Magical, lush, breathtaking, gorgeous, surreal—Kauai is all of these things. Words alone, however accurate, cannot do justice to this crown jewel of the Hawaiian Islands. As the surfers say, “Eddie would go,” and visiting the Garden Isle of Kauai is the only way to truly experience this island gem’s special magic.
The northernmost island of the Hawaiian chain, Kauai is located the farthest distance from any land mass. Its 562 square miles are home to a variety of microclimates, including rainforests, deserts, mountains, river valleys, swamps and beaches galore.
Spending time in this island paradise is sure to shift your fast-paced mainland shuffle into a laidback and relaxed island vibe. As you explore its many wonders, expect to be transformed on deeper levels as well. Slowing down to smell the tuberoses allows time to contemplate the things that matter most in life, which can be easy to lose sight of in the daily mayhem of our busy lives.
It’s not surprising that the island embodies the spirit of caring for and giving back to others, known as Mālama.
“Mālama—to care for or give back—has always been the foundation of Kauai’s community, people and places,” says Shere’e Quitevis of Kauai Visitors Bureau. “An example of the Mālama Hawaii Program on Kauai is a guided beach cleanup with the Surfrider Foundation Kauai Chapter.”
Preserving and promoting Hawaiian culture is paramount to ensuring the health and heart of Kauai’s heritage. Local sites incorporating elements of island culture include National Tropical Botanical Garden, McBryde and Allerton Gardens, and Limahuli Garden and Preserve; Anaina Hou Community Park, where you can catch an Ahi Lele Fire Show; Fern Grotto for a Hawaiian luau; daily Farmers’ Markets; and Kilohana Plantation, to name a few.
Allow at least a week to explore the island’s many treasures—and sign up for those frequent flyer miles as you’ll want to return again and again to discover the myriad sights you won’t have time to see in a single visit. In fact, during this trip, even after having lived on the island for 7 years, I stumbled upon spectacular sites that I had not seen before!
Landing in Lihue felt like a homecoming of sorts, starting with the magnificent and dramatic fluted cliffs of the famed Na Pali Coast that welcomed us with their mesmerizing beauty as the plane descended onto the runway. After we quickly collected our bags in the quaint little airport, our Turo driver greeted us with the keys to a clean, new SUV, which we rented through Turo.com for significantly less than rental car companies charge. Stoked with the smooth and easy pickup of our rental car, we eased on down the road to Kapaa, a centrally located town about 8 miles north of the airport.
Despite the heavier traffic than I remembered on the mostly two-lane Kuhio Highway, the main road that spans the island, we three friends oohhed and aahhed as we drove along, drinking in the island landscape with fresh eyes and even spotting a whale’s tail splashing in the ocean alongside the road! Reaching our homebase vacation rental at Pono Kai Resort, we settled into the cozy oceanfront condo, pinching ourselves to make sure we weren’t just dreaming we’d arrived in paradise. The balmy breezes and soothing sounds of the tropical rain showers and rolling waves lulled us into an easy slumber.
Venturing out bright and early the next morning (Hawaii is 3 hours behind California time, after all!), we strolled along the oceanfront walking and bike path to the nearby coffee shop, Java Kai. Judging from the long lines, we were at the right place and on the same wavelength as the locals and fellow tourists. A fluorescent green gecko with blue eyes peered at us as we sat in the rustic outdoor patio savoring our fresh-brewed coffees (and devouring delicious breakfast sandwiches and pastries!).
Fueled up and feeling fine (and full!), we loaded our gear into the car and set out for the North Shore and the magical land of Hanalei. Driving out of the city northbound with the windshield wipers going full blast, we feasted our eyes upon the incredibly lush landscape of plants and vines in every shade of green, the “Sleeping Giant” mountain towering in the distance and expansive vistas colored with tropical flowers and blue skies. We mostly stayed on the main road, veering off for a quick pit stop to peek at the beautiful Kalihiwai Beach and resisting the pull to explore the countless other amazing beaches and secret spots beckoning us to discover them down so many side roads…
One of the most picturesque views on Kauai has to be rounding the corner from Princeville and overlooking the Hanalei Valley below. Setting eyes on this magical tiny town with a river running through it, taro fields, and a little village bordered by mountains streaming with waterfalls and the world-famous Hanalei Bay Beach is a sight we should all be so lucky to behold.
Stopping in Hanalei town, we dodged the downpouring rain ducking in shops and deciding among the many dining options before the irresistible smell of piping hot fresh-baked pizza pulled us into Hanalei Pizza. We enjoyed our tasty slices at a communal picnic table outside the restaurant, striking up a lively conversation with a couple of local ladies and becoming fast friends during our short meeting that we all agreed was some sort of a cosmic connection before exchanging numbers and promising to stay in touch.
Wandering through Ching Young Village’s fun and touristy shops, we stocked up on souvenirs, including rain ponchos and a real rain jacket, which proved to be a smart purchase that served me well throughout the trip—as they say in the islands, “No rain, no rainbows!”
These days, getting to the end of the road requires reserving a seat (in advance!) on the GoHaena Kauai North Shore shuttle (GoHaena.com). Once aboard, you’ll be driven along a narrow winding road weaving through this jungle wonderland between the crystal blue ocean and magnificent mountains to Kee Beach, a great place to swim and snorkel in a protected bay. The famous Kalalau Trail, a 11-mile somewhat treacherous hike along the Na Pali Coast to a heavenly valley, begins here where the road ends, as this section of the island is accessible only by foot, boat or air.
