Today (November 26, 2018): Top 10 best things to see & do on the island of Kauai.
Kauai was the first of the major Hawaiian islands to rise from the ocean floor and it was the first to become extinct some 5 million years ago. The northernmost island in the Hawaiian chain is draped in emerald valleys, sharp mountain spires and jagged cliffs. Sculpted by nature for millions of years, Kauai’s legendary and sensational natural beauty is epitomized by the Napali Coast – 14 miles (22 km) of sea cliffs ascending 3,000 feet (900 m) above untamed shoreline – and spectacular Waimea Canyon, the ‘Grand Canyon of the Pacific’. Kauai also boasts the wettest spot on the planet at Mount Wai’ale’ale and the tremendous rainfall has produced sheer-walled valleys, razor-sharp ridges descending to the sea and most amazing array of waterfalls to be assembled anywhere in the world. Here’s my top 10 list of the best things to see & do in the world’s most spectacular island.
There is more information below the slideshow. Think I missed one? Share your favorite Kauai attraction in the comments section, or take my poll below!
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Often voted one of the most beautiful beaches of the USA, Poipu Beach offers crystal-clear waters and a series of golden crescents of sand. With lifeguards, picnic facilities, and a natural wading pool for young swimmers, it’s also a great destination for a family beach day. There’s a bodyboarding site directly in front of the park for older children and novice adults, a surfing site for experienced surfers and a good reef for snorkeling. You’ll also find a narrow sand spit – called a tombola – extending from shore out towards an island, thereby creating two separate beaches. As an added bonus, the tombola is a favorite hangout of the endangered Hawaiian monk sea. From December through April, you can sometimes spot humpback whales in the distance. And if you’re an early riser, head over to Poipu Beach before sunrise and you might catch a glimpse of the giant sea turtles taking a nap on the sand.
Tunnels Beach (aka Makua Beach) located at Ha’ena Point on Kauai’s north shore is a postcard-perfect stretch of golden sand backed by ironwood trees, tropical palms and lush mountains. Even though much of the shoreline is lined by beachrock, which is usually not favored by swimmers, Tunnels Beach is nevertheless one of the north shore’s most popular beaches because of its large reef offshore. The beach is unique for having an inner and an outer reef. About an eighth of a mile offshore is a half-moon shaped reef. This is the inner reef and it is shallow. This area is ideal for novice snorkelers, while advanced divers and snorkelers explore the outer reef, which has more lava tubes, arches and coral formations. During the winter months or times of high surf, the water conditions are hazardous at Tunnels Beach and swimming and snorkeling are dangerous.
Graced with timeless beauty, this lovely small town is home to everything from historic places to contemporary art galleries. At the foot of Hanalei’s misty green mountains, you’ll also discover fields of taro. These heart-shaped plants grow intensely green in flooded patches and are used to make poi, a Hawaiian staple starch that you can taste at any Kauai luau. You can get a good view of this emerald quilt of land from the Hanalei Valley Lookout. The historic Hanalei Pier was built in 1892 and has long been a favorite gathering place for local residents, who go there to fish, swim and play music on Hanalei Bay. In 1957, the pier became world-famous when Oscar Hammerstein II and 20th Century Fox featured the pier in the classic film, “South Pacific.” After a busy day of soaking up Hanalei Town’s history and charm, kick back, relax and watch a luminous sunset over Hanalei Bay.
Polihale is hands-down the most breathtakingly beautiful as well as longest stretch of beach in the state of Hawaii. This seemingly deserted seven mile (11 km) long golden sand beach on the western end of Kauai, is several miles from the nearest town and holds a vibe of enchantment and mystique, still alive on Hawaii today. It sits at the southern end of the Napali Coast and offer endless beach-combing and shelling fun amid spectacular scenery of pure wilderness, impressive sand dunes, and desert cactus. The beach can only be reached via a poorly marked, dirt sugarcane road, making a four-wheel drive vehicle preferable (check with your rental car company for restrictions before heading out). Polihale Beach is hot and shade is far from the water’s edge, so don’t forget to bring an umbrella and lots of water if you plan on spending any time here.
If Kauai looks vaguely familiar — though you’ve never been here before — it’s probably because you’ve seen chunks of the island’s drop-dead gorgeous landscape on your TV or at your neighborhood movie theater. Kauai’s undisturbed beauty and diverse terrain, its shrouded, jungle mountains and miles of golden sand beach, have drawn Hollywood film producers to the island since the early ’30s. Actually, the island rarely plays itself. In ‘Jurassic Park,’ for example, Kauai doubled for Costa Rica. In ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark,’ the island masqueraded for the jungles of South America. ‘Outbreak’ took place in Africa and ‘South Pacific’ in a place called New Caledonia. Take a movie tour to learn about the more than 60 feature films shot on location in Kauai or you can discover them for yourself and make your own movie moments.
