The Garden Isle is the best island in Hawaii! Use our Kauai guide to find: best things to do on Kauai and top places to visit on our favorite Hawaiian island!
A couple friends approached us recently to share that they were planning a trip to Hawaii and visit Kauai for the first time. Did we have a favorite thing to do in Kauai, a preferred place to stay, or even better, a full Kauai guide we could share? Of course! But then we thought, why not share what we’d recommend with all of you? Thus, the birth of this Kauai blog post of Kauai travel tips!
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Please understand our perspective. We didn’t live on Kauai very long compared with others we know, only two years. But still, even after years absent in favor of full time travel, we feel as though it’s home. Of all the main Hawaiian islands, Kauai grabs you like that. And also please understand that we’re committed North Shore Kauai people, so our must see recommendations will skew.
Table of Contents
Many visitors never venture beyond the South Side, and we think they’re missing out. Lastly, by no means does this Kauai First Timers Guide covers everything there is to see and do, nor every great restaurant, food truck or watering hole. There’s plenty more to discover on your own!
Mention Kauai to anyone who has visited and you’ll immediately see the hold the island has, even on those whose stay is temporary. This Kauai blog post is an attempt to share our perspective of what this bonding means and how it emanates or originates through tradition and history. We’re going to cover places you can go and things you can do as Kauai first timers which will resonate the experience more deeply.
Many of you will return to Kauai again and again. More than one person who reads this will eventually decide to move to Kauai, just as we did. Whichever you decide, we extend to all Kauai first timers a hearty shaka with our deepest aloha.
Kauai is famous for its mystical ambiance
Kauai is called the Garden Isle because it is so incredibly green, especially on the North Shore of Kauai. In our jungle home, we’d get rain every day but just for about ten minutes. Then sunshine and rainbows for the rest of the day. Here is a quick look:
As we met more of our new neighbors, we began to hear folkloric bits and pieces of just why that was so. Myths, customs and legends came alive by proximity. When the sun went down in the Wainiha Valley where we lived, it was easy to imagine menehune (little people) or huaka’i po (night marchers) spirits emerging from the shadows to follow the river to its source.
Watching the sun set at the end of the road in Ke’e, we sat within proximity of a birthing stone said to have been used by goddess Pele herself, giving life to the beginning of the Kauai royal dynasty. Gazing upon ‘Opaeka’a Falls, we honored the kapu (taboo) for the nearby heiau (altar) upon which human sacrifices were made.
For a definitive, comprehensive, yet very readable orientation, we strongly recommend you read Kauai: The Separate Kingdom, by Edward Joesting. This history takes a James Michener-like approach. Beginning with mythological and geological pre-history, Joesting covers discovery, settlement, and political aspects ranging through the Polynesian, western imperial and various agrarian eras up until the 1898 annexation by the United States.
Joisting’s book is a very satisfying deeper dive than a touristy guidebook. It will reacquaint you with the notion that Kauai has been home to thriving populations and economies for hundreds, if not thousands of years. We’ll be referring to the historical and mystical/religious significance of many sites on Kauai throughout this post, and Joesting’s book will give you background context.
Additional Recommendation: Acquaint yourself with Hokule’a and her sibling, Hikianalia, traditional Polynesian voyaging canoes. Hokule’a returned to Hawaii in June 2017 after a three year voyage celebrating Polynesian sailing techniques around the world. See details of her visit to the Hanalei Pier in our writeup, Voyaging with Traditional Polynesian Navigation.
For more great ideas to help you with planning your trip to Kauai, have a look at the curated items in the Travel Essentials section in PassingThru’s Amazon Store.
Kauai first timers will be blown away
Today’s Kauai is a popular vacation and seasonal destination for travelers with a variety of attractions. Easily reached from Honolulu on an inter-island air route, it still is the least visited of the larger islands. We like that. We also like that, while much of the island is rural in nature, even more of it is pure wilderness. This is wildness with an imposing grandeur, leading many people to declare it the most beautiful place on earth. While no small designation, after visiting close to 50 countries we think it’s true.
