Domestic Travel, Itineraries & Trip Planning

Our Guide to Experiencing Kauai, Hawaii’s Garden Island

This post may contain affiliate links. If you click on one and purchase something, I may receive an affiliate commission — at no extra cost to you.

With international travel stunted and a complete rollercoaster experience during the pandemic, Hawaii has become more popular than ever for Americans. It was also our first destination as soon as we got vaccinated. With no real plan in mind, we booked a trip to the Garden Island in May and then scrambled to research all the things to do in Kauai in the days leading up to our trip.

Kauai was my fourth Hawaiian island, having visited Oahu, Maui, and the Big Island in the preceding six or so years. But when we booked the trip, the only thing I really knew about Kauai was that I wanted to experience theNāpali Coast.

Whether you’re a last-minute planner or scoping this out months ahead of time, I’m hoping this guide helps you plan your trip to Kauai. You’ll find our thoughts and suggestions on where to stay, where to eat, and the best things to do in Kauai.

The best things to do in Kauai

Requirements for visiting Kauai during COVID-19

Like all things related to COVID-19, requirements are changing as conditions change. You can find the latest information on COVID-19 travel requirements for Kauai on the State of Hawaii’s official COVID-19 website.

As of March 25, 2022, there are no longer any requirements for visiting Hawaii for domestic or international visitors.

Where to stay in Kauai

Kauai is a fairly compact island compared to its siblings, with most visitors staying either in the north or south shore. Here’s the tl;dr:

  • North (Princeville, Hanalei): rainier but more lush, mix of resorts and short-term rentals
  • South (Koloa, Poipu): sunnier beaches, more resorts
  • East (Kapa’a, Lihue): most budget-friendly hotels in Kauai, more crowded area
  • West (Waimea): most remote with limited options, but easier access to the Napali Coast and Waimea Canyon

If you read my blog in pre-covid days, you know that I was typically more of a budget traveler. Thanks to the ongoing pandemic, however, that has changed a little. It’s a bit hard to get personal space in a 10-person hostel room, after all.

For Kauai, we wanted a chance to get away from the churn and fatigue of the pandemic, so the sunny south shore spoke to us the most.

Like with most places, Kauai hotels span the spectrum of affordability. But in the end, we chose the Grand Hyatt Kauai, a five-star resort and spa that is known as one of the best hotels in Kauai.

Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort & Spa pool

Yes, it’s absolutely gorgeous and luxurious. But the main reason we chose the Grand Hyatt KauaiResort & Spa? It was part of a Costco package that included a rental car. With the nationwide shortage back in May, we didn’t want to get stuck without a rental car, and we knew Costco Kauai packages basically meant a guaranteed car.

While it’s technically possible to get around Kauai via public transportation, we weren’t sure how well things were functioning given covid changes. Plus, having a rental car greatly increased our freedom in terms of daily schedules and making up plans as we went.

More to come on our stay at the Grand Hyatt Kauai in a separate post!

Our favorite things to do in Kauai

We had 7 full days in Kauai, plus half days on our flying days, so roughly 8 days at our disposal.

I’m no good at just pure lounging while on vacation the way some folks are, but at the same time, I wanted to enjoy the luxurious pools and lagoons at the resort. So we tried to balance our days accordingly. Something active and something relaxing, and always chasing after the best food.

Here are our favorite things to do in Kauai, bucketed by location, so you can put together your own perfect Kauai itinerary.

The best things to do in north Kauai (Princeville, Hanalei)

Because we were staying in south Kauai and there was roadwork being done up north, we wanted to make the most of each day that we dedicated to the north shore. We chose to spend two full days there.

Princeville

1. Perhaps my favorite spot up north is the Queen’s Bath. This tide pool is surrounded by lava rocks, with an amazing view of the glorious nature that Kauai offers.

Many words of warning come with a visit to the Queen’s Bath, however.

