Inside: The best things to do in Kauai, where to stay on the island, and which tasty treats to try! (note: we visited Kauai just prior to the Covid pandemic; as of October 15, 2020 the island has reopened to visitors with a pre-arrival test.)
“You promised me a vacation. Somewhere sunny and tropical.” I sulked to my husband, Dave.
“I need a beach, a sunset, and an umbrella drink. Stat.”
And I had earned it, he agreed. Recently coming off a four-month work stretch without a single day off. But suddenly, there was a complication.
Jumping at what could be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to live abroad, we accepted. And now we were anxiously staring down the barrel of a Bavarian winter in T-minus two weeks.
Squeezing in that tropical vacation was a must, now more than ever. Even with only a few days to spare.
Asia was clearly dead, but dreams of island paradise were still very much alive. Just a little closer to home.
Enter…the Hawaiian Islands. Specifically, the garden island of Kauai.
Miles away from the traffic of Oahu, or the tourist hordes of Maui, the peaceful island of Kauai is my favorite choice for pure relaxation. I’ve visited the island twice, most recently after running the Honolulu Marathon.
This trip would be Dave’s first visit.
Why Poipu is the Perfect Home Base
Located at the southern tip of Kauai, Poipu is the most popular beach on the South Shore. In the winter months, it’s also legendary for spectacular sunset views.
In addition to that perfect crescent of sand and magical sunsets, Poipu truly has it all. Great hotels, restaurants, shops, all within easy walking distance. It’s completely possible to use Poipu as your home base, skip the rental car, and book day trips when you feel the urge to explore further afield.
Do I Need a Rental Car on Kauai?
But I vote yes. Here’s why…
To really get out and see the island, it’s best to have a rental car. This is true no matter where on the island you stay. Kauai’s best sights are scattered all over the island.
Luckily, driving on Kauai is easy and distances are short. You can see many of the island’s highlights in a single day.
We used RentalCars.com to find our car and loved having the flexibility to drive ourselves around the island. We spent a full day touring on our own schedule, hitting the brakes for every yummy-looking food truck along the way!
Plus, if you’re staying in a hotel or condo with a kitchen, you’ll need the occasional grocery store run for provisions. More on that next…
Bottom Line: Yes, you can get by without a rental car. But for ultimate independence, get your own wheels.
Best Places to Stay on Kauai
Though we were only visiting the island for 3 short days, most who arrive here plan to stay for at least a week. With that in mind, it’s nice to have a little extra space and maybe even your own kitchen.
That’s why we booked one of the many condo/villa properties on the island.
Time-share resorts abound on all of the Hawaiian Islands. When they aren’t in use by their owners, you can often find them up for rent on sites like Booking.com or AirBnb.
We chose Marriott’s Waiohai Beach Club, right on Poipu beach. The sprawling resort boasts three pools, two hot tubs and lush tropical grounds reminiscent of a botanical garden. It was exactly what the doctor ordered.
Our 2-bedroom, 2-bath villa (way bigger than we needed) was the price of a standard hotel room at some of the island’s fancier resorts. The villa was terrific, with a full kitchen, a washer and dryer, and a deep soaking tub with my name on it.
Pro Tip: Don’t miss the resort’s nightly sunset champagne sabering. If you’re not schooled in the art of uncorking a bottle of champagne with nothing more than your average kitchen sword, they’ll teach you. (It’s actually quite fun, I once nailed it at the St. Regis Aspen). Bonus: Once the champagne is open, everyone gets a free taste.
Kauai’s Most Luxurious Resort
If a luxury resort with all the amenities is more your style, you’ll find no better choice than the 5-star St. Regis Princeville Resort near Hanalei. Think full-service spa, golf course, gourmet restaurants, and swim-up bar.
Planning a honeymoon? This is the place for you.
Oodles of terrific rental options can also be found on AirBnb. If you haven’t used AirBnb before, I highly recommend it. I book with them often. This discount code will get you $40 off your first rental.
The 5 Best Things to Do on Kauai
One of the great things about Kauai is you can fill your days with sightseeing and adventure or you can just relax and do nothing at all.
