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Inside: The absolute best things to do in Kauai, where to stay, and which tasty treats to try!
A few years ago, as my husband Dave and I were happily planning our annual winter trip to Asia, a complication arose.
Without hesitation, we jumped at what could be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to live abroad.
But after recently wrapping up a four-month work stretch without a single day off, I needed a vacation. And not just any vacation.
I needed a beach, a sunset, and an umbrella drink. Stat.
But now with an international move looming in just two weeks, we only had a few days to spare. The Asia plan was dead, but dreams of an island paradise were still very much alive. Perhaps just a little closer to home.
Enter…the Hawaiian Islands. Specifically, the garden island of Kauai.
Why is Kauai the best Hawaiian Island?
It’s a well-known fact that Hawaii has a variety of beautiful islands to choose from.
Most visitors to Hawaii arrive on the main island of Oahu (where, ironically, we moved just a few years later!). And many of those same visitors make the mistake of limiting their Hawaiian holiday to just this single, very popular island.
But while I love Oahu and we now live in Waikiki, it can be a little too busy for some. And for this vacation, we wanted total escape and tranquility.
What about Maui? There’s no doubt it’s a stunning island, but it can be a bit too touristy. It is, after all, considered the honeymoon capital of the world. However, in the aftermath of the Lahaina fires, tourism to the island is down and they need your support, so please consider planning a visit soon.
Here’s how to do it right: Yes, Go to Maui. But Here’s What NOT to Do on Your Visit
The Big Island? Gorgeous! But as the name implies, it’s big. And you’ll spend a good part of your holiday just driving from one lovely spot to the next.
What about tiny Molokai? Yes, it’s the ultimate low-key escape to the Hawaii of old. But with few tourist facilities, it’s better explored on a day trip than as a week-long holiday destination.
Read More: How to Take a Day Trip from Oahu to Molokai
So what makes the island of Kauai so special?
Why Kauai Hawaii is the perfect island escape
Miles away from the traffic of Oahu, or the tourist crowds of Maui, the peaceful island of Kauai is my favorite choice for pure relaxation.
In fact, of all the Hawaiian Islands, many experienced travelers consider Kauai to be the best island in Hawaii, and here’s why.
Nicknamed the Garden Isle, Kauai has it all – pristine beaches, lush rain forests, jagged emerald cliffs, and plenty of gorgeous hiking trails to keep an active traveler busy.
But Kauai is less developed than some of Hawaii’s other islands.
And that means you can soak up all that natural beauty without sitting in traffic or worrying about tour bus groups. And Kauai’s compact size makes it easy to explore when you just have a few days. In fact, the top things to do in Kauai are all just a short drive apart.
This is why the island is perfect for our brief, pre-winter getaway!
I’ve visited Kauai twice before, most recently after running the Honolulu Marathon. This trip is Dave’s first visit.
Now, let’s move on to the fun stuff…where to stay, how to get around, and what to see on Kauai!
Tip: For more essential Kauai information read my Ultimate Travel Guide to Kauai Hawaii (2024)
Why Poipu (on the South Shore) is the Perfect Home Base
Located at the southern tip of Kauai, Poipu is the most popular beach on the South Shore. In the winter months, it’s also legendary for spectacular sunset views.
In addition to that perfect crescent of sand and magical sunsets, Poipu truly has it all. Great hotels, restaurants, and shops, all within easy walking distance.
It’s completely possible to use Poipu as your home base, skip the rental car, and book day trips when you feel the urge to explore further afield.
Do I Need a Rental Car on Kauai?
But I vote yes.
To really get out and see the island, it’s best to have a rental car. This is true no matter where on the island you stay. Kauai’s best sights are scattered all over the island.
Luckily, driving on Kauai is easy and distances are short. You can see many of the Garden Isle’s highlights in a single day.
We used Discount Hawaii Car Rental to find our car and loved having the flexibility to drive ourselves around the island. We spent a full day touring on our own schedule, hitting the brakes for every yummy-looking food truck along the way!
For rental cars in Hawaii, go to the local experts. They’ll find you the best rate among all the major companies with no booking fees. And their customer support is top-notch.
Plus, if you’re staying in a hotel or condo with a kitchen, you’ll need the occasional grocery store run for provisions. More on that next…
Bottom Line: Yes, you can get by without a rental car. But for ultimate independence, get your own wheels.
