Kauai, Hawaii | Dramatic Cliffs, Tropical Rainforests and Pristine Beaches
Kauai, Hawaii’s fourth largest island, is known as the “garden isle”. We visited Maui for three day and then we headed off to Kauai, which is the oldest and northernmost island in the Hawaiian chain. The island’s natural beauty is almost unrivaled. From emerald valleys to dramatic cliffs, tropical rainforests and pristine beaches – it is no wonder Kauai is such a popular backdrop for major Hollywood films.
Kauai is the least populated and commercially developed of all the Hawaiian Islands although it was probably the first to be settled by Marquesan seafarers around 750 A.D. Today, roughly 56,000 people live on the island permanently. There are plenty of things to do in Kauai Hawaii and plenty of places where to stay in Kauai.
Things to See and Things to Do in Kauai Hawaii
Na Pali Coast
With so much natural beauty in every direction, it seems unfair to single out one as THE most beautiful place on Kauai. However, the dramatic Na Pali coastline on the island’s northwest side easily fits the bill. The majestic 17-mile stretch of rugged coast that is only accessible on foot or via boat has even been called one of the most beautiful places in the world.
Sheer velvet green cliffs, cascading waterfalls, and narrow, deep valleys are some of the things you will be rewarded with if you make the effort to discover the Na Pali Coast. The na pali (high cliffs) rise as much as 4,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean. From here, you cannot only see the ocean with dolphins, turtles, and monk seals frolicking in the water but also waterfalls and the depths of the Kalalau Valley.
The jagged coastline is protected as part of the Na Pali Coast State Wilderness Park, an area of 2,499 hectares that stretches from Ke’e Beach to Polihale State Park. The park was initially established to protect the Kalalau Valley.
Approaching Na Pali on a catamaran like we did is truly an experience of a lifetime. It is one of the things to do in Kauai Hawaii. You can also row there on a kayak or hike from the interior.
Kalalau Hiking Trail
Given its incredible natural beauty and areas of unspoiled wilderness, one of the extremely popular things to do in Kauai Hawaii is hiking. One of the most worthwhile hikes is the Kalalau Trail which crosses five valleys. The 22-mile round trip is not a short or easy hike, but hikers are constantly distracted by unbelievable nature scenes such as cascading waterfalls in a sea of green, lush landscapes as far as the eyes can see, and solitary beaches where time stands still.
People have been walking the Kalalau Trail since the 1800s. If you don’t want to hike the entire 11 miles to Kalalau Beach, you can opt for an easier day hike from Ha’ena State Park to Hanakapi’ai Beach.
Note: Because of the time it takes to complete the entire hike, a camping permit is needed for Kalalau Beach. There are lots of opportunities to rest and swim in crystal clear streams on the way.
This geological wonder is one of the results of the Olokele Volcano that erupted about 10 million years ago and served to create Kauai. Waimea has been dubbed “The Grand Canyon of the Pacific” and is 3,600 feet deep and 14 miles long. Whether exploring on foot, a scenic drive or from the air – the vistas and colors are breathtaking.
The Waimea Canyon is best visited on a clear day when the vibrant colors come to life. Some clouds shouldn’t put you off because they often come and go very quickly. Generally, it is also better to go early when it’s quiet.
Highway 550 (known as Waimea Canyon Drive) is the road to take to explore the canyon by car. There are a number of lookout points to pull off at and marvel at the surrounding natural beauty. The most popular ones are Waimea Canyon lookout (just past the 10-mile marker), Pu’u ka pele (past the 12-mile marker), and Puu Hinahina (near the 13-mile marker). You may have to navigate around some potholes, so be careful. The road continues into the mountains, with spectacular scenery all around, until it ends at Kokee State Park.
More than 60 beaches dot the Kauai landscape. In fact, there are more sand beaches around the 110-mile coastline than any other island in the Hawaiian archipelago even though it’s the smallest of the main islands. There are beaches to suit everyone’s taste – some are great for surfing, others for snorkeling and some have tidal pools making them perfect for families with small children.