Kauai is a roundish volcanic island about 100 miles northwest of Oahu. It is the oldest of the main islands in the Hawaiian archipelago, formed about six million years ago. Its interior is comprised of mountainous peaks, two of which are over 5,000 feet high. These can claim the distinction of being some of the wettest places on earth. In the center, a collapsed volcano forms the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” Waimea Canyon (more than 3000 feet deep). Centuries of extreme precipitation have created striking ridges along the world-famous Na Pali coastline on its west, which has to be reached by water or on foot.
Kauai first timers will notice the difference in climate on the southwest (leeward) and northeast (windward) sections. South tends to be more dry; the north shore is the wettest. Overall, average temperatures are mild and humid, rarely varying from the 70s F.
Recommendation: Get a Kauai GPS Tour Guide app for your phone to use as you make your way around the island. The cool part about these apps is that as you drive around, they will provide information and valuable context about sights and attractions that you’re approaching, providing you with valuable context.
Tip: Directions on island are given in terms of maikai (toward the sea) or mauka (toward inland). Since there is just one perimeter highway, you can’t get very lost for long!
The Top Five Best Attractions on Kauai
In our opinion, these are the don’t miss locations for everyone who is going to Kauai. Directions and narrative can be found on the Kauai GPS Tour Guide. Enjoy our photos and descriptions.
1. Waimea Canyon The Grand Canyon of the Pacific is the most storied of Kauai attractions, a spectacular geological element in Kauai’s interior, with colorful striations marking its deep gorges. The best way to see Waimea Canyon is simply to drive it. The drive up highway 550 (Waimea Canyon Drive) from Waimea town follows a narrow ridge line with stunning 360-degree views. Several informal pull-outs offer sweeping views. After visiting Waimea Canyon be sure to continue on 550 (now called Koke’e Road) through Kokee State Park.
2. Kokee State Park past the Lodge at Koke’e and onto the magnificent Kalalau Lookout. This overlook with views of the ocean below is our most favorite single place on the entire island, and it might be the best spot to have a spiritual experience on the planet. You are so high that you can see a slight curvature of the earth on the ocean horizon. Many visitors are overwhelmed by the beauty and magnetic appeal at this site.
3. Polihale Beach Kauai is home to the longest beach in the state of Hawaii; this 7 mile stretch is also the most western point that is publicly accessible in the state. Large dunes reach as high as 100 feet. The access road is rough and many rental car companies forbid it. Periods of heavy rains can close or limit use.
4. Na Pali Coast The Na Pali Coast of Kauai experience can not be missed. Make sure it is on your list of top things to see in Kauai. One of the best ways to view the unmistakable grandeur of the Jurassic landscape is from the water, in our opinion, on a Napali boat tour. Expect to be thrilled by the mountainous scenery, sea caves, and beautiful beach locations that are secluded and pristine.
Plenty of sea life abounds on these tours from humpback whale and sea turtle sightings, to pods of dolphins merrily accompanying your watercraft. There are many types of Napali coast tours. We’ve taken both the Napali coast dinner cruise and the Napali sunset cruise. We would do either again. There are many choices for Napali coast tours. We like Blue Dolphin out of Port Allen on the south shore of Kauai for whale watching and sunset dinner cruises.
If your dream is to see the Napali coast through a pterodactyl’s eyes, several air and helicopter tour companies offer you the somewhat spendy opportunity. We’ve heard it recommended to fly out of Princeville to maximize your in-air time allotment.
Tip: November through February is prime whale-watching time. Winter seas will be calmer from the South Side charters. North Shore charters re-locate or suspend during the winter months when the best weather is on the other side of the island.
5. Hanalei Bay The perfect semi-circular sandy expanse with to-die-for vistas of the Bali Hai (or Puff the Magic Dragon, if you prefer) cliffs, our old hometown’s waterfront is a most wonderful place to while away the day and romance its evening. In addition to the exceptional beach and the Hanalei Bay pier, Hanalei Bay restaurants are some of the best on the island of Kauai. We were regulars at Hanalei Gourmet and Kalypso Island Bar and Grill. Another fun place for eats is the Hanalei Farmers Market open Saturdays.
