Kauai guide to an ultimate tropical getaway

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Kauai is a bucket list destination for many. This small island on the northeast side of Hawaii archipelago is a perfect destination of outdoor enthusiasts, and the outstanding scenery of this tropical paradise does not disappoint. Known as a Garden Isle, Kauai offers breathtaking scenery and lots of ways to experience it. Whether you’re looking to relax on the beach with the sound of waves, hike Nā Pali Coast, search for wildlife or taste delicious seafood, you’ll find it there. There are plenty of things to do in Kauai to make your trip an unforgettable experience. In this Kauai guide I will tell you all you need to know to plan your perfect tropical getaway.

Kauai map of attractions

Below you will find a map that lists all the destinations and places of interest covered in this article. You will find scenic viewpoints, hiking trails, and beaches. Click on the larger version of the map to see details.

Things to do in Kauai: North Shore

Swim in the Queen’s Bath

Queen’s Bath is a natural pool carved out of ancient lava rocks. Waves do spill over the rocks, making this place unsafe to visit during winter and at times with high waves in general. People have been swept off the rocks in the past so make sure you proceed with caution if you decide to visit. Queen’s Bath is located in the Princeville neighborhood at the end of a steep, muddy descent. Parking is also limited. It is best to arrive either early in the morning or in the later afternoon.

Hiking to Queen's Bath in Kauai

Hike the infamous Kalalau trail

If you’re into hiking, do not miss out on taking Kalalau Trail on Nā Pali Coast. Kalalau Trail is 22 miles long and is for experienced hikers only. However, for less advance hikers, there is an option to hike the first 2 miles of the trail to Hanakāpīʻai Beach or an additional 2 miles to Hanakāpīʻai Falls. Accessing Kalalau Trail requires a permit or a day access pass for the first 2 miles. Reservations can be made up to 30 days in advance, but be aware tickets go on sale at midnight Hawaii time and sell out quickly. Please refer to gohaena.com website for more information.

Nā Pali Coast in Kauai from Kalalau Trail

Take in the views at Hanalei Valley Lookout

Don’t miss out on a view from Hanalei Valley Lookout. This is one of the most scenic overlooks on the island. The overlook features taro fields against mountains with the Hanalei River making its way through the fields. The valley below is a sanctuary for native Hawaiian birds. You will find this lookout right across the street from Foodland on Highway 56.

Hanalei Valley lookout in Kauai

Watch the sunset or sunrise at Hanalei Bay

You will find plenty of beaches on north shore that are great spots for sunset watching, but Hanaley Bay might be one of the most spectacular. This beach features white sand, clear blue water, palm trees, a pier, and lush green mountains in the distance. Along with sunrise or sunset viewing you might also enjoy surfing, swimming, and strolling along the beach. You will find lifeguard on duty, restrooms, and parking in Kauai North Shore Beach Park. I encourage you to check out Hanalei town, grab coffee, a bite to eat, and stop by some local businesses offering souvenirs, local art, and jewelry.

Sunrise view of Hanalei Bay in Kauai

Beach hop along the north shore

Beaches on the north shore are wider and more picturesque than the touristy south shore. However, the weather tends to be rainier because of proximity to the mountains. Here is a list of the beaches not to miss on the north shore:

  • Ke’e Beach: this is the northernmost beach in Ha’ena State Park. Ke’e Beach marks the beginning of Kalalau Trail and requires a day pass that can be purchased up to 30 days in advance. It is a protected beach, making it good for swimming, snorkeling and sunset watching. You will find restrooms, showers and a lifeguard on duty here.
  • Haena Beach: this picturesque beach is a mix of tropical jungle, turquoise waters, and white sand. It is great for photography, sunset viewing, swimming, snorkeling, and beach combing. You will find restrooms with showers, lifeguard on duty, and campsites.
  • Tunnels Beach Makua: a picturesque beach with lush green mountains in the background. This is a great beach for snorkeling, scuba diving, beach strolling, and sunset watching. There is also a lifeguard on duty.
  • Lumahal’i Beach: this beach is known for postcard-perfect views, beach walking, and sunset viewing. However, there are strong currents and it is not recommended for swimming.
  • Hanalei Beach: located near Hanalei River and Black Pot Beach Park, this is a great family beach, perfect for swimming, surfing, beach walking, sunset watching, watching surfers, as the large waves attract experienced surfers. You can launch kayaks to Hanalei River or have a picnic at the park and enjoy the view. It offers restrooms, showers, BBQs and picnic tables – a perfect place for family fun.
  • Anini Beach: this beach has protected waters, making it a great spot for swimming, snorkeling, paddle boarding, and beach walking. The Beach Park has multiple campsites with restrooms, showers, and picnic tables.
Tunnels Beach in Kauai

