Kauai is not the largest island of the Hawaiian Islands, that’s Big Island. Kauai isn’t the most famous, that honor falls to Maui and Oahu, one for tourism and the other for Honolulu and Pearl Harbor. The only official distinction Kauai gets is being the oldest of the Hawaiian Islands. But like a fine wine, this island has aged into the perfect balance of striking natural landscapes, great outdoor activities, refined lodging options, exciting local tastes and local culture. There are so many things to do and see in Kauai. But don’t worry, we have compiled the ultimate Kauai bucket list destinations below.
Unlike so many beach destinations, arriving in Kauai one gets a sense that a whole new world is here to be explored. Whether you are traveling solo, in a relationship or with toddlers in hand, there is plenty of things to do in Kauai. With so many thing to see it makes you wonder how so much is packed into this small island. Kind of like the overstuffed suitcase you brought along.
Love hiking, beaches, snorkeling, beautiful scenic drives, delicious flavors, jaw dropping scenery, watching stunning sunsets, more dolphins and turtles than a Discovery channel show and an adventure around every bend? Then Kauai should be on your bucket list of places to visit.
Every explorer knows that the key is where you set up camp. Though the island is not crowded with cookie cutter chain hotels, there are plenty of great options for every budget. It’s all about location.
Where should you stay on Kauai?
Kauai is split up into four different regions that are all worth exploring. The best area to stay on Kauai really depends on what you are looking for.
The North Shore is where you will find the start of the world famous NaPali (Nā Pali) coast. This area is one of the most beautiful in the U.S. (if not the world). Hiking here feels like you are entering the set of Jurassic Park, and for good reason. Several of the scenes from the movie were filmed in this breathtaking wilderness. Towering mountains and cliffs hugged by a deep blue ocean coast makes this area one for the bucket list. With the lushness comes rainfall so be aware that during the wet season (November-March) it can get quite rainy in this area. For beach lovers, check out the gorgeous Hanalei Bay.
This part of the island is drier and therefore offers the sunniest weather. This makes it very popular with tourists and filled with various hotels, resorts and shopping options. The variety of options comes with crowds so if you are looking for a more quiet vacation this may not be the place for you. Famous beaches in the South Shore include Shipwreck beach, Poipu beach, Kiahuna beach and Mahaulepu beach. For those looking for adventure and to get away from the crowds, the Maha’elupu coastline is stunning. This undeveloped area can only be reached by boat or by foot. Hike to Kawailoa Bay and enjoy incredible views amongst the limestone cliffs.
Dubbed as the “Coconut Coast,” the East Coast of Kauai is filled with stretches of coconut trees along the coast line. This area of the island is the most developed and where you should go to get the most authentic, local experience. Though the beaches here aren’t as stunning as the North and South Shore beaches, the lodging is a lot more affordable, so it is definitely an area to consider for those on a budget. It is also a central place to be stationed to have close proximity to both the West Side and the North Coast of Kauai.
Entering the West Side feels like you are in a completely different world from the rest of Kauai. The driest part of the island due to the rainfall being blocked by the mountains, the scenery here is unlike anywhere else in Hawaii. If you are looking for a quiet, peaceful area to escape from it all, this part of the island is the least developed and therefor gets the least amount of tourists. Still, it is home to one of the most beautiful places in Hawaii, Waimea Canyon. Dubbed as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” this area offers drastic views of a valley carved 3,600 feet into the earth. This area is also home to Kokee State Park, offering over 45 miles of hiking trails to explore the beauty of the local nature and wildlife.
Most beautiful places to visit and best things to do in Kauai
1. Hike the NaPali coast
The star attraction on Kauai is the NaPali Coast. It’s a rugged 16 miles of coastline inaccessible by car. To see this majestic beauty and all of its secrets you have to hike, helicopter or take a boat. The hike starting out past Hanalei Bay is highly recommended. Though the full hike is 11mi each way and requires a permit, smaller stretches are a great mix of beautiful scenery and moderately challenging hiking.
2. Take a scenic boat tour
The Napali Coast needs to be fully experienced from the water and we recommend two fantastic boat tours, each comes with a completely unique experience.
Early morning sun breaks over the water while a powerful catamaran powers over the light morning waves. Slight ocean spray breaks around you while you enjoy a breakfast of banana bread and watch as a school of dolphins on the way to a nap show up around the boat. Holo Holo Charters takes groups up to 40 on its sizable catamaran outfitted with many great places to enjoy the scenery.