The Next Big Five Things to See on Kauai (Our Personal Opinion)
1. Kalihiwai Bridge Another Jurassic-style vista, our favorite bridge on the Kuhio Highway between Kilauea and Princeville spans a magnificent gorge filled with distinctive, prehistoric looking acacia trees. Please don’t stop to try to take a photo here.
2. Tunnel of Trees Just off the main Koloa highway turnoff toward Poipu, a eucalyptus grove dating back to 1911 arches dramatically over a mile-long stretch of Maliuhi Road.
3. Ke’e Beach and Caves Just west of Haena before the road ends at Ke’e, two enormous volcanic caves carved by the sea open into the mountainside adjacent to the road. Walk right in and marvel. Ke’e beach itself is finest for sunset. As well, the trailhead to Hanakapiai and the greater Kalalau Trail is here.
4. Pa’ula’ula: The Russian Fort A fascinating piece of archeology confirming the Russian presence on Kauai in the early 19th century at the mouth of the Waimea River. Fort Elizabeth was built via treaty between Tsar Alexander I and Kauai King Kaumuali’i, who hoped to sever from King Kamehameha. Other forts were constructed near Hanalei. Political and military developments ensued over the next several decades. The fort was finally abandoned in the 1850s.
5. Kilauea Lighthouse and Wildlife Refuge On the National Register of Historic Places since 1972, the 100+ year old lighthouse has recently been renamed for beloved late Sen. Daniel K. Inouye. Endangered seabirds – the nene (Hawaii’s state bird), shearwater, frigate bird, red-footed booby – roost and soar in the seaside cliffs of the refuge. See our full write-up here. Note: from November through February, you may see whales breaching in the sea from several vantage points here.
For Active Kauai First Timers
Surfing For many of us in flyover country, learning to surf was such a remote possibility that the novelty of having an opportunity to do so hasn’t diminished in decades. There are many places on the island with personable, and even more importantly, non-judgmental instructors. We recommended our visitors to Titus Kinimaka’s Surf School in Hanalei. Titus is a surfing legend, and your lesson is free if you can’t get up on your own board.
Paddling Stand-up paddlers will love the Hanalei or Wailua rivers for lengthier, calmer routes. In the summer, North Shore locations will be sufficiently calm for ocean paddlers. We loved paddling traditional outrigger canoes with the Hanalei Canoe Club during one of their summer fundraisers.
Snorkeling Kauai is spectacular with many coral reefs to explore. There are several PADI-certified dive schools, and snorkeling equipment is rentable just about everywhere. Pay attention to surf conditions so you won’t be disappointed.
Tubing We went mountain tubing with Kauai Backcountry Adventures on our last visit and couldn’t believe we’d waited so long. This is easily the most fun and effortless day excursion we’ve undertaken. You travel through 150 year old sugarcane transport and irrigation ditches with hand-hewn tunnels through lava tubes at just the right pace. What a great time! Bonus treats: breathtaking views of the island’s interior and a picnic lunch. If you’re a zipline enthusiast, they can set you up.
The Best Easy Hikes Kauai Offers
The opportunity to hike all over the island is one of the best things about Kauai. The world-renowned Kalalau Trail is one of the most famous hikes on Kauai, a bucket list destination for expert hikers. But there are other enjoyable day hikes on the east coast of Kauai and along the south shore, many of which are family friendly. Easier trails include Kuilau Ridge Trail out of Wailua and the Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail, which starts near the Grand Hyatt along the beach in Poipu.
If you are set on doing the Kalalau, be realistic about your fitness level. It may be that you opt to go as far as Hanakapi’ai Beach, which is a vigorous 2 miles in from the beginning of the hiking trail. Take note of permits required and parking restrictions.
For Sun-Seeking Kauai First Timers
Kauai Golf Courses According to Golf Advisor, “Kauai compensates for a lack of golf options with premium quality.” Four of its nine (yes, only nine) courses rank in the top ten of all the islands. Designed by famous names such as Robert Trent Jones and Jack Nicklaus, you can expect spectacular views and challenging features.
