The Red Dot Blue Dot Guide to Inspiring Kauai
—Amy M. Gardner
I tried to cancel our honeymoon. We were in Chicago for 12 hours between our wedding and our very early morning flight to Kauai, and in that time, I told my new husband that I wanted to cancel our honeymoon. He vetoed that plan, and instead packed for me (which is why I still own a week’s worth of clothes from the Lihue, Kauai Walmart and Hilo Hattie’s) and we went anyway. His theory was that we were too late to get any money back and it would be a long time before he had that much vacation again at his new job. He was right, and since that honeymoon, we’ve been back to Kauai many times, both ourselves, with our parents, and once with 15 friends and family members to renew our wedding vows.
In fact, while we didn’t get there in 2018, Kauai is one of the places it seems we get asked about most often, and that we’ve traveled to most. There are a lot of reasons for that. The jet lag on the way there isn’t bad because you just want to go to sleep early and get up early, and you don’t mind because everything shuts down on Kauai by 9 or so anyway. You can often find decent availability using frequent flyer miles (or inexpensive tickets from the west coast), and because there are so many rental properties there, you can find many lodging choices in any budget. Kauai is special and different enough from the mainland US that it feels exotic and tropical, but there’s no language barrier, you don’t spend half your trip avoiding the water or doing currency conversions in your head, and the people are incredibly friendly.
I often think of Kauai as a vacation from travel. Normally I relish the challenge of travel, and enjoy the excitement of “will I or won’t I get sick if I eat this unidentifiable food? Did I just order a bottle of water or a plate of fried goat kidney? Is this bus taking us to the museum or an empty field where we will be attacked by zombies?”. But there’s something to be said for once in a while going to a place where the weather is pretty predictable (70s/80s with short rain showers), the people are friendly, one main road circles the island, and the biggest culinary challenge is debating the merits of various shave ice offerings. Recently I read something that compared Maui to South Beach, and while we haven’t been back to Maui recently enough to agree or disagree with that assessment, you’d never say that about Kauai. You’ll be comfortable whether you want to stand up paddle board, surf, or ride horses, or just want to sit on a beach towel and stare at the ocean. There’s lots of good, fresh food, but you don’t have to take out a second mortgage for a good meal (unless you want to). And bonus points if you like loud shirts. Pull up a drink and pretend it has an umbrella in it, because whether you’re actually planning or just day dreaming about a trip to the Garden Isle, our tips will help you get in the Aloha state of mind.
Note: While our tips posts share the “best of” our experiences in a destination, this is the first in an occasional series of guides intended to help readers skip the time suck of hunting the internet and jump start your planning.
Getting around: You need a rental car to get around Kauai. Many people envision themselves driving around Hawaii in a convertible, but a Jeep (or anything else with four wheel drive) is much more practical, especially if you want to go to Polihale Beach. (See below.)
Be sure to confirm that your credit card offers coverage for your rental vehicle in Kauai, particularly if you want to take it off paved roads.
Reality check: Imagine how exciting it will be to land in Kauai, ready to hit the beach, tasting the ocean air on your tongue as you walk through the partially open air airport . . . and then standing in line for an hour to get your rental car. If you absolutely must check a bag, have someone in the group wait for it at baggage claim while someone else walks straight past the carousels and across the street to the shuttle buses. If you can do this, you may be able to avoid getting stuck behind everyone else from your flight who checked a bag. And if you have any sort of status with any car rental company, consider renting with that company, even if you can save a few dollars going with a different one. Hertz status has easily saved us more than an hour in line several times in Kauai. If you don’t rent often, though, be sure to check Costco as we’ve found their car rental prices are often 20% or more off the cost of booking directly.
Favorite experiences: Kauai may not be THE Big Island, but it is a large island, and there is a lot to see and do, so we’ve organized experiences by side of the island. Note that these are loose interpretations of what side a particular area belongs on . . . .
The West Side of Kauai is home to Waimea Canyon, the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific.” Driving up Waimea Canyon and then hiking along one of the trails is a great way to experience the Kauai you don’t normally see on TV. Just be prepared for the weather to be very different than on other parts of the island, particularly as you go higher up. The Ultimate Kauai Guidebook: Kauai Revealed (a must for visiting Kauai) is a great resource for hiking information.
Kokee State Park, beyond Waimea Canyon, has more hiking and lookouts with incredible views of the Kalalau Valley all the way to the ocean. The elevation is significantly higher in this part of the island, so the temperature is much cooler. Be sure to take plenty of water and food as well as the services (beyond the good, if small Kokee Natural History Museum) are limited.
