17 Unmissable Things to Do in Kauai
Kauai lived up to our Hawaii dreams with its lush mountains, dramatic sea cliffs, plunging waterfalls, and golden beaches.
Our stay on the island combined relaxation and adventure with sailing and helicopter trips to see the stunning Napali coast, hikes in multi-coloured canyons and along coastal trails, sunset cocktails, and frequent sightings of whales, dolphins and turtles (and not forgetting the wild chickens that roam the island).
The island isn’t huge—you can drive from one side to the other in a few hours—but there is plenty to keep you occupied. Here are our picks for the best things to do in Kauai as well as our tips on where to stay, eat, and shop. Although the first two activities on this list are expensive (but worth it), almost everything else is free.
Note that you really need a rental car to make the most of your stay.
Us at Secret Beach
Where to Stay in Kauai
While you could do everything on this list from one base, we chose to divide our 11 days on Kauai between Poipu on the south shore and Princeville on the north shore to avoid long drives. I’ll be writing more about the differences between each coast soon, but this plan worked well for us and here is where we stayed:
Kiahuna Plantation Resort in Poipu on the South Shore
The view from our condo at Kiahuna (we were in the back row of units)
Of everywhere we stayed in Hawaii, Kiahuna Plantation is the place we most want to return to for an extended stay. We loved the beachfront location on Kiahuna Beach (much quieter than the main Poipu Beach), the beautiful gardens and lush lawns, and our comfortable, well-equipped condo with ocean views from the balcony.
The location was convenient for many of the Kauai activities on this list and there were restaurants and shops just across the road.
Hanalei Bay Resort in Princeville on the North Shore
Hanalei Bay Resort pool
Although we stayed in a one-bedroom apartment with kitchen, Hanalei Bay Resort felt more like a typical resort and it was fun to have that experience. There’s a gorgeous tropical pool with swim-up bar (where we enjoyed daily cocktails!), a large jacuzzi under a waterfall, live music every afternoon by the pool and in the evenings at the main bar, and lots of facilities including multiple tennis courts.
The location was great just a five-minute walk downhill to lovely Pua Poa Beach and a short drive to Hanalei. The mountain views are stunning, and you pay much less than at the Princeville Resort next door.
The view from our balcony at Hanalei Bay Resort
The downsides were rather dated decor (but it depends which unit you get) and a disorganised check-in process (our room was ready late). Despite this, I do recommend it for a resort experience but with the convenience of self-catering accommodation.
Things to Do in Kauai Map
Best Things to Do in Kauai: South Shore
1) Helicopter Tour Over Kauai
The Napali Coast from our helicopter
Our favourite experience on Kauai was taking a helicopter trip over the whole island. The diversity and beauty of the island is remarkable as you fly over waterfalls and beaches, red and green canyons, and weave in and out of the inlets of the Napali Coast.
It’s not a cheap experience (our 60-minute tour with Jack Harter cost $309 per person), but it’s worth saving up for. Read more about our doors off helicopter Kauai trip here.
Waterfalls from above
Technically this should be in the east coast section as most helicopter trips leave from Lihue airport in the southeast, but we visited while staying in Poipu (30 minutes away) so I’m including it here.
2) Sail the Napali Coast (and See Whales)
The massive sea cliffs of the Napali Coast are the highlight of Kauai and you can see them by helicopter, boat, and on foot. Sadly when we visited in January 2019 the Kalalau Trail, which runs along the coast, was closed after serious flooding and landslides in April 2018. It doesn’t seem like it will reopen anytime soon—check the official Kalalau Trail website for updates.
We could still see the cliffs by boat, though, so we signed up with Captain Andy’s for their Star Na Pali Snorkel BBQ Sail trip on a luxury 65-foot catamaran. In the winter all boat trips depart from the south coast (ours left from Port Allen) as the ocean is too rough on the north shore.
