What is Kauai best known for? It’s famous for its natural beauty and abundance of outdoor adventures. The oldest of Hawaii’s main islands, it’s had plenty of time to erode its peaks into glorious verdant shapes. Home to one of the wettest spots on the planet, you’ll find waterfalls, rainbows, and plenty of lush forests to hike here. The pellucid waters are filled with multicolored fish; dozens of movies have been filmed here, and the island possesses the only navigable river in Hawaii, perfect for kayaking to secret grottoes. While there are so many Kauai attractions, we put together this guide to the best things to do in Kauai, whether you’re traveling as a couple or with kids.
WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO VISIT KAUAI?Kauai is a true paradise year-round, but if you’re concerned about heat or heavy rains, the best months to visit Kauai with consideration for the weather are April and May (following the winter rains and before the summer heat hits) and September through November (before the wet winter begins).
Here are some of the best things to do on Kauai and COVID travel information to ensure a smooth journey.
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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.
Hikers must make an advanced reservation to enter Ha`ena State Park, hike the Kalalau Trail, and camp on the trail. More information can be found at Go Ha`ena.
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 multi-hued 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. This is one of the most popular beaches on Kauai; in an effort to protect the environment and experience, advance reservations are now required for out-of-state visitors and can be booked through the Department of Land and Natural Resources website.
Keep 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. Of course, the coast is equally stunning during the daylight hours too, and you can’t go wrong if you choose to cruise with Native Hawaiian-owned and operated Liko Kauai or spend a full day on the water with Holoholo Charters Niihau and Napali Super Tour.
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
Long considered the heart of the Kauai kingdom, Wailua was a religious, political, and social center where the ali`i (ancient nobles) were born and where they worshipped and resided. The area still holds cultural significance to this day. You’ll find the remains of 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, located in Lyndgate Beach Park at the mouth of the Wailua River, 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; Pohaku Ho’ohanau, one of only two royal birthstone sites in the state where mothers of future kings gave birth; and several more heiau, including the largest (Malae) and the oldest (Holoholoku).
Remember that these sites are still considered sacred; do not climb on them, 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. (If you are fortunate to see monk seals, admire them from afar; it’s a felony to touch or harass a 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.
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 drowned.
INSIDER TIPLook for green sea turtles swimming in the surf beyond the pool.
Attend a Luau
Although tourist luaus can be a bit over the top (especially if you’re surrounded by people guzzling mai tais) and are not necessarily representative of the way local folks might gather to celebrate, they do provide an opportunity to sample multicultural cuisine, hear some Hawaiian storytelling, and see a variety of Polynesian dance styles all in one place. One luau that stands out for its professionalism, authenticity, and just plain fun is Luau Kalamaku at Kilohana Kauai, 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 buffet and open bar, or take a steam train ride throughout the plantation. They also host a craft fair featuring local artisans, and the on-site restaurant serves a breezy lunch on the terrace if that’s more your speed.
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
Start your trip with a visit to one of Kauai’s museums or educational centers, and lay the foundation for a deeper experience through understanding the history and culture here. The Kauai Museum is small but mighty, offering visitors a chance to learn about the geological formation of the islands, Native Hawaiian culture and ali`i, the impact of foreign arrivals, and more. Exhibits and galleries showcase artifacts as well as artisan work. Guided tours are available upon request. Other educational centers include Koke`e Museum (a natural history museum and gift shop where you can find nature exhibits, trail maps, and Kauai-made souvenirs) and Kilohana Estate (where you can dive into the history and impacts of the plantation era).
INSIDER TIPWhether or not you’re interested in spending time in a museum, one of the best ways to learn about island history and culture is by listening and learning from Native Hawaiians. When booking your Hawaii tours and activities—both within and outside the walls of museums and educational centers—request Native Hawaiian-led experiences.
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.
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.
Visit Famous Film Locations
There’s a good chance you’ve seen Kauai even if you’ve never been here; the island’s natural landscapes have appeared in numerous movies and tv shows. So if you’re a film fan, you can make a list of locations you’d like to see in real life, such as the Na Pali Coast (Jurassic Park: The Lost World and Six Days/Seven Nights), Waimea Canyon (seen in Lilo & Stitch and Donavan’s Reef), and Huleia River (Raiders of the Lost Ark). The Hawaii Tourism Authority has some great suggestions for famous film locations to get you started.
Take a Hula Lesson
Hula is more than a dance; it incorporates culture, movement, language, and storytelling, giving you a chance to engage your body and mind. And it’s a fun activity for the whole family. Many hotels, such as Ko`a Kea Hotel & Resort and Kauai Beach Resort and Spa, offer complimentary hula lessons so be sure to enquire when booking. You can also check The Garden Island Arts Council events calendar for hula lessons and events.