  • Parking is a pain in the ass in Princeville! There’s basically no street parking allowed, meaning you have to stay at one of the hotels or rentals there to have easy parking. There are 7 or 8 spots at the Queen’s Bath trailhead though — just be patient and wait as folks funnel in and out fairly quickly.
  • The hike down to the Queen’s Bath can be really muddy and slippery. Wear real shoes.
  • Swimming in the Queen’s Bath can be extremely dangerous depending on the tides. Be smart and don’t jump in when the tides are high. The waves can crash you against the rocks before you even know it.

Take the necessary caution, and it becomes a wonderful place to visit.

Queen's Bath Kauai

2. Technically in Kalihiwai,Anini Beach is one of the few beaches near Princeville that we were able to visit as it had some offroad parking options.

It’s a gorgeous spot for snorkeling or just laying out and watching the waves crash around you. I saw plenty of fish while snorkeling there, including humuhumunukunukuapua’a, aka the reef triggerfish, the state fish of Hawaii.

Hanalei

Because parking is such a hassle in Princeville, we spent the bulk of our time in north Kauai in Hanalei.

3. The eponymous Hanalei Beach is perhaps the easiest beach to visit. Wide and sprawling, it is easily reachable by foot once you park anywhere in town.

4. A little farther away from downtown Hanalei, however, you’ll find a series of smaller and incredibly popular beaches. Perhaps the most famous of them is Tunnels Beach, known for its stunning views and good snorkeling.

Real talk though: we felt the snorkeling at Tunnels Beach was not as good as the experience at Anini Beach (visited both on the same day).

5. Parking around Tunnels Beach is pretty difficult too. Your best bet is to park near Haena Beach Park instead. That’s also my pick if you just want a pretty beach to relax on.

Haena Beach has similar views of Mount Makana (aka Bali Hai) to those of Tunnels Beach. It also has calmer waters plus a lifeguard station and restrooms.

6. Whether you choose Haena Beach or Tunnels Beach, take a few minutes before you leave the area to visit Maniniholo Dry Cave. It’s just across the street from the Haena Beach Park parking lot. While not as spectacular as some of the caves I experienced in Thailand, it’s a fun spot to venture with its low ceilings and sandy floor.

7. My favorite spot in Hanalei isn’t a traditional tourist attraction but rather an art gallery.Havaiki Oceanic and Tribal Art is the passion project derived from an 18-year sailing journey across Oceania.

The art gallery houses both contemporary and older pieces from many of the island nations of Oceania. As someone who longs to visit those distant islands, this art gallery captured my full attention. Walking through it felt like a mini tour of Oceania right there in Kauai.

8. For other art galleries, boutiques, and such, visit the Ching Young Village Shopping Center. It’s the main strip of Hanalei, so to speak.

9. On your way out, don’t miss the Hanalei Valley Lookout for the intensely gorgeous panorama that it offers.

Hanalei Valley Lookout Kauai

The best things to do in south Kauai (Koloa, Poipu)

Since we were staying at the Grand Hyatt Kauai, we spent pockets of time almost every day in Poipu. This may be a controversial opinion, especially for those who love Hanalei, but I thought the south shore had the best beaches in Kauai.

Poipu

1. The first thing we did outside the resort was visit Shipwreck Beach, which is adjacent to the Grand Hyatt. It’s a smaller beach but a fantastic spot to watch the sunset.

2. Just past Shipwreck Beach is the real gem of this coastline: the Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail. This coastal hike offers stunning views of the Koloa coastline. It’s just under 4 miles out and back and is fairly flat, albeit with sometimes rocky terrain.

Maha'ulepu Heritage Trail Kauai

3. My favorite beach in the area is Poipu Beach. It’s a semi-protected cove of sorts, with calm waters that’s great for relaxing and snorkeling.

4. If for some reason Poipu Beach is too packed or too calm for your taste, Brennecke’s Beach is right next to it and offers bigger waves that are good for boogie boarding.

5. For more real surfs, head down the coast to Kiahuna Beach. We took a surfing lesson there to get a refresher and only wished that we’d chosen a less popular time. It can get really crowded there!