The trip usually includes a snorkelling stop but ours was cancelled as the conditions weren’t great (a common occurrence in winter). We didn’t mind as we soon saw a turtle, two large pods of dolphins which swam alongside our boat, and four or five groups of humpback whales. It was our first time seeing whales and it was wonderful to see these giant creatures jumping out of the ocean.
The Napali coast was as beautiful as we expected, very rugged and colourful. I didn’t envy the people on rafts battling the 7–8 foot waves as they entered the sea caves, but this is an option if you want more adventure.
Our sailing trip was more about relaxing in comfort and enjoying the views than adventure. The catamaran felt crowded at first, but once people spread out we had enough space. There’s comfortable seating with tables inside and outside as well as trampolines at the front for lounging.
The crew were excellent and the food was good with a BBQ for lunch (request a veggie burger in advance) and the most delicious, freshly baked white chocolate, coconut, and macadamia cookies for dessert. Wine and beer are included and is available from just before lunch.
The Captain Andy’s Star catamaran trip costs $185 per person, check-in is at 7.30am and it lasts 5.5 hours. There is also a cheaper Classic Na Pali Snorkel Picnic Sail for $165 on a smaller catamaran with a sandwich rather than BBQ lunch that’s otherwise the same. I recommend taking a sweater or light jacket as well as your swimwear as I was surprisingly cold on a cloudy day.
In winter, rough seas can mean they sometimes can’t sail up the Napali coast. In this case you can reschedule, get a refund, or head out on a different route. I recommend calling the office at 6.30am before you head to Port Allen if going to Napali is a dealbreaker for you (it was for us).
3) Drive the Waimea Canyon for Stunning Views
View from Waimea Canyon Lookout
The Waimea Canyon, in the southwest of the island, is known as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific”. The huge canyon is around 14 miles (23 km) long, 1 mile (1.6 km) wide, and up to 3,600 feet (1,100 metres) deep. The brown and orange ridges are a contrast to the green mountains of the rest of the island.
It’s easy to drive up the canyon and stop at various viewpoints along the way or you can take longer hikes. Clouds can often obscure the views, so it’s best to check the weather before you head up—mornings are usually clearer. We left Poipu at 7 am and headed straight up to Kokeʻe State Park beyond the canyon (see below) and then stopped at the following viewpoints on the way back down:
- Cliff Trail – A 40 minute, 2 mile return hike from the main road (the turnoff is just before the Kokeʻe State Park sign) to a viewpoint overlooking the canyon. You could also drive most of the way here if you have a 4WD or do the longer Canyon Trail to a waterfall. This was quieter than the more accessible viewpoints.
- Pu’u Hinahina Lookout – Another fantastic viewpoint just a short walk from the car park. Toilets available.
- Waimea Canyon Lookout – The busiest but best view of the canyon and waterfall. At midday we were able to shoot away from the sun so got better photos than at the other viewpoints. There are toilets and a fruit and drink stand.
Make sure you pack warm clothes, rain jackets (which we didn’t need), and a picnic and be prepared to get muddy if hiking.
On the way back down we drove the Kokee road for a different view of Niihau island.
4) Hike in Kokeʻe State Park
Kokeʻe State Park is just beyond Waimea Canyon and is known for its hikes and views of the Napali Coast.
We headed straight up Highway 550 to the furthest point, the Pu’u O Kila Lookout. At 8.30am there were only two other cars there, but when we returned at 10 am it was much busier. An early start helps avoid the crowds and the clouds that can roll in.
From the Pu’u O Kila Lookout you can see some of the Napali Coast, but the views are better if you walk the Pihea Trail which follows the rim of the valley.
View of Napali from Pihea Trail
We walked to the Pihea Vista which was 2.6 miles return and took us 90 minutes. There’s no need to go all the way, as there are excellent views of the Napali cliffs at the 0.5 and 0.75 mile markers and beyond that the trail gets scrambly and muddy. Decent shoes are essential (hiking sandals were fine) and I found a stick that had been left at the beginning useful for some steep sections. It would be very slippery after rain.
Afterwards we stopped at the Kalalau Lookout (toilets available) for a quick and easy view of Napali before continuing down to Waimea Canyon.
