When one thinks about Hawaii, most will conjure thoughts of Honolulu on the island of Oahu, The picturesque Maui, or the volcanic Big Island. That’s 3 islands of Hawaii and you haven’t even thought about my favourite island out of all them – Kauai.
I’m turn about telling you about this island because I really hope Kauai continues to be a secret for the select few that knows about its wonders. Thing is, if you’ve been to Honolulu and Maui, you know that there are A LOT of tourists. On the other end of the spectrum you have the sheer raw beauty of Kauai, an island that doesn’t take itself too seriously and likes to be under the radar. OH and how can I forget about all the roosters that roam the island.
Kauai’s laid-back atmosphere, endless strips of beach, lack of big commercial areas, rich culture, dramatic scenery, and world-class hiking are the reasons why I keep going back to this island. The allure is the fact that I can do some of the crazy adventurous outdoors but also slow the clock down to do a whole lot of nothing at one of the many secret beaches or watch another brilliant sunset.
They don’t call it the “Garden Island” for nothing.
The emerald valleys that twist and fold like accordions towards the Na Pali Coast present a jaw-dropping landscape. Then factor in the tropical rainforests, cascading waterfalls, and jagged canyons weathered by time and you really start wondering where you actually are.
In the small towns, you’ll find an ABC store here and there and of course a Foodland is never too far away but after that you’ll encounter small local restaurants, and trendy upstarts. It feels like a place for locals. You can just take your time and not be troubled with the trappings of everyday life and material things.
At the end of the day, Kauai is an island where you’ll never see a tour bus, locals are friendly, towns are small, and beaches will call your name.
A View From Above
If there’s 3-ish minutes that can convince someone to add Kauai to their travel-to-next list, this is it.
10 Things You Need Need To Do In Kauai
 Kalalau Trail
The Kalalau Trail is a famous 11 mile (22 miles round trip)trek that starts from Ke’e Beach in the North Shore and runs along the Na Pali Coast. The full hike zig-zags you through lush jungle, valleys, steep cliffs, and unexpected streams.
For most people that come to Kauai, the Kalalau Trail is a perfect day trip where you hike in 2 miles to get to Hanakapi’ai Beach, detour up to the 100-foot Hanakapi’ai waterfall which is perfect for a refreshing dip. This alone will be quite the journey as you switchback through the contour of the start of the jagged coast and includes a stream that you will have to leap frog over with the helps of rocks that lead your way. It’s all worth it though because it’s one of the few ways by foot that you can truly enjoy the grandness of the coast.
The full epic-ness of this hike doesn’t happen until you do the full multi-day hike which requires a permit from the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources. It’s an arduous trek that isn’t for the feint of heart as you’ll have to scale sketchy full drop off ridges but you are rewarded with completely isolated beaches, dramatic mountains and seaside caves.
Ke’e Beach – If you plan on doing Kalalau as a day hike, make sure you start early and plan to spend time at the beach that is right in front of the trailhead. It’s a great place to snorkel and also has some of the most incredible sunsets on the island.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Best time to go: For the full hike, summer is your best bet when it is much drier and the oceans are calmer.
Is the trail open?: Check the official page below and if there are closures, there will be a warning banner at the top.
How long does it take: For our very slow to average pace, it took roughly 5 hours and that doesn’t include the side hike up to the waterfall which we didn’t get to do. The hike up to see Hanakapi’ai waterfall is another 2 miles (4 miles round trip) so that’s another 3-5 hours depending on how long you hang out at there. Add it all up and you have a very full day of hiking which gives you more reason to start early.
Gear up: It goes without saying to make sure you have good footwear like the Keen H2 Newport Sandals. Remember that you do have to cross one or many streams. During rainy season, a poncho and backpack rain cover is helpful.
- We did this hike at the end of February and dealt with serious bouts of rain. During the lull periods, the mosquitos came out in force so make sure you bring repellent.
- During high season, also know that the parking lot fills up FAST including the spillover parking lot.
- You want to get to the trail head as early as you can to get a spot and so you’re also not hiking when it’s the hottest.
- Pack a lunch so you can eat it when you get to the beach.
