Paradise found on Hawaii’s oldest island.
Of all the Hawaiian Islands, there’s something special about Kauai. The oldest isle, Kauai has had plenty of time to erode its peaks into glorious verdant shapes. It also possesses one of the wettest spots on the planet, creating waterfalls, rainbows, and plenty of lush, flower-dotted jungle. The pellucid waters here are filled with multicolored fish; hundreds of movies have been filmed here, and it possesses the only navigable river in Hawaii, perfect for kayaking to secret grottoes. All of the above make Kauai a true paradise. Here are our top picks for 24 ways to soak in this sun-blessed, palm-shaded land.
Top Picks for You
Be Dazzled by the Waimea Canyon
A vast, striated canyon on the island’s west side, Waimea Canyon seems more Southwest than Garden Isle. But there it is, a geologic wonder measuring a mile wide, more than 10 miles long, and 3,567 feet deep, carved over millions of years by water flowing down from Mount Waialeale, one of the wettest spots on the planet. Its buttes, gorges, and crags, painted in green, blue, gray, red, and purple, beautifully contrast lush green foliage and bright blue skies. Whether you drive along its rim, stopping at numerous overlooks; hike into its depths (the hike to Waipoo Falls is one of the island’s best hikes); or swoop through by helicopter, you will be staggered by its beauty.
INSIDER TIPVisit in the morning to avoid the clouds that can appear in the afternoon.
Hike the Kalalau Trail (or at Least the First 2 Miles)
The Kalalau Trail, winding 11 taxing miles along the rugged Na Pali Coast between Kee Beach and Kalalau Beach, is one of the world’s most outrageous hikes. Showcasing fluted cliffs, paradise beaches, and jungle-like foliage that are otherwise inaccessible, it takes at least two to three days round-trip, meaning you’ll have to camp along the way (permit required). If that’s a bit much, you can hike just the first 2 miles to Hanakapiai Beach. You’ll get a feel for the up-and-down, switchback nature of the trail, with expansive views of parading cliffs at every turn. Birds swoop, trees sway, azure waters dazzle. And your finger will not leave the shutter-release button.
INSIDER TIPDo NOT swim at Hanakapiai Beach at the 2-mile marker. As welcoming as it appears, there’s a dangerous riptide and people drown every year.
Watch for Birds—and Whales—at Kilauea Point
Kilauea Point is the northernmost point of the inhabited Hawaiian Isles, with a lighthouse installed there in 1913 to warn ships of perilous cliffs. You can tour the lighthouse, though the best reasons to come here are the stunning ocean and coast views—and the birds. The land has been declared a national wildlife refuge, after all. Great frigatebirds, Laysan albatrosses, wedge-tailed shearwaters, red- and white-tailed tropicbirds, red-footed boobies, and endangered Hawaiian nene are among the birds you’ll spot cavorting, nesting, and playing in the cliffs and on the offshore sea stack. There are also the dolphins, which arrive in spring and summer; humpback whales that migrate through November to April; plus green sea turtles and endangered monk seals. Rangers and signboards are both helpful in identifying all the various species.
INSIDER TIPLighthouse tours run every hour from 10:30 to 2:30 on Wednesdays and Saturdays pending availability of staff; be sure to confirm ahead (808-828-1413).
Snorkel at Kee Beach
Kauai has many fabulous snorkeling beaches, with the bathtub-warm waters of pristine Kee Beach being one of the best, especially for beginners and kids. Gold butterfish, reef triggerfish, spectacled parrotfish, unicornfish, and blue goatfish are just some of the multihued tropical fishes you’ll spot in the pellucid lagoon, and if you’re lucky you’ll spot a green sea turtle or two as well. In this paradise setting in the shadow of the Na Pali Coast, it’s hard to determine whether it’s prettier above or below water.
INSIDER TIPKeep your own snorkeling gear in the back of your trunk to be prepared whenever you come across a snorkeling beach. You can purchase equipment in Lihue if you didn’t bring your own.
Splurge on a Helicopter Ride
Ninety percent of Kauai’s vast, craggy interior is inaccessible by car, including the famed, 17-mile-long Na Pali Coast. This is where the helicopter comes in. Bustled inside the tiny, noisy cockpit, you’ll zip and swoop and literally drop in on some of the planet’s most breathtaking, pristine scenery that is otherwise inaccessible. The helicopter takes you through the Waimea Canyon and into Waialeale Crater, one of the world’s rainiest spots, surrounded by hundreds of plunging waterfalls. Rainbows are so abundant you have no choice but to fly through them. You’ll see the entire isle including the stunning Hanalei Coast, Manawaiopuna Falls (aka Jurassic Park Falls), and Alakai Swamp, full of rare birds. Your pilot will also point out the various spots where movies have been filmed, including Raiders of the Lost Ark, South Pacific, Pirates of the Caribbean, and The Descendants. Many companies offer tours, including Sunshine Helicopter Tours.