Princeville has two golf courses on the North Shore of Kauai. The Prince Golf Course is spectacular, beautiful and difficult. Also difficult to get in as it went private in 2014. The other Princeville golf course is the Princeville Makai Golf Club, one of the top 100 courses in America with 27 holes. Reduced fees are available when you stay at St. Regis, Westin, Wyndham and other Partner Resorts in Princeville.
Kauai golf courses on the south shore in and around Lihue include: The Ocean Course at Hokuala, the 18 hole Puakea Golf Course, Poipu Bay Golf Course in Koloa, the public Kiahuna Golf Club in Poipu and the municipal Wailua Golf Course, voted as one of Hawaii’s best 15.
Pool Hangouts Don’t make the mistake of leaving out some unscheduled pool time. For us, part of a great pool’s ambience is umbrella drinks and yummy eats, delivered with aloha and a smile. As such, our favorite pools on the island are at: Sheraton Poipu, The Westin Princeville, Hanalei Bay Resort.
Kauai Beaches Choosing the best beaches in Kauai depends on what you want to do. They all provide silky sand and sun. For snorkeling Kauai consider the north shore’s beautiful beaches of Ke’e (Note: day permit needed. Click here for information.) and Anini Beach (one of the best beaches for beginners like us). Surfing beginners will find the Hanalei Bay beach the perfect choice with surf shops and schools close by. Discover more Kauai beaches here.
Hanalei Bay Pier If you’ve seen the movie South Pacific, you know this popular place. Situated on Black Pot Beach (named for the hukilau cooking that took place at this location) at the mouth of the Hanalei River, youngsters of all ages (including us in our 60s) delight in jumping off the pier. Signs will tell you there’s no jumping allowed, fyi just saying. Check out one of the food trucks regularly stationed here in the parking lot; what a great place to grab a bite!
Tip: Watch at least one of the Movies Filmed in Kauai before you visit.There’s an interior link in that post to a list of over 100 movies filmed on Kauai (including Jurassic Park and Fantasy Island), as well. Our personal favorite is The Descendants, filmed in the small town of Hanalei on Kauai’s North Shore. We like to sit on the same barstools as Clooney and Bridges did at Tahiti Nui in Hanalei (and we like seeing people we know who were extras in the movie, too).
For Culture and History Buffs
County Museum This little gem in Lihue is an unsung hero, well worth a quick stop to orient Kauai first timers to heritage and traditions.
Limahuli National Tropical Botanical Garden Condensed from our full writeup, Hawaiian Culture and History at Limahuli: Early native Hawaiians, the kanaka maoli (“true mortal indigenous humans”) developed a fair share-based system of resource management in sustainable communities, called ahupua’a. These were terraced land units, organized into a social hierarchy.
Ahupua’a extended from the ocean shoreline up into the highest mountain elevations, following fresh water sources which were tapped and channeled through the terraces for growing taro. The Haena ahupua’a at Limahuli was intact and functioning until the mid-20th century. Its walls have been carbon-dated to approximately 700 A.D., encompassing the first wave of Polynesian migration.
Because Kauai was relatively inaccessible from the other Hawaiian islands, its ecosystem is different. The self-guided walking tour of Limahuli Garden takes you through several different ecological eras: the Polynesian, the Hawaiian, and the Plantation with its tropical flowers. Some native plants here have less than 50 individuals left in the wild. Amazing ocean and valley views. More here.
***Please Note: Limahuli Garden has reopened after a lengthy closure. There are vehicle accessibility rules in order to manage traffic on the North Shore, and reservations are now required. Click here for more information. ***
Paniolo Tradition Cattle ranching has a long tradition on Kauai dating from the 19th century. When Mexican/Spanish vaqueros arrived to teach Hawaiians the ins and outs of cow-poking, they and their eager students were named “paniolos.” Fertile ground around Hanalei gave rise to the magnificent Princeville Ranch, the first major beef operation on the island.
Today, more than 100 Kauai ranchers prefer to raise world class grass-fed beef, with many selling only to local markets. Several offer horseback and hiking experiences. As well, Kauai first timers might be surprised to learn rodeo is really big on the island. Local events such as Plantation Days at Koloa Plantation, and the Waipa Ranch (between Hanalei and Wainiha) rodeo series are popular. The annual Kauai County Fair also has rodeo events.
