Kauai is the oldest and northernmost island of the main Hawaiian islands. Nicknamed "The Garden Island", Kauai is full of natural beauty with mountains, waterfalls, and golden sand beaches. It's no surprise that filmmakers have featured the island in several films including Jurassic Park.
One of the island's icons is the Kauai rooster. The local lore is that many of the Kauai chickens were released into the wild when the hurricanes blew open coops. There are no natural predators so the chickens have multiplied. You can find them wandering all around the island.
Why You Should Visit
Kauai is one of the most beautiful islands you can visit in the world. With its valleys, mountain ranges, and beautiful beaches, the island looks like what you picture "Hawaii" to be. Whether you want to relax on a sandy beach or hike the ragged cliffs on the coast, there's something to do for everyone.
Keep reading to find things to do, food to eat, and places to check out when you visit!
Explore the town of Hanalei
On Kauai's northern shore is the small charming surf town of Hanalei. When the clouds part you can see a picturesque background of misty green mountains with cascading waterfalls. You won't find any big chains here, stop for a bite to eat at one of the local restaurants or food trucks and shop at one of the hip surf shops.
Ride a Wave at Hanalei Bay
With its crescent-shaped bay and towering green mountains, Hanalei Bay is a must-see when on the island. It's located on the north shore and consists of nearly 2 miles of beach. Hanalei Bay is one of the best places to swim on the island and a great spot to catch a beginner surfing lesson with its calm waves and soft sandy beach.
We booked a beginner surfing lesson with Hawaiian Surfing Adventures and I would recommend it if you've ever wanted to try surfing. It's a great introduction to surfing where you learn how to position yourself on the board and ride your first wave. Surf's up!
Don't miss out on this popular spot to watch the sunset. Relax and watch the golden sun sink into the horizon over Hanalei Bay.
Snorkel at Tunnels Beach
Tunnels Beach is the ideal spot for snorkeling and scuba diving. Fittingly named, lava tubes have created underwater tunnels and caverns to explore. The beach has golden sand lined with trees so you can find a shady place to relax out of the sun.
Note: There is limited parking here so I suggest coming early in the morning around 8-8:30 AM to get a parking space!
Be sure to check out Maniniholo Dry Cave located directly across the street from Haena Beach Park. The cave is easily accessible as it is right on the main road.
Check out Waimea Canyon
On Kauai's west side, you can find Waimea Canyon State Park and the adjacent Koke'e State Park. Waimea Canyon is often referred to as the "Grand Canyon of the Pacific". Along the Waimea Canyon Drive, you will see plenty of lookouts with stunning vistas.
The canyon is huge and beautiful with its bright red dirt and vibrant green vegetation. You can also spot waterfalls and mountain goats scattered across the landscape.
For that perfect Hawaii landscape photo, be sure to check out the Kalalau Valley Lookout where you can see chiseled cliffs and a distant beach with aquamarine waters. For a better view, you can make your way down the Kalepa Ridge Trail, but be warned I would only recommend this trail for those that don't have a fear of heights!
View the Island via Helicopter
The best way to see the island's landscape is in the air with a helicopter tour. We did a doors-off helicopter tour with Air Kauai where we got to see the top requested sites of Kauai: Waimea Canyon, Hanapepe Valley, the famous Na Pali Coast, and Mount Waialeale which is often referred to as the wettest spot on earth! My favorite part of the flight was when we did a 360° inside Mount Waialeale where we could view the numerous waterfalls cascading down the lush green mountain cliffs.
Not only was the experience thrilling, but it was also informative. Our pilot was extremely knowledgeable about Kauai and as we flew around, he gave us a narration of everything we were seeing and made recommendations on other things to do on the island.
There are two drivable waterfalls that are a quick and easy stop on the island.
One accessible waterfall is Opaek'a Falls, located 2 miles up route 580 from Wailua. The falls drop over 150 feet into a secluded pool below. There's convenient parking and a viewing area which also has picnic tables and restrooms.
Not far from the town of Lihue, Wailua Falls is a double waterfall that is visible from the road. Although to check out this stunning waterfall you may want to leave your car. You might even see a rainbow caused by the sun’s rays shining through the fall’s mist.
Go on a Hike
Kalalau Trail - Haena State Park
One of my highly anticipated activities for our visit to Kauai was the Kalalau Trail hike to Hanakapi’ai Beach on the famous Na Pali Coast, a magnificent coastline with carved-out cliffs. The hike starts at Ke'e Beach in Haena State Park and goes to the sandy Hanakapi’ai Beach (two-miles one way). For more experienced hikers, you can continue past the beach another two miles to Hanakapiai Falls, but that means you have 4 miles to hike back!