6. Beyond the beaches, we also enjoyed biking around town. The Grand Hyatt Kauai had free beach cruisers and mountain bikes for guests to use, which allowed us to get out and about without having to think about parking. It was also an easy way to move between beaches when we wanted!

7. One of the places we found easier to explore on bike than in a car was the Ke Kehua o Kaneiolouma heiau.

If you’re headed to Poipu Beach, it’s actually pretty difficult to miss the Kāneiolouma Heiau. What you’ll see first are the four ki’i, totem-like objects, that represent four Hawaiian gods and the path of celestial bodies.

Ke Kehua o Kaneiolouma heiau Kauai

What you won’t see unless you stop on foot are the information plaques, written in Hawaiian and English, and the ancient Hawaiian village behind them.

What may look like an untamed plot of land is actually a 13-acre site of an ancient Hawaiian village dating back to the mid-1400s. A non-profit organization has been restoring it for two decades now, clearing the land, planting native species, and perhaps one day bringing back makahiki games to the sporting arena in the middle.

In the midst of resorts and beaches, this was truly a wonder to see.

8. Okay, there are technically luaus across the island, but given it’s an evening activity often with plenty of alcohol involved, I highly encourage sticking to a luau near where you are staying.

When we visited, luaus were still in short supply across Kauai. We ended up with a COVID-modified version of the Grand Hyatt Kauai Luau. While enjoyable, it was incredibly pricey and too hotel-y of an environment for me. I would ideally have liked to attend one of the non-hotel options, like the Smith Family Garden Luau.

Koloa

Koloa is just north of Poipu, and often the actual mailing address city for businesses that are technically in Poipu. How this works, I don’t know. Ask USPS.

9. The main strip there is Old Koloa Town, an adorable few blocks still in the style of the old sugar plantation days. There are dozens of shops and restaurants, with large, sweeping trees dotting the landscape. But what was really interesting to me is the plaques detailing the historical nature of many of the buildings.

To read them is to see the historical crossroads that Koloa once was, as well as the Japanese and Chinese influences and communities that existed on Kauai before Hawaii became a U.S. state.

Old Koloa Town store

10. The other main sight in Koloa is one that you’ll experience in your car.

If you drive from the airport in Lihue to Koloa or Poipu, you can’t miss the Tree Tunnel of Kauai. This stretch of eucalyptus trees form a tunnel of sorts and is a gorgeous introduction to the greenery of the island.

The best things to do in east Kauai (Kapa’a)

Most of our time on the east side of Kauai was spent in Kapa’a.

I think Kapa’a is one of the most underrated areas of Kauai. It’s true that some of the most stunning views and experiences are elsewhere on the island, but if you’re on Kauai for more than a long weekend, I would strongly suggest spending at least a day in Kapa’a.

1. Like elsewhere on Kauai, Kapa’a has many hiking options. The most famous of those is the Sleeping Giant, also known as Nounou Mountain.

We did the East Trail, which is roughly 3.4 miles and about 1000 feet elevation gain. While the hike itself isn’t particularly strenuous, the humidity in the forest can be stifling, so make sure to bring plenty of water and wear a headband.

Go all the way up to the top. The view into the valley below is absolutely lovely!

Sleeping Giant hike Kauai

2. One of the landscape features that you can see from the Sleeping Giant is the Wailua River. One of the major rivers of Kauai, the Wailua offers a great spot for kayaking and paddleboarding.

Wailua River kayaking Kauai

We went on a “Secret Falls Kayak & Hike” as credit with the tour company was one of the perks of the Costco package when we bought it.

It was such a relaxing kayak trip of 4 miles, accompanied by 3 miles on foot, with the destination being Uluwehi Falls, aka Secret Falls. And just gorgeous scenery that you almost come to expect at every turn in Kauai.

There are also many outlets for renting kayaks and paddleboards if you want to DIY the trip instead.

The best things to do in west Kauai (Waimea)

The west side of the island is the most isolated, but it’s also home to the famous things to do in Kauai, the experiences that the Garden Island is almost synonymous with.

