The Ultimate Travel Guide to Kauai Hawaii (2024)

Kilauea Lighthouse Kauai Hawaii

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Inside: Planning a trip to Kauai? I’ve got you covered. From where to stay to the best things to see, do, and eat…you’ll find it all here!

Welcome to the island of Kauai, Hawaii’s untamed paradise, where lush landscapes meet the endless Pacific. If you’re planning a trip to Kauai, lucky you!

Known as the Garden Isle, Kauai has something for everyone, whether you’re looking for adventure or serenity. With emerald valleys and breathtaking coastlines, there’s plenty to see and do on this incredible Hawaiian island. 

From the dramatic cliffs of the Na Pali Coast to the tranquil waters of Hanalei Bay, this ultimate guide will help you get to know the island. We’ll cover where to stay, where to eat, and all the best things to see and do on your visit to Kauai .

So let’s dive in and get to know the Garden Island!

​But first, you may be wondering…

Why visit Kauai?

I currently call Oahu home (and I love it, I really do) but Kauai is secretly my favorite of the Hawaiian islands. 

Why? Because Kauai is the Hawaiian island that doesn’t try too hard. This laid-back gem of the Pacific easily captivates visitors with lush rainforests, cascading waterfalls, and dramatic cliffs. The island’s natural beauty is impossible to ignore and it’s a great place to just relax and unwind. 

Steeped in rich cultural history, Kauai is home to ancient Hawaiian legends and the spirit of aloha is alive in its charming towns and historic sites. Trust me, after a week here, memories of Kauai will stick with you long after you return home.

Fun Facts About Kauai

There are plenty of things that make Kauai special but here are a few fun facts:

It’s the Oldest: Kauai is the oldest in the Hawaiian archipelago, emerging as an island nearly 5.1 million years ago. The island’s iconic, emerald mountain ranges and verdant valleys are a product of ages of volcanic activity and subsequent erosion that have crafted its dramatic landscapes.

The Grand Canyon of the Pacific: Kauai is home to several state parks including Waimea Canyon, often referred to as “The Grand Canyon of the Pacific.” 

Movie Star Island: Kauai has been a favorite location for Hollywood filmmakers for decades, featured in classics and blockbusters like “Jurassic Park,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “King Kong,” and “Avatar.” Its dramatic landscapes provide the perfect backdrop for cinematic masterpieces.

The Wettest Spot on Earth: The summit of Mount Waiʻaleʻale is one of the wettest places on the planet, receiving an average annual rainfall of about 452 inches. This immense amount of rain creates a lush, green landscape that feeds the island’s numerous rivers and waterfalls.

What Is Kauai Best Known For?

Kauai’s most iconic image (and most popular movie backdrop!) is the Na Pali Coast, a stunning stretch of jagged sea cliffs and lush valleys accessible only by foot, boat, or air.

Na Pali Coast Kauai Hawaii
Na Pali Coast – West Kauai

Beyond the island’s emerald peaks and valleys, the vast Waimea Canyon is a true geological marvel with deep red and green gorges carved by the rushing waters of the Waimea River.

Kauai’s lovely North Shore is famous for the crescent-shaped beauty of Hanalei Bay and the 5-star resorts of Princeville.  

What’s the Best Time of Year to Visit Kauai?

Hawaii is one of those heavenly places to visit that is truly a year-round destination. While each island varies a bit by season, Kauai is known for its remarkably stable weather patterns.

Warm temperatures grace the island year-round, with winter averages in the mid-70s °F and summer months seeing temperatures in the mid-80s °F. 

Spring and Fall – Typically, April to June and September to November offer the most favorable conditions. During these periods, you’re likely to experience warm, comfortable weather, fewer rain showers, and less crowded attractions. 

Summer – When school is out from June to August, Kauai welcomes lots of families and can be quite busy. On the plus side, you’ll find plenty of sunshine for beach days. 

