I always have a hard time picking my favorite Hawaiian Island, and we find ourselves traveling back to the state over and over and over again because there is always so much new to experience with every trip. From the lava fields of the Big Island, to the stunning waters on the East side of Oahu to the Road to Hana and red and black sand beaches of Maui, I love each island for the way they differ from another - but Kauai does always seem to take the top spot when dreaming of returning.
Kauai is quieter, rugged, stunning, varied, a bit wild, and also full of modern conveniences such as direct flights, great restaurant options, and even a conveniently located Costco right next to the airport. (All Hawaii trips seem to start with a trip to Costco for coolers, towels, boxes of Kona Beer, and pineapples!)
- You can fly direct from most major West Coast cities! LA, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and Denver all offer daily direct flights. From most other places, you will have to fly through Honolulu.
- Hawaiian Airlines offers the most direct and inter-island options - search for flights here.
- Each of the four major Hawaiian Islands are so unique and different from each other - if it is your first time or you are traveling from a longer distance, I would definitely recommend stopping in 2-3 islands. There are many daily flight options between each of the islands, so this is fairly easy to do with little planning.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO:
- The absolute best way to get around Kauai is by rental car - unless you plan to stay at a resort for your entire trip, you will need a car.
- Car rentals are all conveniently located at Lihue Airport (we usually rent with Hertz, but most major companies are located here as well.) and start at $25/day. For a little bit more, you can upgrade to a Mustang Convertible or a Jeep - most cars driving around the island are one of these two. While I love a good convertible, rain in Hawaii can be extremely unpredictable, and there are a fair amount of rougher or dirt roads if you get off the main highway - we are always happier in the Jeeps.
- There is only one major road around the island - which has one lane in each direction. While the island's population and tourism has grown, the road has not - which leads to some major traffic. Read more about this under "What to Avoid" below!
- The South and North sides of the island have drastically different climates - the South is quite dry and sunny, and the North is much more often cloudy and rainy. In fact, Mt Waialeale on the North of the island is one of the wettest places on earth. The North side of Kauai has many amazing areas and scenery, but if you are looking for sun - spend most of your time closer to Poipu.
- There is a Costco just a couple of minutes away from the airport. We always stop here first thing for beer, wine, snacks, beach towels and a cooler. It's not local, but it is a very convenient one-stop-shop.
WHAT DOES IT COST?:
- Car Rental: $35 - 60 per day, with taxes and fees
- Luxury Hotel: $400 - $1000 per night
- Mid-Range Hotel: $200 - $300 per night
- Airbnb: $125 - $300 per night
- Cheaper Meal: $10 - $20 per person
- Restaurant Meal: $20 - $40 per entree
- Gas/Shopping: Prices on par with other high-cost areas like LA or NYC
WHERE TO STAY:
- Whaler's Cove in Poipu - Somewhere between private condo rentals and a hotel, we LOVED our stay here. Everything here feels very private and peaceful, our condo was very spacious, overlooked the ocean, and had a giant balcony and jacuzzi tub big enough for two. This is a great option for families especially, as many units feature multiple bedrooms, washing machines, and full kitchens. We used our kitchen regularly - and I love the option of picking up a bottle of wine and making dinner ourselves instead of eating out for every meal.
- Princeville Resort - Formally a St. Regis property, Princeville Resort is an icon of the North Shore of the island, and one of the most luxurious properties available. If a stay here is out of your budget, it is still worth stopping by the terrace bar for a sunset cocktail!
- Marriott's Kauai Beach Club - Located in the main resort area of Lihue, this property is easy to access, the rooms have beautiful lagoon views, and the gigantic hotel pool is stunning.
- Koa Kea Hotel & Resort - One of the most stunning properties on the island, located in sunny Poipu Beach
- Lower cost accommodation options on Kauai are not the easiest to find, as this is not a particularly budget-friendly island - but they are possible to find with some digging and planning early. On our first trip here, we stayed in a little cottage of an Airbnb on a shared property (we had our private room and a balcony, but the bathrooms, showers, and kitchen were communal) for $70/night. We absolutely loved our treehouse and would have stayed here again, had the property still been available.
- Kauai Palms Hotel - A well-reviewed lower cost option conveniently located in Lihue.
- The Kauai Inn - An established, well-regarded, garden hotel available for under $200 per night.
- Search Airbnb for some gems! Especially if you are flexible about shared amenities, guesthouses, or alternative accommodations, this may be your best bet for value - get up to $55 off your first AirBnb by clicking here.