Waimea Town itself (before you get to the Canyon) is small, but does have a statue marking Captain James Cook’s landing in Hawaii in 1778 and some restaurants (including two really good ones — see the restaurant section below). Near Waimea you’ll find the homes and processing plant for the old sugar plantation. You used to be able to tour the plantation, but tours are no longer available. You can still drive through the area (you’ll see it on the ocean side of the highway) but if you’re interested in the sugar business, you can visit Grove Farm Sugar Plantation Lihue. (We’ve never been ourselves.)
Driving to Polihale Beach can be nerve wracking, because after you come to the end of Highway 50, you drive another 5 miles down a heavily pot-holed, unpaved old road built to haul sugar cane. (Blowing a tire would not be fun here, especially at night, when you’d be unlikely to have many other cars going by.) But if you can manage to get there, you will find the longest beach in the entire state of Hawaii and you may just experience one of the best sunsets of your life as you watch the sun set over the “forbidden” island of Niihau. Be sure to take food and water if you’re headed that way, as services are limited, and be prepared for sun — there is no shade close to the sand. There are no lifeguards, and there are many stories of the dangerous waves, so this is a better beach for walking, picnicking, and seeing the sunset than for swimming. We’ve also heard of several people who had their rental cars broken into there (the sand dunes mostly block the cars from view of the beach), so be sure that (all across Kauai) you don’t leave valuables out in view.
Hanapepe Art Night on Fridays from 5:00 pm-9:00 pm, is a great way to see work by talented Hawaiian artists and wander the streets of charming Hanapepe, “Kauai’s Biggest Little Town.” (If you visit in the middle of the day, you’ll find a sleepy town where the galleries and shops seem to keep widely varying hours — you’re better off coming on a Friday night when everything is open.) If none of the food trucks appeal to you, Bobbie’s Restaurant is inexpensive and serves huge portions of local food.
While you’re in Hanapepe, be sure to walk to the swinging bridge behind the Aloha Spice Company, where you can pick up both local spices and aprons that make you look like you’re wearing a lei and a Hawaiian dress. (Don’t ask how I know.) We’ve also had some memorable experiences wandering down to the Taro Ko Chip Factory (on same end of the main drag as the Aloha Spice Company). You will never mistake it for a giant international conglomerate, and our experiences there have ranged from leaving with great chips to leaving with a great story and great chips, depending on the moods of the charming older gentlemen who might be working. On the opposite end of the main street is Amy-Lauren’s Gallery, which features a range of talented artists. Keep your eye out in particular for James Hoyle, whose distinctive paintings of Kauai have only gone up in value since we met him on our first trip to Kauai. As he says, his style combines the colors of Gauguin, the sensitivity of Monet, and the movement of Van Gogh. We have talked with James many times, and his art is always a centerpiece in our home.
You’ll find several options for boat rides off Kauai, but we especially enjoyed the Holo Holo sunset cruise, which leaves from Eleele. Look for discounts as the quoted prices online can be negotiated.
Glass Beach in Eleele (near Port Allen Harbor) gets mixed reviews, but we’ve always found it worth going out of the way to see, both for the beach itself and the chance to photograph it. You wouldn’t want to try to swim here, but the attraction is that the beach sparkles with the pieces of sea glass washed up here over the years. We used to find big pieces of sea glass there, and over the years it’s gotten harder to do that, but the beach still sparkles. The beach is adjacent to an old landfill dump area and you can see engine blocks rusting in the sea water. There is also an incredible outlook for night photography and a small cemetery on top of a hill at the end of the road. (This is another bumpy ride, or you can park and clamber down to the beach.) Be sure to wear closed shoes as glass isn’t the only thing that washes up there. (Probably not a great stop for small kids.)
The South Shore is known as sunnier than other parts of the island, and has extensive and diverse lodging options, so it seems to be where most people stay. Even if you are staying on the South Shore, you’ll undoubtedly end up here, thanks to the excellent beaches.
Coming from the East Side, you’ll know you are arriving on the South Shore when you pass through the tree tunnel before the town of Koloa. There are several different versions of the story of where the trees came from, and hurricane damage means the tunnel isn’t as impressive as it once was, but the hundreds of eucalyptus trees make for a classic Kauai photo. (There’s a pull-off as you enter the tunnel.)
