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
1. Try not to over plan. Only plan 1-2 “must dos” a day.
2. Don’t underestimate how long it can take to get around the island.
3. Focus on one part of the island each day.
4. Absolutely do not miss the Napali Coast and Waimea Canyon.
5. Book your activities before you arrive and schedule helicopter tours and boat excursions early in your trip in case they need to be rescheduled due to weather.
6. Read reviews on restaurants ahead of time so you don’t end up at overpriced tourist traps.
7. Be flexible on switching days around. It rains a lot on the north shore so if you get a sunny day, spend it on that part of the island.
8. Check availability on activities before you schedule your days out. Certain activities (like luaus) will only be a few nights a week.
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