Just 33 miles across at its widest point, Kauai may seem small enough to explore in a day or two, but this lush little Hawaiian isle has plenty to keep you busy for a week or more—think hidden beaches, colorful botanical gardens, laid-back small towns, hiking trails through rugged rainforest landscapes, and reefs teeming with colorful fish. Read on to discover the best things to do in Kauai.
See the Grand Canyon of the Pacific
Though it’s only half as deep as the Grand Canyon and nowhere near as long, Waimea Canyon is still a jaw-dropping sight, with its vibrant green, red, and brown walls sloping into a deep valley. From some viewpoints you can see Waipoo Falls tumbling some 800 feet to the bottom of the canyon.
Allow half a day to drive along Highway 550 through the park and into neighboring Kokee State Park—or longer if you want to hike any of the trails into the canyon.
Discover the Napali Coast
Unlike some other Hawaiian islands, you can’t circumnavigate Kauai by car. You’ll run out of road in the northwestern corner of the island, where steep, jagged green cliffs plunge precipitously into the sea. This is the famed Napali Coast (na pali means “high cliffs” in Hawaiian). You can catch a glimpse of the cliffs from viewpoints in Kokee State Park, or take the strenuous, 11-mile Kalalau Trail into the heart of the wilderness park, with incredible views of beaches, waterfalls, and fluted cliffs.
Most travelers, however, see the Napali Coast from the water or the air. Consider a dinner cruise to watch the rosy light of sunset fall over the cliffs, or go earlier in the day for a snorkeling and rafting adventure along the coast. Aerial tours include views of the entire island, not just the Napali Coast, and can be done via helicopter or small plane.
Hit the Beach
For travelers who want to relax on the sand between hikes and outdoor Kauai adventures, the island offers plenty of pristine beaches. Many of the most popular options are on the sunny south side of the island, including Poipu Beach and Baby Beach. Farther west are the calm, clear waters of Salt Pond Beach near Hanapepe, and the remote golden sands of Polihale State Park, accessible via a rough, 4WD-only road.
Though Kauai’s North Shore gets a bit more rain than other parts of the island, it’s also home to some spectacular beaches worth visiting. Anini Beach is a superb spot for snorkeling, and Secret Beach (officially known as Kauapea Beach) is big, beautiful, and blissfully uncrowded.
Take a Hike
Lace up your boots and walk off that long flight from the mainland. Hiking is one of the most popular Kauai activities for visitors thanks to the island’s wide variety of landscapes, including waterfalls, rainforest, bogs, beaches, mountain cliffs, and verdant valleys.
Aside from the challenging Kalalau Trail mentioned above, popular Kauai hiking trails include the Kuilau Ridge Trail, which winds through the lush Keahua Arboretum to a view of the Makaleha Mountains; the Awaawapuhi Trail, which descends more than 2,000 feet through part of Kokee State Park to impressive 360-degree views of the Napali cliffs; and the Mahaulepu Trail, a rocky path along the ocean from Shipwreck Beach to Keoneloa Bay. See Kauai.com and Hawaii-Guide.com for detailed descriptions of Kauai’s best hikes.
Look for Wildlife
You’ll spot Kauai’s most common animal pretty much as soon as you step out of the airport: Wild chickens cluck and crow their way across nearly the entire island. But wildlife lovers have many more animals to appreciate both on land and in the waters surrounding Kauai.
Perched on the northernmost tip of the island is Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge, where seabirds like red-footed boobies and Laysan albatrosses nest on steep rocky cliffs. You can also sometimes spot whales, dolphins, or seals in the sea around the point. The best time to see humpback whales in the waters around Kauai is between December and May; take a dedicated whale-watching cruise to up your chances.
To spot Kauai’s colorful fish and green sea turtles, spend a few hours snorkeling or scuba diving. You can do so from the shore in places like Poipu Beach or Tunnels Beach, or book a snorkeling trip by boat.
Discover Gardens, Grottos, and Waterfalls
Discover the leafy foliage and natural beauty that have earned Kauai its nickname: the Garden Isle. At Allerton Garden the plants and flowers are arranged into “rooms,” while nearby McBryde Garden has the world’s largest collection of native Hawaiian flora. Na Aina Kai is both a botanical garden and a sculpture park on the North Shore.
Two of Kauai’s most easily accessible waterfalls are Wailua Falls and Opaekaa Falls, both near Lihue and located just a short walk from their respective parking areas. Another must-see natural sight is the Fern Grotto, where ferns grow upside down in a cave surrounded by tropical greenery.
Get a Taste of Kauai
You can’t come to Kauai without sampling some of the local food and drink. Kauai Coffee, America’s biggest coffee farm, offers tastings and tours near Poipu. Need something a little stronger? Sample rums made with locally grown cane sugar at Koloa Rum Company in Lihue. Kauai Beer Company serves up craft brews down the street from the Kauai Museum in Lihue.
Tasting Kauai offers food tours in the southern, northern, and eastern parts of the island, featuring everything from street food to gelato. At Princeville Botanical Gardens, you can take a chocolate tasting tour that also includes samples of local fruit and honey.
Explore Local History and Culture
Though the island is famous for its natural beauty, some of the best things to do in Kauai involve its rich history and culture. Start at the Kauai Museum, where exhibits celebrate the indigenous and immigrant people of the isle. Then visit Grove Farm, a 19th-century sugar cane plantation that now offers informative guided tours. You’ll find other pieces of Kauai history in Old Koloa Town, where plantation buildings have been repurposed as shops and restaurants, or along the nearby Koloa Heritage Trail.
To explore more contemporary Kauaian culture, stop by the town of Hanapepe, known for its shops and galleries. Every Friday is Art Night, when local artists open their doors till 9:00 p.m.
Play a Round of Golf
What’s better than a relaxing round of golf? A relaxing round of golf in one of the most beautiful places on the planet. Consider 18 holes at the oceanfront Poipu Bay Golf Course, designed by Robert Trent Jones, Jr. and located adjacent to the Grand Hyatt on the southern coast of the island. Also designed by Jones is the Princeville Makai Golf Club overlooking Hanalei Bay on the North Shore. The course has been ranked in the top 100 greatest public courses by Golf Digest.
More affordable public courses include Puakea Golf Course and Wailua Municipal Golf Course in the Lihue area, both also offering sea views.
Have an Adventure
Some of the best things to do in Kauai will get your blood pumping—like zip-lining over jungle treetops, learning to surf in Hanalei, biking downhill through Waimea Canyon State Park, or taking an off-road ride through Kipu Ranch.
If you enjoy kayaking, you’ve got options in Kauai. For a serene ride, paddle along the Hanalei or Wailua Rivers. Experienced paddlers up for a bigger challenge—and incredible views—can kayak in the ocean along the Napali Coast.
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Sarah Schlichter traveled to Hawaii as a guest of Hawaiian Airlines and Barclays. Follow her on Twitter @TravelEditor for more travel tips and inspiration.
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