Every Wednesday, the Kauai Culinary Market is hosted at The Shops at Kukuiula, an outdoor mall in Poipu. The Culinary Market differs from most of the other farmers’ or “sunshine markets” as they’re called, by having entertainment and a selection of higher end food gifts. If you’re checking a bag anyway, be sure to look for Monkeypod Jam. Their lilikoi, Meyer lemon, and coconut curds are delicious. With just one stall you could do all of your future holiday shopping at once by snatching up as much of their orange chocolate sauce or banana foster jam as you can fit into your suitcase. (And if you’re benefiting from this guide, please feel free to remember your favorite blog when making your selections!) Our favorite food offering, though, is the Right Slice tent. They also have a stationery bakery and a pie vending machine, but be sure to buy from them the first time you see them — otherwise you’ll regret it. Where else can you have macadamia nut or lilikoi pie? (If you aren’t familiar with lilikoi (pronounced like the lily flower + koi pond), it’s a yellow passionfruit. They are high in vitamins A and C, fiber, and sugar. Eating them raw is an acquired taste, but in pie, juice, or as a shave ice topping? You’ll be wondering how you survived without them.)
Kauai Community Market at Kauai Community College in Puhi, just south of Lihue, is an even bigger market with lots of food, lotion, soap, and gift stalls. It’s held every Saturday from 9:30-1:00 p.m., but get there when it opens and plan time to wander. (I once spent an hour going down just one row of stalls with my dad and Keith’s dad, because the people were so friendly and there were so many samples and products to check out.)
Poipu Beach is the main beach attraction on the south side of the island, and has even been named the best beach in the US. We’ve seen too many monk seals snoozing on the beach to even count. It can be hard to find shelter or get a picnic table, but the great snorkeling and huge beach make it worth a little extra work.
Shipwreck Beach is usually less crowded and has less parking available than Poipu Beach, but it can also be a good choice for swimming and relaxing, especially because it offers more shaded areas. Drive down the road past the Hyatt to reach the small parking area, then walk onto the beach and turn left. You can also climb to the top of the cliffs for excellent views of the South Shore.
Spouting Horn is one place you can’t miss on the South Shore. Basically, a blowhole shoots water 15-20 feet up into the air. (This doesn’t require a long visit.) Like most other parks on Kauai, there’s no fee to visit.
Keith and his mom have enjoyed visiting the Allerton and McBryde National Tropical Botanical Gardens. If you are interested in learning more about Hawaii’s flora and fauna, be sure to book tours in advance.
Even on a relaxing vacation, photographers want an opportunity to shoot and should check out the offerings from Kauai Photo Workshops. (We’ve found these workshops to be the best of the options on Kauai.) They cater to all levels of photographers, and take you off the beaten path to the best locations so you can come back with great images it would be difficult to get on your own. It’s well worth the investment.
The Kauai Coffee Estate has a walking tour, tasting room, and a shop. If you are really into coffee, or if you need to find something to do while you wait for rain to blow over, it can be a fun stop.
You’ll fly into the airport in Lihue, the county seat for Kauai County and located on the East Side. Lihue is the second largest town on Kauai — Kapa’a, just north of Lihue, is larger, with about 10,000 residents to Lihue’s 7,000 or so. The East Side is where you’ll find the mall, biggest grocery stores, Costco, and Walmart. We usually spend our first morning in Kauai stocking up on supplies on the East Side, having breakfast at the Tip Top (see below), and generally being glad we’re on Kauai.
I think of the Koloa Rum Co. tasting room (in Lihue) as similar to the Kauai Coffee Estate. If you are really into rum, you might enjoy stopping there. But otherwise, unless it’s raining and you need something to do until it stops (usually not long), it’s probably not worth going out of your way. The rum tasting room is at Kilohana Estate, which also has a small railway, Gaylord’s Restaurant, and offers a luau. If you aren’t able to get tickets for the luau at Smith’s (see below), the luau at Kilohana is a good second choice. (They describe it as a “theatrical” luau, which I think is fair. It feels more professionally done, which can be good in some ways but less charming in others.)
If you are fit and don’t mind getting muddy, you may enjoy kayaking on the Wailua River and then hiking to a waterfall. Let’s just say that we did it with a group of friends and I don’t think any of us would recommend the company we used, or at least not our particular guide. (It was certainly an experience!)
For an active experience that doesn’t involve scampering on muddy rocks, rent bikes at Coconut Coasters in Kapaa and ride the beautiful paved path along the ocean. It’s a great spur-of-the-moment activity, and we’ve found the bikes to be comfortable and well-maintained.
