Kauai

Kauai is the northwestern most of Hawaii's major islands. Nicknamed the Garden Island, it is covered with lush greenery and tropical plants, watered regularly by abundant rainfall. As the oldest of the islands, it has been changed the most by the forces of erosion, and this has resulted in natural wonders such as Waimea Canyon and the Na Pali Coast. As a consequence of its age, Kauai also has more miles of sandy coastline than the other Hawaiian islands.

Wailua River State Park

Regions

The major regions of Kauaʻi can be defined by their location on the island relative to the prevailing trade winds. The north and east sides of the island are on the "windward" side of the island, where the winds blow onto the shore. These parts of the island tend to get the most rain, and as a result, are the greenest and most tropical parts of the island. The south and west sides of the island are on the "leeward" side of the island, which receive less rain since most clouds have already dropped their rain on the windward side of the island.

Cities

The word "city" might be an exaggeration for an island of 63,000 people, but here's some information on the towns of Kauaʻi.

Lihuʻe, on the island's southeast side, is the civic and commercial center of the island, host to the island's main airport, county offices, and largest shopping mall (Kukui Grove Center). The Kauaʻi Museum, located in the old part of Lihuʻe and is the island's best museum on the history, geography, and people of Kauaʻi.

Poʻipu, on the south side, branded "the sunny side of paradise", is the major visitor destination for the island. Poipu features beautiful beaches, including the beautiful Poiʻpu Beach swimming, snorkeling and surfing, boogie boarding, sea turtles, whales, monk seals, trade winds, palm trees, and spectacular sunsets. The Allerton and McBryde National Tropical Botanical Gardens of the Pacific are located in Poipu. The Grand Hyatt Kauai, Marriott's Waiohai Beach Club and Coastline Cottages Kauai lead the area's accommodation choices.

Waimea, on the west side, is a small town with a flavor of old Kauaʻi. Most visitors pass through town on the way to Waimea Canyon and Kokeʻe, but the town itself is worth a relaxing visit.

Kapaʻa, on the east side, about a 20 minute drive north of Lihuʻe, is the largest population center on the island. It anchors what is known as the Coconut Coast, which hosts many inexpensive to moderately priced resorts and much commercial activity with many strip malls along the highway. The corridor between Lihuʻe and Kapaʻa is the island's most congested.

Hanalei, on the north shore, is home to a quaint little beach town and famous Hanalei Bay, a crescent shaped bay known for its sandy white beaches and world class surf. The center of town provides a young, relaxed vibe perfect for the young traveler. The center of town provides amazing views of one of Kauai's biggest mountains with a visible waterfall in the center.

Princeville is a planned resort community on the north shore, consisting of homes, condo developments, the St. Regis hotel, and 2 golf courses. Kauai's impressive north shore mountains form the backdrop. Several small beaches are located within Princeville, with many more a short drive away.

Other destinations

Understand

In many ways, Kauai is different from the rest of the islands. It's almost as if you've stepped into a separate kingdom, and for many years Kauai was just that in relation to Hawaii. Kamehameha I was able to conquer all the islands by force, except Kauai. Two separate campaigns to take the island ended in failure. In the end, it took diplomacy, a royal kidnapping, and an arranged marriage to bring Kauai into the kingdom of Hawaii.

Kauai is also known as the place where the sugar cane industry in Hawaii was born. Sugar was once the industrial mainstay of the Kauai economy but in recent years has taken a back seat to tourism. In October of 2009, Gay & Robinson harvested the last sugar crop in Kauai, ending 117 years of the sugar business in Kauai.

In short, compared to Oahu, Maui or the Big Island, Kauai is smaller, less populated, more rural, and more laid back. That's why it's the favorite destination for many visitors to Hawaii, and for many Hawaii residents as well. Visitors come to explore the island's beaches and natural wonders, but the multitude of resorts on white sand beaches provide ample opportunity to just sit and do nothing if you're so inclined.

Because tourist development reached Kauai considerably later than the other islands, the island has a larger proportion of timeshares, condominiums, and bed and breakfasts. Also, a strict cap on building heights (hotels can be no more than 40 feet high) prevent the development of the mega-resorts and towering skyscrapers found on the other islands. The local rule is that nothing can be built taller than a coconut tree.

One look at a map will show you an important difference between Kauai and the more populous islands of Hawaii: Due to the massive Waimea Canyon and Na Pali Coast, no roads circle the island. Once you've made the drive along the south shore to Waimea and seen the canyon, the only options are to go West on dirt roads to Polihale Beach or turn around and go back the way you came. Same story for Princeville and Na Pali on the north shore. However, the island is compact enough that both ends of the road can be seen in the same day. But the Garden Island cannot be enjoyed or appreciated if you are pressed for time.

