Among the major Hawaiian islands, Kauai is both the oldest geologically and the least-developed in terms of tourism infrastructure. This puts it off the beaten path for most vacationers, and makes The Garden Island a perfect escape for anyone more interested in natural wonders than throbbing nightclubs (although it's got those, too, if you know where to look!).Credit: W Turner
Once upon a time an inter-island ferry existed that would take travelers from Honolulu to Kauai, but this service has been unavailable since 2009. Presently the only way to reach Kauai is via airplane (either directly or via inter-island flight), or by chartered boat.
A car rental is strongly recommended for Kauai, particularly during shorter-term visits. Unlike Honolulu, with its extensive, inexpensive and highly reliable bus service, Kauai’s buses are less regular and largely inconvenient for tourism purposes. During high season (December through April) visits, reserving a rental car well in advance is strongly suggested as most major rental companies will often report having no cars available to walk-up customers. There are, however, several smaller, independent companies (some without even a traditional storefront) that last-minute visitors can track down online or by asking around upon arrival. Be aware, however, that many of the cars they offer are for transportation in only its most rudimentary definition; often they are older, frequently come without air conditioning or working radios, and generally look like they've been around the block (and the island) a few times. It is worth noting that these island runabouts are less likely to attract the attention of thieves.
Visitors have plenty of options when staying on Kauai, from expensive five-star resorts to modest independent guest-stays. The island is small enough that, with a car, you won’t have any trouble getting to your day’s adventure wherever you choose to stay, but if your transportation will be less convenient, you may want to choose accommodation based on the primary location of your anticipated activities.
Things to See & Do
At 562 square miles, Kauai seems to pack in more sights and activities than a landmass three times as large. Indeed, perhaps no place in the world can equal it, mile-for-mile, for spectacular vistas, lush foliage, breathtaking waterfalls, awe-inspiring hikes, bucolic beaches and high-adrenaline thrills.
Credit: W Turner
To get an overview of the island's majesty, any visit to Kauai should include at least the consideration of a helicopter tour. There are several helicopter companies on the island, all of which offer similar flight packages at competitive prices. Some flights are “doors-off,” offering extra adventure and even better opportunities for photography for a nominally higher fee. Imagine soaring over Waipoo Falls, seeing it plunge 700 feet to the valley floor, with nothing between you and it you but your camera!
Tip: schedule a helicopter tour for early during your visit rather than near the end. Kauai weather can be unpredictable, and if a flight is canceled due to inclement conditions you will want to have time to reschedule it before you leave.
A little closer to earth than helicopter tours, but every bit as thrilling are Zodiac trips. Zodiacs are a hard-bottom inflatable raft with a powerful outboard motor utilized by Navy SEALs around the globe for beach landings, and by tour companies on Kauai for high-speed oceanic tours of the coastline. The time of year will determine a Zodiac’s route, but regardless of which direction your raft takes you, the primeval coastal scenery of the Na Pali coast and wave-pounding thrills of the high-octane ride will give you stories to tell for days.
Credit: W TurnerHiking
Kauai is a hiker’s paradise. From high and dry to steep and muddy and everything in between, if you can imagine it, Kauai’s got it. Kalalau Trail is a difficult mutli-day trek that will simultaneously leave you exhausted and clamoring for more, but there are plenty of full-day, half-day, and shorter hikes as well. Grab a guide book or just look for roadside signage designating a trailhead and see what lies around the next bend.
While not the top Hawaiian destination for snorkeling, Kauai does lay claim to some of the largest sea turtles many snorkelers have reported seeing among the islands, and many of the Na Pali Coast tours include stops for snorkeling, giving visitors who opt to explore that area a "two-fer."
Kauai is, quite likely, the premiere surf spot in the world. With everything from world-class instructors on beginner beaches like Kiahuna Beach to the challenging and changeable surf at Hanalei Bay to the truly epic winter pipelines of Kalihiwai Point, Kauai has bred some of the best surfers on the planet, and attracts top talent from around the globe with its unparalleled surfing.
Casual kayaking is available from many beaches, but most of the seasonal tours depart from the north shore and head south along the spectacular western NaPali coast. These trips are not for the faint of heart or weak of shoulder, but the views and perspective—literally that of the original inhabitants—that kayaking Kauai offers places it high on the list of things to do. As an added bonus for the outdoor aficionado, a few beaches are accessible only by boat, and some kayaking outfitters can accommodate overnight primitive camping trips.
In addition to unforgettable ocean kayaking, Kauai also lays claim to the only navigable rivers in whole of the Hawaiian islands; of these, the Wailua River is the largest and thus the most popular for kayaking. A few hours’ rental on the Wailua will be well-rewarded with a variety of unique sights and stops, including a possible hike to the not-so “Secret Falls.” Guided tours can be arranged, or if you’re feeling more adventurous, you can paddle off on your own with nothing more than a well-marked map from the outfitter.
