Kauai is absolutely magical! It’s so hard to describe the essence of the island, but to us Kauai just felt like home. There are mountains, there are beaches, there are valleys, and there are peaks. Roosters wake you up in the morning, and calming sunsets put you to sleep at night ♡ There is nowhere else in the world as magical as this island, and we were so thankful to have been able to spend time here. We’ve put together a complete travel guide to Kauai - we hope you are able to enjoy the magic that is Kauai ♡
History of Kauai:
Geologically the oldest of all of the main Hawaii’an islands, Kauai was created through volcanic activity almost 5 million years ago! Archaeologists believe that Kauai was first inhabited around 200-600AD as settlers arrived from the Marquesas islands, then followed by the Tahitians, and other Polynesians. Hawaii was exposed to the Western world in the 1700s when James Cook stopped at Wimea Bay. Prior to becoming a US state, Hawaii was ruled by Kings and Queens!
Visa & Logistical Information
Visa: You don’t need a visa to travel to Kauai given it is part of the United States! Simply book your ticket for Lihue (pronounced: “La-hoo-ee”), which has the airport code LIH.
Car Rental: If you plan on exploring, you will need to rent a car to get around the island. We rented a Jeep Wrangler, but as locals know - if you drive this car, you will be known as a tourist! (The locals we saw tended to drive either Chevy or Ford pickups/SUVs). We highly recommend a 4X4 to get to some of the more secluded beaches!
Where to Stay
There are a few distinct areas on the island that are popular with tourists: Poipu on the south shore, Kapa’a / Wailua on the east side, and Princeville / Hanalei on the north shore. We split our time between Poipu and Princeville / Hanalei to get a complete feel for the island, and we highly recommend that you do the same, especially if you plan on going to Wimea Canyon at all!
Poipu: We loved our stay at the Ko’a Kea Resort; it is a small boutique hotel right next to the popular Poipu Beach. We had a partial ocean view room, which meant that we could see the ocean from our patio. The rooms are nice (with Fresh-brand toiletries), the bedding is super comfortable, and all of the staff is super helpful! It was great staying here as it helped us fully explore the Wimea Canyon area, as well as everything on the west side of the island without a 2-3 hour drive!
Kapa’a / Wailua: We would not recommend staying here, as the only thing you are really close to is the Wailua River. It’s a bit of a drive to get to either Poipu or Hanalei…& when we were on vacation, the last thing we wanted was a far drive to anything! We would recommend stopping by here one morning to grab breakfast at Java Kai and to finish up your souvenir shopping.
Princeville / Hanalei: We stayed at the Hanalei Bay Resort in Princeville. The view from the room was fantastic as we could see the famed Hanalei Bay from our lanai! (Pro-Tip: look for a room in the Plumeria 8131-8234 building or in the Bamboo 9101-9306 Building). While the location is fantastic, I had a few issues with our stay here. First, the Resort did not clean our rooms 2X a day like the Ko’a Kea did - this was a problem because we would track sand into the house after our beach days. After staying there for three days, our room resembled a mini beach! (For full disclosure, we booked our unit through AirBnB, and the Resort’s policy is to only clean after the 4th day of stay… they only told us this during check-in). And second, Princeville and Hanalei felt too …. manicured compared to the rest of the island. Of course, if you like the glitz and glamour, this is the place to stay! But I prefer something more down-to-earth like the Poipu area.
Where to Eat
There are a lot of good places on the island to eat, and I’ve only listed our favorites here! It is also important to note that there is a Costco & a Safeway on the island, so you can pick up pre-made food items (or groceries if you’re okay cooking) for a budget-friendly option.
For lunch, we had picked up ready-made sandwiches (since we’d be hiking/on the beach most of the time), but there are a few notables that we tried & would recommend. Puka Dog was my first time eating a (vegetarian) hot-dog! The sauces that they put on there were dynamite and while it was expensive for a hot dog, it was yummy (they were also featured on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations)! The Porky’s Food Truck is another local favorite as is Roland’s Mix Plate near Lihue airport. If you’re up by Princeville, be sure to stop by Foodland for their excellent (and affordable) Poke bowls & sandwiches!