- Pack plenty of water
More info: Official Kalalau Trail page
 JoJo’s Shave Ice
Shave ice is a staple on Hawaii and when it comes to the best, I have to recommend JoJo’s. While I still think Maui’s Ululani’s and Oahu’s Matsumoto’s are better overall (primarily because of mochi), I loved JoJo’s combination flavours which comes with their own mac nut ice cream which is absolutely to die for.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Locations: There are two locations. One is in Hanalei (5-5190 Kuhio Hwy) and the other is in Waimea (9734 Kaumualii Hwy).
Price: $7.99 for a combination flavour with the ice cream or $5.95 for a DIY-style shave ice (both in their smaller size).
More info: JoJo’s Shave Ice
 Waimea Canyon
The call Waimea Canyon the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific” and having done hikes around there twice, there’s no doubt in my mind that this is accurate. I think the mind blowing part about all of this is that you have to remember that this is a small island that we’re talking about and to have the magnitude and colourful beauty that the canyon puts on display is amazing.
Now Waimea Canyon itself is a bit of a generalized name because this covers a massive area on the west side of the island. It’s the part of the island that is impassable by car which is a common question when anyone comes to Kauai which is “why can’t I drive around the whole island?”. Once you leave the town of Waimea, it’s a steady uphill climb into the clouds as the soil turns red the lookouts become more and more glorious and you enter into the deep of Waimea Canyon State Park, Koke’e State Park, and then end off at the Kalalau Lookout.
To me, Waimea Canyon is a bit of a choose-your-own-adventure kind of place. It’s probably the only place on the island where you will see tour buses and along the road, you’ll encounter a number of easy to access lookouts where all you’ll have to do is get off your car, walk up to the railing and take in the beauty of the canyon and Na Pali Coast. On the other hand, if you’re down for a little adventure, there are a ton of hikes to do that range from easy to challenging. Depending on what you’d like to see, how much time you have, and your physical fitness, it’s really up to you which one you want to do. Just make sure you decide beforehand and have instructions on where to find your trailhead because trust me, things aren’t particularly well marked on the island.
I personally have done the Canyon Trail and Awaawapuhi Trail on two separate trips and I would highly recommend both. The Canyon Trail is a great one that rewards you with serious overlooks deep inside the canyon while the Awaawapuhi Trail is a trail that takes a little patience but once you get to the end you’re suddenly on the ridgetop with dramatic views of the coast and the Pacific Ocean. I’ve also heard really good things about the Alakai Swamp Trail which is once-in-a-lifetime.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Best time to go: Similar to the Kalalau Trail, it’s pretty much good to do anytime of the year. I recently went in the Winter season and we were fogged out in terms of overlook views and the Awaawapuhi Trail was extremely muddy so it’s just about being prepared.
Tips: All my previous hiking tips apply. I think the biggest thing to be mindful of is the fact that it’s quite a drive to get to Waimea Canyon if you’re on the North or East side of the island (i.e. :Lihue to Hanalei). As an example, it’s a full 2 hours to get from Princeville to the Kalalau Lookout. If you plan to do any hikes, make sure to get a very early start.
 Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail in Poipu
As the last stretch of undeveloped coastline on the south shore, this heritage trail is both special in that locals have fought hard to preserve these areas and also that it’s so unique with its sand-dune cliffs and limestone formations compared to the more jungly and rainforest hikes that you find on the rest of the island. This hike is one where you can go as far as you want and turn back but it is 2 miles in each direction and is classified as “Easy”.
What’s really different about this trail is that a good part of it is a sand dune. Sure it makes it your steps a little bit more challenging but take that and the backdrop of the crashing ocean into sharp limestone cliffs that is something that feels quite unusual on a island like Kauai that is known for it’s dense rainforest and mountainous ridges.
Where we had trouble with coming here last time was finding the parking lot to start the hike. I think one of the main gripes I have with hikes on Kauai is that there aren’t exactly huge signs to point you in the right direction. It’s a bit of an insider’s club but hopefully I won’t lead you astray. The key when you head into Poipu and drive towards the massive Grand Hyatt is to pass it as you drive East and immediately before pavement turns to dirt road and you see signs for the Poipu Bay Golf Course, turn right and go all the way down until you see a parking lot. From there you’ll be at Shipwreck Beach and the trail starts to your left where you’ll see people jumping off the cliff.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Best time to go: Good to hike at any time. I’d recommend doing this in the morning or late afternoon because there isn’t much cover along the way.
How long does it take?: I definitely recommend doing this hike as you explore the Poipu area. The full hike can be done in 3 hours round trip but you can turn back at anytime so I’d say you can do most of the best parts of the hike in 2 hours.