5) See Turtles and Seals on Poipu Beach
We were surprised by how easy it was to see turtles and seals in Hawaii. All we had to do was stroll along Poipu Beach where we saw eight huge green sea turtles as well as three monk seals sleeping in the sand. They are protected by law so make sure you don’t touch them or get too close.
6) Beach Hop Along the South Shore
Exploring the beaches is, of course, one of the top Kauai activities. Poipu is the main beach on the south shore and it’s well equipped with life guards, toilets, picnic tables, and children’s play area. There’s a calm section of water that’s ideal for snorkelling and is safe for children. You can also see turtles and seals. It does get busy, though.
Turtles on Poipu Beach
We preferred Kiahuna Beach (aka Sheraton Beach as it’s in front of the resort) which connects to Poipu Beach but is quieter. We stayed right on this beach in a condo at Kiahuna Plantation. This is a good place to learn to surf and lessons and rentals are available at the beach hut at Kiahuna Plantation.
We also enjoyed a walk on Kekaha Beach after visiting Waimea Canyon. It’s long, wide, uncrowded, and you can watch surfers riding the big waves. It has a wilder, more local feel than Poipu but has no services or shade and isn’t suitable for swimming. It’s easily accessible as you can park right next to the beach.
We considered heading further west to the even wilder and longer beach at Polihale State Park, but you need a 4WD to get down the bumpy access road.
An unusual beach that’s worth a quick visit is Glass Beach in Port Allen. This small cove is in an industrial area and was created from washed up glass that has been smoothed away to make glittery pebbles of green and white and amber. The amount of glass depends on the tides and it wasn’t super obvious when we were there.
7) Hike the Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail
The Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail is a beautiful and fairly easy coastal trail with gorgeous views of the ocean, red cliffs, green mountains, and even whales.
The hike starts at Shipwreck Beach in Poipu near the Grand Hyatt Resort. You can walk as far as you want before turning back. We went to Punahoa Point near CJM Country Stables which was about 4 miles return and took about 1.5 hours (we actually walked to and from the trail from Kiahana Plantation which added an extra 1.5 hours). You could also continue down to the quiet Gillin’s Beach.
It’s best to start early to avoid the heat, take water, and wear a hat. Hiking sandals are best as parts of the trail are through sand and others are on jagged rocks. Sometimes it’s unclear which way to go, but all the small trails lead the same way in the end.
After the walk we stopped at the Grand Hyatt for a coffee and pastry at the Seaview Terrace which is basically a Starbucks in the mornings and is not as expensive as we expected. There’s a lovely view over the grounds and out at the ocean (with free binoculars on the terrace for whale watching). The Grand Hyatt pool looks fantastic and this is one of the top places to stay on the island.
8) Visit the Spouting Horn Blowhole
Spouting Horn Park is worth a quick stop to see the blowhole of water spouting out from the rocks in the ocean. The sound is otherworldly, like an enraged Hawaiian god. This was my favourite running destination from Kiahuna (9.5km return) following the coast and there are toilets and a water fountain at the blowhole.
9) Eat Shave Ice
Waikomo Shave Ice
The best Hawaiian treat is shave ice. It’s vastly superior to a snow cone as it’s made with ice shaved so finely that it’s soft and fluffy.
Our favourite was at Waikomo Shave Ice in Poipu. We got ours with macadamia nut ice cream on the bottom (recommended!), all natural mango and pineapple syrups, and a topping of coconut cream and fresh pineapple. Delicious!
10) Shop and Eat at Warehouse 3540
Warehouse 3540 is a cool warehouse of artisan stalls selling locally made clothes, jewellery and art with some tasty food trucks outside. It’s a little off the beaten track away from the towns, but it’s only a 10 minute drive from Poipu and is well worth a stop when you’re driving along the south coast.
We enjoyed a vegan tofu poke at Kauai Poke Co and excellent coffee at Dark Roost. They also host a farmer’s market on Friday mornings.
