Kauai Travel Guide
Whether it’s you first or regular visit to Kauai – the Garden Isle, get your wanderlust inspiration from the latest information and helpful links in this Kauai Travel Guide.
Read Hawaii COVID-19 Information for the latest news on travel to Hawaiian islands.
Table of contents
- About Kauai
- How to Get to Kauai
- Where to Stay in Kauai
- Top Three Kauai Attractions
- Other Kauai Activities and Places of Interest
- Transportation in Kauai
- Getting Travel Protection
- Packing for Your Hawaii Trip
- Getting Help in Case of Emergency
- Getting Medical Help in Kauai
- Other Useful Kauai Links
The meaning of the name Kauai holds no significant importance in history. However, with a landscape that’s covered mostly in rich tropical rainforests that form several forest reserves and state parks and expanses of undeveloped land, there’s no mystery as to why it’s dubbed “the Garden Isle”.
At around 5 million years old, Kauai is the oldest of the main islands in the Hawaiian archipelago. It’s also the fourth largest, occupying an area of nearly 600 square miles. Its tallest mountain is Kawaikini, with the second highest point being the shield volcano Mount Wai’ale’ale. Both of them are located near the center of the island and both are slightly over 5 thousand feet tall.
The name Wai’ale’ale means rippling water or overflowing water, so perhaps it’s no surprise that Mount Wai’ale’ale is one of the wettest locations on the planet, receiving around 450 inches of rain per year on average. Countless columns of water cascade down these mountain slopes, including the infamous “Weeping Wall”. The hike to see it is known as the Blue Hole hike. We don’t recommend attempting this trail without an experienced local guide. Kauai Hiking Adventures, established in 2005, takes people to the most rewarding places around Kauai, customizing hikes for every group.
Moving west, Waimea Canyon, located in Waimea Canyon State Park, is a valley system 3000-feet at its deepest that has been carved out by eons of erosion from high rainfall on Mount Wai’ale’ale. This remarkable area has been dubbed “the Grand Canyon of the Pacific”.
To the south of the island you’ll discover the awe-inspiring Manawaiopuna Falls – or “Jurassic Falls” – deep in the lush Hanapepe Valley. These falls are best known for their appearance in the 1993 blockbuster film Jurassic Park, and are accessible only by air.
Another natural Kauai wonder that has also been seen many times onscreen is the Na Pali Coast on the North Shore. With its rugged, emerald-green sloping cliffs, this dramatic coastline has served many epic Hollywood movies from 1976’s King Kong to 2015’s Jurassic World. The Na Pali Coast is also home to many recreations, from kayaking and boat tours to trail hiking along its coastal cliffs. Less secluded and more scenic beaches can be found on Hanalei Bay towards the east along the North Shore, where water-based activities include snorkelling and paddle boarding.
How to Get to Kauai
Lihue Airport (LIH) is located in the southeast region of Kauai and is the primary airport that serves international flights. The Port Allen Airport, located near Hanapepe on the south shore of Kauai, is served by commuter planes from other islands, unscheduled air taxis and general aviation. Many airlines offer direct flights to Kauai as well as flights with a stop at Honolulu Airport (HNL) on Oahu.
The budget-friendly Southwest Airlines recently announced plans to launch new flights between four California cities to the four largest Hawaiian Islands – Big Island, Maui, Oahu and Kauai. Southwest was about to launch the new flights to Hawaii in January 2019, but this might be delayed due to the federal government shutdown. While waiting for Southwest Airlines, check out the this list of nonstop flights to Kauai.
Where to Stay in Kauai
Kauai is usually divided in 5 areas. Sometimes, both Lihue and East Kauai areas are referred to as East Kauai. The sunny South Shore has the largest number of vacation rentals. But also many vacation properties are located on the spectacular and laid-back North Shore, as well as on the East Shore, also known as Royal Coconut Coast.
Lihue is Kauai capital and the seat of its government. It’s the largest commercial center, with Lihue airport and Nawiliwili Harbor. Popular attractions include Kalapaki and Ninini beaches, Wailua Falls, historic Kilohana Plantation with its famous theatrical Luau Kalamaku, Menehune (Alekoko) Fishpond, and Kauai Museum. Though there are no vacation rentals in Lihue, the neighboring East and South areas are just a short drive away. Lihue gets more rain than South or West shores, but less than the North Shore, about 45 inches of rain per year on average.