Tips: The sand dunes are well very sandy so if you feel that your shoes are going to get full of sand quickly, I’d recommend something like the Keen H2 Newport Sandals so it can freely flow in and out while still providing excellent traction.
More info: There’s a great site and virtual tour by the Po’ipu Beach Foundation on the Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail. Also, there’s a great pamphlet by the same group that you can find in the arrivals area of the airport so make sure you pick one up if you’re planning on doing this one.
 All The Secret Beaches
As much as I’m all about the adventure, let’s be honest, Kauai is a place to relax and soak in some sun. What I love about Kauai is just how the beaches here aren’t all the kind where you drive your car up to the parking lot and the beach is right there. No, in Kauai, you need to do your research or you need to be with a local. Especially up in the North near Hanalei and Princeville, every other beach seems to be a secret beach. They’re never marked, there is barely any parking, and you have to hike down a seemingly treacherous (okay I’m exaggerating a bit here) path.
So why go through the trouble of going to a hidden beach than to go to one of the easy-to-access public beaches? The main advantage of these beaches are that they’re completely secluded. While it’s not as secret as it was before the internet came along, you’re going to be dealing with less crowds and will be by its nature more peaceful than the non-secret types.
Some of my favourite beaches on Kauai are:
Located in Princeville, this was one of the beaches we went to because of it’s close proximity to the house rental we had. When I looked this up online, there weren’t many clear instructions to get there and when we walked to the area it was still almost impossible to find but luckily a local pointed us in the right direction.
Along the way down, there are great views of the ocean crashing into volcanic rock before descending down into the hidden cove where the beach lay. It’s fairly small and the sand is coarse but the water is protected by reef further out and so it makes for a great spot for snorkelling and swimming. There is also a good amount of shade here by the cliff or by shadow as the sun gets covered by the crescent cove at certain angles.
This one is not so secret anymore as there’s literally a pin on Google Maps that calls it Secret Beach. It’s originally called Kauapea Beach and to get there, follow Highway 56 about a half mile past Kilauea. Turn right onto Kalihiwai Road and right on the first dirt road. Follow the road to the end, where you can park and find the trailhead.
This is a huge golden sand beach that is so good that it’s worth spending a full day here. In the summer it’s a great place to watch dolphins and even has a small waterfall on the hillside at the back of the beach. You’ll find lava rocks that dot the beach and tree cover closer to the hill. In the summer it’s swimmable for non-novice swimmers but does tend to have strong currents and big tides so you definitely need to be careful.
This is a fan favourite for anyone that has spent time in the North. To get there, you have to take a steep path between the Pali Ke Kua Condos and St. Regis that includes metal hand rails. At the bottom you get to a crescent shaped shore that is great for snorkelling and seeing sea turtles. Just make sure you do it during low tide.
This beach connects to the larger Ha’ena State and Beach Park so it’s perhaps the least secret of all. What I love about this wide-sweeping beach is that it has easy tides, great views of the mountainous coast to the left, an overall great spot for suntanning, and a long stretch of beach where you can run for miles. Since it is also easy to access since there is no hiking through a jungle or forest to get to, it is also very family friendly. I personally come to Tunnels beach for the snorkelling so make sure you pack your gear with you.
What makes it a bit difficult to get to is the somewhat secretive parking lot that is sandwiched between two properties which you can tell is a point of contention for locals in the area where you’ll find “No parking” signs all over.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
- There are no facilities at the beach so make sure you’ve packed everything you need to bring and you’ve done all of your business before going.
- Checklist of things to bring: Snacks, drinks, beach towels, snorkel gear, water shoes, hiking sandals, backpack to carry it all, and a good book.
- Parking is almost always limited at these spots so plan to go early.
- There are no lifeguards at these beaches so be cautious about going into the water whether it be for the water conditions or the rocky coral underneath.
 Kilauea Lighthouse
You’ll find this lighthouse standing tall on the North which used to be beacon for travelling ships. It’s since been decommissioned but has now been restored to its original condition and is also a refuge for many birds including the albatross, shearwater, and red-footed booby.
Parking is a bit challenging here and once it is full, the rangers will control the flow of cars coming in and out of the lighthouse. It also costs $5 per person in admission and once in, you’ll have high chances of seeing all the various birds that call this area home either flying or resting. There’s also a gift shop, information centre, free rentals for hand-held binoculars, and also fixed binoculars that are also free.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Hours: Open Tuesday – Saturday from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm
Time to budget: I’d say to account for 30-40 minutes here if you’re able to park right away.
