I don’t usually recommend such a short trip to any Hawaiian Island, but if you’re a hard core island hopper determined to see the best of all of the islands, you can cover a lot of Kauai in three days.
I’ve put together a 3 day itinerary for Kauai that covers the absolute do not miss sites and experiences on Kauai. We’re not talking general Hawaii goodness, these are the things that make a trip to Kauai unique from a trip to any other Hawaiian Island.
The details…this is three full days not including travel days (so perfect for a four night trip) and unlike my other itineraries where they’re tailored to staying on a specific part of the island, this one should work wherever you’re staying because it’s just GO GO GO.
But, if you’ve only got three days on the island and you’re trying to pack in as much sightseeing as possible, I would recommend staying somewhere on the east side (Lihue, Kapaa, Wailua) so you’ll be centrally located.
3 Day Kauai Itinerary
I’m going to assume that if you’ve only got 3 days on Kauai that means you’re island hopping from another Hawaiian island so you could be arriving early morning or anytime throughout the day. If you’re coming in super early and will have almost an entire extra day, check out my 4 day and 5 day Kauai itineraries for some ideas on what to do with your extra day.
If you’re coming in the afternoon (or it is a four night quick trip from the mainland), I’d plan to take most of your arrival day to just get acclimated, hang around the resort pool and beach, and have a sunset dinner before early to bed.
Day 1: Napali Coast
Three days is a quick trip, but even if you’ve only got one day, seeing Kauai’s famed Napali Coast has to be your top priority.
The most impressive, and also best bang for your buck way to see the Napali is on a boat and there are a couple of different ways you can do this.
If you’re visiting during the summer months (mid April to mid October), my favorite way to see the Napali is via Zodiac ocean raft tour that leaves from Hanalei on the north shore.
The Zodiacs are small enough to zip in and out of the caves along the coast, they get way closer to the coast, plus they just offer a more all around adventurous and immersive experience. And the huge perk…the tours that leave from Hanalei are basically already on the Napali Coast when they start so you’ve got non stop breathtaking views for your entire trip.
Read more about Napali tours from the north shore here.
Your other option is a catamaran tour that leaves from Port Allen on the south side of Kauai. If you’re traveling during the winter months (mid October to mid April), boat tours don’t leave from the north shore because of high surf so the south side tours are your only option (but when the surf is super high these tours will get canceled as well).
The catamarans are large boats (40+ people) but they’re more of a fun, casual atmosphere (snorkeling stop, music playing, lunch included, drinks served, time for jumping off the boat, bouncing on the trampoline, etc.).
The downside of the catamaran tours are 1) they’re too big to go inside the caves, and 2) leaving from Port Allen it takes them almost 1.5 hours of cruising before they even get to the Napali Coast. So on a 5.5 hour tour, that’s almost 3 hours of sailing past *not the Napali Coast* on a Napali Coast tour. It’s not a bad view, but it’s not the view you came for.
Read more about the Napali catamaran snorkel tours from the south side here.
Which option you choose will determine the rest of your day:
If you go with the south side/Port Allen cruise, you’ll have half a day to spend on the south side of Kauai.
If you go with the north shore/Hanalei tour, you’ll have half a day to spend on the north shore of Kauai.
Things to Do in Poipu (South Side)
I’ve got a whole post about 21 things to do in Poipu that will more than fill your day.
Some of my favorites:
Spouting Horn Blowhole
Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail
Shopping at the Shops at Kukui’ula
Sunset Mai Tais & Dinner at the Beach House
Things to Do in Hanalei (North Shore)
I’ve got a whole post about things to do in Hanalei and the north shore to dig through as well.
Some of my favorites:
Snorkeling at Tunnels
Finding the Secret Hideaways Beach
Shopping in Hanalei
Mai Tais at Tahiti Nui
Dinner at the Dolphin
Side Note: If you’re looking for a rental car for your trip, I LOVE Discount Hawaii Car Rentals. They’re seriously the only company I ever use. They’ll give you the very best prices, you don’t have to reserve with a credit card or pay until you show up, you can cancel and re-book anytime if you find a better rate, and they usually have a special that adds additional drivers for no fee. It’s a no brainer. Click here to check rates for your trip.
Day 2: Waimea Canyon + the West Side
Waimea Canyon is really something to see. Mark Twain famously called it the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific” and it’s easy to see why.
It sits on Kauai’s west side and it’s easy to spend a full day over there, but if you picked the north shore option on day 1 then you could combine a day at Waimea Canyon with some sightseeing around Poipu.
Wherever you’re staying on the island, it’s a hike out to Waimea, but it’s a beautiful drive. Plan to stop in Hanapepe on the way over for breakfast at either Midnight Bear Bread or Three Little Fish Coffee. It’s a cute historic town that’s said to be the inspiration behind Disney’s Lilo and Stitch. Don’t miss the wooden swinging bridge.