Kauai offers a very unique experience also—from the western coast of the island on one of its piers, in the far distance travelers can see the island of Niihau, which is the forbidden island—forbidden, that is, to all but residents (about 130 mostly Native Hawaiians), U.S. Navy personnel, government officials and invited guests. It is often forgotten about because of its privacy so seeing its outline in the far distance is an amazing and majestic experience!

Also know that Kauai is a place where many famous people go to get away. Since it is much less drastic of a plane ride from L.A. in California than it is from the East Coast, this island which is the most secluded, private and relaxing provides getaway homes to many stars, although the normal traveler won't see these celebrities out on the beach, probably because their beach-front properties provide their own private beaches. To get a glimpse of one of these stars, check a nook in the wall bistro. Celebrities like Beau Bridges can be found relaxing with his wife in the island's countryside restaurants.

Also visitors should beware of the fact that along many of Kauai's streets and especially their main highway that there are wild roosters and chickens everywhere! It is almost like the equivalent of seeing squirrels in more eastern parts of the United States. Also, and quite surprisingly, stray cats are also everywhere in Kauai.

Get in

By air

Lihue Airport (IATA: LIH) is Kauai's main airport, a small terminal served with inter-island flights by Hawaiian, Island Air, and go!. Alaska, American, Delta, and United offer non-stop service from the West Coast of the US.

Tip when flying into Lihue: for the best incoming view, select a window seat on the left side of the aircraft. More often than not you'll be landing to the north thanks to the trade winds. From that angle you will see a dramatic cliff view off the left side on the final approach.

By sea

There is now also a deep water port at Nawiliwili for cruise ships. Norwegian Cruise Lines offers cruises between the islands that start and end in Honolulu.

Get around

Car

Rental car is the best way to really see the island -- and the only way to get to some remote (and scenic) sites. Most major rental car companies have offices at the Lihue airport or nearby by shuttle bus. Car rentals are available in a large variety of makes and models and provide travelers flexibility and freedom to explore the island. There are numerous rental car locations right outside of the Lihue airport. One will definitely want to use a rental car to see the island--Kauai is not a vacation spot where one stays in their resort the entire time.

Most rental car companies have restricted areas, notably Polihale beach. Check before you go, or take the risk of paying yourself out of trouble if your rental car breaks down or gets stuck. The red dirt that Kauai is so famous for is also highly concentrated around this area and adventurous travelers could track this stain-able substance into their rental cars

Bus

The Kauaʻi bus is perhaps the only other way to get around, but will not go to some rural attractions, such as Kokeʻe. Still, if you are on a budget, this bus will get you around and between the major population centers, such as Lihuʻe and Kapaʻa, and the major resort/beach areas.

Taxi

Pono Taxi and Taxi Hanalei are one of the few authorized airport taxi companies that are allowed to do pre-arranged pickups at Lihue Airport and take you to any destination on the island. They also offer personalized Kauai tours in one of the most comfortable taxi rides on the garden isle. A standard two hour tour is $120, and taxi fare is $3 per mile.

Bicycle

One other option for transport on the island is bicycle. The east side of the island (including Lihue and Kapaʻa) has plans for a major bike path under development as of early 2005. Parts of this path exist, but the major connections between towns are still along the major highways. Eventually, the entire east side of the island will be connected by exclusive bikeways, making nonautomobile transportation a real option.

Highways and Traffic

There are two main highways on Kauaʻi, both starting in Lihue. Kaumualii Highway (state route 50) heads to the west, through the towns of Kalaheo, Hanapepe, Waimea, and Kekaha before ending at the Na Pali Coast. Kuhio Highway (state route 56) heads north from Lihue, through Kapaʻa, Kilauea, Princeville, and Hanalei, ending at the other side of Na Pali.

Traffic in Kauai can be slow, particularly between Lihue and Kapaʻa. Give yourself extra time and be patient when traveling through this area.

See

Kilauea Point Lighthouse
Papahanaumokuakea marine National Monument, Coconut Island, Moku o Loʻe

Waimea Canyon and Koke'e State Park

Above Waimea on state route 550. From Lihue, take state route 50 west to Waimea. From there, you can take Waimea Canyon Drive (550) or continue to Kekaha turning onto state route 552, which meets route 550 near its 6-mile mark. Both roads are winding. Most popular viewing point of the canyon is just past mile 11 on route 550. Koke'e is located about 4 miles further. (808)245-6001 for weather information in the canyon.

Waimea Canyon Panorama

At over 10 miles (16 km) long, 1 mile (1.6 km) wide, and 3,567 feet (1,087 m) deep, Waimea Canyon has been called the "Grand Canyon of the Pacific." Indeed, its colors rival that of its Arizona counterpart, except that Waimea Canyon also adds touches of green that would be absent in the desert. Carved and formed over hundreds of thousands of years by runoff from Mount Waialeale at the center of the island, the canyon shows millions of years of geological history.