- If you show up after closing, you can always park outside of the lighthouse and still grab a great view of the cliffs to the right and the lighthouse itself.
- Lighthouse tours – Tours are offered Wednesdays and Saturdays at 10:30 and 11:30 a.m. and 12:30, 1:30 and 2:30 p.m. pending availability of staff or volunteers
More info: US Fish and Wildlife Service
 Mountain Tubing
Back in the late 1870s, there were sugar cane plantations on the island and as part of the irrigation system, they built open canals and tunnels to flood fields. They’ve since shut down and today, Kauai Backcountry Adventures has taken over this 17,000 acre plantation and converted it into a park for eco-tourism activities including mountain tubing and zip-lining.
There aren’t too many places that you can tube through the lush green interior of Kauai and 5 hand dug tunnels. While it may not be high speed adrenaline rush, think of this of a lazy river where the canals are narrow, there’s a lot of (safe) bumping and spinning and you get to go through stone tunnels.
The guides are super professional and ensure the safety of guests the entire time while sharing stories about the plantation. At one of the tunnels, we even got a chance to turn off our headlamps to float in complete darkness while they told a ghost story.
It’s a unique experience that you really can’t find anywhere else.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Hours: Currently there are many slots for the tubing: 8:30am, 10am, 10:30am, 11am, 12pm, 12:30pm, 1:30pm, 2:30pm, and 3pm.
Time: You need to be at the office 30 minutes before departure and the tour itself is 3 hours. Keep in mind that this is near Lihue so there’s also the commute time to consider. The 30 minutes are for the signing of waivers and getting yourself fitted with your helmet, gloves, and headlamp.
What to pack: Wear your swim gear and if it is during winter, I’d recommend wearing a shirt as well. You’ll also want appropriate footwear so either bring water shoes or sandals. When you park your car at the office, bring with you everything you’ll need for the tubing and also change of clothes and towel for afterwards. All the items you don’t bring with you into the water will be safely transported to the picnic area so it’s not necessarily to have a dry bag.
- This is a popular activity on the island and gets booked quickly so make sure you make your reservation early
- Regarding GoPro’s, you’re free to wear one and I’d recommend a head mount or a pole/stick with a floaty device attached in case.
- You’ll be tempted to bring your cellphone with you and it’s definitely do-able as only your butt gets wet during the ride but I’d still recommend putting it in a waterproof case or bag.
- No need to bring headlamps as they are included.
- Remember that there is a little picnic at the end which includes create-yourself turkey sandwich, a cookie, and bag of chips so no need to bring extra food.
- At the picnic area there are outhouses and individual change rooms which gives you a chance to change into dry clothes.
- Staying safe takes a bit of self discipline in terms of keeping your legs together when you bounce off the walls so make sure you pay attention.
More info: Official site
 Hanalei Bay
Hanalei Bay is many things. To some it’s a great place to grab a morning cup of Joe at The Hanalei Bread Company, to others it’s the perfect place to catch some surf, and for someone like me, it was the perfect spot for photography during sunset.
This is the main happening spot in the North Shore so you’ll find yourself here quite a bit. The views here are absolutely stunning with the jagged green mountains in the background and the water that comes in from the ocean to form this bay.
Activity wise, it’s actually a really good place to learn how to surf and you can also rent kayak’s here to get you through the river that runs through or if you want to follow the coastline to get to say Hideaway Beach.
My favourite area to shoot here is by the Hanalei Pier which makes a perfect backdrop to the sunset which always drops right behind the mountain to create glowing beams of light. The colours are always so vivid here so stay patient even after the sun falls behind.
 Kuilau Trail
If you find yourself in the Kapa’a or Wailua area and are looking to do good hike, Kuilau Ridge is a trail that takes you deep into the forest which not only gives you a chance to see a lot of different plants and a variety of trees but there’s a big lookout that offers sweeping views of lush valleys and Mount Waialeale and the Makaleha Mountain Range.