Craft Your Own Souvenir
Take a hands-on lesson with a local expert and then take away a keepsake. String a sweet-smelling plumeria lei at Kauai Beach Resort & Spa or learn how to create a lei po`o (lei for the head) with Elvirine Chow. The Kauai Museum also offers handicraft workshops and demonstrations (contact them for upcoming dates) or you can book a private event with HakuLeilani and bring the lauhala (leaf) weaving lesson to your hotel or event space.
Take a Farm Tour
Kauai is nicknamed “The Garden Island” for its lush landscapes and forest coverage. But the weather is also great for growing, making it an ideal destination for farm tours. Learn about local produce, culture, and Hawaiian agricultural systems with a tour at Waipa Foundation. Book a coffee tour at Blair Estate, or if you’ve got a sweet tooth, join a chocolate tour at Lydgate Farms and learn how chocolate goes from bean to bar. If you want to make a day of it and taste your way around the island, book a Tasting Kauai food tour.
Help Pitch In
In the Hawaiian language, kokua means to help or pitch in, and we all—residents and visitors—have a kuleana (responsibility) to protect and preserve Hawaii. Join a volunteer group such as Hawaii Land Trust, Surfrider Foundation, or Friends of Kamalani and Lydgate Park for a beach clean up, restoration, or conservation workday. Or book a Malama Hawaii package and earn a discount or free night’s stay in exchange for your volunteer efforts.
Attend a Festival
Kauai hosts numerous festivals throughout the year so there’s a good chance you can join in on the fun while you’re here. If you visit in February, you can attend the island’s oldest festival, the Waimea Town Celebration. Come in July and enjoy the multicultural Koloa Plantation Days Celebration in Old Koloa Town. Visit in September to see hula performances and engage in cultural workshops at the Kauai Mokihana Festival, or sample sweet treats at the Kauai Chocolate and Coffee Festival in October. These are just a few of the many possibilities; check out the Kauai Festivals events calendar and inquire with your hotel concierge for additional suggestions.
Reset With a Spa Treatment (or Two!)
There’s so much to do and see on Kauai, your itinerary is likely to fill up fast. But don’t forget to set aside some time to relax and reset. Opt for spa treatments that incorporate Hawaiian healing practices and ingredients such as the Hawaiian lomi lomi massage at Ko`a Kea Hotel & Resort or the lillikoi body scrub at Anara Spa at Grand Hyatt Kauai. When booking, ask whether an outdoor or cabana setting is possible so you can immerse in the sounds and scents of Hawaii’s natural environment while experiencing the treatment.
Make (and Eat) Poke
Learn from a local chef how to prepare Hawaiian poke (a popular diced raw fish dish) at The Homestead. Or, if you’d like to leave the slicing, dicing, and seasoning to the pros, plan your visit to overlap with the Kauai Poke Festival (typically in May, but check the website for the most up-to-date info) at Koloa Landing Resort. The poke fest features a competition for local chefs to showcase their poke and attendees have a chance to sample the entries and vote for their favorite. The event also features a demonstration by James Beard Award-Winning Chef Sam Choy.
Hike the Heritage Trails
Set out on a heritage trail and encounter some of Kauai’s history, culture, and wildlife while you walk. There are several heritage trails on Kauai to choose from depending on your interests, time, and abilities. The two-mile Mahaulepu Heritage Trail, with its coastal views and marine life, is a crowd-pleaser. Keep an eye out for sea turtles, monk seals, and whales. Makauwahi Cave Reserve, the largest limestone cave in Hawaii, is accessible from this trail, and you’ll also pass by Waiopili Heiau, so be mindful that this is a sacred place.
Catch Some Waves
Hawaii has warm waters and some of the best waves in the world. Take a solo surf lesson or bring the whole family to a surf clinic at Kauai Surf School. Or try an outrigger canoe experience and learn how to ride the waves in a wa`a (canoe). If you’re serious about taking your paddling to the next level, consider an intensive three-day workshop at The Lodge at Kukui’ula.
Editor’s Note: Per the Hawaii Tourism Board, Fodor’s recognizes “the proper use of the Hawaiian language, ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i,’ which includes the ‘okina [‘], a consonant, and the kahakō [ō] or macron.” The Hawai‘i Board on Geographic Names was created to “assure uniformity and standardize spelling of geographic names to communicate unambiguously about places, reducing the potential for confusion.” In order to ensure our readers the best experience reading our Hawaii travel guides, we follow the standardized spelling, but hope to expose readers to the importance and cultural significance of the written Ōlelo Hawai‘i language.