If you’re going to Kauai and you’ve already got your airfare, accommodations, and rental car booked but you’re trying to decide how to spend your days…this post is for you!
Specifically…I’ve put together a 5 day itinerary for Kauai that covers all of the must sees plus some of my favorites.
The details…this is five full days not including travel days (so perfect for a six night trip) and I’ve laid it out to work best if you’re staying in Poipu (on the south side of the island) so if you’re staying on the north shore or the east side then you may want to allocate your time differently.
5 Days on Kauai
Most flights to Kauai arrive by mid afternoon and it’s not a super quick flight so I usually like to spend the first day just getting acclimated (getting a rental car, checking into your hotel, finding some groceries, etc can take some time), just hanging out at the resort pool and beach, and having a sunset dinner before early to bed because of the time change.
Day 1: Hang around Poipu
For your first day of vacation, you probably don’t want to plan a whole lot, but getting out and seeing the area where you’re staying can help you settle in a little quicker.
Since you’ll probably be up early with the time change, I would head to Three Fish Coffee Co right before they open. This local coffee/breakfast spot is THE place to go in Poipu, but it gets crazy long lines. Their coffee specialty drinks are amazing and they do breakfast sandwiches, acai bowls, etc. If you’re not one of the first few people in line, just be prepared to settle in and wait awhile. It is not a quick place and in person orders get preference over online orders (the arrival times for online orders often get pushed back quite a bit from what they tell you when you order). Just remember…you’re on island time.
Read my full post about things to do in Poipu and see what strikes your fancy, but here are some things I recommend for the day:
Spouting Horn Blowhole. This blowhole is probably the most easily accessed one in Hawaii. No hike required…just drive up, park, and walk over to the railing.
The blowhole here is very clearly fenced off, but in case you get any crazy ideas…you should never get anywhere near a blowhole. Many deaths have occured near blowholes in Hawaii. It’s possible to get sucked in as well as swept into the ocean by the large waves. Keep a distance!
Po’ipu Beach. This is one of the most popular beaches on Kauai and it has great amenities (showers, restrooms, lifeguards, picnic tables, etc.). It’s almost always warm and sunny, there’s good snorkeling, and it’s not uncommon to see Hawaiian Monk Seals or turtles sunning themselves on the sand. If you don’t already have beach gear, you can rent chairs, umbrellas, and snorkels at a shop across the street. If you’re staying at a resort or condo with a good beach/pool situation, obviously you should spend your time there.
Historic Koloa Town. You can easily spend an hour or two walking around the town (there’s a historical center) and of course shaved ice, ice cream, and a coffee shop. You likely drove through it when you came to Poipu from the airport, but don’t miss the famous tree tunnel near Koloa!
Koloa Mill Coffee & Ice Cream has good breakfast sandwiches, coffee, and bakery items if you’re in the area for breakfast. If you’re around for lunch, don’t miss the Koloa Fish Market.
Hike the Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail. This is a really beautiful hike along the coast in Poipu and what’s great about it is you can park different places depending on how active you want to be. Park at Shipwreck Beach (public lot just east of the Grand Hyatt) to do the full hike to Maha’ulepu Beach (and beyond) or you can drive much closer to the beach and hike down to see the Makauwahi Cave. Read more about the trail in this post.
Sunset Dinner at the Beach House. Start your trip off with a bang with dinner at one of the island’s best sunset spots. Be sure to make reservations well in advance if you want a table around sunset (look up the time and make reservations an hour or so before).
Food recommendations at the Beach House: lobster deviled eggs, pork pot stickers, macnut crusted mahi mahi, coconut creme brulee and you absolutely 100% must get the Monkeypod mai tai. Read more about the best restaurants in Poipu (plus a full review of the Beach House here).
If you want a casual lunch in Poipu, try Koloa Fish Market, Bubba Burgers, Da Crack or Savage Shrimp.