East Kauai is also known as Royal Coconut Coast as in the past this area was reserved to Hawaiian royalty and it is lined with coconut tree groves. This is Kauai’s most populous residential area and home to many vacation rentals. The tourist-friendly town of Kapaa (Kapa’a) was named #1 Top Destination on the Rise in 2018. Here you’ll find popular Lydgate Beach and Pond and Kealia Beach park. Other attractions include Wailua River State Park, Fern Grotto, Opaekaa Falls, sacred historical place of worship Poliahu Heiau, the Nounou Mountain (aka the Sleeping Giant). Similar to Lihue, this part of Kauai averages about 50 inches of rain annually.
The list of attractions of Kauai’s north shore is probably the longest, starting of course with the rugged and dramatic Na Pali Coast with its famous Kalalau Trail. Beautiful sandy beaches – Tunnels Beach, Ke’e Beach, Haena and Anini Beaches offer good swimming and snorkeling during calmer conditions and excellent surfing. Scenic Princeville boasts luxury resorts and private rental homes, best golf courses, shopping, dining, and much more. Kilauea Lighthouse and Wildlife Refuge is the best place to watch native wildlife in its natural habitat, as well as Humpback whales in winter. The largest bay of Hawaii – Hanalei Bay – is spectacular and Hanalei Town has that special laid-back vibe of a surfer town. If some rain and clouds possible every day is not your idea of Hawaii vacation, you might choose to stay in sunny South Shore, and drive to the North for a day visit. North Kauai averages about 85 inches of rain annually and is the wettest out of the five parts.
West Kauai is the most dry area of Kauai and home to Waimea Canyon, and Kokee State Park. Both parks are great for hiking, camping and wildlife viewing. Just one mile north of Awa’awapuhi Trailhead and Kokee State Park is Kalalau Lookout. Come here in the morning around 9-10 am for a better chance to catch a clear view from an elevation around 4000 feet. Note that it takes 2 hours to drive from the North Shore to Waimea Canyon, because there are no direct roads through Na Pali Wilderness park. One has to drive all the way around through East and South Kauai. So, plan accordingly. Another definite place to visit is Hanapepe Valley and an old plantation town of Hanapepe, that inspired Disney’s 2002 Lilo & Stitch and is considered an art capital of Kauai. Hanapepe is located right between the West and South areas of Kauai.
If sunning, beach strolling, snorkeling and wildlife viewing is your thing, come to stay on sunny Poipu Beach on the South Shore of Kauai. The average rainfall here is around 40 inches per year. Poipu Beach was rated best snorkeling in Kauai by Sunset magazine. Many vacation rental properties will offer a comfortable stay for a very reasonable price. Some oceanfront condos are located almost over the water, so you can see turtles feeding below the lanai while you have your morning breakfast. The Tree Tunnel along the main road to Poipu is famous for its eucalyptus trees, that were planted a century ago. Koloa Heritage Trail is a 10-mile walk through Koloa and Poipu with 14 stops at important geological and cultural sites, including famous Spouting Horn Blowhole. And old charming plantation town of Koloa is worth a visit!
Top Three Kauai Attractions
There’s more to do on Kauai than can be detailed in our Kauai Travel Guide, but we’ve compiled and detailed the best of the island’s must-visit places and must-do activities, along with some other notable activities and interests. From beautifully-carved canyons to majestic coastal wonders, the topmost recommendations are easy to make: Waimea Canyon State Park, the Na Pali Coast and Hanalei Bay. Between these three locations you’ll enjoy the best of Kauai’s sweeping landscape, unbeatable hiking trails and offshore recreational activities.
Waimea Canyon State Park
Waimea Canyon State Park is nicknamed “the Grand Canyon of the Pacific” largely because of its incredibly deep canyons that were formed by the Waimea River – the result of high rainfall from one of the wettest locations on the planet, Mount Wai’ale’ale. The canyon’s reddish-brown hues owe to the result of red soil erosion (Waimea actually means reddish water and is pronounced “Why-may’-ah”). Ten miles long and covering a huge part of the western region of Kauai, Waimea Canyon State Park is home to several waterfalls and a sprawling wilderness, large parts of which are visible from viewpoints found along the Waimea Canyon Drive (State Highway 550). The concluding Kalalau Lookout and Pu’u o Kila Lookout overlook the ocean-facing Kalalau Valley located in the Na Pali Coast State Park. As Waimea Canyon Drive is 18 miles long, renting a car is recommended for visiting the lookouts.
