Looking for some awesome things to do in Kauai? We spent two weeks traveling around the Hawaiian islands this summer and think there are some awesome things you must do in Kauai.
Of course, it’s Hawaii, so all the islands are amazing. However, Kauai brings back the most wonderful memories. I’m certain you will fall in love with the Garden Isle just as I did, but it can be hard to narrow down what to do with a short vacation.
There are so many things to do in Kauai, including a ton of free nature activities, that it will be hard ever to get bored. Kauai is known for being one of the prettiest Hawaiian islands and the most laid-back vibe of the four main islands. It’s perfect for those that want to step into nature and stretch their legs on a few hiking trails. Planning a trip to Hawaii could be difficult, but we are here to help with this travel guide.
Where is Kauai?
Kauai is the most northwestern Hawaiian (major) island. What is Kauai known for? It’s nicknamed “the Garden Island” because of its lush greenery and abundance of colorful tropical plants, which come from the regular rainfall.
It’s also the oldest of all the Hawaiian Islands, meaning that erosion over time has created amazing natural phenomenons like Na Pali Coast.
You’ll enter Kauai at Lihue Airport (LIH) serviced by Alaska, American, Delta, and United Airlines. You can easily get to Kauai from Oahu and parts of the Western US mainland.
Regions of Kauai
There are four main regions of Kauai that I’ll be breaking down in this Kauai things to do post. The north, south, east, and west. Kauai’s north and east sides are the windward side and are where the winds blow onto the shore. They are the most tropical and lush because they get the most rain, which you’ll notice when you get to towns like Hanalei.
The south and west sides are the “leeward” side, and these receive less rain, making them slightly dryer than the north and east. There are multiple towns and “cities” on Kauai, and this is where you’ll find a majority of the hotels and where many tour operators operate from. Kapa`a, Lihu`e, Po`ipu, Waimea are the larger towns, while Hanalei, Hanapepe, and Kilauea are quaint little towns.
Best Things to Do in the North Shore of Kauai
Cruise Along the Na Pali Coast
This isn’t exactly a unique thing to do in Kauai, but it is one of the top things to do in Kauai! With nearly 20 miles of coastline snaking its way along Kauai’s north shore, the Na Pali Coast is a mesmerizing mix of stark cliffs, sun, and sea. If, however, you’d like to take it all in from the comfort of an air-conditioned car, you’re out of luck because there aren’t any roads. That leaves hiking, flying, and seafaring – of which hiking is the least expensive.
If you want to hike on the Kalalau Trail, you can do so free of charge, as long as you stay within two miles of the trailhead, more on that later. The more adventurous that want to go beyond that will need to purchase a permit.
If you’d like to see the waterfalls, cliffs, and lush jungle from air or sea, helicopter and boat tours are available. When we were in Kauai, the trails were actually closed due to flooding, so we chose to see the coast via boat and had a fantastic experience. Keep in mind, the north shore is subject to strong wind and waves, so if your sea legs aren’t what they used to be, bring some Dramamine, and opt for the hotel spa after the trip. Na Pali Coast tours run about $200 depending on who you go with, however it’s all worth it – the tour was the highlight of our Kauai trip.
Chill on Ke’e Beach
Another great thing to do in Kauai is chill on the beautiful US beaches. Considered the birthplace of the hula dance – and probably the most popular beach in Kauai – Ke’e Beach is on Kauai’s north shore. Like a magnet to beach lovers and those seeking an unforgettable view of the famous NaPali Cliffs, Ke’e Beach can be rather crowded due to its easy access along the Kalalau trailhead.
The beach is rocky in places, but there are lifeguards on-duty, so feel free to take a dip; restrooms and showers are available if you’d like to rinse off before heading home. If possible, plan your trip to Ke’e Beach during the week, especially if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like crowds – it fills up fast on the weekends.