Tip: Be sure to book your rental car well in advance. Rental cars are a hot commodity in Hawaii right now since many rental car companies sold off much of their fleet during the pandemic.
Best Places to Stay on Kauai
Though we are only visiting the island for 3 short days, most who arrive here plan to stay for at least a week. With that in mind, it’s nice to have a little extra space and maybe even your own kitchen.
That’s why we booked one of the many condo/villa properties on the island’s south shore.
Vacation rentals abound on all of the main Hawaiian Islands. When they aren’t in use by their owners, you can often find them up for rent on sites like Booking.com or AirBnb.
We chose Marriott’s Waiohai Beach Club, right on Poipu Beach.
The sprawling resort boasts three pools, two hot tubs, and lush tropical grounds reminiscent of a botanical garden. It’s exactly what the doctor ordered.
Our 2-bedroom, 2-bath villa (way bigger than we needed) was the price of a standard hotel room at some of the island’s fancier resorts. The villa is terrific, with a full kitchen, a washer and dryer, and a deep soaking tub with my name on it.
Pro Tip: Don’t miss the resort’s nightly sunset champagne sabering. If you’re not schooled in the art of uncorking a bottle of champagne with nothing more than your average kitchen sword, they’ll teach you. (It’s quite fun, I once nailed it at the St. Regis Aspen).
Bonus: Once the champagne is open, everyone gets a free taste.
Other great resorts in Poipu
My other favorite resorts in the Poipu area are:
Both offer all the resort amenities for a relaxing vacation in the best area of Kauai (in my opinion!).
Top 5 Best Things to Do on Kauai
One of the great things about Kauai is that you can fill your days with sightseeing and adventure. Or, you can just relax and do nothing at all.
While we do spend quality time planted on the beach sipping the aforementioned umbrella drinks, we also manage to make time for a few of Kauai’s must-see sights.
Here are a few of my favorite Kauai things to do:
#1. Whale Watching & the Na Pali Coast
If there’s one thing you absolutely cannot miss while visiting Kauai, it’s a visit to the Na Pali Coast. Whether by air or sea (or both!), make this your top priority on the island.
Perhaps most famous as the backdrop for the movie Jurassic Park, this rugged and inhospitable 25-mile stretch encompasses about a quarter of Kauai’s coastline along the north shore.
With the exception of the arduous 11-mile Kalalau Trail hike, this part of Kauai’s north shore is only accessible to visitors by two means – air or water.
The Na Pali Coast by Air or Sea?
Often referred to as Hawaii’s state bird, a myriad of helicopter companies stand at the ready to swoop you over the north shore coastline to ooh and aah over verdant emerald valleys and waterfalls cascading down 3,000ft cliffs.
Flight times range from 25-90 minutes and most depart from the Lihue Airport. In addition to helicopter tours, there are also fixed-wing sightseeing planes for island tours.
If you’re interested in seeing the Na Pali Coast by air, these are the two best flight tours on the island:
This 50-minute flight with Blue Hawaiian Helicopters is the #1 tour on the island. It’s truly a once-in-a-lifetime island experience.
View all of Kauai’s amazing beauty from the air on this 65-minute scenic flight with Wings over Kauai. Bonus: Every seat has a window.
Seeing Kauai from the air is the best way to appreciate all of the island’s interior beauty.
But for my money, to see the Na Pali coast, nothing beats getting out on the water on a catamaran. In fact, we love catamarans so much we’re hoping to sail off on our own someday!
Like helicopter flights, there are a number of companies offering catamaran trips. Most offer either a morning trip that includes snorkeling and lunch or a sunset trip that includes dinner.
We chose the morning trip with Kauai Sea Tours aboard the “Lucky Lady” and it was terrific (I also heard glowing reviews about Captain Andy’s – but they were fully booked on the day we wanted to go).
Our excursion is not billed as a whale-watching trip. However, any time you hit the water around the Hawaiian Islands during whale season (November to April) you’re likely to catch sight of “vacationing” Humpback whales.
Wowed by the Whales
And boy did we!
In fact, this non-whale-watching trip turned out to be the best whale-watching trip I’ve ever taken. (And that includes Alaska, Maui, New Zealand, Cabo & even Antarctica – all during prime whale season.)
Humpbacks are considered the most acrobatic of the whale population and during our cruise, dozens of whales showed us why!
