I had the best time in Kauai and can't wait to go back!
by Rob Hammond
When considering a tropical vacation destination, Kauai is second to none. As one of the westernmost Hawaiian isles, Kauai receives the brunt of the Pacific trade winds and is home of the wettest place on Earth. Known for its lush scenery and tranquil beaches, the Garden Isle truly lives up to its name.
Arriving in Kauai
For the first-time visitor, getting off the plane in Lihue and driving to your accommodations can be an overwhelming experience. The towering mountains, beautiful rainforest, and clear, blue waters of the Pacific have been known to mesmerize even the most seasoned travelers. It’s hard to resist the urge to pull over every 5 minutes to snap a photo!
One of the hardest adjustments you’ll have to make is getting onto “Kauai Time”. In addition to the jetlag from your 5+ hour flight, Things. Slow. Down. Don’t worry, though. After a few mai tais on the beach you’ll feel right at home!
Kauai also has some quirky, charming things that you won’t find anywhere else. Friendly Nenes will join you every morning hoping for breakfast scraps, and the wild chickens roaming about won’t hesitate to let you know what time it is.
Pro tip: It’s always 6AM to Kauaian roosters. Pack earplugs.
The majestic Nene is the state bird of Hawaii.
Fun fact: they like bagels for breakfast, and take their coffee black
Excursions and Food
As the most laid-back of the Hawaiian islands, Kauai is not necessarily renown for fine dining. In Lihue, Duke’s or JJ’s both have great views of the Marriott beach, and offer moderately priced bar and grill fare. In Kapaa town, the Olympic Café is a great spot for people-watching along the main drag during happy hour. Princeville has some slightly more upscale options, but the fish tacos Federico’s beat a steak dinner any day!
Bubba’s Burgers is a Kauaian institution, and with locations in Hanalei, Kapaa, and Poipu, there’s bound to be one near where you are staying. Stop by and try the local special… you won’t be disappointed!
Bubba’s Burgers in Kapaa – “We cheat tourists, drunks & attorneys”
As for activities, the most amazing sights in Kauai are all free, but there are two exceptions. A helicopter tour can be pricey, but the breathtaking aerial views of the Na Pali coastline are worth every penny. Imagine experiencing the ride onto the island from Jurrasic Park… because that’s exactly where the footage was filmed!
If you’re dying to check out a luau, the Kilohana Plantation is where you want to go on Kauai. The food and dancing is authentic (not tacky), and you can take a train ride through the plantation to learn about the history of the island. Plus, there’s a petting zoo, which is a huge hit with the kids… and easily-entertained adults.
Central Kauai Hikes
After you’ve had a chance to get the lay of the land, you’ll undoubtedly be ready to explore some of the hiking trails throughout Kauai. Sleeping Giant and the rainforest trail are two hikes in the middle of the island that can each be done in a day trip.
As you are driving between Lihue and Kapaa on 56, it will be hard to miss the Sleeping Giant. The mountain resembles the profile of a man taking a nap, and has trailheads of varying difficulty that can be accessed from Kapaa. The western trailhead has the quickest ascent and the best scenery. For the more adventurous, don’t be discouraged by the “end of trail” signs. The last part of the trail involves scaling a few boulders and some intimidating cliffs, but the views are more than worth it.
A serene pine forest in the middle of the western trail
The Giant’s view of Kapaa town. Look out below!
The Rainforest Hike is a slightly more remote and rugged adventure, but it puts you right in the heart of the Waialeale basin. Averaging 450 inches of rain a year, Mount Waialeale is the wettest place on the planet. If you want to attempt this hike, you need to rent a 4x4 SUV to handle the treacherous potholes and water crossings to get to the trailhead. Located off Kuamo’o Road, as you approach you will pass through the gates from Jurassic Park.
The road to the trailhead has several water crossings that flood regularly
The peak of Waialeale is only visible a handful of days each year. Expect rain!
Poipu, Waimea, Southern Na Pali
With the way the trade winds blow, the southeastern region of Kauai tends to be the driest part of the island. Poipu beach is a great spot to relax, especially if you are looking to dodge rain elsewhere. The beach has a decent reef that’s great for snorkeling, and the cove on the eastern shore is ideal for children. If you’re lucky you may even spot a turtle or two hanging out in the surf!
Poipu is a great escape for a rainy day
Driving north on 550 into the heart of the island, you’ll have stunning views of Waimea Canyon. Also known as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, Waimea is about 10 miles long and half a mile deep. Be sure to stop at the Puu Hinahina viewpoint to get a panoramic shot of the canyon.
Waimea Canyon from the Puu Hinahina lookout
Continuing north on 550 into Koke’e State Park, you will eventually reach the end of the road. You’re in for a treat because this is the beginning of the Pihea Trail. If you have the time and energy for a 8-mile round trip hike, the trail leads to the top of a ridge that overlooks the Kalalau valley from the south. Otherwise, a quick 30-minute walk will give you wonderful views of the Na Pali coast.
Top: Na Pali coast from the Pihea trail. See the rainbow?
Bottom: Wooden planks along the Pihea trail. It gets swampy!
Hanalei, Tunnels, Kalalau Trail
Hanalei is the last major northern town along 56 on Kauai. Home of the best sunsets on the island, Hanalei Bay is the perfect place to try out paddle boarding, kayaking, or go for a run along the beach if you are feeling especially ambitious. Back in town, you’ll find plenty of places to pick up a souvenir or grab a bite to eat.
As you travel further north on 56, you will eventually reach Haena Beach Park. Better known as Tunnels, this beach is a great spot to go surfing or scuba diving. Parking can be hit-or-miss, so be on the lookout for locals who will let you pay to park on their lawns. The police will patrol and write tickets for violations! If you come across a stray monk seal on the beach, don’t worry - he’s probably just working on his tan.
The world-famous Kalalau Trail is a mainstay on Kauai. Hiking the full 11 miles takes 3 days round trip, and requires a special permit from the state. Most visitors just do the first 2 miles of the trail to Hanakapi’ai Beach. The hike is moderately difficult, with steep inclines and descents as you follow a ridge along the edge of the Na Pali coast. You won’t regret going on this hike – it’s one of a kind. Once you reach Hanakapi’ai beach, you can follow the stream inland for another 2 miles up to Hanakapi’ai falls. The upstream hike is more challenging. You’ll have to double back several times, bounding across slippery boulders in the stream at each crossing.
Kalalau trail approaching Hanakapi’ai beach
Hiking up Hanakapi’ai stream to the falls
So, after hearing all this you’ve already booked your trip, right? In the meantime, here are some things you can do to get ready and pass the time:
- Plan out all the excursions for your trip – before you’re on “Kauai Time”
- Watch Jurassic Park again (John Williams is the man!)
- Learn how to hula dance – coconuts and grass skirt required
- Get your mai tai recipe down to a science
- Brush up on the Hawaiian alphabet -13 letters is all you really need, anyways.
*Banner Image from Christopher