Kauai is the northwestern most of Hawaii's major islands. Nicknamed the Garden Island, it is covered with lush greenery and tropical plants, watered regularly by abundant rainfall. As the oldest of the islands, it has been changed the most by the forces of erosion, and this has resulted in natural wonders such as Waimea Canyon and the Na Pali Coast. As a consequence of its age, Kauai also has more miles of sandy coastline than the other Hawaiian islands.
The major regions of Kaua`i can be defined by their location on the island relative to the prevailing trade winds. The north and east sides of the island are on the "windward" side of the island, where the winds blow onto the shore. These parts of the island tend to get the most rain, and as a result, are the greenest and most tropical parts of the island. The south and west sides of the island are on the "leeward" side of the island, which receive less rain since most clouds have already dropped their rain on the windward side of the island.
The word "city" might be an exaggeration for an island of 63,000 people, but here's some information on the towns of Kaua`i.
Kapa`a, on the east side, about a 20 minute drive north of Lihu`e, is the largest population center on the island. It anchors what is known as the Coconut Coast, which hosts many inexpensive to moderately priced resorts and much commercial activity with many strip malls along the highway. The corridor between Lihu`e and Kapa`a is the island's most congested.
Lihu`e, on the island's southeast side, is the civic and commercial center of the island, host to the island's main airport, county offices, and largest shopping mall (Kukui Grove Center). The Kaua`i Museum , located in the old part of Lihu`e and is the island's best museum on the history, geography, and people of Kaua`i.
Po`ipu, on the south side, branded "the sunny side of paradise", is the major visitor destination for the island. Poipu features beautiful beaches, swimming, snorkeling and surfing, sea turtles, whales, monk seals, trade winds, palm trees, and spectacular sunsets. The Allerton and McBryde National Tropical Botanical Gardens of the Pacific are located in Poipu. The Grand Hyatt Kauai, Marriott's Waiohai Beach Club and Coastline Cottages Kauai lead the area's accommodation choices.
Princeville is a planned resort community on the north shore, consisting of homes, condo developments, the St. Regis hotel, and 2 golf courses. Kauai's impressive north shore mountains form the backdrop. Several small beaches are located within Princeville, with many more a short drive away.
Waimea, on the west side, is a small town with a flavor of old Kaua`i. Most visitors pass through town on the way to Waimea Canyon and Koke`e, but the town itself is worth a relaxing visit.
Hanalei, on the north shore, is home to a quaint little beach town and famous Hanalei Bay, a crescent shaped bay known for its sandy white beaches and world class surf. The center of town provides a young, relaxed vibe perfect for the young traveler. The burger joint in the center of town provides amazing views of one of Kauai's biggest mountains with a visible waterfall in the center.
Haena, lies just beyond Hanalei. It is mostly made up of residential homes, but is also is the gateway to Na Pali Coast and the location of Limahuli Valley, another National Tropical Botanical Garden of the Pacific.
Hanapepe on the south shore has a quaint downtown filled with artists' galleries and craft shops. There is also a swinging footbridge over the Hanapepe River. Be sure to check out the Banana Patch Studio for wonderful hand painted tiles and other locally made items.
Kilauea is a small village that most people pass on the way to the Kilauea Lighthouse. The Kong Lung Center offers a few unique stores and restaurants. There is also a large fruit stand, Banana Joe's, located north of Kilauea on the mountain side of the highway.
Lumahai Beach is a very-well photographed beach but is only accessible by a short hike through a tropical path. Located between Hanalei and Haena beaches, this secluded beach is perfect for people who want a more private experience. There are lava formations and caves to explore and low wake perfect for snorkeling. For the more adventurous traveler, there is the opportunity to cliff jump into the ocean from one of the protruding lava rock formations. Lumahai beach is a place many locals go so it gives tourists to see the special opportunity of the "real" Hawaii.
In many ways, Kauai is different from the rest of the islands. It's almost as if you've stepped into a separate kingdom, and for many years Kauai was just that in relation to Hawaii. Kamehameha I was able to conquer all the islands by force, except Kauai. Two separate campaigns to take the island ended in failure. In the end, it took diplomacy, a royal kidnapping, and an arranged marriage to bring Kauai into the kingdom of Hawaii.
Kauai is also known as the place where the sugar cane industry in Hawaii was born. Sugar was once the industrial mainstay of the Kauai economy but in recent years has taken a back seat to tourism. In October of 2009, Gay & Robinson harvested the last sugar crop in Kauai, ending 117 years of the sugar business in Kauai.
