Kauai gets fewer visitors than some of its more famous neighbors, half as many as Maui’s 2.4 million annual tourists and one-fifth the annual arrivals in Oahu.
But that is part of the appeal of the oldest island in the Hawaiian chain. It is also a natural wonder with secluded beaches, verdant valleys, rolling rivers, jagged mountains and lush forests.
Fans of outdoor adventure already know about the magic that defines Kauai. Here are a few ideas for first-timers:
Don’t ProcrastinateMy colleague Andrew Young, the New York-based executive producer of Travelzoo’s Destinations team, has been to Kauai three times. It’s easy to fall into island time when you’re there, but he suggests giving yourself plenty of time to get around. “There’s really only one main road on the island going north-south, and it’s mostly two lanes,” he says. Getting from Princeville in the north to Poipu in the south, both very popular destinations, will usually take you about 90 minutes, but times can vary throughout the day. Lihue, home to Kauai’s main airport, is halfway between. “Despite being old pros at Kauai, we once misjudged our return trip and had to turn in the rental car without filling the gas tank because we were out of time,” Young adds. A pricey mistake.
Don’t Skip the SlickerKauai earns the “Garden Isle” moniker for a reason: Mother Nature blesses her northernmost Hawaiian island with lots of rain. “When visiting the Waimea Canyon, bring a light jacket even if it’s sunny at your resort,” Young recommends. “Rains come and go quickly, and while you’re hiking through a tropical forest it will rain.”
Skip Waimea Canyon, Hike the GiantWaimea Canyon, a geological marvel on Kauai’s west side, is a must for any hiking enthusiast. Stretching 14 miles and loaded with crags and valleys, it offers jaw-dropping scenery. And Kokee State Park, a gorgeous 4000-acre plateau on the northern end, is home to beautiful trails and lookouts. “Photos don’t do the views justice,” Young shared. For a wieldier hike, head east to Nounou Mountain, aka the Sleeping Giant. The subject of an old Hawaiian legend, the contour of this fertile range has a remarkable resemblance to a human figure asleep on its back. The hike to the top is only about two miles long, but the reward – endless vistas of Kauai’s eastern shores – is remarkable.
Skip the Hike, Take an Air TourMany of Kauai’s dramatic wilderness is accessible only by air. What’s more, the best way to take in the vast beauty here, from the Napali Coast to Hanalei Bay to the Kalalau Valley, may well be from above. The island’s got a variety of air tour companies to choose from and most, like Blue Hawaiian Helicopters and Safari Helicopter Tours, operate out of Lihue using state-of-the-art chopper fleets. Island Helicopters Hawaii is the only company that lands at Manawaiopuna Falls, the remote and private waterfall that gets a starring role in the Jurassic Park movies.
Skip the In-Room Movie, Visit the Film SpotsIt makes sense that the natural raw beauty of Kauai would offer plenty of filming locales. Aside from Manawaiopuna Falls, the Jurassic Park franchise shot at Nawiliwili Harbor in Lihue, the Napali Coast on the North Shore and Allerton Garden on the South Shore. Some of these spots star in the classic South Pacific, too, along with the North Shore beaches of Lumahai and Makua. Several scenes in Elvis Presley’s Blue Pacific were shot at the Coco Palm Hotel, once a celeb hangout on Kauai’s Coconut Coast, which Hyatt is restoring and reopening next year. The North Shore’s Kalalau Valley appears in King Kong, the East Side’s Anahola Mountains in Raiders of the Lost Ark and the South Shore’s Kipu Kai Beach in Hook. The Tinsel Town list – which includes hits like Honeymoon in Vegas, George of the Jungle and Mighty Joe Young – goes on. Remember Fantasy Island? The hit TV show made the Wailua Falls famous.