***Want to save major $$$ on a fancy beach resort? My favorite travel hack is cashing in points to score free nights at some of the island’s most high end resorts. My go to hotel brand is Marriott so I use this Marriott Bonvoy Boundless card to rack up points for a lot of my trips to Hawaii. If you pay for your monthly expenses on the card and are responsible about paying it off every month, the points add up really fast. Plus, if you sign up through my link, you’ll get THREE bonus free nights to use. On Kauai, use your points at some of my favorite Marriott properties like the Koloa Landing Resort, Sheraton Kauai Resort, and Sheraton Kauai Coconut Beach Resort.
Day 2: See the Napali Coast on a Catamaran Cruise
Seeing the Napali Coast is probably the #1 highlight of any trip to Kauai. It’s a MUST DO and you’re absolutely not allowed to skip it ; ) Now…my favorite way to see the Napali Coast is actually from a smaller boat that leaves from Hanalei on the north shore, but they only run these tours in the summer and it’s a long drive up to Hanalei for a 7AM departure if you’re staying in Poipu.
But we’ve got options people! The big catamaran tours (which are the most popular) leave from Port Allen on the south side just about 20 minutes from Poipu. Captain Andy’s is the biggest and most popular outfit, but there’s several companies that basically all offer the same tour including Blue Dolphin which is locally owned.
Read my full review of Captain Andy’s Napali Coast Snorkel Tour here.
Your excursion leaves by 8AM (they want you to check in by 7:30AM) so plan to do something quick and easy for coffee/quick breakfast before you head that way. They serve a light breakfast and a really good lunch (plus drinks) on the boat so you’ll be taken care of.
Take everything you’ll want for 5+ hours of fun in the sun (bathing suit, towels, sunscreen, waterproof phone case, etc.) and be prepared for the most amazing scenery you’ve ever seen.
The cruise wraps by 1:30PM and I’ve got the perfect mid afternoon stop for you on the way back to the resort or condo.
One of my favorite places is Warehouse 3540 and it’s in Lawai on the way back to Poipu from Port Allen. This collective of local shops and food trucks is the perfect place to support local, to a little souvenir shopping, and grab a snack if you’re hungry. It’s closed on Sundays and the food trucks are closed on Mondays so plan accordingly.
Spend the rest of the afternoon recovering from your big adventure at the pool or the beach.
I’d recommend dinner at the Dolphin or Merriman’s…both of which are located at the Shops at Kukui’ula (and both require reservations). Most of the shops close by 6 so I like to make dinner reservations for around then but show up a little early to do some shopping. It’s the best shopping you’ll find on Kauai. Read full reviews of both restaurants here.
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 3: Waimea Canyon + the West Side
You’ve GOT to see the Waimea Canyon…it’s one of the most beautiful and largest canyons in the world. It’s about an hour drive from Poipu on the west side of the island.
Depending on how much time you want to spend there (you can just drive to the different lookouts in your car in an hour or two or you could spend the whole day hiking) will determine when you want to get started.
If it’s my trip…I’d get up and get started early so I could be back at the beach/pool for the afternoon.
On the way to Waimea, stop in historic Hanapepe town (said to be the inspiration behind Disney’s Lilo and Stitch) and have breakfast at Midnight Bear Breads. There’s also a (less crazy busy) Little Fish Coffee which you could try if you just loved it so much the first time or you skipped it on the first day.
There’s also a wooden swinging bridge across the river that you’re not going to want to miss. But be respectful and stay out of people’s yards!
After you leave Hanapepe, continue on to Waimea and drive up to the canyon (once you get to Waimea town it’s still quite a drive up to the top).
There are at least four overlooks at the top of the canyon (some in Kokee State Park) 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.
If you’re into hiking…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 looking for food in Waimea after (pretty much everything but the steakhouse closes by 4), Puka Dogs is supposed to be crazy good (I don’t eat hotdogs) and Jo Jo’s is always thrown up as one of the best shave ice spots on the island.
