Kauai is the northwestern most of Hawaii's major islands. Nicknamed the Garden Island, it's covered with lush greenery and tropical plants, watered regularly by abundant rainfall. As the oldest of the islands, it has been changed the most by the forces of erosion, which has resulted in natural wonders such as Waimea Canyon and the Na Pali Coast. As a consequence of its age, Kauai also has more miles of sandy coastline than the other Hawaiian islands.
Personally, Hawaii wasn’t on the top of my list of places to visit, but once I went I absolutely fell in love and have been twice and can’t wait to go back! Kauai is the only Hawaiian island I’ve been to, so I would definitely like to explore more, but I love how small and intimate it is and I’ve felt like even though it’s full of tourists, something about it feels familiar and private and cozy and timeless and free and open. I can’t imagine being a local and having to deal with tons of tourist and so much traffic on the one road used to get around, but I do think everyone should experience the beauty of this magical island. I recommend avoiding the cheesy luau shows, expensive restaurants geared toward tourists serving frozen fish sticks and most organized adventures like zip lining and instead urge you to explore the island’s hidden gems that make it unique and force visitors to slow down, connect, and simply enjoy being on vacation.
The island of Kauai formed from gradual volcanic overflow approximately 5.1 million years ago. The oldest of the Hawaiian Islands, Kauai has a heritage that is steeped in myth and legend. One look at a map will show you an important difference between Kauai and the more populous islands of Hawaii: Due to the massive Waimea Canyon and Na Pali Coast, no roads circle the island. Once you've made the drive along the south shore to Waimea and seen the canyon, the only options are to go West on dirt roads to Polihale Beach or turn around and go back the way you came. Same story for Na Pali on the north shore. However, the island is small enough that both ends of the road can be seen in the same day. For a sketchy but affordable rental car company, check out Island Cars and consider renting a van to camp out in on the island if you want to save money for food and fun adventures.
Nicknamed the ‘Forbidden Island,’ Niʻihau lies west of Kauaʻi and remains an intriguing mystery due to its private ownership and unique isolation. Accessible only to its owners, Native Hawaiian residents, government officials, occasional US Navy personnel and invited guests, Niʻihau is the last bastion of traditional Hawaiian culture.
The island is also home to thousands upon thousands of feral chickens. No matter where you go on the island, you'll find them. And why does Kauai have so many wild chickens? Most people suggest that the feral chicken population can be traced back to when Hurricane Iniki hit Kauai in 1992. It’s been reported that the devastating hurricane destroyed a number of chicken farms. Wikipedia also suggests another possible theory: that sugarcane plantation laborers in the late 1800s and early 1900s brought and raised chickens (for eating and cockfighting) and many got loose over the years and multiplied. Either way, you can't miss them and please don't feed them!
Jewelry pairing: Kauai
See & Do:
Drive out to Waimea Canyon - The views of the canyon are amazing. I would recommend driving straight to the top early in the morning so you can see the highest views before the cloud cover comes in. Then on your way down stop at all of the other overlooks and plan to spend at least half a day here, if not more. The Kalalau Lookout provides the best views, with the least amount of effort. The Pihea trail gives such great views over the Kalalau Valley, the Awa'awapuhi trail is a once in a lifetime experience, all of the lookouts over the canyon are stunning. Buy fresh fruit from the vendors at the top!
Go to Pali Ke Kua Beach (Hideaways Beach) and swim, snorkel, sleep - repeat! One of my favorite beaches ever with lots of coral, fish, turtles and even and octopus to see! Come early pack some food and a cooler and stay for the day! The big trees give plenty of shade. Bit of a steep trail to get there so not for everyone, but the views along the way are gorgeous. Not many other people there whenever we were. Near Queens bath and St. Regis. We rode bikes around Princeville and explored this area that way which was perfect. Pro Tip: you can park with valet for free (plus tip) at the St. Regis or the lot in front of the path.