INSIDER TIPIf you want to take glare-free photos (and experience maximum thrills), consider a helicopter without doors.
Celebrate the Arts in Hanapepe Town
Hanapepe is a wisp of a village in southwest Kauai, established more than a century ago and still filled with bougainvillea-draped, plantation-style buildings (explaining why it’s been used as a location for films including The Thornbirds and Flight of the Intruder—not to mention it inspired the setting for Disney’s Lilo & Stitch). Today, these historic structures contain restaurants, boutiques, and more art galleries than any other town on Kauai, including Bright Side Gallery, Art of Marbling, and JJ Ohana (beautiful shell jewelry). Come for Friday Art Night, when painters, sculptors, and artisans open their doors, and the little main street buzzes with live entertainment and food vendors. Be sure to walk across the historic Swinging Bridge, a suspension bridge over the Waimea River.
Take a Sunset Sail along the Na Pali Coast
Kauai sunsets are sublime, and perhaps the best way to experience that magical hour of the day is by boat, facing the stunning Na Pali Coast. You’ll have a front-row seat as the descending sun coats the jagged cliffs in shades of russet, crimson, and tangerine. There are all kinds of cruises to choose from, including snorkel and sunset; adult-only catamaran; and full dinner cruises. One of the longest-running operators is Captain Andy’s, which offers several different sunset options. However you do it, prepared to be dazzled.
INSIDER TIPThe waters along the North Shore are calmest May through September; the rest of the year, most tours run from the South Shore.
Kayak up the Wailua River to Secret Falls
The Wailua River, one of Hawaii’s few navigable rivers, leads into a mystical realm of lush rainforests, velvety green mountains, and crystal-clear waterfalls. One of the best ways to explore is by kayak. There are plenty of outfitters willing to guide you (try Wailua Kayak & Canoe), or head out on your own with a waterproof map. Whatever you do, don’t miss the Fern Grotto, where fishtail ferns grow inside a dripping wet lava tube, and Secret Falls, located at the end of a short, muddy hike.
Another popular yet challenging kayaking destination is the Na Pali Coast, which some term the Mount Everest of sea kayaking. Napali Kayak offers guided tours including overnight camping trips.
Visit the Sacred Heiaus along the Wailua River
Back in the day, Wailua was the sacred heart of the Kauai kingdom, where the ancient nobles were born and where they worshipped and resided. You’ll find the remains of their heiau (temples) and other structures sprinkled along Hawaii route 580 between the mouth of the Wailua River and Mount Waialeale, ending on Kauai’s west side; interpretive signs add insight. Hikinaakala heiau, at the mouth of the Wailua River at the Pacific Ocean, is one of the most important temples, where the sunrise was celebrated with chants and prayers as early morning light illuminated the stone structure. Nearby is Hauola, a place of refuge, where lawbreakers could escape punishment. Farther along you’ll find ancient petroglyphs; royal birthstones, against which mothers of future kings placed their backs and legs during birth; and several more heiau, including the largest (Malae) and the oldest (Holoholoku). Nearby you’ll find Kamokila Hawaiian Village, a replica of an ancient Hawaiian village on the Wailua River, with typical houses, community buildings, and living-history actors demonstrating cloth making, poi making, and more. Remember that these sites are still considered sacred; do not leave offerings or move rocks.
Relax on Poipu Beach (and Look for Monk Seals)
Ranked as one of the top ten beaches in the U.S. by geoscientist and coastal ecologist Dr. Beach, Poipu Beach on the South Shore is sublime. It’s also one of the most popular beaches among tourists and locals alike, though still not crowded. Its calm waters are ideal for snorkeling, and you might just spot an endangered Hawaiian monk seal. A geological feature called a tombolo juts out on the western end, a favorite place for walking. Refresh at Brennecke’s Beach Broiler, a breezy bar and restaurant near the beach with pupu platters, tropical cocktails, and fabulous ocean views.
Admire the Spouting Horn (and Listen for the Ancient Lizard)
If you’re on Kauai, you are obliged to make the pilgrimage to the Spouting Horn blowhole, the island’s version of Old Faithful. The surf rushes into a lava tube here, releasing a spout of water as high as 50 feet into the air. According to Hawaiian legend, a lizard named Kaikapu would attack anyone who trespassed on the land, until a young boy named Liko decided to face her. He thwarted Kaikapu’s attack by sticking a stick in her mouth and swimming away. The lizard followed him into the lava tube where she became stuck. Today, you can hear the lizard’s roar and see her breath emerging from the blowhole. Stalls near the blowhole vend souvenirs and jewelry (including some beautiful Tahitian black pearls and Ni’ihau shell pieces).
INSIDER TIPThe Poipu coastline here is a great spot to watch for humpback whales during their migration season December to May.