If you want an epic sunset adventure, from Waimea it’s about another half hour out to Polihale Beach. It’s an isolated beach on Kauai’s west side just south of the Napali Coast.
It’s the longest beach in Kauai (17 miles of white sand) and it’s perfect for long walks, beach combing, and watching the sunset. There are restrooms and showers, but other than that you’ll need to bring everything with you. It gets HOT and there’s very little shade so bring an umbrella with you and plenty of water. Plus you’ll need a high clearance vehicle (Jeep) and possibly 4WD to take it. It’s not a trip to do on a whim. Read all about it here.
If that sounds like a bit much (it is for 95% of people), head back to Poipu and grab sunset dinner instead.
Day 4: North Shore Adventure
The north shore is absolutely 100% the most beautiful part of Kauai. I get questions pretty often about if it’s really worth it to drive an hour plus from Poipu just to see it and I’ll tell you what I always tell people…if you go to Kauai and you don’t see the north shore…you haven’t been to Kauai.
Depending on your adventure level, you can do a few different things on this day. Read this post that’s all about the north shore of Kauai. But here are some pointers for the day:
Hike the Kalalau trail. This is the best hike in Kauai (I’ll go so far as to say all of Hawaii) and if you’re at all able bodied then you really should make the effort and give it a go.
The entire hike is 22 miles round trip but that requires an overnight camping permit (not to mention some serious dedication). But the first two miles (four miles round trip) is amazing and an absolute must. Plan 3 hours for this hike if you’re fit and hiking pretty much non stop.
The trail head 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.
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.
Read more about hiking the Kalalau Trail here.
But here’s what you absolutely HAVE to know…
*In an effort to control crowds at Haena State Park (Ke’e Beach and the Kalalau Trailhead) 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. Reservations sell out VERY quickly and the shuttle is quite a bit more expensive so you have to really be on it if you want to make this happen.
Ke’e Beach (at the bottom of the Kalalau Trailhead) is the perfect place for a swim, some snorkeling, and picnic lunch whether or not you hike the Kalalau (but you’ll still need parking reservations to come here). I suggest grabbing a lunch to go at Hanalei Gourmet 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.
Some other “adventures” you’ll find on the north shore…
Snorkel at Tunnels. Tunnels is definitely the best snorkeling spot on Kauai, but it’s not super accessible. Bring your own gear because there’s nowhere to rent nearby (there are also no lifeguards and very little parking).
This spot is pretty hidden, but it’s a little ways east of the Ha’ena State Park lot (you don’t need reservations for this lot, but it’s not very big). There are two direct road/pathway entrances with minimal parking. There’s not lot and there are plenty of “no parking” signs on the street. That’s how you know you’re near. If you’re having trouble finding it, just find the Haena State Park entrance and then walk down the beach to the right (it’s about a mile though).
Queen’s Bath. If you’ve done much research about top things to do in Kauai, you’ve likely heard of Queen’s Bath. It’s a sinkhole in the lava along the coast in the Princeville area that creates a natural swimming pool during calm days. Unfortunately, during high surf times (which can be unpredictable), it can be extremely dangerous. Numerous deaths have occurred here, however it doesn’t stop people from attempting it.
I can’t recommend swimming in the pool under any conditions, BUT if you’d like to see it, the hike down to the pools is very pretty. In the Princeville resort area, there’s a small parking lot on Punahele Road. If there’s no parking available, you can pay to park at the golf course up the road. It’s a short (but often muddy and slippery) hike down where you’ll even pass a waterfall. I’d stay well away from the pools as even in calm weather, rogue waves can come out of nowhere. When I’m entering any area near the ocean, I like to hang back and watch the conditions for 15-20 minutes before deciding what a safe distance is. During high surf advisories, the trailhead will often be gated. Of course, many people will climb around the gates, but know that if you choose to do so you’re officially breaking the law and may be subject to fines (not to mention the eminent danger that the gate is supposed to be protecting you from ; )
Find Hideaways Beach. One of the north shore’s best beaches is pretty hidden (hence the name) and requires quite an adventure to find. It’s in Princeville (make the turn into the resort area). You’ll go about two miles through Princeville and then turn right into a tiny little parking lot just before you reach the former St. Regis’ guard shack (soon to be the 1 Hotel Hanalei Bay). Just outside the parking lot, you’ll see a small pathway between the two fences. You’ll need good shoes to do this little trail (not flip flops!). There’s a pretty sketchy staircase you have to navigate before you get to the series of rope handles that will lead you to the hidden beach. Don’t miss this one!
