I’ve got a LOT of info on this blog about Kauai and while I always try to be objective and describe places so YOU can get a feel about what’s going to work best for your trip, we all have our opinions right?
Well I sure do.
My Kauai Travel Blog
So while I’m sure every place on the island appeals to somebody, I’ve rounded up some of MY personal favorite things (places to stay, eat, things to do, etc.) on Kauai. These are the things I think you 100% must do at least once, the things I tend to repeat on every single trip, plus the things that are at the tippy top of my list for my next trip (because after 7 years of doing this for my job, I know what I like).
So if you’ve ever read any of my posts and thought “I think this girl and I have similar tastes,” then this personal Kauai travel blog is for you!
Where I Like to Stay on Kauai
Princeville Resort (formerly the St Regis, soon to be 1 Hotel Hanalei Bay)
I stayed at the St Regis Princeville on my first trip to Kauai and it set the bar pretty high haha. The location on the north shore is STUNNING (I think the best setting for any resort in Hawaii), but it was looking pretty tired and needed a huge overhaul. So I’m excited for it to reopen as a 1 Hotel because they’re known for having pretty dreamy, luxury properties. The opening has been delayed quite a bit, but right now it’s scheduled to open winter 2022 and I can’t wait to check it out.
Grand Hyatt Kauai
I stayed here on my last trip to Hawaii, and wow is it impressive. If you want a huge resort experience with every amenity you could possibly imagine, this is the spot. Read my full review here. The short of it is…the nature of this resort makes it great for families and low key travelers (people who don’t mind a lot of kids running around and self service) but it wouldn’t be my top recommendation for a honeymoon or adults only trip.
Koa Kea Hotel
This will be the next hotel I stay at on Kauai. I’ve read good things about it for a while now and on my last trip I had dinner there and walked around the grounds and it seemed pretty perfect. It’s a small boutique property, but the service is top notch and it just has such a laid back, barefoot luxury kind of place.
I stayed here in 2016 when I was on island for a busy go go go trip and just needed a good budget hotel. It had recently been renovated then and it was perfect for what I needed. Nice enough, but not a place that really compelled me to spend much time there other than sleeping and showering. Although Lava Lava Beach Club is onsite and that’s one of my favorite restaurants in Hawaii.
My Favorite Restaurants on Kauai
There are a lot of great restaurants on Kauai from fine dining to food trucks to little hole in the walls and there are a lot of spots that I’ve been to and liked, but these are three spots that I always go back to for nice dinners:
The Beach House
If I only have time for one dinner on Kauai, this is probably it. And it’s a place I’ll go back to on every trip. It’s one of Chef Peter Merriman’s restaurants (you’ll know him from the Monkeypod and Merriman’s) so besides his signature farm to table fresh and local ingredient based menu, it has that “buzzy” type of vibe that really explodes around sunset. The way the property is situated on the south side of Kauai (it juts out a bit at an angle) makes it a prime time spot for sunsets all year long.
Favorites on the menu: Monkeypod mai tai (of course), lobster deviled eggs, pork potstickers, mac nut crusted mahi mahi, and coconut creme brulee.
Lava Lava Beach Club
Lava Lava is a picturesque Hawaii restaurant. Right on the beach (so many tables are actually in the sand), endless tropical drinks, a fresh menu packed with seafood, live music, etc. It’s the kind of place everyone likes to hang out. There are two in Hawaii: one in Waikoloa on the Big Island and one on the east side of Kauai at the Kauai Shores hotel.
Merriman’s doesn’t have the beachfront location like the other two, but they consistently have the best food and overall dining experience of any spot on the island. Make reservations before sunset because there’s still a good view in the distance. Favorites on the menu: Merriman’s mai tai, crab cakes, kalua pork quesadillas, mac nut crusted mahi mahi (actually better than the one at the Beach House), filet, garlic truffle fries.
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.
Favorite Things to Do on Kauai
Shopping in Hanalei and mai tais at the Tahiti Nui
Hanalei has got to be one of the most magical places in Hawaii (maybe the whole world) and while there’s no end to the incredible things you can do on the north shore, I’m pretty basic so shopping and mai tais are the way I like to go. There are cute little boutiques all throughout town, but don’t miss I Heart Hanalei and the handful of shops that are on the edge of town as you come in. And definitely stop in Tahiti Nui for a mai tai…it’s a Kauai institution.
When Walmart souvenirs just won’t do, head to this local collective to do some shopping and support local. The large warehouse space has been converted and is home to many shops, gathering areas, and food trucks.
They’re open 10AM-4PM and located in Lawai which is on the road between Poipu and Port Allen so if you’re going on a Napali Coast boat tour that leaves from Port Allen it’s the perfect stop on the way back to Poipu.
They’re open Monday through Saturday, but most of the food trucks aren’t open on Mondays.
If you’re on island for the second Saturday of the month, stop by for their night market from 5-8 which usually features even more vendors.
Shopping at the Shops at Kukui’ula
I usually end up eating at a restaurant in this shopping center at least once each trip, so I like to come a little early and do some shopping. My don’t miss shops are Salt + Sea, Malie Organics, SoHa Living, Lulumemon (duh) plus the usual suspects like Reyn Spooner and Tori Richard and a handful of galleries and surf shops.