Visit Kilauea Point Lighthouse

Make sure to check out the lighthouse located within the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge. It is not only a picturesque location but also a sanctuary for seabirds. A lot of native bird species either nest or frequent the area, and the lighthouse is a great place to watch them. The lighthouse itself can be visited from Thursday to Saturday. A limited number of visitors are allowed in per day and reservations are required at least a few days in advance. You can reserve a spot on recreation.gov website. Even if you won’t get a ticket to get in, the lighthouse is still worth visiting and can be viewed from a distance by the gate. Kilauea Point Lighthouse is also visible from nearby Kauapea Beach and even from further away Anini Beach.

Things to do in Kauai: East Shore

Enjoy water activities at Wailua River State Park

Wailua State Park is all about water adventures. You can go kayaking, water tubbing on Wailua River, or chasing waterfalls. Kayaking is one of the most popular activities, and you can rent a kayak from multiple businesses to go exploring on your own or choose one of the guided tours.

If you like chasing waterfalls, there are three that are worth including in your itinerary.

  • Wailua Falls: easily accessible from an overlook, Wailua Falls is surrounded by lush green vegetation and drops into a swimmable pool. Even though the path down to the waterfall is closed and fenced, it does not stop tourists from going down and swimming in the waters. The hike to Wailua Falls is located behind the fence and it involves a steep and muddy descent while holding the ropes. Use your own judgment.
  • Opaeka’a Falls: Opaeka’a Falls can only be accessed from an overlook. The hike to the waterfall is closed and strictly enforced after the deaths of two tourists.
  • Uluwehi Falls (Secret Falls): Secret Falls is the toughest to reach. You have to kayak down the Wailua River and then hike for an additional 2 miles to reach it. There are also guided tours available that will take you to the waterfalls if you’re rather go with a guide. Tours are very popular and you will likely need to book months in advance to secure a place.
Wailua Falls in Kauai

Beach hop on the east shore

East shore offers a nice selection of beaches with great opportunities for sunrise watching for early risers.

  • Anahola Beach: this secluded beach is a great family beach with good swimming and snorkeling. Popular with locals it is a picturesque beach with mountains in the distance. You will find restrooms with showers, campsites, picnic tables and a lifeguard.
  • Keālia Beach: this beach, north of Kapaa is popular for surfing, beach strolling and whale watching in winter. You will find a lifeguard on duty, restrooms, and showers here.
  • Fuji Beach, also known as Baby Beach Kapaa: located close to the Kauai Coastal Path, a bike and pedestrian path, in Kapaa town. The beach is good for swimming and enjoying tide pools. You will also find picnic tables, restrooms, and drinking fountains.
  • Waipouli Beach: this beach located south of Kapaa is most popular for sunrise watching and beach walking. You might also spot monk seals here.
  • Wailua Beach: also located south of Kapaa, due to strong currents this beach is a great spot for surfing as well as walking and turtle watching. You will also find a small, protected pool for children and a stretch of private condos facing the beach.
  • Lydgate Beach Park: located close to the Wailua River this beach offers two enclosed lagoons, making it a perfect place to get some practice at snorkeling if you’re a beginner. A beautiful swimming spot, this park is a perfect place for a family outing. There is a lifeguard on duty, picnic areas, and full facilities easily accessible at the beach.
  • Kalapaki Beach: this beach is protected, making it a great space for stand-up paddle boarding, swimming and learning to surf. In fact, surfing lessons take place there all year round. You will also find beach rentals, showers, and restrooms here.
Kalapaki beach in Kauai

Experience Lūʻau

If this is your first trip to Hawaii, make sure to attend lūʻau. Lūʻau is a traditional Hawaiian feast accompanied by live music and cultural performances. I attended luau at historic Kilohana Plantation. My evening started with a fresh flower Lei greeting followed by a buffet-style dinner with an open bar and a live performance. The performance included hula dancers, fire ball twirlers, traditional fire knife dancing and more. You could even learn the hula! Additionally, you could book a train ride on the Kauai Plantation Railway before dinner. The whole experience lasted about 4 hours. If you’re looking for a rich and authentic cultural experience while you’re in Hawaii, don’t leave this off your itinerary.     