Where To Eat:
The Best Poké Spots:
When it comes to eating in Hawaii, I only have one thing on my brain: POKE! I first heard of poké on our first trip to Hawaii together back in 2015, when my brother took us straight from Honolulu airport to a liquor store with a poké counter in the back. He said "I don't eat this stuff but locals are obsessed with it, and the best comes from these stores" - and I was hooked. Shortly after, it seemed like Poke Bowl shops were the new lunch craze everywhere (and I am NOT MAD ABOUT IT) - but I still crave that authentic Hawaiian raw fish counter when we are here. Here are all of my favorites!
- Ishihara Market, Waimea - This poké counter is in the back of a full scale market, and is the best place to stop and get poke, snacks, and beer on the way out to Polihale.
- Koloa Fish Market, Koloa - An unassuming little stand along Koala's shopping row, this may be my favorite poké stop on the island. Get the wasabi flavor!
- Sushi Girl, Hanalei - The only trendier place on my list, all island transplants I know are obsessed with Sushi Girl. The sushi burrito here is unreal!
- Makai Sushi, Koloa - Ok, so this is a proper sushi restaurant, that just happens to be located inside a supermarket. The feel is casual, but the flavors are amazing and the rolls are so beautifully done that they would not be out of place at a much higher-end restaurant.
- Pono Market, Kapaa - All the best poké shops are no-frills markets. This one in Kapaa is as good as the rest.
- Fish Express, Poipu - Just a few minutes away from Lihue airport, make this one your first stop!
The Best Cheap(ish) EATS:
If you decide you don't want to eat poké for every meal....there's more! But I'm really just here for the poké. :-P We scoured the island for the best local and reasonably-priced finds, here are our favorites.
- Da Crack, Poipu - A great Mexican stand for fish tacos, garlic shrimp burritos, and burrito bowls. Da Crack is located in a parking lot with no real seating, but the food is damn good.
- Midnight Bear Breads, Hanapepe - A super cute bakery and sandwich shop in the adorable Hanapepe town. Get the Macadamia Nut Cinnamon Roll!
- Kukui'ula Village Center Farmer's Market, Poipu - A cute little shopping village every day, with a farmer's market every Wednesday afternoon. Stop here to stock up on fruit and local goods for the week.
- Puka Dog, Poipu - A hot dog shop, island style - with toppings such as spicy secret sauce, mango or coconut relish, and a vegetarian dog option.
- Java Kai, Kapaa - Everyone's favorite spot on the island, Java Kai is always packed in the mornings but is worth a stop in Kapaa. This cute bright teal colored shop has Great coffee, Acai bowls, breakfast burritos, and all the pastries and pancakes you could dream of.
- El Taco Feliz, Kapaa - If you have read any of my other travel guides, you would know that Brandon and I are always on the hunt for Mexican. This taco truck does not disappoint, and is just as good as the ones at home in LA.
- Kauai Juice Co, Kapaa - Homemade cold-pressed juices and Kombucha in reusable glass bottles. The Juice Co also has fantastic graphic design and an incredible aesthetic. Come for the juice, and leave with some of the merch.
- Moloaa Sunrise Fruit Stand, Anahola - More than just fresh fruit and smoothies, this road-side stand also serves breakfast, sandwiches and burritos. And is the cutest, off-the-regular-path spot!
- Chicken in a Barrel, multiple locations - An island staple with a few locations across Kauai, this BBQ chicken is the best after a long day of hiking.
Top 5 Hikes:
Kauai is a paradise for hikers. Despite being a smaller island, the trails are seamingly endless, and vary from short easy walks, to precarious ridge-lines, to 20 mile overnight journeys through the Na Pali Coast. While you most likely won't have the time or legs to handle all of them, here are some of the best highlights.
- Waimea Canyon Trail to Woipoo Falls - Even though this is one of the most popular hikes on Kauai, don't skip it due to the popularity. While this does not take you to a waterfall view (the end is actually at the top of the 800 foot falls - don't look down), the Waimea Canyon views are just unbeatable - around a 5-6 mile round trip. Google map location here.
- Awa'awapuhi Trail - the views of the Na Pali Coast when you reach the ending lookout of this hike are one of the most incredible things I have ever seen. You can follow a very narrow (but stable) ridge-line to the very end of the trail for a 360 view of the peaks and valleys of the ancient coastlines. Views like this are usually only available by helicopter, but the Awa'awapuhi trail drops you right in the middle - this trail is about a 6 mile round trip. Google map location here.