The giant cliffs of the NaPali Coast open up as you round a part of the island like something out of the movies; in fact they are movie stars of countless blockbusters. These giant green covered cliffs rise into the sky right out of the ocean only to be sliced by gravity defying streams tumbling down from the very peaks down to the ocean shore. Stake out a spot on the deck of the boat as it cruises right up to giant caves filled with breaking waves. Holo Holo then whisks you away for some great snorkeling on the private island of Niihau and top off the cruise with a great lunch and refreshments for a perfect day out.
The Makana Charters trip covers the same general territory of the NaPali Coast, but spends more time along the coast and goes further around the island. The boat a significantly smaller, sleeker power boat catamaran that trades off some of the ample room and accommodations of the bigger boat by putting you in the front seat of the action. Hang your feet off the front of the boat as dolphins swim by to say hello.
Perched on the bow of the boat you see the ocean passing by you as you sail along the coast. The boat also cruises right up and into the caves, waterfalls and bases of the walls many jutting straight out of the foaming turquoise water. This trip also comes with great snorkeling at the beginning of the Napali coastline. You’d think two trips on the same 15mi trip would cover all the bases, but the coast and the sea surrounding it are so amazing that you could have the appetite to hop on a helicopter after to see another view.
3. Take a helicopter tour of the island
For those seeking a peak from above, a helicopter tour will take you to places you can’t get to by foot. Blue Hawaiian is one of the companies offering these spectacular tours. From the sky, you can explore the entire island and get a sense of the endless beauty it has to offer. Explore plunging waterfalls, towering cliffs, multi-colored canyons and stunning beach coastlines. Tours are contingent on weather so make sure to book early in your stay in case the flights need to move due to inclement weather, especially during rainy season.
4. Explore the breath-taking Waimea Canyon
Waimea Canyon is a Hawaiian reference to the reddish water that the river had eroded here to create this beautiful landscape. Carved from the torrent amounts of rain that come down from Mount Wai’ale’ale, it claims the title on the island as the wettest place on earth. The canyon is great for scenic drives in both directions, great hiking of both the relaxed and challenging types as well as fantastic views down into the Napali Coast.
5. Hike in Koke’e State Park
45 miles of trails provide ample opportunity to explore the vast wilderness of Koke’e State Park. The north edge of the park allows you to take a peak into one of the beautiful valleys of NaPali coast from a different perspective. Visit Kalalau lookout or Puu O Kila lookout for a panorama of the stunning green cliffs.
6. Go beach hopping and get to know the local wildlife
Hawaii is famous for its stunning beaches and Kauai is home to many of the best. There is something for everyone, whether you are into surfing (Kiahuna beach), relaxing in the sun, watching wild-life or even collecting glass (Glass Beach in Port Allen). Poipu beach is the best place to observe sea turtles and seals while you catch some rays. Tons of snorkeling spots can be found on the various beaches for a chance to see Hawaii’s sea life including the elusive octopus. Kauai is also considered to be one of the best places to dive.
Kauai weather and best month to travel to the island
When should you travel to Kauai? The best time of year to visit Kauai depends on what you are looking for. Seasons are split into wet season and dry season. Wet season, or winter, is typically between November and March with November, December and January getting the most precipitation. This time of the year is also cooler, so if you prefer to keep out of the heat then this may be a good time for you to go. Temperatures during the time range from the mid-high 70s. During the summer, or dry season, temperatures can get up to the mid to high 80s.
Winter tends to be the most expensive flights and the largest crowds. If you are on a budget, consider coming during the summer.
What to pack for your trip to Kauai, Hawaii
Let’s face it. Much of your time on Kauai will be spent on the water so make sure to be prepared.
- Bathing suit
- Cover up/Throw over dress
- Snorkel gear
- Reef-safe sunscreen – This is a must have item no matter where you travel if you plan to go in the water however in Hawaii it is a requirement.
- Flip-flops or comfortable Flats
- Underwater camera
- Water bottle – There is already a lot of plastic in the ocean. Bring a reusable water bottle with you o your trip and save the planet!
- Reusable straw
- Waterproof dry bag/backpack – This one one of our favorite things to bring with us no matter where we are traveling.
- Rash Guard – Stay protected from the sun without the chemicals. Waterlust is our favorite brand for water rash guards which also benefit environmental charities and are made out of recycled plastic!
- Hiking shoes
- Trekking poles – The terrain can get muddy and slippery, especially when wet.
- Light-weight rain jacket – Rain can come from out of nowhere, carry a rain jacket to keep dry
- Natural bug spray/insect repellant
- Hiking clothes
- Travel documents
- Summer clothing (dresses, shorts, tshirts, etc)