Luau and Hukilau Traditional hukilau has returned recently to Hanalei Bay. This hearkens back to the communal Polynesian value system where harvest was shared throughout the ahupua’a. Our favorite beach, Black Pot on Hanalei Bay, was named for the big cast iron cooking pot used for hukilau.
We were fortunate to experience the hukilau tradition at its unscripted best on our semi-private local beach in Wainiha. A multi-generational family had spent the day net fishing from a small dinghy as we watched from our beach chairs. It was good entertainment: swells were high and the catch was heavy.
They finally attached the teeming net to their pickup truck to drag it out of the water. The next thing we knew, the patriarch was in front of us with hands extended, sharing the bounty. Unforgettable.
Understand the sharing, communal traditions around food by attending a regularly scheduled Kauai luau.
Menehune-related: Kikiaola Ditch (Waimea) and Alekoko Fishpond (Niumalu, near Lihue) are ancient projects attributed to the mythical menehune (little people). As late as the 1930s, Kauai census documents detailed several individuals who self-identified as menehune, giving credence to the authenticity of the legend.
Tip: Take a walking tour using our list of 5 Historic Hanalei Beach Houses to get a glimpse of late 19th/early 20th century life on the shore of Hanalei Bay. Most of these were built as summer getaways for plantation owners and managers from the South Side.
Recommendation: Taylor Camp, the fascinating story of an experimental, counter-culture lifestyle community on the North Shore where Haena State Park is now located. This was a concerted attempt at an anti-establishment, hippie utopia when Howard Taylor (brother of actress Elizabeth) offered up his land for what became a tree house and shanty village. Taylor Camp lasted from 1969 – 1977, when the land was acquired by the state. We are acquainted with several former residents who now live in Hanalei. DVD documentary by the same name.
Memorable Eating and Drinking on Kauai
We like eating and drinking all over the island (big surprise there!). It’s tempting to organize by location, but organizing by type won out. In our suggested itineraries, we’ll insert some of these where it makes logistical sense, and we’ll note location after each one here.
Old School Hawaiian Tip Top Cafe (Motel) (Lihue), Kilohana Plantation (Lihue), Wrangler’s Steakhouse (Waimea). Look for classics like macaroni salad, spam and pineapple, mixed plates and grass-fed beef.
Atmospheric Brennecke’s (Poipu), Plantation Gardens (Poipu/Koloa). Long-standing multi-generational reputations.
Innovators and Mixologists Hukilau Lanai (Kapa’a), Bar Acuda (Hanalei), Happy Talk Lounge (Princeville). Sophisticated and decorative food and cocktails.
Great Dive Bars Tahiti Nui (Hanalei), Rob’s Good Times (Lihue), Port Allen Sunset Grill and Bar (Port Allen). You just can’t beat the casual atmosphere and great grill food at any of these.
Sunrise Specials Olympic Cafe (Kapa’a), Wake-Up Delicious Cafe (Hanalei), Kilauea Bakery (and Pau Hana Pizza) (Kilauea). Our favorite breakfast-specific hangouts. Some have lunch and dinner menus, too.
Daily Special Hanalei Gourmet (Hanalei), Kalypso Island Bar and Grill (Hanalei), Kilauea Bistro (Kilauea). North Shore locals hang here, and often text each other when specific daily specials are available.
Farmers Markets Local flavor (literally), the farmers markets are where you meet and greet neighbors and visitors alike. Artisans and farmers present their wares. Product ranges from fresh organics to handicrafts and fine art. Check the listing schedule here on Tasting Kauai. Tasting Kauai is a great resource for restaurant reviews and foodie events, too.
Finding Kauai Accommodation and Wheels
Car Rentals There’s no getting around it: in Hawaii, you’re immediately known as a tourist by what you drive. Major car rental companies are primarily vested in renting you either a Mustang convertible (who doesn’t want to rent a convertible in paradise?) or a 4-door Jeep Wrangler at shockingly high prices.
But you can go more authentically incognito via Craigslist. Savvy Kauai first timers will rent from a local who is insured. You’ll be picked up at the airport and pay about half of what the rental agencies will charge. Your ride will be a slightly older, yet reliable vehicle, which keeps you nicely under the radar.