They have live music on Friday evenings and the Kauai Culinary Market on Wednesday afternoons.
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.
Do a Napali Coast boat ride
This is something EVERYONE has to do at least once, but I’ve done it a few times now. The Napali Coast is pretty incredible, but you can really only see it by boat or helicopter. I’ve done the helicopter tour and while it was amazing, I’m kind of off them for now.
But a boat tour is a MUST DO. It’s a really good bang for your buck money/time value wise too. You’ll get a 4-5.5 hour tour versus a 50 minute helicopter ride.
My favorite way to go is with Holo Holo leaving from Hanalei. They use Zodiac ocean rafts so they’re zippier and can pop in and out of all the sea caves. Plus since they leave from Hanalei you spend the entire boat ride along the Napali Coast (no transit time). Read more about it here.
The most popular way to do this is on a big catamaran that leaves from the south side (Port Allen). You’ll spend roughly 3 hours of the 5.5 hour trip in transit to get to Napali Coast and the big cat can’t go into the sea caves, but it’s generally a more comfortable “pleasure cruise” type of trip. Read more about it here.
Hike the Kalalau Trail
This is a once in a lifetime hike. The full trail is 22 miles round trip and requires overnight camping permits, but as a day hiker you can do the first two miles (four miles round trip) and it’s a don’t miss. I’ll be honest, it’s a pretty grueling hike but if you’re at all able bodied and can push through, you’ll likely never experience anything else like it.
This is top of my list for my next trip to Kauai. This historic plantation near Lihue has developed a pretty stellar roster of offerings and activities and it seems pretty high end. Things to do here: a historic sugar cane train ride, a rum safari (what??), dinner at the Plantation House (supposed to be one of the best restaurants on Kauai), a luau, and plenty of shopping. Check out their website here.
Still Looking for a Place to Stay?
Here’s one more really important thing you need to know before your Hawaii trip…
Reservations You Need to Make BEFORE Your Hawaii Trip
You’ve got your airfare, hotel, rental car and your big activities booked, so you should be good to go, right? Wrong!
Travel is BOOMING in Hawaii so a lot of state and national parks used the closure and reopening to institute reservation systems at some of the island’s most popular spots to make things a little more sustainable.
That means that there are now over half a dozen sites (beaches, trailheads, etc.) that require advance reservations. And some sell out well before you arrive on the island so you really need to have some sort of a plan.
I recently saw somebody in a Hawaii travel group post in a panic that they didn’t know they had to make reservations for things in advance…they thought they could just show up and “go with the flow.” I was tempted to say, well, “as long as the flow doesn’t take you somewhere that requires reservations, you can!” ; )
But I don’t want YOU to be that person, so I’ve pulled together a list of all the places you need to reserve entry in advance (plus all the details on booking windows, price, links, etc.) and a handful of popular tourist hotspots that book out really far in advance too.
Haleakala National Park (Maui)
To visit Haleakala National Park for sunrise at the summit, you must make reservations in advance here.
Reservations are required to enter the park gates between 3AM and 7AM (sunrise hours).
Online reservations are $1 per reservation/vehicle PLUS you’ll pay the park entrance fee of $30/vehicle when you arrive (National Park annual passes are also accepted at the gate).
The reservation booking window opens 60 days in advance at 7AM HST. There are also a limited number of tickets released two days before.
You can make one reservation every three days with the same account. So if you want to make reservations for back to back days (in case of weather/conditions), you’ll need to do so with separate accounts (email addresses).
If you can’t get reservations for sunrise, you can enter the park anytime after 7AM without reservations. The summit is spectacular during the day and you don’t need reservations for sunset.
I strongly recommend creating an account before and making sure you’re logged in at 7AM HST because it’s not uncommon for reservations to sell out quickly.
Waianapanapa State Park (Maui)
To visit Maui’s famous black sand beach at Waianapanapa State Park on the Road to Hana, you must make reservations in advance here.
Reservations are required to visit the beach and are distributed in windows from 7AM-10AM, 10AM-12:30PM, 12:30PM-3PM, and 3PM-6PM. And they are pretty strict about exiting by the end of your window time (you can arrive anytime within your window).
It’s $5/person to enter plus $10/vehicle to park and those fees are paid when you book your time slot.
Reservations open up 30 days in advance.
Iao Valley State Park (Maui)
To visit the lush, green mountains and hike at Iao Valley State Park, you must make reservations in advance here.
Reservations are offered for 90 minute time slots beginning at 7AM and ending at 6PM. They ask that you arrive within the first 30 minutes of your time slot.
Entry is $5/person plus $10/vehicle to park.
Reservations open up 30 days in advance.
Diamond Head (Oahu)
To hike to the top of Waikiki’s famous Diamond Head, you must make reservations in advance here.
Reservations are offered in two hour increments beginning at 6AM (6AM-8AM, 8AM-10AM, etc.) and ending at 6PM. If you’re parking onsite, they ask that you arrive within the first 30 minutes of your reservation window.
