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Time has been kind to Kauai, the oldest and northernmost of the Hawaiian Islands. Millions of years of erosion have carved fluted ridges, emerald valleys, and glistening waterfalls into the flanks of Waialeale, the extinct volcano at the center of this near-circular isle. Similar eons have created a ring of enticing sandy beaches and coral reefs. Kauai’s wild beauty sometimes translates to rough seas and slippery trails, but with a little caution, anyone can safely revel in the island’s natural grandeur.

Essentials

Arriving

By Plane--A number of North American airlines offer regularly scheduled, nonstop service to Kauai’s main airport in Lihue (airport code: LIH) from the Mainland, nearly all from the West Coast. (Note: From Los Angeles, flights generally take about 5 1/2 hours heading to Kauai, but only 4 1/2 hours on the return, due to prevailing winds.)

United Airlines (www.united.com; tel. 800/225-5825) flies nonstop to Kauai daily from Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Denver. American Airlines (www.aa.com; tel. 800/433-7300) and Delta Airlines (www.delta.com; tel. 800/221-1212) each have nonstop flights from Los Angeles. US Airways (www.usairways.com; tel. 800/428-4322), which at press time was preparing to merge with American Airlines, flies nonstop from Phoenix. American also code-shares on some routes of Alaska Airlines, which flies nonstop to Lihue from San Jose, Oakland, and San Diego in California as well as Portland and Seattle in the Pacific Northwest. Tip: Upgrading to first class is often easiest and cheapest on Alaska.

Other carriers’ service varies by season. WestJet (www.westjet.com; tel. 888/937-8538) offers its most frequent nonstop flights between Vancouver and Lihue December to March. From late June to mid-September, Hawaiian Airlines (www.hawaiianairlines.com; tel. 800/367-5320) flies nonstop several times a week from Oakland and Los Angeles to Lihue.

You can also travel to Lihue via Oahu and Maui. Hawaiian Airlines  flies to Kauai 16 to 20 times a day from Honolulu and four times a day from Kahului, Maui. The Honolulu route lasts about 35 minutes; the Maui route, about 10 minutes more, both using Boeing 717s that seat around 120. Island Air (www.islandair.com; tel. 800/652-6541) flies twin-engine turboprops, with 64 passengers, from Honolulu six times a day; flights take just over 40 minutes.

Note: The view from either side of the plane as you land in Lihue, 2 miles east of the center of town, is arresting. On the left side, passengers have a close look at Haupu Ridge, separating the unspoiled beach of Kipu Kai (seen in "The Descendants") from busy Nawiliwili Harbor; on the right, shades of green demarcate former sugarcane fields, coconut groves, and the ridgeline of Nounou (“Sleeping Giant”) to the north.

By Cruise Ship--Several cruise lines call in Kauai's main port of Nawiliwili, but Norwegian Cruise Lines (www.ncl.com; tel. 866/234-7350) is unusual in offering weekly Hawaii itineraries that include overnight stays on Kauai and Maui, allowing for multiple excursions.

Visitor Information

Before your trip begins, visit www.gohawaii.com/kauai, the website of Kauai Visitors Bureau (tel. 800/262-1400) and download or view its free "Kauai Vacation Planner." (Note: The bureau's location in Lihue’s Watumull Plaza, 4334 Rice St., Suite 101, is not the most convenient area for drop-bys; it’s open 8am–3pm weekdays.) Before and during your trip, consult the authoritative Kauai Explorer website (www.kauaiexplorer.com) for detailed descriptions of 18 of the island’s most popular beaches (with or without lifeguards), plus a daily ocean report, surf forecasts, and safety tips. Hikers will also want to read Kauai Explorer’s notes on 10 island trails, from easy to super-strenuous. Click on the Visiting link of Kauai County’s homepage (www.kauai.gov), for links to Kauai Explorer, the Visitors Bureau, bus schedules, camping information, local park and golf facility listings, a festival calendar, farmers’ market schedules, and more.

The Poipu Beach Resort Association (www.poipubeach.org; tel. 888/744-0888 or 808/742-7444) highlights accommodations, activities, shopping, and dining in the Poipu area; follow the Contact Us link to receive a free map of the Koloa and/or Mahaulepu heritage trails.

Check out Midweek Kauai (www.midweekkauai.com) online before you arrive and look for a free copy, distributed on Wednesday, once you’re on Kauai, to take advantage of the latest entertainment listings and dining specials. The Garden Island daily newspaper (http://thegardenisland.com) also publishes events listings, found under the online Visitors link.

The Island in Brief

East Side

Home to the airport, the main harbor, most of the civic and commercial buildings on the island, and the majority of its residents, Kauai’s East Side has nevertheless preserved much of its rural character, with green ridges that lead to the shore, red-dirt roads crossing old sugarcane fields, and postcard-pretty waterfalls. Heading east from Lihue into the Coconut Coast strip of Wailua and Kapaa, the main highway changes its name and number from the Kaumualii Highway (Hwy. 50) to Kuhio Highway (Hwy. 56). More noticeable are the steady trade winds that riffle fronds of hundreds of coconut palms, part of the area’s royal legacy; a long and broad (by Hawaii standards) river and easily accessed waterfalls; and the chock-a-block low-rise condos, budget hotels, and shopping centers, all adding to the East Side’s significant rush-hour traffic jams.

Lihue--Bargain hunters will appreciate the county seat’s many shopping, lodging, and dining options, but Lihue also boasts cultural assets, from the exhibits at the Kauai Museum  to hula shows, concerts, and festivals at the Kauai War Memorial Convention Hall and Kauai Community College’s Performing Arts Center. Nearby outdoor attractions include Kalapaki Beach , next to the cruise port of Nawiliwili; ATV, ziplining, hiking, and tubing excursions, the latter on old sugarcane irrigation flumes; and kayaking on Huleia River past the historic Menehune Fish Pond .

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.