In short, compared to Oahu, Maui or the Big Island, Kauai is smaller, less populated, more rural, and more laid back. That's why it's the favorite destination for many visitors to Hawaii, and for many Hawaii residents as well. Visitors come to explore the island's beaches and natural wonders, but the multitude of resorts on white sand beaches provide ample opportunity to just sit and do nothing if you're so inclined.
Because tourist development reached Kauai considerably later than the other islands, the island has a larger proportion of timeshares, condominiums, and bed and breakfasts. Also, a strict cap on building heights (hotels can be no more than 40 feet high) prevent the development of the mega-resorts and towering skyscrapers found on the other islands. The local rule is that nothing can be built taller than a coconut tree.
One look at a map will show you an important difference between Kauai and the more populous islands of Hawaii: Due to the massive Waimea Canyon and Na Pali Coast, no roads circle the island. Once you've made the drive along the south shore to Waimea and seen the canyon, the only options are to go West on dirt roads to Polihale Beach or turn around and go back the way you came. Same story for Princeville and Na Pali on the north shore. However, the island is compact enough that both ends of the road can be seen in the same day. But the Garden Island cannot be enjoyed or appreciated if you are pressed for time.
Kauai offers a very unique experience also—from the western coast of the island on one of its piers, in the far distance travelers can see the island of Niihau, which is the forbidden island—forbidden, that is, to all but relatives of the island's owners, U.S. Navy personnel, government officials and invited guests. It is often forgotten about because of its privacy so seeing its outline in the far distance is an amazing and majestic experience!
Also know that Kauai is a place where many famous people go to get away. Since it is much less drastic of a plane ride from L.A. in California than it is from the East Coast, this island which is the most secluded, private and relaxing provides getaway homes to many stars, although the normal traveler won't see these celebrities out on the beach, probably because their beach-front properties provide their own private beaches. To get a glimpse of one of these stars, check a nook in the wall bistro. Celebrities like Beau Bridges can be found relaxing with his wife in the island's countryside restaurants.
Also visitors should beware of the fact that along many of Kauai's streets and especially their main highway that there are wild roosters and chickens everywhere! It is almost like the equivalent of seeing squirrels in more eastern parts of the United States, that is how common it is to see wild birds! Also, and quite surprisingly, stray cats are also everywhere in Kauai.
Lydgate State Park is on route 56, north of the airport. There's a park with play area for kids with the usual swings, slides etc. There's an excellent swimming area for kids. The swimming area is separated by big rocks from the ocean, which helps break up the strong current.
Old Koloa town is on route 520 on the way to Poipu. The small, rustic town has a grocery store, ice cream parlor, and some souvenir shops. There's also a small museum about the lives of the Japanese immigrants who worked on Kauai's sugar plantations. In the field across from the grocery store there's a monument to them as well.
The Huleia National Wildlife Refuge offers stunning scenery and a great place to photograph native birds and animals.
The elegant and pristine Wailua Falls looks like a double waterfall from the viewing area but is actually a triple waterfall, once the site of thrilling cliff diving. It's a short drive from Lihue on a dead end road.
Opaekaa Falls are 1.3 miles from the start of Route 580. There is a vista point on Route 580 to see the falls with plenty of parking for cars. Right across from the road is another view point for the Wailua River.
Hanalei Valley and Bay has two separate scenic overlooks. The valley overlook showcases taro fields in various stages of production. The bay overlook features the scenic bay framed by the northern edge of the Napali Coast mountains known in movies as Bali Hai. Both overlooks are between Princeville and the one-lane Hanalei Bridge.
Kilauea Point Lighthouse and Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge, on Kilauea Road off Kuhio Highway (route 56) near mile 23, (808) 828-1413. then follow the road to the end. The lighthouse was built in 1913 and had the largest lens of its kind; it guided ships between North America and Asia until its light was replaced by a beacon in the 1970s. Located in a national wildlife refuge which is a nesting ground for a diverse collection of seabirds, the only one of its kind in the islands. $3 for adults, free for children. National Park Service Golden Eagle Passports accepted and sold.
