Kauai is a paradise for beach-lovers, hikers, and thrill seekers. There are so many areas to explore and you can easily get away from people if you want.
We just got back from an inter-generational trip to Kauai with my parents, Bill's dad and stepmom, and our 2 young kids (ages 10 and 7). I decided on Kauai over the other islands because I wanted fewer people and more nature. We were not disappointed.
Kauai is nicknamed the “Garden Isle” because it is 97% undeveloped and has lush green rain forest and mountains. It is also the oldest of the main islands.
It takes approximately 2 hours to go around the island. You can go all the way from the north around the island in a clockwise direction to the southwest coast, but you cannot go from the north directly to the western coast. You must circumnavigate the island.
Table of Contents:
Kauai Activity and Adventures
I was happily overwhelmed with the activity options on the island. Many people tried to convince us to island hop while we were in Hawaii, but I was very happy to stay there our full 10-days and experience the variety.
Here are just some of the things that you can do:
Na Pali Coast Boat Tour
Na Pali Coast Helicopter Tour
Sunbathing along the Best Beaches in Kauai
Ziplining with Outfitter's Kauai
Smith Family Luau
Waimea Canyon Overlooks
Na Pali Coast Boat Tour with Na Pali Catamaran
We stayed in Princeville on the north shore and looked at several companies to tour the Na Pali coast. The price was higher leaving from Hanalei over Poipu (south shore) so I considered booking from the south, but I ultimately changed my mind because:
(1) I would have a long drive to get there
(2) there is a long boat ride before you even get to the Na Pali coast leaving from the southern coast and
(3) I was traveling with a multi-generational group with 4 elderly parents and I wanted to have the opportunity to experience a cave, but I didn't think the zodiac boats would be comfortable for our large group.
Na Pali Catamaran has a smaller catamaran that can go into the caves unlike the larger ones, so I booked with them despite the higher price tag. The price was worth it. Nick and Manuel, our captains, were excellent. Both are very experienced captains and they were funny, nice and very competent. My 78-year old mother was initially very nervous, but she absolutely LOVED the trip and gushed about how great the crew was and how she immediately felt at ease with them. The four-hour trip takes you around the northwest and western coast where you pass by Haena State Park and see Ke'e beach as well as some of the climbers on the Kalalue Trail. You also see the beach that the hikers initially get to with its crashing waves. Leaving Hanalei, we had a large pod of spinner dolphins surrounding our boat including some babies. Later, a monk seal approached. If conditions are good, you will get to go into a cave. We were able to go into two caves. Once Nick navigated in and out of the first cave, we really knew we were in good hands. It's impressive. We had several sandwich options for lunch and it was outstanding. Not a basic sandwich, but a stacked one with lots of good side options. Props to whoever picked the side options. We finished by snorkeling at Tunnels beach for 40 minutes. The lunch actually came out at that time so the people that stayed on the boat were good with the stop. Snorkeling, we saw a lot of nice reef fish and a turtle. I had sand in my snorkel and traded out to their better equipment. Nick defogged all of our masks before we got in no matter if you used their stuff or your own. Some advice - it's brutal, but take the first tour out. You have a greater chance of having a smooth ride and also increase your chances of going into a sea cave.
Na Pali Coast Helicopter Tour
If you have a small group, the helicopter price can be comparable to the Na Pali coast boat tours. I think that there is value in seeing the coast both ways. We only had budgeted to do one of those options and we decided to do the boat.
Sunbathing Along the Best Beaches in Kauai
It was tempting to island hop, but we slow-traveled around Kauai and saw a lot of beaches and sites. For a quick overview:
The north shore beaches had the stunning backdrop of the mountains
The southern beaches seemed to be even more abundant with sea life.
