Color & Curiosity founder + CCO Megan Zink shares her favorite activities, restaurants and Kauai things to do on the Garden Isle.
One of the most surprising facts I learned on our recent trip to the Hawaiian island of Kauai? That you actually cannot see more than 20% of it unless it’s from the air! From our birds’ eye view via helicopter and hiking next to the ocean to driving our jeep straight onto a beach and eating poke and Dole Whip until we turned into pineapples ourselves, our trip to the ‘Garden Isle’ probably won’t be our last. Check out this comprehensive guide, covering Kauai things to do, where to stay and everything else you can’t miss on your next Hawaii vacation!
PS: as I’m sure you’ve come to expect, this guide is MEATY. Here is a table of contents that will help you find the information you’re looking for faster than samples get swiped up at a Costco on a Saturday early afternoon.
- Where to Stay
- Getting Around & Renting a Car
- Planning a Helicopter Tour
- Hiking on Kauai
- Beaches & Other Things to Do
- Restaurants & Other Things to Try
- Best Photo Spots
- 4-Day Sample Itinerary
Kauai Hotels – Where to Stay
Where to stay (mostly) all depends on when you go. Deciding where to stay was quite possibly one of the most overwhelming tasks I took on when it came to planning our trip to Kauai. We were planning to go in the winter season (early-mid February) when flights and lodging are at their cheapest — but also when Hawaii is notoriously at its wettest. It was basically their rainy season.
However, don’t be nervous – while we did have to put up with some intermittent rain, we saw plenty of sunshine! One unique thing about the island is that it experiences a TON of different microclimates – which come out in full force especially during the winter season. The north side is the wettest, while the south side is the driest. I did a LOT of research and we settled on Lihue, which is a great middle-ground area that makes the rest of the sections of the island easily accessible.
Map of Kauai dotted with points of interest in 4(ish) main quadrants.
Airbnb vs Hotels
Hawaii is historically one of the top most expensive destinations to travel to. While you can get some pretty good deals going in shoulder season, hotels can still be REALLY expensive. Since we knew we wanted to stay pretty low-key on Kauai, we opted for a great 1-bedroom Airbnb condo near the Lihue airport. Our host was fabulous and gave us helpful tips about the surrounding area. The little touches, such as sunscreen, aloe vera lotion, cooking supplies and beach accessories made our stay as hassle-free as it could possibly have been.
We went to the nearby Safeway and cooked many of our meals at home in the kitchen & property grills (we mostly only ate out for dinner to save money). We ended up spending $165.70 total, and saved 9% ($16 or so) by signing up for a Safeway card beforehand. It worked out to be about $20.71 per person per day for breakfasts, lunches, beverages and snacks! One of my favorite things was being able to enjoy our morning coffee and evening wine out on the lanai, which had a great view of the ocean (Riley even saw a whale breach from the balcony!). Finally, while the complex’s pool was closed for maintenance, we had access to the resort pool next door and enjoyed a few afternoon swims. We would absolutely stay here again, we loved it so much.
View from the lanai.
Important Note About Airbnbs in Hawaii: we actually didn’t figure this out until after, but the state of Hawaii mandates that renters collect state and federal taxes from guests. Most rentals will state this pretty clearly within the terms, but since Airbnb doesn’t have a separate section for this information, it’s best to try to find out/be aware if it’s baked into the rental price or if you will be collected separately, so that you’re not surprised!
Getting Around Kauai
Sooooo on the scale of one to complicated, getting around Kauai is somewhere in between changing your name on your drivers’ license and filing your own taxes in two states. You can sort of tell this from looking at the aforementioned map, but Kauai only has one road. Literally, one road. It has two lanes in most places, sometimes more, but really, at the end of the day it’s a single road. And it doesn’t go all the way around the island because of the rugged Na Pali Coast… just mostly around.
It doesn’t run crosswise through the island either, because of the dormant volcano, hanging valleys and all that other jazz. So, to drive from one part where the road begins on the north eastern-ish side near Hanalei to the other end (on the other side of the Na Pali Coast) means you need to traverse the whole island the opposite way and it would take 2.5 hours during non-rush hour. This is why I recommend ‘quadrant-ing’ out your activities and most importantly, renting a car.