Touristy Areas There’s local rivalry between the north and south sides of Kauai with a bit of derision at times. Locals will say Poipu and environs are “too touristy,” and it’s true, this is the center of the larger belt of branded resorts. Others will say Princeville (which happens to be the location of three of our favorite resorts) is a too sanitized, suburban experience.
Know this: there will be visitors just about anywhere you go. While rivalries are fun, this is quibbling. Paradise is paradise, but as we said earlier, our opinions skew North Shore.
Off the Path If you’re willing to do a deeper dive into a more local experience, there are a variety of Kauai condo rentals and privately owned vacation rentals on sites like Craigslist, Vacation Rental By Owner, and Summit Pacific.
Best Resorts in Kauai (Our Opinion!)
We’ve stayed at every one we mention below. Use our links to book your stay!
Hanalei Bay Resort (boasts the same iconic view of the Bali Hai mountain as its more expensive neighbor, 1 Hotel Hanalei Bay, at a fraction of the price).
Westin Princeville is a classy act, great pool ambiance and timeshare exchangeable with a bit of savvy.
The Cliffs also in Princeville has spacious units with forever ocean views.
Check hotel and VRBO availability and book using this handy map:
Budget Friendly Options:
Sheraton Poipu, Sheraton Kauai Coconut Beach, Garden Island Inn close to Kalapaki Beach in Lihue, 21 tropical rooms and suites with original artwork and small kitchenettes, Hanalei Inn Studio accommodations with full kitchen, queen bed and air con. Only four rooms with a plantation vibe. Or try the Tip Top Motel, basic accommodations perfect for a one-night stay on your way in or out.
What to Bring to Kauai
First of all, don’t overpack! Kauai is a very casual place. Most of the locals wear board shorts and a t-shirt (men) or a sarong over a bathing suit (women) with “slippas” – which is island lingo for flip-flops. Dressing up means an aloha shirt with cargo shorts or jeans for men, and a maxi or sundress for ladies.
Tip: Check out our complete post on how to pack for your Hawaii vacation.
You will probably find that you wear the same or similar things over and over, with half of the stuff you bring never making it out of the suitcase. Plus, you will want to leave room for souvenirs. Also, be aware that leather goods will quickly mold in humidity, so keep shoes, handbags, and belts in mind if your rental isn’t air conditioned.
Certain things are far more expensive in Hawaii than they are on the mainland (which makes sense because almost everything has to be flown in). While you may want to indulge in shopping just for fun, make sure you’re prepared with certain necessities so that you don’t waste precious island time looking for them or paying exorbitant prices.
If you’re wondering about or need to replace luggage, check out our detailed post, Which Luggage is Best for Travel. Spot your luggage quickly on the carousel or hotel transfer cart with these attractive, durable luggage tags, made of solid acrylic imprinted on the back with your custom details:
Clockwise from top left: Pink Palm Trees, White Aloha, Tree Frog, Keep Calm and Hibiscus Honu (Turtle).
Cultivate Your Aloha (Don’t Be a Jerk)
As residents, sometimes we would feel as though Kauai first timers left their brains at home. Don’t be the person who has to be rescued because you didn’t adequately prepare for the Kalalau Trail (sirens were a daily occurrence in Wainiha as they raced toward Ke’e and another hapless hiker). Surf conditions can be rough, with visitors swept out to sea in seconds. Mother Nature is fierce here, don’t let the idea of Paradise lull you.
Tip: Our list of Things About Kauai the Guidebooks Won’t Tell You describes differences you might not have anticipated.
Jumping off the falls? Just don’t. Harassing the Wildlife? Be prepared for the consequences. Leave the Hawaiian monk seals, sea turtles and other marine life alone! If you’re on the water, don’t ask your tour boat captain and crew to chase the humpback whales (they are legally required to keep an appropriate distance).
Disrespecting the ‘aina (land) is not cool. Don’t be bringing home volcanic rock or pieces of coral; it’s bad luck, brah! If you temporarily lost your mind and did so, rocks picked up on Kauai can be returned to Koke’e Natural History Museum, P. O. Box 100, Kekaha HI 96752
Driving too fast The maximum speed limit on Kuhio Highway is 50mph. Slow down! You’ll see variations of this bumper sticker on local vehicles. For more island lifestyle products, check out our Aloha Shoppe!