There are several beaches along the Coconut (East) Coast, but none were persuasive enough to draw us to them over the North or South
Polihale Beach is on the West Coast and showcases the mountains without the lush vegetation
Our favorite Kauai beaches for swimming and snorkeling were:
Anini - this is more popular with locals than tourists and it’s a good spot to snorkel. The beach was narrow in several places and widens out the further to the west (left) that you go from the parking lot. I loved the trees that lined the beach, keeping the perfect spot
Tunnels had much better snorkeling over Anini and I loved taking a walk around the bend and having the beach almost to myself
Ke’e (must have a state park pass and shuttle for Haena State park) – a lovely little beach somewhat near Tunnels. Nice backdrop of the Na Pali coastline.
Queen’s Bath – check out my previous post on this. An adventurous 0.8 hike down the cliff to get to the lava rock pool that exists during low tide. Snorkel in a life-size fish bowl with amazing visibility. Check the tide tables before you go because it can be very dangerous.
Hideaway Beach – at the end of the road in Princeville, before you get to the old St. Regis is a walkway. You walk down steps and around construction for what seems a lifetime. You are rewarded with a beautiful beach with great snorkeling and I understand often turtles swimming in the area. This beach is a lot less crowded over many.
Poipu – THE beach on the south coast. At first glance, I wasn’t a fan. Too many people. The wildlife got me. A monk seal lounging on a nearby sand bar, two turtles on the public beach, and snorkeling in a protected bay that you could just walk offshore…I’m in
Outfitter's Kauai Ziplining
Outfitters Kauai’s Zipline adventure lets you traverse 4 different zip lines. The first 3 are fun and easy…the last one notsomuch. On the last ride, you are strapped in Superman style while you fly amongst the tree canopies. It’s lots of fun and the guides are awesome.
The Kipu ranch, where you zip, is gorgeous. The land has been seen in many movies including one of my favorites, “Tropic Thunder”.
The trip takes about 2.5 hours and there is a water stop and bathroom break along the way.
This is safe and fun for kids over 60 pounds although the last zip line may make your kid wanna punch you.
So did we regret the 4th zip line? Jury is still out. The overall group consensus though was, “so worth it!”
Smith Family Garden Luau
I selected the Smith Family Garden Luau because it is family owned and operated and has been for over 50 years. On arrival, you can walk the gardens on your own or take a trolley around the lush grounds and learn about the history and types of plants that thrive on the island. After everyone has arrived, you meet up at the imu. This is the site where the pig has been cooking all day in preparation for dinner. The imu is a deep hole in the ground filled with wood, then lava rock. The wood is lit and the fire is made. Next, the pig (and separately, bread pudding) are covered in ti leaves then dirt. Many hours later, the pork is ready and they ceremoniously blow the conchs and raise the meat.
While you wait for the dinner set-up, you have access to an open bar that includes several local favorite drinks (Mai-Tais, Blue Hawaiis, etc.) as well as wine and beer. You are seated at a table with your party that has a number and called up in order of your number. The food was very good. We had pork, adobe chicken, teriyaki beef, a cucumber seafood salad, salmon salad, fried rice and poi. Poi is taro root that forms a starchy paste. It is mostly bland and not particularly good though it does improve in taste if combined with other menu items.
After dinner, they call out celebrations and walk you through the meaning behind some of the movements in the luau dances. Finally, you are ushered to the amphitheater for an outdoor hula and fire show. The performances highlight the costumes, beliefs, and music of sister islands New Zealand, the Philippines and Tahiti (which is considered the motherland). The night ends with a male fire dancer that is extremely brave, talented, and also has enough humor to do the floss with fire dancing all around him. The amphitheater was framed perfectly by palm trees and above them, the Big Dipper (really!). It was a fun evening, and we all had a blast. My father-in-law has been to several luaus and said that this was probably the best all-around that he’s been to.
Mark Twain called Waimea Canyon the "Grand Canyon of the Pacific." On a related note, is there anywhere that guy did not go in his lifetime? I swear. Talk about #bucketlist...
The Canyon is located on the western side of the island. There are some hikes off of it, but most people just drive to the Canyon and look at the several lookout points. It takes a long time to get there, but not a lot of time to see once you arrive.
