The island of Kauai, known as the garden island of Hawaii, is a dreamland. Beauty surrounds you at every corner and not a moment will go by where you don’t think to yourself “Wow!”. This Kauai travel guide has something for every traveller – whether you’re a thrill-seeker or a beach lounger.
Rent a Car
Besides the very obvious planning such as booking your flights and accommodations, one of the first things you will want to do is reserve a rental car. Kauai is one of the most underdeveloped islands in Hawaii. As much as you may try and avoid it to save costs – you will need a car to get around. The island is essentially divided by North, South, East and West and there are must-sees in all 4 corners. The remoteness of the island also means that accessible public transit is very limited. While taxis or rideshares are available in some areas, you risk very long wait times and don’t have a guarantee if a car will even be available in your area.
I reserved my car as soon as my flights were booked. Inventory can be limited especially if you are travelling in peak season. The Lihue airport has all the major rental companies. Reserving your car in advance, and showing up at your designated pick-up time means you are more likely to get the exact vehicle you want. Don’t do what I did and show up two hours later and expect them to have your compact hybrid available and have them try to up-sell you on a Jeep that you know for a fact you are too small to drive.
Depending on how long you’re staying and the things you plan on doing while visiting you may want to split your stay between the North and South Shores. It takes about an hour and a half to drive from one side of the island to the other so it can save you a lot of back and forth driving if you stay in one area at a time.
Most of the accommodations in Kauai are like a cross between an all-inclusive resort and a condominium complex – which is great because it means you have an abundance of amenities. Make use of the resort activities like tennis courts and swimming pools while also taking advantage of at-home comforts like laundry and a full kitchen. Booking prices will not be cheap but you do get quite a good bang for your buck.
Reserve Excursions & Activities
If you are travelling during peak season or in a group of 4 or more, you may want to look into booking excursions ahead of time. Some simple activities like hiking may require advanced reservations. If you’re a hiker, no matter beginner or expert – look into the trails you are interested in ahead of time and see if they require any kind of permit, whether a parking pass or a trail pass. This is especially relevant if you are hiking within a State Park such as Waimea Canyon or Ha’ena Park.
If you are planning on doing other excursions such as a boat tour of the Napali Coast, snorkelling, botanical garden visits or a luau I recommend looking them up ahead of time. It’ll give you some peace of mind to have activities pre-booked and allow you more freedom to plan the rest of your time on the island.
Food & Dining
Hawaii has an amazing food scene. A blend of Polynesian culture and Asian influence means you can have some of the most unique meals around the world such as Loco Moco, Spam Musubi and dozens of varieties of Poké.
Go Grocery Shopping
Most accommodations on Kauai are condos, meaning they often have kitchenettes if not full kitchens. For those on a budget, I recommend stocking up on groceries at the local supermarket Foodland. Food in Hawaii is not cheap so don’t expect to see the same prices you see back on the mainland. Foodland is a practical option because they have everything you need, including hot and cold to-go meals. I highly recommend getting the Tako or Ahi poké from the to-go counter. The quality and taste are shockingly good for “supermarket food” and the price really can’t be beaten.
Another great option, and popular among locals are plate lunches. Essentially a combo meal of protein and sides like chicken, rice and macaroni salad. The portions are often huge and the prices are very affordable. I stopped at Mark’s Place and ordered the BBQ teriyaki chicken plate for $16. It came with 3 chicken thighs, chow mein noodles, white rice and macaroni salad. Needless to say, that meal lasted me 2 days. I used the leftover rice to eat with poké for one meal and heated the leftover chicken and noodles for another. Essentially 3 meals in one, for under $20.
There are lots of coffee shops and small restaurants in every town. Just like travelling anywhere else, touristy areas will be more pricey for quality that isn’t always worth it. Kauai, like most of Hawaii, is also home to some really tasty food trucks. Check them out in Hanalei town for a casual but super satisfying meal. Some other great places I ate at include Java Kai, Porky’s and Tiki Tacos. Highly recommend all three.
Kauai is a hikers’ paradise. There are hundreds of possible hikes you could do ranging from one-hour trails to several day camping trails. Most people overestimate the difficulty of many of the trails in Kauai but the reality is I’ve seen people of all ages and fitness levels along the trails. What’s more important is choosing a hike you feel comfortable with. Since I was alone in my travels, I opted for shorter hikes because I know I’m prone to heatstroke. If you’re not prone to heatstroke or any other kind of medical challenges then you can hike to your healthy heart’s desire. Here are my top recommendations for hikes that are suitable for all levels.
Located in Haena State Park the Kalalau trail is easily one of the most famous hikes in Kauai. The trail is divided into sections and the further you go the more difficult the trail becomes and will require special permits. Most travellers opt to hike the first 2 miles which only require a day-use reservation. If you wish to hike further, you will need an additional permit. The views are stunning no matter how far you decide to trek and what’s great about the park is that you can also visit Ke’e beach and Hanakapi’ai beach.
Hiking shoes or solid running shoes would be best for this trail and if you have hiking poles feel free to use them. The trail is accessible to all levels but can be slippery and more strenuous in certain areas. The full 11-mile trail is definitely for experienced hikers and campers.
These two hikes are listed together because they are both relatively short, easy and close by to each other. I did them both one morning and still had time in the afternoon to spend at the beach.