- Shipwreck Beach – We loved this beach for more than one reason. For starters, it is located right in front of the Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort & Spa where we were staying. It offered the perfect opportunity to escape the crowds in the Poipu resort area. Originally called Keoneloa Bay (meaning “long sand”) the beach got its new name after a fishing boat wrecked here in the 1970s. The name stuck even though the wreck is no longer there. Bodyboarders and surfers love Shipwreck Beach’s powerful waves, but we were more impressed by the lithified cliffs or sand dunes. They are seen along the stunning Mahaulepu Heritage shoreline trail. The cliffs are actually 125,000-year old sand dunes. The fascinating Makauwahi sinkhole is on the same trail and an important archaeological site that reveals much about the earliest settlers. Admiring the magnificent waves on the Shipwreck Beach during the day was definitely one of my favorite things to do in Kauai Hawaii.
- Poipu Beach – Named America’s best beach in 2003, Poipu beach still lives up to expectations. The clear blue waters and the unique shape with a sandy isthmus sticking out of the water, coupled with the convenient facilities of Poipu beach park (restrooms, showers, picnic area), are the stuff all beaches should be made of. As if this isn’t enough to make a photographer’s day, Poipu beach is also popular among Hawaiian monk seals and green sea turtles (called Honu). Both are endangered species, so don’t disturb them by getting too close.
- Hanalei Beach – Imagine cliffs rising 4,000 feet above the sea in a sunken valley. Then imagine a half-moon-shaped bay lined with golden sand protruding more than half a mile into the valley. Hanalei beach is directly in front of the north-western shore town of Hanalei. If you love snorkeling, the coral reefs in the bay provide plenty of fish and sea life to feast your eyes on. For perfect pictures, be there early to catch the reflection of the surrounding mountains in the calm morning water.
It was just a matter of time before Hollywood discovered Kauai’s “dramatic” beauty as the perfect backdrop for major feature films. To date, more than 60 movies and TV shows have been shot on the island.
Well-known movies and TV series with scenes shot on location in Kauai include “Pirates of the Caribbean”, “Six Days and Seven Nights”, “The Amazing Race” and “Gilligan’s Island”. Steven Spielberg favored the island for three of his epic movies: Jurassic Park, Hook, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. If you have time, you can even go on a guided tour of the island’s most famous movie locations. Or you could drive there yourself with this helpful list.
If you have time, also see…
- Fern Grotto – Be serenaded by Hawaiian musicians at this natural amphitheater – a lava rock grotto covered with lush green ferns. The Fern Grotto is reached via a boat cruise up the Wailua River.
- Kilauea Lighthouse – This historic lighthouse was once instrumental to guide ships from the Orient into Kauai. It is located on the northernmost point of the main Hawaiian Islands. Visitors are not only attracted by the lighthouse but also the natural beauty of the area with its magnificent ocean views and extinct volcano. There is a visitor center, bird sanctuary and wildlife refuge to attract tourists.
Getting to and around Kauai
Flying to Kauai is the quickest and easiest. The main airport is Lihue Airport (LIH) in southeastern Lihue. From Maui, it is a 50-minute plane ride and from Honolulu International Airport (HNL) on Oahu an even shorter 25-minute flight.
Depending on how much time you have on Kauai and what you want to see, it can be handy to rent a car to explore independently. To see otherwise inaccessible areas, helicopter and boat tours are popular and handy among the things to do in Kauai Hawaii.
When to visit Kauai
While the high tourist season is from December to March, spring and fall are not only quieter and cheaper but also the driest and most pleasant seasons. Therefore, April to June or September to November are good months to take a trip to Kauai. The weather is consistently hot and humid, with temperatures ranging between 70°F and 85°F.
Find out more about things to do and travel recommendations for the other Hawaiian islands in my posts Driving the Road to Hana – How to Make the Most of a Day Trip and Best Places to Visit in Oahu Hawaii.
Have you been to Kauai? Any tips and recommendations for things to do in Kauai Hawaii?
Any interesting places where to stay in Kauai? Comment below!