UPDATE: In April 2018, Kauai experienced record setting flooding especially on its north shore. As a result, the road west of Hanalei town is currently closed cutting off access to the popular Kalalau Trail, Ke’e beach, and snorkeling at Tunnels. I encourage you to check local news coverage before your trip to obtain the most current conditions, and I will also update this as things reopen.
Kauai is the perfect island if you’re looking for a laid back vacation with plenty of gorgeous backdrops. If you’re planning a trip to Kauai, here are 25 things you should know before you go:
1.Kauai is the oldest of the Hawaiian Islands. It was created by a volcano almost 6 million years ago. It’s also the smallest of the four main Hawaiian Islands, and has a population of just 65,000 people.
2.It’s called the “Garden Isle” but it’s very country. You won’t find big cities or a lot of people on Kauai. You’ll find plenty of lush jungly wilderness to be explored though (we’re talking scenes straight out of Jurassic Park). And a TON of chickens. There are more wild chickens on Kauai than any other Hawaiian Island largely thanks to “Iniki,” a category 5 hurricane, which hit the island in 1992.
3.Hawaii was the 50th state added to the United States of America. Despite it being a US state, more than one person has asked me if you need a passport to travel there. You don’t. Also, when referring to the contiguous United States, you don’t call it “the states” like you would when traveling internationally. You refer to it as “the mainland.”
4.It may feel like a different country, but remember, you’re still in the US. Hawaii has a very distinct culture and its location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean often makes it feel like a foreign land, so many visitors question how things are done. Here’s the deal, everything works like it does back home, except when it doesn’t : ) Seriously though, your phone service and everything works exactly like it does at home. But you will find yourself subject to the quirks of “island life.” Things move slower (especially on Kauai) so relax and just go with the flow.
5.The Hawaiian Islands run on the Hawaii-Aleutian Time Zone. Hawaii also doesn’t observe Daylight Savings Time so they’re 3 hours behind West Coast time (6 hours behind East coast time) when we’re on Daylight savings time, and 2/5 hours when we’re not.
RELATED: Not very familiar with Kauai? Read up on the lay of the is(land) and where to stay plus my favorite beach resorts, budget hotels, Airbnbs, honeymoon resorts, family friendly resorts, luxury resorts, and boutique hotels.
6.Hawaii is a melting pot of cultures. Here’s some terminology for you: “Hawaiian” refers to anyone born with Hawaiian blood. “Local” refers to anyone born in Hawaii (except white people). “Haole” refers to white people and tourists in general. The term “kama’aina” is also thrown around which refers to anyone from or living in Hawaii regardless of their ethnicity.
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7.It seems like a world away but Hawaii is actually only a 5 or 6-hour flight from California. It’s 6 hours going to Hawaii, and 5 hours coming back from Hawaii. Lihue is the airport that you’ll fly into. You can get a direct flight to Lihue from Honolulu (Oahu), Kahului (Maui), Los Angeles (California), Oakland (California), Phoenix (Arizona), Portland (Oregon), San Diego (California), San Francisco (California), San Jose (California), Seattle (Washington), and Vancouver (Canada).
8.Hawaii sits north of the equator, so its seasons match the mainland US seasons. Our winter is their winter, and our summer is their summer. Now, winter is a relative term in Hawaii, but it generally does mean more rain and higher surf (especially on the north shore). The prettiest part of Kauai is its north shore, but be aware that if you’re staying in the area, you’ll be in for much more rain than usual in the winter (although it’s the wettest part of the island year round). But the rain is what makes it so lovely.
9.Expect to pay more…for everything. This probably isn’t a huge surprise to anybody. The Hawaiian Islands are some of the most remote islands in the world and pretty much everything has to be shipped in. So expect to pay more for food, gas, and other supplies than you would on the mainland US. This doesn’t mean that it’s as outrageously expensive as you might think. As is the case anywhere, you can go luxury, or you can go budget. The choices are there for both and everything in between.
10.The resort areas are more expensive. As an extension of #9, generally speaking everything in a resort area will be WAY more expensive than on other parts of the island. In Kauai, this is Princeville on the north shore, and to a certain extent Poipu, on the south shore. Restaurants and bars will always be more expensive in resorts than in locally owned/independent places (yes, you really can get a $20 cocktail at the St. Regis). The gas prices in these areas also tend to be higher. You’ll find the cheapest gas in Lihue/Kapa’a.
11.Stock up on groceries for your condo or hotel room. If you’re looking to save a few bucks, or just need to pick up some essentials that you forgot to pack, you’ll have plenty of options on Kauai. There’s a Costco in Lihue near the airport as well as a Safeway grocery store chain. And if you need a pharmacy/drug store, that would be Longs (this is a CVS/Walgreens equivalent). While thousands of miles away from home, there’s really nothing that you can’t find on Kauai if you forget to pack it.
12.Pack water shoes for hiking. One of my must pack items for Kauai is a pair of water shoes that I can hike in (I love these Keens). Many of the trails on Kauai are muddy or will require you to cross streams. It’s much easier if you do not have to worry about keeping your hiking boots clean and dry.
13.Casual is the name of the game on Kauai. There’s really nowhere to go on Kauai where shorts and flip-flops won’t do. Even in the nicest restaurants on Kauai, ladies will be fine in a casual sundress and sandals, and men will be okay with khakis and an aloha shirt.
14.It’s not a big island, but it can take forever to get around. There’s pretty much only one road around the island (a slight exaggeration but not much) so even though you may only be going 20 miles or so, it could take an hour to get there. Be aware of driving times when planning outings. Also, you’ll usually find some congestion around Lihue and Kapa’a especially during morning and evening commute times.
