Before we dive into the plentitude of unforgettably adventurous things to do in Kauai, let’s start with pronunciation.
Whenever I say “Kauai,” it inevitably comes out as if I were a bubbly Japanese teenager squealing excitedly over something glittery/shiny/pink/Shawn Mendes’ hair— “KAAAWWWAAIIIIIIIIIIIII 😻😻😻” I just can’t help myself. It’s like a weird, very specific form of tourettes.
But somehow it seems appropriate, like a profound, high-pitched utterance reflecting the wonder one feels upon setting eyes on the magnificent Garden Isle of Hawaii for the first time.
When I was trying to decide which were the best islands to visit in Hawaii, it quickly became apparent that I had to squeeze at least 3 days in Kauai into my 10-day itinerary. I was captivated by visions of untamed jungles and the sandy shores where the first people to set foot in Hawaii arrived.
I knew that I had made the right decision the moment I touched down on the Garden Island for the first time. I could feel the unbridled power of the land humming in my bones.
I remember feeling a comforting heaviness take up residence in my heart as we drove through a seemingly never-ending stretch of eucalyptus trees lining the Maliuhi Road. There was a depth to the island that carved out space in my soul, filling me with a quiet, respectful awe.
What is Kauai known for?
If you’re wringing your hands in indecision over which island to visit in Hawaii, Kauai is arguably the most beautiful. The dramatic landscapes emanate a raw and powerful allure that will steal even the most weary traveller’s breath away.
As the second oldest of the main Hawaiian Islands (after Ni’ihau), forces of nature have had time to break down the volcanic eruptions, forming the land into seemingly endless miles of a coastline composed of pristine beaches and a fertile environment bursting with life.
It’s no wonder Kauai is known as the Garden Island with its flourishing emerald valleys, expansive mountain ranges and soaring cliffs blanketed in verdure.
If you’re a numbers person, that translates to 97% of the island covered by forests and mountains, 4,000-foot-high Na Pali cliffs, a 10-mile-long by 3,000-foot-deep Waimea Canyon, a small population of 70,000, and 15 days of rain a month.
Hey, it takes a lot of rain to maintain that much greenery.
Here’s another number for you: there’s only one road that snakes around the entire island, meaning that most things to do in Kauai can be considered “off the beaten path” and hidden.
Many spots are only accessible by sea or air, making you feel like Magellan (or Gilligan) and the first to discover unspoiled beaches and tucked away corners of the island.
If you’re looking for an authentic vibe and unconquered nature, then Kauai is the island is Hawaii to visit.
FYI — the best time to go to Kauai is from September to November and from April to June for gorgeous weather and lower airfare and hotel prices. However, peak whale-watching season on the island is January and February.
Whether you’re looking for things to do in Kauai with kids, or thrilling activities in different areas of the island, here’s an epic guide for a Hawaiian vacation jam-packed with adventures:
Things To Do In Kauai:
visit Queen’s Bath
Queen’s Bath is as dangerous as it is beautiful…like a box of Krispy Kreme Donuts after a month-long diet.
It’s a breath-taking natural tide pool (technically a sinkhole but “tide pool” sounds more appealing) surrounded by black igneous rock that creates a semi-protected barrier from the Pacific Ocean.
Located in Princeville on the North Shore of Kauai, you’ll be greeted by warning signs aplenty before embarking on a scenic 10-minute walk over uneven lava rock (wear substantial footwear!) and past waterfalls before reaching the idyllic waters.
Deceptively placid in the summer (May – October), the waves get wild — crashing down on the rocks and in the pool — in the cooler months (November to April).
Before going to Queen’s Bath, check the surf reports the day of, and go during low tide. Even then, proceed with extreme caution before deciding whether to take a refreshing dip (if the waters are calm enough) or just soak in the impressive view.
Get your heart-racing and your blood pumping with one of the most popular and exciting things to do in Kauai: mountain tubing! It’s like a lazy river experience with NO chill…but also ALL of the literal chill because the water is effing cold.
Get geared up at Kauai Backcountry Adventures headquarters before hopping on one of their sturdy, open-air four-wheel-drive vehicles headed towards the former Lihue Plantation lands.
Strap on a helmet, headlamp and gloves and ease your way into a brightly hued inflatable tube bobbing along a former irrigation system that fed the sugar crops.
Enjoy the thrilling ride as you alternate between zipping through pitch black tunnels and spinning in circles for a 360-degree view of the surrounding emerald green vistas.
Note: For some mind over matter witchcraft, every time you want to say or think “cold” replace with “refreshing. It oddly works!…kind of.
Craft a Floral Crown
If you want to get lei’d in Kauai, then take a hands-on approach by spending the afternoon crafting a floral crown fit for royalty with The Lei Collective.
Learn the art of lei making in a 2-hour workshop arranging fragrant local blooms into haku lei, also known as a lei po’o (lei meaning “flower garland” and po’o meaning “head”).
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Whether you want to learn more about Polynesian culture or you’re looking for things to do in Kauai for a bachelorette party, this is the perfect activity to flex your creative muscles!