Camping and hiking are available above the canyon at Koke'e State Park.

Best time to go is on a relatively clear day, and then after mid-morning (from about 9:30AM-on). Otherwise, clouds and fog may obscure the view.

Na Pali Coast

Na Pali Coast from the ocean

The Na Pali coast, featured in the film Jurassic Park and many other movies, is one of the most distinctive geological features of Kauai and consists of sheer cliffs thousands of feet high that drop directly onto pristine secluded beaches. The beaches are reachable only by boat, helicopter, or very experienced hikers, but the cliffs may be viewed from the top by driving to the end of Route 550. There is a Na Pali Coast State Park, which provides adventurous travelers to hike along the coast with several options: they can either hike a round-trip 5 miles (in and out from Ke'e beach to Hanakapia'i beach) or the longest, most strenuous option, with the proper overnight equipment, permit and hiking gear, and do the 12 mile one-way hike into Kalalau Beach. You can also travel the Na Pali coast by boat or kayak with many different outfitters. By kayak, it's a 17.5 mile all day trip (unless one makes a special point to camp half way on the coast) done by two outfitters out of Hanalei. It's been called the Everest of Sea Kayaking and much like the hiking, is not for the faint of heart. Both are strenuous and difficult. Travelers will get to see beaches only accessible by foot or kayak and only visible by the highly expensive boat and helicopter tours. The caves along this hike/paddle are absolutely marvelous as well. Tourists will get the rare chance to marvel at Kauai's natural splendor and ocean life. By foot, a permit is only required if you continue any further than Hanakapia'i beach on the Na Pali Coast. You may travel there and an additional 4 mile round trip hike to Hanakapia'i Falls with no permit. By kayak, if you use one of the guide companies in Hanalei you will not need a permit. If you do camp over on your own or with a company, you will need to gather a landing permit. Note while kayaking there are a few beaches, like Honopu beach, directly next to Kalalau, that do not allow any landing vessel whatsoever. You can not land a kayak, surfboard, or anything else. The only way to access it is by swimming from an anchored boat off shore or from Kalalau Beach; both should only be done when the ocean permits as it can be very dangerous.

Do

People come to Kauai primarily for one thing: the beaches with their great snorkeling, surfing, swimming, and sunning. But Kauai also boasts more navigable rivers than the other Hawaiian Islands making kayaking very popular as well as the cool, higher elevation of Koke'e. If the surf is calm you can even combine a river run with time paddling the bays and ocean shoreline. You'll find kayak rentals near the mouth of the most popular rivers. Many will also rent roof-top strap-on kayaks for travelers interested in trying one of the several smaller river runs.

Kauai has great hiking and mountain biking trails as well. Outdoor adventurers will find the guidebook Kauai Trailblazer to be helpful in comparing various locations for hiking and biking (as well as snorkeling, kayaking, and surfing). The Waimea Canyon area has extensive hiking trails both into the canyon itself as well as great overlooks of the Na Pali cliffs. Check with the park office on trail conditions and weather before starting your hike. The Koke'e Museum has a listing of trails.

There are many commercial tour guides that offer various land and sea adventures such as guided hikes, downhill bike tours, back-country ATV trips, river tubing adventures, and more, but hiking areas and water access are free. There are no private beaches anywhere in the Hawaiian Islands.

Other recommended activities are listed below by region.

An amazing service the south shore provides is Kayak rentals on their Koloa river. It is a very hidden location but this family owned kayak rental are native Hawaiians and very friendly. The kayak rental is on a historically re-created Hawaiian village ground where adventurous travelers can walk around, go inside huts and their small buildings and see live peacocks wandering the grounds. There are recreated traditional family huts like the Ancient Hawaiians used to live in and also medicine huts where you can see how medicine was made. Kayak rentals are moderately expensive but very worth it. You also get great exercise because to go to an actual stop or island there is around 20 straight minutes of rowing! A popular place for tourists and locals alike to stop at on their kayak tour is a little cove where a rope swing was built! There is also a cliff perfect for jumping off of into the deep water, but caution must be advised. The rope swing is very safe. Kayaking through the Koloa river is an amazing experience where one can truly be at peace with nature. There is lush greenery completely surrounding the river and fresh, clear water in the river. Another popular spot for kayaking is about a mile down the river. Kayak tours are available, but tourists can also discover this spot themselves and at their own pace. This spot provides around a two mile hike to one of Kauai's most beautiful waterfalls. The rocks are treacherous but once the traveler gets past them, they can even swim under the waterfall! It is truly an experience unlike any other. Kauai is clearly a place for the hiking enthusiast. Another spot is a garden tour through the fern grotto. This river makes a loop so once you've been to the waterfall and fern grotto it is only a short paddle back to the base. The fern grotto is a large bolder-looking formation covered in fern. Deeper in is a cave. The garden area is mysteriously covered with stray cats but is nonetheless beautiful and stunning. This historically education and adventurous experience is definitely a must when traveling to Kauai.