15.Your rental car WILL be all banged up. When you pick up your rental car, you might be kind of surprised as to its conditions. Almost all rental cars on Kauai look pretty rough (some are scratched, dented, and banged up within an inch of their life). After a week on the island, you’ll understand why. Kauai is a small island. That means roads are narrow, parking spots are tiny (the smallest I’ve ever seen), and most places you go are pretty rough. If you don’t find yourself driving down a pothole filled dirt road while vegetation smacks the side of your car and then cramming your car into what you’re not even sure qualifies as a parking spot, you haven’t done it right. Always go with a smaller car if possible and be sure to document damages to your car before you drive it off the rental lot (most car rental companies will have a form for this).
16.Locals drive kind of crazy. Remember, while you’re on vacation, the locals are not. Be aware of your surroundings and try not to hold anybody up. When in doubt, just pull over and let them go around.
17.Know the one lane bridge rule. The main road along the north shore has several one-lane bridges. The local custom is to let 5-7 cars go at a time. If your side is going, count how many cars go ahead of you to determine whether you should go with this batch or stop and let the other side go first. This is the local courtesy.
RELATED: Need a packing list for Kauai? Find my best packing advice here.
18.Kauai’s north shore is the lushest and prettiest of the island. It’s also the rainiest…duh, all those waterfalls have got to come from somewhere! The hub of life on the north shore is Hanalei. It’s a surf town and a great place to hang out. The island’s swankiest resort area, Princeville, is also on the north shore. If you’re looking for a once in a lifetime experience, stay at the St. Regis Princeville. You’re welcome.
19.Kauai’s south side is the sunniest. If you’re looking for sunny weather, and lovely swimmable beaches, that would be the south side. The main center of the south side is Poipu. There are several resorts there (the flagship being the Grand Hyatt) and many condos.
20.Many of Kauai’s beaches aren’t swimmable. This was a bit of a surprise to me compared to Maui, but many of Kauai’s beaches have dangerous currents, rip tides, and hammering surf. Of course, generally speaking conditions everywhere will be calmer in the summer months. On the north shore, swimming is great at Ke’e beach. On the east coast, there’s a nice lagoon at Lydgate beach. And the swimming is good at Poipu beach on the south shore.
21.Things aren’t very well marked on Kauai. As in, it can be really hard to tell where most beaches are unless you already know where they are. They are a couple of beaches on the east and north shores that you can see from the car, but most involve knowing which streets to turn on or which overgrown, tree lined path is an access way and which one is a private driveway. There are also a lot of hikes and waterfalls that you’ll never find if you don’t know exactly where to look. My first time to Kauai, I relied heavily on the Kauai Revealed guidebook to get around. Heck, I had the exact directions, and it still took me 20 minutes to find the entrance to Tunnels on the north shore and I was right on top of it. And there is NO WAY you’re going to accidentally stumble upon Hideaways beach in Princeville without some serious scouting. Do yourself a favor and go buy this book. While things are fairly easy to navigate and find on Maui and Oahu, this is NOT the case on Kauai. But it’s part of its charm.
22.THE thing to see on Kauai is its famed Napali Coast. Starting on the north shore and winding down the west side, this majestically chiseled coast is something you probably couldn’t even imagine in your wildest dreams. There are three ways to see this baby: from the air, from the sea, or on foot. There are no roads along it, and the adventure of getting to it is part of what makes it so spectacular. During the summer months (April to October), I would recommend taking a boat tour down the coast out of Hanalei. During the winter months, the surf is to rough to make the trip. A helicopter is probably the dreamiest way to see it, but if you’re on a budget, you won’t be left out. Hike the first leg (2 miles in, same way out) of the Kalalau trail (the trail head is at Ke’e beach on the north shore) for some pretty epic views. If you’re at Waimea Canyon, you can also see a pretty good aerial view at the Kalalau overlook.
23.The Waimea Canyon is the other major thing to see on Kauai. Some people say Mark Twain called it the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” others say it’s just a myth but either way, it’s easy to see how this place got its nickname. Located in the western part of Kauai, the canyon is a pretty nice daytrip. When planning your time, just remember that the actual canyon is still 11 miles past Waimea town. There are about 5 or so lookouts of the canyon, all offering different vantage points. There are also a series of trails and hikes that start at the top of Waimea Canyon.
24.A helicopter tour is a must. If you’re only going to pay to do one thing on Kauai, a helicopter tour is the thing to do. I flew with Blue Hawaiian on their hour long island tour and it was the highlight of my trip. Not only did I get to see incredible Napali Coast and Waimea Canyon from the air, but a helicopter is the only way to see some of the most magnificent parts of Kauai. Getting to see Wai’ale’ale Crater (the birth place of Kauai) was a pretty moving experience. Even if you’re a little apprehensive about a helicopter ride, bite the bullet and do it. You won’t be sorry.
25. Kauai is Hollywood’s dream. Once you’ve been there, it’s easy to see why Hollywood is so in love with Kauai. Sooooo many movies have been filmed there (Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones, Pirates of the Caribbean 4, Soul Surfer, 6 Days 7 Nights, The Descendants, and Outbreak just to name a few) and it’s also been the inspiration for a few such as Avatar and Lilo and Stitch.
Also, if you’re looking for absolutely everything you could ever want to know about Kauai, I highly recommend ordering the Kauai Revealed guidebook (this is an affiliate link which means if you choose to purchase I’ll make a little money). It’s worth its weight in your backpack just for its directions on finding hidden beaches, waterfalls, and trail heads. Seriously, I never would’ve found half of my favorite spots on Kauai without it.
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