Kauaʻi—the smallest, oldest, and wettest of the major Hawaiian islands known as the “Garden Island”—is a densely packed wonderland full of outdoor adventures and stunning scenery.
The “Grand Canyon” of the Pacific? Check! Hiking paths ranging from comfortable strolls to some of the most challengingly rated trails by the Sierra Club? But of course! A chance to ride a zodiac boat alongside dolphins? You get the idea.
With so much to do, Jen and I found ourselves overwhelmed—of course, we unfortunately were not able to do everything. Similarly, not being the most outdoorsy people, there were some experiences in Kaua’i that we were unable to do—either from a lack of outdoorsyness or from locales being closed due to flooding.
One important point: Kaua’i is the wettest of the Hawaiian islands, meaning you should expect some amount of rain on a daily to near-daily basis. This may interrupt some of your more romantic plans, but it is also what makes the island the tropical wonder that it is.
The best way to get around Kaua’i is to rent a car. For those of the more adventurous bent, rent a 4x4. Major highways and roads around the island are passable in all vehicles, but 4x4s open up the possibility of off-roading. Plus, you’ll feel like a badass. Don’t you want to feel like a badass? There is easy car rental straight from the airport.
Where to Stay
This is a surprisingly contentious question, with people largely falling into North Shore vs South Shore camps. The North Shore is generally considered rainier but more tropical, while the South Shore is drier but slightly more built up in terms of restaurants and nightlife. TripAdvisor has a very informative discussion thread on exactly this. We stayed in an Airbnb on the East Shore, which seemingly doesn’t really factor into the equation, for ease of traveling around the island.
Click here to get $40 off your first Airbnb stay, on us!
Note that wherever you stay, the island is small and you can drive around the majority of it in 1.5 hours.
We arrived in Kauai on a Monday evening. The long flight from the east coast left us pretty exhausted, so we accomplished little beyond checking into our Airbnb and hitting up Chicken in A Barrel BBQ, a road side BBQ joint in Kapaa on the eastern shore of Kauai. Definitely highly recommend this spot if you are looking for some delicious quick and easy food, with meat that fell off the bone like nothing.
Go Blue Adventures—Kikiaola Boat Harbor
One of the absolute must-see spots on Kauai is it’s famous Napali Coast and sea cliffs, which tower and corkscrew out of the sea like undulating rivulets of stone. Perhaps the best way to truly appreciate their immensity is from the ocean, and undoubtedly the best and most fun way to sail to them is on a zodiac boat—an inflatable dingy that bounces and zips along the waves at top speed.
We opted to travel with the 7am tour with Go Blue Adventures, who specializes in these types of rides while also maxing out their fun potential—think pulling doughnuts in a zodiac, blasting 90s throwbacks, and surfing along the crest of waves as they barrel into the shore. Not to mention, the boat captains are incredible fonts of local knowledge, imbuing the ride out and back to the cliffs with historical stories, tips about where to eat and explore, as well as taking time to explore sea cliffs, snorkel, and hang out with some wild dolphin pods.
Essentially, this is exactly the sort of adventure you want to start off visiting Kaua’i with.
Hours hanging onto a zodiac for dear life (the tour and snorkeling lasts from 7:30am to 12pm) works up an appetite like little else. From Kikiaola Boat Harbor we headed to Japanese Grandma’s Cafe, fifteen minutes away in Hanapepe. Specializing in serving fresh organic Japanese fare, Japanese Grandma may have been our favorite poke stop in all of Hawaii.
As a bonus, Hanapepe is a cute little town well worth walking around to stretch and regain your land legs.
Wailua Beach Park
We were somewhere around Lihue, on the edge of the airport, that the jet lag began to kick in. Too zoinked to follow up on our plans to try to hike Sleeping Giant, we instead flopped ourselves down on the beach at Wailua Beach Park. A storm was rolling in, throwing strong waves and making a good opportunity for people watching and seeing the local surfers in action.
Dinner at Hukilau Lanai—Kapaa
After some quick r&r at Wailua Beach Park, we headed to the Hukilau Lanai for a very uncharacteristic and ritzy meal—made all the stranger in that we had reserved ourselves a table for the early bird menu. Available for reservation from 5 to 5:45pm, the pairing menu costs $50 a person and includes five courses and five paired glasses of wine ($32 per person for just the food).
While eating so early made us feel old—paired with the fact that the only other people eating were approaching three times our age—the deal is absolutely worth it to get some extremely good Hawaiian-style food (and drinks) at these prices.
