Kauai (or, more properly, Kaua’i) is the northwestern most and oldest of Hawaii’s major islands. Called the Garden Island, it is covered with lush greenery and tropical plants, watered regularly by abundant rainfall. As the oldest of the islands, it has been changed the most by the forces of erosion, and this has resulted in natural wonders such as Waimea Canyon and the Na Pali Coast. It is also home to more sandy beaches than any other major island in the Hawaiian chain.
The major regions of Kaua`i can be defined by their location on the island relative to the prevailing trade winds. The north and east sides of the island are on the “windward” side of the island, where the winds blow onto the shore. These parts of the island tend to get the most rain, and as a result, are the greenest and most tropical parts of the island. The south and west sides of the island are on the “leeward” side of the island, which tends to be sunnier and drier, since most clouds have already dropped their rain on the windward side of the island.
However, all parts of the island have points of interest for all visitors. Both the rainy and dry sides of the island have fine resorts and beautiful beaches.
The word “city” might be an exaggeration for an island of 63,000 people, but here’s some information on the towns of Kaua`i.
Kapa`a, on the east side, about a 20 minute drive north of Lihu`e, is the largest population center on the island. It anchors what is known as the Coconut Coast, which hosts many inexpensive to moderately priced resorts and much commercial activity with many strip malls along the highway. The corridor between Lihu`e and Kapa`a is the island’s most congested.
Lihu`e, on the island’s southeast side, is the civic and commercial center of the island, host to the island’s main airport, county offices, and largest shopping mall (Kukui Grove Center). The Kaua`i Museum, located in the old part of Lihu`e, is the island’s best museum on the history, geography, and people of Kaua`i.
Po`ipu, on the south side, is the major visitor destination for the island, with abundant sun and much resort development. Most of the major hotel/resort chains, such as Hyatt, Hilton, and Sheraton, have their main Kauai resorts here.
Princeville, on the north shore, is centered on one of the island’s most exclusive resorts and golf courses (consistently ranked among the nation’s best). Although known by some locals as “Haole-ville” because they believe it represents white interests and attitudes that disrespect and aggravate those trying to live in harmony with the island, it is viewed by many as a convenient jumping off point for explorations of Kauai’s spectacular north shore, including nearby Hanalei, a slice of old-time Hawaii, the unmatched beauty of Lumahai, Tunnels and Ke’e beaches, and the hike-in Na Pali Coast beyond. In contrast to its pricey hotel, Princeville also hosts numerous and affordable timeshare and condo properties.
Waimea, on the west side, is a small town with a flavor of old Kaua`i. Most visitors pass through town on the way to Waimea Canyon and Koke`e, but the town itself is worth a relaxing visit. Waimea is also home of the West Kaua`i Tech Center, a major tech incubator. Most research done here is related to the Pacific Missile Range Facility.
*Hanalei, on the north shore, is home to a quaint little beach town and famous Hanalei Bay, a crescent shaped bay known for it’s sandy white beaches and world -class surf.
* Haena, lies just beyond Hanalei. It is made up of residential homes and is the gateway to Na Pali Coast.
* Hanapepe on the south shore has a quaint downtown filled with artists’ galleries and craft shops. There is also a swinging footbridge over the Hanapepe River. Be sure to check out the Banana Patch Studio for wonderful hand painted tiles and other locally made items.
* Kilauea is a small village that most people pass on the way to the Kilauea Lighthouse. The Kong Lung Center offers a few unique stores and restaurants. There is also a large fruit stand, Banana Joe’s, located north of Kilauea on the mountain side of the highway.
In many ways, Kauai is different from the rest of the islands. It’s almost as if you’ve stepped into a separate kingdom, and for many years Kauai was just that in relation to Hawaii. Kamehameha I was able to conquer all the islands by force, except Kauai. Two separate campaigns to take the island ended in failure. In the end, it took diplomacy, a royal kidnapping, and an arranged marriage to bring Kauai into the kingdom of Hawaii.
Kauai is also known as the place where the sugar cane industry in Hawaii was born. Sugar was once the industrial mainstay of the Kauai economy, and although it takes a back seat to tourism these days, it is still very much a part of the island’s heritage.
In short, compared to Oahu, Maui or the Big Island, Kauai is smaller, less populated, more rural, and more laid back. That’s why it’s the favorite destination for many visitors to Hawaii, and for many Hawaii residents as well. Visitors come to explore the island’s beaches and natural wonders, but the multitude of resorts on white sand beaches provide ample opportunity to just sit and do nothing if you’re so inclined.
