I traveled to Hawaiʻi last month and decided to split time between two islands: Oʻahu and Kauaʻi. Honolulu has lots of famous places and exciting activities, but I liked the idea of visiting the less visited “garden island” of Kauaʻi too. This turned out to be a great decision.
Kauaʻi is one of the most intensely beautiful places I’ve ever been. If you’re dreaming of an island paradise with rainforests, beaches, and lots of other places to explore, well, that’s Kauaʻi!
Kaua’i is the farthest west of the main Hawaiian islands and also the oldest geologically. Most of the island is covered in green rainforest and wetland areas. The interior of the island is mountainous and sparsely populated, so you’ll probably be spending most of your time around the coastal areas. There are highways forming a partial circle, sort of like a backwards letter “C.” Why doesn’t it connect? The western side of the island is a protected natural area called the Nā Pali Coast. Rugged peaks meet the ocean for some really dramatic scenery.
Kauaʻi is also the least populated of the main Hawaiian islands, so you won’t find any big cities. Small towns like Kapaʻa on the east coast give the island a laid back vibe. Small shops, beach cafes, and food trucks are plentiful. So are wild chickens. Don’t feed them–it only encourages them.
The weather-beaten north shore of Kauaʻi has plenty of remote beaches and gorgeous scenery. There’s space to find your own stretch of the beach, but be warned that few places are safe for swimming and some hiking may be required to reach the actual beach. Check out Kauapea Beach (aka Secret Beach) or Lumahai Beach for the scenery only.
If you’re looking for calmer waters, head over to Hanalei Bay. A wide arc of sand with misty mountains in the background provides the best spot for swimming or paddling on the north shore. (Always check water conditions before, though!) It looks like you’ve stepped into a scene from a movie. The nearby town of Hanalei is about as laid-back as you can get.
Driving beyond Hanalei, the road eventually ends at Haena State Park. This is the beginning of the formidable Kalalau Trail. You’ll need a permit and some advance planning to attempt this challenging hike.
Kauai’s east coast is the most developed part of the island, but it maintains the small town feeling of other areas. The island’s main airport is in Lihue, making it a convenient place to stay. Other areas nearby have more charm.
The town of Kapaʻa makes a great home base. You’ll find lots of low-key cafes, food trucks, and funky shops in the historic old town. There’s also a bike path that runs along the coast for several miles, with plenty of bike rentals available. Plus, Kapaʻa is centrally located between the north shore and south shore, so both areas are easy side trips by car.
Nearby is the Wailua River, which is perfect for scenic kayaking or paddle boarding trip. Would you also like to hike through the rainforest to a waterfall? Wailua has that.
The south shore of Kauaʻi is generally more touristy and resort-y, with the family-friendly beaches to go with it. For excellent swimming and snorkeling, it’s hard to beat Poipu Beach. Twin crescents of sandy beach surround shallow water with a good reef. (Always check conditions with the lifeguards before swimming.)
After hitting the beach, stop by Old Koloa Town for lunch or some Lappert’s ice cream as you stroll by the old fashioned buildings. This site of a former sugar plantation is now full of small shops and eateries.
Nā Pali Coast
Kauai’s must-see attraction. The Nā Pali Coast stretches for 17 miles from the west side of the island to the north shore, where towering mountain peaks meet the Pacific Ocean. The scenery is astonishing: sheer volcanic cliffs, rugged sea caves, and lush green valleys rising into the clouds. Many areas are sacred to the Hawaiian people.
The best way to see the Nā Pali Coast is by boat, either out of Port Allen in the south or seasonally from Hanalei Bay. Hop on a large catamaran and prepare for an amazing journey. You’ll cruise by the coast and see some of the local sea life like dolphins and turtles. Some trips also include snorkeling if, like me, you are into that activity.
On the land, you can drive up to Kōkeʻe State Park to view parts of the coast from the mountain top overlooks. After passing through Waimea Canyon, you’ll climb up toward the summit of Mount Waiʻaleʻale. It’s one of the wettest places on earth, getting more than 300 inches of rain per year. The view of the coast is surreal through the ever-shifting clouds.
There’s also the famous Kalalau Trail, an epic hike along the coast. It’s a challenging hike, so you’ll want to do some research before heading out. Personally, I decided to leave my hiking boots at home and opt for other activities.
On the leeward side of the mountains is the craggy canyon of the Waimea River. Nicknamed the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” Waimea Canyon is 3000 feet deep and up to a mile wide. The rugged landscape is dusted with green foliage and a few waterfalls that wind down toward the bottom.
Take the scenic driving tour along the rim and stop at the impressive overlooks of the canyon. Eventually youʻll reach Kōkeʻe State Park, where the road climbs up into the misty forest. There are a few short hikes along the way, but longer trails down into the canyon are all steep.
Ready to go?
So, ready to book your trip to Kauaʻi? It’s hard to go wrong visiting such a beautiful place. But maybe I’ll write an itinerary post to give some more thoughts about trip planning.