Some propelled themselves from the water in a dramatic full breach, while others entertained with playful pectoral slaps and tail slaps. It was an amazing afternoon I’ll never forget.
When not watching whales, we made friends with spinner dolphin pods who swam playfully along with our boat as we cruised along the stunning coastline.
Let’s just say it was a pretty epic day and an experience not to be missed if you visit the island, especially during whale season.
Important Note: Keep in mind that the weather in the Hawaiian islands can be especially unpredictable during whale season. Boat trips and scenic flights are often canceled due to weather conditions so book them early in your stay so you have the chance to try again if your trip is canceled.
The Ultimate Guide to the Best Whale Watching Tours on Kauai
Here’s my deep dive on the best Kauai whale-watching tours. It’s everything you need to know (including catamaran vs. Zodiac raft)!
#2. Waimea Canyon
Next on the list of spectacular island sights, we head to west Kauai and the incredible Waimea Canyon.
Considered the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” you’ll definitely appreciate the reference when you stop for a peek at this magnificent geological wonder along Highway 550 on the island’s east side.
Stretching 10 miles long and over a mile wide, the 3,600ft deep canyon offers visitors numerous hiking trails and lookout points to take in its beauty.
Like the Grand Canyon, Waimea Canyon’s walls display changing hues depending on the sun’s direction during the day.
Tip: Sunrise is an especially stunning time to visit.
#3. Kauai’s Best Waterfalls
If you’re short on time and want to see one of Kauai’s most gorgeous waterfalls, here’s another tip. Follow Highway 56 a few minutes north of Lihue on Kauai’s east side and stop at the lookout point for Wailua Falls (two waters).
Shout out to my fellow children of the 80’s, this is the waterfall featured in the opening scenes of the TV show “Fantasy Island.”
Amazingly, the best views of this beauty are right off the highway. If you have more time, there’s also a boat trip up the Wailua River that leads to the lush Fern Grotto (a lava tube filled with ferns).
Also easily accessible from the highway, Opaeka’a Falls on the east side of the island is best viewed in the mid-morning when the sun is in the best position for photos.
For a more intensive waterfall outing, Secret Falls is located up the Wailua River and is the highlight of most river kayak tours. I did this kayaking trip to Secret Falls with my parents on my last visit to Kauai and it was excellent!
Tip: Bring good water/hiking shoes, it’s about a 20-minute hike to get to the pond at the base of the falls.
#4. Kīlauea Point Lighthouse
Located at the northernmost point of Kauai’s north shore, the Kilauea Lighthouse and National Wildlife Refuge is a fascinating stop on a driving tour of the island.
The vintage lighthouse (circa 1913) boasts panoramic views of the Northshore.
Humpback whales and dolphins can often be spotted from this lofty cliff-top perch, but the main attraction is the bird life.
This bird nesting sanctuary is home to large colonies of native Hawaiian seabirds like the Red-Footed Booby, Laysan Albatross, and the Great Frigate Bird. I’ve spotted Blue-Footed Boobies while in the Galapagos, but who knew there were Red-Footed Boobies, too?
Learning. This is why we travel, no?
The entry fee for adults is $10 and, like many places in Hawaii in the post-Covid era, advance reservations are now required. There is also a well-stocked gift shop on-site.
Tip: If you can’t score a reservation on the day you want to go, the overlook at the end of Kīlauea Road is always open to view the lighthouse, seabirds, and Kīlauea Point from a distance.
And if you pop over to Oahu after you visit Kauai, here’s another terrific lighthouse hike: This Family-Friendly Lighthouse Hike is Oahu’s Best Trail for Spotting Whales
#5. Sample Kauai’s Top Tasty Treats
Finally, my favorite subject…FOOD!
Kauai has a plethora of delightful options. Here are a few picks you shouldn’t miss:
Two words: Food Trucks!
Hawaii is well-known for these culinary upstarts.
Delectable food trucks serving everything from smoothies to fish tacos are a great way to enjoy some of Kauai’s freshest local cuisine on a budget (or even if you’re not!).
Al Pastor Taco Truck
My favorite food truck is the Al Pastor Taco Truck in Kapaa. You’ll easily spot this one on the right as you drive north toward Hanalei along the less-visited Coconut Coast.
Tip: It’s worth lingering along the east side of the island to explore more of the Coconut Coast area. Think affordable hotels, beachside restaurants, and an authentic local aloha vibe.