If you rent a jeep make sure you take a trek out to Polihale Beach. It is located at the southern end of the Na Pali coast. This wide sprawling beach is the longest on the major islands, at just over 17 miles long. The sunsets here are truly awesome and with a permit you can camp there, as it is a State Park. During the winter and early spring you can also see the whales from the beach. However, the last couple of miles of the road to get to Polihale, run through an old sugar cane field. As of Jul 2011 the road was still not maintained and is in poor condition to drive, with many large and deep potholes riddling the entire narrow road. If you have a rental car recognize that all rental car companies on the island expressly prohibit the use of their vehicles (including Jeeps!) on Polihale road.

Eat

Like the rest of Hawaii, the plate lunch is ubiquitous in Kauai (see the Eat section in the main Hawaii article for more information). However, many of Kauai's beaches and natural attractions (like Waimea Canyon) have no amenities nearby. Pack a lunch and bring enough water for the day - then stop at the restaurants for dinner. For a tasty snack, pick up some red lychees from a roadside stand or a farmer's market. Waimea Canyon visitors can drive a few miles further up the road to the Koke'e Lodge, located in the Koke'e State Park next to the museum. It serves breakfast and lunch.

Budget

Mid-range

Splurge

Sweet tooth

Drink

Sleep

This guide uses the following price ranges for a standard double room:
Budget under $100
Mid-range $100-200
Splurge $200+

Before making lodging reservations it's best to review a map of the island and plan ahead. Think about the activities and sightseeing you want to do. While it's true that you can drive to any part of the island within an hour or two you'll spend less time in the car if you book your lodging in a spot that's closest to the places you'll spend most of your time. The one main highway is only two lanes *one each way* and tends to get fairly congested at times.

The "windward" side, especially the north coast can get up to twice rain than the sunny south coast. If you come from a cold and rainy region looking for a sunny Hawaiian vacation you could be disappointed if you stay on the lush, green, tropical - and wetter - north coast. Yes, it will still be warm but more with more cloud cover and showers.

Location and setting also affects lodging prices. There can be a sizable price difference between ocean view and non-ocean view units - the so-called 'garden' or 'mountain' view rooms - all within the same resort. Also, resorts or condo properties set inland - even a block or two - can sometimes be 10-20% cheaper than properties that front or connect directly with the beach. Yes, you'll have to walk a bit or bike or even make a short drive but if helps to fit Kauai into your budget it may be worth the walk.

Make your reservations early to get the best choices for unit type, location, and price. Larger condo resorts often have multiple owners so search the Web by resort name and compare prices. Note that "by owner" listings for condos usually offer rates that a little lower than what the big agencies will charge for the same complex - although selection will be narrower (e.g. one to four units). Get a complete written quote of all expense plus the cancellation and refund policy before sending a deposit.

Another option is camping. There are many county and a state park where camping is allowed. Permits are cheap but required.

Budget

Mid-range

Splurge


Stay safe

Rip tides, currents, and high surf - Rip tides and ocean currents on Kauai can be treacherous. Unlike the other Hawaiian islands, Kauai can be especially dangerous because of the lack of a protective reef around many beaches. Many popular swimming areas can be extremely dangerous. Visitors are especially cautioned to not enter any beach on the Na Pali Coast, which has been the site of multiple drownings.

Sunburn - The UV index in Hawaii often exceeds 12 in the summer. People with lighter complexions can receive serious sunburns in as little as 15 minutes. Always wear a good sunblock and/or UV-blocking clothes. Sunburn can easily ruin a vacation. If you get a bad sunburn, however, the Wilcox Memorial Hospital in Lihue can prescribe medication to alleviate the symptoms.

Prepare for the area you are visiting. Kaua'i has a few different climates in its boundary, so you will visit many different areas. For instance, you may wear flip flops and bikinis at Poipu; however, you would want a jacket, boots and long pants while up in Koke'e.

Kaua'i is an ever-changing, adapting part of an island chain. It is constantly eroding and changing. Beware of drop offs, sharp edges, water safety and the land and ocean around you in general.

Respect

Remember that as much as you need to keep yourself safe, you need to keep Hawai'i safe as well. Please practice the Leave No Trace principles to make sure everyone can enjoy the islands. It's not only illegal to do things like feed or hassle wildlife, take rocks, sand or plants, but it's also immoral and detrimental to the Hawaiian Islands. They are the most isolated land mass on the globe and have many species and landscapes that are struggling to survive under the pressures of tourism. Respect the 'aina the best you can. Do not litter, cut trails, or desecrate natural or man made sites.

Connect

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