Check Out Dat Sunrise—Keālia Beach
One of the best parts of staying on the eastern coast of Kauai, and also being severely jet lagged, is that you can easily appreciate the sunrise. Start the day off right by heading out to Keālia Beach and watching the dawn of a new day. We dodged passing showers during our sunrise, giving the beach a moody blend of purples, golds, and lush greens as the sun made its way over the horizon.
A quick drive away is Kountry Kitchen, a cutesy/kitschy roadside diner offering heaping platefuls of Hawaiian mainstays and delicious flavored coffees. The loco moco—a fried egg served atop gravy loaded beef patties and rice—and the ube and coconut cream French toast were shots of life, as was the macadamia nut coffee. While waiting for food, you can also entertain yourself here reading the amazingly dated newspaper clippings adorning the restaurant from World War II.
Hule'ia Scenic River Kayak Adventure
After eating close to your own body weight, it’s time to start moving again, and the Hule'ia Scenic River Kayak Adventure is a perfect way to combine being outdoors, exploring a new area of the island, and learning about local history and myths. The tours, provided by Scott on peddle kayaks, traverse the Hule’ia River and pass by the Menehune Fishpond, an amazing feat of engineering constructed by the ancient Hawaiians.
The peddle kayaks make traveling both up and downstream a breeze, and the tour also includes—time permitting—a quick hike along the river’s headlands. Scott is also a magnificent sources of local knowledge, and is fully to thank for the next stop on this itinerary.
Shelter Dog Field Trip—Lihue
The Kauai Humane Society in Lihue offers the heartwarming program of shelter dog field trips, which allows anyone to adopt a shelter dog for up to a day and take them on adventures around the island. Before you take out a dog, you can play with them at the society to see how well you will get along. After that, you are free to travel with the dog across the island; the shelter will provide all necessary equipment for the day, a list of the dog’s preferences (our doggo, Kai, was scared of heights and not suitable for hikes, for instance), and a vest for the dog to both keep them warm from the rain and to promote the humane society’s adoption efforts.
First pit stop with Kai—Mark’s Place to grab some lunch! Mark’s Place specializes in large platter lunches to go; these platters include a mix of everything, including low mein, mac salad, and other Hawaiian and Asian goodies.
Located on the southern coast, Spouting Horn is a natural blowhole that has formed in the volcanic rock along the shoreline. Waves pushed through an undersea shelf and out of the blowhole spurt up geyser-like, at times reaching as high as fifty feet based on the force of the wave. Unfortunately, the geyser seemed tired when we were there and was not quite that impressive—still, the scenery around the area is beautiful, and a flea market is present in the area for picking up tchotchkes.
East of Spouting Horn are also a number of beautiful beaches worth exploring, including Poipu Beach, Shipwreck Beach, and Kiahuna Beach.
Drop off Doggo
All good things must come to an end, and that includes our time with Kai. Bye Kai, you were a good doggo and we will always love you.
From Lihue and the anima shelter, Hanalei Bay is an hour drive along the eastern coast of the island. Once past Kapaa, the island quickly becomes exceedingly tropical—complete with towering trees, blooming blossoms, and small bridges over multiple rivers.
Hanalei Bay itself is also astoundingly beautiful, especially from Wiaoli Beach Park, a two mile long stretch of soft sand overlooking the half-moon bay and the towering surrounding mountains. With so much space in the park, it is easy to grab an isolated spot and enjoy a gradual tranquil sunset.
Tahiti Nui Restaurant
Once you’ve had your fill of sea and sand, head over to Tahiti Nui Restaurant. A popping Hawaiian restaurant, it features live music nightly, mai tais and local beers worth drowning in, and Hawaiian pizza so good that even Jen ate and enjoyed it. As Jen usually hates pork on pizza, and loathes the island of warm fruit, this is a serious accomplishment.
Similar in style to Mark’s Place, Pono Market prides itself on its large plates, huge selection, and high quality. Popular among tourists and locals alike, Pono Market fills up quick. Meaning, either get there early or expect to wait in line. The market also does not feature seating, so expect to grab the food to go to bring to your favorite beach.
Bike Rental Exploration—Kapaa and Beyond!
Right next to Pono Market is Hele on Kauai, a bike rental and outfitters. Operating from 9am to 5pm on weekdays and 10am to 5pm on weekends, bike rentals cost $5 an hour, with a 24-hour rental costing $20 and a week rental costing $65. Right behind the rental shop is the start of the Kauai Multiuse Path, which winds along the eastern shore of Kauai past Kapa’a Beach Park, Kealia Beach, and Paliku/Donkey Beach.