Because tourist development reached Kauai considerably later than the other islands, the island has a larger proportion of timeshares, condominiums, and bed and breakfasts. Also, a strict cap on building heights (hotels can be no more than 40 feet high) prevent the development of the mega-resorts and towering skyscrapers found on the other islands. The local rule is that nothing can be built taller than a coconut tree.
One look at a map will show you an important difference between Kauai and the more populous islands of Hawaii: Due to the massive Waimea Canyon and Na Pali Coast, no roads circle the island. Once you’ve made the drive along the south shore to Waimea and seen the canyon, the only options are to go West on dirt roads to Polihale Beach or turn around and go back the way you came. Same story for Princeville and Na Pali on the north shore. However, the island is compact enough that both ends of the road can be seen in the same day. The Garden Island cannot be enjoyed or appreciated if you are pressed for time.
Lihue Airport (LIH) is Kauai’s main airport, a small terminal served with inter-island flights by Hawaiian and go!. Alaska, American, Delta, United Airlines, and US Airways offer non-stop service from the U.S. West Coast.
Tip when flying into Lihue: For the best incoming view, select a window seat on the left side of the aircraft. More often than not you’ll be landing to the north thanks to the trade winds. From that angle you will see a dramatic cliff view off the left side on final approach.
There is now also a deep water port at Nawiliwili for cruise ships. Norwegian Cruise Lines offers cruises between the islands that start and end in Honolulu.
Rental car is the best way to really see the island — and the only way to get to some remote (and scenic) sites. Most major rental car companies have offices at the Lihue airport or nearby by shuttle bus. Car rentals are available in a large variety of makes and models and provide travelers flexibility and freedom to explore the island.
Most rental car companies have restricted areas, notably Polihale beach. Check before you go, or take the risk of paying yourself out of trouble if your rental car breaks down or gets stuck.
The Kaua`i bus is perhaps the only other way to get around, but will not go to some rural attractions, such as Koke`e. Still, if you are on a budget, this bus will get you around and between the major population centers, such as Lihu`e and Kapa`a, and the major resort/beach areas.
One other option for transport on the island is bicycle. The east side of the island (including Lihue and Kapa`a) has plans for a major bike path under development as of early 2005. Parts of this path exist, but the major connections between towns are still along the major highways. Eventually, the entire east side of the island will be connected by exclusive bikeways, making nonautomobile transportation a real option.
There are two main highways on Kaua`i, both starting in Lihue. Kaumualii Highway (state route 50) heads to the west, through the towns of Kalaheo, Hanapepe, Waimea, and Kekaha before ending at the Na Pali Coast. Kuhio Highway (state route 56) heads north from Lihue, through Kapa`a, Kilauea, Princeville, and Hanalei, ending at the other side of Na Pali.
* Lydgate State Park is on route 56, north of the airport. There’s a park with play area for kids with the usual swings, slides etc. There’s an excellent swimming area for kids. The swimming area is separated by big rocks from the ocean, which helps break up the strong current.
* Old Koloa town is on route 520 on the way to Poipu. The small, rustic town has a grocery store, ice cream parlor, and some souvenir shops. There’s also a small museum about the lives of the Japanese immigrants who worked on Kauai’s sugar plantations. In the field across from the grocery store there’s a monument to them as well.
* The Huleia National Wildlife Refuge offers stunning scenery and a great place to photograph native birds and animals.
* The elegant and pristine Wailua Falls looks like a double waterfall from the viewing area but is actually a triple waterfall, once the site of thrilling cliff diving. It’s a short drive from Lihue on a dead end road.
* Opaekaa Falls are 1.3 miles from the start of Route 580. There is a vista point on Route 580 to see the falls with plenty of parking for cars. Right across from the road is another view point for the Wailua River.
* Hanalei Valley and Bay has two separate scenic overlooks. The valley overlook showcases taro fields in various stages of production. The bay overlook features the scenic bay framed by the northern edge of the Napali Coast mountains known in movies as Bali Hai. Both overlooks are between Princeville and the one-lane Hanalei Bridge.
* Kilauea Point Lighthouse and Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge, on Kilauea Road off Kuhio Highway (route 56) near mile 23, (808) 828-1413. then follow the road to the end. The lighthouse was built in 1913 and had the largest lens of its kind; it guided ships between North America and Asia until its light was replaced by a beacon in the 1970s. Located in a national wildlife refuge which is a nesting ground for a diverse collection of seabirds, the only one of its kind in the islands. $3 for adults, free for children. National Park Service Golden Eagle Passports accepted and sold.