Winter – From December to March, expect more rainfall and higher surf conditions, particularly on the North Shore. However, this is whale season! And that’s always a great time to visit, especially if you’re hoping to spot migrating humpback whales offshore. And honestly, the holiday season is a magical time to experience the Hawaiian Islands.

On my first visit to Hawaii when I was a kid, we flew from the East Coast to Hawaii on Christmas Day and I’ll always remember it as the longest Christmas Day I ever had (thanks to the time change). It was awesome!

When Is Whale Watching Season in Kauai?

Whale-watching season in Kauai is from December to April (the peak months are January and February). If whale watching is on your Bucket List, there’s no better place to be than Kauai during whale season. During these winter months, humpback whales migrate from cold Alaskan waters to the warm, safe waters of Hawaii to mate, calve, and nurse. 

Kauai Humpback Whale Breaching
A humpback whale breaches off the Kauai coast

The waters surrounding the Garden Isle are the perfect place to witness this annual migration. Yes, it’s possible to spot whales from shore but a guided boat tour increases your chances of marveling at their acrobatic displays —a true highlight of any visit to Kauai.

If you’re looking for the best Kauai whale-watching tours, here’s everything you need to know to choose the right boat tour for you: Ultimate Guide to the Best Kauai Whale Watching Tours

How Many Days Do I Need in Kauai?

I’d say you’ll want a minimum of five days to truly appreciate the best of Kauai. This gives you time to visit key highlights like the Nā Pali Coast, Waimea Canyon, and several stunning beaches. Allocate a day each for the North and South Shores, and a full day for the Na Pali Coast (whether you decide to see it by air or sea). 

If you can, extend your stay to a full week or more. Extra days mean you can explore lesser-known trails, savor local dishes, or just relax on the island’s pristine beaches at a leisurely pace. 

Can you visit other islands from Kauai?

Indeed, you can! Visiting neighboring islands from Kauai is possible and relatively straightforward. Frequent flights connect Lihue Airport to other main Hawaiian Islands such as Oahu, Maui, and the Big Island, typically ranging from 30 minutes to an hour.

Each island has its own distinct charm and attractions, and exploring them can add more fun to your Hawaiian holiday. A quick flight to Honolulu is a great way to see historical sights like Pearl Harbor or have lunch at the food trucks on the North Shore.

Read More: The 7 Absolute Best Things to Do on Oahu (if time is short!)

Or jet over to Maui to drive the famous Road to Hana (give yourself a full day for this one!). Hopping between islands is the perfect way to see more of Hawaii while you’re on this side of the Pacific.

Read More:

The Ultimate Travel Guide to Maui Hawaii (2024)

Yes, Go to Maui. But Here’s What NOT to Do on Your Visit

What to Pack for Kauai

In Hawaii, casual resort wear is the name of the game and that’s especially true on laid-back Kauai. There’s no need to pack anything fancy, even for nicer restaurants. Aloha shirts for men and lightweight dresses in fun colors for women are acceptable just about everywhere. 

Kauai’s weather can be a bit of a mix, with sunny days and occasional rain showers. This quick packing list for Kauai covers all the bases:

  • Lightweight, Breathable Clothing: Think cotton or moisture-wicking fabrics.
  • Rain Jacket: A lightweight one can be a lifesaver.
  • Swimwear: For those beach days and waterfall dips.
  • Cover-ups: For lounging by the pool or beach.
  • Comfortable Footwear: Water shoes for adventures, sandals for the beach, and sneakers for hiking. (Leave the high heels at home!)
  • Hat and Sunglasses: Protect yourself from the tropical sun.
  • Beach Bag: To carry your beach essentials.
  • Reef-Safe Sunscreen: The only kind available to purchase in Hawaii.
  • Insect Repellent: Ward off the bugs, especially in lush areas.
  • Eco-Friendly Tote Bags: For groceries or souvenirs (free bags are not a thing in eco-conscious Hawaii).

Kauai is all about embracing the island’s natural beauty and casual vibe. With this list, you’ll be well-prepared to enjoy everything Kauai has to offer, from its stunning beaches to its rugged hiking trails.