- Hanakapiai Falls Trail - 4 miles up the Na Pali coast, the hike to Hanakapiai is muddy and a bit strenuous. The first 2 miles takes you on the coastal trail to Hanakapiai Beach, and from there you can turn around or continue another 2 miles to reach the 300 foot waterfall. We got caught in a serious rainstorm and were unable to make the final ascent, but next time we are back, we definitely will be doing this one! The Falls is a total of 8 miles round trip. Google map location here. NOTE: As of April 2019, this trail is closed to the Hanalei floods and opening date is TBD. This is not a "not allowed" closed trail, but is completely unreachable.
- Sleeping Giant Hike - Located just North of Kapaa, Sleeping Giant isn't a canyon or Napali Coast hike, but a great climb that takes you into the island a bit for some stunning views of the cities and the ocean beyond. Google map location here.
- Kuilau Ridge Trail - Kuilau Ridge Trail is an easier hike, only about 4 miles round trip, and unlike some of the longer trails where you are descending a muddy valley for most of the trek, this one offers views from the start. The Google map location here. The trail is covered in lush fern and a stunning green tree canopy. Google map location here.
Top 5 Waterfalls:
Most Kauai waterfalls are only accessible by hiking or by helicopter, but they are always worth the effort.
- Wailua Falls - One of the few waterfalls you can easily see from the road, most visitors drive up just to the viewpoint to these twin falls and then leave. However, climbing down to the pool under the falls is where this waterfall really shows you all of it's glory. NOTE: This is technically not a trail, so climb at your own risk. The hike down is muddy, but short and all together not very difficult for any somewhat experienced hiker. Brandon did the entire trek barefoot.
- Hanakapiai Falls - The 300 foot waterfalls 4 miles into the Na Pali Coast are a stunning site that you have to put in some real work to get to, but are incredibly worth it after the hike. NOTE: As of April 2019, this trail is closed to the Hanalei floods and opening date is TBD. This is not a "not allowed" closed trail, but is completely unreachable.
- Ho'opi'i Falls - Like all of the swimmable waterfalls on Kauai, you have to hike to reach Ho'opi'i Falls - but this one is short and not too strenuous, only a 2 mile round trip. The trek here takes you to 2 swimmable waterfalls, and through a jungle forest.
- Makaleha Falls - The hike to Makaleha Falls takes you through a bamboo forest, rock-hopping up a stream, and climbing giant tree roots to stunning views of the endless waterfalls up through the ridgelines of Kauai, and ultimately to a two-tiered waterfall with pools deep enough to cliff jump into.
- Secret(or Uluwehi) Falls - Secret Falls are best reached by Kayak or Canoe - we rented one for the afternoon through Kamokila Hawaiian Village on the Wailua River and stopped here. There is a landing spot for kayaks at the trailhead, and then an easy 20-30 minute hike will lead you to the 100 foot waterfall and swimming hole.
Top 5 Beaches:
Of all of the Hawaiian Islands, Kauai is known more for it's landscapes than it's ocean - but the island is still completely surrounded by a mix of sandy, rocky, and stunning coastlines. We found the best of the best, so you don't have to travel all around searching.
- Tunnels (Makua) Beach, Hanalei - Tunnels Beach has some of the clearest aqua water on the island, and is an absolute stunner of a beach. Located far up on the North shore, is is typically very crowded, and often cloudy - but if you happen to catch it in the sun, it is truly a gorgeous sight to see. NOTE: As of April 2019, The road to Tunnels Beach is completely closed to the public and is only accessible to locals - and there is no possible way to "sneak in". Opening date is TBD.
- Moloa'a Beach, Anahola - Off the standard tourist path, we discovered Moloa'a Beach, just North of Anahola on our first trip to Kauai when we stayed in an Airbnb just a few minutes from here. The bay here is beautiful, quiet, mostly unpopulated, and good for swimming and snorkeling, and is an amazing place to watch the sun rise, if you are staying near by. This is also the site where the Gilligan's Island pilot and first couple of episodes were filmed!
- Hideaways Beach, Princeville - Formally known as Pali Ke Kua Beach, Hideaways Beach, is located near the Princeville Resort, has limited parking, and a short hike down a somewhat muddy stair path - but you are rewarded with a mostly uncrowded beach with clear water and Na Pali Coast Views.
- Polihale State Park, Waimea - Clear on the other side of the island, where the road ends is Polihale State Park - a seemingly endless stretch of sand that goes on for miles. Locals often camp and barbecue here in the warmer months, and the daring will drive their trucks right on the sand. NOTE: If you are in a rental car, do not do this... seriously. If you are planning to visit Polihale, I would highly recommend renting a Jeep or other 4-wheel drive vehicle, as the road out is long, unpaved, and bumpy.