If you’re aren’t up for a huge adventure, you can still see SOOOOOO much just from the car and a few overlooks.
Don’t miss the main overlook coming into Hanalei out over the taro fields, and I would still drive all the way out to Ke’e Beach at the end of the road even though you’ll have to turn around without getting out of the car (assuming you don’t book parking reservations).
Hanalei. Plan to spend a good bit of time around Hanalei. Hanalei Bay (don’t miss walking out onto the pier) is probably the most magical place in Hawaii. And the town of Hanalei is as cute as they come. You could spend a few hours just shopping and walking around.
Have drinks at the Tahiti Nui…it’s a Kauai institution. Order the mai tai. You’re welcome. The pizza is also pretty good too. If you want a “nicer” meal, make dinner reservations at Bar Acuda. It’s tapas style and a big hit with the locals and tourists. Or if you haven’t hit the Dolphin in Poipu for dinner yet, arrive early to the one in Hanalei (it’s the original) to grab a table (no reservations). Their teriyaki ahi will change your life.
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 5: Coconut Coast (Kilohana Plantation & Waterfalls)
Kauai’s east side (often called the Coconut Coast) usually gets overlooked between the epic scenery of the north shore and the resort paradise along the south shore, but there’s some good stuff here!
I’m a breakfast person so I’d start with breakfast at Java Kai or Art Cafe Hemingway (check to make sure they’re open) in Kapa’a. There’s also a lot of cute shopping in Kapa’a that you may want to circle back to later in the day.
If you haven’t seen a waterfall yet, you can’t leave Hawaii until that happens. Yes, there are a few that require major hikes, helicopter rides, etc. to see, but there’s two super easily accessible ones near Lihue.
Start off with Opaekaa Falls. From highway 56, turn up Kuamoo road (580) and you’ll see the lookout (and parking lot) on the right hand side of the road.
Next head to Wailua Falls. These are the falls featured in the opening credits of Fantasy Island. It’s very easy to find and just outside of Lihue. Driving north from Lihue (highway 56), turn left on Maalo road in Hanamaulu. About 3 miles down the road, it dead-ends in the parking lot and overlook.
Fern Grotto. Depending on how much time you have, taking the boat tour to the fern grotto is a fun thing to do (especially if you have young kids or older folks in your travel party. Several boat tours leave daily and travel up the Wailua River to the fern grotto. They have entertainment on board (music and hula) and they’ll take you on a little tour up into the fern grotto where a group of musicians sings the Hawaiian Wedding Song. It’s all very Blue Hawaii. It’s not a must do thing, but it’s a nice activity that doesn’t require much physically so I thought I’d mention it here.
Kilohana Plantation. Make the day’s main activity touring the Kilohana Plantation. I’ll be totally honest…I haven’t been here yet, but they’ve done a lot recently to make this a bonafide attraction and it’s tippy top of my list next time I’m on Kauai.
The historic sugar cane plantation is near Lihue and has developed a pretty stellar roster of offerings and activities lately. I would book the two hour “Rum Safari” and definitely take a ride on the plantation train. There’s shopping and a lot to see around the grounds.
Plan to end your evening here either with dinner at the Plantation House (so many people have told me this is their favorite meal on Kauai) or at their luau.
Check out their website here for more info.
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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