Sip an Umbrella Cocktail Overlooking the Original Bali Hai
The Happy Talk Lounge in the Hanalei Bay Resort is open on two sides, offering breezy views across Hanalei Bay to plush emerald mountains. If you think the scene looks familiar, maybe you’ve seen the film classic South Pacific, filmed here. The film version of Bali Hai is actually Kauai’s Mount Makana. Order a tropical cocktail and pupus (Hawaiian hors-d’oeuvres) and enjoy a truly enchanting evening as the sun sets over the sparkling waters.
Golf at Poipu Bay Golf Course
Kauai has only nine courses, but thanks to their world-class beauty, quality, and numerous thrilling, heart-stopping holes, it’s constantly rated as the top golf destination in all the Hawaiian isles. The most famous course is Poipu Bay, which hosted the PGS Grand Slam of Golf for 13 years before moving to Bermuda in 2006 (and is now defunct). One of four on Kauai designed by Robert Trent Jones, Jr., it ends with three dramatic holes along a 150-foot sea cliff. That said, many Kauai locals prefer Wailua Golf Course, a municipal course (hence, relatively inexpensive) with many gorgeous holes played right on the ocean.
INSIDER TIPBeyond golf, courses host sunset golf cart tours, sunrise yoga, and GolfBoarding (electric, surflike boards to get around the course).
Eat Shave Ice
Unassuming stands and shacks throughout Kauai purvey the Hawaiian icy dessert called shave (never shaved) ice. Generally, shave ice—the Hawaiian version of a snow cone—contains a base of shaved ice, your choice of sugary syrup (with lots of tropical choices, such as papaya, Mai Tai, and tamarind), and perhaps a drizzle of condensed milk, scoop of ice cream, and/or sprinkle of azuki beans. Not all shave ice is equal, mind you, and determining the best is a favorite island pastime. JoJos, with locations in Waimea and Hanalei, is a perennially popular spot, though there are newer kids on the block with some interesting tricks. Shave Ice Tege Tege, for example, hand-cranks the ice and offers a choice of more than 50 organic flavors using local island ingredients (lilikoi is to die for) in what’s being dubbed the “farm-to-ice” movement.
Take a Plunge in the Queen’s Bath
A tropical path tucked away in a North Shore neighborhood winds its way down to the oceanfront, where a large tide pool has been carved into the dark lava rock creating nature’s version of an infinity pool. It takes some dexterity (and reef shoes) to get there, but once in you can dawdle like a regal queen, emerging only to scramble up the rocks for a short cliff dive back in. Every now and again a wave breaks the barrier, sending squealing bathers asunder. Be careful, though: October through May brings big surf, and people have been swept off the rocks and have drowned.
INSIDER TIPLook for green sea turtles swimming in the surf beyond the pool.
Attend a Luau
Luaus can be cheesy, and if that’s what you’re looking for there are plenty of options in the Hawaiian Islands. But one luau that stands out for its professionalism, authenticity, and just plain fun is Luau Kalamaku at Kilohana Plantation, a historic sugarcane plantation. You’ll be treated to an evening of Hawaiian-style storytelling, complete with hula dancing, traditional knife dancing, and fire poi ball throwing. Yet the pièce de resistance is the kalua pig, which men clad in malo (loincloth) hoist out of a steamy earthen imu (oven) and parade with much fanfare into the dining area. Enjoy a delicious Hawaiian buffet and open bar, or take a steam train ride throughout the plantation. They also host a craft fair featuring local artisans. The plantation also offers a breezy lunch on the terrace of Gaylord’s restaurant and the island’s only rum distillery (with free samples).
Savor Sun-Kissed Fruit at Farmers’ Markets
Kauai is not called the Garden Isle for nothing. One of the joys of being on the island is sampling the flavor-packed produce grown on its myriad farms, and the best place to find the freshest papayas, bananas, mangos, coconuts, and pineapples is, of course, at the many farmers’ markets. Some of the best include Kauai Community College Farmers Market in Lihue, the Kauai Culinary Market in Poipu, the Hanalei farmers’ market (in a stunning setting amid the taro fields), the Kapaa farmers’ market, and the Kauai Sunshine markets. As you enjoy your super-fresh farm produce during a hike or picnic on the beach, be happy you are supporting local farmers and keeping the island sustainable.
INSIDER TIPForeign producers sometimes turn up at markets. Be sure to look for the Kauai Grown and Kauai Made logos that ensure you’re getting the real thing.
Learn Island History
It may be small, but the Kauai Museum is the island’s most important receptacle of island natural and cultural history, delving into its geological formation, early Native Hawaiian life, James Cook’s landing in 1778, and the Hawaiian kings. There are B&W photos, ornate feather leis, royal garments, native handicrafts, exotic shells, model ships, and vintage maps from Cook’s voyage. You’ll also learn that Niihau, a small nearby isle that’s part of Kauai county, is another part of the story. Guided tours are available upon request.