11) Buy Local Produce at Farmers’ Markets
Locally grown produce on Kauai is excellent quality and the best way to buy it is at one of the farmers’ markets. Even if you aren’t self-catering, they are worth stopping at for foodie gifts and treats like flavoured macadamia nuts, fruit pies, honey, and jams.
These are the markets we visited:
- Hale Halawai Farmers’ Market in Hanalei – A large market on Saturday mornings with beautiful mountain views and a mix of crafts, clothes, fresh produce, and prepared food. We loved the spicy mango salsa.
- Kukui’ula Kauai Culinary Market – Outside a shopping centre in Poipu on Wednesday evenings from 3.30–6pm. It was larger than we expected with a range of produce, hot food stalls, foodie gifts, and treats. We loved the mac and cheese from the soup stall and sweet pies from The Right Slice (worth the queue!).
- Anaina Hou Community Park – We came across this market on the north shore on a Tuesday afternoon after visiting Secret Beach. It’s much smaller than the Hanalei market but has some of the same stalls including the mango salsa lady and a local goats cheese stall. We cooled off with a delicious frosty made from frozen banana and pineapple fed through a juicer to make a healthy soft serve.
You can find a complete list of farmers’ markets in Kauai here.
Best Things to Do in East Kauai
12) See Rainbows at Wailua Falls
We didn’t spend a lot of time on the east coast of Kauai, but we did stop at Wailua Falls while driving from the south to our second condo on the north shore. This beautiful double waterfall is easily accessible (just drive up and park) and often features a rainbow.
Other things we’d have liked to have done in East Kauai are kayak the Wailua River and hike the Sleeping Giant trail up Nounou Mountain.
Best Things to Do in Kauai: North Shore
13) Visit Hanalei
Hanalei is a small, laidback surfer town that was our favourite town in Kauai. You can browse cute shops, eat at excellent food trucks (see the where to eat section below), visit the Saturday morning farmers’ market, and relax on the beautiful 1.6 mile beach that’s backed by green mountains.
It’s a better beach for surfing than swimming, but we enjoyed walks and sunrise runs along the long stretch of sand and there’s plenty of space for everyone to spread out.
This would be a fantastic town to stay in, but as part of its charm is that there are no big hotels or resorts, accommodation is limited to pricey Airbnbs and vacation rentals.
14) Beach Hop Along the North Shore
The beaches on Kauai’s north shore are even more beautiful than in the south because they are backed by rugged green mountains. This does mean they are often less easily accessible and can involve a clamber down a trail to reach. The ocean is rougher in the winter on the north shore than in the south, but there are a few swimmable spots.
In early 2019 the road past Hanalei was still closed after serious flooding, so we focused on the beaches in the northeast. Here are the beaches we visited from Hanalei moving east:
A long, popular, and easily accessible surfing beach in a cute town. The surfing here is only suitable for beginners in the summer months.
Pua Poa Beach
Pua Poa Beach
A small golden sand beach with mountain views and calm water. It’s in front of the Princeville Resort and just down a path from Hanalei Bay Resort where we stayed. The reef means it’s not ideal for swimming but there is a sandy channel I swam in. It can be pretty busy—if you head to the left it’s much quieter but shady.
On the other side of Princeville Resort (follow the narrow path by the tennis courts), this lovely little beach has calm, turquoise water and mountain views.
It’s not a secret but does feel secluded and can only be reached by a short but very steep muddy trail. Some clambering is required but there’s a rope that helps. Hiking sandals are better than flip-flops and it’s best to have your hands free so pack light. Lots of people were snorkelling here so we wished we’d brought some gear. There’s plenty of shade.
Another not so secret but beautiful beach that’s well worth visiting. Secret Beach (officially known as Kauapea Beach) is much bigger than Hideaways, so there’s plenty of space to find a quiet spot. It’s a 10 minute walk downhill to get here—the trail is steep and uneven but not as difficult as the one to Hideaways. The ocean was rough in winter so we didn’t swim, but locals surf here.