Hike the Kalalau Trail
Hiking the Kalalau Trail is one of those things you must do in Kauai. While you’re at Ke’e beach, you can check the most famous hike on Kauai. The trail is famed for its amazing cliffside views of the Napali Coast; it’s roughly 11 miles long (one way) and ends at the gorgeous Kalalau Beach. The trail crosses in the Hāʻena State Park, and a reservation or permit is required to hike along the trail. An experienced hiker will be able to hike the 11 miles in one day; it’s best to start early to avoid the midday heat.
It’s a popular trail for those looking to do an overnight camping trip as it provides access to a pristine wilderness area only accessible via foot — no roads or commercial boats.
Reservations are needed for all visitors including those who plan to make daily use. The day-use area extends to the first beach and waterfall along the trail Hanakāpīʻai Beach and Hanakāpīʻai Falls. However, if you plan to hike to Kalalau Beach at the end you’ll need a permit which can be obtained
Camping is only allowed at Hanakoa or Kalalau and Hiking Permits are required to hike past Hanakāpīʻai (2 miles in) even if you don’t plan to camp. Permits often sell out and during busy times of the year can sell out quickly. Permits are $20 per person per day you are on the trail can be obtained on the Hāʻena State Park website. The state of Hawaii is issuing less than 100 permits per day only 60 days out so it’s best to continue to check and book well in advance to avoid them selling out.
Snorkel at Tunnels Beach
Though beauty is in the eye of the beholder, by most standards, Tunnels Beach would be among the most perfect beaches in the world. Also, on Kauai’s north shore, Tunnels Beach is a favorite among snorkelers of all experience levels who appreciate its clear water. The underwater rocks and tunnels attract a colorful spectrum of the marine wildlife of all shapes and sizes.
If you’d rather lay on the beach and relax, you’ll love the majestic green hills and cliffs that frame the beach and descend right into the water. There are lifeguards here, and the daily conditions are posted because Tunnels beach is subject to larger waves and more powerful currents. Be forewarned that parking can be an issue here, especially on weekends and holidays.
Spend the Day in Hanalei
If ever an American town had it all, it’d be Hanalei. It’s sandwiched between the scenic north shore and postcard-like beaches of Hanalei Bay, which makes visiting Hanalei one of the things to do in Kauai that you won’t want to pass up.
Boasting historic buildings, surf and bikini shops, and plenty of places to eat and drink, you may not want to leave (we didn’t!). This is also a great area to be in when the sun goes down as the town comes alive.
Swim at Hanalei Bay
When you’re wondering what to do in Kauai, consider taking a dip at Hanalei Bay while in Hanalei; it’s another one of those things you must do in Kauai. For those who want to experience watersports the Hawaiian way, there are places to rent surf, body, and paddleboards – kayaks, and snorkel gear, too – try Hanalei Surfboard for great service.
Hanalei Bay is made up of three beaches – Black Pot, Hanalei, and Waioli. Unlike some of Hawaii’s more placid beaches, some of these are subject to bigger waves and stronger currents, especially in the winter months.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, be warned that parking and crowds can be an issue here, too, and you will likely have to be lucky to score some street parking.
Learn to Surf in Hanalei
There is no better place on earth to learn about surfing than its birthplace. Surfing is an important part of Hawaiian culture, and you can find board shops and surf schools all over the islands. If you’ve ever wanted to give surfing a try, why not try Kauai? Hanalei is a great place to learn as the waves aren’t too intense, try the Titus Kinimaka’s Hawaiian Surf School
Enjoy Hawaiin Shaved Ice at Wishing Well
Another great thing to do in Kauai is have shaved ice. It may be the most expensive shaved ice you’ll ever have, but the Wishing Well Shave Ice in Hanalei is too fun not to stop for a bite. They have a plethora of tasty organic combinations with homemade syrups and fresh fruit toppings.
