Comprehensive Kauai, Hawaii Guide: Things to do in the Garden Isle

MUST SEES

  • Waimea Canyon

  • Na Pali Coast State Park

  • Wailua Falls

  • Tunnels Beach

 KAUAI BEACHES

  • Tunnels Beach

  • Hideaways Beach (Pali Ke Kua Beach)

  • Hanalei Bay

  • Secret Beach (Kaupea Beach)

  • Poipu Beach

 KAUAI WATERFALLS, RIVERS & PONDS

  • Wailua River

  • Menehune Fishpond

  • Queen’s Bath

  • Opekaa Falls

 KAUAI LOOKOUTS AND BUILDINGS

  • Kilauea Lighthouse

  • Waioli Mission House and Church

  • Hanalei Valley Lookout

  • Hanapepe Valley Lookout

 KAUAI GARDENS AND GREENERY

  • Allerton Gardens

  • Princeville Botanical Gardens

  • Kauai Plantation Railway

 OTHER KAUAI HIKING

  • Kuilau Ridge Trail

  • Mahaulepu Heritage Trail

  • Sleeping Giant Trail

Hawaii is a travel destination that never fails to astonish visitors. With its gorgeous beaches, jaw-dropping mountains and friendly locals, we can see why! Of all the Hawaiian Islands - four islands stand out from the other smaller islands of Lanai and Molokai. These are the islands of Oahu, Maui, Kauai and the island of Hawaii (the ‘Big Island’).

This sightseeing guide will take you through the best sights of Kauai, the Garden Isle. The island's lush greenery, hike paths, and beaches make Kauai a nature-lover's paradise. If you love to be adventurous during your vacation, you will fall in love with this tiny, charming island.

So, pack your sunscreen, towel, hiking shoes, active wear and get set for the adventure of a lifetime! We’re here to show you the best of Kauai.

PS: Bring an umbrella - Kauai’s weather is unpredictable and subject to a lot of rain. Mount Waialeale, the highest point in Kauai, is one of the wettest spots on Earth. With an average annual rainfall of 460 inches (1,200 cm), the rest of the island can get pretty wet too!

WHERE TO STAY IN KAUAI

Finding accommodation can be a bit tricky because rooms sell out fast. Hotels in Kauai are often sold out, with holidaymakers reserving accommodation very early. This means you should aim to book accommodation as soon as possible. You can also check out Airbnb if most hotels are booked out.

We had an enjoyable stay at the comfortable Kauai Shores Hotel in Kapa’a. The staff were friendly, breakfast was great, parking was super easy. Also with the added bonus of an affordable price tag, we were happy to report that there were no complaints from us. For the North Shore leg of our trip, we stayed at a small Airbnb apartment in Princeville.

One thing to remember is that some accommodation will not have air conditioning. If this is something that has the potential to make you uncomfortable, please check if your property has A/C beforehand - we’re not going to lie, we wanted to escape our Airbnb apartment first thing in the morning to avoid the heat, because we were sweating buckets!

Best places to stay in Kauai:

The ISO

Kauai Palms Hotel

For more of a luxurious stay, the following properties are recommended:

Kauai Beach Resort

St Regis Princeville

Grand Hyatt Kauai

The Westin Princeville

WHAT TO BRING TO KAUI

Because Kauai’s weather can be notoriously on and off (the sudden onset of rain may be just around the corner), it’s important to pack accordingly. When packing to go to Kauai, don’t forget these items:

  • Rain Jacket

  • Good hiking shoes and water shoes

  • Umbrella

  • Sunscreen

  • Sunglasses

  • Swimming gear

  • Potentially a water bag

  • Go Pro/underwater camera

  • Insect repellent

HOW TO FLY INTO KAUAI

Flying into Kauai is a relatively simple exercise. There are only a handful of direct flights from major cities in the USA. These cities include Denver, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle to name a few. Vancouver (Canada) also has a flight route to Kauai’s airport, Lihue Airport.

Otherwise, you’ll most likely have to connect through Honolulu Airport. For more information about flying into Kauai you can also click here.

Booking is easy using Skyscanner - it allows you to check the cheapest rates at any time, from anywhere.

GETTING AROUND KAUAI

The only feasible way is to hire a car and drive. Kauai’s public transport is close to being non-existent. There are public buses, but they serve local areas as opposed to tourist spots. Uber and Lyft in Kauai currently do not operate. It’s possible to catch a taxi from Lihue Airport, but you don’t want to be catching taxis your whole trip do you? (No, no you don’t).