Entry is $5/person plus $10/vehicle to park.
Reservations open up 30 days in advance.
Tip: I recommend booking one of the first two time slots because there isn’t much shade on this hike and it gets pretty hot.
Hanauma Bay (Oahu)
To snorkel at Oahu’s pristine Hanauma Bay, you must make reservations in advance here.
Entry times are staggered in 10 minute increments from 7AM to 1:20PM with roughly 1000 slots being assigned in advance every day.
Reservations can be made two days in advance and they open at 7AM HST. They’re usually gone in minutes (if not seconds).
If you’re unable to get an advanced reservation, you can try for a day of, walk in ticket. They open at 6:45AM and they only have a limited number available. Everyone in your group needs to be present when you purchase your tickets in person.
There are no reservations for parking and it’s first come, first serve. $3/vehicle.
It’s $25/person to snorkel at Hanauma Bay (12 and under, active military, and locals with HI ID are free).
The Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve is open Wednesday through Sunday (CLOSED MONDAY AND TUESDAY) from 6:45AM-4PM. Last entry is at 1:30PM, the beach is cleared at 3:15PM and you have to leave the facility by 4PM.
Jellyfish patterns can also affect whether or not the bay is open so double check the day before/day of.
USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor (Oahu)
If you want to take the boat tour at Pearl Harbor out to the USS Arizona, it’s recommended to make advance reservations here.
Online reservations are guaranteed a specific boarding time to go out to the USS Arizona. If you’re unable to get an advance reservation, you can wait standby when you arrive. The line could be short (15 minutes or so) or long (hours) and it just depends on the day (if they’re having problems with the loading dock sometimes they don’t take many from the standby line) and the time of day.
Reservations are supposed to open up 60 days in advance, but keep an eye on your exact dates, because lately they’ve actually been opening up about 57ish days in advance???
They also release a small batch of tickets the day before.
The boat ride out to the USS Arizona is free, but it’s $1 to make the reservations online.
They recently started charging $7/vehicle for parking at Pearl Harbor.
Haena State Park / Kalalau Trail (Kauai)
If you want to hike Kauai’s famous Kalalau Trail, you must make advance reservations here.
You’ve got three options here:
1) Parking & Entry: This is the most flexible option and also the most limited. THESE RESERVATIONS SELL OUT IN LESS THAN A MINUTE. There are three time slots available: 6:30AM-12:30PM, 12:30PM-5:30PM and 4:30PM to sunset. You can purchase multiple time slots if you want to stay longer. It’s $10/timeslot (parking) plus $5/person and you have to reserve every person when you initially book. Everybody has to arrive in the same car and your ID needs to match the reservation.
2) Shuttle & Entry: If you can’t get parking at the trailhead, there’s also a shuttle option. Shuttle reservations are $35/person (16+), $25/person (ages 4-15), 3 and under can ride free. The shuttle runs every 20 minutes 6:20AM to 6:40PM.
3) Entry Only: If you’re a Hawaiian resident (with HI ID) or someone WITH a Hawaiian resident, you can purchase entry only for $5/person with no advance reservations. Also, if you’re walking or biking to the trailhead you can do this option. But there is NOWHERE to park in the area to walk in. So this really only works for those with bikes or who are staying close enough to walk. They will tow your car if you park outside the designated areas.
The reservation window opens 30 days in advance at 12AM HST. The parking & entry option usually sells out in a minute, but the shuttle availability will last longer.
There are a TON of FAQs here including the possibility of snagging a canceled reservation.
Other Things to Book in Advance
Hawaii is a busy place these days! Besides the state and national parks above, here’s a handful of miscellaneous things you should make reservations for in advance (if they’re on your radar):
Mama’s Fish House (Maui): The iconic spot is the most popular restaurant in Hawaii and they’ve been opening reservations (and selling out) 4-6 months in advance. You can call and get on the waitlist for one day or you can set notifications on OpenTable to alert you for cancellations every day of your trip. Most people have pretty good success on OpenTable.
Old Lahaina Luau (Maui): Honestly, any luau you’re planning to attend you should book early, but most people are usually shocked how far out the Old Lahaina Luau books out. Book it as soon as you know your dates (I think they open at the six month window). They also have a waitlist.
Kualoa Ranch UTV Tour (Oahu): Everybody loves Jurassic Park so getting to ride UTVs where they filmed the movies is very popular. The ranch offers a lot of different tours but the UTV tours usually book out a couple of months in advance.
Spa Reservations: If you’re staying at a resort with a spa (or planning on visiting one), don’t wait until you arrive to make your reservations. I’d make them at least a month in advance.
Tee Times: Same for golf, reserve your tee times well in advance.
Dining Reservations: Any “fancy” or resort restaurant is likely to be booked up these days so if you like having a nice dinner every night, make your plans in advance.
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.
P.S. Thanks for sticking around and reading this whole post! If you have ANY questions about planning your trip to Hawaii, you can join my free Facebook group here. I’m there answering questions every day and there are 7500+ other friends who have a ton of Hawaii information to share!
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