You’re on island time now, plus there’s a requirement you stop for pedestrians in the road anywhere (not just at the cross-walks). Additionally, Hawaiian etiquette demands you let somebody into traffic ahead of you. Kauai first timers should think of driving on island as an opportunity to work on your aloha, and for goodness sake, don’t you dare honk at someone!
Oh, and picking up hitchhikers (particularly on the North Shore) is the thing to do. You just never know when you’ll need it paid forward; one time we picked up our landlord hitching his way back from town!
Know the bridge etiquette. Getting to and from our home in Wainiha from Hanalei involved crossing several one-lane bridges. Time and time again, we’d find ourselves in a “situation” with an unwitting visitor who couldn’t wrap his head around what was proper sharing. It’s really simple: If you and someone else approach the bridge, whoever is closest gets to go first. If five cars have gone ahead of you, it’s your turn to stop so oncoming traffic has a turn. This isn’t rocket science. Most entertaining: the double one lane bridge over the Wainiha River with the added complication of a side road in between the two. Good times!
Learn the lingo The Hawaiian language is graceful and practical. Learn how to pronounce the vowels and the root words in place names to deepen your connection.
Itineraries for Kauai First Timers
Even though Kauai isn’t a very large island, it still takes time for a variety of reasons to get from one side to the other. If you only have a few days in Kauai, you’ve got to make each one count and see the best things within the time you have. Thus, it makes sense to plan your Kauai activities in proximity with each other. The following are suggestions for day tripping to explore local communities from either the North Shore to the South Side, or reverse.
Everything we mention in these itineraries is linked elsewhere in this post. It’s possible to do each of these in one (very long) day; whenever possible, be aware we recommend light scheduling. If you’ve got two days to venture, split these suggestions in two and customize with your own add-ins. Or not! The main objective on island is to stay relaxed!
South Side to North Shore: If you’re coming up to the North Shore from Lihue, Poipu, or even further west, you’ll travel toward Kapa’a. Stop for breakfast at either the Olympic Cafe in Kapa’a, or go further on to Kilauea for breakfast at the Kilauea Bakery (owned and operated by my brother’s classmate at the Culinary Institute of America).
Proceed to the Kilauea Lighthouse and Wildlife Refuge and look around. Head into Princeville. To your left across from Princeville Center is the Hanalei Valley overlook. Pull off and look towards Mt. Waialeale into the valley of rice paddies and farms. Continue west on the highway to the Hanalei Bay overlook at the curve. Pull off and gaze.
Proceed toward Hanalei across the one-lane river bridge and into town. Make a right at Kalypso Island Bar and Grill to head toward Black Pot Beach and Hanalei Pier to access Hanalei Bay. Lunch in Hanalei town at either Hanalei Gourmet (deli food and full bar inside, look for egg salad sandwich special) or Kalypso Island Bar and Grill (fish tacos are excellent, coldest beer on the island).
Consider using the North Shore Shuttle for the rest of this itinerary. Limited access on Kuhio Highway is in effect, due to roads being at capacity and insufficient infrastructure. Click here for information on scheduled stops. Reservations are available on the site.
Head west out of Hanalei Town along the spectacular cliffs. You might want to grab an ice cream or cold water at the Last Chance Store in Wainiha (our old neighborhood) before you get to Ha’ena. Tunnels Beach and Ha’ena State Park (Note: advance reservations are required. Click here for more information) are iconic beaches.
Go further west past Limahuli Gardens to the volcanic caves and Ke’e Beach where the road ends. Sunsets at Ke’e are a thing, but you’ll have to BYO. Back in Hanalei, after sunset check out Bar Acuda for sophisticated or Tahiti Nui for everyday dive bar in Hanalei. – OR – head to Happy Talk Lounge in Princeville for sunset and dinner.
Note: If you’ve got an activity like a surfing lesson or a paddle up the Hanalei River, schedule these for mid to late morning and follow up with lunch.