Taxi rides can be expensive, so it's best to pick up your rental car from Lihue Airport. You can also pick up your car from a few outlets in other parts of Kauai. We tend to rent from Europcar and thankfully haven’t encountered any problems with them so far.

If you’re hellbent on not driving a car in Kauai, you can still tick off the vast majority of the attractions! The good news is that you’ll have a vast selection of guided tours that can help you out. Naturally, this will be more expensive than self-driving but hey - it’s another option. Many tours and experiences are available through Viator at varying prices.

Some awesome experiences you might want to check out are:

KAUAI ESSENTIAL MUST SEES

Waimea Canyon

Every single travel guide about Kauai would have mentioned Waimea Canyon. It is often referred to as the ‘Grand Canyon of the Pacific’. This is a big claim, but Waimea Canyon does not disappoint. Waimea Canyon is a huge canyon, about ten miles long and up to 3,600 feet deep. The canyon was formed by erosion from the nearby Waimea River. Over time, hues of red, brown and green emerged. The Canyon also features numerous waterfalls! So on a rainy day, it’s likely that you’ll see grand arching rainbows.

Waimea Canyon

Waimea Canyon is extremely popular with visitors. For this reason, parking can be a tough situation – so get in early!

You can explore Waimea in a few ways.

Lookouts

The classic lookout which most visitors take pictures from is the Waimea Lookout. The lookout offers viewers a wide elevated overall view of the Canyon. Other popular lookouts are: Pu’u O Kila Lookout, Pu’u Ka Pele and Pu’u Hinahina Lookout. These offer slightly different but still stunning viewpoints of the Canyon.

Visiting lookouts involve little to no amount of strenuous walking or hiking. For those seeking a more relaxed experience, this is an easy and accessible option.

Helicopter

If you have room for a splurge item during your holiday, splashing on a helicopter ride is a great way to get acquainted with Waimea Canyon. While helicopter rides may seem excessive for most travel destinations, in Kauai it is a really useful and fun way to experience the island. This is because only 10% of the island is actually accessible by car. The majority of the island’s beauty can only be seen from above.

Many companies offer helicopter tours flying over both the Waimea Canyon area and the Na Pali Coast State Park Area. For an amazing helicopter tour over Waimea Canyon check out Island Helicopter’s Jurassic Falls Adventure tour. This tour takes you through some of the locations used during the filming of the original Jurassic Park movies. You will also be able to see a few hidden waterfalls that would otherwise be inaccessible. Safari Helicopters also offers a waterfall tour. They have been known to score great reviews with Kauai visitors.

Depending on your tour, helicopter packages can be priced as low as $150USD to about $300USD.

Hike

Hiking Waimea Canyon offers a more active and adventurous alternative. Some trails even lead to viewpoints that the lookouts would otherwise not provide. Visitors are spoilt for choice, with numerous hiking trails available to embark on. The Canyon Trail is perhaps the most popular, as it takes hikers through to the beautiful Waipo’o Falls over a 2.5-hour hike before ending at the majestic Kumuwela Lookout. This, in my opinion, is the best lookout in the area.

The Cliff Trail is another popular option for day-trippers looking for a light hike. The trail takes about 1 hour and is an easy, pleasant walk with rewarding views.

Na Pali Coast State Park

No trip to Kauai would be complete without visiting Kauai’s famous Na Pali coastline. The Na Pali coastline is considered to be Kauai’s crown jewel. It also commonly featured in travel magazines, calendars, desktop wallpapers, and travel bucket lists.

But how does one experience this truly astounding attraction?

Kalalau Lookout

Lookout

The Kalalau Lookout is the easiest viewpoint to reach if you’re short on time and don’t feel like going for a walk or hike. Just input ‘Kalalau Lookout’ in your GPS and you’ll find the carpark to the lookout. On a clear day, you’ll get to see the dramatic ridges of the Na Pali Coast in full form.

Hike

The most visited trail here is the well-known Kalalau Trail. This 11-mile trail has been described as one of the most beautiful but dangerous hikes in the world. So please, take precautions if you choose to embark on this hike. I would recommend against beginners completing the trail due to the difficulty.

To complete the 11-mile hike, you would first need to get a permit from the local authority. Many visitors choose do to the Kalalau Trail as a day hike to avoid getting a permit. They usually do this by starting from Ke'e Beach and hiking to Kanakapiai Stream, before finishing at Kanakapiai Beach.

