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.
So you’ve got your airfare booked, hotel picked out, and rental car reserved. You’re all ready right? Not so fast. While it has glorious beaches, most people don’t go to Kauai just to lie on the beach and work on their tan. I mean, it’s too far and too expensive to just laze around the whole time. You want to get out there and experience the best things to do in Kauai.
So that means you’ll want to plan out some sort of daily itinerary so you’ll be able to see everything you want to see. Surprisingly, many people find this to be the trickiest part of planning their vacation. How much can you do in a day? What are the “don’t miss” spots and what’s overrated? Do you need to do organized tours or can you see everything on your own?
Don’t panic! ; ) I’m going to break down everything you need to know so you’ll be able to see all the best things to do in Kauai!
First up, you need to know a little bit about how Kauai is laid out. Kauai isn’t a very big island (it’s the smallest of the four main islands), but there’s pretty much only one road that runs around the island so it feels pretty broken up. It’s divided into four areas:
North shore: The north shore is the most epic part of Kauai. It’s lush and filled with jagged green peaks. You’ll find countless waterfalls and some of the island’s best hiking and beaches. It also rains a lot.
South shore: The south shore is dry and sunny and full of glorious beaches. The south has a nicely developed resort area (Po’ipu) and many people are drawn here because of the sunshine.
East side: The east side (also called the “Coconut Coast”) is a great home base for exploring Kauai. You’ll find easily accessible beaches, plenty of waterfalls and a lot of hiking trails.
West side: Kauai’s west side is pretty dry and desolate but home to Waimea Canyon and a lot of amazing trails.
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.
Don’t Miss List
Ke’e Beach: As far as the road goes on the north side, this beach is a stunner and a great spot for beginner snorkeling.
Snorkeling at Tunnels: You’ll find some of the best snorkeling on Kauai right off this famous north shore beach. If you can’t find parking (or the entrance), park at nearby Ha’ena State Park and walk to the right.
Lumahai Beach: Made famous from scenes in South Pacific, this beach is beautiful but not good for swimming.
Hideaways Beach: Accessed by a small trail near the St. Regis’s guard shack in Princeville, just finding this beach is half the fun. Read more detailed instructions for finding it in this post.
Hiking Kalalau Trail: This famed trail along the Napali Coast is 22 miles round trip and requires a permit, but the first two miles (four round trip) are open to day hikers. The trailhead is at Ke’e beach. Don’t miss this!
Hanalei Town: This north shore surf town definitely needs to be checked out. It has some great little boutiques and don’t miss the mai tais at Tahiti Nui.
Napali Coast Boat Tour: During the summer months (April to October), you HAVE to take a Napali Coast boat tour that leaves out of Hanalei. Book a tour in one of the small Zodiacs and spend four amazing hours zipping in and out of sea caves and admiring the most jaw dropping view you’ll see on Kauai.
Kilauea Lighthouse: Not a major attraction, but Kauai’s only lighthouse can be found on the north shore (east end) in Kilauea.
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Po’ipu Beach: This favorite south shore beach has excellent snorkeling and is the best place on the island to spot Hawaiian Monk Seals sunning themselves in the sand. It has great amenities and you can easily spend a day here.
Spouting Horn: Kauai’s famous blowhole is easily accessible (there’s a big parking lot and souvenir booths set up) and quite a sight.
Maha’ulepu Trail & Beach: This heritage trail takes you past an open ceiling cave and down to a usually deserted beach.
Koloa Town: Historic Koloa town is perfect for poking around. You’ll find plenty of boutiques and cafes as well as a historical center.
RELATED: 15 Things to Do on Kauai
Wailua Falls: You can drive right up to Kauai’s most famous waterfall. It’s just a short ways out of Lihue.
Opaekaa Falls: Another drive by waterfall, this one has a great overlook and is easy to find.
Kayak Wailua River to Secret Falls: Kill two birds with one stone here. Try out kayaking up with calm Wailua River, and land your kayaks and hike up to Secret Falls.
Fern Grotto: Kauai’s famous Fern Grotto isn’t as spectacular as is used to be (thanks Hurricane Iniki!) but it’s still pretty neat.