Snag tickets for an upcoming public workshop or book a private party and bring your game face — you’ll definitely want to strike a pose with your botanical creation at the end.
Na Pali Coast Boat Tour
The best views of the iconic mountainous Na Pali Coast on the northwest of Kauai can be found from the sea. Hop aboard a catamaran with Capt Andy’s for a boat tour will take you along 15-miles of rugged shoreline.
The mountainous Na Pali Coast is by far the most iconic sight on all of Kauai with its vast and verdant valleys and soaring, razor-edged cliffs. The pristine natural beauty has been maintained for so long because of its remote location and inaccessibility, except by boat that is.
Keep your eyes peeled for surrounding sea creatures, from pods of spinner dolphins swivelling gracefully through the air, to sea lions sunning themselves on remote golden shores.
If you’re in Kauai in January and February, you may even be lucky enough to catch fleeting glimpses of magnificent whales who frequent the warm tropical waters to
get frisky mate and give birth.
Horseback riding at a Ranch
If you’re staying on the north shore of the island and looking for things to do in Princeville, mosey on over to the Princeville Ranch for a day of yee-haw-ing adventure! Work on your Paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy) skills at this family-owned-and-operated 2,500-acre cattle ranch that was established way back during the reign of Kamehameha III.
Saddle up — or as they say at Princeville Ranch “Paniolo up” — and set out on a horseback ride through bucolic pastures, past stunning waterfalls and along private jungle trails with the Makaleha Mountain looming majestically in the background.
Whether you opt for a private horseback ride for an exclusive experience or opt for the waterfall ride, you’ll be accompanied by an expert paniolo guide who is well-versed in local fauna and flora history.
best Beaches in kauai
If you’re reading this list of things to do in Kauai and feeling exhausted already, then this next suggestion is for you. Find a nice beach and perch.
As the second oldest of the main Hawaiian islands, the elements have had plenty of time to break down the land into miles and miles of sandy beaches, considered to be some of the best in the world!
If you’re on the North Shore of Kauai and seeking refuge from prying eyes, head to Secret Beach (also known as Kauapea Beach). It’s safe to say that the secret is out, but this serene hideaway with palm tree-lined cliffs and stretches of picturesque seascape is still fairly secluded.
Hanalei Bay Beach is a fan favourite for its fine sand and a multitude of activities to engage in, from surfing for any experience level (right side for pros and left for novices) to kayaking, windsurfing and fishing.
An underwater explorer’s paradise, Tunnels Beach is known for its massive half moon-shaped reef and deep-water caverns located not far offshore. It’s one of the best places to snorkel in Kauai!
On the South Side of the island, you’ll find Poipu Beach, regarded to be “America’s Best Beach” by The Travel Channel. It’s made up of two beaches — a kid-friendly sand bar on the west and the vibrantly active eastern side — conjoined by Nukumoi Point where you might spot an endangered monk seal lazying around.
Mahaulepu Beach is another popular option, whether your aim is to windsurf or sunbathe.
Sleeping Giant Sunrise Hike
Not much can motivate me to get up before the sun, but the prospect of a glorious sunrise might do it. The Sleeping Giant Trail (one of three Nounou Mountain trails) was named for the shape of the hill that looks like the profile of a dozing giant. As one of the best hikes on Kauai, this particular trail will lead you on a moderate trek across his chest.
Rise early and strap a headlamp on before hiking through forest, over a lava outcropping, and alongside astounding views of Wailua Bay and Kalepa Ridge. Beware of slippery ground and tricky forks in the path!
Once you reach the giant’s “head,” soak in the expansive vantage point of the sun ascending above the ocean and the light gently kissing awake the city of Kapaa below.
Sunset at Hanalei Bay
Hanalei, meaning “lei making” or “crescent bay” in Hawaiian, is home to the largest bay on the North Shore of Kauai. The beauty is so awe-inspiring that it’s rumoured to have inspired “Puff The Magic Dragon,” a 1960s folk song about a mythical beast that “lived by the sea and frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honah Lee.” 🤯
Hanalei, Honah Lee. Coincidence? Actually yes, yes it was (a little deflating, no?).
Serendipitous coincidence or not, it still makes me happy to believe that the gentle rolling hillside that curves around the bay is actually a sleeping dragon that protects the peaceful town.
Plus, Hanalei Bay where you’ll find the best sunset in Kauai, offering the most magical viewpoint on the island.
Stroll along the lengthy Hanalei Pier armed with takeaway from one of the killer local food trucks (try Kealia Poke or Trucking Delicious) and grab a seat to soak in the calm atmosphere and watch the sun go out in a blaze of colour.
We’ve explored Kauai by ground and sea….but what about by air? As the most fertile and geologically diverse of the Hawaiian islands, Kauai is arguably the best Hawaiian island to get an elevated perspective from a helicopter tour.
You’ll be able to glimpse all the untouched wilderness of the island that can’t be traversed by car or foot.
Get onboard with Blue Hawaiian if you want views of dramatic coastlines with background narration from a pilot who doubles as a certified guide. For a guaranteed window seat or the exhilarating option to go doorless (for the adrenaline junkie), opt for a small group tour with Mauna Loa Helicopter Tours.