National Tropical Botanical Gardens, Lawa'i Road for the Allerton and McBride gardens and Kuhio Hi. approx. 1 mile from the end of the road on the North Shore for Limahuli (Lawa'i Road is across from Spouting Horn on Po'ipu Road). 8:30AM- 5PM. The National Tropical Botanical Gardens on Kauai consist of three separate gardens: McBride, Allerton, and Limahuli. The spectacular gardens contain plants native to Hawaii, endangered species, and imported species. Allerton Garden and McBride Garden, on the south shore, are accessible by tour bus from the visitor's center. Allerton is a secluded valley formerly owned by Hawaiian royalty. McBride contains the largest collection of ex situ native Hawaiian plants in existence. Limahuli, on the north shore, is located in a spectacular spired valley and contains native plants as well as plants significant to early Hawaiian inhabitants. There is a reproduction of ancient taro terraces as well as a later plantation-era garden. Entry and tour fees vary per garden.
Waimea Canyon and Koke'e State Park
Above Waimea on state route 550. From Lihue, take state route 50 west to Waimea. From there, you can take Waimea Canyon Drive (550) or continue to Kekaha turning onto state route 552, which meets route 550 near its 6-mile mark. Both roads are winding. Most popular viewing point of the canyon is just past mile 11 on route 550. Koke'e is located about 4 miles further. (808)245-6001 for weather information in the canyon.
At over 10 miles (16 km) long, 1 mile (1.6 km) wide, and 3,567 feet (1,087 m) deep, Waimea Canyon has been called the "Grand Canyon of the Pacific." Indeed, its colors rival that of its Arizona counterpart, except that Waimea Canyon also adds touches of green that would be absent in the desert. Carved and formed over hundreds of thousands of years by runoff from Mount Waialeale at the center of the island, the canyon shows millions of years of geological history.
Camping and hiking are available above the canyon at Koke'e State Park.
Best time to go is on a relatively clear day, and then after mid-morning (from about 9:30AM-on). Otherwise, clouds and fog may obscure the view.
Na Pali Coast
The Na Pali coast, featured in the film Jurassic Park and many other movies, is one of the most distinctive geological features of Kauai and consists of sheer cliffs thousands of feet high that drop directly onto pristine secluded beaches. The beaches are reachable only by boat, helicopter, or very experienced hikers, but the cliffs may be viewed from the top by driving to the end of Route 550. There is a Na Pali Coast State Park, which prohibits adventurous travelers to hike along the coast with two options: they can either hike a round-trip six miles; or with the proper overnight equipment and hiking gear, brave hikers can travel the entire length of the sixteen mile-long park. Travelers will get to see beaches only accessible by foot and only visible by the highly expensive boat, scuba and helicopter tours. The caves along this hike are absolutely marvelous as well. Tourists will get the rare chance to marvel at Kauai's natural splendor because the caves are very conducive to being explored! The water in them is very shallow so going inside comes very highly recommended. Tourists will achieve an experience like no other when they have braved the highly dangerous terrain and earned a stay on a beach completely uninhabited by other tourists and untouched. The travelers who do this will really realize what makes Kauai separate from the other islands, or any other tourist destination. Its natural splendor is made for all to enjoy if the tourist is willing to physically exert themselves for it!
People come to Kauai primarily for one thing: the beaches with their great snorkeling, surfing, swimming, and sunning. But Kauai also boasts more navigable rivers than the other Hawaiian Islands making kayaking very popular. If the surf is calm you can even combine a river run with time paddling the bays and ocean shoreline. You'll find kayak rentals near the mouth of the most popular rivers. Many will also rent roof-top strap-on kayaks for travelers interested in trying one of the several smaller river runs.
Kauai has great hiking and mountain biking trails as well. Outdoor adventurers will find the guidebook Kauai Trailblazer to be helpful in comparing various locations for hiking and biking (as well as snorkeling, kayaking, and surfing). The Waimea Canyon area has extensive hiking trails both into the canyon itself as well as great overlooks of the Na Pali cliffs. Check with the park office on trail conditions and weather before starting your hike. The Koke'e Museum has a listing of trails at.
Warning: Kauai's famous red dirt is very slippery when wet, as it often is, making some trails too slippery to use, particularly those along steep drop offs.
There are many commercial tour guides that offer various land and sea adventures such as guided hikes, downhill bike tours, back-country ATV trips, river tubing adventures, and more.
Other recommended activities are listed below by region.