* National Tropical Botanical Garden, Lawa’i Road (across from Spouting Horn on Po’ipu Road). 8:30 – 5:00. The National Tropical Botanical Garden in Kauai consists of three separate gardens: McBride, Allerton, and Limahuli. The spectacular gardens contain plants native to Hawaii, endangered species, and imported species. Allerton Garden and McBride Garden, on the south shore, are accessible by tour bus from the visitor’s center. Allerton is a secluded valley formerly owned by Hawaiian royalty. McBride contains the largest collection of ex situ native Hawaiian plants in existence. Limahuli, on the north shore, contains plants significant to early Hawaiian inhabitants and reproduces ancient taro terraces as well as a later plantation-era garden. Free.
WAIMEA CANYON AND KOKE’E STATE PARK
Above Waimea on state route 550. From Lihue, take state route 50 west to Waimea. From there, you can take Waimea Canyon Drive (550) or continue to Kekaha turning onto state route 552, which meets route 550 near its 6-mile mark. Both roads are winding. Most popular viewing point of the canyon is just past mile 11 on route 550. Koke’e is located about 4 miles further. (808)245-6001 for weather information in the canyon.
At over 10 miles long, 1 mile wide, and 3,567 feet deep, Waimea Canyon has been called the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific.” Indeed, its colors rival that of its Arizona counterpart, except that Waimea Canyon also adds touches of green that would be absent in the desert. Carved and formed over hundreds of thousands of years by runoff from Mount Waialeale at the center of the island, the canyon shows millions of years of geological history.
Camping and hiking are available above the canyon at Koke’e State Park.
Best time to go is on a relatively clear day, and then after mid-morning (from about 9:30 a.m. on). Otherwise, clouds and fog may obscure the view.
The Na Pali coast, featured in the film Jurassic Park and many other movies, is one of the most distinctive geological features of Kauai and consists of sheer cliffs thousands of feet high that drop directly onto pristine secluded beaches. The beaches are reachable only by boat, helicopter, or very experienced hikers, but the cliffs may be viewed from the top by driving to the end of Route 550.
People come to Kauai primarily for one thing: the beaches with their great snorkeling, surfing, swimming, and sunning. But Kauai also boasts more navigable rivers than the other Hawaiian Islands making kayaking very popular. If the surf is calm you can even combine a river run with time paddling the bays and ocean shoreline. You’ll find kayak rentals near the mouth of the most popular rivers. Many will also rent roof-top strap-on kayaks for travelers interested in trying one of the several smaller river runs.
Kauai has great hiking and mountain biking trails as well. Outdoor adventurers will find the guidebook Kauai Trailblazer to be helpful in comparing various locations for hiking and biking (as well as snorkeling, kayaking, and surfing). The Waimea Canyon area has extensive hiking trails both into the canyon itself as well as great overlooks of the Na Pali cliffs. Check with the park office on trail conditions and weather before starting your hike.
* Warning: Kauai’s famous red dirt is very slippery when wet, as it often is, making some trails too slippery to use, particularly those along steep drop offs.
There are many commercial tour guides that offer various land and sea adventures such as guided hikes, downhill bike tours, back-country ATV trips, river tubing adventures, and more.
OTHER RECCOMENDED ACTIVITIES LISTED BELOW BY REGION
* North: Hanalei is a charming Hawaiian village in beautiful country on the north of the island. Hanalei has a nostalgic, romantic quality of simpler times on the Islands. An easy drive to the northwest of Hanalei is the Na Pali coast. Drive to where the road ends, park and hike the twenty-two mile round-trip journey to mythical Kalalau. The Kalalau Trail is generally regarded as among the most spectacular hikes in the world, albeit incredibly painful. If you want to get a taste, hike 2 miles in to the first beach (Hanakapi’ai). Day hikes are unrestricted, but camping requires a permit from the parks department. There is a long waiting list, so signing up a year in advance is a good idea. Tour boats can also access the coast; they may be chartered out of Hanalei or other outfits on the south of the island. Snorkeling is very good. Be advised, however, that the area is effectively closed to boats in the winter due to the intense Pacific weather hitting that part of Kaua’i.
