's Fish House, one of the most well-known and popular restaurants in all of Hawaii.

Kauai

On Kauai's eastern coast, Kapaa has become a nexus for some of the best bites on the Garden Isle. Kenji Burger churns out Japanese-style burgers made from local, grass-fed beef, including the signature creation with teriyaki sauce, ponzu, caramelized onions, cheddar cheese and tomato on a taro brioche bun. Usually found parked in Kapaa along Kuhio Highway, Scorpacciata food truck serves Neapolitan-style pizza made in an 800-degree oven. Wailua Shave Ice whips up the Hawaiian frozen treat using fresh fruit juices and cane sugar (no artificial flavors or high fructose corn syrup). NOM Kauai, specializing in Southern fare, dishes out made-from-scratch favorites like pillowy buttermilk biscuits. To work up an appetite for all those calorie-packing meals, try out the Hoopii Falls or Sleeping Giant trails, both of which start in Kapaa. For shopping, the Kamoa Ukulele Co. has a friendly and experienced staff that is happy to help you pick the perfect one to take home or simply teach you more about Hawaii's iconic instrument.

Dubbed "Kauai's Biggest Little Town," Hanapepe oozes history with a quaint central area full of  plantation-era buildings that are now home to cherished restaurants and delightful cafes. Visitors will find a mix of dining options, from Hawaiian plate lunches to Mexican tacos, as well as an ample collection of artisan galleries. Make sure you let lunch digest before venturing across the Hanapepe Swinging Bridge, a suspension bridge built in the early 1900s that has plenty of bounce. The most lively time to visit is during the weekly Friday evening art walk and community festival.

Hawaii Island

Off the beaten path on the state's largest island, Hawi's commercial zone is not much bigger than a few blocks, but it still offers a great deal. On the way to the Pololu Valley lookout and trail, the main road offers some stand-out restaurants including Sushi Rock and Sweet Potato Kitchen and Bakery, serving mostly vegetarian and vegan fare. Boutique shops offer locally made goods including many items from Hawaii Island farms, and Hawi is the jumping-off point for outdoor activities such as kayak excursions, farm tours, ziplining and ATV tours. Also in town is Flumin Kohala, a tour in a kayak down a series of flumes used to irrigate now-defunct sugar plantations. A short drive east is Kapaau, King Kamehameha I's birthplace where a statue stands in his honor.

Hawaii Island's most famous product is its acclaimed Kona coffee. Many of the coffee-related tourist attractions and farms are not in Kailua-Kona town, however, but are found farther south along the stretch of state Route 11 that runs from the towns of Captain Cook to Kealakekua. Greenwell Farms, is an award-winning grower and roaster, offers a free, short tour that includes tastings of its many roasts. The Kona Coffee Living History Farm tells the story of the cash crop's development on the island with interactive exhibits. The Aloha Theatre in Kealakekua puts on a variety of shows each year including improv comedy performances, concerts, and plays. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Kona Coffee Festival, scheduled for Nov. 6 through Nov. 15.

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