Kauai Car Rental
I saw this tip from a fellow travel blogger – we booked on Discount Hawaii Car Rental with Avis and checked back every day to see if the rate had changed. When it did, we cancelled our reservation and booked a new one at the lower price. We opted for a 4WD 2-door soft-top jeep. I LOVED IT. While many may say you don’t HAVE to have 4WD, I did feel like we needed 4WD for some of the areas of the island. You might see people doing crazy stuff in sedans… but if you need to rent a car anyway, you probably don’t want to risk messing up a less rugged vehicle.
Some of the top things we accomplished with the jeep included:
- Driving up the wet, windy road to Pu’uokila Lookout for a (hella rainy and therefore, failed) sunrise hike
- Driving literally onto Polihale beach and fulfilling Riley’s wildest Jeep off-roading dreams
- Visiting all four regions of the island with relative ease
- Not spending our first-born’s college tuition on Ubers
Pro tip: if you have a Costco card, bring it! There’s one near Lihue and they have inexpensive gas. You’ll be able to splurge on more Ono sashimi that way 😉
One note: if you go during shoulder/rainy season, it might not be worth trying to take the top off, or getting one with a soft top, for that matter, because the weather can be soooo variable. And you’ll have to plan ahead for what you have in the car – our jeep had a spacious lockable glove compartment and center console, but just keep this in mind if you have valuables, etc. Final pro tip: try taking the top off before you leave the rental place – the zipper on ours didn’t work anyway. Oh well – there’s always next time!
Kauai Things to Do
With the volcanoes, cliffs, beaches, caves, trails, and valleys, you will have NO shortage of things to do on the island. Without overwhelming you, check out a few of our favorite Kauai things to do highlights to get a well-rounded taste of the Garden Isle (even if you only have a couple days)!
Kauai Helicopter Tours
As I mentioned in the beginning, because of the rugged terrain of the island, you can’t see more than 20% of it unless it’s from the air. Sure, you can try to take a boat tour of the coast, but with the rough swells during the notoriously vicious winter time (like when we went) there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to launch. And even if you do, you can’t get close enough to see the beauty in detail.
There are many helicopter companies on Kauai, but we specifically chose to go with Island Helicopter Tours Kauai for a couple of reasons:
- (As mentioned above) it’s the best way to see Kauai and basically the only guaranteed way to see the Na Pali Coast.
- They are the only company licensed to land at Manawaiopuna Falls (aka Jurassic Park Falls) – part of this has to do with their longevity as a company, part with the impeccable safety record and also many other reasons.
- They’re family owned and run – they’re distinguished as the longest operating helicopter tour company on the island of Kauai. One of the owners, Curt, was actually the one to teach Harrison Ford to fly a helicopter AND was the one to show Steven Spielberg the falls!
- They’re highly regulated and safe – all of their pilots are highly trained and Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR) 135-certified.
It was incredible. And beautiful. And breathtaking. And emotional. Long story short, I lost my mind and cried in a tiny, intimate flying fishbowl in front of 5 complete strangers. The soundtrack our pilot (Chief Pilot Gary, to be exact) played was spot on (including the part when we descended to the falls and the Jurassic Park theme song came on; that may have also been what triggered the waterworks). And the tour of Waimea Canyon and weaving in and out of the craggy terrain of the Na Pali Coast after our landing at the falls was unlike anything I’d ever witnessed!
Biggest PRO TIPS? Bring a polarizer for your camera lens (if you use a camera with a removable lens), wear DARK clothing to reduce glare for better pictures and try to book the first flight of the day, which can sometimes be much calmer than other parts of the day!
When we were planning our trip to Hawaii, there were 3 things I knew I wanted to accomplish; the rest was just gravy. 1) go on a helicopter tour, 2) go hiking and 3) eat a lot of raw fish. We definitely accomplished all three! As you know, I love active travel (check out all my winter snow sport posts here – and my Seattle hiking posts here!). So it’s no surprise, I’m sure, that we spent quite a lot of time outside, walking along the hundreds of miles of trails on the island. Here are a couple of our favorites while hiking Kauai!
All the things I’d wished I’d known before getting up at the butt crack of dawn for these hikes:
Pro Tip #1: we went in February 2019. You may hear a lot about the Kalalau Trail – doing a ton of Google searches, all my results came up as “Kalalau Trail closed”. This is accurate. Unfortunately, heavy rains and storms back in 2018 caused a boatload of flooding, mudslides and damage to the trails and roads in the area. At this point, the trail (and road past Hanalei) is closed until further notice. Supposedly it will be reopening in late 2019, but I would double check before you make any concrete plans!