* East: Kapa’a is a small, cute, tourist-friendly town on the east side. It features a movie theater, an internet cafe, several restaurants, and a Birkenstock outlet. Look up from Anahola and see the mountain that faded in from the Paramount logo at the beginning of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
* South: The South Shore has a number of great beaches such as Maha’ulepu Beach with its ancient petroglyphs and the rocky Shipwreck Beach, both perfect for snorkeling or scuba diving. Poipu Beach, often ranked as one of the world’s top beaches by travel surveys. Venture to Kipu Falls, where the opening sequences for Raiders of the Lost Ark were filmed. Kauai is a leading destination for scuba divers, with many beautiful, relatively unspoiled coral reefs and a variety of fish not found anywhere outside the Hawaiian archipelago. Dive boats leave daily from Po’ipu. Shorter trips typically involve two dives at locations off the south shore. For a once-in-a-lifetime dive choose a dive off the coast of Ni’ihau, the privately-owned island to the west of Kauai. Expect to pay from $120 and up depending on the dive-boat operator and the length of the dive. Kauai is also a destination for whale watchers; humpbacks winter in the coast off Hawaii. Dolphin pods are also a very common sight. Whale watching boats leave multiple times a day from Po’ipu and the dock at Nawiliwili in Kalapaki Bay.
* West: A drive up to the Waimea Canyon is highly recommended or explore the Canyon and surrounding areas on a breathtaking tour.
If you rent a jeep make sure you take a trek out to Polihale Beach. It is located at the southern end of Napali and to the north of Barking Sands. It is a wide sprawling sandy beach. The sunsets here are truly awesome and with a permit you can camp there too (it is a state park). During the winter and early spring you can also see the whales from the beach. However, the last couple of miles of the road to get to Polihale, run through an old sugar cane field. At (Feb 2007) the road was still not maintained and is in very poor condition. If you have a regular rental car don’t even bother unless they have started maintaining the road, instead rent a fourwheel, this beach is the most beautiful beach on the island. If you can get to Polihale do it. You won’t be sorry! Unless you get stuck in the sand dunes if you drive on the beach – assuming that your cell phone works, the tow could cost a great deal.
* Warning The cane road to Polihale intersects other cane roads and there is no signage, thus making the route potentially confusing in the dark.
Like the rest of Hawaii, the plate lunch is ubiquitous in Kauai (see the Eat section in the main Hawaii article for more information). However, many of Kauai’s beaches and natural attractions (like Waimea Canyon) have no amenities nearby. Pack a lunch and bring enough water for the day – then stop at the restaurants for dinner. Waimea Canyon visitors can drive a few miles further up the road to the Koke’e Lodge, located in the Koke’e State Park next to the museum. It serves breakfast and lunch.
* Jojo’s Clubhouse, 19-835 Kaumualii Highway, Uninc Kauai County, HI, ☎ (808) 635-7615. Excellent shave ice, arguably the best, if not in the state, then on Kauai. Over 60 flavors of syrup available. Many people stop there to or from Waimea Canyon.
* Mema Thai Chinese Cuisine, 4-369 Kuhio Hwy # 4, Kapaa, HI, ☎ (808) 823-0899. Reasonable prices, good decor. edit
* Monicos Taqueria, 4-356 Kuhio Hwy # D, Kapaa, HI, ☎ (808) 822-4300. Off the main highway in Kapaa. Indoor and outdoor dining. Friendly staff and good food. edit
* Red lychee fruit from a roadside stand or a farmer’s market
* Wishing Well in Hanalei has the very best shave ice on Kauai. But, be prepared, they don’t open until Noon or after. If you arrive at 11:30AM be prepared to wait until they are ready to open and start serving. They close daily when they run out of ice, usually around 4PM.
* Lappert’s Ice Cream and Coffee, several locations on Kauai (and on the mainland as well), main location at 1-3555 Kaumualii Highway (route 50) in Hanapepe. The island of Kauai was where the late Walter Lappert retired and created what used to be the best premium ice cream in Hawaii – the quality has diminished significantly in the last ten years. The ice cream is still made in small batches from the small factory in Hanapepe. About $3 for a single scoop in a cup or cone.
* BarAcuda Kauai’s only world renowned chef, Jim Moffat, prepares tapas style cuisine using fresh island ingredients.
* Kilauea Bakery: Off main highway in Kilauea, +1 828 2020, 11AM-9PM, closed Sun. Fresh bread, great pizza. Sit outside to eat. 40 minute drive from Lihue airport.
* Duane’s Ono Burger: Next to the Anahola Post Office and General Store in Anahola on the road to Princeville. As the name suggests, the burgers are “Ono” which in Hawaiian, means “good.” Portions are huge and seating is outside and limited. Take it to go and bring your food to nearby Anahola Beach. Parking is also limited, especially during the busy lunch hour.
* Camp House Grill The Camp House Grill is on Rte 50 in Kalaheao and has great food at reasonable prices. The pies in particular are wonderful especially the pecan pie, chocolate cream. The breakfasts are really great too. Now Closed permanently. 9/08
* Koloa Fish Market Located near the eastern end of the main strip in Koloa the fish market has great plate lunches, especially the tuna.