Take a helicopter tour

With the majority of the island inaccessible by foot or car, you may want to find other ways to see the island. Helicopter tours give you a different perspective and can take you places small planes aren’t able to go. You can also choose an open-door helicopter tour for an added thrill. Helicopter tours can get pricey, especially the door-off experience. I encourage you to research helicopter tour companies and pick the one that meets your needs. Make sure you read all the reviews to avoid unpleasant surprises.

A few things to keep in mind before booking your tour:

  • Plan to take a tour early in your stay in case there is a need to reschedule due to weather.
  • For the best views of Nā Pali Coast avoid early morning as the coast will be covered in shade.
  • If you plan to take a tour for photography, book a door-off tour to avoid smudges.

PRO TIP. If you’re taking a helicopter tour for photography, book a door-off tour that does not offer a middle seat. I booked my tour with Jack Harter Helicopters and ended up in the middle seat. As seating is weight-dependent, there is no way to request a particular seat in advance. If you end up in the middle seat, you do not get a real door-off experience. Instead, you have pilot controls in front of you and your pictures will end up with smudges or someone’s finger in the frame. In addition, the middle seat is small and uncomfortable (it is more of a child seat in my opinion). If this is your most awaited experience and you don’t want to be disappointed, I strongly urge you to explore other options. For me it was a waste of time and money. 

Things to do in Kauai: South Shore

Spot turtles on Poipu Beach

Kauai provides a lot of opportunities to see wildlife. The island is notable for its lack of predators, which facilitates its thriving range of birds. You will find birds, lizards, mountain goats, dolphins, whales, seals, turtles, and many more. Poipu Beach is known for the green sea turtles, Honu, that crawl on shore to sleep and bask in the heat of the sun. Honu are protected under both federal and state laws, so please give them space and enjoy them from a safe distance. Do not feed turtles, touch them or fish nearby. The best time to look for them is between 6 pm and 6 am.

Sea turtle at Poipu Beach in Kauai

Beach hop on the south shore

South shore is a more tourist-oriented side of the island. It offers many vacation rentals a walkable distance from beaches, and has better weather compared to rainy north shore. It also has its share of beautiful beaches.

  • Lawai Beach: best beach for snorkeling, surfing, sunset watching and spotting sea turtles and monk seals.
  • Kiahuana Beach: another popular beach, good for sunset watching, beginning surfers, boogie boarding, and snorkeling. Parking is available at nearby Poipu Beach.
  • Poipu Beach: one of the most popular beaches on the south shore, Poipu Beach offers parking, restrooms, picnic tables, and a lifeguard on duty. It is a great place for swimming, snorkeling and body boarding that also offers beach rentals, making it especially popular with families with small children. You can also spot endangered sea turtles and monk seals here.
  • Brennecke’s Beach: located next to Poipu Beach, this slightly quieter beach is a great place for sunset watching, boogie boarding, and body surfing.
  • Shipwreck Beach: large waves make this beach a perfect place for surfing. Shipwrecks Beach also marks the beginning of the Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail. You will find parking here.
  • Mahaulepu Beach: located at the end of Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail this beach is more remote. It offers beautiful scenery with variety of landscapes and is best discoverable by foot.
Poipu Beach in Kauai at sunset

Hike the Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail

If you’d like to take in the rugged scenery of a southern coastline, enjoy the Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail. This 3.7-mile out-and-back trail will take you from Shipwrecks Beach to Mahaulepu Beach. If you’re lucky, you might spot a turtle or a monk seal on the way.