This is one the best beaches for swimming on the north shore in the winter with very calm water protected by a reef (you can also snorkel). It wasn’t our favourite, though, as in the afternoon the narrow beach was mostly shady and the sunny spots were crowded. There are toilets, showers and picnic tables and you can park close by.
We didn’t visit the popular Queen’s Bath as it can be very dangerous in winter and many people have died here. Even if the tidal pool looks calm, rogue waves can come along suddenly and sweep you out to the ocean, so I don’t recommend visiting.
Once the road past Hanalei has reopened some of the best beaches to visit are Ke’e Beach, Tunnels Beach, and Haena Beach.
15) See Birds and Coastal Views from Kilauea Lighthouse
The Kilauea Lighthouse is located on a rocky peninsula with fantastic views along the coast. It’s a wildlife refuge and you can see many seabirds including the red-footed booby, red-tailed tropicbird, lawson albatross, and great frigatebird.
You can borrow binoculars for free from the information centre and get a close-up view of the birds and even whales in the winter. You can’t go inside the lighthouse—it’s more about enjoying the views and wildlife, although you can read about its history.
We visited at midday and had to wait a while for a parking space, so an earlier visit would be better. The $10 entrance fee felt quite expensive for a quick stop, but it goes towards protecting the birds so it’s a good cause. It’s open from 10 am until 4 pm and is closed on Sundays and Mondays.
It close to Secret Beach so you could combine a visit.
16) Drink a Sunset Cocktail
Princeville Resort is one of the most desirable places to stay in Kauai. We didn’t stay here, but we did splurge on a cocktail at the bar to enjoy the mountain and ocean views at sunset.
Cocktails cost from $16 and come with tasty Japanese-style bar snacks. You can also order sushi (with a few vegetarian options). Note that the sun disappears behind the mountains before the actual sunset time so get there earlier (5.30pm in winter was ideal).
17) Enjoy the View at Hanalei Valley Lookout
This scenic viewpoint in Princeville is worth a stop on the way to Hanalei for a lovely view of taro fields and the surrounding mountains. The light is better in the morning, but the growing vegetation makes good photos a little difficult.
Where to Eat in Kauai
Eating out in Kauai is not cheap, so we self-catered or ate at inexpensive food trucks and casual cafes, except for one splurge meal. While we didn’t come to Hawaii for the food, we did have some delicious meals and found it easy for vegetarians (despite traditional Hawaiian food not being veggie-friendly).
Little Fish Coffee
This cute wooden cafe is across the road from Kiahuna Plantation in Poipu and is a good place for breakfast on their terrace (although it gets busy). We liked the cinnamon rolls and acai bowls topped with fruit and granola.
We enjoyed the seasoned tofu burritos ($16) and tacos ($10) at this simple place in the Poipu Shipping Village. There’s no free tap water so bring your own.
These humongous burritos are the cheapest meal around—a veggie burrito is under $10 and is enough for two. You can choose your fillings—we had rice, beans, guacamole, salsa, cheese and cabbage—and they can be made vegan. It’s just a hole in the wall with a few benches outside so we took ours back to our condo. It’s next to the Kukuiula Market and Waikomo Shave Ice in Poipu.
Waikomo Shave Ice
Next to Da Crack, this little stand makes our favourite shave ice in Hawaii.
Kauai Poke Co
The Kauai Poke Co food truck is outside Warehouse 3540 (see above) and serves a delicious vegan tofu poke ($15 with extra avocado). Kickshaws and The Fresh Shave food trucks here are also supposed to be good and there’s an excellent coffee stand inside the building. The trucks are a 10-minute drive west of Poipu and are only open at lunch.
Kapaa is the main town on the east coast and has plenty of restaurants and food trucks. We stopped for lunch on our way north.
Eat Healthy Cafe
This vegan cafe has cute outdoor seating with a floor made from broken glass and chickens roaming around. We both opted for the tofu scramble which you can customise—I had it with tempeh bacon, avocado, and chipotle aioli on a bed of greens and Simon had his in a burrito. It was tasty, although not huge for $15. The cookies were disappointing.