INSIDER TIPThe gift shop is well-stocked with books and maps, including detailed topo maps of the island that are good for hiking.
Seek out the Menehune
Menehune, shy but mischievous people who stood two feet tall, are said to have inhabited Kauai more than a thousand years ago, and to have built entire fishponds and aqueducts in a single night. Some say they’re mythical people who were here before the first Hawaiians arrived; others claim they’re descendants of the first wave of settlers to the island. Whatever the case, you can find examples of what’s believed to be their ingenious work throughout the island, including the Menehune Ditch, an ancient irrigation aqueduct near Waimea, and the Menehune (Alekoko Fishpond) near Lihue (see it from an overlook on Hulemalu Road).
A great way to visit the Alekoko Fishpond is by kayak, though you need to go with a guided tour because the lands are private. Outfitters Kauai offers tours from Nawiliwili Harbor. The area is also the location for several movies, including Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, and Lost World.
Tube Down a Mountain
More than a century ago, Lihue Sugar Plantation dug a bunch of canals and tunnels to bring water from Mount Waialeale to irrigate the sugar cane fields around Lihue. The plantation closed in 2000 and the waterways since have been transformed into a unique three-hour tubing tour by Kauai Backcountry Adventures. You’ll float down the slow-moving water along tropical banks and (equipped with a headlamp) through dark stone tunnels. It’s a great way to get an up-close look at Kauai’s lush, hidden interior. And, if you’re lucky, you’ll spot some wild baby pigs rustling in the bush. Kauai Backcountry Adventures is also a favorite go-to for an exhilarating zip line ride down a green mountainside.
Go Deep-sea Fishing and Make Your Own Poke
The deep Pacific waters surrounding Kauai are filled with mahimahi, ahi (yellowfin tuna), marlin, and more, so if you want a guaranteed fresh fish dinner, why not go out and catch it yourself? Charters, most of which depart from Lihue, take you to the best spots and provide all the gear (try Capt. Don’s Kauai Sport Fishing & Ocean Adventure or Hana Paa). All you need to do is reel in the line when a fish bites. The captain generally will prepare your catch for you, so if you’re staying in a condo you can cook up dinner yourself. You can also make your own Hawaiian poke by mixing your tuna with onions, garlic, sesame seeds, chopped macadamia nuts, soy sauce, sesame oil, salt, and red pepper flakes.
INSIDER TIPBe sure to ask about your charter’s policy if fish are caught; some boats keep all the fish.
Watch the Sunrise Along the Royal Coconut Coast
The Royal Coconut Coast along Kauai’s east-facing shore is one of the world’s most beautiful places to watch the sunrise. It’s quiet, with few people out, and the colors are always spectacular. Grab a lawn chair and find your sandy perch along your choice of beach. Lydgate State Park, with its rock wall and separate pond, is a good spot to catch the interplay of reflections on a variety of different watery surfaces. Or, head for the Ke Ala Hele Makalae biking/walking path from Kapaa that wanders north along the coconut-shaded shoreline; it will quickly get you beyond town to your own secret spot.
INSIDER TIPWatch for dolphins and green turtles cavorting in the azure blue surf.
Peruse the Shops in Old Koloa Town
Koloa’s first sugar mill opened in 1835, ushering in an era of sugar production throughout the islands, with more than 100 plantations established by 1885. Many of the workers came from the Philippines, Japan, China, Korea and Portugal, creating Hawaii’s multiethnic mélange. Today, many of Koloa’s historic buildings beneath the shade of ancient monkeypod trees have been converted into fun shops and restaurants. You’ll just want to stroll and take it all in; favorites include Island Soap and Candleworks, Crazyshirts, and Lappert’s, Hawaiian-inspired ice cream made daily in nearby Hanapepe. Try the Kauai Pie and Luau Delight flavors. Be sure to approach Old Koloa Town via the Tree Tunnel, a romantic canopy of eucalyptus trees planted more than a century ago along a stretch of Maluhia Road.
Admire Hanalei Valley Views
In a land of stellar viewpoints, there’s one that stands out above the rest: the enchanting Hanalei Valley, on Kauai’s North Shore. The best place to take it all in is from the viewpoint on Highway 56 just outside the town of Hanalei. Here you’re treated to Instagram-worthy vistas of plush green mountains, dazzling waterfalls, rainbows, and neat patchworks of taro fields, with the Hanalei River idly wandering through. Most of Hawaii’s poi comes from these fields, cultivated since A.D. 700.
While you’re in the area, be sure to wander around the quaint town of Hanalei, full of little eateries serving up fresh fish, T-shirt shops, art galleries, shave ice stands, and surf shops. Locals come to fish, play music, and swim at its historic pier.