How to Get to Kauai (by air or sea)

Since Kauai is a small island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, there are only two ways to get here – by air or sea. Most visitors arrive by air at Kauai’s Lihue Airport from the mainland US or via a connecting flight from Honolulu. But there are also a few cruise ships that call on Kauai. Here’s a quick overview of both:

Kauai’s Lihue Airport 🛫

Kauai’s Lihue Airport (LIH) is located on the southeast coast of the Garden Isle in the main town of Lihue. You’ll find all the essential amenities in this open-air airport like car rental counters, visitor information, and hotel shuttles. There’s also a selection of shops for last-minute essentials and a couple of eateries for a quick bite after your flight. 

How to arrange a lei greeting 🌺

Contrary to popular belief, you won’t be welcomed to Kauai at the airport with a traditional lei greeting. Unless, of course, you arrange it in advance! I love this idea, especially if it’s your first time visiting Hawaii or if you’re coming for a special occasion. This Kauai Airport Lei Greeting is the perfect welcome to paradise! 

Direct Flights to Kauai

There was a time when getting to Kauai required a connection through Honolulu. But those days are long gone and today flying nonstop to Kauai is easy thanks to a variety of airlines with direct flights to Lihue Airport.

Hawaiian Airlines operates frequent flights from several mainland cities. As do Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, United Airlines, Southwest, and Delta. Cities with nonstop flights to Kauai include Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Phoenix, Denver, and Chicago.

Kauai’s Cruise Ship Port 🚢

Travelers arriving in Kauai via cruise ship dock at Lihue’s Nawiliwili Harbor. Approaching the island from the sea is a unique way to appreciate the island’s beauty as you cruise along lush coastlines. 

Cruise ships stay overnight in Kauai and during the time at the dock, passengers can enjoy a variety of excursions to nearby attractions or relax on the picturesque beaches close to the harbor. A cruise around the Hawaiian Islands is a great way to see all four of the main islands on a single trip. 

Do I Need a Rental Car on Kauai? 🚗

I vote yes. With a rental car, you’ll have the freedom to discover secluded beaches, hidden waterfalls, and scenic lookouts on your own schedule. Car rental agencies are available at Lihue Airport but you’ll definitely want to book well in advance to ensure availability and get the best rates.

When it comes to rental cars, Discount Hawaii Car Rental is my go-to site.

MY Pick
Driving on Molokai Hawaii

Discount Hawaii Car Rental

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.

If you choose not to rent a car and you want to arrange an airport transfer to your hotel, this Kauai Airport to Hotel Shared Airport Transfer is a great, affordable option.

Get to Know the 5 Regions of Kauai

Kauai is circular in shape with a lush, mountainous interior. The island has five distinct regions, each with a personality as varied as the island’s landscape. The five regions are:

  1. Lihue – Kauai’s gateway, welcomes all visitors with its airport, cruise port, and a plethora of amenities. 
  2. East Side – Also called the Coconut Coast this east coast includes Wailua, Kapa’a, and plenty of coconut palm groves. 
  3. North Shore – Home to Hanalei, Kilauea, and the popular resort area of Princeville. 
  4. South Shore – A visitor’s haven of resorts, boutiques, and some of the island’s most beloved beaches (this is my favorite part of the island to stay). 
  5. West Side – Kauai’s wild western side boasts the island’s top natural wonders, including the Na Pali Coast and the ‘Grand Canyon of the Pacific.’ 

Let’s dive a little deeper into the top highlights of each region:

Lihue

Home to Kauai’s cruise port and only airport, Lihue is the island’s governmental and commercial center. A blend of restaurants, shops, and cultural landmarks like the charming Kauai Museum provides a deeper understanding of the island’s heritage.

Lihue’s central location offers easy access to the island’s best attractions (like lovely Wailua Falls). And while I think there are more beautiful parts of the island to call home for your visit, you’ll probably spend at least a little time here – especially if you need to stock up on essentials. 