- Poipu Beach, Poipu - The main resort area of Poipu has one main feature that the rest of Kauai doesn't have nearly as often - SUN. The weather on the South Coast of the island has much less clouds and rain than farther north - the difference in weather is actually pretty astounding. If you are looking for a proper sunny beach day, Poipu is almost always your best bet. Plus, since all beaches in Hawaii are considered public land, no resort is able to block you from accessing their perfectly manicured beaches. The waters here are calm and swimmable, and in the early morning, you can often see wild turtles resting on the sand here. For nearby options, check out Baby Beach, Shipwreck Beach, and Kiahuna Beach!
Top 5 Adventures:
If you have more time and want to add some new activities to the mix outside of beaches, hikes, and waterfalls, get your adventure on all across and around the island, from the sky to under the sea.
- See the Whole Island in a Helicopter Ride - Over 80% of Kauai's land is inaccessible by road - most of the inner landscape of the island has no roads built in to it, and can only be seen from above. One of the biggest attractions on Kauai is a helicopter ride, for the chance to see it's untouched, rugged beauty and endless waterfalls. Unfortunately, our Helicopter tour was rained out (pro tip - do not book on your last day! We did and were unable to reschedule), but is is absolutely the first thing we are doing when we return to the island. Blue Hawaiian Helicopters and Jack Harter are two of the most popular and trusted tour operators - and Muana Loa is one of the only companies that offers private and doors-off tours - which is what we had planned!
- Kayaking the Wailua River - Wailua is the longest river in Hawaii. Rent a kayak or a canoe for a half day of paddling, swimming, cliff-jumping, a visit to Secret Falls and more. We did this on our first trip to Kauai and had so much exploring!
- Take a Boat Cruise around the Na Pali Coast - Whether you take a sunset dinner cruise, or a day-time snorkel tour, seeing the Na Pali coast by boat is one of the best ways to enjoy it's stunning beauty and visit the secret beaches. Note that if this is important to you, the best time to book your trip is summer (June to September), when the seas are much calmer and the skies a bit sunnier. Cruises during the winter months are often cancelled due to high surf. Check more boating options here!
- Snorkel off of the Forbidden Island of Ni Hao - The island of Ni Hao is forbidden for outsiders to step foot on, and is uninhabited aside from the local tribes that own the island - however you can take a snorkel tour that takes you close to the shore to see the private island up close and personal.
- Ride an ATV through the Jungle - For something different, check out Kipu Ranch Tours for wild and dirty ATV tours through some uncharted roads.
DON'T MISS OUT ON:
- Exploring the small towns - Hanalei, Hanapepe, Kapaa - the little towns around the road of Hawaii are all experiences in themselves, with a mix of local boutiques, restaurants, beaches, and a variety of interesting histories. Exploring them is a great add-on to the adventure of the island, especially if weather isn't cooperating for beach days.
- Visiting Waimea Canyon - If you are a hiker, Waimea Canyon is a dream. If you are not, you can still catch the views and the magnitude of the Grand Canyon of the Pacific at the turn-offs and viewing points through the Waimea Canyon State Park - even without descending into the Canyon, the views are truly not to be missed.
- Poké! - Even if you are not much of a fish person, do not leave the island without trying its' specialty!
WHAT TO AVOID:
- The Traffic! - There is only one road around the island -with one lane each way. And as the population and tourism of Kauai has grown, the road access has not. In the afternoons, driving South from Princeville to Lihue or Poipu becomes a bumper-to-bumper multi-hour ordeal. To maximize your time, do not drive this route in the afternoon. If you are spending the day on the North Coast, stay through sunset and drive past after dark, and avoid driving through Lihue during popular airport departure times.
- Spending all your time at your resort - There are some trips I have done where we have done nothing but enjoy the resort and beach and loved it - but Kauai is not that place. Rent a car and explore! The island is safe, and best enjoyed from end to end.
- Hikes you cannot handle - A lot of the hikes on Kauai are muddy, slippery, difficult, or have precarious ridge lines. Be honest with yourself about your level of skills, fitness, and agility before setting out. If you are uncertain, start with shorter and safer hikes to make sure you can handle them before trying the more difficult ones.
- High Surf Warnings - This goes for all Hawaiian Islands - the waters here are not always calm or swimmable, and can be very dangerous in certain areas and in high surf warnings. Spots such as Queen's Bath go from beautiful calm lagoons, to deadly currents sucking people out to sea in a very short period of time. Swim with caution and always be aware of high surf and rip tides, especially if you are in an area with few people around.
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