Head on up to Waimea Canyon. There are at least four overlooks at the top of the canyon and you’ll want to see all of them. Each one offers a different vantage point, and one even has a lookout over Kalalau and the Napali Coast.
Want to extend the day? If you’re making a full day out of it, Waimea State Park and Koke’e State Park both have some excellent hiking trails. If you want a moderate hike, try the Canyon Trail. At 3.4 miles round trip, it’s the most popular hike in the area and will give you a great view of Waipoo Falls. It takes about 2.5 hours to complete. Park at the Puu Hinahina Lookout (around mile marker 13.5) and pick up the trailhead there. For a more challenging hike, try the Awaawapuhi Trail, which has spectacular cliff and ocean views. It’s 6.2 miles round trip (3 hours) and the trail head can be found near mile marker 17.
If you’re coming back through Waimea around lunchtime, check out Puka Dogs or Jo Jo’s for shave ice.
If it’s still early afternoon when you’re done at the canyon, head back towards Poipu and fill up your day with some things you haven’t gotten to yet.
On Another Note: If you’re looking for a condo or vacation rental for your trip, I always book with Vrbo. They’ve got the largest selection of rentals you’ll find anywhere and you can easily filter to find exactly what you’re looking for. Need a specific number of bedrooms and bathrooms? Narrowed it down to a certain location? Want flexible cancellation terms? Need to stay under a fixed budget? Click here to search for Kauai vacation rentals for your trip.
Day 3: Hike the Kalalau Trail
You can’t come to Kauai without doing at least one hike and this is the grandaddy of them all.
This famous hike along the Napali Coast which regularly lands on “world’s best hikes” lists is 22 miles round trip (with overnight camping permits required), but as a day hiker you can do the first two miles (four miles roundtrip) and it’s AMAZING.
Plan 3 hours for this hike if you’re pretty fit and moving pretty steady…and longer if you’re planning to spend time at Hanakapiai Beach (the turn around point).
If you’re up for a longer hike, once you reach Hanakapiai beach (the point where you have to turn around), hike two miles up through a bamboo forest to reach Hanakapiai falls. This will double your hike time and distance (5-6 hours and 8 miles). Also, do NOT get in the water at Hanakapiai beach! It’s pretty dangerous and many deaths have occurred there. Just admire from a distance.
The trailhead is located at Ke’e Beach in Ha’ena State Park, which is as far as you can go on the north shore (heading west). It’s about 30 minutes past Hanalei and one of my favorite drives in Hawaii.
Here’s what you need to know before you go: In an effort to control crowds at Haena State Park (Ke’e Beach and the Kalalau Trailhead) after the historic flooding of April 2018, parking reservations are now required. You can make them online 30 days in advance, or you can pay for a reservation on the shuttle leaving from Princeville.
Read everything you need to know about hiking the Kalalau Trail (including tips for getting reservations) here.
Ke’e Beach (where you parked) is the perfect place for a swim, some snorkeling, and picnic lunch. I suggest grabbing a lunch to go at Hanalei Gourmet when you’re in Hanalei (they open at 8) and throwing it in a cooler for after (or during) your hike. Ke’e is very protected and one of the few good swimming spots on the north shore. It’s also an excellent snorkeling spot for beginners. It’s practically a swimming pool.
Depending on how much of the hike you do and when you get started, it could be noon or it could be later.
If you did the south side option of day 1, save some time to explore more of the north shore today.
Here’s a full post of everything to do in Hanalei and along the north shore.
Top of the day with mai tais at Tahiti Nui and dinner at the Dolphin (their teriyaki ahi is my favorite in Hawaii).
Want to read more? Don’t miss some of my most popular (and favorite) posts about Kauai: my personal Kauai favorites, a breakdown of where to stay on Kauai comparing Princeville vs Poipu, my favorite restaurants in Poipu, the best places to watch sunset on Kauai, 5 day Kauai itinerary, my review of the Grand Hyatt Kauai, everything you need to know about Napali Coast boat tours leaving from Port Allen (south side) and Hanalei (north shore), my best Kauai travel tips, all about hiking the Kalalau trail (Kauai’s best hike), Maui vs Kauai, the best things to do on Kauai and more specifically in Hanalei and Poipu, whether you should see the Napali Coast via boat or helicopter, my best (and specific) condo recommendations on Kauai, everything you need to know about Kauai helicopter tours, Kauai’s best north shore beaches, where to play tennis on Kauai, how many days you should spend on Kauai (plus other FAQs), the best spas on Kauai, and my review of the Smith Family Luau.
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