1. And that, first and foremost, is of course the Napali Coast.

Napali Coast Kauai

There are three main ways to experience Kauai’s gorgeous coast. By boat, by helicopter, and by foot.

Hiking the Napali Coast via the Kalalau Trail is the hardest option to access. It is 22 miles and requires a permit. I hope to make this trek one day when we can get a permit to do so.

So the decision for us came down to visiting the Napali Coast by boat vs. helicopter.

While a helicopter flight offers a stunning bird’s eye view of the Napali Coast, most of the tours are over in less than an hour. We chose to go with a boat tour so we could have more time to experience the Napali Coast and also snorkel in its waters. (There are non-snorkeling options, too.)

If you search for Napali Coast boat tours, you’ll find a ton of options. I was really excited to find Makana Charters as it is owned by indigenous Hawaiians.

We had the grandest time on the Seiko with Captain A’a and his daughter Heilie. They shared so many stories about growing up on Kauai with us, from going spearfishing to learning Hawaiian to drinking under the stars, and about the difficulties of deciding whether to remain on Kauai or go elsewhere with more lucrative opportunities.

Captain A’a made sure we had smooth sailing, explained cultural landmarks and legends, and pointed out wildlife. When we saw pods of dolphins, he stilled our boat and had us sit on the stern so we could watch the dolphins swim right under our feet.

Napali Coast boat tour

2. The other major highlight of Kauai is Waimea Canyon.

When you reach this gorgeous “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” you’ll have a number of trails to choose from, ranging from less than a mile to more than 12. We patched together a few different trails, but generally followed the Waimea Canyon Trail down to Waipoo Falls. There are multiple lookouts along the way, ending in the pools that feed Waipoo Falls.

Wear good hiking shoes, as there are definitely steep parts that are loose dirt or muddy, and be extra careful when descending to the Waipoo Falls area.

Waimea Canyon Kauai

There are helicopter tours of Waimea Canyon as well!

3. In between the Napali Coast and Waimea Canyon is, well, the backside of Napali. For those with the time and experience, the backside of Napali offers several long hiking paths that allow you to trek to amazing viewpoints.

If you are like us and don’t have the time for that, however, there are a number of lookout points that offer fantastic views of the Napali Coast without the strenuous effort. The key is making it there on a non-foggy time of day. If the fog rolls in, you can either leave disappointed or try to wait it out.

I would suggest tacking on these lookouts after your Waimea Canyon hikes, as you have to drive past the canyon to reach these anyway. The ones we explored were Kalalau Lookout, Pu’u O Kila Lookout, and Pu’u Ka Pele Lookout.

4. Okay, this last thing was a funny anomaly to me, but it actually has historical significance.

En route to a Napali Coast tour or Waimea Canyon, you’ll pass Russian Fort Elizabeth State Historical Park along the side of I-50.

In the 1800s, foreign powers that touched the Pacific Ocean on either side of Hawaii tried to vie for power and influence on the islands. This fort is apparently the last remnant of Russian influence here, built when the Chief of Kauai wanted help to keep his power over Kauai from King Kamehameha I, who had just created the Kingdom of Hawaii. In other words, international drama and intrigue.

Where to eat in Kauai

When we visited Kauai, things were still not at full operational capacity, especially given the need for a lot of space between patrons. Reservations at popular restaurants were often hard to come by, especially since we were looking just one week before we left on the trip.

So this a modified list of the best restaurants in Kauai: part one is recommendations on where to eat in Kauai based on our personal experience, and part two is restaurant recommendations from friends who’ve been to Kauai.