Admire Waioli Huiia Church
Hanalei is easily the most idealistic town in Hawaiian town, and it’s easy to see why it fetches some of the highest real estate prices in Hawaii. It’s a historic beach town, and in the center lies the Waioli Huiia Church a 19th-century church that is on the National Register of Historic Places. We got lucky and had amazing weather and light to explore Hanalei and take photos of the church.
Hit Up the Farmer’s Market in Hanalei
We love all the fresh fruit in Hawaii! Every Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to noon, the market takes place off Malolo Road in a large grassy field. They typically have over 50 vendors with a variety of organic farm products and handmade crafts.
Get to Limahuli Garden and Preserve
Kauai isn’t called the ‘Garden Island,’ for nothing. With over 1,000 cultivated acres of plants, flowers, trees, and shrubs in one of the world’s most remarkable settings, the Limahuli Garden and Preserve was voted the number one botanical garden by the American Horticultural Society in 1997. Located in Ha’ena on Kauai’s north shore, it’s a must for lovers of natural beauty looking for things to do in Kauai.
If you’re the ‘do-it-yourself type who loves a challenge, then bring your walking shoes, because you’re more than welcome to stroll the mile-long loop on your own. There are plenty of identification and explanatory plaques that will let you know what you’re seeing, or you can sign up for a guided tour if you think you’d learn more that way. Framed by scenic mountains, the garden’s main features are the plants that are native to the area.
Na Pali Coast Helicopter Tour
When considering what to do in Kauai, consider taking a scenic heli ride over one of the most beautiful spots in the world. A helicopter tour is the best way to take in the island’s dramatic landscape. Views from the air are truly breathtaking and are not easily forgotten. The only downside is the high price tag that comes with the experience.
Road Trip Kauai’s North Shore
If you’re convinced that there’s no such thing as too much of a good thing, then rent a car, head to the north shore, and plan on spending the whole day driving around. There will be a little bit of something for everyone, including the Na Aina Kai Botanical Gardens, Secret Beach and the Hanalei Valley Overlook.
Stop in the town of Hanalei for lunch or an afternoon cappuccino, after which you’ll be able to see some jaw-dropping beaches like Wainiha and Kepuhi, which are among Kauai’s most scenic.
Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge
With a historic lighthouse, breathtaking ocean views, and a chance to see seabirds and other local animals in their natural and protected habitat, Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge is another one of those things to do in Kauai that really shouldn’t be passed up.
The sea beyond the coast is also protected as National Marine Sanctuary waters, home to seals, sea turtles, and humpback whales, which are prevalent in the winter months. The Kilauea Lighthouse was built in 1913 and operated as a manned station until the 70’s when it was automated.
Enjoy the View at Pu’u O Kila Lookout
This is definitely one of the best things to do in Kauai. First, we went to the Kalalau lookout while driving highway 550 in Kōkeʻe State Park and although the views weren’t bad we weren’t blown away. We decided to keep driving in search of an epic view over Kauai and found it at the Pu’u O Kila Lookout. It is this lookout that you can get absolutely epic views into the Kalalau Valley (see photo).
The views are often obstructed by clouds so if you have a clear day consider yourself lucky and take photos quickly – conditions can change fast! We were able to get right up the edge to catch panoramic views. There is limited parking so patience is key at busy times. You can easily enjoy the views without hiking, but there are numerous hiking trails that take visitors along the back of Kalalau Valley.
Best Things to Do in East Kauai
Visit the Town of Kapaa
Kapaa is a Kauai must-see. If a little time away from the crowds sounds like a good idea, head towards Kauai’s east side, to the town of Kapaa, it’s one of the best things to do in Kauai!
Not as touristy as many other of Kauai’s beach towns, Kapaa is a bit of a diamond in the rough. If you’re flexible and your schedule allows, head over on a Wednesday, and you’ll be glad you did. From 3:00 until 6:00 on Wednesday afternoons, there’s a farmer’s market with lots of produce and products from the local farmers – some of which you may never have seen before.