While we did spend quality time planted on the beach sipping the aforementioned umbrella drinks, we also managed to make time for a few of Kauai’s must-see sights.
Here are a few of my favorite things to do on Kauai:
#1 – Whale Watching & the Na Pali Coast
If there’s one thing you absolutely cannot miss while visiting Kauai, it’s a visit to the Na Pali Coast. Whether by air or water (or both!), make this your top priority on the island.
Perhaps most famous as the backdrop for the movie Jurassic Park, this rugged and inhospitable 25-mile stretch encompasses about a quarter of Kauai’s coastline.
With the exception of the 11-mile Kalalau Trail (closed during our visit due to heavy rains), the Na Pali coast is only accessible to visitors by two means – air or water.
The Na Pali Coast by Air or Water?
Often referred to as Hawaii’s state bird, a myriad of helicopter companies stand at the ready to swoop you over the coastline to ooh and aah over verdant emerald valleys and waterfalls cascading down 3,000ft cliffs.
Flight times range from 30-90 minutes and most depart from the Lihue Airport.
But for my money, nothing beats getting out on the water. Like the helicopter flights, there are a number of companies offering catamaran trips. Most offer either a morning trip that includes snorkeling and lunch or a sunset trip that includes dinner.
We chose the morning trip with Blue Dolphin Charters and they were terrific (I also heard glowing reviews about Captain Andy’s – but they were fully booked on the day we wanted to go).
Our excursion was not billed as a whale-watching trip. However, any time you hit the water around the Hawaiian Islands during whale season (November to April) you’re likely to catch sight of “vacationing” Humpback whales.
Wowed by the Whales!
And boy did we! In fact, this non-whale-watching trip turned out to be the best whale-watching trip I’ve ever taken. (And that includes Alaska, Maui, New Zealand, Cabo & even Antarctica – all during prime whale season.)
Humpbacks are considered the most acrobatic of the whale population and during our cruise, dozens of whales showed us why! Some propelled themselves from the water in a dramatic full breach, while others entertained with playful pectoral slaps and tail slaps. It was an amazing afternoon I’ll never forget.
When we weren’t watching whales, we made friends with spinner dolphin pods who swam playfully along with our boat as we cruised along the stunning Na Pali coast.
Let’s just say it was a pretty epic day and an experience not to be missed if you visit the island, especially during whale season.
#2 – Waimea Canyon
Next on the list of spectacular Kauai sights – Waimea Canyon.
Considered the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” you’ll definitely appreciate the reference when you stop for a peek at this magnificent geological wonder along Highway 550.
Stretching 10 miles long and over a mile wide, the 3,600ft deep canyon offers visitors numerous hiking trails and lookout points to take in its beauty.
The canyon walls display changing hues depending on the sun’s direction during the day, but sunrise is an especially stunning time to visit.
#3 – Kauai’s Best Waterfalls
If you’re short on time but want to see one of Kauai’s most gorgeous waterfalls, follow Highway 56 a few minutes north of Lihue and stop at the lookout point for Wailua Falls (two waters).
Shout out to my fellow children of the 80’s, this is the waterfall featured in the opening scenes of the TV show “Fantasy Island.”
Amazingly, the best views of this beauty are right off the highway. If you have more time, there’s also a boat trip up the Wailua River that leads to the lush Fern Grotto (a lava tube filled with ferns).
Also easily accessible from the highway, Opaeka’a Falls on the east side of the island are best viewed in the mid-morning when the sun is in the best position for photos.
For a more intensive waterfall outing, Secret Falls is located up the Wailua River and is the highlight of most river kayak tours. I did the kayaking trip on my last visit to Kauai and it was excellent! Tip: Bring good water/hiking shoes, it’s about a 20-minute hike to get to the pond at the base of the falls.
#4 – Kīlauea Point Lighthouse
Located at Kauai’s northernmost point, the Kilauea Lighthouse and National Wildlife Refuge is a fascinating stop on a driving tour of the island. The vintage lighthouse (circa 1913) boasts panoramic views of the Northshore.
Humpback whales and dolphins can often be spotted from this lofty cliff-top perch, but the main attraction is the bird life.
