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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. Its wild beauty sometimes translates to rough seas and slippery trails, but with a little prudence, anyone can safely revel in the natural grandeur of Kauai.

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 California, 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; 800/225-5825) flies nonstop to Kauai daily from Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Denver; Delta Airlines (www.delta.com; 800/221-1212) also flies nonstop from Los Angeles and Seattle. American Airlines (www.aa.com; 800/433-7300) has year-round nonstop services from Los Angeles and Phoenix, with nonstop flights from Dallas-Fort Worth December to March. Alaska Airlines (www.alaskaair.com) flies nonstop to Lihue several times a week from San Jose, Oakland, and San Diego in California, as well as Portland, Oregon, and Seattle. Hawaiian Airlines (www.hawaiianairlines.com; 800/367-5320) flies nonstop daily to Lihue from Los Angeles and Oakland. 

Other carriers’ service varies by season. WestJet (www.westjet.com; 888/937-8538) offers nonstop flights between Vancouver and Lihue from November through April, with most departures from December to March. Southwest Airlines (www.southwest.com; 800/367-5320) is expected to begin service from the West Coast to Honolulu, with connections to outer islands, by the end of 2018.

You can also travel to Lihue via Honolulu; Kahului, Maui; and Kona, on the Big Island. Hawaiian Airlines flies nonstop to Kauai 16 to 20 times a day from Honolulu, four times a day from Maui, and once from Kona. The Honolulu flight is about 35 minutes; the Maui route, about 45, and Kona, about 50, all using Boeing 717s that seat around 120. 

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; 866/234-7350) is unique in offering weekly Hawaii itineraries that include overnight stays on Kauai and Maui, allowing for multiple excursions (from $1,429 per person.)

Visitor Information

Before your trip begins, visit www.gohawaii.com/kauai, the website of Kauai Visitors Bureau (800/262-1400), and download or view the free "Kauai Official Travel Planner." (Note: The bureau's Lihue office in Watumull Plaza, 4334 Rice St., Suite 101, is not the most convenient area for drop-bys, but it’s open 8am–4pm 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 (nine with 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 “Visitors” link of Kauai County’s homepage (www.kauai.gov), for links to Kauai Explorer, the Visitors Bureau, bus schedules, camping information, park and golf facility listings, a festival and events calendar, farmers’ market schedules, recycling drop-off sites, and more. 

The Poipu Beach Resort Association (www.poipubeach.org; 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 the latest entertainment listings and dining specials online at Midweek Kauai (www.midweekkauai.com) before you arrive, and look for a free copy, distributed on Wednesday, once you’re on Kauai. The Garden Island daily newspaper (http://thegardenisland.com) publicizes concerts and other events online under the “Entertainment” link.

First-time visitors with smartphones may enjoy the three Shaka Guide driving tour apps for Kauai (North Shore, Waimea/Na Pali, and Wailua Waterfalls), downloadable for $4.99 each at www.shakaguide.com.

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, the East Side of Kauai 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 river (by Hawaii standards) 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 ★, an ancient feat of aquaculture, now privately owned.

WailuaWailua Falls ★ (seen in the opening credits of Fantasy Island), the twin cascades of Opaekaa Falls ★★, and a riverboat cruise to Fern Grotto ★★ are highlights of this former royal compound, which includes remains of stone-walled heiau (places of worship), birthstones, and other ancient sites. Kayakers flock to Wailua River, which also offers wakeboarding and water-skiing opportunities; the municipal Wailua Golf Course ★★ is routinely ranked as one of the top in the state; and hikers can choose from three trail heads to ascend Nounou (Sleeping Giant) mountain. Highway 56 also passes by the iconic Coco Palms resort, featured in Elvis Presley’s Blue Hawaii, closed after being damaged by Hurricane Iniki in 1992; some restoration began in 2017 but has been delayed by permitting issues. The family-friendly destination of Lydgate Park ★ connects with one leg of the popular Ke Ala Hele Makalae coastal path ★★★.

Kapaa—The modern condos, motels, and shopping strips of Wailua and Waipouli along the Kuhio Highway eventually segue into Old Kapaa Town, where funky boutiques and cafes share plantation-era buildings with mom-and-pop groceries and restaurants. There are sandy beaches here, but they’re hidden from the highway until the road rises past Kealia Beach Park ★, a boogie-boarding destination along the northern leg of the coastal bike path.