An integral part of Kauai’s heritage sites, the Maha'ulepu Heritage Trail begins at the Shipwreck Beach near the Grand Hyatt. The Mahaulepu Heritage site magnifies the history related to ancient settlements, migrants, wars and local wildlife. The trail leads you through a 2-mile stretch of coastline with sand dunes, lava tubes, sinkholes and white sand beaches. This is an easy walk and there are some spectacular views along the trail. The trail goes parallel to the coast for a short distance before you are guided over the cliffs. Once you reach the end of the cliffs, you will be greeted with a mind-blowing view of the coast. The trail eventually leads to the secluded Mahaulepu beach.
Enjoy an idyllic kayaking and hiking adventure on the Wailua River. Paddle down the tranquil river and admire the lush jungle landscapes on shore then hike to a remote waterfall and go for a swim. We got lucky and had a rad guide who taught us a lot about Kauai’s history and native plants and plant medicine. You can also just rent kayaks and paddle up the river and hike to the waterfall yourself, but either way this is not to be missed!
Make sure to check out Queens Bath - a collection of gleaming tidal pools carved by lava, amid fish crashing in and a sea turtles riding the waves and jumping off low cliffs into the ocean. The hike down isn’t for everyone but if you’re in decent shape without health issues it’s easy and beautiful. Check the tide and surf report before going because it’s calm and relaxing and magical to swim, snorkel and cliff jump in the pools at low tide. Also, don’t be an idiot, it could be sketchy at high tide and people have died here.
One of my favorite places on the island is Anini Beach. If you’re looking for a very low key and relaxing beach this is it. Every time I’ve gone I had a magical experience swimming with turtles and the water is really calm and clear - the farther out you go by the coral the more you will see. The very long reef provides a very big protected area for easy snorkeling and swimming. If you walk up the beach (south? to the right?) there’s a fun little tree swing.
Visit Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge - Home of most Treasured NeNe's - This refuge is home to a variety of birds like Albatross and Red-footed Boobies and volunteers at the lighthouse help identify them and give interesting facts about what you’re seeing. Beautiful spot and opportunities to see whales and learn more about Kauai’s flora and fauna. Might sound boring but I think it’s definitely worth stopping here!
Opaeka'a Falls - Definitely worth a stop if you are in the area. Very easy to get to with good parking. Easy paved walk to the falls. This waterfall is beautiful but it's basically a view point. Also a hot spot for large tourist buses and it gets crowded fast. Go across the street to the lookout over the river valley - cool views.
Wailua Falls - Worth the drive. There’s really nothing else to do up there besides enjoy the beauty of the falls so 10-15 min will do it. Unfortunately, you’re not allowed to hike to the bottom. Pro tip - buy a coconut from the rad lady selling them, add the mini bottle of rum your friend happens to have in her purse, and listen to her stories about being bit by a deadly centipede and growing up on the island.
Watch the sunset at Ke'e Beach. This beach is just gorgeous. It is inside Haena State Park and the water is calm and warm with great snorkeling around the edge of the small bay. It's the perfect place to cool off after hiking the Kalalau Trail. Also don't miss the wet cave, which is right on the highway.
Turtle hunt at Tunnels beach - I was lucky enough to swim with five all hanging out together in the shore break here and it was truly magical! There’s also a lovely camp ground at this beach. Sunsets are epic here as well.
It’s totally worth it to stop into Koloa Rum Company and do some rum tasting. Tasting is free and they give 5 different flavors and top it off with bite of rum cake that melts in your mouth. The little rum bottles are great presents for the friends back home. They do the tastings every half hour. Pro Tip: make this your last stop before your flight off the island and get a buzz and some rum for the road.
It’s a short hike through the jungle to get to Ho’opi’i Falls where you can jump into the lower falls and swim in the river — it’s a calm and quiet special place and one of my favorite spots!