Smith Family Luau: Kauai’s best luau is hosted by the Smith Family, and you’ll feel like part of the family after spending an evening at their tropical garden. If you do a luau on Kauai, make it this one!
Helicopter Tour: This is my #1 don’t miss thing on Kauai. It’s expensive, but there are parts of Kauai that you won’t be able to see any other way. Skip helicopter tours on Maui and Oahu but don’t miss it here!
Kapa’a Town: Kapa’a is a great bustling historic town full of shops and restaurants.
Waimea Canyon: Second only to the Napali Coast, the Waimea Canyon is Kauai’s biggest attraction. Called the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” it’s pretty stunning. There are a handful of overlooks each offering a different perspective of the canyon. Don’t miss the Kalalau overlook. This is a great glimpse of the Napali Coast.
Canyon & Cliff Hike: If you’re into hiking, these are the most popular hikes on the west side of Kauai (they both end up on the same trail).
Hanapepe Town: This charming old Hawaiian town is rumored to be the inspiration behind Disney’s Lilo and Stitch and it also has a wooden swimming bridge. Check it out!
Tips for Creating an Itinerary
Tip #1: Know your vacation style. How you like to vacation will have a huge impact on how you plan your trip and how much you’ll be able to see and do. So what exactly is a “vacation style?” Well, simply put, it’s how you like to spend your vacation!
Are you the type that’s up with the sun and out about adventuring all day only to return to your room to shower and sleep? Are you the type who enjoys spending the majority of your time hanging out at your beach resort? Or do you like a bit of both?
Everyone has a different idea of vacation so the first thing you’ll have to do is decide which suites you best. Are you always on the go, do you spend most of your time beach bumming, or do you do a combo of both? Part of your decision will be based on your personality and likely part will be based on where you’re staying.
For me personally, when I’m staying in a condo or budget hotel, I’m more likely to be out and about everyday, but when I’m staying at a nice beach resort, I’m more inclined to spend time lounging by the pool or on the beach. If you’re the type who’s always on the go, you’ll be able to see a lot of the island. If you want beach time too, I recommend renting beach gear (chairs, umbrella, snorkels, cooler, etc.) for the length of your stay and throwing them in the car so you’ll have them wherever you end up. If you’re staying at a nice beach resort, I would suggest planning a different activity each morning and spending each afternoon at the resort. You may need to set aside an entire day for certain adventures like seeing the north shore. Once you’ve nailed down your vacation style, you’re ready to start making your “must do” list.
Tip #2: Don’t Overplan. If I could only give you one piece of advice about planning your trip to Hawaii, this would be it. I know…it costs a lot of money to get to Hawaii (and it’s so far away). For a lot of people, it’s a once in a lifetime trip and of course you want to see absolutely EVERYTHING. But trying to cram it all into one trip will likely leave you feeling like you spent your whole trip in the car (or in airports) and now need a rest from your vacation upon returning home. But I mean, you still want to see the good stuff right? So how do you know how much to plan and when to take it easy?
Here’s how I always lay out my trips:
As I’m researching my destination (yes, I do a LOT of research), I keep a running list of things I want to do, places I want to visit, restaurants I want to eat at, shops I want to go to, etc. From my main list, I break it down into three categories:
A “don’t miss” list: This could be anything from taking a helicopter tour to cruising down the Napali Coast on a boat. These are the things that you ABSOLUTELY have to see/do or you’ll return home heartbroken. Okay, that’s a little dramatic, but you get my point.
A “nice to see” list: These are things that you really want to see and experience, but they might be a little more minor. For example, seeing the sea turtles and Hawaiian monk seals at Poipu Beach or snorkeling at Tunnels. These are just examples, obviously, what might be a “nice to see” for somebody may be a “don’t miss” for you.
A “if there’s time” list: I think you can guess what this list is for. Things that you’d like to see or do if there’s time, but won’t be upset about if you miss.
As you lay out each day, plan ONE thing from your “don’t miss” list each day. Combine it with one or two things from your “nice to see” list, and a smattering of things from your “if there’s time” list. Prioritize your “don’t miss” item every day (whether it’s doing it first thing or making sure you have a reservation for it) and fill in the rest of the day with things from the other categories.