This was definitely one of our favorite experiences in Kauai: an early morning ATV Ride at Kipu Ranch Adventures. Advance booking was required, and we did the Ultimate Ranch Adventure. You can trade drivers part way through the trip, and the guides were great about taking photos. Just be sure you are wearing clothes and shoes you really don’t mind having covered in mud. (The price for adults is listed as $148 for the ride we did, but be sure to ask about discounts — we got a hefty discount for two seniors and two adults.)
One of our more memorable experiences was chartering a boat for a private fishing trip. While our experience wasn’t great due to weather (though I do still gloat about my fishing prowess . . . ), it’s definitely something to think about if you want to try ocean fishing.
Lydgate Beach Park is a good place to learn to snorkel. You won’t find as many fish as in some other spots, but it is more protected from the waves and usually isn’t too crowded. You’ll also find convenient parking, shelters and restrooms.
We’ve taken several helicopter rides on our various visits and it’s always been a breathtaking and fun experience, but our favorite was with Mauna Loa where we rode in a helicopter without doors on our most recent trip. If you’re up for it, not having doors on means you can get great photos without glare from the windows. (Wear a jacket or sweatshirt — it gets a little chilly.) Mauna Loa was our second choice after another company cancelled just a few hours in advance due to mechanical issues, but it ended up being great, and I would book them again. (Again, look for/ask about discounts.) On any Kauai helicopter ride, you’ll see too many waterfalls to count, hopefully the Nāpali Coast, and spots you just can’t get to by vehicle (but which you’ll have seen in movies and TV shows including Pirates of the Caribbean, Jurassic World, The Descendants, Islands in the Stream, Gilligan’s Island, Fantasy Island, Raider’s of the Lost Ark, and Honeymoon in Vegas).
Out of all our travels, our day with Teddy, a lovable pit in search of a home staying at the Kauai Humane Society, was one of our most memorable. Their field trip program is wonderful to help socialize dogs awaiting adoption, get them more exposure to potential adopters, and makes for a fun (if slobbery) day. Just know that you will be limited in where you can go with the dog, so plan accordingly or do this early in your stay. And if you have a field trip with a 70 pound dog that thinks he is a lap dog, be ready for some licks!
You either love a luau or you LOVE a luau. I have probably attended 8-10 luaus on Kauai and Maui and Kauai’s Smith’s Tropical Paradise in Wailua Marina State Park is my favorite by far. Several generations of the Smith family greet guests and generally make everyone feel the true aloha spirit. (You may even find yourself riding in a golf cart driven by one of the owners, as we did on our last visit.) Arrive right when the doors open so you have time to walk or take a tram ride around the grounds, see the birds, and see the pig dug up from the ground during the imu ceremony. After the ceremony is an extensive buffet dinner with entertainment and Mai Tais — if you’ve ever wanted to learn to hula in front of hundreds of strangers, this is your chance (Keith)! Dinner is followed by a show of both impressive dancing and historical and cultural information. Sit under the roof for the show in case it rains (as it has for a few minutes almost every time we’ve been there) and wear bug spray. Email them and ask if they have any specials or where you can find a coupon — I do it every time and have never paid the full $98/adult price.
While no one goes to Kauai for the shopping, we usually end up at Kapaia Stitchery, “the largest and longest operating quilting fabric store in Kauai County.” Located on the highway in Lihue, they sell handmade Hawaiian/aloha shirts, crafts made in Hawaii, and fabric to make authentic Hawaiian quilt patterns. (They also sell Hawaiian quilts.) If you’re traveling with someone who wants to pick up some fabric or patterns, Keith’s dad and I recommend their front porch. It’s a good spot to sit and watch the world go by. Keith recommends the shirts, and his mom recommends their patterns and fabric.
Remember the opening double waterfall on Fantasy Island? You can see Wailua Falls with zero hiking required. Just drive north from Lihue on the highway, and turn left on Maalo Road/Highway 583 until it ends in a parking lot.