Wailua Falls Lihue Kauai Hawaii
Wailua Falls – near Lihue, Kauai

Lihue has everything you need including Walmart, Safeway, and the island’s only Costco. So, if you’re staying in one of the island’s many vacation rentals or condo-style resorts, Lihue is the ideal location for picking up groceries before heading to your resort.

Best Hotel in Lihue

Timbers Kauai Ocean Club & Residences – A great choice for large families or multiple families traveling together. These beautiful 2-4 bedroom condos are like renting a luxurious Hawaiian home. You’ll definitely need a rental car if you stay here, this one is not walking distance to anything (but they do have a free shuttle).

East Side Kauai (Coconut Coast)

Kauai’s Royal Coconut Coast is draped in scenic beauty and is the most populated district on the island. From Wailea to Kapa’a, this stretch along the east coast of the island has several great resorts and plenty of things to see and do.

Don’t miss Wailua Falls, the Sleeping Giant Trail, and lovely golden beaches like Lydgate Beach Park. Weekly farmers markets and a variety of excellent food trucks (like my favorite, the Al Pastor Taco truck) can also be found along this side of the island. The Lava Lava Beach Club is another great place to grab a bite to eat while exploring Kauai’s eastern shores.

Al Pastor Food Truck Kauai
Al Pastor Food Truck Kauai

Best Hotels on the Coconut Coast

Waipouli Beach Resort & Spa Kauai by Outrigger – The 2-acre beachside pool at this resort is AMAZING. Complete with waterfalls and water slides, it’s a big hit if you’re traveling with kids. All units are 2-bedroom condos with plenty of room for the whole family.

Kauai Shores Hotel – There aren’t many budget-friendly hotels on Kauai but this small property with a hip, modern vibe is one good option. These are standard-sized hotel rooms (not condo style) but they are sparkling clean and recently renovated.

North Shore Kauai (Hanalei, Princeville)

Kauai’s North Shore has a wide variety of great hotel options and can be a great home base. Lovely Hanalei Bay is cradled between majestic mountains and the deep blue sea. And Princeville is ground zero on Kauai for golfing, spas, and luxury resorts. 

The Kilauea Lighthouse and Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge are a must-visit on the North Shore. For an unforgettable experience, don’t miss the chance to snorkel at Tunnels Beach, one of the best snorkeling spots in all of Hawaii.

Kilauea Lighthouse and Wildlife Refuge Kauai Hawaii
Kilauea Lighthouse and Wildlife Refuge – North Shore, Kauai

Best Hotels on the North Shore of Kauai

1 Hotel Hanalei Bay – Nestled on the shores of Hanalei Bay, the former St. Regis Princeville has emerged from a total renovation and gets my vote as the Best Luxury Resort on Kauai’s North Shore. The exclusive resort is known for impeccable service, elegant furnishings, and superb natural surroundings. It’s an absolutely beautiful place to stay if it’s within your budget.

The Cliffs at Princeville – This condo-style property with one-bedroom fully-equipped units is perfect for families needing a little more space and a full kitchen. That’s why I think it’s the North Shore’s Best Family Resort. The resort grounds have gorgeous water views and the resort has all the necessary amenities including two pools, two hot tubs, tennis courts, and a playground.

South Shore Kauai (Poipu, Koloa)

Kauai’s South Shore welcomes visitors with sun-kissed beaches and plenty of resort options. This is my favorite area of Kauai to stay because it’s got absolutely everything you need for the perfect vacation – great resorts, beautiful beaches, and excellent dining and shopping. 

Hawaiian Monk Seals Poipu Beach Kauai
Hawaiian Monk Seals sunbathing on Poipu Beach

Poipu Beach Park has golden sands, fiery sunsets, and (frequently) monk seals basking in the abundant sunshine. Also, don’t miss a visit to the Spouting Horn Blowhole on Kauai’s southern shore.