North: Hanalei is a charming Hawaiian village in beautiful country on the north of the island. Hanalei has a nostalgic, romantic quality of simpler times on the Islands. An easy drive to the northwest of Hanalei is the Na Pali coast. Drive to where the road ends, park and hike the twenty-two mile round-trip journey to mythical Kalalau. The Kalalau Trail is generally regarded as among the most spectacular hikes in the world, albeit incredibly painful. If you want to get a taste, hike 2 miles in to the first beach (Hanakapi'ai). Day hikes are unrestricted, but camping requires a permit from the parks department. There is a long waiting list, so signing up a year in advance is a good idea. Tour boats can also access the coast; they may be chartered out of Hanalei or other outfits on the south of the island. Snorkeling is very good. Be advised, however, that the area is effectively closed to boats in the winter due to the intense Pacific weather hitting that part of Kaua'i.
East: Kapa'a is a small, cute, tourist-friendly town on the east side. It features a movie theater, an internet cafe, several restaurants, and a Birkenstock outlet. Look up from Anahola and see the mountain that faded in from the Paramount logo at the beginning of "Raiders of the Lost Ark."
South: The South Shore has a number of great beaches such as Maha'ulepu Beach with its ancient petroglyphs and the rocky Shipwreck Beach, both perfect for snorkeling or scuba diving. Poipu Beach, often ranked as one of the world’s top beaches by travel surveys. Venture to Kipu Falls, where the opening sequences for Raiders of the Lost Ark were filmed. Kauai is a leading destination for scuba divers, with many beautiful, relatively unspoiled coral reefs and a variety of fish not found anywhere outside the Hawaiian archipelago. Dive boats leave daily from Po'ipu. Shorter trips typically involve two dives at locations off the south shore. For a once-in-a-lifetime dive choose a dive off the coast of Ni'ihau, the privately-owned island to the west of Kauai. Expect to pay from $120 and up depending on the dive-boat operator and the length of the dive. Kauai is also a destination for whale watchers; humpbacks winter in the coast off Hawaii. Dolphin pods are also a very common sight. Whale watching boats leave multiple times a day from Po'ipu and the dock at Nawiliwili in Kalapaki Bay.
An amazing service the south shore provides is Kayak rentals on their Koloa river. It is a very hidden location but this family owned kayak rental are native Hawaiians and very friendly. The kayak rental is on a historically re-created Hawaiian village ground where adventurous travelers can walk around, go inside huts and their small buildings and see live peacocks wandering the grounds. There are recreated traditional family huts like the Ancient Hawaiians used to live in and also medicine huts where you can see how medicine was made. Kayak rentals are moderately expensive but very worth it. You also get great exercise because to go to an actual stop or island there is around 20 straight minutes of rowing! A popular place for tourists and locals alike to stop at on their kayak tour is a little cove where a rope swing was built! There is also a cliff perfect for jumping off of into the deep water, but caution must be advised. The rope swing is very safe. Kayaking through the Koloa river is an amazing experience where one can truly be at peace with nature. There is lush greenery completely surrounding the river and fresh, clear water in the river. Another popular spot for kayaking is about a mile down the river. Kayak tours are available, but tourists can also discover this spot themselves and at their own pace. This spot provides around a two mile hike to one of Kauai's most beautiful waterfalls. The rocks are treacherous but once the traveler gets past them, they can even swim under the waterfall! It is truly an experience unlike any other. Kauai is clearly a place for the hiking enthusiast. Another spot is a garden tour through the fern grotto. This river makes a loop so once you've been to the waterfall and fern grotto it is only a short paddle back to the base. The fern grotto is a large bolder-looking formation covered in fern. Deeper in is a cave. The garden area is mysteriously covered with stray cats but is nonetheless beautiful and stunning. This historically education and adventurous experience is definitely a must when traveling to Kauai.
West: A drive up to the Waimea Canyon is highly recommended or explore the Canyon and surrounding areas on a breathtaking tour.
If you rent a jeep make sure you take a trek out to Polihale Beach. It is located at the southern end of Napali and to the north of Barking Sands. It is a wide sprawling sandy beach. The sunsets here are truly awesome and with a permit you can camp there too (it is a state park). During the winter and early spring you can also see the whales from the beach. However, the last couple of miles of the road to get to Polihale, run through an old sugar cane field. As of Feb 2010 the road was still not maintained and is in poor condition when wet. If you have a rental car recognize that all rental car companies on the island expressly prohibit the use of their vehicles (including Jeeps!) on Polihale road. That said, a 2001 Toyota Sienna minivan can navigate the road in about 20-30 minutes on a dry day, but if you have the money and tolerance for risk, rent a fourwheel drive, as the beach can be driven on if tire air pressure is low. This beach is the most beautiful beach on the island. If you can get to Polihale - do it. You won't be sorry!