* Bubba Burger Two burger joints (one in Kapaa, the other in Hanalei), whose motto is, “We cheat lawyers, drunks and tourists,” has great burgers. You just can’t have them your way. They come standard and any changes they make you do while the cook isn’t looking. The burgers are great and the onion rings are better. It’s an experience to be had. There is also a restaurant on Maui.
* Pizzetta an absolutely delicious pizzeria in the Po’ipu Shopping Village. Complete with a bar and patio, this is one of the more popular restaurants, and with good reason!
* Puka Dog, in the Po’ipu Shopping Village. World Famous hot dogs, made by inserting polish sausages into “tubes” of bread filled with any of several house-specialty sauces. Save this as one of the last meals on your trip, or you’ll be eating here all week!
* Kalaheo Cafe and Coffee 2-2560 Kaumualii Hwy, 808 332-5858. Daily 6:30 AM – 2:30 PM, Dinner W – Sa from 5:30 PM. A quaint little place that has excellent coffee, breakfast, sandwiches, and dinner. Try the tofu wrap or pineapple macadamia nut french toast for breakfast. Any of the salads, pastas, or fish will make an excellent dinner choice. Very reasonably priced.
* Pho Kauai, 4303 Rice St # B1, Lihue, HI, 96766 (South West Corner of Rice & Kress. Next door to the bowling alley in the strip mall. Just before the Toyota dealership on the left (south) side of Rice coming from the airport/west), ☎ (808) 245-9858. Great meal for a low price by vacation/holiday or everyday living standards. Local establishment with authentic Pacific Rim food. Soup (Pho) is above average on the US West Coast grading curve. Many other Vietnamese meals on the menu. Excellent for kids. Clean dining room with a casual atmosphere & friendly service (normal for a family restaurant). Well worth seeking out if you are visiting & looking for a healthy & low price meal. Very low prices for Kauai dining. edit
* Pacific Pizza & Deli, 9852 Kaumualii Hwy, Waimea, HI 96796, ☎ (808) 338-1020. Great pizza, calzones, and sandwiches. Reasonably priced. Nice place to eat on the way to Waimea Canyon. edit
* Hamura’s Saimin Stand, 2956 Kress Street, Lihue (behind the Salvation Army), ☎ 808-245-3271. 10AM – 10:30PM Mon-Thurs, 10AM – Midnight Fri and Sat, 10AM – 9PM Sun. Saimin is Hawaii’s contribution to noodle cuisine, and Hamura’s does it better than anyone else; it won a James Beard Award in 2006. Seating is first-come-first-served with communal tables. Bowls come in sizes from small to extra large. Order the extra fixings – vegetables, hard boiled egg, roast pork, and wontons – and try the Lilikoi pie for dessert. Less than $10; credit cards not accepted. edit
* A great place to watch the sun set behind Bali Hai at cocktail hour is the “Library” at the Starwood Princeville Hotel, in the Princeville Resort on the North Shore. At the end of Ka Haku Road. As of November 2008, the Princeville Hotel was closed for renovations; call before heading there.
* Sunset from The Point bar at the Sheraton Poipu–sit on the patio and nosh some bar food, sip a Lilikoi Lemonade, and watch the sun set behind Niihau and Spounting Horn.
CAMPHOUSE GRILL IN KALAHEO is now closed permanently. 7/08 –126.96.36.199
Leptospirosis – Be careful not to swim near outlets of streams at the beach, and be aware of leptospirosis, a disease caused by a type of spirochete bacteria that seems at first like a bad cold and can inflame your eyes. It is a serious disease that is more common on Kauai than other islands, and should be cured promptly with antibiotics. Another reason to avoid such areas is that tiger sharks often hunt in the murky water where rivers and streams empty into the ocean.
Rip tides and high surf – Rip tides on Kauai can be treacherous. Pay careful attention to posted signs and don’t swim alone. Surf can be quite high in places, especially during the winter months. Some popular swimming areas, such as Queen’s Bath, appear to be appealing, calm lava pools but if you get too close to the edge it is easy to get swept away by the action of the waves. In others, lava cliffs reach directly out into the surf, and provide spectacular views, but the lava can be treacherous and slippery. Once swept into high surf without a nearby beach or other easy egress point it can be nearly impossible to get back out of the water.
Sunburn – the sun can be quite intense at lower latitudes. People with lighter complexions can receive serious sunburns in as little as 15 minutes. Always wear a good sunblock and/or UV-blocking clothes. Sunburn can easily ruin a vacation. If you get a bad sunburn, however, the Wilcox Memorial Hospital in Lihue can prescribe medication to alleviate the symptoms.