Blue Dolphin Charters and others offer boat tours of the Na Pali Coast, including sunset dinner cruises, snorkeling and scuba, fishing, and dolphin and whale watching adventures. Surveying the island by air provides a bird’s eye view of the incredibly scenic inaccessible areas, including the 5,000-foot Mt. Waialeale, one of the wettest spots on Earth (averaging 450 inches of rain annually), and Manawaiopuna Falls, the 400-foot waterfall featured in the movie “Jurassic Park.”
You can also get a glimpse into the heart of the 2-mile-wide verdant Kalalau Valley at the Waimea Canyon overlook, located on the other side of the island. Known as the “Grand Canyon of Kauai,” Waimea Canyon is 10 miles long and more than 3,500 feet deep. Some 45 miles of trails wind through this forested area of Norfolk pines, Koa hardwoods, native plants, wildlife and numerous scenic overlooks in the 4,345-acre Kokee State Park. Visitors can also camp here year-round (make advance reservations at DLNR.Hawaii.gov), explore the Alakai Swamp, ride a zipline, and visit the Kokee Natural History Museum and Lodge.
Just down the hill you’ll find the must-see 17-miles long Polihale Beach. The state’s longest beach marks the other end of the road and the beginning of the Na Pali Coast. An adventure to find by travelling down an unpaved old cane haul road, Polihale offers glorious sunsets and views of the Forbidden Island of Niihau.
The west and south sides of the island, generally considered the “dry” sides, are where sunbathers find their bliss. We headed to the popular Poipu Beach, located on the south side though the tunnel of trees. Passing through Koloa, home of the Old Sugar Mill, a National Historic Landmark that was founded in 1835 as the first successful large-scale sugar operation in the Hawaiian Islands, we admired the historic culture-soaked town before driving by the Poipu Bay Golf Course and Spouting Horn with its impressive 50-foot high water spouts.
Arriving at Poipu Beach Park, we watched the sea turtles surfing in the waves and savored some Hawaiian shave ice while walking along the soft white sand beach, nearly tripping over a sea turtle and Hawaiian monk seal before finally immersing in the calm, refreshing crystal clear (and surprisingly warm) blue sea. As the roosters crowed and children chased them, we relaxed in the sun, soaking up the island vibes.
Cruising back to Kapaa along the backcountry roads threading through untouched nature of tall grass fields and mountains in the distance, we stopped to check out the Menehune Fish Pond. Legend has it that a small race of people known as the Menehune built these ponds using large stones to create walls 900 feet across and 5 feet high in just one night more than 1,000 years ago. Kayak tours on the Huleia River offer a fun way to explore this unique landmark. Winding down the road to Nawiliwili Harbor where a behemoth cruise ship had just arrived, lit up in all its glory, we stopped for oceanfront cocktails at Liliquoi Bar and Grill. Our amazing bartender, Jennifer, served up some specialty Lava Flows and Kauai Tais and tempted us with Liliquoi Cheesecake and Pineapple Almond Tarts, which we didn’t resist—thanks Jen!
After days of indulging in scrumptious island fare and lazing on the sunny beaches, we decided to get some exercise hiking at the Keahua Arboretum. Located in Wailua on a windy, scenic road in the hills of Kauai, the arboretum is stunning with its rainbow eucalyptus trees, native shrubs and cold mountain springs. Picnicking, hiking and horseback riding are popular activities here. Driving south, we spotted a 13-foot-tall bronze statue, which we discovered was Lord Hanuman, and the grounds of the Kauai Hindu Monastery. The 363-acre site includes the Rudraksha Forest (7345 Kualoo Road)—the only one of its kind in the western hemisphere—and paths to sacred sites, waterfalls, temples and ponds where you can easily spend an entire day exploring the hidden wonders around every turn. Intent on watching the sunset at Secret Beach, we peeled ourselves away from the unexpected adventure and piled into the car, heading north to Kilauea. After a quick stop at the quaint Anahola Market for snacks of fresh Hawaiian poke, sushi and manapuas, we made it to the dirt road leading to Secret Beach. We scampered down the half-mile jungle trail leading to the breathtakingly beautiful secluded (clothing-optional) beach where we drank in the spectacular sunset with the Kilauea Lighthouse overlooking us from its mountain perch.
The last day of our vacation (too soon!) found us fittingly sipping Painkillers—Pussers Navy Rum, Pineapple OJ, Coconut Cream and Shaved Nutmeg—which lived up to their name, I might add, at Sam’s Ocean View Restaurant & Bar. An easy walk from our Kapaa condo along the oceanside walking path, Sam’s Ocean View is also accurately named for its in-your-face oceanfront view. We feasted on the perfect French fries, Seared Ahi Steak with Sesame Ginger Glaze and SOV Grilled Cheese, made with brie and Wisconsin blue cheese, fig jam on local bakery sourdough with sliced apple and honey drizzle, served with a smile and friendly service.
Gathering gifts and souvenirs for our loved ones was a breeze at Kapaa’s downtown shops, including Bamboo Works and Kela’s Glass Gallery, home of the one-of-a-kind color-changing jewelry and exquisite glass art. We were also wowed watching local artisan glass blowers and wood workers create works of art onsite while we shopped. Arms laden with island mementoes—Lion coffee, plumeria hairclips, chocolate-covered macadamia nuts, colorful sarongs and more—our hearts were also full of the aloha spirit emanating from this peaceful paradise. Aloha, until next time, Kauai! We will be back!!