There’s an amazing beach in Lydgate Park too, and across the street, there’s the Kamalani playground that’ll be a big hit with the little ones. Its big wooden structures, stairs, swings, and slides put other playgrounds to shame.
Take a Movie Tour
Considering its natural and often dramatic scenery, Kauai is a natural setting for producers to film movies set in exotic locales like Africa and South America. Kauai offers beauty without all the risk and red tape. Since the turn of the century, famous movies by the dozens have been shot here, including Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Six Days and Seven Nights, and South Pacific.
Many movie tour providers choose from, ask around for a recommendation, or go online and see what they’re offering. Tours of varying lengths are available, and, though they’re not identical, they’ll visit many of the same sites.
No matter who you chose, your tour will include a guide who’ll be able to give you specific and interesting details about which movies were made where and when. Most of the tours provide hotel pick-up and drop-off and include stops to take in the scenery and have a bite of lunch.
Wailua River State Park
Home to famous Wailua and Opaekaa Falls, which draw visitors by the droves to Wailua State Park, the falls aren’t the park’s only claims to fame. With its own rainforest, river, and many historical and cultural sites, it’s a place that could keep you occupied for a day. Most of the sites are accessible by car, though walking trails are available, as are boat tours if you’d rather see the park’s lush greenery from the Wailua River.
In Hawaiian culture, the river is sacred and revered; along its banks lie temples from centuries past. The sites and park are National Historic Sites, and in the Wailua Complex of Heiau, artifacts like stone carvings and ancient writing are on exhibit.
I can’t write on this Kauai travel blog and not mention the Kilohana Plantation. If slashing your way through the rainforest, riding on an antique locomotive, sipping vintage rum, experiencing an authentic Hawaiian luau, and topping it all off with what may be the best meal you’ll ever have sounded like an overly dramatic blurb in the J. Peterman catalog, then Kilohana Plantation is probably the place for you. Now a historic landmark, the plantation was built in the 1930s among vast fields of sugarcane – most of which produced molasses and rum.
The Koloa Rum Company is still operating and offers tours and a food and rum experience like nowhere else. With restaurants, bars, and a host of events – including traditional hula dancing, Polynesian knife dancing, and torch lighting – you’ll be wowed until well after the sun goes down.
There’s also a replica of the railway that used to haul sugarcane across the island. The 2 ½ mile ride will give a view of the estate, and your guide will tell you more than a few interesting historical facts.
Paddle Down Wailua River
This is one of the more unique things to do in Kauai. We love to be active on holidays, so heading down Wailua River on a kayak sounds perfect to me. You paddle along the countryside, forests, waterfalls, and a wild landscape. It’s a great adventure activity for couples or families.
Best Things to Do in the South Shore of Kauai
Hike Around Waimea Canyon
Waimea Canyon is one of those things you have to see in Kauai. Known as the ‘Grand Canyon of the Pacific’ and located in Waimea Canyon State Park, Waimea Canyon is one of the top things to do in Kauai that’s near the top of most visitors’ to-do lists.
The canyon winds its way for 10 miles through the surrounding volcanic rock and is nearly 4,000 feet deep in some parts; soon after seeing you’ll get an idea of its magnitude.
Viewing the canyon by car is the easiest way, and thanks to the many vista points on Koke’e Road, you won’t need to exert a lot of energy if you don’t want to. If you’d rather burn a few calories and see the canyon up close, there are plenty of trailheads on the same road that’ll take you to vista areas that those car-bound visitors won’t get to see. It’s one of the best free things to do in Kauai as admission to the park is free, and there is ample parking and restrooms available along the route as well.
Poipu Beach Park
I would definitely say Poipu Beach Park is a Kauai must-see; it’s even been named America’s Best Beach! This popular spot is a gorgeous crescent-shaped beach with clear waters that spot a Hawaiian monk seal (no guarantees). The beach is well equipped and has lifeguards, picnic benches, a shower, and a sheltered wading pool. It’s one of the best things to do in Kauai with kids.