This trail is probably one of the most beautiful hikes you can experience. How often do you get to do a coastal hike in a lush jungle? The trail can be muddy and rocky so make sure you bring plenty of water, proper footwear, and wear sunscreen.
To do this hike, you must have advanced reservations to enter Haena State Park. You can go here to make a reservation for an entry pass to the park by shuttle or with a parking pass.
We did the shuttle and it was super easy and stress-free. During 6:30 AM - 2:-00 PM, shuttles run every 30 minutes, and between 2:00 PM – 6:00 PM Shuttles run every 20 minutes.
Note: For those that don't want to hike in your party, they can relax at Ke'e Beach. The beach has a lifeguard and restrooms and is a safe place for snorkeling and swimming. After your hike, you can cool off with a relaxing swim!
Enjoy a Hawaiian Luau
Smith Family Garden Luau
You can't go to Hawaii without visiting a luau. Expect a lively celebration full of food and dancing in a tropical paradise. We booked our luau at Smith Family Garden Luau, a family-owned and operated farm that made you feel welcome and had amazing food and entertainment. No wonder why they are top-rated on the island!
At Smith Family Farm, you will start your experience with a narrated tram tour around the farm where you will see all kinds of tropical flowers and fruits in their garden and lots of birds wandering around (even peacocks!). As you wait for the feast to start you are welcome to peruse the beautiful grounds some more or get drinks and listen to the music.
Traditional Hawaiian food is served buffet-style including Kalua Pork, Teriyaki Beef, Chicken Adobo, and Sweet and Sour Mahimahi with sides like mac salad, garden salad, and Hawaiian sweet potato. Next, you move over to the lagoon amphitheater with stadium seating where dances of Polynesia: Hawaii, Tahiti, New Zealand, and Samoa are performed.
Note: At Smith Family Farm, Luaus are held on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evenings.
Try the Local Cuisine
A typical Hawaiian pork plate lunch is made with kalua pork that's been cooked in an imu (an undergrown oven) with a scoop of macaroni salad and a scoop of white rice. The special cooking method and Hawaiian salt make the pork absolutely delicious!
Lomi Lomi Salmon
Similar to pico de gallo, this Hawaiian side dish is made up of salted salmon combined with tomatoes and onions. Pictured below is a "Kalua Bowl" from Hanalei Taro & Juice Co. that has rice, Kalua Pulled Pork, and is topped with Lomi Lomi Salmon.
Poke is diced raw, fresh fish with seasoning. Pictured here is a plate with sesame shoyu ahi poke, kalua pork, white rice, kimchi, kalo chips, and seaweed salad from Keoki's Paradise.
Tropical Smoothie Bowls
It's not too difficult to find a smoothie or bowl made with fresh fruit on the island. We got a tasty and refreshing smoothie bowl from Aloha Juice Bar Hanalei and it really hit the spot after our busy morning in the sun. There are plenty of yummy-sounding smoothies and bowls on the menu or you can make your own custom creation. I opted for a smoothie base of passionfruit, mango, coconut, and pineapple topped with macadamia nuts, coconut, and honey.
When in Hawaii, my philosophy is that you have to eat as much shave ice as you can since you can't get anything like it on the mainland. Pictured here is my shave ice from Wishing Well Shave Ice in Hanalei with passionfruit, hibiscus lime, and strawberry flavors topped with fresh papaya!
Where to Stay
I recommend staying in the Princeville area on Kauai's north shore, which is about a 10-minute drive to the town of Hanalei. Princeville is a community full of homes, condos, and resorts perched on a cliffside that overlooks the sparkling Pacific ocean. There's a golf course, restaurants, and a grocery store all in the neighborhood so you don't have to travel too far if you don't want to. We also enjoyed going to the Princeville Farmers Market held on Saturdays 9:30 AM -12:30 PM.
Located at the end of the road in a tranquil spot we stayed at the Sealodge, an AirBnB located in Princeville. Our condo had two bedrooms and two baths with ocean views and a private lanai. One of my favorite parts about our stay was sleeping next to the open window and hearing the rustle of the palm tree leaves and the waves rolling in.
For more information on what to pack, check out my blog post guide for the Island of Hawaii here.
Thanks for reading!
- The Maine Chick