Whale WatchingCredit: W Turner
Every December through May, humpback whales arrive at and breed in the warm Hawaiian waters. Whale watching tours are your best bet for seeing these peaceful giants, but they can often be viewed from beaches. Occasionally, kayakers or Zodiac rafters will spot whales, as well.
Natural WondersCredit: W TurnerCredit: W TurnerCredit: W Turner
It almost goes without saying that phenomenal beaches abound on Kauai. Golden sand? Check. Dramatic rocks? Check. Idyllic palms? Yep. Crashing surf. You know it. Full-service relaxation? If you want it. Privacy? Kauai's got that, too. Suffice to say, Kauai is a beach-lover's paradise.
Spouting Horn, near Poipu Beach in the south of Kauai, is one of the best blowholes in all of Hawaii. Easily reached, it's worth a visit to see one of the most photographed places on the island. Credit: W Turner
Also near Poipu Beach (in fact, within walking distance) is Shipwreck Beach. This secluded shoreline features Makawehi Point, a massive rock promontory that more daring visitors can leap off of into the churning waters below.
On the northern end of the island is the Queen's Bath, a striking volcanic sinkhole which, during low surf conditions is a tranquil and warm (owing to the dark igneous rock of which it is comprised) tidepool visitors can splash about in.
With Mt. Wai'ale'ale—the wettest place in the world, averaging up to 460 inches of rain a year—at its heart, Kauai's waterfalls are among the best. Many are difficult to reach or on private land, but Kipu Falls, the Queen's Bath Falls, Wailua Falls and the “Secret Falls” are just a few standouts that can be easily reached.
The “Grand Canyon of the Pacific” is every bit the equal of its mainland cousin with regard to jaw-dropping beauty. Accessible for viewing by foot, car, ATV, horseback, mountain bike or helicopter, there's an option for exploring one of the world's greatest natural wonders for everyone.
"Road Warrior" chickens
As the story goes, chickens were brought to Kauai by ranchers and plantation owners, to provide poultry and eggs. One fateful day, a hurricane blew through the islands and directly over Kauai. This same storm destroyed at least one chicken coop, and literally blew the chickens therein into the forest. The chickens, thus dispersed, took to the forest like ducks to water, breeding prolifically ever since. Now a healthy feral population lives throughout the island, much to the chagrin of motorists who frequently must vie for the road against the rough-and-tumble local roosters.
Culture & History
While the history of Kauai and the Hawaiian islands as a whole is far better known that is that of someplace like mysterious Easter Island, it is no less intriguing. Some of the human dramas that have played out there over the centuries are as fascinating as the island's natural history.Credit: W Turner
The Last Independent Island
Kauai alone among the Hawaiian islands was never conquered by King Kamehameha during his campaign to consolidate power throughout the archipelago. As the last remaining island claiming independence, Kamehameha's first two attempts to take Kauai were thwarted by largely natural causes (a storm, and then later, disease), and prior to a third assault attempt, Kauai's King Kaumuali'i stuck a bargain with Kamehameha which saw Kauai left largely to its own devices with Kaumuali'i remaining its de facto ruler.
Russian Fort Elizabeth
Located near Waimea is the site of the one-time Fort Elizabeth, built in 1817 during machinations by the Russian-American Company seeking to reclaim property seized by the islands King Kaumuali’i, under the guise of promises to help him overthrow King Kamehameha. It played a role in a failed rebellion before being abandoned and dismantled in the 1850’s.
A large part of Kauai's more recent history revolves around the plantations that still make up a tremendous portion of the arable land. Besides thousands of square acres of sugar going to market, many of the plantations offer tours of both their industry and their expansive and usually extremely scenic property. Lihue Plantations’s ATV tours are among the best on the island, and other plantations offer tours by horse and even by railcar. Visiting at least one is time well spent.
Part of Kauai’s mythical past, the Menehune were believed to be an ancient race of tiny people who lived deep in the forests, emerging late at night to create many of the islands wonders, including various aqueducts and fishponds. As the legend goes, these little engineers would sometimes create massive stoneworks literally overnight. Look closely in the darkest shadows of the Kauai jungles, and you just might spot one.
Cinema buffs may recognize Kauai as the stand-in for a dinosaur-infested island in the Jurassic Park movies, but it also boasts Hanapepe, the artistic little town that inspired Lilo’s home village in Disney’s animateCredit: W Turnerd Lilo & Stitch. Other films shot in, or based on, Kauai include (to name just a few) Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (you can paddle the same river Indy escaped from during the opening scene!), Six Days, Seven Nights and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.
Whether you're looking for tranquility or adventure, and no matter if you prefer that your journey takes you by sea, by land or by air—or all three—Kauai should be at the top of any traveler's list of places to visit.Credit: W Turner