And PLEASE be careful of unmarked trails. There are a ton of these and you’ll see them all over Instagram and other social media – but USE GOOD JUDGEMENT. Nothing is worth losing your life or getting seriously injured. A lot of these trails turn into slick muddy slides when it rains. And they’re not marked or kept up for a reason – they’re not supposed to be trails. Please help preserve the natural habitats and stay safe!
Pro Tip #2: AllTrails is an amazing app (kind of like Yelp for hiking trails) that many people use to rate the trails and their conditions. You can see near real-time updates of conditions, difficulty notes and tips, and if any are closed or not.
Pro Tip #3: we were told to bring shoes we didn’t care about getting muddy – and most people told us we’d be fine with gym shoes. However, my crappy running shoes did not have a lot of traction – which was a big FAIL on our part. I can’t speak to the dry season, but if you are planning to go in the rainy/shoulder season, definitely at least make sure your shoes have good grip/traction. Many trails turned into downright rivers once it started to rain, and some were so slick we had to turn back after a couple of minutes.
Some of our favorite trails while hiking Kauai:
Mahaulepu Heritage Trail – south side, near Poipu: this was far and away my favorite hike of them all. First of all, the southern side of the island is much sunnier and drier than the others during February/rainy season. Secondly, the trail is basically all along sea cliffs – so you get spectacular views the whole time. You can wander along the vistas, and even down to the water’s edge to explore tide pools and other curiosities. I’d say it’s a pretty easy hike.
Pu’u O Kila Lookout – northwestern side, near Waimea State Park: we wanted to check out the Kalalau Lookout trail I’d seen online (for the views, don’t kill me) butttt upon further research, I learned it’s an unmarked trail. Paired with the slick conditions I did NOT feel safe going. So we drove up to the Pu’uokila Lookout instead, which also has a trail. It was basically San Francisco meets Niagara Falls the whole time… but it was still beautiful. You’d definitely get some gorgeous views on a clear day! This was a moderate hike – there was a substantial amount of climbing over things, etc. Wear good shoes!
This was supposed to be a view of the Na Pali Coast.
Awaawapuhi Trail – northwestern side, near Waimea State Park: this was another one on my list, but after encountering such slippery conditions at the Pu’uokila Lookout trail, we decided to dry off, warm up and eat food near Polihale rather than try another sodden hike. Definitely one to check out – can’t speak to the difficulty though.
Sleeping Giant – mid-eastern side, near Lihue and Kapa’a: on our last day, we decided we wanted to do a short hike before heading to the airport to go to Maui. I’d read Sleeping Giant was a little bit slippery, but we figured we’d give it a go. It’s prettyyy, prettyyyy, prettty steep. Because of the wet conditions, we couldn’t even make it past the first eighth of a mile (I also did NOT feel like sliding down the entire thing before I had to get on an airplane). Would definitely recommend poles or a stick and some grippy shoes.
Kauai Beaches & Other Things to Do
Nothing you do in Hawaii can be bad. Even if you were to just sit on a rock in Hawaii…. you’re still in Hawaii. Still, if you’re in the mood for some adventure, here is a list of some of our other favorite Kauai things to do!
Poipu Beach – south side, near Poipu: we LOVED this area. Not only was it sunnier and warmer than some of the other parts of the island (again, due to rainy season – but also because naturally that’s the drier side of the island), it was also beyond gorgeous. And the trails were beautiful and all seaside. Highly recommend!
PRO TIP: if you walk along the beach toward the Grand Hyatt, you’ll find a little cove tucked into the rocks (it’s just after the parking lot) where you are almost 100% guaranteed to see sea turtles!
Okay, CLOSE to 100% chance of sea turtles – but we saw them when we were there!
Polihale Beach – western side, near-ish Waimea State Park: holy awesome. We also LOVED Polihale Beach – this spot is beyond gorgeous. It’s essentially the point where the Na Pali Coast starts. One of the coolest things is that the road keeps going – all the way to the beach. Forget that… it goes ONTO the beach.