If you’re seeking more thrill, a quick paddle out provides two surf breaks (experience and novice) along with a nice reef for snorkeling. Altogether it’s a great beach for the family.
Zipline Through the Jungle With Koloa Zipline
This is the craze that has caught on around the world. We’ve seen it just about everywhere, but it’s most popular in locations with great views and lush landscapes. You can find zip lining in the many Hawaiian Islands, so if you miss it in Maui, don’t worry! It’s an amazing thing to do in Kauai for families with kids.
Try A Poke Bowl at Japanese Grandma
You’ve probably heard of poke before as poke shops are opening in all the major big cities, but did you know the delicious dish originated from Hawaii? Poke means “to slice or cut” in Hawaiian. The dish refers to chunks of raw, marinated fish — usually tuna — which is then placed over rice and finished with vegetables.
You can find the dish all over Hawaii, and if you are a fish eater, it’s definitely worth trying. You won’t find it better anywhere else! The cheapest place we found the dish was actually at the supermarket for about $6.99/lb, but the best place we had it in a restaurant was at Japanese Grandma ( a bit more expensive at $17.99).
Things to do in Kauai: West Coast
Polihale State Park
If the term, ‘off the beaten path’ is music to your ears, then Polihale State Park in Western Kauai may be just the place for you. You can thank the five miles of unpaved and relatively poor dirt road leading to the park for its lack of crowding.
Be advised, if you’re planning to go via rental car, some companies’ rental contracts specifically forbid using their cars on this road, so if you don’t abide by the terms and have a mishap on the road, you’re on your own. It’s because of this that Polihale is one of the best nontouristy things to do in Kauai.
But as they say, with great effort comes great reward; you’ll be able to enjoy the miles and miles of shoreline without much bother from other pesky tourists.
It’s best to plan ahead, so pack a lunch, bring plenty of water, and plan on staying until sunset, as rumor has it this is one of the best places in Kauai to see it. There are also many locals and visitors who bring their camping gear for a fun few days on the beach!
Things to do in All Around Kauai
Get Your Lei On
The lei is an iconic part of tourism in Hawaii as it has become a part of Hawaiian culture to present leis as a sign of affection upon arrival or departure. It’s an idea that has been tied to tourism, but the origin of the lei extends far beyond the arrival of Western influences. When the Polynesian people arrived on the islands, they brought lei making with them.
They were used as a status symbol or ranking in society and a form of honoring their religion. That’s why you commonly see them worn in traditional ceremonies and the hula. You can find leis all over the island. It’s common to receive one by many tour operators and resorts. If you want to learn more about the beautiful garlands, you can take a class on lei making.
Play a Round of Golf
They say horse racing is the sport of kings, and golf is a rich man’s game. If you’re a golf aficionado but not exactly rolling in it, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find that there are some excellent courses on Kauai that won’t indefinitely extend your retirement date. Drawing golfers to picturesque courses that most only ever see in magazines, Kauai’s courses aren’t the rich and famous exclusive domain.
There are courses where the greens fees are reasonable, though they vary depending on the season, day of the week and time you want to play. Discounts are often included in package tours at the area’s hotels and if you’re playing with a group. Rental clubs are available at most courses, but for the best experience, bring your own. There is a mix of eight public and private resort golf courses on the island – nine in total that can be found here. To find more information you can visit the tourism board’s website here.
Learn to Hula
Hula originates from the Hawaiian Islands. The form of dance is a form of storytelling that goes along with the words of the Oli. Since Hawaiians had no form of written language they used chants Oli to pass down legacies from generation to generation.
There are a variety of luau venues across Kauai where you can watch the dance. Particularly the Sheraton Kauai Resort and Spa, Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort, Smith Family Garden Luau, and the Kilohana Plantation.
If you’re interested in learning more about the graceful art form and Hawaiian heritage a lesson in hula is the perfect experience. It’s a great experience for families as anyone can participate. Many resorts offer the experience and it’s a fantastic thing to do on Kauai.