Na Pali Coast
Na Pali Coast is one of the most dramatic and breath-taking sights in the whole of Kauai. While inaccessible by road, there are a number of ways you can enjoy it, depending on your preference. There’s an 11-mile hiking trail along the coast from Ke’e Beach to Kalalau Valley (although this trail is currently closed) that’s often described as one of the most epic hikes in the world, as well as one of the most dangerous. Island Helicopter’s exhilarating “Grand Deluxe Circle Tour” offers incredible overhead views of these peaks, though it’s not the cheapest way to appreciate this natural wonder. We recommend the Na Pali Sunset Tour on a catamaran with Holo Holo Charters, which lasts approximately 3.5 hours. From the turquoise coastal waters you’ll find the jagged sloping cliffs of the Na Pali Coast that burst with gorgeous shades of green under the sun nothing short of spellbinding.
In Hawaiian, Hanalei means crescent bay, an appropriate name given to the two-mile-long bay – also the largest bay on Kauai – because of its half-moon-shape. Several water-based activities are available along Hanalei Bay during the summer, such as sailboat mooring, paddle boarding, kayaking, yachting, snorkeling and swimming, while windsurfing is more popular during the winter. The entire bay backs onto majestic towering mountains, of which Hihimanu, Namolokama and Mamalahoa are the most prominent. There are four beach parks throughout Hanalei Bay that include Black Pot Beach, where families can enjoy camping (with a permit). No matter the time of year, be sure to check beach safety rules before undertaking any water-based activities in the area.
Other Kauai Activities and Places of Interest
Kauai Coffee Company – Kalaheo
Coffee drinkers will love the home-grown Kauai Coffee, available at a plantation estate in the southwest region of Kauai. It’s the largest coffee grower in Hawaii and the United States. Tours of the estate are available throughout the week and visitors are welcome to sample various flavors of coffee. Kauai Coffee Company is located just a few miles off Highway 50 in Kalaheo – ideally located if you’re thinking of a coffee break on your way to Waimea Canyon.
Spouting Horn Blowhole – Koloa
The Spouting Horn Blowhole is considerably smaller than Kauai’s other geological wonders, but it’s no less awe-inspiring. Crashing waves have long since eroded these coastal lava rocks, resulting in several narrow openings, one of which sends water roaring and hissing upwards with every wave. This site forms part of the 10-mile Koloa Heritage Trail on Kauai’s South Shore. Humpback whales can also be spotted from the viewpoint from December through May. Respect the warning signs and stay safe, the blowhole is dangerous!
Allerton Garden – Koloa
While you’re at the Spouting Horn Blowhole on the South Shore, we also recommend a visit to Allerton Garden. 80 acres in size, this botanical garden is home to giant trees and, like many other locations on Kauai from the Na Pali Coast to Jurassic Falls, has served as a filming location for Jurassic Park and many other blockbusters. Discover towering trees and their twisting roots in this protected piece of paradise. If that’s not convincing enough, Allerton Garden was described as one of the “50 Places of a Lifetime” to visit by National Geographic Traveller.
Sleeping Giant/Nounou Mountain – Wailua
Sleeping Giant is one of Kauai’s major tourist landmarks and is located within the Nounou Forest Reserve. This ridge is named Sleeping Giant because of its resemblance to a human in a reclining position, however, a Hawaiian legend tells the story of a giant who remains to this day in a great slumber. To undertake the ascending Sleeping Giant Trail hike, head north from Lihue on Highway 56.
Wailua Falls – Wailua
The mystical Wailua Falls that form part of Wailua River are located just north of Lihue in the eastern region of Kauai. One of the trails to the falls can be considered somewhat treacherous – especially following heavy rainfall – but an overhead roadside lookout off Highway 583 offers a safe and effort-free panoramic view of the 80-ft falls (which many argue look twice that in height). We recommend an early morning visit as Wailua Falls are known to host beautiful rainbows when the sunrise and the water’s mist meet.
Kilauea Lighthouse – Kilauea Point
For sweeping panoramic oceanic views, visit the Kilauea Lighthouse on the Kilauea Point in the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge. The reserve is just off Highway 56 as you head north from Lihue, so be sure to make this one of your stops as you head towards Hanalei on the North Shore. Take note that the reserve is closed on Sundays and Mondays.