No matter which of the best helicopter tours in Kauai you decide upon, you’ll be treated to at least a 60-minute spectacle of the natural wonders to be found on Kauai, from the Na Pali Coast, the depths of the Waimea Canyon and the distant peaks of Mt. Waialeale (a dormant volcano and the wettest place on earth) to the secluded waterfalls at the Waialeale Crater.
Kayak and Hike to the Secret Falls
Don’t go chasing waterfalls…unless you’re in Hawaii! One of the most quintessential things to do in Kauai is kayaking to the Secret (Uluwehi) Falls. Judging by the popularity of this activity, it’s clearly the worst kept secret on the island.
Aim to set off on your journey from Wailua River State Park on the East Shore of the island earlier in the day if you want to avoid crowds at this not-so-secret spot. Join a tour (like Rainbow Kayak Tours) or indulge your adventurous spirit and discover the Secret “Uluwehi” Falls on your own by renting a kayak from Wailua Kayak Adventures.
Paddle merrily along the north bank (on the right) of the Wailua River, turn right at the fork before continuing for another 5-10 minutes before docking alongside a bevy of other kayaks. From there, it’s an easy, straightforward hike to the glorious waterfalls where you can take a well-deserved dip in the refreshing waters.
For a more exact guide to kayak the Wailua and hike to the Secret Falls, check out this post.
best places to eat in kauai
As if I would write a list of things to do in Kauai that didn’t include my absolute favourite activity: EATING!
The first thing we did upon arriving at the Lihue Airport after several days of feasting our way around Hilo on the Big Island, was beeline for Hamura Saimin for a big, comforting bowl of NOODS 🍜
This very humble, hole-in-the-wall is the place to try saimin, the local twist on ramen served with green onion, ham, fish cake, vegetables, wontons, roast pork and egg. Don’t sleep on the light-as-air lilikoi chiffon pie!
If you’re looking for a healthy way to start the day, grab some nourishing refreshments from Kauai Juice Co. Fill reusable glass bottles will bright, organic concoctions, like fizzy mango mint jalapeño and lilikoi lychee kombuchas, or a cold-pressed blend of strawberry, pineapple and orange juices (Starburst).
For a more upscale vibe, drop by the gorgeous Ama in Hanelei. The heavy wood decor is balanced by high ceilings and an open concept design that extends into the great outdoors, providing an epic view of mountains.
Sip killer cocktails while noshing on Brussel sprouts and fried chicken bao before moving on to a traditional bowl of ramen or a brothless mazeman with pork belly and a sticky peanut sauce.
If you’re celebrating a special occasion, make a reservation at Bar Acuda (right next door to sister restaurant, Ama). Feast on innovative farm-to-table tapas dishes amid glowing lanterns and gently waving palm fronds.
I loved the local salad with crispy chickpeas, cucumber, avocado, crumbled feta, fresh herbs and a white balsamic vinaigrette so much that I replicated it at home.
And don’t sleep on the food trucks on the island as they’re considered to be some of the best places to eat in Kauai. People rave about the garlic shrimp and kalua pork from Trucking Delicious (parked in Hanalei) while Cafe Turmeric serves up some killer curries.
Best Places To Stay In Kauai:
Wondering which is the best area to stay in Kauai? That depends on what you’re looking for.
The North Shore of Hawaii near Princeville and Hanalei Bay is the most picturesque option with a mountain backdrop, conveniently located near some of the best places to eat on the island.
For my 3 days in Kauai, I stayed at the Makai Club Resort which was nice a quiet, with a living space that was separate from the bedroom. My dream accommodations would be the Surf Shack, ideal if you’re visiting the Garden Island with a crew of 3-5 people.
Staying on the East Coast of Kauai (Kapa’a, Lihue or Wailua) is more affordable and centrally located to visit the rest of the island. Check out the Waipouli Beach Resort to be nestled within an eclectic neighbourhood and nearby many of the activities on this list (kayaking to Secret Falls, mountain tubing, Sleeping Giant Trail).
Alternatively, this beachfront bungalow in Kapa’a is aesthetically right up my alley, decorated in all white and plant life.
The best weather on Kauai can be found on the sunny South Side (Koloa, Lawai, and Poipu). This area is bustling with activity and a prime location to explore the western part of the island but a bit far from to visit the north. Stay at the Marriott’s Waiohai Beach Club for a swanky, highly-rated choice.
As for the West Side of Kauai (Waimea and Hanapepe), unless you’re planning to do a lot of hiking in the nearby state parks, it’s an inconvenient choice, isolated from the rest of the island.
I was so immersed in the rugged and wild nature of Kauai that if I had spent one more day on the Garden Island, I would’ve gone feral. I had a mere 3 days in Kauai but one more day and I would’ve be lost to polite society, eschewing clothing, shoes and socially acceptable behaviour like NOT drinking gravy in public.
If you’re planning a trip to the Aloha State, check out this curated 10-day itinerary.
Keep your stalking game strong and follow me @teriaki if you aren’t already!