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This week, we’re hopping on what’s bound to be a long flight (12+ hours from my home in Florida) to the southwestern shore of Kauai, the northernmost island in Hawaii. Today’s featured Small Town is Hanapepe, which has a population of just under 3,000 and is known affectionately as “Kauai’s Biggest Little Town.”

Hanapepe is unique in that, on an island developed for sugar production in the 1880s, this town was established by industrial immigrants from Japan, China, and the Philippines instead of surrounding plantation owners. In truth, the native people of Hawai`i, Kanaka Maoli, inhabited this lush valley for centuries before Western contact in 1778. This blend of remaining native residents and immigrant entrepreneurs continues to contribute to Hanapepe’s unique character in the present.

The distinct spirit of this town has contributed to the course of its history in a few remarkable ways. For starters, because of its independence from surrounding plantations, Hanapepe served as a safe haven for labor union organizers in the early 1900’s. Unionized workers were not permitted to live in plantation camps, so workers fighting for fair wages and conditions flocked to Hanapepe to survive the good fight. Because of this early allowance, laborers and longshoremen in the area are protected by hard-earned workers’ rights to this day.

Additionally, Hanapepe is known as the art capital of Kauai- and with good reason. This is a town where the old and new meet, tradition is remixed, and creative expression is celebrated. It is one such native artistic tradition that greatly inspired my design for this mural!

Local Inspiration: Kapa Cloth

As I settled in to draw the design for this wall, one idea stuck in my mind plain as day- that stereotypical, colorful & busy “Hawaiian print” that has become synonymous with the state in modern culture. I’m particularly familiar with midcentury examples of this type of pattern- which boomed hand-in-hand with the rise of tiki culture. Not wanting to blindly riff-on-a-riff, I spent some time researching where those patterns’ origins come from. Boy, was I pleasantly surprised with what I learned.

It turns out, the imperfect, geometric, grid-like patterns seen in mid-century Tiki-culture designs draw on a tradition older than recorded history itself. These patterns are inspired by a fabric-making practice seen throughout the Pacific Islands which known in Hawaii as kapa-making. The process is labor and time-intensive, requires highly skilled practitioners, and (luckily for us) has seen a major revival in the last fifty years.

This is such a rich and beautiful tradition, I cannot claim to give it a comprehensive overview because of both my own limited knowledge and the brevity of these posts- but I will link several resources to learn more about kapa at the end of this article. In short, kapa is a fine fabric made through a multi-step process of stripping, fermenting, felting, and scenting strips of bark from wauke, clippings from different plants native to the islands. The distinct geometric patterns that inspired Tiki culture (and my own design) are the result of impressions/imprints made by kapa beaters, which both process and design the fabric through, unfortunately, back-breaking hard work.

In old Hawaii, kapa was the “fabric of everyday life”, made to first swaddle babies and for burial shrouds to honor elders who passed on. It was once used for everything from daily-wear clothing and sleeping blankets, to holy robes and garments for Hawaiian royalty. Sadly, due to the time-consuming nature of its production, kapa was quickly replaced with more durable woven fabrics in the 1800s.

Luckily for us, there was a revival of kapa-making as a heritage craft beginning in the 1960s, and Hawaiian artisans are continuing to research old methods and develop new processes to this day. The details of making kapa were often passed from generation to generation orally or written in shorthand, so it has only been through the hard work of a few dedicated researchers that this art form is surviving and thriving to this day. Check out the article Women of the Cloth for more information on modern practitioners of kapa-making, and how they are ensuring future generations carry on this beautiful craft.

I was so pleasantly surprised to find this deep, historic inspiration is behind a pattern we all see and have associations with- but might not know why. These explorations on local crafts are one of my favorite aspects of this project- even if I can’t always write about them with full justice. I hope you’ll check out the articles below to learn more about this wonderful craft! That said, on to a few more interesting aspects of Hanapepe, specifically!

Community Event: Friday Night Festival & Art Walk

Hanapepe is known as the art capital of Kauai with good reason- it is home to a massive number of galleries and craftsmen relative to the small size of this small town. And all of these artisans have a chance to shine at the town’s weekly Festival & Art Walk.

