Take a Hawaiian-style art walk on Kauai

A visitor takes in island-style artwork in a Hanapepe gallery during a weekly Art Night in Hanapepe, Kauai.
A visitor takes in island-style artwork in a Hanapepe gallery during a weekly Art Night in Hanapepe, Kauai. TNS

Note: This story was first published in 2015

Art walks are something you can find in many towns these days, but the little Hawaiian town of Hanapepe on the island of Kauai adds its own onomatopoeic “peppiness” to what you might find elsewhere. The art walk is happily island-style, and it happens every week.

There’s the high-energy Hawaiian guitar jammers lit by tiki torches in front of Bobbie’s barbecue joint. Or the electric-ukulele player on the wooden boardwalk of Kauai Fine Arts. Or even the anticipation of watching the malasadas crisp up in the vat of bubbling oil at Brandon Nagamine’s stand at the top of the street.

“They don’t get any fresher,” Nagamine says as he shovels a bag full of the hot, sugar-dusted Portuguese-style pastries, six for $5.

Every Friday from 6 to 9 p.m. is Art Night in Hanapepe, which calls itself “Kauai’s Biggest Little Town.”

Hanapepe means “crushed bay,” perhaps derived from the landslides in the valley or the appearance of the cliffs from the sea. Hawaiian natives inhabited the fertile valley for centuries before Captain Cook arrived in 1778. In addition to growing bananas, sugar cane and sweet potatoes, they have a tradition of harvesting salt from shore ponds, which are still seen on the way to the nearest swimming beach.

As you drive into town, 20 minutes west of Poipu on Kauai’s south shore, the old false-front shops look more like Tombstone or Dodge City than a tiny burg in the middle of the Pacific. Locals say that’s because the Asian immigrants who built the town around the start of the 20th century came from the same pool of skilled carpenters and architects imported to build the American West.

Hanapepe boomed during World War II with U.S. soldiers stationed nearby. Now, the rustic storefronts are home to galleries, boutiques and a restaurant or two worth the trip from wherever you’re staying on the island.

“It’s just kind of a quirky, funky little town,” says Ethan Page, whose Little Fish Coffee caters to caffeine cravings along the one-horse main drag.

You can’t go far wrong kicking off your Art Night with an early dinner at Hanapepe Cafe, a long-popular fine-dining spot that upset the Kauai foodie world when it closed a few years ago because of the owner’s health problems. It reopened in 2014.

“I got my heart fixed and we’re back open on Friday nights only,” chef Helen Lacono says with a smile as she explains the night’s specials in the cafe’s simple room with pastel-green walls, whirling overhead fans and a horseshoe-shaped bar in black and white tiles.

I indulge in a house specialty, a bomba: purple sweet potato, a Hawaiian staple, lightly fried in a patty with cilantro, shrimp and chunks of mahi mahi, served with a fire-roasted red pepper sauce ($15).

If you can’t get a table, you can still sample some of the best of chef Helen’s kitchen on Art Nights when she offers gourmet soups _ such as a savory pumpkin-and-Asian-pear bisque _ from tureens out front.

A local had wisely advised me to save room for pie from The Right Slice (, another Art Night regular. Crowds line up at the sidewalk stand for wedges of baked tastiness in island flavors such as Mango Passionfruit (the top seller), Blueberry Pina Colada and Sweet Cherry with Macadamia Coconut Crumbs ($5.25 a slice).

Plenty of artists put out the welcome mat on Art Night. I visit with Dawn Mi Traina at her tiny gallery from which she sells giclee prints of her oil paintings of indigenous Hawaiians, such as a young man blowing a conch shell (the title is “Ho`okani ia ka La Welo,” or “Announcing the Setting of the Sun”) and a young woman doing the hula (titled “Hula Ho`omaika`i no ka La,” or “Hula of Thanks and Praise for the Sun”). The paintings meld images from photos Traina has taken of the subjects.

“In some I like the position of the arms, and others I might like the look of the lei,” she explains, proudly noting that one of her portraits hangs in “Magnum P.I.” actor Tom Selleck’s office.

At Kamaaina Cabinets, I stop to pat Corona, the shaggy showroom dog, then shamelessly covet a gleaming, six-chair dining table made from prized Hawaiian koa wood (selling for about the same price it might cost to charter a plane to fly it home).

“I have a piece of koa big enough for a table to seat 14, but I’m waiting for the right time to build it,” owner Al Lopes confides.

Across the street, you can peer through gallery windows as local artisans create ceramic tiles with bright, pineapple-y island themes at Banana Patch Studio, housed in the historic Chang Building (1926). It originally housed a tailor shop and bakery, but for most of its history it was the Hanapepe Pool Hall. A 2003 restoration earned honors from the Historic Hawaii Foundation.

As night sets in and fairy lights twinkle from porches, a teenage girl plays lilting tunes on a violin on the front stoop of Talk Story Bookstore, billed as “The Western-Most Independent Bookstore of the United States.” A few doors down, in front of Aloha Spice Co., a musician known as Westside Smitty (”Outlaw Country Rockabilly Blues,” boasts his business card) delivers a smackdown version of “Poke Salad Annie” like I haven’t heard in donkey’s years.

That’s enough island peppiness for one night. With artful inspiration, it’s time to take the bag of malasadas and hunks of mango-passionfruit pie back to the B&B for a late-night pig-out in paradise.