Located in the 9,000 acre resort community of Princeville, the Princeville Resort lays claim to Hawaii’s most stunning location – a cliff overlooking dramatic Hanalei Bay on the northern shore of Kauai. The spectacular views rank among the most beautiful in the world and are framed by lush tropical hills, cerulean blue skies, puffs of clouds, and mist. The resort – which used to be a St Regis property until last month – has 252 rooms and suites which are located in three separate buildings that terrace down from the top plateau of Princeville to the semi-private beach at Hanalei Bay. Calming and seductive, these contemporary Hawaiian designed accommodations reflects the color palette of the sky, sea and earth. The renowned Makai Golf Club winds its way around serene lakes, native woodlands and the spectacular coastline with views of Bali Hai and Hanalei Bay.
- Hotel website: Princeville Resort
- Other accolades: The Princeville Resort features in my top 10 lists of the world’s best luxury hotels to spot celebrities, the world’s most amazing hotel lobbies, and the best luxury hotels in the USA.
- Tip: get free VIP amenities when booking via Virtuoso (e.g. room upgrade, daily breakfast, early check-in, late check-out, and 100 USD resort credit).
- Review: read my review of the Princeville Resort here.
Waimea Canyon, on Kauai’s West Side, is often dubbed the ‘Grand Canyon of the Pacific’. Although not as big or as old as its Arizona cousin, you won’t encounter anything like this geological wonder in Hawaii. Stretching 14 miles (22 km) long, 1 mile (1,6 km) wide and more than 3,600 feet (1 km) deep, the Waimea Canyon Lookout provides panoramic views of crested buttes, rugged crags and deep valley gorges. The grand inland vistas go on for miles. The main road, Waimea Canyon Drive, leads you to a lower lookout point and the main Waimea Canyon Overlook, offering views of Kauai’s dramatic interior. The road continues into the mountains and ends at Kokee State Park (more on that below). There are numerous trails to traverse for beginners and seasoned hikers alike.
- Other accolades: the Wailea Canyon also features in my top 10 list of the best things to see & do in Hawaii.
North of Waimea Canyon on Kauai’s West Side is Kokee State Park. Spread over 4,345 acres on a plateau rising to 4,200 feet (1,2 km) above sea level, Kokee State Park is covered in forest and wild flowers, making it an excellent spot to see native plants and colorful endemic Hawaiian forest birds like the apapane, iwi and moa. Both the Kalalau Lookout and the Puu O Kila Lookout offer views of the Kalalau Valley and the towering cliffs of the Napali Coast. The park also offers roughly 45 miles (72 km) of the state’s finest hiking trails. Some trails lead to views of Waimea Canyon, others wind through wet forests with heart-stopping cliff-to-ocean views of valleys opening up to the North Shore. The Awa’awapuhi Trail is the park’s ultimate trail, bringing you through rain forest, high desert like terrain and to some of the most awe-inspiring vistas on earth.
Spanning 17 mi (27 km) along Kauai’s North Shore, the Napali Coast is a sacred place defined by extraordinary coastal scenery. Spectacular emerald-hued cliffs with razor-sharp ridges tower above the Pacific Ocean, revealing magnificent beaches and wild waterfalls that plummet to the lush valley floor. The rugged terrain appears much as it did centuries ago when Hawaiian settlements flourished in these deep, narrow valleys, existing only on the food they could grow and the fish they could catch. There are many ways to explore the Napali Coast and one of the best ways is to take in the scenery on foot by hiking the incredibly spectacular Kalalau trail which runs for 11 mi (18 km) along the Napali Coast. It provides the only land access to the legendary Kalalau Valley. Expert hikers can complete the roundtrip trek in a day, but the average hiker prefers to camp along the trail and complete it in 2 days. But take care as some eroded areas are very narrow over cliffs that are hundreds of feet high.
- Other accolades: the Kalalau Trail also features in my top 10 lists of the world’s most epic trekking routes and the best things to see & do in Hawaii.
Most of Kauai’s awe-inspiring sights are inaccessible from the ground and can only be seen and appreciated by a thrilling helicopter tour. Not only is helicopter tour the best way to explore the rugged interiors of Kauai without getting your feet muddy, it’s only the best way to grasp the magnitude of the phenomenal Napali Coast. You’ll get a front-row seat to inaccessible scenic areas and get a bird’s eye view of some of the world’s most natural beauty. The most popular tour would be an hour tour that would take you through Kauai’s lush tropical interiors of Waialelale Crater, Waimea Canyon, and along the Napali Coast with a lot of extra in between, such as a flight over Manawaiopuna Falls, a backdrop in the film ‘Jurassic Park’. Some companies offer a 90 minute flight that will allow more time to see Kauai’s unparalleled beauty or an open-door ride for a more thrilling experience.
- Other accolades: a Kauai heli tour also features in my top 10 lists of the most scenic flights in the world and the best things to see & do in Hawaii.