Anahola—Just before the East Side becomes the North Shore, the highway dips and passes through this predominantly Native Hawaiian community near Kalalea Mountain, more widely known as King Kong Mountain, or just Kong, for its famous profile. Farm stands, a convenience store with homemade goodies, and the roadside Duane’s Ono Char-Burger ★★ can supply provisions for a weekday picnic at Anahola Beach Park ★; weekends draw local crowds. 

North Shore:

On a sunny day, there may be no more beautiful place on earth than North Shore Kauai. It’s not half-bad even on a rainy day (more frequent in winter) when waterfalls almost magically appear on verdant mountains; once the showers stop, rainbows soar over farms, taro patches, and long, curving beaches. The speed limit, and pace of life, slow down dramatically as the Kuhio Highway traverses a series of one-lane bridges, climaxing at a suitably show-stopping beach and the trailhead for the breathtaking Napali Coast. The quaint towns of Hanalei and Kilauea—the latter home to a lighthouse and a seabird preserve—plus the island’s most luxurious hotel provide ample lodging, dining, and shopping options to match the natural wonders. But it’s far enough from the South Shore (minimum 1 1/2 hrs. away) that day-trippers may wish they had relocated for a night or two.

Kilauea—A right turn going north on Kuhio Highway brings you to this village of quaint stone buildings and the plantation-vintage Kong Lung Historic Market Center ★, a cozy den of cafes, crafts makers, and boutiques. Kilauea Road heads makai (seaward) to Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge ★★★, a sanctuary for nene (the gooselike state bird) and other endangered species, and home to the stubby, red-topped Kilauea Lighthouse, built in 1913. Shortly before the preserve is the turnoff for scenic but not-so-secret Kauapea (Secret) Beach ★★, a 15-minute hike from a dirt parking lot. Actor Ben Stiller owns a home on the cliffs here; numerous farms, the island’s only mini-golf course, and the extensive Na Aina Kai Botanical Gardens ★★ are the immediate area’s other claims to fame. Two miles north, a 5-minute detour off the highway leads to Anini Beach ★★★, where a 2-mile fringing reef—the longest on Kauai—creates a shallow, pondlike setting for swimmers, snorkelers, and (when conditions permit) windsurfers.

Princeville—This 11,000-acre resort and residential development is home to two 18-hole golf courses, steep trails to pocket beaches, and gorgeous views of crescent-shaped Hanalei Bay and iconic Makana, the mountain that portrayed Bali Hai in South Pacific. The Princeville Shopping Center holds a few bargain eateries as well as supplies for those staying in one of the many condo or timeshare units; money is generally no object for guests at the St. Regis Princeville ★★★, the island’s most luxurious hotel, with elevator service to the beach below. Just before the highway drops into Hanalei Valley, a vista point offers a photo-worthy panorama of the Hanalei River winding through wetland taro patches under towering green peaks.

Hanalei—Waiting to cross the first of nine one-lane bridges on the northern stretch of the Kuhio Highway (now Hwy. 560) is a good introduction to the hang-loose ethos of the last real town before road’s end. The fringing green mountains share their hue with the 1912 Waioli Huiia Church ★ and other vintage wooden buildings, some of which house unique shops and moderately priced restaurants. Nearby, the beaches along 2-mile-long, half-moon Hanalei Bay ★★★ attract surfers year-round; during the calmer summer conditions, children splash in the water while parents lounge on the sand (a la The Descendants). Three county beach parks offer various facilities, including several lifeguard stations; the southernmost Black Pot Beach Park ★★, renowned for its 300-foot-long pier, allows camping on weekends and holidays.

Haena—Homes modest and grand hide in the lush greenery of Haena on either side of the Kuhio Highway as it undulates past rugged coves, tranquil beaches, and immense caves. The road dead-ends at Kee Beach ★★★, gateway to the Napali Coast and a popular destination for snorkelers (when the surf permits) and campers, where parking has, alas, become very difficult. Limahuli Garden and Preserve ★★, the northern outpost of the National Tropical Botanical Garden, explains Haena’s legends, rich cultural heritage, and ecological significance to visitors able to navigate its steep terraces in the shadow of Mount Makana. Food trucks at Haena Beach Park ★★★ supplement the meager if delicious dining options, such as Opakapaka at the Hanalei Colony Resort ★★, the only North Shore resort with rooms on the sand.