Hike the Sleeping Giant Trail if you like moderate hikes surrounded by beauty! This is a great trail very close to the town of Kapaa. It is also known as the Nounou trail. Start early to beat the crowds. Slippery when wet but manageable. Once on top you get a full 360 view of the East side of Kauai. Not a hard trail, less than 5 miles round trip but it does go up 1,500 feet, so you do climb switchbacks.
Wander around the Botanical Gardens.
Visit a pineapple plantation and learn how pineapples are grown at Sugarloaf Pineapple Farm. Plant, pick and eat the best pineapple you will ever taste on an incredible farm tour.
Go paddle boarding - I’d recommend renting in Hanalei town and taking them out on the Hanalei River.
Watching the sunset from Hanalei Pier is magical. The sun goes down over the mountains and for a few minutes the light is simply perfect. I highly recommend it.
Kalapaki Beach - a quiet bay to swim, paddle or surf and also a good place for kids (or adults) to take surf lessons.
Walk around Old Koloa Town. There is a small, low key historical display in the inner courtyard which also contains a beautifully kept tropical garden.
Spouting Horn Beach Park - it’s a blow hole.
Swim or surf at Hanalei Bay – the long stretches of beach and beautiful mountain views make it an easy favorite.
Hanapepe is a sleepy little town with quaint shops and restaurants on the South side of the island that I loved. Check out Talk Story Bookstore, an independent used-and-new bookstore with an unassuming plantation-style charm, and Taro Ko Factory for Taroooooo chips!!
The best way to end a vacation in Kauai is to watch the sunset at the farthest west point of the island at Polihale State Park. This is possibly the most beautiful sunset you will find on the island of Kauai. The beach goes for miles and miles. You can also camp here.
Sneak into the Hyatt pool for a swim and have free breakfast, easier than expected ( :
Take a boat trip to see the Na Pali coast from the sea - I didn't do it but you probably should.
Find some local swimming holes - sorry, not gunna give any info, but see what you can find!
Of course, you can't miss walking along the famous Kalalau Trail along the Na Pali coast. The whole hike is 22 miles (11 miles one way) which you need a permit for. This was by far one of the highlights of the trip! We only did the two-mile hike to the beach and back but I hope to come back and do the entire hike as it was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.
EAT & Drink
Spam Musubi - all day, everyday!$
Koloa Fish Market is located near the eastern end of the main strip in Koloa and seriously has the best Poke I've ever had! Get the avocado or wasabi flavor or basically anything from their menu to go and eat it at the beach or somewhere nearby. No seating here, just takeout. $$
Anake's Juice Bar - you could basically live off juices and smoothies on this island. $$
Check out the farmers markets all over the island on different days of the week to stock up on all the most delicious island grown foods and beautiful flowers to put in your car or room! $
Make sure to stop by The Fish Express. This Lihue fish market serves up excellent poke, fish tacos, grilled Ono, seafood and salads. Perfect to grab food to go and have before or on an adventure! $$
Definitely don’t miss Mermaids Cafe in Kapaʻa - I loved the Ahi wrap and there are a lot of vegetarian and vegan options too, another good spot to grab and go. $$
You have to eat, so why not eat super fresh and local? Pono Market does it right, with fantastic spam musubis, great poke, awesome lomi lomi, excellent seaweed salad and huge plate lunches! Everything tastes great, is totally fresh, and sells out fast so go early! Add some drinks and take it for a picnic, or eat right there with a buncha people watching you chow down on the street during a rain storm! $$
Kikuchi's food truck is a nice place to stop for lunch after a swim at Kalapaki Beach. Got the seared ahi tuna sushi wrap and it was so so good! $
I wish I could go to Moloa’a Sunrise Juice Bar every day of my life forever - right off the highway - stop by every time you drive by! On a lush green lawn with gorgeous mountain views, with many fruits and vegetables sourced from farms located right behind the stand itself. We would grab smoothies and coconuts and other fresh fruit and some premade food stuffs to go for the day. $$