This husband and wife team serve up fresh fish tacos and Mexican fare daily from one of the most popular trucks on the island.
We stop for tacos on the way up the east coast to Hanalei and it’s my favorite meal of our trip. I had the shrimp tacos and Dave had the fish tacos. Both are exceptional!
For more local knowledge on the island’s best food trucks and where to find them, Kauai’s Best Food Trucks is your go-to guide!
Island Flavors at the Juice Stand
A local juice stand is another great place to enjoy the flavors of Kauai.
Try Little Fish Coffee, just across the street from the Marriott Waiohai resort. This colorful little coffee and smoothie hut is always packed (for good reason!) and we started our day there each morning.
Don’t miss the Angry Dragon smoothie or a delicious acai bowl for breakfast.
Go Local at the Farmer’s Market
Another fun option?
Support the local farming community by visiting one of the many farmer’s markets. Happening daily around the island, the markets are advertised in all the local tourist publications.
The Wednesday afternoon farmer’s market at Poipu’s Kauai Culinary Market offers a variety of the area’s fresh fruits and vegetables. Plus locally-made products and tasty food stands to sample. Open from 3:30pm – 6:00pm every Wednesday, this one is a must.
Uniquely Hawaiian – Shave Ice
One uniquely Hawaiian treat is shave ice.
Note: Don’t make the tourist mistake of calling it “shaved ice.” It’s shave ice, drop the D.
This ice-based dessert resembles a snow cone but is made with shaved (I’ll allow it) ice instead of crushed ice which produces a fine “snow-like” ice that allows it to fully absorb flavored syrups.
The flavor varieties are seemingly endless. Don’t miss the local treats like mango, lychee, guava, and passionfruit.
Here are a few of my favorite places on Kauai to try this tempting Hawaiian dessert:
The 5 Best Beaches in Kauai
Whales, canyons, waterfalls, and, yes, the island’s beaches are pretty terrific, too. (If you can find the time!)
Kauai has 113 miles of coastline and nearly half of that is taken up by golden, perfect beaches.
Here are some of the best beaches in Kauai:
1. Poipu State Beach Park
One of my favorites, and our “home beach” for this stay. It’s a perfect arc of silky sand with a shallow, protected bay for snorkeling and swimming.
There’s no doubt this is one of Kauai’s most beautiful beaches. But a lifeguard on duty also makes Poipu Beach one of the best beaches for families.
And the perfect sunset views in the winter months make it a great choice for couples.
2. Lydgate Park
Located on the east side of the island, this is a great stretch of beach for strolling or sunning. It has an excellent swimming area for kids, a playground, and even picnic tables. This one is a top spot for beach bums looking to unwind.
3. Hanalei Beach Park
Hugging lovely Hanalei Bay on the north shore, Hanalei Beach Park is a gorgeous beach to visit. Unfortunately, Hanalei Bay is only suitable for swimming in the summer months due to the high north shore surf in the winter.
4. Tunnels Beach
Just west of Hanalei Bay along the north shore, Tunnels Beach is home to some of the Garden Isle’s best snorkeling (during the summer months when the ocean is calm). Also called Makua Beach, this 2-mile stretch of golden sand is located at Haena Point.
Fringed with swaying coconut palms, the “tunnels” here are actually lava tubes that form underwater caverns in the reef. Note: Parking here is extremely limited so arrive early to get a spot.
5. Polihale State Park
The longest sand beach in Hawaii at 15 miles in length. Located on the west side of Kauai, just past the Pacific Missile Range Facility, access is via a 10-mile bumpy dirt road off the main highway.
As far as Kauai beaches go, if you’re looking for a wide, remote beach with mesmerizing sunsets, this is the place for you. If you’re looking for a swimmable beach with facilities, skip this one. Riptides and currents here can be extremely dangerous.
Wrapping Up A Perfect Stay on Kauai
Our stay on the Garden Isle was all too brief. This lush, mountainous island is one of those rare places in the world that always leaves you wanting more.
Luckily, since we now live on neighboring Oahu, we can pop over to Kauai as often as we like (even for just a day trip).
From incredible Kauai beaches and jagged cliffs to scenic waterfalls and energetic whales, the peaceful island of Kauai is a nature lover’s dream vacation.
If you’re not careful, this slow-paced island paradise will steal your heart.
And not just for the umbrella drinks.