The Coco Palms Resort in Wailua across the highway from the ocean is a fascinating piece of Hawaii history. It was originally the home of Kauai’s last queen and became a resort in the 1950s. (There are ongoing issues regarding Native Hawaiians’ rights to the land.) As a resort, it hosted everyone from Liberace to Frank Sinatra, and was the setting for Elvis’ Blue Hawaii movie. It closed as a hotel in the 1990s after Hurricane Iniki hit it particularly hard, but movies have continued to shoot there. (Among others, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides used the resort’s famous coconut grove.) According to developers, it is “well on its way” to being rebuilt as a resort. (It’s allegedly been “well on its way” for about five years . . . .) More recent news stories indicate that it is years away from reopening, and elected officials openly question whether the redevelopment company will ever be successful. If you’re really interested in Hawaii history, Elvis, just nosey, or are interested in photographing abandoned buildings, you can take a tour for about $30 per person. We enjoyed it, but we also check all of those boxes. While there are signs on the property that say tours take place on week days, we were told they are only held on Fridays at 10 am. You can book in advance, or just turn up, but you may want to call anyway (808-346-2048) to be sure they’re being held. Just coat yourself in layers of bug spray or you will be eaten alive.
The North Shore is known as rainier than other parts of the island, and is home to some of the most recognizable views on Kauai, including the Hanalei Pier (seen in the movie South Pacific) and the famous taro fields. (It’s also home to some incredible mansions, because many celebrities have homes on this part of the island.)
In addition to stopping at all the lookouts you can along the highway, on the North Shore, you’ll want to visit the Kīlauea Lighthouse and National Wildlife Refuge. (If you have a national parks pass, take it with you, or you can buy a pass there.) The refuge is home to nesting seabirds, and the best place we’ve found to see the state bird, the nēnē, an endangered Hawaiian goose. As you enter, you’ll pass the gift shop, which is where the restrooms are. As you walk toward the lighthouse, you’ll see a building next to it. Go into the building right away if the lighthouse is open, because you need to put your name on the list to go up into the lighthouse and there can be a wait. As you wait for your time, you’ll find an interesting video playing continuously and some displays about the refuge. You can also sign out binoculars from this building to look for whales, spinner dolphins, and monk seals off the coast. If you are traveling with a longer lens, you’ll want to have it along for this stop.
You’ll also want to explore the small towns on the North Shore, particularly Hanalei. Even when rain pops up, the shops and restaurants along Hanalei can keep you amused until the clouds clear and you can head to the beach.
Ke’e Beach is at the end of the road on the North Shore, and the beginning of the famous Nāpali Coast. While you can see enormous waves during the winter, it’s generally calm during the summer, thanks to a reef that also makes it a good place for snorkeling.
The Nāpali Coast trails are closed indefinitely, but you can still see the incredible scenery from a helicopter or boat ride. (You can also do a kayaking trip around the Nāpali Coast, but we haven’t experienced that ourselves, and have been warned that it’s recommended spouses not share a boat, because it can be an arduous and stressful experience.)
Meals under $25: We tend to think about our meals in terms of inexpensive (about $25 for two) or higher end (usually more than $50 for two). In Kauai, though, the less expensive places tend to have more of a local flavor and fall into the type of places you might see on “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.” If that’s ok with you, we have lots of great suggestions. If not, skip down to the next grouping. These are again grouped by side of the island, loosely defined.
Shrimp Station and Island Taco are listed together because they are across the highway from each other in Waimea Town. Both usually have coupons in the yellow coupon booklet described below. We love the coconut shrimp at the Shrimp Station, and have never had a bad (or small) meal at Island Taco, from the kalua pork burrito in egg roll wrapper to homemade flour tortillas filled with blackened mahi mahi. You can take your meal from one and eat at the other if your group can’t decide between the two. (Shrimp Station has a second location in Kapa’a and Island Taco has a second location in Poipu, but we’ve never eaten at either of the other locations.)
For an inexpensive, fast, and casual lunch, stop at Sueoka’s Snack Shop in Koloa. Be sure to look for a coupon in the yellow coupon book, and then look for the window covered in signage near the entrance to Sueoka’s Market. The Snack Shop only accepts cash, and serves plate lunches (rice, macaroni salad, and a main dish) in styrofoam containers, along with hamburgers and other fast food. This is basically a window where you get food and go to the park across the street or a beach and eat it out of styrofoam containers. Some like it and others aren’t impressed. Personally, I think it’s an experience and a good stop on your way to the beach for a picnic.
If you’re checking out the shops in Old Koloa Town, you’ll find several restaurants in addition to the Snack Shop. The only ones I recommend are Koloa Fish Market (carry out plate lunches), Koloa Shave Ice, and Lappert’s Hawaii (ice cream) — the sit-down restaurants in town all get some decent to good reviews, but every time we’ve tried one, our meals have been overpriced and disappointing.
