The oldest in Hawaii’s modern-day chain, Kauai has a reputation for being a lush island; hence, its nickname as the “Garden Island.” But it’s also one of the most dramatic islands. As volcanoes age, they sink and reflect the effects of erosion, and about five million years of weathering have transformed Kauai into a marvelous sculpture, with natural features found on no other island.
Table of Contents
- The 5 regions of Kauai
- Top 5 things to do
With a population of less than 75,000, Kauai is truly a small-town island, littered with open space, protected preserves, and old plantation history. Its main attractions, such as Waimea Canyon and the Nāpali Coast, will wow you with their grandeur, and its outdoor recreation, like hiking, is limitless. Once considered an island devoid of good cuisine, Kauai has seen its food scene improve dramatically in recent years as its population continues to grow and diversify. With two resort hubs – Princeville in the North and Poipu down south – there’s also a good variety of places to stay.
Good to know: We recommend that you spend at least 5 days on Kauai (more if you can!).
See also our Oʻahu vs. Kauaʻi comparison to see how two of our favorite islands stack up against each other.
Destinations on Kauai
There’s only one main road on Kauai, which makes the island easy to explore for even the most directionally-challenged travelers. Below, we list the main destinations that you’ll find on Kauai.
- North Shore: Hanalei, Kilauea, and Princeville
- West side + the Nāpali coast
- East side: Lihue and Kapaa
- Poipu (South Kauai)
1. North Shore: Hanalei, Kilauea, and Princeville
Kauai’s north shore refers to everything from Kee Beach (northwest) to Kilauea (northeast).
The hub of Kauai’s north shore, Hanalei, is perhaps the most picturesque town on Kauai. Set against a u-shaped bay and backdropped by waterfalls and jungle-covered mountains, it’s a well-rounded choice as a home base, especially if you have interest in exploring the Nāpali Coast (see below).
Adjacent to Hanalei is Princeville, a well-groomed resort and accommodation hub on the north shore, home to hotels like the Princeville Resort, the Westin, the Wyndham, and a number of smaller hotels and condo rentals.
In nearby Kilauea, you’ll find a strong agricultural vibe (it was once home to a large guava plantation) and a number of natural attractions, like Kauapea Beach and Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge.
2. West Side and Nāpali Coast
Ask anyone for a list of the most scenic places in Hawaii, and the Nāpali Coast is sure to be on it. Wrapping around the northwest part of the island, its jagged coastline features sharp, dramatic valleys that beg to be explored via foot, kayak, boat, or helicopter.
The entirety of this coast is protected area, so you won’t find a single ounce of development from Kee Beach all the way down to Polihale State Park.
3. East Side: Lihue and Kapaa
Lihue is the capital of Kauai and the first town you’ll encounter when leaving the airport. If you need anything upon landing, such as conveniences, groceries, or banking, Lihue is a good place to find what you need. It’s also home to the Kauai Museum, which provides an excellent overview of the island’s history. Combine a visit to the museum with a stop at Kauai Beer Co in downtown Lihue, and your trip will be off to a good start.
Farther north on the east side is Kapaa, an old plantation town that has seen noticeable growth in recent years. On one hand, it has a lot of souvenir and tourist shops; on another, it’s home to a large food truck scene, a beautiful coastal bike path, and a few local favorites, like Pono Market. In the southern part of Kapaa, you’ll find a strip of small hotels. A long, rocky beach lines most of Kapaa’s coast (most of it is not safe for swimming); head to the sandy confines of Kealia Beach at the northern edge of town to take a dip (always check with the lifeguards before swimming).
Poipu is the main tourist hub on Kauai’s south shore, literally on the southern tip of the island where good weather and sunshine blend perfectly with well-appointed, tropical landscapes. Besides the weather and lodging opportunities (a mix of resorts, cottages, and small inns), there are a multiple golf courses, coastal walking trails, luaus, a range of restaurants, and a variety of beaches, all within the vicinity.
And of course you can also snorkel here – Poipu is actually quite well-know for it! (Read more about snorkeling at Poipu beach).