Although we stayed in Princeville, we did all our eating out in Hanalei which has better options.
Hanalei Food Trucks
The food trucks in Hanalei are the most affordable and delicious places to eat, although most are only open for lunch.
There are two main clusters. The main food truck park has lots of great options including Fresh Bite which has healthy salads and wraps and Saenz Ohana for breakfasts (they’d run out by 10.30am on a Saturday though!). We opted for the Indian truck Cafe Turmeric and had an absolutely delicious coconut veggie curry which we highly recommend.
A little further down the main road, there are a few more trucks. We tried the taro veggie burger at Hanalei Taro which was good but a little simple—we prefer more interesting toppings that just lettuce, tomato and the optional cheese.
Nearby is Wishing Well Shave Ice where we had a refreshing passion fruit and coconut shave ice on macadamia ice cream topped with papaya and coconut flakes. The flavours were superb but it was a little icier than the Waikomo Shave Ice in Poipu.
See this guide to Hanalei food trucks for more ideas.
Hanalei Bread Company
A good place for breakfast and sandwiches. Simon enjoyed a coffee and cinnamon roll here while I ran on the beach.
Cucumber, avocado and chickpea salad at Bar Acuda in Hanalei
Our one splurge meal in Kauai was at this tapas bar in Hanalei that uses fresh, seasonal ingredients. We loved sharing lots of small plates and there are plenty of vegetarian options. Everything was delicious but we especially liked the cucumber and avocado salad, honeycomb with goat cheese, and the white chocolate cheesecake.
You do pay for a quality meal like this in Hawaii though—we spent $150 (including tip) for six tapas and two cocktails.
Shopping on Kauai
We aren’t really shoppers, but if you are looking for souvenirs, clothes and jewellery, I recommend Warehouse 3540, the farmers’ markets, and the shops in Hanalei.
For toiletries, inexpensive souvenirs, and beach gear like cool bags and bamboo mats, the Longs Drugs chain is the cheapest place to go. We bought a $7 cool bag to keep our food cold when we moved condos and to take to the beach.
In addition to the farmers’ markets listed above, here’s where we did our grocery shopping:
The Whaler’s General Store across the road from Kiahuna Plantation has a few basics, but Big Save in Koloa is the nearest big supermarket. You might also want to stock up at Safeway near the airport—it has much more choice (including a bulk buy section), but we found some things more expensive than Big Save and the markets.
Living Foods is a deli and small upmarket grocery store in Poipu. The salad bar looked great and we liked the pineapple salsa. You might find health food stuff here that you can’t find elsewhere but it’s pricey.
We did most of our shopping at Foodland in Princeville—our resort gave us a local’s discount card.
We liked the health food store Harvest Market in Hanalei for its bulk buy section. They also have some nice looking salads to takeaway—ideal for beach picnics.
There’s a Big Save supermarket in Hanalei as well.
How to Get Around Kauai
Public transport is very limited on Kauai so you’ll need a rental car to visit all the spots on this list. You could get by booking a few day tours but your experience will be more limited.
As usual, we used Rental Cars to find the best deal and ended up booking with Thrifty. All the rental companies are a short bus trip from the airport, but we didn’t have to wait long for the bus or in the Thrifty queue. We booked the cheapest compact car but were upgraded to a small Nissan SUV which was perfect.
You can manage with any type of car on Kauai, but when we got to Maui we did miss the higher clearance of the SUV on some of the rougher roads and beach parking areas and bumped the bottom a few times.
Getting around is easy—there’s one major road around the island, although there is no road in the northwest so you can’t drive all the way around. We used Google Maps for directions. See the map at the top of this post for all our favourite spots.
I read two guidebooks before our trip—Lonely Planet Kauai and The Ultimate Kauai Guidebook: Kauai Revealed by Andrew Doughty. They were both useful but the latter is better for finding hidden spots as it’s written by a local.
I hope you found these tips useful and enjoy exploring the beautiful island of Kauai!