North Shore to South Side: Chances are you’re going to be working around a charter boat or other scheduled activity. Our suggestion is to book your charter (which will more than likely be out of Eleele or Port Allen) for afternoon/sunset to close out your day. If you get up really early to beat traffic coming into Lihue (leave no later than 8), you can head down past Koloa toward Waimea.
Stop off in Hanapepe for Kauai coffee or to-go food and head up Waimea Canyon Road. There are numerous pull-offs and overlooks in Koke’e State Park as you climb. Make sure you drive all the way to the end of the road, park and briefly hike to the Kalalau Overlook.
Coming back down from Koke’e, gauge your time. If you’re back in Port Allen ahead of your charter, while the extra time away at the Sunset Grill and Bar. It’s in the same little shopping center as the charter boat offices. Enjoy the water!
After you disembark and hit the road toward home, you might want to break the drive back to the North Shore up with a stop at Rob’s Good Times in Lihue or the Bistro in Kilauea for appetizers or a full meal.
Thanks for Making it to the End!
All good things must come to an end (if only temporarily, as in the case with your stay). Thanks for taking the time to read our Kauai First Timers Guide. We hope you find it helpful. E komo mai (welcome) and aloha!
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Tips for Trip Success
Book Your Flight
Find an inexpensive flight by using CheapOAir, a favorite of ours because it regularly returns less expensive flight options from a variety of airlines.
Book Your Hotel or Special Accommodation
We are big fans of Booking.com. We like their review system and photos. If we want to see more reviews and additional booking options, we go to TripAdvisor.
You Need Travel Insurance!
Good travel insurance means having total peace of mind. Travel insurance protects you when your medical insurance often will not and better than what you get from your credit card. It will provide comprehensive coverage should you need medical treatment or return to the United States, compensation for trip interruption, baggage loss, and other situations.Find the Perfect Insurance Plan for Your Trip
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Thursday 27th of June 2019
Mahalo for this... I was super concerned about our upcoming trip in mid July... until you put my mind at ease. This trip is a grad gift for our daughter. We're on a super tight budget and I was worried. But you've shown me that there is so much to do and see while being on this beautiful island that I'm not stressing anymore about giving her a "perfect" reward trip! I'm excited that you included less touristy places to visit.. we really want to experience its culture, people, and aloha spirit. I would hug you if I could!
Monday 1st of July 2019
Hi Dawn - I hope you and she have a wonderful trip. Aloha!
Monday 3rd of June 2019
Wow. Great guide. We are heading out to Hanalei from Connecticut on Friday. We will definitely be checking this guide daily.
Thursday 1st of November 2018
Hi Betsy, My husband and I are taking a sabbatical this year and are planning on staying in Kauai for about 7 months. Do you have any tips on housing? It seems that long term rentals are hard to come by. I’m leaving on Tuesday to try and find something and would appreciate any advice. Thanks and Aloha Jeanine
Thursday 1st of November 2018
Aloha Jeanine - Yes, long term rentals can be a challenge, particularly with the impacts to locals' housing from the storms earlier this year. When we moved to Kauai, we gave ourselves a couple of weeks to find a home (and a vehicle, for that matter, but that's a different story). Vacation rentals are prohibited from renting more than six months, but my advice would be to stalk both vacation rental and long term rental categories on Craigslist. Private party landlords frequently offer month-to-month leases. Initially, we redeemed timeshare and hotel points and moved from resort to resort. Paying resort rates can quickly add up. Depending upon your budget, you may have to adjust your expectations and get creative. But nothing that's worth it is easy, right? Good luck!
Saturday 22nd of September 2018
I read this a few months before coming to Kauai. Thank you so much for all the info. I am sitting on our balcony in Poipu. It is breathtaking. Celebrating our 45 anniversary. Your tip for the Kauai GPS Tour Guide has been fantastic. We learned so much from this in a fun way. And it was only $7. Well worth that and more. We stopped at many places we probably wouldn’t have otherwise. Many of your tips were perfect for us. We still have 2 more days and looking forward to some more fun. Thanks. Robin and Walt Dambkowski
Wednesday 27th of June 2018
Thanks for sharing your experience.