Spouting Horn Blowhole Kauai Hawaii
Spouting Horn Blowhole – South Shore Kauai

From the Shops at Kukui’ula, where local art thrives, to the old-time charm of Koloa Town’s plantation-era buildings, there’s plenty to explore on Kauai’s south shore. When it comes to tasty (and affordable!) places to eat and drink, don’t miss Little Fish Coffee, Da Crack Mexican Grinds, and Puka Dog. 

Little Fish Coffee Poipu Kauai Hawaii
Little Fish Coffee – Poipu, Kauai

Best Hotels on the South Shore of Kauai

Marriott’s Waiohai Beach Club – Located right on Poipu Beach, this condo-style resort is where I usually stay on the island. The property boasts three pools, two hot tubs, and lush tropical grounds reminiscent of a botanical garden. And don’t miss the nightly champagne sabering!

Whaler’s Cove in Poipu – Another great condo-style resort made up entirely of 2-bedroom condos. Excellent location just a 5-minute walk from the shops and Farmer’s Market at Kukuiula Village.

Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort & Spa – This 5-star resort in Poipu offers stunning ocean views, lush gardens, and top-notch amenities.  

Koloa Landing Resort at Poipu – This luxury resort is home to another one of the island’s best pools. Room options range from well-equipped studios to 3-bedroom villas.

West Side Kauai (Waimea)

The West Side of Kauai is a stark contrast to the lush greenery found elsewhere on the island. This side of the island is defined by the grandeur of the Na Pali Coast and Waimea Canyon State Park. At Waimea Canyon, the rust-red crevices of the canyon walls can be enjoyed from a variety of lookout points. 

Waimea Canyon Kauai Hawaii
Waimea Canyon – Kauai, Hawaii

And the only way to see the Na Pali Coast from land is from the Kalalau Lookout (this hike is only for serious hikers!). For nature enthusiasts, the West Side offers a rugged backdrop perfect for hiking, photography, and enjoying the island’s raw beauty.

Best Hotel on the West Side of Kauai

There aren’t many hotels on this mostly uninhabited side of the island but luckily there’s one pretty great option:

Waimea Plantation Cottages These colorful oceanfront cottages are the perfect place to get away from it all on your Kauai vacation. And the full kitchens in each bungalow mean you can hit the grocery store on your way from the airport and embrace the small-town vibe of Waimea.   

Top Can’t-Miss Experiences in Kauai

Exploring Kauai is the best part of a visit to this Hawaiian paradise. There are hundreds of things to see and do around the entire island but here are the top Kauai experiences that I consider must-dos:

Boat Trip to Na Pali Coast

If you only do one excursion on Kauai, make it a trip to the Na Pali Coast (whether by air or sea). Set sail along towering sea cliffs and fascinating sea caves, and spot playful dolphins and whales (during whale season) in the cobalt-blue waters. My pick for the best boat trip to the Na Pali Coast is the awesome LUCKY LADY – Deluxe Na Pali Morning Snorkel Tour.

Kauai Whale Watching Lucky Lady Tour
The Lucky Lady off the Na Pali Coast

Take a Helicopter Tour

Take to the skies for a bird’s-eye view of Kauai’s dramatic landscapes – a unique way to witness hidden waterfalls and remote beaches. There are so many parts of Kauai that are inaccessible by road and a helicopter tour is a great way to see it all. The Kauai ECO Adventure Helicopter Tour is my favorite helicopter tour.

Waimea Canyon State Park

Known as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific” this stunning geological wonder stretches 14 miles long, 1 mile wide, and more than 3,600 feet deep, showcasing a kaleidoscope of earthy colors and providing spectacular views. This one is easy to see on your own with a stop at the Waimea Canyon Lookout.

Secret Falls (Uluwehi Falls)

The best way to see the falls is with a combination kayak and hiking tour. I did this excursion on my first trip to Kauai as a kid and it’s still one of the top experiences on the island. The Wailua River and Secret Falls Kayak and Hiking Tour is the best way to check this one off your Kauai Bucket List.