I DO NOT recommend trying this without 4WD, but we drove the jeep onto the beach. I even took a quick turn at it – it was a very cool experience. This is a great spot for bringing some chairs and relaxing on the beach – the surf can be REALLY rough, so please be sure to check the conditions before you plan to swim. I don’t recommend swimming here in the off-season!
Waimea Canyon Lookout – western side, near-ish Waimea State Park (sort of on the way to Polihale): we’d heard about the canyon (and seen it from the helicopter), but we happened to find this little lookout spot on the way to Polihale from the Pu’u O Kila Lookout. If you’re driving through the area I definitely recommend pulling off to take a gander. It really is like the Grand Canyon! It’s unbelievable to see how the island was shaped. Bring your camera – lots of great vistas and views from the surrounding area too.
Kauai Path – eastern side, near Kapa’a: man. I don’t have any regrets… but if we had a few more days on Kauai, we totally would’ve rented bikes and rode the Kauai Path for an entire day. There are lots of beaches, shelters for taking breaks, restaurants, snack shops, food trucks and other curiosities all along the route.
Honorable Mention: Kilauea Lighthouse – northeastern side, near Kilauea: again, no regrets… but this is one place we sure messed up. We headed up north to the Princeville area to check out the famous ahi tuna wraps at the Kilauea Fish Market and after dinner wove our way to the coast to catch the sunset. Welp… we just barely made sundown, which was beautiful!
As we were leaving the spot we stopped at, we decided to drive a little further along to see what we could see. Lo and behold, we found the most beautiful lighthouse point ever – which was quickly being enveloped by the approaching darkness of night. I didn’t feel TOO bad, though, because it actually was closed that day. As we unfortunately had concrete plans for the western side of the island the next day, we didn’t get to make it back – but this will definitely be on my list for next time!
Kauai Restaurants & Must-Try Things to Eat
Just like the logic behind my activity highlights, there are no bad places to eat in Hawaii – HELLO, you’re in Hawaii! However, if you want more specifics, I did put together a list of some of the Kauai restaurants and other things we tried and loved.
Beach House Restaurant Kauai – southwestern-ish side, sort of near Poipu (in Koloa): MAN. Another not-so-successful close call with the sunset here, but we did make it in time to see the gorgeous aftermath of the celestial event AND stuck around for an amazing dinner. Since Beach House Restaurant is located on the western side of the point of Poipu (which juts out into the ocean), it’s an ideal spot for catching the sunset.
Come early, hang out near the water, and then head inside for happy hour or dinner. I got the White Walker cocktail (a very tasty, tropical blend of gin, cream of coconut, lime, lemongrass and cardamom). As far as food went, I got the Macadamia Nut Butter Sautéed Fresh Hawaiian Catch (which, although is a typical dish you can find most anywhere, is NOT something you should skip ordering while in Hawaii) and Riley got the Wasabi-Buttered Fresh Island Fish dish. Both were amazing – very fresh, lots of well-balanced flavor and a generous portion. We’d come back the next time we’re here!
Kilauea Fish Market – northwestern-ish side, near Princeville (in Kilauea): go here! Just go. Don’t ask any questions. Since we were saving our calories (and bank accounts) for a big ‘ole sushi dinner the next night, we wanted to keep things a little more low-key, and Kilauea Fish Market was a perfect option. It’s also a great stop for lunch if you head up to the Kilauea Lighthouse or explore Hanalei (which we unfortunately had to table for this trip due to time). The sauce that came on the wrap was out of this world and brought out the deliciousness of the big juicy chunks of ahi nicely.
Ko’a Kea Hotel & Resort Red Salt Sushi Bar – south side, near Poipu (in Koloa): Yes. All of this. If you do one thing, get some sushi at the sushi bar at Red Salt. My coworker has been going to Hawaii annually since I don’t know when – but he has a ‘sushi guy’ named Justin who studied in Japan, is from Boston, and makes some DANG good sushi. Justin doesn’t work Sundays or Mondays, so we kept Tuesday night free on our calendar.
We got there a little early, watched the sunset on the beach from the public park (may or may not have brought some wine with us) AND saw an adorable, sleepy monk seal (I used a zoom lens and cropped the photo above – you’re not supposed to get within 50+ ft of them) and then wandered over to the bar. Still to this day, I am not sure what magical things happened in my mouth. It basically ruined mainland sushi for me. Let Justin do his thing for you. We had Ono sashimi and a bunch of other things – but that Ono sashimi was one of my all time favorites!