Small towns often host downtown open-air markets to encourage commerce in walkable districts, but Hanapepe’s festival is unique in that it’s *weekly*, distinctively Hawaiian, and been running continuously since 1997! Featuring buskers, food trucks, extra late-night hours for local businesses, and hula dancers- locals and visitors alike mingle at this weekly celebration of local talent. This festival is so widely known, most experts recommend visitors plan their trip to Hanapepe to coincide with at least one Friday night bash.

A few specific gems of this weekly event are Porky’s food truck (featuring pineapple kahlua pork hot dogs, which garnered this food truck a spot on Yelp’s “Top 100 Places to Eat in the Country” list) and Talk Story Bookstore.

Talk Story is the western-most independent bookstore in the US, and is known as a community hub for Friday festivals as well as other live performances. Its owners Ed and Cynthia Justus are well-known for their efforts to revitalize downtown Hanapepe overall and have ongoing projects with other buildings in the district. One more tidbit worth mentioning- the bookstore’s Cat Boss Celeste was once named one of the Top Ten Bookstore Cats in the US by MentalFloss.

These two vendors and many, many more make Hanapepe’s Friday night events a bustling, sensory showcase of the best the town has to offer. If you need a respite from the crowds though, there’s a nearby attraction where you can take a breath and take in the stars.

To See & Do: Historic Swinging Bridge

Tucked away in historic Downtown Hanapepe (where the Friday Festival & Art Walk occurs) is this historic and somewhat thrilling swinging bridge. Originally built in 1911 as a way to walk from the residential district to downtown, the bridge was refurbished in 1992 after major damage from a hurricane.

It might *look* somewhat precarious, but is entirely safe and weight-tested for up to fifteen people at once. Despite this assurance, and signs mentioning not to *intentionally* swing the bridge, it’s a great place to get away from the main drag for a view of the river, and *slightly* nerve-wracking walk.

Natural Beauty: Salt Ponds and Salt Pond Beach Park

Finally, could we possibly review a town in Hawaii without mentioning its beautiful beaches? As a native to the Emerald Coast myself, I am what others have not-so-subtly referred to as a “beach snob.” So, trust me when I tell you, Salt Pond Beach Park has all of the markers to look for in a great beach to visit.

This particular inlet is completely protected by reef and rock formations, which keeps its waves gentle and often warmer than you’d find in the surrounding ocean. Additionally, it’s home to tide pools where you can observe native sea life like eels, starfish, colorful fish, and sea cukes in their natural habitat. And if that wasn’t enough- this park also has a large grassy area, is not crowded, AND can be camped in with a permit from the city. Sounds like heaven to me.

All of that aside, this park is also near an important natural landmark for the town of Hanapepe. Remember how I mentioned Hanapepe was built by entrepreneurs? Well, salt trading was the first entrepreneurial enterprise here, and the right to work and harvest salt in these pools has been handed down within seventeen local families here since ancient times.

This is one of only two such salt “farms” remaining in Hawaii, but this unique red salt, called ‘alaea salt, is only produced here on the island of Kauai. Today, these pools are operated on the idea of ‘communal stewardship’ and not entrepreneurship- the salt harvested here cannot be sold, it can only be gifted to others or traded for services or other goods.

Much like the practice of kapa-making, the practice of tending to these pans is passed along family lines and revered as a long-standing tradition worth keeping. You can only visit the pools from afar or if invited closer by a familial worker, as they are delicate ecosystems that need to be protected. I’m grateful to have learned more about this practice from across the world, and if you’d like to learn more, read all about it here at Ho’okuleana, a blog whose name means “to take responsibility.”


Hanapepe, Kauai’s “Biggest Little Town” is an artistic hub that delicately balances its history and traditions with the creative expression and revitalization efforts of its current residents. Oh, and I have one more fun fact worth mentioning! This small town was the inspiration behind the fictional town of Kokaua, the hometown of one little hula dancer named Lilo and her odd extraterrestrial “dog” named Stitch.

I myself haven’t had the pleasure of visiting Hawaii yet; in all honestly, it will probably warrant a celebratory trip as my final State to visit to complete all fifty. But you’d best believe, a stop in Hanapepe for its Friday Art Walk is a must-do when I make it there!

We’ll see you here next week, as we venture back to the mainland to feature a small town in the Gem State!

"The only good thing about leaving Hawaii is that you really appreciate it when you return." ~ John Richard Stephens


Keep those wheels turnin'!

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