This bird nesting sanctuary is home to large colonies of native Hawaiian seabirds like the Red-Footed Booby, Laysan Albatross, and the Great Frigate Bird. I’ve spotted Blue-Footed Boobies while in the Galapagos, but who knew there were Red-Footed Boobies, too?
Learning. This is why we travel, no?
The entry fee for adults is $5 and there is also a well-stocked gift shop on-site.
#5 – Sample Kauai’s Top Tasty Treats
Food…my favorite subject! Kauai has a plethora of delightful options. Here are a few picks you shouldn’t miss:
Two words: Food Trucks!
Hawaii is well-known for these culinary upstarts. Delectable food trucks serving everything from smoothies to fish tacos are a great way to enjoy some of Kauai’s freshest local cuisine on a budget (or even if you’re not!).
My favorite food truck was the Al Pastor Taco Truck in Kapaa, which can be easily spotted on the right as you drive north toward Hanalei.
This husband and wife team serve up fresh fish tacos and Mexican fare daily and run one of the most popular trucks on the island.
We stopped for tacos on the way up the east coast to Hanalei and it was my favorite meal of our trip. I had the shrimp tacos, Dave had the fish tacos – both were exceptional!
Island Flavors at the Juice Stand
A local juice stand is another great place to enjoy the flavors of Kauai.
Try “Little Fish Coffee,” just across the street from the Marriott Waiohai resort. This colorful little coffee and smoothie hut was always packed (for good reason!) and we started our day there each morning.
Don’t miss the Angry Dragon smoothie or a delicious acai bowl for breakfast.
Go Local at the Farmer’s Market
Another fun option is to support the local farming community by visiting one of the many farmer’s markets. Happening daily around the island, the markets are advertised in all the local tourist publications.
The Wednesday afternoon market at Poipu’s Kauai Culinary Market offers a variety of the area’s fresh fruits and vegetables. Plus locally-made products and tasty food stands to sample.
Uniquely Hawaiian – Shave Ice
One uniquely Hawaiian treat is shave ice. This ice-based dessert resembles a snow cone but is made with shaved ice instead of crushed ice which produces a fine “snow-like” ice that allows it to fully absorb flavored syrups.
The flavor varieties are seemingly endless. Don’t miss the local treats like mango, lychee, guava, and passionfruit. Shave Ice Paradise in Hanalei was the perfect stop for this tempting Hawaiian dessert.
4 of Kauai’s Most Beautiful Beaches
Whales, canyons, waterfalls and, yes, terrific beaches, too. (If you can find the time!) Kauai has 113 miles of coastline and nearly half of that is taken up by golden, sandy beaches.
Don’t miss these:
1 – Poipu State Beach Park: One of my favorites, and our “home beach” for this stay. It’s a perfect arc of silky sand with a shallow, protected bay for snorkeling and swimming. A lifeguard on duty makes it a good choice for families. The perfect sunset views in the winter months make it a great choice for couples.
2 – Lydgate Park: Located on the east side of the island, this is a great stretch of beach for strolling or sunning. It has an excellent swimming area for kids, a playground and even picnic tables.
3 – Hanalei Bay: A gorgeous beach to visit. Unfortunately, it’s only suitable for swimming in the summer months due to high surf in the winter.
4 – Polihale State Park: The longest sand beach in Hawaii at 15 miles in length. Located on the west side of the island, just past the Pacific Missile Range Facility, access is via a 10-mile bumpy dirt road off the main highway.
If you’re looking for a wide, remote beach with mesmerizing sunsets, this is the place for you. If you’re looking for a swimmable beach with facilities, skip this one. Riptides and currents here can be extremely dangerous.
Wrapping Up A Perfect Stay in Kauai
Our stay on Kauai was all too brief but I’ve no doubt we’ll return. The island is one of those rare places in the world that always leaves you wanting more.
From beaches and canyons to waterfalls and whales, the peaceful island of Kauai is a nature lover’s dream. If you’re not careful, this slow-paced island paradise will steal your heart and beckon you back.
And not just for the umbrella drinks.