Our favorite places to eat in Kauai

  • Poke and sushi
    • Ishihara Market (Waimea) – Located in this grocery store is some of the best poke in Kauai. There’s a public park with picnic tables across the street where you can enjoy all the deliciousness.
    • Koloa Fish Market (Koloa) – Another great spot for poke, just make sure to get there early in the day so you have more options to choose from.
    • Kenji Burger (Kapa’a) – Okay, this is technically neither poke or sushi, but sushiritos! Incredibly fresh sushi burritos, and was recommended to us by a born-and-bred Kauai local.
  • Shave ice and acai bowls
    • Aloha Aina Juice Cafe (Lihue) – This cafe has the best acai and pitaya (dragonfruit) bowls on the island! So many creative and make-your-own options, and so delicious.
    • Russell’s by Eat Healthy Kauai (Kapa’a) – This vegan cafe has the cutest patio and also offers really delicious acai bowls.
    • Waikomo Shave Ice (Koloa) – Made with real fruit!
    • Wishing Well Shave Ice (Hanalei) – A combo shave ice and acai bowl stand. I was not the biggest fan of their acai bowls, which were way pricier and less inventive than those at Aloha Aina or Russell’s, so I would suggest sticking to the shave ice that they’re known for instead.
Acai bowls Kauai
Bowls from Aloha Aina Juice Cafe
  • Fancier dining
    • Tidepools (Koloa) – Located inside the Grand Hyatt Kauai, this fine dining option is housed in traditional open-air hale pili, or thatched bungalows. It’s definitely pricey, but Tidepools serve up delicious fresh catches and inventive cocktails that made it the best restaurant in Kauai in my opinion.
    • Beach House Restaurant (Koloa) – Come here for the lilikoi mai tais! The Beach House is owned by the same folks as Monkeypod on Maui and has those oh-so-unforgettable mai tais.
  • Other
    • Hanalei Taro & Juice Co. (Hanalei) – This food truck is parked across from the Wishing Well and was my favorite casual eats place. True to its name, taro is in almost everything on the menu, from traditional poi to taro mochi brownies.
    • Da Crack (Koloa) – This hole-in-the-wall burrito takeout option hits the spot when you want something a little less Hawaiian. The burritos are fairly hefty in size, so be prepared. We got meat options because that’s all there was left late in the night, but I’m told those and the shrimp ones are actually better than most of the fish burrito options.
    • Tiki Tacos (Kapa’a) – Another local favorite, with delicious fish, meat, and fish-and-meat tacos with Hawaiian flair.
    • Puka Dog (Poipu) – Anthony Bourdain made this Hawaiian-style hot dog spot famous when he featured it on No Reservations. I’ve read poor reviews from people expecting life-changing experiences just because Bourdain recommended it, so fair warning that this is still just a hot dog — though I thought it was pretty good. A more practical warning: Be prepared with plenty of napkins and beware of squirting relish. Yours truly ended up with papaya relish, garlic lemon sauce, and Hawaiian mustard all over. Proceed slowly.
    • Kauai Beer Company (Lihue) – Great spot for some locally crafted brews and a snack or two, like their okonomiyaki fries!
    • Sueoka Store (Koloa) – I didn’t see spam musubi on Kauai as much as I did on the Big Island or Oahu, but I can’t go to Hawaii without getting some of this deliciousness. The store offers spam musubi to-go inside, and also has a food stand outside with more options.
Da Crack Mexican food Kauai

Other places to eat in Kauai

As I mentioned, due to the slow reopening, it was hard to get reservations at some of the best restaurants in Kauai. These come recommended from our friend network.

  • Poke and sushi
    • Sushi Girl (Hanalei) – Great sushi. That is all.
  • Shave ice and acai bowls
    • Aloha Juice Bar (Hanalei) – Recommended for their acai bowls.
  • Fancier dining
    • Bar Acuda (Hanalei) – Fancy tapas with a gorgeous view.
    • AMA (Hanalei) – Ramen spot with a similar view since it’s the sister restaurant to Bar Acuda and they’re right next to each other.
    • Red Salt (Poipu) – Known for inventive Hawaiian.
  • Other
    • Java Kai (Kapa’a)- For breakfast and coffee.
    • Sleeping Giant Grill (Kapa’a) – Fish tacos, especially the mochi fish tacos, were the top recs.

Hope this comprehensive guide to Kauai helps you plan your trip to the Garden Island!

Pin it to share it:

The best things to do in Kauai

4 thoughts on “Our Guide to Experiencing Kauai, Hawaii’s Garden Island

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.