Beware – if it has rained the day before or the morning of, the trail can be slippery. Exercise your discretion whether you should hike the trail or not (this goes for all trails in Kauai). If you choose to continue, go slow and be very careful. Wear proper hiking shoes. Do not wear sandals or casual shoes. Use trees to hold on to and consider the use of a hiking stick. We used one and its usefulness cannot be overstated!

DISCLAIMER: When we visited, Kalalau Trail was closed off due to recent flooding. This flooding severely damaged the surrounding area and affected the trail. As of October 2018, the trail is still closed so please check beforehand if you’re planning to visit.

JULY 2019 EDIT: The Kalalau Trail has officially reopened, but you must order a reservation spot online before hiking. For more information, click here.

The Awaawapuhi Trail is a 6.2 mile hike that we completed and absolutely loved. The trail is moderately challenging, but doable for anyone with a reasonable level of fitness. It takes about 2.5 - 3 hours to do the trail and come back. Awaawapuhi Trail starts off almost completely downhill until you reach the viewpoint. This may lead you to believe that this is an easy hike, which is not the case. To return, hikers will have to ascent uphill for almost 3.1 miles.

The hard work will be completely worth it once you reach the end of the trail. We won’t spoil the viewpoint for you but it did feel like we were in our own natural amphitheater up there. Be careful to not go beyond the big final platform once you reach the end. There is a section which some hikers choose to continue on to, but the ground becomes very narrow. We chose not continue beyond the final platform as it simply wouldn’t have been worth it to risk our lives. We felt that reaching the final platform was more than rewarding enough.

Other popular trails include Honopu Ridge Trail, Nualolo Trail and Kalepa Ridge Trail.

Helicopter

A lot of visitors believe that, hands down, the best way to view the famous Na Pali Coast Line is by air. As mentioned before, a helicopter ride gives viewers unprecedented access to views that cannot be seen from the ground.

Again, this is a splurge item but if your budget allows it, we would highly recommend taking a helicopter ride. Blue Hawaiian Helicopters is a well-reviewed company. They have been around for 25 years offering helicopter rides above the Na Pali coastline.

Boat ride

Another great way to see the Na Pali coastline is by boat. This is a great alternative for those not quite ready to splurge on an expensive helicopter ride, or to go on a hike.

A boat tour usually consists of a cruise along the Na Pali coast line, snorkeling time and lunch. Kauai is well-known for its snorkeling - so the snorkeling portion of the trip is a welcomed added bonus. Whale watching is also sometimes on the itinerary.

Make sure to do your research before booking a boat trip. Sometimes, prices vary according to what time of the day you choose to depart. The boat rides can get pretty rocky depending on the tide. So again, this all depends on your departure time on the day.

Tours usually range from $80USD to about $190USD. Many companies, including Capt. Andy and Catamaran Kahanu offer these tours.

Wailua Falls

Wailua Falls is a gorgeous double-tiered waterfall that sits 85 feet high above the ground. One of the most majestic and prettiest Kauai falls, it's not hard to see why it is a popular sight to visit. Many visitors recognise it from the opening scene of the long-running TV show Fantasy Island. Since then, it’s become an emblem for Kauai's lush beauty. Unlike the majority of Kauai’s waterfalls, Wailua Falls is easy to reach. No hiking is needed, and as long as you manage to grab a parking spot, you’ve essentially reached the viewpoint!

Majestic Wailua Falls

During periods of heavy rain, the falls sometime converge into a gushing single tier. At times, a third tier of falls can also emerge. On a certain angle, you’ll be able to see a rainbow from the falls as well.

READ MORE: NACHI FALLS - THE FAMOUS COUNTRY-SIDE WATERFALL OF NACHIKATSUURA JAPAN

It is possible to hike to the bottom of the falls, however we don’t encourage it as the trail is not officially marked. Unofficial trails can get very slippery after rainfall and become dangerous. Nonetheless, many visitors make the hike down and enjoy taking a dip. Either way, Wailua Falls is an absolute must-do when visiting Kauai.

BEACHES

Kauai has no shortage of stunning beaches. Unlike Oahu’s white-sand beaches, most of the sand in Kauai is a golden-brown colour. As Kauai is a volcanic island with frequent rain fall, the sand colour is darker than what you would find in a typical tropical island beach. Still, the sand is soft and comfortable to walk on. Some of Kauai’s best beaches sit comfortably on the North Shore, although Kauai’s coastline offers many other worthy beaches too.