Napali Coast ★★★—Often written as Na Pali (“the cliffs”), this dramatically crenellated region that bridges the North Shore and West Side begins not far from where the road ends. Hardy (and some foolhardy) hikers will cross five valleys as they follow the narrow, 11-mile Kalalau Trail to its end at beautiful Kalalau Valley, with tempting detours to waterfalls along the way. The less ambitious (or more sensible) will attempt shorter stretches, such as the 2-mile hike to Hanakapiai Beach. In summer, physically fit kayakers can spend a day exploring Napali’s pristine reefs, sea caves, and hidden coves, which also come into view on catamaran and motorized raft tours (almost all departing from the West Side); helicopter tours from Lihue, Port Allen, or Princeville offer the quickest if most expensive way to explore Napali’s stunning topography (see “Organized Tours”).

South Shore:

After a short drive west from Lihue on Kaumualii Highway, a well-marked left turn leads to a mile-long tree tunnel of eucalyptus trees, planted in 1911. The well-shaded Maluhia Road is ironically the primary entrance to the sunniest of Kauai resort areas, Poipu. The South Shore also generally has the calmest ocean conditions in winter. Among outdoor attractions are the geyser-like Spouting Horn ★★, the restored Kaneiolouma cultural complex ★★, multiple gardens at the National Tropical Botanical Garden ★★, family-friendly Poipu Beach Park ★★★, and other sandy beaches, including those in rugged Mahaulepu ★★, where Makauwahi Cave Reserve ★★ reveals the island’s fascinating prehistory. Pocket coves, surf breaks, and dive sites also make the area ideal for watersports. The only downside: The North Shore is at least 1 1/2 hours away.

Poipu and Kukuiula—Four of the best hotels on Kauai—the lavish Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort & Spa ★★★, the family-friendly Sheraton Kauai Resort and Koloa Landing Resort ★★★, and the luxury boutique Koa Kea Hotel & Resort ★★★—punctuate the many low-rise condos and vacation homes in Poipu Beach Resort. Landlubbers can enjoy tennis, 36 holes of golf, and numerous options for dining and shopping, including those at the Shops at Kukuiula, part of the nearby luxury Kukuiula development, which includes roomy rental bungalows. 

Koloa—Before the Koloa Bypass Road (Ala Kinoiki) was built, nearly every South Shore beachgoer drove through Hawaii’s oldest sugar plantation town, founded in 1835. It would be a shame not to visit at least once, to browse the shops and restaurants in quaint storefronts under towering monkeypod trees. Historical plaques on each building give glimpses into the lives of the predominantly Japanese-American families who created the first businesses there. Those staying in South Shore condos may find themselves making multiple trips, especially to stock up on produce at the “sunshine market” at noon Mondays, to buy fresh seafood from the Koloa Fish Market ★, or to purchase other groceries from two local supermarkets; several food trucks also hang out here.

Kalaheo & Lawai—These more residential communities on either side of the main highway are just a 15-minute drive from Poipu Beach Park. On the way, you’ll pass through the green fields of rural Omao along Koloa Road (Hwy. 530); stop at Warehouse 3540 for shave ice and intriguing shops. Visitors en route to or from Waimea Canyon often refuel at the locally oriented restaurants here; others find lodgings in the relatively inexpensive (but often unlicensed) bed-and-breakfasts. (Keep in mind higher elevations are mistier, and have more wild chickens, than the beachfront resorts.) Savvy golfers savor the views and discount fees at upcountry Kukuiolono Golf Course ★★. Others find serenity amid the 88 Buddhist shrines and golden temple of the Lawai International Center ★★. On the west edge of Kalaheo, look for the turnoff for Kauai Coffee ★★, where the 3,100-acre farm yields a dizzying variety of coffees, with free samples at the visitor center.

West Side:

This arid region may have the fewest lodgings, destination restaurants, or swimmable beaches, but the twin draws of Waimea Canyon State Park ★★★ (rightly hailed as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific”) and the Kalalau Overlook ★★★ in Kokee State Park make up for the long drive (80 min. to the latter from Poipu). Most Napali snorkel tours are also based here, not to mention two swinging bridges, a weekly art festival, and other good excuses to pull over. Those who can manage the bumpy, unpaved 5-mile road to Polihale State Park ★★ are rewarded with views of Niihau and Napali, as well as a 17-mile stretch of sand (including the restricted-access Barking Sands Beach on the Pacific Missile Range Facility).