We were quite taken with the green mixed in with the red rock. The group, however, had a mixed reaction as to whether it was worth it to make the drive all the way around the island from Princeville. I think it is worth it, but if you are pressed for time, it would be a top contender to skip.
General Kauai Information
Getting to Kauai
The main airport is in Lihue (LIH), on the Eastern coast and about 20-50 minutes away from anywhere on the island.
Kauai is serviced by Alaska, American, Delta Air Lines, Hawaiian, Southwest, United and WestJet.
TIP: Sit on the left side to get the best views of the island when landing.
Budget Rental car is a disaster. I know because I waited nearly 2 hours in line with Bill. It wasn't fun. You do need a car - you can't rely on Uber or Lyft. I have heard mixed reviews about Turo where you pay to rent a car from a local. I would definitely look into this next time and just check that the person has many favorable reviews first.
Distances Around Kauai
I always love a good mileage map so I made one for ya'll...
Reducing Meal / Food Cost on Kauai
As you would expect, it is expensive to visit Kauai. One of the ways that we kept down costs was by preparing our own meals. Houses will have kitchens and some of the hotels will have a pared down kitchen. It may be worth looking into getting a place with a kitchen if you cannot afford to eat out for every meal.
Here are some of the best ways that we saved money:
Costco - Costco is less than 2 miles away from the airport in Lihue. The prices were exactly as they are at home and we were able to get all of our beer, wine, food there for lunches and a couple of dinners.
There is also a Target and Wal-Mart in Lihue. The prices were good in the Wal-Mart though more expensive than at home. It is a great option though if you need to get snacks and they also have a fantastic section in the front with gifts for back home. I got our annual family ornament and Bill got his hula girl dashboard item there. Oliver got a great Hawaiian shirt there as well.
Food trucks - though not necessarily the fastest option, there are a lot of good food truck areas on all sides of the island.
Wailea Drive-in - this fast food restaurant with a drive-through was once featured on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. Unfortunately, they no longer serve ramen and the ahi tuna nachos were not on the menu on the day that I went. Still, the food was delicious, and artistically arranged and the price was great. My mom and I easily shared the Chili Pepper Chicken. It was delicious!
Places without a view - obviously, if you want a gorgeous view, there is going to be a cost with it. In some cases (e.g., Beach House) it was worth it. In other cases, I'm not so sure
Kauai Packing List
Casual to Dressy Outfit for luau and nice dinners out
Backpack / Day bag
The North Coast gets more rain from the south coast although it is often just a brief rain that will not disrupt your schedule.
In general, the weather is very temperate with temperatures between the mid-50s and mid-70s.
While there are some cove-protected beaches, you do want to be mindful of the tide forecast / schedule in many places. Kauai has several beaches that have sneaker waves where an unexpectedly large wave will come. We experienced one of these and it was scary.
Places such as Queen's Bath are particularly at-risk and you should definitely plan your time around low tide. You want to do that anyway because it will be covered in water otherwise.
In 1992, Hurricane Iniki destroyed chicken coops all over Kauai. Chickens now roam free - everywhere - in Kauai. I don't care where you stay, what trail you are on, what beach you are sunbathing at, I guarantee there are chickens there. I didn't expect to be woken up by a rooster tapping on the house window where we stayed, but it happened!
At sea, there are a lot of fun wildlife to spot. Spinner dolphins chase boats, monk seals come up for a visit. Whales about in the winter months. Turtles will come say "hi" as you snorkel and lots of colorful fish are to be found snorkeling.
Books and Movies About Kauai
Books to Read Before or On Your Trip About Kauai
There's a reason why locals are mad at The Ultimate Kauai Guidebook. Written by Hawaii locals, this book is by far the best one about the island. It goes into great detail on all of the beaches, restaurants, and areas to stay. If you already have bought a book and it's not this one, buy this one too!
Movies Filmed in Kauai
Jurassic Park (all of them)
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Blue Hawaii (Elvis)