Tunnels Beach

Tunnels beach is widely regarded as the best beach in Kauai. This quaint crescent-shaped beach is one of many pristine beaches in the North Shore. It is also known for its excellent snorkelling. Parking here is notoriously limited so arrive early in the day.

Hideaways Beach (Pali Ke Kua Beach)

A short trek down from the car park will reward visitors with Hideaways Beach, another North Shore gem. In clear weather, the water here is a picturesque, bright blue colour. Be careful when climbing down as, again, the trail might be slippery. Parking here is extremely limited as well (as with pretty much all parking in Kauai). So plan your day and set expectations accordingly.

Hanalei Bay

Hanalei Bay (also known as Hanalei Beach) sits off the charming small town of Hanalei on the North Shore. This is a wide beach, suitable for surfing, body boarding, fishing, as well as watching the sunset. Hanalei Pier, which can be found on the beach, is a popular photo opportunity spot for visitors. Parking here is a little easier than the previously mentioned North Shore beaches.

Secret Beach (Kaupea Beach)

Despite its name, Secret Beach is quickly becoming a well-known global beach destination. A 10-15 minute hike is needed to reach this beautiful beach along the North Shore. Because of this, Secret Beach is kept relatively secluded and peaceful. This long, sandy and scenic beach is surrounded by red and black sea cliffs and lush vegetation. It also stretches about 3000 ft and offers great views of Kilauea Lighthouse and Moku'ae'ae Island Bird Sanctuary.

Depending on the weather, the water here can be calm or choppy. We encourage visitors to take precautions not to swim too far when the tide looks dangerous. As always, be careful when trekking down the path as it can be slippery.

Poipu Beach

Poipu Beach has been included in many “Best Beaches in the World” lists. Located on the South Shore, Poipu is actually two beaches in one. This beach is popular for its endangered Hawaiian monk seals, and is a hit with families and young children. The waters here are calm and safe, making it a popular beach for visitors of all ages. You’ll also be pleased to know that it’s relatively easy to find parking at this beach.

READ MORE: WHITE SAND BEACHES IN ESPERANCE AUSTRALIA - 4 DAY ITINERARY

Aloha! The palm trees reminding you that you made it to Hawaii

WATERFALLS, RIVERS & PONDS

Wailua River

The calm Wailua River runs through waterfalls and the lush greenery of the Kauai jungle on Kauai’s east side. The river runs for 20 miles and can be explored in many ways. Adventurous travellers have the option to kayak or stand-up-paddle through the river. Others can go on boat tours that sail through this iconic landmark.

Wailua River flows in you

The Wailua River Lookout is a great way to see the river in all its glory for those who would rather travel by car.

Menehune Fishpond

The Menehune Fishpond, also known as Alekoko Fishpond, is an important Hawaiian landmark. So much such so, that the Menehune Fishpond has been listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. Easily accessible by car, this picturesque fishpond lies south of the town of Lihue.

Sunset at Menehune Fishpond

Queen’s Bath

Located in the North Shore town of Princeville, Queen’s Bath is a natural rock formation that created a beautiful infinity pool. After a 15-20 minute hike down a slippery path, you’ll reach the pool. The hike was tougher than expected for us, so make sure to wear proper hiking shoes.

Queen’s Bath is a fascinating and beautiful natural attraction. However, visiting Queen’s Bath must be done with caution. From October through May, the coast at Queen’s Bath is exposed to unpredictable tides, and many have died due to these big waves. Do not visit if you have any mobility issues or if you are not a confident swimmer. The tide can change unexpectedly, so always be aware of any changing conditions. We chose not to swim here as taking in the scenery was enough for us.

Opekaa Falls

The grand Opekaa Falls stands 151-foot tall and 40-foot wide, and is popular with visitors due to its easy access. The falls are located in Wailua, two miles up Route 580. You can’t miss the lookout point as there will be clearly marked signs pointing you in the right direction. Opekaa Falls is easily visited on the same day as Wailua River as both are close to each other.

Opekaa Falls

LOOKOUTS AND ARCHITECTURE

Kilauea Lighthouse

The Kilauea Lighthouse is located within the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge. A fee of $5 is required to enter, and it offers visitors the opportunity to observe various local wildlife. To name a few, you may be able to spot the Wedge-tailed shearwater, Hawaiian monk seal, Green sea turtle and Humpback whale.

Even if you aren’t a fan of bird watching or observing wildlife, we would still recommend a visit as it’s an excellent scenic viewpoint nonetheless.