Eleele & Port Allen—The main highway from Kalaheo passes by Eleele’s plantation homes and several miles of coffee trees before the intersection with Waialo Road. Turn makai (seaward) and the road dead-ends a few blocks later at Port Allen, the island’s second largest commercial harbor; nearly all boat tours launch from here. Although the area is fairly industrial—and its once-vaunted “Glass Beach” by the oil tanks no longer has enough polished sea glass left to recommend it—the affordable dining and shopping options in Port Allen and adjacent Eleele Shopping Center are worth exploring post-snorkel or pre-sunset cruise.

Hanapepe—An easy detour off Kaumualii Highway, Hanapepe looks like an Old West town, with more than 2 dozen art galleries and quaint stores, plus a couple of cafes, behind rustic wooden facades that inspired Disney’s Lilo & Stitch. Musicians, food trucks, and other vendors truly animate the quiet town during the Friday night festival and artwalk from 6 to 9pm. The other daytime attraction is the swinging footbridge ★ over Hanapepe River (rebuilt after 1992’s Hurricane Iniki, and marked by a large sign off Hanapepe Rd.). Across the highway, family-friendly Salt Pond Beach ★★ is named for the traditional Hawaiian salt pans in the red dirt, which gives the salt its distinctive color and flavor.

Waimea—Hawaii’s modern history officially begins here with the landing of British explorer Capt. James Cook on Jan. 20, 1778, 2 days after his ships sailed past Oahu. Despite Cook’s orders to the contrary, his sailors quickly mingled with native women, introducing venereal disease to a long-isolated population. Foreigners kept coming to this enclave at the mouth of the Waimea (“reddish-water“) River, including a German doctor who tried to claim Kauai for Russia in 1815, and American missionaries in 1820. Today Waimea is attuned to its more recent history of plantation and paniolo (cowboy) culture, as well as its Native Hawaiian roots, all of which can be explored at the West Kauai Visitor Center ★. Waimea Canyon and Kokee State Park hikers flock to Waimea’s shave ice stands and budget dining choices in the late afternoon, while locals seek out Waimea Theater, one of the island’s few places to catch a movie or concert.

Kekaha—Travelers heading to or from Waimea Canyon may be tempted to go via Kokee Road (Hwy. 55) in Kekaha as a change of pace from Waimea Canyon Road. Don’t bother. There’s not much to see in this former sugar town, whose mill operated for 122 years before shutting down in 2000, other than Kekaha Beach Park, a long, narrow strand with often-rough waters. You do have to pass through Kekaha on the way to Polihale State Park ★★★; if the latter’s access road is impassable, stop by Kekaha for a striking view of Niihau, 17 miles offshore.

Niihau—Just 17 miles across the Kaulakahi Channel from the West Side of Kauai lies the arid island of Niihau (pronounced “nee-ee-how”), nicknamed “The Forbidden Island.” Casual visitors are not allowed on this privately owned isle, once a cattle and sheep ranch that now supports fewer than 200 full-time residents, all living in the single town of Puuwai, and nearly all Native Hawaiians. Nonresidents can visit on hunting safaris (starting at $1,950, for feral pig and sheep) and half-day helicopter tours including lunch and beach time ($440 per person, five-person minimum), departing from the West Side (www.niihau.us; 877/441-3500). You’re more likely to see the endangered Hawaiian monk seal than you are Niihauans, which is how they like it.

Moa Better: chickens & roosters

One of the first things visitors notice about Kauai is the unusually large number of wild chickens. Mostly rural, Kauai has always had plenty of poultry, including the colorful jungle fowl known as moa, but after Hurricane Iniki blew through the island in 1992, they soon were everywhere, reproducing quickly and, in the case of roosters, crowing night and day. Although resorts work tirelessly to trap or shoo them away, it’s impossible to ensure you’ll never be awakened by a rooster; if you’re staying outside a resort, it’s pretty much guaranteed you will be. Light sleepers should bring earplugs; some hotels provide them at the front desk or on demand.

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.