Tip #3: Organize activities by part of the island. Once you have your lists of activities and things to do, the best way to sort them into days is by their location on the island. Many people underestimate how big each of the islands are and due to a lack of roads (and traffic) it can take quite a while to get around. So don’t waste time crisscrossing all over the island, and try to plan each day’s activities on one part of the island.
My favorite way to start sorting activities and sites into days is by using a Google Map. Plot all of your locations on a Google Map and then you’ll be able to see which ones are near each other and start planning your days that way. Of course, this can also be done on a paper map, but on a Google Map, you can create layers for different days or different types of activities and sites and organize things that way.
While generally speaking, focusing your day on only one part of the island is the most efficient strategy, there are some times when this doesn’t make sense. The major scenario where this doesn’t work is when you’re staying at a nice beach resort that you want to spend a lot of time at. In this case, I would plan a mornings worth of activities on one part of the island, return to your resort for an afternoon of playing on the beach or at the pool, and then don’t be afraid to venture back out somewhere for dinner.
Tip #4: Book activities in advance. So many people ask me if they should book ahead or wait until they arrive to arrange their activities and while I know some people like to be spontaneous, you really need to do your research ahead of time (before you arrive in Hawaii) and book directly through the tour operator. If you wait until you arrive on the island, many activities will be booked up and they’re less likely to offer discounts when the tour is almost full and people who waited until the last minute are competing over a few remaining spots.
Many companies offer a discount if you book online directly through them. This is because most tours rely heavily on resort concierge desks to promote their tours to the guests. The concierge get a commission for referring guests to the tour company (sometimes up to 40%) so tour companies have to keep their prices high so they walk away with a decent profit on the tour after paying out commissions. So if you go directly to the tour company, they’re often willing to cut you a deal because they don’t have to pay a commission to a concierge for your spot. For example, if a company pays a 40% commission for concierge recommendations, they’ll still come out ahead if they offer you a 20% discount for booking directly. But this way, you also come out ahead.
Also, if you go this route, you can do your research on companies ahead of time (I recommend TripAdvisor) and read honest reviews about the tours and pick which one you feel is best for you. If you go with a concierge recommendation, not only are you usually paying more, but 99% of the time, you’re just being recommended the tour provider who pays out the biggest concierge commissions, not necessarily the best one. If the tour provider’s website doesn’t advertise a direct booking special, I would still call and ask for their best price. You never know until you ask!
To be on the safe side, I recommend booking tours and activities (this includes luaus) about 2-3 months out. On one of my trips to Kauai, I really wanted to tube down the sugar cane ditches with Kauai Backcountry Adventures, but I waited too long and it was sold out! Bummer. One more thing about booking activities: I recommend booking fairly early on in your trip in case bad weather means they need to reschedule to a later day in your trip. If you wait until your last day to do your helicopter tour, snorkel trip, etc. and it’s cancelled because of weather, you’ll be out of luck!
Besides planning your tours and activities in advance, I also like to have a plan for dining. While it’s fun to be spontaneous and see where the day takes you, often in Hawaii, it can end up taking you to an overpriced tourist trap. Do plenty of research ahead of time (I love using TripAdvisor), and keep a running list of restaurants in different areas that are highly recommended. For some of my favorite restaurant recommendations, read these. And come join my Facebook group, From Hawaii with Aloha, to get recommendations from others.
Tip #5: Be flexible. I think this last tip is the secret to making a good vacation great! It’s so simple, yet key to really having the best experience in Hawaii. I think that a good plan is essential, but you have to know when it’s time to go to plan B. Or do something else entirely.
The major thing you’ll have to be flexible about in Hawaii is the weather. While the temperature is always pretty balmy, a good rainstorm can change your plans pretty quick! A word of warning: it’s not unusual for a 10-14 day forecast to predict rain everyday in Hawaii so don’t panic and think your trip is going to be a total wash! It’ll likely just be quick storms that roll in and roll out. But for days where the local forecast truly is predicting rain, you might have to mix things up! One good thing about the Hawaiian Islands is that they’re pretty large so except in the case of a major storm system, the weather will likely be different on different sides of the island. Check the weather forecast the night before (or morning of) and you may decide to rearrange your days based on the weather. Obviously this may not work if you have activities or tours booked, but otherwise, don’t be afraid to swap out days in your itinerary to go chasing the sunshine!
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