Waimea is just a small, coastal plantation town in southeast Kauai, but it comes with major historical significance. It was where Captain James Cook made his first landing in Hawaii in 1778, and its port was once busy with whaling, logging, and sugar-cane operations. Today, it’s mostly a collection of small souvenir shops and tourist-focused restaurants, as thousands of people per day pass through the town to get to Waimea Canyon (see below) in the north.
Keep going west through Waimea and you’ll arrive at Polihale State Park, which sits at the end of the road and is one of the most remote, underappreciated beaches in all of Hawaii.
Things to do on Kauai
Here are the top five things we suggest on your first visit to Kauai:
You can get a preview of all 5 experiences in the video by Fuchachee below. The whole video is worth a watch but for those of you with little time, you can see the Waimea Canyon Lookout at 0:53, the Nā Pali Coast at 2:18, the Hanalei Valley Lookout at 3:06, the Wailua Falls at 3:09, and hiking trails throughout the video.
1. Explore the Nāpali Coast
It doesn’t matter how you do it – via foot, boat, kayak, or helicopter – just get out and experience the Nāpali Coast and its jagged, majestic cliffs.
On foot, the Kalalau Trail that leaves from Kee Beach is as scenic as it gets, and it’s highly recommended you check it out. Hiking the full 11-miles to Kalalau Beach requires a permit, but day hiking the 2-miles (one way) to Hanakapiai Beach and Falls does not. For first timers and the casual hiker, we recommend the latter.
- Helicopter tours, like those of Blue Hawaiian, are available daily.
- For a boat tour, check out the different sailings offered by Holo Holo Charters.
- If you’re looking to kayak, try Nāpali Kayak.
Note: The north shore of Kauai recently instituted new rules and regulations, as well as a shuttle system, for those visiting. Be sure to read and respect them.
2. Visit Waimea Canyon
Waimea Canyon is a geological gem, its red and orange canyon walls stretching down more than 3,600-feet deep and 14 miles long, carved by the Waimea River over millions of years. The name “Waimea” translates to “Reddish Waters,” a reference to the color of the river’s water as it erodes the canyon walls.
After driving up to the canyon rim from the town of Waimea, there are a number of lookouts to visit, including Waimea Canyon Lookout (mile marker 10), Puu Hinahina Lookout (mile marker 13), Kalalau Lookout (mile marker 18), and Puu o Kila (mile marker 19).
Waimea Canyon is a state park (website) and also hosts a number of hikes: Awaawapuhi Trail, the Pihea Trail, and the Cliff Canyon and Black Pipe Trail. Consider spending the night at the Kokee Lodge Cabins and Campground.
3. Kayak the Wailua River
The Wailua River is the only navigable river in Hawaii, and visitors can enjoy a legitimate boating, kayak, or SUP adventure in Wailua River State Park. You can either rent your own kayak, or you can hop on one of many tours.
Some tours combine hiking and kayaking, and others focus on only one activity. Though the hikes in this area can be interesting and a nice addition, be sure your tour is centered around the river, and that you’re getting ample time to explore its waters winding through the rainforest.
4. Take a Hike with Kauai Hiking Tours
Many visitors to Kauai will hit the main trails during their visit, like Sleeping Giant and Kalalau. But for hikers looking to experience more, take a guided hike with Kauai Hiking Tours to discover beyond the tourist circuit.
Owner Jeremiah Felson mixes history, culture, biodiversity, environmentalism, and natural skills into his hikes, offering a unique look at Kauai’s landscape and introducing visitors to trails they may not otherwise find.
5. Make Hanalei Your Home
Hanalei deserves more than a passing glance, and even though it’s located way up north, you should consider making it your home base. Its beautiful, u-shaped bay is ideal for slow strolls; its mellow surf perfect for a beginner lesson (Hawaiian Surfing Adventures); and its mountain views beg you to stay put in the sand, offering a calming, relaxing energy. It’s a great place to try some locally-grown food, like the plate lunches at Hanalei Taro & Juice.
From Hanalei, you can take a shuttle along the north shore to visit a variety of other beaches, reducing your need for a car.