Mountain view from Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail in Kauai

Have a cup of locally grown coffee at Kauai Coffee Company

Coffee fans are in for a treat at this unique Kauaian attraction. Kauai Coffee Company is the largest coffee plantation in Hawaii and in the U.S. You will find 4 million coffee trees spread across 3,100 acres here. A free self-guided tour of the plantation will introduce you to different coffee beans grown on the property as well as to the process of making coffee. Enjoy some free samples while taking in the scenery. You may even purchase a bag of coffee to take with you. Watch for little green lizards that might want a sip of your drink.

Stop by the Spouting Horn

Spouting Horn is a blowhole that spouts sea water up to 50 feet in the air. You can enjoy the show from an overlook. Spouting Horn is conveniently located near the vacation rentals on the south side of the island along with parking and restrooms.

Wailua Falls in Kauai

Things to do in Kauai: West Shore

Admire stunning views from all the overlooks

There are many overlooks at and around Kōke and Waimea Canyon State Parks. Some have official names and others don’t, but you will find many pull overs by the road. See as many overlooks as you can. The views of Waimea Canyon and Nā Pali Coast are stunning from all perspectives. 

Here are a few overlooks not to miss (in order of appearance on State Highway 550):

  • Niihau Lookout: fantastic views of the ocean and the outstanding scenery of Waimea Canyon with Waimea River making its way through the valley on the way to state parks.
  • Red Dirt Waterfall: this cute, Instagram-worthy little waterfall on the way to the state parks located by a creek surrounded by richly colored Hawaiian red dirt.
  • Waimea Canyon Lookout at Waimea State Park: the first formal lookout shows the canyon in its full glory with red cliffs, green vegetation, and Waipo’o Falls.
  • Pu’u Hinahina Lookout at Waimea State Park: this small overlook offers an amazing cross sectional view of the canyon facing the ocean.
  • Kalalau Lookout at Kōke State Park: the first formal overlook in Kōke State Park showcases Nā Pali Coast with dramatic cliffs and narrow valleys standing out against an ocean backdrop.
  • Pu’u O Kila Lookout at Kōke State Park: further up the mountain, the last overlook at Kōke State Park offers a different perspective of Nā Pali Coast.

Hike at Kōke and Waimea Canyon State Parks

If you enjoy hiking, I encourage you to pick some trails at a difficulty level you’re comfortable with and enjoy the scenic views. You will find 24 established trails at Kōke and Waimea State Parks ranging from easy to difficult and from half a mile to 11.5 miles in length. Overlooks offer great views but some of them, especially at Kōke State Park, are slightly obstructed by vegetation. Even the easy trails will take you to some breathtaking views of the island. I put together a list of short hikes that should make your Kauaian list, check them out for some inspiration!

Nā Pali Coast at Kauai

Watch the sunset at Polihale State Park

If you’re looking for a place to escape the crowds and hang out with the locals, head to Polihale State Park. This remote beach park takes a little bit of time to get to. You need to take an unpaved road for about 20-30 minutes, but it is totally worth it. Do not be discouraged if you haven’t rented a four-wheel drive, you can still make it here by driving slowly. Polihale State Park offers scenic views around with high cliffs of Nā Pali Coast, 17 miles of beach, Ni’ihau Island in the distance, and colorful sunsets.

Sunset at Polihahe State Park in Kauai

Sail the Nā Pali Coast in search of wildlife

Get a different perspective of Nā Pali Coast from the water. Watch the sunset, snorkel with turtles, and search for dolphins and whales. There are a lot of tours to choose from, ranging from adventurous and bumpy raft tours to comfort boat tours.

I opted for an adventurous ride with Nā Pali Coast Riders. The tour guides were skilled and knowledgeable, the views were amazing, and I encountered lots of dolphins, took a close look at the sea caves and waterfalls, and snorkeled. Even though the tour was not great for pictures (you couldn’t stand up and people in the middle really missed out), you could purchase a photo package at the end of the tour.

Overall, it was a cool experience that cost far less than a helicopter tour and also allowed me to see far more of the island than from land. Remember that most of Nā Pali Coast is not accessible by foot.

Dolphins at Nā Pali Coast in Kauai

Beach hop on the west shore

The west side of the island has a less touristy feel and is more popular with locals. Along with feeling more relaxed and authentic, west side beaches also offer great opportunities for sunset watching, often with a view of the Forbidden Isle in the distance.

