What are the best things to do in Kauai?
Planning a trip to Kauai? You’re going to love it! It’s one of the most beautiful Hawaiian Islands, well known for its lush, green mountains. Remember Jurassic Park? Well, that’s Kauai. With so much natural beauty (beaches! hiking! snorkeling!), you could stay busy for weeks exploring every part of this island, so I’ve narrowed this list down to 15 things to do in Kauai.
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This is by no means a comprehensive list of everything to do on Kauai, but it’s a pretty good overview of some “don’t miss” experiences! Also, I know different people like to vacation different ways so while a lot of things on this list you can do on your own (nothing is more fun than renting a car and taking off exploring!), I’ve also included options for people who gravitate more towards organized tours and excursions (there’s a lot you miss when you’re just driving around on your own : )Without further adieu…here are 15 things to do in Kauai that you definitely shouldn’t miss:
1.Take a boat ride down the Napali Coast. This is classic Hawaii…the Hawaii you see in movies, and it’s not to be missed. This coastline full of soaring green, jagged cliffs lined with white sand beaches is a sight that many choose to see on a helicopter tour but it’s best explored by ocean raft where you can zip in and out of sea caves and feel the ocean spray on your face. In the summer months, choose a tour that leaves out of Hanalei Bay on the North Shore for a shorter ride to the coast. Read about my experience with zipping down the Napali Coast in a Zodiac raft and reserve your own tour here. Or if you’d rather cruise on a catamaran, check out this tour.
2.See Waimea Canyon. Mark Twain called Waimea Canyon the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific” and it doesn’t disappoint. It’s worth the drive to the most remote part of the island to gaze out across the canyon. There are at least four overlooks at the top of the canyon and you need to see all of them. Each one offers a different vantage point, and one even has a lookout over Kalalau and the Napali Coast. 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’d rather see the canyon with a guide, book this private tour.
3.Hang out in Kauai’s historic towns. Full of cute little shops and restaurants, Hanalei is a great surf town and in the winter months it draws surfers from all over the world. Grab a bite to eat, browse through a couple of shops and keep driving along the North Shore for great views. Hanapepe on the southwest side is a classic little beach town that was the inspiration behind Disney’s Lilo and Stitch and really feels like a step back in time to old Hawaii. Close to the Poipu on the southside, don’t miss the famous tree lined road to the cute well preserved town of Koloa where there’s plenty of shopping and dining. And Historic downtown Kapa’a is the central hub of the coconut coast and feels like a charming beach side town.
4.Go beach hopping at the island’s best. Kauai’s north shore has some of the most beautiful beaches on the island. Start at Ke’e beach, which is the end of the road on the north shore, and check out some spectacular beaches including Ha’ena, Tunnels, (you’ll need to reserve parking in advance for these spots here) and Hideaways. Also don’t miss Poipu Beach on the sunny south shore. It’s a favorite resting area for the endangered Hawaiian Monk Seals. There are only about 1000 seals left in Hawaii and after a big meal they’re known to crawl up on to the beach and nap all day. It’s illegal to approach them so just admire them from a distance and don’t worry, they’re fine…they’re just sleeping! And if you’re really up for an adventure, spend the day at Polihale Beach. Perhaps one of Kauai’s most beautiful beaches, Polihale definitely has an off the grid feel. The seven mile stretch of sand is bordered by the Napali Coast and is a great spot to camp if you feel like roughing it in paradise. Find my full list of favorite Kauai beaches here.
5.Kayak the Wailua River to Fern Grotto. The Wailua River is the only navigable river in the state. Explore the river by kayak and hike to a hidden waterfall on this tour. Or take a boat trip up the river into the fern grotto, a popular wedding destination. The Smith family operates a fern grotto tour and a luau in the valley that’s a great option.
6.Spot some waterfalls. There are plenty of waterfalls to see on Kauai that require a bit of a hike, but if you’re not super active you’ll also find a couple of drive up falls. Wailua Falls: the 80-foot waterfall just outside of Lihue is a popular spot. It’s famous as the backdrop to the opening sequence of Fantasy Island. 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. Also don’t miss 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.
7.Take a helicopter tour. Kauai is practically made to be seen from the air. Some of the most spectacular parts of the island can only be seen from the air and a helicopter tour is sure to be one of the highlights of your trip. Read all about the flight I did with Blue Hawaiian and reserve your flight here.
8.See Spouting Horn (Kauai’s blowhole). It’s a fairly simple natural phenomenon, but blowholes in the Hawaiian Islands always draw a crowd. The Spouting Horn blowhole on the south side of Kauai is close to the resort area of Poipu and easy to get to (you can drive right up) so it’s a popular spot.
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.
9.Hike the famous Kalalau Trail. Not for the faint of heart! This epic 11 mile trail (one-way!) along Kauai’s famed Napali Coast lures hikers from all around the world. While the whole hike takes a lot of planning (camping permits are required), the first 2 mile leg of the hike to Hanakapi’ai beach is perfect for a day hike. This amazing view of the Napali Coast feels even better when you’ve hiked it with your own two feet. Read about the time I hiked the Kalalau Trail here and reserve your parking at the trailhead here.
10.Ride ATVs at Kipu Ranch. Kipu Ranch offers some great ATV tours of “undiscovered” Kauai. Their tours will take you through green pastures, tropical valleys, and waterfalls, all which have been the backdrops of films such as Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones. Book a tour at Kipu Ranch here.
11.Kayak Hanalei Bay. This picturesque bay on the north shore has to be one of the most beautiful spots on Kauai. Depending on the time of year, you can paddleboard or surf in Hanalei Bay (it’s calmer in the summer months), but I like this tour that combines kayaking and snorkeling.
12.See the Princeville Botanical Gardens. Kauai is home to some truly spectacular botanical gardens, but the Princeville Botanical Gardens on the north shore are the best. Show up and stroll around on your own, or book this tour which includes a chocolate sampling.
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.
14.Visit Ni’ihau, the forbidden island. It’s easy enough to visit the eight main Hawaiian Islands (Oahu, Maui, Kauai, the Big Island/Hawaii, Lanai, and Molokai), but there are two “other” islands that are pretty much inaccessible to visitors. Ni’ihau (nicknamed the Forbidden Island because it’s closed to visitors) is just off the coast of Kauai. While you’re not able to fully explore the island, this tour is the only one with permits to land at a beach on the island so if you’re looking to cross off a major Hawaii bucket list item and visit Ni’ihau, you’ll need to book the tour. It includes snorkeling and sightseeing part of the Napali Coast.
15.Go snorkeling. Most visitors to Hawaii want to do a little snorkeling. Tunnels, Kauai’s famous north shore beach, has some of the best snorkeling you’ll find on the island. It’s hard to find and there’s not much parking (there are two short access ways which look an awful lot like driveways) but you can park at Ha’ena beach (reserve parking here) and walk back to the east. If you’d like to go out on a boat with a guide, book this small group tour.
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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