Skip Waimea, Visit HanapepeWaimea Town may be the most popular spot to visit on the west side, especially for those on their way to the famous canyon of the same name. There are a variety of small shops here, along with a statue of Capt. James Cook, who dropped anchor on this historic seaport in 1778. After your canyon hike, swing by Hanapepe Town, which once bustled with American sailors and soldiers training for battle in World War II. Today, the colorful buildings that line the streets exude historic charm -- they served as models for Disney’s Lilo & Stitch -- and house a variety of shops and restaurants. The town is also teeming with art galleries, which every Friday night open their doors for a community Art Walk. If you’re feeling adventurous, ask a local about crossing the swinging bridge.
Skip the Beach, Visit a MuseumTrue, the beach is a big reason you’re here, but a handful of Kauai museums are a worthwhile pastime, as they offer a glimpse into a history and culture that many are committed to keeping alive. Capt. Cook is also a top attraction at the Kauai Museum in Lihue, where exhibits teach about the island’s geology and early native life and where guided tours are available upon request. The museum is housed inside a lava rock. For a lesson on the sugar plantation heritage that once thrived here, visit the Grove House, a 100-acre homestead in Lihue that features various structures, gardens and animals; make reservations in advance for a guided tour. The museum at the Kauai Veterans Center, near the airport, houses several educational exhibits that commemorate the military service of the island’s veterans. And on your trek through Kokee State Park, stop at the natural history museum, where you can get an informational overview of the area as well as updates on trail conditions and the latest weather forecast.
After the Beach, Visit a GardenMcBryde Garden is located in the lush Lawa’i Valley, on the south shore, where a variety of micro-climates allow for a wide variety of plants, flowers and trees to flourish. You’ll find the world’s largest collection of native Hawaiian species here, spread across a variety of gardens, as well as a state-of-the-art horticulture center. The garden is part of the nonprofit National Tropical Botanical Garden, which also includes the popular 80-acre Allerton Garden. Ask about the McBryde-Allerton combo tour.
Skip the Swim, KayakYou’ll find Hawaii’s only navigable rivers on Kauai, and that makes kayaking one of the top activities here. Wailua River’s jungle landscape, on Kauai’s east, makes it the island’s most popular kayaking spot, though Hanalei River in the north and Huleia River near Lihue are also worth paddling. Be cognizant of conditions, which can vary widely and change quickly. Check out the expert guides at Outfitters Kauai and Kayak Kauai. If you’re feeling especially adventurous, consider ocean kayaking, when waters are calm, along pretty spots like Poipu Beach in the south and the Napali Coast in the north.
Skip the Mai Tai, Drink the CoffeeGasp! No, I didn’t really suggest passing on the mai tais. Like you, I can’t imagine a Hawaiian vacation without them. But the joe here has a cult following all its own, thanks to the 4 million coffee trees on the 3000-acre Kauai Coffee plantation. The volcanic soil, the tropical rain, the trade winds -- they all leave their mark on the quality of the beans at what is the largest coffee farm in the U.S. Kauai Coffee offers free guided walking tours, which show how your favorite morning beverage is grown, harvested and roasted, and include tastings of several estate coffees. Spend time soaking in the views from the visitor center veranda.
Skip the Ocean View Room, Hit the LighthouseOf all the stunning visuals on Kauai, many will tell you this one ranks among the best. The Daniel K. Inouye Kilauea Point Lighthouse sits on the northernmost tip of this northernmost Hawaiian island. It underwent a comprehensive restoration ahead of its centennial in 2013, and you can tour the impressive 52-foot structure twice a week -- on Wednesdays and Saturdays -- depending on the availability of guides. You’ll climb about 50 steps in rather tight conditions, so there are some restrictions on what you can bring along. But then it’s all about the unparalleled views. Located about two miles north of Kilauea town, the lighthouse is on a beautiful national wildlife refuge that overlooks the Pacific and offers sweeping views. Look for the array of dioramas that teach about the area’s animals, including the fascinating plethora of seabirds you’ll see taking to the skies. Adults 16 and older pay $5 to enter the refuge.
Gabe Saglie is Senior Editor for Travelzoo, which features exclusive deals on resorts, activities and adventures throughout Kauai and all the Hawaiian islands at www.travelzoo.com. Any opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author.