Last Updated on April 26, 2023
Overview: A quick guide to Kauai
This Kauai guide is by no means a comprehensive Kauai travel guide, but you’ll find the Kauai highlights that everyone has to see, the best places to visit in Kauai, and the best places to stay in Kauai.
Kauai, or Kaua’I, is the oldest of the Hawaiian Islands. It is the fourth largest islands, spanning over an area of 562.3 square miles (1,456.4 km2). A short 20-minute flight brings you to Kauai, the northwestern most island of the archipelago. Thanks to its lush green vegetation, Kuaui is also known as the ‘garden isle’.
Many people have seen the jaw-droppingly beautiful scenery of Kauai in movies like Jurassic Park or King Kong, but it has been famous for much longer, mainly through Elvis Presley’s film Paradise, Hawaiian Style.
Visitors do not only love Kauai for its natural beauty, but also because it is much less populated than the Big Island, Maui and Oahu, and it has much more laid-back feel to it. Tourist development started much later here than on the other islands,which meant that building heights were strictly restricted – no building can be higher than a coconut tree! This makes Kauai absent of high-rise hotels and big resorts typical on the other islands here. Instead, there is a bigger share of condos and timeshares, B&Bs and vacation apartments (See below for more details).
The Not-to-be-missed Kauai Highlights
Kauai attracts visitors for the same reasons as the more popular Hawaiian islands: snorkeling, laying out on white sand beaches, hiking, swimming and of course the amazing views! But Kauai offers some unique features that make it the most popular vacation spot:
The Na Pali Coast
You might recognize the Na Pali coast from when it featured in the blockbuster Jurassic Park – and for good reason, it is by far the most scenic place on Kauai. The giant cliffs, all thousands of feet high, drop straight into several beautiful beaches, however, they are only reachable by helicopter or boat. Route 550 leads directly to the Na Pali Coast and there are several viewpoints on top of the cliffs. Very experienced hikers can hike the Na Pali Coast State Park, and the 22-mile Kalalau Trail passes several spectacular caves and some of the pristine beaches that can be seen from the top of the cliffs. The Kalalau Trail is said to be one of the most spectacular hikes in the world – it is, however, extremely difficult. To get a feel for it, it is recommended to start with the 2-mile hike to the first beach and see if you think you are able to do another 20 miles. Even if you only go for the shorter hike – this is a MUST for everyone visiting Kauai.
Waimea Canyon and Koke’e State Park
Referred to as the Pacific’s Grand Canyon, Waimea Canyon is 3,567 feet deep (1,087 m), over 10 miles long and one mile wide. The colors of the canyon are very similar to the colors of the Grand Canyon, but the wetter climate in Kauai added a bright green to it which makes it even more colorful. Several lookouts along the canyon, all well worth a stop for their different angles and sights. The best time to visit is in the late morning, after the clouds and morning fog have disappeared.
Follow the road beyond the canyon, to get to Koke’e State Park. Here you find 45 hiking paths, some of which lead into Waimea Canyon. Koke’e State Park is a combination of bog and rainforest and offers fantastic high mountain nature hikes. You can find a an overview of the most popular Koke’e State Park hikes here.
Kauai Travel Guide: What to see on Kauai
This is one of the most photographed beaches of all of Hawaii. It’s located on Kauai’s north shore and you can reach it via a short jungle hike. It tends to be less busy and more private than the other beaches – even though you can find it in every Kauai travel guide. I guess not everyone wants to go hiking on their vacation! Lumahai Beach also offers great snorkeling, caves to explore and for the extremely adventurous even a cliff to jump into the ocean from – everything people dream of when they think ‘Hawaii’!
Located in a little bay at the entrance of Nawiliwli harbor in the southeast of Kauai, Kalapaki Beach is protected from the strong ocean surf and makes for ideal swimming conditions. The wide, golden sand beach is lined with coconut palms and offers all sorts of water sports.
Po’ipu Beach on Kauai’s south shore is the picture-perfect beach: a long stretch of golden sand with palm trees and perfect conditions for snorkeling, paddle boarding, surfing and other water sports.
Watch for whales!
Mahaulepu Beach (not far from Po’ipu) is the best place for whale spotting from the shore during their migration from December to April. Make sure you bring time and binoculars and make yourself comfortable at the beach!
Hanalei and Hanalei Bay
Popular with the surfing crowd, Hanalei is a picturesque little beach town on Kauai’s north shore, and world-famous for the adjacent Hanalei Bay, shaped like a crescent with a superb surf.
Hanapepe is located on the south shore and is known for its many artists’ galleries, workshops and craft shops.
Kauai is home to several stunning waterfalls, and because the island is so compact, you can easily pack a few in to one day. The stunning Wailua Waterfalls, actually a triple water fall is one of the most popular photo ops on Kauai, and the Opaekaa Falls are also a fantastic sight.
Kilauea Point Lighthouse
The historical lighthouse from 1913 is located in a national wildlife refuge which is a bird watcher’s paradise, and well worth the $3 entrance fee.
Where to stay in Kauai
Kauai has both, a large number of hotels and Airbnb vacation rentals.
The Best Hotels in Kauai
If you prefer the amenities of a hotel and don’t need a full kitchen, you’re better off staying at a hotel. However, hotels on Kauai are definitely more expensive than Airbnb’s – get ready to splurge! Most resorts specifically cater to honeymooners. Here are the best rated hotesl in Kauai (2020):
- St Regis Princeville Resort – Princeville / Napali Coast – 5-star hotel with golf courses, gourmet dining and a full-service spa
- Koloa Landing Resort at Po’ipu, Autograph Collection – South Shore. Luxury villas and studios, two swimming pools in the resort
- Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort & Spa – South Coast. Resort with river pools and tropical gardens, a spa, a golf course and 7 restaurants
- Marriott’s Waiohai Beach Club – South coast. Beach resort with self-catering rooms, outdoor pool and spa. Golf course close by.
- The Point at Poipu By Diamond Resorts – Poipu / South Coast – large resort with stunning views of Shipwreck Beach and Keoneloa Bay
- The Westin Princeville Ocean Resort Villas – Princeville / North Coast. Spacious luxury villas. Swimming pools and lush gardens. Golf course close by.
- Koa Kea Hotel & Resort – Poipu / South Coast – boutique resort with on-site restaurant and spa
- Hideaway Cove Poipu Beach – Upscale apartments & studios on the south coast
Airbnb’s in Kauai
If you prefer making your own meals, you’ll want to stay in an Airbnb. There are currently over 300 homes in Kauai listed on Airbnb’s, ranging from remote cedar cabins to fancy condos that come with a Jacuzzi and a BBQ. Have a look at the Kauai Airbnb’s here.
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