Dole Whip – all over (we went to Hilo Hattie specifically because they had Dole Whip) – eastern side, near Lihue: before we went to Hawaii, a friend who had been recently told me I HAD to get Dole Whip. Well, she didn’t steer me wrong when I traveled to Cuba, and I sure as heck wasn’t going to miss out on this recommendation. The only thing is that not a lot of places offer true Dole Whip – so after some asking (and, of course, fruitless and disappointing driving around) we finally learned that Hilo Hattie served it.
My thoughts, upon tasting it for the first time? OMG. WHY IS THIS SO GOOD?? WHY HAVE I NOT EATEN THIS BEFORE?! Dole Whip is like a mix of tart pineapple sorbet (which I happen to love) and creamy, frozen cool whip. So if you can imagine the delicious, illicit love child that would be yielded from that equation, you are well on your way to understanding why you need to make a pit stop at Hilo Hattie.
PRO TIP: they shut off the soft serve machine at 4:30 – (and I don’t know that they start serving it right away when they open) so it’s worth a quick call to make sure it’ll be available!
Shave Ice – all over (we went to Wailua Shave Ice in Kapa’a) – eastern side, near Kapa’a: okay. So I did not get shave ice before we went to Hawaii. To me, it basically looked like a colorful snow cone. Sort of. Shave ice is like snow, but then it gets creamy, kind of like ice cream. Weirdly, shave ice is snowier than a snow cone but a snow cone is icier than shave ice. Confused? All that matters is that shave ice finds its way inside your mouth as quickly as you can manage. Many people recommend going with the fresh fruit flavors (I agree) but I don’t LOVE fruit all the time – so I opted for the almond joy shave ice at Wailua Shave Ice. It was coconut shave ice, drizzled with Nutella and almonds. I did not regret it for a single second!
Pro tip: the shave ice place may ask if you want a ‘snow cap’ – I was like, ‘what the what cap’? Basically, it is a large dollop of sweetened, condensed milk that tops the shave ice and is supposedly pretty good!
So to sum things up: no matter what you do and eat in Kauai, you will have a bomb.com time, because hey, you’re in Hawaii! I will say that with 4 days on the island, I feel like we barely even scratched the surface. But my biggest tip for you would be to break the island into 4 quadrants and try to plan your food and activities around that so that you don’t have to waste time traversing all over the place. Is there a spot I missed? Feel free to let me know in the comments!
Best Photo Spots in Kauai
Mahaulepu Heritage Trail & Poipu (Plus ‘Sea Turtle Cove’) – south side, near Poipu: no matter where you point your camera, the vistas you’ll encounter on this trail will make for some incredible pictures. You can also hike down to check out caves, tide pools and more. If you check out the map up in the hiking section, you’ll also be able to see where you can almost always find sea turtles!
Polihale Beach – western side, near-ish Waimea State Park: no matter what you take a picture of, it will be awesome. Definitely worth it to hop out along the bumpy dirt road while driving onto the beach to snap some shots of the land. Also be sure to climb up onto the dunes for some different vantage points!
People/surfer watching at the public beach near the K’oa Kea Resort – like I mentioned, we may or may not have brought some wine with us to enjoy at the public beach near the K’oa Kea (it’s left if you go down to the beach at the Grand Hyatt and then walk along the shore for a bit). Gorgeous lighting (especially at sunset) and some of the best people watching we encountered anywhere!
Sample Itinerary for 4 Days in Kauai
Because the island literally only has one road, it can be very time consuming to try to hop all around the island in the same day – or even two sections! We found it was most efficient to separate the island into quadrants and group our activities. Here’s a sample 4-day itinerary with Kauai things to do for your next Hawaii trip!
Day 1: South day (Poipu, Keoki’s Paradise for lunch, Mahaulepu Heritage Trail Hike, sunset and happy hour at Beach House Restaurant in Koloa)
Day 2: West/northwest day (helicopter tour from Lihue, beach day, Kilauea Fish Market for a quick dinner, lighthouse, shave ice on the way back in Kapa’a)
Day 3: East/northeast day (Pu’u o Kila Lookout, Waimea Canyon, Polihale beach, Poipu for dinner at Red Salt at K’oa Kea)
Day 4: West/southwest day (Kauai Path, Sleeping Giant hike)