  • Polihale Beach: the furthest beach on the west side is best for beach combing and watching sunsets. It is the longest beach on the island and marks the beginning of Nā Pali Coast.
  • Kekaha Beach: popular with local fisherman, this is a great beach for sunset watching and beach walking. You will find restrooms, showers, and a lifeguard on duty.
  • Waimea Beach: a beautiful, relaxed and atmospheric beach dotted with plantation-era cottages.
  • Salt Pond Beach: this beach offers several man-made pools that are great for snorkeling and swimming, especially for children. Restrooms and showers are available, and there is a lifeguard on duty.
Polihale State Park in Kauai

Logistics guide for planning a trip to Kauai

Where to stay in Kauai?

Between resorts, hotels, vacation rentals, and campsites you will find many options to suit your needs. Attractions are spread all over the island, so if you want to experience all of it, I suggest picking more than one place to stay. I split my time between the north and south shores to save driving time.

  • North shore has more breathtaking views with mountains in the distance and less tourists, but the weather is moodier.
  • South shore has more of a touristy vibe, better weather, and a lot of walkable beach rentals.
  • East shore is a great middle ground with more affordable and less touristy options than the south.
  • West shore is home to more locals and you will find very limited accommodation options.

If you’re an outdoor enthusiast, campervan rentals are an option, but limited. You can also camp. Kauai offers both beach campsites and mountain cabins. However, you do need to obtain a camping permit in advance.

PRO TIP. If you’re getting a rental, pick one with a washing machine. You’ll find yourself covered in either salt or Hawaiian red dirt, and your clothes might need a wash before heading to the airport! This will also allow you to travel with carry-on luggage to save money and a headache if luggage does not arrive on time.

How to get around Kauai?

If you’re planning to sightsee, you will need a car. Car rentals can be pricey ($100 a day), and it is best to book ahead of time.

In terms of public transportation:

  • There are a few private shuttles that provide transportation from the airport to Poipu region.
  • Some hotels also provide a shuttle service for their guests.
  • There is a bus system between Kekaha and Hanalei, but it’s geared towards locals.
  • You can also find taxi and rideshare options like a Lyft/Uber.

What to eat in Kauai?

If you’re a seafood fan, you will love Kauai! There are so many wonderful seafood options on the island. You can eat fresh catch daily, anything from Mahi Mahi to Ahi Tuna, Hawaiian pink snapper (Opakapaka) to sea bass (Hap’pu’u), and ono (Wahoo). The most popular local alcoholic drink is Mai Tai. You also need to try Hawaiian shaved ice for dessert. You’ll find shaved ice at multiple locations on the island.

Being an island, everything needs to be transported to Kauai from elsewhere, which makes food pricier. Meal sizes also tend to be smaller than on continental U.S. I split my time in Kauai between eating out and cooking at my rental. My go-to grocery store on the north shore was Foodland and on the south shore Kukuiula Market. You will also find chains such as Big Save and Safeway at various locations as well as a Walmart, Costco, and Target on the east shore.

Tuna poke bowl

When to visit Kauai?

Kauai’s subtropical climate makes the weather fairly stable year-round. You can expect temperature averages around 72 °F in winter and 82 °F in summer. Even though there is a lot of humidity and accommodation does not come with AC, the ocean breezes make up for it. Garden Isle gets the most rain out of all the Hawaiian Islands, especially the north side because of the mountains. You can expect the most rain on the island in winter, making it the worst time to visit as swimming conditions are more dangerous and there’s a lot more mud if you’re hiking. Shoulder seasons are best and most affordable to visit Kauai. Summer comes with good weather but pricier accommodation and more tourists.

How many days to spend in Kauai?

Whether you are island hopping or just visiting Kauai, one week is a good start to experience the island. There are plenty of beaches to visit and lots of hiking to do so make your trip as short or long as you’d like. I found one week sufficient to cover the major attractions, do some hiking and to relax on the beach.


My time in Kauai was incredible! There are plenty of things to do in Kauai to keep you busy. From delicious seafood to amazing snorkeling, wildlife encounters, beaches, and fantastic views, Kauai has a little bit of everything to add up to a unique, unforgettable experience. Even though Kauai can get pricey, it’s worth every penny. I can’t wait to go back! I hope that you found my Kauai guide helpful.

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