If you’re looking for a hike that takes you to a peak, this one isn’t it however as the picnic table area with the panoramic views is as good as it gets. As you go further into the trail, it eventually connects at a bridge to the Moalepe Trail which eventually just leads to the parking lot of that trail.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Distance: 2.25 miles each way (4.5 miles round trip)
Time: 2.5 hours
- I thought this hike would be more of a low-key location but since it is quite easy to access and is easy for the whole family, expect to find a lot of cars here. The parking lot is tiny and has spots for maybe 3-4 cars. After that is full, cars will end up parking on the lefthand side of the road. Just follow suit with everyone else.
 Queen’s Bath
This is one of the popular summer attractions in the Princeville area of Kauai as natural tide pools form from the volcanic rock right along the coast. This natural geological formation is a great place to wade around and cool off.
To get there, there’s a pleasant hike down past a stream and waterfall before the rocky landscape of lava rock begins. From there, it’s just a 5 minute trek over these rocks to get to the actual Queen’s Bath.
Your experience at Queen’s Bath will largely depend on the time of year that you go. In my case, I was there in February and during the winter months, this spot is exposed to some seriously big surf. We were able to walk up near the edge but dared not stay out there too long as there’d be periodic huge crashes of water that would come out of nowhere. We were also very cognizant of the danger here as there were signs laid out everywhere about past drownings.
In the summer, you’ll be able to experience the true Queen’s Bath experience with much calmer waters and safer conditions.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Time: From the parking lot, it’s only 15 minutes to the pool and is not difficult to get to.
- Parking is extremely limited here. The trailhead down to Queen’s Bath is in a residential neighbourhood and the grass parking lot designated for visitors is big enough to have roughly 10-12 cars. After this is full, there’s nowhere else to park as the neighbours are very clear that you cannot park on open streets or on other properties.
- During the winter, don’t expect to do much with the pool area other than to watch the crashing waves and check out the rock formations. In the summer, pack your swimming gear but still stay cautious about the water conditions.
More info: It may not be clear when you come out of the trail where the actual pool is. HawaiiGaga is a great site that marks where it is.
Best time to go to: Honestly it’s good anytime of the year you go. Just know that during the winter months (November – March), evenings will be hoodie temperatures and the water will give you that initial cold water shock when you go in. Beyond that, Kauai is good all year round. If you insist on the best BEST months, then I’d place my bets for April, May, August, September, and early October.
High and low season (read as expensive and cheap): Holidays and Christmas in particular will be busier while April to May and September to early December will have some of the best deals and less crowds.
Special times of the year: While winter may be more wet, this is also the time of the year that is perfect for whale watching.
Temperatures: Average yearly temperatures ranging between 29C (84F) and 21C (69F) degrees.
Precipitation: What most people don’t know is that Kauai ‘s Mt. Waialeale is the wettest spot on Earth, averaging 450 inches of rain per year. However that doesn’t mean it’s raining all the time. North Shore gets the most amount of rain while Waimea gets the least. That being said, even when it does rain, it will typically come and go in 10 minutes (perfect for rainbows). Winters are a little different as trade winds will bring in additional moisture so will be a bit more wet.
Sides of the island: North Shore (Princeville), East Side (Coconut Coast), Lihue (Kalapaki), South Shore (Poipu), and West Side (Waimea).
Tipping: 15-20% on meals, minimum $1 per bag for porters and at least $1 – 2 per night for housekeeping.
Fun Fact: Kauai is the oldest island in the chain. The roosters are all over the island because Hurricane Iniki hit in 1992 and set all of them loose.
Travelling In A Large Group?
One of the big differences for my latest trip to Kauai is that I was there with a large group. Doing the math, it didn’t make sense for each couple in the group to book a hotel. As a result, I started looking at my favourite home sharing sites – Airbnb (free credit) and Homeaway.
With a group of 12, I was laughing my way through my search because even though properties in Princeville were at least $500 a night, we were still talking about $60 USD per person per night.
The property we had was this beautiful house in Princeville and it was the perfect place for all of us to situate ourselves in Kauai and I daresay may have been an even better than when we moved over to the St. Regis.
You’re probably think I’m crazy for saying so.
Now I’m not saying that the St. Regis Princeville isn’t nice. In fact, it’s an incredible resort with top notch service and impressive rooms with bar none some of the best views of Hanalei Bay. It’s really nice. All that said though, it’s kind of nice to be with a bunch of friends under one roof with the ability to just hang out in a living room to just chat or play boardgames. The house also had the added benefit of having its own BBQ, the ability to cook your own breakfast in the morning, brew your own pot of coffee, and do a little suntanning in the backyard. It’s a pretty sweet deal.