Kauai is Hawaii’s fourth largest island and is accurately known as the “Garden Isle” due to its lush, green landscape covered with emerald valleys, jagged mountain spires, and rugged cliffs. This awe-inspiring environment has been aged by time and the elements – which has led to the island’s tropical rain forests, forking rivers, and beautiful cascading waterfalls. Many parts of Kauai are only accessible by sea or air, but the views revealed by boat or helicopter are beyond imagination! But here are our picks for 10 of the best sights and activities in Kauai. This island has a laid-back atmosphere compared to the bigger cities and tourist-y feel of, for example, Oahu and Maui, and the rich culture found in its small towns and friendly people make it truly timeless.
Na Pali Coast
No visit to Kauai is complete without seeing the Na Pali Coast. This not only one of the best sights and activities in Kauai but the world. This is one of those sights that is mostly seen by sea or air, but it is entirely worth the boat or helicopter ride. It is one of the most recognizable and beautiful coastlines in the world, stretching for fifteen miles along the northwest coast of Kauai. The high, rugged cliffs cut with narrow valleys end abruptly at the sea, and swift flowing streams and waterfalls cascade down the mountains straight into the ocean. Extensive stone-walled terraces can still be found on the valley bottoms where ancient Hawaiians once lived and cultivated taro. Don’t miss it.
Another way to see just part of the Na Pali Coast is to hike the Kalalau Trail. It begins on Kauai’s North Shore at the end of Highway 56 at Ke’e Beach. The first two-mile stretch from K’ee beach to Hanakapiai Valley is the most popular section of the trail; if you hike two more miles inland you can see the Hanakapiai Falls. The last nine miles of the 11-mile trail are for experienced hikers and require camping gear and proper permits. Regardless of how far you go, you will experience some of the most dramatic and beautiful mountain and beach scenery on the island.
Waimea Canyon – 10 Of the Best Sights and Activities in Kauai
Known as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” Waimea Canyon is known for its twisting and turning scenic drive, panoramic lookouts, and hikes of varying difficulty. The canyon stretches over 14 miles and is more than 3600 feet deep. Depending on the time of your visit, the canyon’s colors can seem to change throughout the day due to the sun’s different angles! You might even see a rainbow, especially during the summer months. Other ways to see the canyon include bike tours or even from above on a helicopter ride.
A few minutes west of the resort town of Princeville on Kauai’s north shore is the small, charming, and peaceful town of Hanalei. This lovely community is home to everything from contemporary art galleries to historic places. Browse the art galleries for local art and carvings made from rare, native Hawaiian woods, and stay to enjoy the ukulele concerts held at the Hanalei Community Center. Enjoy Hanalei’s misty green mountains (the inspiration for “Puff, The Magic Dragon”), at the foot of which lie fields of taro used to make poi – a Hawaiian starch staple. The historic Hanalei Pier was built in 1892 and is a favorite of the locals who go there to fish, swim, and play. The pier became famous in 1957 when 20th Century Fox featured it in the classic musical “South Pacific.”
Known as “Kauai’s Biggest Little Town,” Hanapepe looks like it hasn’t changed much over the last 100 years. The historic buildings along the main street are so authentic that the town was used as a location for films such as “Flight of the Intruder,” “The Thornbirds,” and even served as the model for the Disney film “Lilo and Stitch.” The plantation-style buildings are now home to local eateries, charming retail shops, and more art galleries than any other place in Kauai. An art fair is held every Friday evening as sculptors, painters, and craftsmen of all types open the doors of their studios and galleries to display and sell their creations. After visiting the galleries, take a walk on the Hanapepe Swinging Bridge – built in 1911 so that locals could cross the Hanapepe River. The current bridge was restored in the 1990’s after being damaged by Hurricane Iniki, and it is safe and fun to cross.
The Fern Grotto – 10 Of the Best Sights and Activities in Kauai
The 2-mile boat ride along the Wailua River to this geological wonder is both beautiful and relaxing. Enjoy songs and stories of ancient Hawaii from the boat crew along the way. The Wailua River is known as “the only navigable river” in Hawaii. The river’s fresh water pours down from Mt. Wai’ale’ale – the wettest spot in the state. The property along the sides of the river were once sacred grounds for Kauai natives, and the birthplace of the island’s royalty. Once you reach the Fern Grotto landing, you’ll take a short nature hike through the rainforest, and view various flora and fauna along the way. At the end of the hike, you’ll arrive at your destination. The ferns grow upside down from the roof of the Grotto, which was formed 4 million years ago. It was nearly destroyed by Hurricane Iniki in 1992 when the ferns were ripped out by the roots from where they grew. Thankfully much of the plant life in the Grotto has rebounded since then, and you can once again enjoy its lush beauty.
Snorkel Lawai Beach
A popular and easy-to-access spot to snorkel in Kauai is Lawai Beach – also known as Beach House Beach after the restaurant that sits to the left. Surrounding the restaurant is a raised park with a grassy area and a sidewalk near the water’s edge, so this is a nice place to hang out as well as swim. The snorkeling is good for beginners as it is relatively calm due to the protective reef about 500 feet from the beach. The visibility gets better the farther out you swim, and the coral becomes healthier as you swim out towards the reef. Water depths range from 3 to about 15 feet, and you will see a wonderful variety of colorful fish, turtles, and sometimes even monk seals.
Kauai Plantation Railway at Kilohana
This historic plantation in Lihue now spans over one hundred acres and offers tourists a glimpse of Hawaii’s sugarcane history. The sugarcane fields here once spanned 22,000 acres and date to the 1860s. Visitors ride mahogany-lined passenger train cars along the property’s 2 ½ miles of railroad tracks, where mangos, papayas, apples, bananas, taro, and yes, sugarcane grow. Conductors give passengers an audio history of the plantation and once thriving sugarcane industry during the 40-minute ride. At the end of the tour visitors can shop in several stores on the property, eat at the Plantation’s 4-star restaurant (Gaylord’s), and even do a little rum tasting at the Koloa Rum Company Store & Tasting Room!
Kilauea Lighthouse and National Wildlife Refuge – 10 Of the Best Sights and Activities in Kauai
The Kilauea Point Lighthouse is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and it played a key role in the first trans-Pacific flight from the West Coast to Hawaii. Built in 1913, it sits atop a 180-foot ocean bluff on the island’s North Shore. In addition to spectacular ocean views, The Wildlife Refuge located on the property is the best place in the state to view seabirds rarely seen from land, including the Laysan albatross, Hawaii’s state bird the Nene, the great frigate bird, and the red-footed booby. Spinner dolphins, Hawaiian monk seals, sea turtles, and humpback whales (October-April) can be seen in the waters below. Native Hawaiian coastal flowers and plants are also abundant on the property.
Situated 3 miles west of Poipu Beach on Kauai’s South Shore, a visit to Allerton Garden offers tourists a walk through a rainforest, bamboo groves, a flower garden, fruit trees, other tropical plants, and more. The garden boasts a babbling streamlined with fig trees, and vine-covered cliffs overlooking the ocean. Parts of the garden may be recognizable from their appearances in movies like “Jurassic Park.”
No matter what you choose to do in Kauai, you will enjoy the island’s incredible natural beauty, its small-town feel, and friendly people. From the beautiful sights and water sports to local eateries and shops filled with local arts and crafts, you won’t find a more beautiful or welcoming island in Hawaii.