Kilauea Lighthouse

Waioli Mission House and Church

The quiet town of Hanalei is no doubt worth a visit. While you’re there, stopping over at the Waioli Mission House and Church is a must-do. The Waioli Mission House, built in 1837, was home to early Christian missionaries Abner and Lucy Wilcox. It's recognised as an icon of Hanalei town, and found on the National Register of Historic Places. It is an excellent example of the southern roots of its architect, Reverend William Alexander of Kentucky.

Nearby lies the old Waioli Church, founded in 1834. This striking green church is another landmark symbol of Hanalei. Its stained glass windows have since become a popular Instagram spot among visitors.

Waioli Church

Hanalei Valley Lookout

No visit to the North Shore is complete without visiting this enchanting Lookout. Easily accessible - all you have to do is pull over on the side of the road to visit this attraction.

If you look closely, you’ll be able to see waterfalls, taro fields, lush greenery and other hidden gems at this lookout. The Namolokama Mountain stands proudly and serves as a magical backdrop to this charming place.

Hanalei Valley lookout

Hanapepe Valley Lookout

Located about half a mile from the small town of Hanapepe, this Lookout offers visitors a beautiful view of Hanapepe Valley. With its contrasting green and red tones, Hanapepe Valley is not an attraction to miss. If you’re already on the west side of Kauai, or visiting the old town of Koloa (another worthwhile destination), do visit Hanapepe Valley.

This was another location Steven Spielberg used when filming the Jurassic Park series.

Hanapepe Valley Lookout

GARDENS AND GREENERY

Allerton Gardens

If you’re a fan of gardens, Kauai has got you covered with several lush garden landscapes. Allerton Garden is one of Kauai’s best gardens. The garden covers an 80-acre (320,000 square metre) area and is situated beside the Lāwaʻi Bay. The Garden is fit for royalty, as Queen Emma of Hawaii once resided over the garden in the 1800s.

Princeville Botanical Gardens

This is another garden worth visiting, as it often garners rave reviews from travelers. If you’re planning to visit, make sure to book a tour, as entering on your own isn’t allowed.

According to the Garden’s Official Website, the Garden can be described as:

“hidden away in the jungle valleys of Princeville on Kauai’s North Shore, dramatic topography, natural landscaping, and tender cultivation have culminated into a sacred garden paradise”.

Kauai Plantation Railway

The Kauai Plantation Railway is a fun way to fill a relaxing day. Once you board the Kauai Plantation Railway, the train ride takes you through green fields, cattle and various animals. It’s an enjoyable, informative and educational way to learn more about Kauai’s old plantation days.

We had a good time simply just relaxing while on the train and taking in the sights slowly.

You can visit the Kauai Plantation Railway’s website here.

Kauai Plantation Railway

OTHER HIKING

I’m going to be brief about some of these other hikes. You’ll need to read a more detailed outline of the hikes to know directions and where they’re located. I’ve included these hikes in this guide to simply let you know that these hikes are worth doing.

Kuilau Ridge Trail

This is an easy 2-mile return hike and will take you about 2 hours to complete. The trail is more of a nature walk, and you’ll feel immersed in the lush jungle vibes Kauai has to offer. Epic views of the valley await once you reach the end, with layers upon layers of mountainous greenery. Highly recommended if you’re short on time and looking for an easy hike!

Mahaulepu Heritage Trail

Again, this trail is more of a scenic coastal walk rather than a strenuous hike, but is picturesque and enjoyable all the same. With Shipwreck Beach as your starting point, you’ll walk along sand-dune cliffs, Kiawe trees, and limestone formations. All while the beautiful sea is right beside you! The entire hike is about 2 miles each way and will take about 3 hours to complete at a leisurely pace.

READ MORE: BEST HIKES OF 2019

Mahaulepu Heritage Trail

Mahaulepu Heritage Trail

Shipwreck Beach

Sleeping Giant Trail

The Sleeping Giant Trail is an easy trail with an awesome payoff, leading to a breathtaking view at the very end. The trail is named ‘Sleeping Giant’ because the mountain that’s being trekked on, the Nounou Mountain, is in the shape of a giant lying down. The hike is 2 miles each way, so allow for about 2-3 hours. Many say that the best time to go is during golden hour as the valley will look completely magical during this time. Note that the trail is accessible from a few different starting points.

We hope you took something out of our comprehensive Kaua’i Guide! There’s a lot to see and do on such a tiny island, so it’s good to plan out your days beforehand. Either way, you’ll have an absolutely amazing time visiting.

We already can’t wait to return someday very soon. Safe travels!