Wailua Falls

This one is for my fellow children of the 80’s. Wailua (two waters) Falls is the waterfall featured in the opening scenes of the TV show “Fantasy Island.” Located on Kauai’s east side just a few minutes north of Lihue, it’s an easy stop at the lookout point to view the falls.

Wailua Falls Waterfall Kauai Hawaii
Wailua Falls Waterfall – Kauai, Hawaii

BONUS: Hike the Kalalau Trail: Due to the difficulty, I’m not going to include this one on my must-do list. But experienced hikers will love the raw beauty of wild flora and sweeping ocean vistas on this legendary trail along the Na Pali Coast. If you’re a serious hiker, this 11-mile challenging hike is a must. However, if you’re just a casual hiker (like me), do a boat trip to the Na Pali Coast instead.

Read More: The Top 5 Best Things to Do on Kauai (#1 is a must!)

Best Beaches on Kauai

Whales, canyons, waterfalls, and, you guessed it, some pretty terrific beaches, too. 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 on Kauai:

  1. Poipu State Beach Park – A perfect arc of silky sand with a shallow, protected bay for snorkeling and swimming. A lifeguard on duty also makes this one of the best beaches for families. Bonus: Perfect sunset views in the winter months.
  2. Lydgate Park – A great stretch of beach for strolling or sunning on the Coconut Coast. This one is a top spot for beach bums looking to unwind.
  3. Hanalei Beach Park – Hugging lovely Hanalei Bay, this is a gorgeous beach to visit in the summer months (high north shore surf in the winter makes it unsuitable for swimming that time of year).
  4. Tunnels Beach – Home to Kauai’s best snorkeling during the summer months when the ocean is calm. Fringed with swaying coconut palms, the “tunnels” here are actually lava tubes that form underwater caverns in the reef. 

Best Luaus in Kauai

For an authentic Hawaiian experience, you can’t miss attending a luau during your stay in Kauai. Here are my two favorite luaus on Kauai:

The Luau Ka Hikina at the Sheraton Kauai Resort dazzles with its oceanfront setting and a spellbinding display of traditional Polynesian dances and fire performances. This is one of the few luaus that has returned to a full buffet post-Covid and it’s a feast of locally-sourced island staples like kalua pig, lomi lomi salmon, and poi. 

Another excellent choice is the Luau Kalamaku at Kilohana Plantation. Spend your evening under the stars with a champagne reception and lei greeting followed by a 4-course lavish feast of local flavors. After dinner, history unfolds as the show tells the story of the first Tahitian voyage to Hawaii through hula dancing, fire twirlers, and the beat of the drums. 

Best Hikes in Kauai

Kauai’s unique rugged terrain is a paradise for hikers. The island’s best trails cater to the casual walker and seasoned trekker alike. Here are my top hikes on Kauai: 

Kalalau Trail – Again, this one is challenging for sure. But if you’re up for it, it’s truly a Bucket List hike along the Na Pali Coast for stunning ocean vistas. 

Waimea Canyon Trails  – There are several great hikes in Kauai’s “Grand Canyon.” The easiest two are the Waimea Canyon Lookout and the Iliau Nature Trail. For those seeking more of a challenge, more difficult hikes like the Kukui Trail meander through the canyon’s colorful geology. 

Maha’ulepu Coastal Trail –  This easy hike is 4 miles (roundtrip) and showcases Kauai’s undeveloped south shore. The gentle sloping paths are perfect for observing native plants and wildlife. 

Kuilau Ridge Trail – This moderate 3.6-mile out-and-back trail gracefully ascends through a tropical rainforest, revealing panoramic views of lush valleys.  

Kauai Hawaii Guide Best Things to Do
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Wrapping up your visit to Kauai

And there you have it! The best of the magical island of Kauai in one handy place. There’s a good reason Kauai is one of the most popular Hawaiian islands to visit. The island’s unique beauty and laid-back vibe have been charming visitors for decades.

You just might be next.

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