The Hawaiian Islands are an archipelago or stretch of islands sprawling far out in the Pacific. They are each a different geological age, with the “Big Island” of Hawaii the “baby” of the chain. In fact, it is so young that it is still growing thanks to lava flows from the active volcano in the central-southern area of the island. At the top of the chain is the island of Kauai, the oldest of the larger islands, and home to an amazing diversity of settings.
Famous in many major films (including Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and others), it has a stunning landscape that includes the unforgettable “pali” along the coast, the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, the wettest spot on the planet, the only navigable river in the Hawaiian Islands, and even the famous waterfall from the 1970s hit television show “Fantasy Island.”
It is also home to rare sights and an amazing array of experiences. While many people head to the islands with a goal of seeing them all, savvy travelers opt to stay in one place, and Kauai is an island with luxury rentals that make it easier than ever to explore the gorgeous surroundings and retreat to a private paradise at day’s end.
What to See and Do
Whether you have one or two days or a whole handful of days to dedicate to traveling the island of Kauai, we offer the following itineraries to ensure you see some of the most unforgettable sights imaginable.
NOTE: This is definitely an island for active travelers who appreciate opportunities for hiking and exploring, but there is a great deal to see and do no matter your capabilities.
Start from the Skies
One of the most amazing things that travelers can (and should) do during a visit to Kauai is to book one of the many helicopter flights that take them to the inaccessible regions of the island. The Na Pali Coast, for example, can be accessed on foot at the far northern and southern ends, but meandering along the coast itself is impossible. Instead, the many helicopter tours available can allow you to see the sights, fly into a few of the valleys and begin to understand the ancient Hawaiians a bit better.
As one expert in Hawaiian travel explained, helicopter tours leave “from the main airport in Lihue. It basically flies over the majority of Kauai and if you only have 2 days in Kauai, it’s the most efficient and scenic way to see Waimea Canyon: The Grand Canyon of the Pacific (above); and the Na Pali Coast. Not to mention some great waterfalls.”
Hit the Waters
While you are going to definitely find the time to visit some of the island’s amazing beaches, why not consider familiarizing yourself with a bit of Hawaii’s geography with a cruise up the state’s only navigable river. The Wailua River is around 20 miles in length and many cruises take you along its tranquil waters to the foot of Mount Waialeale at the heart of the island (and also the wettest or one of the rainiest spots on the planet). Along the way, you can learn more about the Hawaiian people and their history, hear about the unique geology of the island, and pay a visit to the acoustic perfection that is Fern Grotto.
Choose Your Sands
If you are going to spend time exploring Kauai, it will mean finding a great beach or two. Many point towards the Hanalei Bay area and its perfect swimming waters, though many also say that the conditions at Poipu are quite fine, especially if you enjoy snorkeling. Kalapaki Beach is close to the airport in Lihue and is considered one of the most beautiful on the island, too.
Of course, many experts will say that the best way to be sure you see a lot of the island’s top sights is to “pick one side” (north, south, east or west). As one noted, as an example, “one side of the island you’d like to spend the majority of your time and choose an activity that coincides with it. For example, you can visit the Westside’s Koke‘e State Park and see the famed “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” while at the same time, hike or enjoy a charming picnic while you’re there.”
The North and South shores are where you want to go if it is beach time you have in mind. Poipu Beach is a southern destination with a lot of shopping and dining in its general vicinity, while the northern area is where Hanalei Bay and the beautiful Haena Beach Park is found.
Hiking and Walking
If you are one of the more active visitors to the region, you will want to dedicate at least two days or more to physically exploring the different parks and canyons. Though already mentioned, Waimea Canyon is a must. It does not get the nickname the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific” for no reason. It is in the heart of the island, and though you can drive through the Kokee State Parks to catch a few good glimpses, it is when you get out and do some trekking that it pays off. Start in sweet Waimea town and be sure to pack a picnic to enjoy from the shade of the towering redwoods within the park. A good day hike is to Waipoo Falls and back.
If you are up for a challenge, the Kalalau Trail at Hanakapiai Beach is a good choice, but the Alakai Swamp Trail is also a good one, with a conclusion at the charming Salt Pond Beach Park.
Do an Art Crawl
If you are someone interested in local arts and crafts, you’ll find that the towns of Hanapepe and Kapaa are a delight. Both feature weekly Art Walks and arts festivals, and a day spent strolling through these towns will allow you to get an authentic souvenir.
Whether you stay for a short period or a lengthier time, a visit to Kauai is a delight. Spend time biking the Kapaa Bike Trail, tour charming Waimea, head to Hanalei for a farmer’s market, or explore the Na Pali Coast however you’d like, it is a wonderful spot you will revisit again and again.