Duane's Ono Burger - this place is famous if you’re into that sorta thing, but personally I’d skip it and get some poke or somethin’ $$
If ya wanna get fancy, dress up and stop into St. Regis in Princeville for happy hour drinks at sunset and enjoy the amazing views over Hanalei Bay. They also do a Sunday Champagne Brunch with unlimited champagne and a super decadent brunch buffet. Make reservations and prepare to spend a ton of money and eat a ton of food. $$$
The mountain view at Ama Restaurant is perfect - outdoor setting in a small, covered space, island breezes, good drinks and excellent ramen selections, outstanding appetizers - life doesn’t get much better. $$
For fine dining try Bar Acuda. This tapas bar has it all. Atmosphere and a variety of dishes for every taste. $$$
Hanalei Bread - With an open-air, relaxed vibe this is a great spot to have a good strong coffee and enjoy an order of avocado toast or a fresh bakery treat. $$
If you think eating delicious indian food with homemade naan and fresh mango lassi on a beautiful island sounds good - go to Cafe Turmeric - a real tasty food truck in Hanalei. $$
Trucking Delicious is f*ckin’ delicious!! $$
Pink’s Creamery - a favorite spot to grab ice cream and a grilled cheese on the North Shore. Their banana or chocolate macadamia nut flavors are so good! $
If you like shave ice go to Tege Tege Shave Ice. Tege Tege uses only organic fruit, and they have unique flavors like green tea and passionfruit. $
Aloha Juice Bar for more smoothies and juices and bowls! $
Sushi Girl - Literally a hole in the wall sushi place but very good! Perfect to grab lunch to-go in Kilauea. They have delicious poké, sushi burritos, and vegetarian rolls. $$
Before making lodging reservations it's best to review a map of the island and plan ahead. Think about the activities and sightseeing you want to do. The one main highway is only two lanes and tends to get fairly congested at times. Since Kauai is a pretty small island, there aren't a ton of choices, and things book up quickly, so book and plan ahead if you can! VRBO and Air Bnb have some great affordable home rentals. Another option is camping. There are many county and a state park where camping is allowed. Permits are cheap but required. You can also rent full loaded VW Westfalia campers through Kauai Camper Rental which would be super fun! I would recommend staying on the North Shore, then spending some time staying on the west side of the island to get to know that area and use that as a base to explore the south and Waimea Canyon, etc.
(Kapa`a) – On the east side, about a 20 minute drive north of Lihu`e, is the largest population center on the island. It anchors what is known as the Coconut Coast, which hosts many inexpensive to moderately priced resorts and some commercial activity with many strip malls along the highway. The corridor between Lihu`e and Kapa`a is the island's most congested.
(Lihu`e) – On the island's southeast side, is the civic and commercial center of the island, host to the island's main airport, county offices, and largest shopping mall. The Kaua`i Museum is located in the old part of Lihu`e and is the island's best museum on the history, geography, and people of Kaua`i.
(Po`ipu) – On the south side, branded "the sunny side of paradise", is the major visitor destination for the island. Poipu features beautiful beaches, swimming, snorkeling and surfing, sea turtles, whales, monk seals, trade winds, palm trees, and spectacular sunsets. The Allerton and McBryde National Tropical Botanical Gardens of the Pacific are located in Poipu.
(Princeville) – A planned resort community on the north shore, consisting of homes, condo developments, the St. Regis hotel, and 2 golf courses. Kauai's impressive north shore mountains form the backdrop. Several small beaches are located within Princeville, with many more a short drive away.
(Waimea) – On the west side, a small town with a flavor of old Kaua`i. Most visitors pass through town on the way to Waimea Canyon and Koke`e, but the town itself is worth a visit. Not preferable to stay here since it is a long drive from most other destinations.
(Hanalei) - On the north shore, is home to a quaint little beach town and famous Hanalei Bay, a crescent shaped bay known for its sandy white beaches and world class surf. This area has a relaxed vibe and would be a fun place to stay to explore the northern parts of the island.