Enjoy a Luau
Despite being the most touristic thing you can do in Hawaii it’s also a blast and shares a piece of old Hawaiian culture. The Luau originates from “ahaaina,” a special feast that used to commemorate important events in Hawaiian culture. Over time the word changed to luau referring to the taro leaf commonly served at the feasts.
Now it’s a fun evening of dance, hula, and a spread of Hawaiian specialties like roast pig, poi, laulau, poke, and haupia. It’s all pretty meat-heavy as is much of Hawaiian staples so as vegetarians, Natasha and I gave the luau a skip on our last trip. But even the Hawaiians recommended tourists try it!
Where to Stay in Kauai?
We didn’t know what to expect when we pulled into Waimea Plantation Cottages but ended up absolutely loving our stay and wouldn’t want to stay at any resort or lodge over it.
The plantation cottages are literally five minutes away from Waimea Canyon and offer visitors a more laid back, down to earth, and quiet vacation. There are no mega-resorts anywhere near these cottages and hardly anyone around besides the employees and visitors staying here.
There are 60 plantation-era cottages perfect for all sizes and ages, but they fill up quickly, so make sure to book in advance. Cottages range from one to five bedrooms, and each has a full kitchen should you wish to cook your own food (which is a good idea in Hawaii – eating out is $$$).
Some of the cottages date back to the 1800s, and all are on a tropical coconut grove steps away from the ocean. Because this place is so far away from light pollution, you can really see the stars twinkle at night. Seeing the stars is one of the best things to do in Kauai at night.
WiFi is available in every cottage, and there is a DVD rental at the front lobby for anyone wishing to catch up on some movies at night. In the morning, there is nothing we enjoyed more than sitting on our back porch here with a cup of coffee and enjoying the sound of the ocean waves.
Other Places to Stay on Kauai
Kauai is really expensive to visit, and most of your budget will likely go towards your accommodation. Many of the hotels are located in Kapaa, Poipu, and Lihue. If you book well enough in advance, you can score a deal.
How to Get Around Kauai?
One of the best ways to get around Kauai is with a rental car; this is the United States, after all. Car rental companies are located at Lihue Airport. We went with Avis and were upgraded to a brand new Mustang convertible for free. The perfect car for driving around Hawaii!
Kauai has a decent public bus system that will get you to some places for just $2 a trip, but it’s more for locals and less for tourists, so it likely won’t work out if you want to all the top things to do in Kauai. However, if you are on a budget it will work well enough to get you between towns like Lihue airport
There are taxis and Ubers on the island, but they aren’t a mainstream way to get around. They are best used for getting you to and from the Lihue Airport.
You can also get around Kauai via bicycle. The east side of the island has parts of a bike path that connects towns, but I would more or less use the bike to get around whatever town you plan on staying in so as not to jump on large busy roads.
Where to eat on kauai
- Bubba Burger: Located in Kapaa, Hanalei, and Poipu is a popular burger joint on the island. They make quick and delicious burgers that almost everyone knows about.
- Ishihara Market: If you want to have poke but don’t care about sitting down or having it all fancy, you can get it at the grocery store for under $10. I promise you it is just as good as the fancy restaurants – if not better!
- Koloa Fish Market: Takeout only family-owned joint, dishing up classic Hawaiian fare.
- Baracuda: One of the finest restaurants in all of Hawaii that offers tapas, cocktails, and fine wine on the serene North Shore.
Other Hawaii Travel Tips
- Adapter: Power sockets in Hawaii are the same as North America’s and are of type A and B. The standard voltage is 120 V, and the standard frequency is 60 Hz.
- Currency: Hawaii uses the US Dollar. ATMs are located all over, and credit cards are widely accepted.
- Read: The Descendents
- Read: 16 BEST Things to do in Kona, Big Island (Hawaii)