With plans for our move to Germany in full swing and our annual January-February exotic travel plans permanently on hold, it was time to come up with another alternative. One that could be done easily from Seattle (after one last check on our boat) and preferably without our passports.
Enter Hawaii…more specifically, Kauai.
There’s no better way to escape the stress of an impending trans-Atlantic move than a getaway to your favorite Hawaiian island. And my favorite sandy slice of aloha is the garden island of Kauai. And luckily, Delta has non-stop service from Seattle to Kauai’s Lihue airport.
Miles away from the traffic of Oahu, or the tourist hordes of Maui, the peaceful island of Kauai has long been my favorite for pure relaxation. I’ve visited the island twice, once in college with my family and more recently for a few days of R&R following the running of my first marathon (the Honolulu Marathon) several years ago.
Where 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 chose to book one of the many condo/villa properties on the island, specifically, in the Poipu area.
The great thing about Poipu is the easy access to restaurants, shops and beaches all within walking distance. Though I will say, to get out and see the island, it’s best to have a rental car no matter where you stay. Driving distances are short and you can see much of the island’s highlights in a single day of road-tripping.
For accommodations, time-share resorts abound on all of the Hawaiian Islands and when they aren’t in use by their owners, you can often find them up for rent on a variety of online booking sites like Booking.com or AirBnb.
We chose Marriott’s Waiohai Beach Club and were able to rent a 2-bedroom, 2-bath villa (way bigger than we needed!) for the price of a standard hotel room at some of the island’s fancier resorts. The villa was terrific, with a full kitchen and even a washer and dryer, the property also had 3 pools and two hot tubs.
If you book a room here, don’t miss the nightly sunset champagne sabering for a lesson in the art of uncorking a bottle of champagne with nothing more than your average kitchen sword (it’s actually quite fun, I got to try it once at the St. Regis Aspen). Bonus: Once the champagne is open, everyone gets a free taste.
The Marriott is located on the lovely crescent of sand known as Poipu Beach Park. All beaches in Hawaii are public but most of the time it truly felt like we had this one all to ourselves. In the winter months, Poipu also boasts pretty tremendous sunsets.
If a luxury resort with all the amenities is more your style, you’ll find no better choice than the St. Regis Princeville Resort near Hanalei. If you’re planning a honeymoon, this is the place for you.
You’ll also find a lot of great rental options on AirBnb (if you haven’t used AirBnb before, I highly recommend it – this discount code will get you $40 off your first rental). I checked the site while we were there and found several of the condos in the complex right next to us (Kiahuna Plantation) listed for rent at very reasonable rates.
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. On most vacations, I choose a little of both. So, while we did spend our share of time planted on the beach or lounging by one of the resort’s pools, 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:
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. I should probably learn to take my own advice because I did manage to miss it on my first two visits. But this time I was determined to make it a priority!
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 (which was closed during our visit due to heavy rains), the Na Pali coast is only accessible to visitors by two means – 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, so we chose to do a catamaran trip along the coast. 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 good things about Captain Andy’s – but they were fully booked on the day we wanted to go).
Though our excursion was not billed as a whale-watching trip, any time you hit the water around the Hawaiian Islands during whale season (November to April) you’re likely to catch site of “vacationing” Humpback whales. And boy did we! In fact, this non-whale-watching trip turned out to be the best whale-watching trip I’ve ever done. (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 catamaran trip they certainly showed us why! We probably saw a dozen different whales propel themselves from the water in a dramatic full breach, while others entertained us 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 the numerous spinner dolphin pods who swam playfully along with our boat as we cruised along the 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 during the winter season.
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 enjoy the views.
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). For you 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. On my last trip to Kauai I did this kayaking trip 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.
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) has 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’d seen Blue-Footed Boobies before in the Galapagos, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a Red-Footed Booby but there you go!
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.
Where to Eat on Kauai
Two words: Food Trucks!
Hawaii is well-known for these culinary upstarts and delicious 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 it’s 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 and Dave had the fish tacos – both were exceptional!
A local juice stand is another great place to enjoy the flavors of Kauai. We found a great one called “Little Fish Coffee” just across the street from our resort. This cute little coffee and smoothie hut was always packed (for good reason!) and we walked there each morning to start our day. Try the Angry Dragon smoothie or one of their delicious acai bowls for breakfast.
Another fun option is to support the local farming community by visiting one of the many farmer’s markets. They take place daily around the island and are advertised in all the local tourist info. We visited the Wednesday afternoon market at the Kauai Culinary Market in Poipu and found lots of the area’s fresh fruits and vegetables as well as local products and food stands to enjoy.
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 but I highly recommend some of the local treats like mango, lychee, guava and passionfruit. Shave Ice Paradise in Hanalei was a great stop for this yummy Hawaiian dessert.
Kauai’s Best Beaches
With all Kauai has to offer, it’s still an island and, yes, it has some terrific beaches…if you can find the time! Kauai has 113 miles of coastline and nearly half of that is taken up by golden, sandy beaches.
One of my favorites, and our “home beach” for this stay, is Poipu Beach Park. It’s a perfect crescent of silky sand with a shallow, protected bay for snorkeling and swimming. It also has a lifeguard on duty making it a good choice for families. And in the winter months, perfect sunset views – making it a great choice for couples!
Lydgate Park, on the east side of the island, is a great stretch of beach for strolling or sunning. It has an excellent swimming area for kids, a playground and even picnic tables.
Hanalei Bay has a gorgeous beach but it’s really only suitable for swimming in the summer months due to high surf in the winter.
On the island’s west side, Polihale State Park is the longest sand beach in Hawaii at 15 miles in length. Located 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. Rip tides and currents here can be extremely dangerous.
There are dozens more beaches on Kauai worth a visit but since our time was short, I’ll leave you with the above suggestions as a start.
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 you just never get enough of. From beaches and canyons to waterfalls and whales, the peaceful island of Kauai is a nature lover’s dream. And if you’re not careful, this slow-paced paradise will steal your heart and keep you coming back again and again.
Click Below to View the Kauai Photo Gallery