Dinner was very hit-or-miss for us, and I’ve listed our three hits and one slight-miss. The sushi and sashimi at Japanese Grandma’s Cafe is good as it gets. Arrive early because there is very limited seating. We ate here on a Friday night, after checking out the art night at Hanapepe and it was wonderful. One of our favorite restaurants around Poipu is La Spezia Food & Wine Bar for huge portions of (delicious) Italian food in a very cozy ambiance. Near Hanalei, we loved Bar Acuda (be sure to make reservations and ask to be seated overlooking the kitchen) for a fresh take on tapas. We also went to the Beach House, but felt like the food was just average for the prices that they charged (the premium is for the view)! We recommend skipping eating here and going to one of the other places we loved!
Lastly, there is no shortage of sweets and snacks on the island! Our favorite place to get Shave Ice was Jojo’s in Wimea. Be sure to go to the one in Wimea because that location has the better shave ice compared to the Jojo’s in Hanalei (the serving size in Hanalei was smaller and the toppings tasted more sugary/processed to us). You also have to try a slice of the blueberry pina colada at The Right Slice. It’s a little pricey, but oh-soooo-worth it!
What to Do
Hike: there are plenty of hiking trails in Kauai, but here are our two favorites: Awa’awapuhi Trail (view of the Na Pali Coast) and the Wimea Canyon Trail. The Kalalau Trail was closed when we went (Jan 2019) due to severe flooding that happened the year prior, but had this been open, this would have rounded out our top three hikes!
Beach / Surf / Fish: the beaches on Kauai are something special, and between the more secluded beaches to the beaches that are easily accessible, there is something here for everyone! Our top three beaches were: (1) Polihale (West Side) | (2) Mahaulepu Beach / Makauwahi Cave area (South Shore) | (3) Secret Beach (North Shore). Poipu Beach (South Shore) is great for families, but note that it tends to get really busy. Anini Beach (North Shore) is a quiet lagoon type environment, perfect for stand up paddle-boarding or snorkeling! Hanalei Bay Beach (North Shore) is famous for its gorgeous peaks, but note that it is very busy! We recommend the Puu Poa beach, which was right near the Hanalei Bay Resort - just walk towards the end and you’ll see the famed Hanalei Bay Beach! We really wanted to go to Ke’e and Tunnels beaches (North Shore), but the road was closed due to flooding.
View the Na Pali Coast: there are three ways to view the Na Pali Coast - hike (which was closed when we went), by boat (my friends recommend Captain Andy’s), or by helicopter (we rode Sunshine). We know there are plenty of options to view the Coast and here are some considerations to help make your decision:
Should I view it via boat or helicopter? Go by boat if (1) you don’t get seasick, (2) want to snorkel near the Na Pali coves, and/or (3) want a picture of yourself in front of the Na Pali Coast. Go by helicopter if (1) you want a bird’s eye view of the entire island, including the parts that you cannot get to by car or boat, (2) have the extra money to splurge, or (3) want the experience of a helicopter tour
Which helicopter company should I choose? We chose Sunshine Helicopters because we could pay extra to guarantee the front seats of the helicopters (none of the other companies offer this). Blue Hawaiian is another popular option, as is Island Helicopters which is the only company that can land in the actual falls featured in Jurassic Park. Lastly Jack Harter offers doors-off tours, so if you’re crazy like that, they’ve got you covered!
Watch a Luau: we loved the luau at Smith’s Family Luau. (Pro-Tip: be sure to get there early (around 430) to fully explore the grounds! The family is soooooooooo sweet, and are very accommodating of any dietary needs (they brought out a special veggie plate for me!). Dinner is buffet style (overall, we thought the food is average save the seasoning on the veggie plate…TELL ME YOUR SECRETS) but I also liked that they offer an option to just watch the show (you don’t have to pay for dinner). The show is very entertaining (open seating in an amphitheater) and we loved seeing the different cultures represented through dance.
Sightsee: Apart from all the wonderful beaches, there are a few places to stop off at on your trip to Kauai! Spend a whole day at Wimea Canyon (stop at every pull-off and maybe hike like we did). Visit the Queen’s Bath (it is a steep hike down; wear sneakers and make sure you go at low tide!) and Spouting Horn (similar to Old Faithful in Yellowstone). Take a tour the Kauai Coffee Company and pick up a bag of white chocolate covered coffee beans to snack on. Drive by Wailua Falls (we don’t recommend the hike down). Pay a visit to the Kilauea Lighthouse for some dreamy pictures (we skipped the tour of the lighthouse itself). Lastly, art night at Hanapepe is a cute Friday night activity in the otherwise quiet island!
The styles above contain affiliate links, which means we receive a small commission if you click a link or make a purchase. While clicking these links won't cost you any money, it will help keep this blog running! As always, all opinions are our own. Thank you for your support!