Hoopii Falls, as the name suggests is a hike that leads to two lovely waterfalls and a swimming pond. The trail is canopied by vines and trees which make you feel like you’re deep in the rainforest despite actually being just off a residential street. The trail can be quite muddy and therefore slippery so keep a slower pace and you’ll be just fine. As mentioned, this trail is located in a residential area so please be mindful not to park too close to people’s homes.
Sleeping Giant or Nounoo Mountain is a great, easy hike for families. The name sleeping giant comes from the views of the mountain that look just like a person lying down to take a nap on the island. What’s nice about this hike is that the views carry throughout the trail and not just once you reach the end. For something extra special, do the trail at sunrise or sunset.
I did both these hikes in sandals and was perfectly fine. While I do not recommend hiking in flip-flops, people were managing in them. A regular running shoe or solid sandal, like Birkenstocks work best here. Many people also used hiking poles which come in handy for those slippery steep spots. If you have hiking shoes you can use them but I would not consider them a necessity.
Kokee and Waimea State Park are easily in the top five things to do in Kauai. The Canyon stretches 14 miles long, 1 mile wide and more than 3,600 feet deep. With dozens of trail options to choose from, beginner and experienced hikers will all have an amazing time. The views truly feel like you’re peaking into the soul of the island. Conditions can sometimes be more dangerous based on rainfall and winds so it’s advised to call the park office ahead of time. Depending on which trail you choose you may find yourself surrounded by lush jungle, overlooking waterfalls or mountains. Each one is unique and comes with its own set of challenges. The Hawaii Guide website offers amazingly detailed insight into each trail so read before you go.
This was my favourite beach during my trip. I stumbled upon it by accident while searching for another beach and what a happy accident it was. Secret beach is hidden down what seems like a dead-end road behind residential homes. You descend a somewhat steep trail that is lush with trees and sneak-peek views of the beach below you. The sand is soft and white, the water is turquoise blue and the crowds are non-existent. I visited on a weekday and there were less than a dozen people on the entire beach. One thing to note is the beach has little to no shade so be sure to pack your hat and sunscreen.
Hanalei Bay Beach Park
One of the most popular beach spots in Kauai, Hanalei Bay stretches about 2 miles long. The views are gorgeous and the bay is an amazing spot to watch the sunset. If you visit in the winter you can watch the surfers doing their thing but be mindful of the waves and possible riptides. The water is warm and crystal clear and the backdrop of green mountains brings you pure bliss. You can also enjoy a walk up the pier for a little change of scenery.
Snorkelling fans, this one is for you! The water at Tunnels Beach is clear as crystal. Like all beaches on the North Shore, the waves will be large during the winter so be cautious. What’s nice about Tunnels is that there is a side that is more of a lagoon where the water is much calmer and equally as beautiful. The rest of the year you’ll have perfect snorkelling conditions and are likely to see lots of turtles and tropical fish. Bonus, there’s a cool little cave across the road you can explore.
Poipu Beach often ranks among the top ten beaches in America. It’s easily the most popular beach on the South Shore of the island and for good reason! What makes this beach special is the crescent formations of sand that curl together with the ocean. The beach is also home to monk seals and other sea life like turtles and tropical fish. A great snorkel spot in the summer and a great surf spot in the winter.
Activities & Excursions
Sail the Napali Coast
Boat tours of the Napali Coast are offered through several companies and you can choose to book a morning snorkel tour or a sunset dinner tour. Both are stunning experiences but pick the one you like best. You’re highly likely to see whales, dolphins and maybe even turtles and seals so bringing a camera is a must!
Boats leave from the south part of the island and the sail lasts approximately five hours. A meal will be included no matter what time you sail. Day snorkel cruises leave at 7:30 am so plan accordingly if you are driving down from the North Shore. I left around 5:30 am from Princeville to be sure I arrived on time to check in.
If you’re sailing during the winter it’s much more likely to experience choppy water and waves, so load up on seasickness medicine. Two people, including myself, had the misfortune of getting sick but there’s no shame in it and it certainly won’t ruin your experience. The crew is incredibly well trained and took amazing care of us.
This is a top attraction in Kauai that will allow you to appreciate the island’s incredible beauty. Book at least a few days in advance for low season and a week or two in advance for high season.
Island Helicopter Tour
This may sound like something reserved for celebrities but aerial tours are quite popular throughout Hawaii and more affordable than you might think. Tours typically last about an hour and take you all around the island, allowing you bird-eye views of the stunning Napali Coast and Waimea Canyon. This is definitely a bucket list item! If you’re afraid of heights like me, opt for something on ground level instead.
Attend a Luau
A luau is a classic Hawaiian celebration. You’ll be served a traditional meal consisting of poi, kalua pork and haupia- aka Hawaiian taro, pork cooked in an earth oven and coconut pudding. A lot of the major hotels on the island host impressive luau’s but you can also book one at Smith’s Family Garden, a local attraction or the very highly rated Kilohana Plantation. Prices hover around $120USD and include a full meal, hula performance, fire dancers and more! You’ll want to book at least a few days in advance as luaus are high on every traveller’s to-do list.
Take a Coffee Tour
Check out the Kauai Coffee Company for all things caffeine. Hawaii is very well known for coffee and this tasting tour is a great experience. What makes Kauai coffee so special is that it grows in volcanic soil and is exposed to a perfect blend of heavy rain and strong sunshine thanks to Kauai’s climate. They also create uniquely Hawaiian blends like chocolate-macadamia or banana cream pie! You’ll learn everything about coffee from how it’s grown, to how it’s roasted. Best to visit on a day where your energy is low, all those coffee samples will have you just a little hyper.
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