Manaiwaiopuna Falls – Hanapepe Valley
From outside Lihue airport you can take a helicopter tour with Island Helicopters, who offer an exclusive touch-down at Manaiwaiopuna Falls, a.k.a. “Jurassic Falls” (otherwise inaccessible). The 80-minute “Jurassic Falls Landing Tour” includes the Grand Deluxe Circle Tour, meaning that it’s also a fantastic way to see the rest of Kauai. Bookings with Island Helicopters must be made in advance and depending on the number of people in your group you may share your tour with other guests.
Nightlife in Kauai
Nightlife in Kauai is not as vibrant as in Waikiki on Oahu or Lhaina in Maui. But it can be that cherry on the cake that enhances your vacation experience. Check out 7 Places for Nightlife in Kauai to plan your outing for live music, performances, karaoke, dancing and a variety of foods and beverages.
Transportation in Kauai
Kauai Travel Guide recommends renting a car for anyone visiting the island, as it’s the easiest and cheapest way to get around and see the sights. All major car rental companies can be found on Kauai, with most at budget prices. However, there are other ways to get around such as a (limited) bus service and a number of guided tours. Meanwhile, for the parts of Kauai that are inaccessible by foot and vehicle, aerial tours are available.
Peer-to-peer car-sharing company Turo.com lets you rent a car from local private car owners, which can be arranged online or via mobile. Be sure to check them out as they might have great deals – and wheels – for your dates.
Speedi Shuttle offers tours to some of Kauai’s popular tourist destinations. On Kauai they operate under the division “IMI”. The Waimea Canyon Tour includes stop-offs at the Spouting Horn Blowhole, Russian Fort Elizabeth and Hanapepe Valley Lookout.
Guided Tours & Excursions
For other tours that range from guided tours to helicopter excursions, there are plenty on Kauai that will see you enjoy the best destinations the island has to offer. Visit Viator to peruse some of the tours and deals available.
Both Uber and Lyft are now available on Kauai, which can be arranged and paid for using their respective mobile apps. If you need to drive to or from the airport, just be sure to check that airport pick-ups and drop-offs are allowed.
A variety of taxi companies serve Kauai. Just Google “taxi in Kauai”” for a few phone numbers.
Kauai Taxi Reviews on Yelp
If you are staying in a hotel and don’t plan to rent a car, it’s worth checking ahead if they provide complimentary airport transportation. Otherwise, Speedi Shuttle can be booked online.
Public Transportation on Kauai
The Kauai Bus is the only such service on the island. Fares are cheap and there are stops along the main highway, however, you won’t be able to visit all the major sites. For fares, routes and schedules visit www.kauai.gov/BusSchedules.
Kauai Travel Guide doesn’t recommend relying entirely on the public transportation system to get around the island, as delays or changes in scheduling may considerably affect your daily plans.
Getting Travel Protection
You always plan your vacation to go as smoothly as possible, but circumstances can change any time. When you book a vacation rental in Kauai, you save double or triple over what you pay for a hotel room, but the cancellation policy is usually stricter. The best way to protect your lodging costs is to buy a travel insurance. It will reimburse your money in many different qualifying cases: having to cancel because of a medical condition, any unfortunate event during vacations, etc. A few travel insurance companies Kauai Travel Guide recommends:
Make sure you sign a contract with the vacation rental owner, so you can submit it to the insurance when you file a claim for reimbursement.
Packing for Your Kauai Trip
We’ve prepared an extensive and all-inclusive Hawaii Packing List that can be personalized according to your desires. With Kauai Travel Guide’s 5 printable checklists you will be quickly packed and on your way!
Getting Help in Case of Emergency
Check the following links for official and updated contact information.
Emergency – Police, Fire & Ambulance: call 911
Non-emergency police 808-241-1711
Kauai Emergency Services & Public Safety
Kauai Police Department
Kauai Urgent Medical Care
Kauai Non-Emergency Phone Numbers
Getting Medical Help in Kauai
Kauai Urgent Care
Makana North Shore Urgent Care
Hale Lea Family Medicine and Urgent Care
Kaiser Permanente Medical Group
Wilcox Medical Center
Koloa Medical Clinic
Mahelona Medical Center
Kauai Veterans Memorial Hospital
Kauai Community Health Center
Other Useful Kauai Links
Lihue Airport Visitor Information
Kauai Visitors Bureau
Kauai County Visitor Resources
State of Hawaii’s Wiki Permits website for camping permit reservations