After Donkey Beach, the trail comes to an end in some scrubland with small footpaths. If you follow the footpaths towards the ocean, you Following the footpaths towards the ocean, you find a clear expanse of violently red earth, scattered boulders, and a tumbledown cliff into the sea. While there is no access to a beach from here, it is still a stunning point to feel truly alone taking in the island’s beauty.
Wailua Shave Ice—Kapaa
After dropping the bike back off, make sure to take a pit stop at Wailua Shave Ice; fun fact, local shops call themselves shave ice, while shops catering solely to locals are more often to be called shaved ice. After a few miles riding back and forth, Wailua was a welcome reprieve and absolutely delicious, featuring a multitude of fresh Hawaiian fruits, like mango, passion fruit, guava, and coconut.
Koloa Rum Tasting—Lihue
Going back south, make a pit stop at the Koloa Rum Company store for a rum tasting. A functioning distillery that makes Koloa Rum from local sugarcane, tastings are offered every half hour at the Kilohana Plantation and the samples on display change by the day. Note that only sixteen people at a time can attend a tasting, and you can not make reservations. However, upon arrival, you can put your name down on a list for the next tasting.
Not knowing this and getting to the plantation right before a tasting was scheduled to begin, we unfortunately were not able to attend. However, the plantation itself is still beautiful, and offers enough onsite entertainment to allow you to pass the time waiting for the next tasting to begin.
Captain Andy’s Sunset Catamaran Cruise—Poipu Kukuiula Harbor
To make the most of our last night in Kauai (last night already?!), we splurged on a sunset catamaran cruise along the south shore with Captain Andy’s. Featuring live Hawaiian music, appetizers and drinks (wine, beer, and “sneaky tiki” cocktails), an informational tour of sights along the coast, and beautiful views of the sunset, the cruise offers a pretty snazzy way to end the last full day.
However, it is worth noting we both got seasick while we surprisingly were totally fine on the much rougher zodiac boat for the Napali Coast. C’est la vie, I guess.
Sea Sickness = Burger King
Sea sickness means we had Burger King for dinner (per Jen’s request).
Sorry, but also not sorry.
Waimea Canyon Explorations
It’s your last day in Kauai, so fill up your 4x4 with hiking snacks and hit the road pre-dawn (depending where you are on the island), because you have to get up to the Waimea Canyon lookout point before 10am and the fog starts rolling in. The Grand Canyon of the Pacific, the Waimea Canyon is an absolute must see while on Kauai. Featuring stunningly dramatic cliffs, bright red soil, and tropical greens, the canyon is a sensory feast that also dazzles any sense of perspective.
Running out from the one road up the Waimea Canyon—550—are dozens of trails of varying difficulty that either follow alongside the canyon’s drops, descend into the Puu Ka Pele Forest Reserve to the west, as well as hikes along the back of the Napali Coast, granting sweeping vistas of the north shore of the island. Note, however, that many of these hikes are extremely strenuous and should only be attempted by experienced hikers with a day to commit, wearing proper clothing, and not in a rush.
As such, we contented ourselves with a drive to the Kalalua Lookout Point for views of the Napali Coast and some short hikes in the rainforest.
Red Dirt Waterfall
Coming out of the Waimea Canyon area, absolutely 100% stop at Red Dirt Waterfall right off of 550. A hiking and nature exploration area, Jen and I have never seen anything like this and it was possibly the highlight of our entire trip to Hawaii. Red Dirt Waterfall and the surrounding riverbed that leads into it are Martian red from Kauai’s volcanic soil. Through this oxidized landscape runs a brilliantly blue stream culminating in the waterfall, around which springs up green wild grass and stunted trees.
The scenery is absolutely breathtaking, and you can hike around the entire area largely—especially as soon as you get away from the waterfall itself—alone and away from the other tourists and sightseers in the area.
Sueoka’s Spam Musubi Beach Picnic
Hiking and traipsing around waterfalls and canyons is exhausting, so go ahead and reward yourself with classic Japanese-Hawaiian fare—spam musubi. Highly salty, the spam musubi—essentially giant spam sushi rolls—are an umami-filled gustatory delight, exploding across taste bud after taste bud. Sueoka’s Market, in Koloa, is especially famous for having some of the best, and they did not disappoint. We ate ours at Kalapaki Beach in Lihue, which is famous for its surfing, soft sand, and chances to see monk seals.
Kauai Beer Company—Lihue
And while you’re in Lihue, waiting for the plane and to say goodbye to Kauai, stop off at Kauai Beer Company to grab a local microbrew. Kauai Beer Company’s Black Limousine black European lager was one of the maltiest, most tasty caramel-infused beers I’ve had. It alone is enough to make we want to go back to Kauai.
Want to save this post for later?