We always stop at the Tip Top in Lihue for breakfast or lunch. (Note that it’s closed Mondays.) It’s over 100 years old and not fancy, but the banana macadamia nut pancakes, loco moco (over easy eggs with a hamburger patty served on white or fried rice and covered in gravy), and other local dishes are delicious and reasonably priced. When you arrive, you may wonder if you’re at the right place, because the signage is not obvious. Go off your GPS and check out the photo on the website so you know what you’re looking for. If it’s busy you may have to wait a few minutes, but it’s worth it.
Since 1952, Hamura Saimin Stand in Lihue has drawn lines for saimin, a delicious local soup dish that is very similar to ramen but made with curly egg noodles. This is another restaurant with a lot of local flavor, where you may need to wait in line to snag low stools along a counter facing the hot and steamy kitchen. (Goop describes it as “completely frill-free.”) It can be intimidating to walk up to what looks looks like a shack, open the screen door, and find yourself a stool, but it’s worth it. When they have it, their lilikoi chiffon pie is delicious as well. (They also serve skewers of beef or chicken, but the saimin and pie are why we go back on every visit to Kauai.)
On your way to or from the Kilauea Lighthouse, be sure to stop at Banana Joe’s for a frosty made of either bananas or pineapple, or other local treats. Your experience can vary widely based on who is working, but if it’s the right person and you are able to have a banana frosty, you will be very glad you stopped.
Hanalei and the North Shore in general have lots of restaurants that are fine, but seem overpriced and are often crowded. Skip those and have a plate lunch at Village Snack & Bake Shop, or L&L Barbecue. Neither one is amazing, but both are fast and allow you to sit outside and enjoy some local comfort food. If you’re sick of plate lunches, there are always food trucks in and around Hanalei, and while the trucks, their menus and locations have often changed between our trips, we’ve never gone wrong just looking for a truck with a line. And if you’re sick of plate lunches and want a sit down meal that didn’t come from a take-away container, Kalypso Island Bar and Grill is a good choice.
Keoki’s Paradise is my favorite nicer meal on the South Shore. It’s open air and just kitschy enough to remind you that you’re on vacation on Kauai, but it has great Mai Tais, a huge dining room with excellent fish dishes, and is a fun choice for a nicer dinner or lunch.
The Beach House is a linen tablecloth restaurant on the beach in Koloa on the South Shore. Lovebirds book well in advance for a table with a view of the sunset, and several people have told us it was the best meal they had in Kauai. (And you’re almost guaranteed to see at least one wedding proposal during your dinner.) We’ve never been blown away by the experience. Personally, I’d rather spend the money and go to the luau at Smith’s.
Tide Pools is a nice restaurant at the Grand Hyatt on the South Shore. It’s in the same price category as the Beach House but I prefer the service and food at Tide Pools.
We have eaten at RumFire (the nicer restaurant in the Sheraton) a couple of times, most notably for Christmas dinner in 2016. The service, setting, and food are good. It’s a good choice if you’re staying at the Sheraton and want a nicer meal without leaving the property.
Duke’s Kauai at the Marriott on Kalapaki Beach (in Lihue) is popular and convenient if you’re staying near by, but other than the hula pie (macadamia nut ice cream on a chocolate cookie crust topped with more chocolate and more macadamia nuts), if you’re not staying nearby, I don’t think it’s worth the drive.
If you really want a special meal, do what we did for Thanksgiving one year — check the price of these restaurants, then collect a picnic from one of the nicer grocery stores on the South Shore and take it to the beach. (The Living Foods Market in the Kukui’ula Village Shopping Center on the South Shore has prepared foods and a limited selection of gourmet ingredients.) Thanksgiving picnic dinner (including pie from the Right Slice, of course) was more memorable and fun than getting dressed up to sit in an air conditioned restaurant.
Lodging: The two most important factors to picking lodging in Kauai are deciding what part of the island you want to stay on, and then whether to rent a house or stay at a hotel. We have stayed on every corner of the island, from amazing ocean front rooms at nice hotels to places that could really only be described as “rustic.” (One night we even had a mouse march through a hole in a screen door and try to join us for dinner.) Here are some of our favorites.
Long before I had ever been to Hawaii, I read in a travel magazine that Waimea Plantation Cottages, on the West Side, was the perfect place to write the great American novel. That was several owners ago, and the property has changed a lot since the days when travel magazines could quote prices of $80 per night. But the individual cottages are still quiet and relaxing, and the larger houses of up to five bedrooms are great for groups or for families needing to spread out. (The cottages all have kitchens, in addition to an on-site restaurant.) This is not the place for people who want to stumble from their front door onto a beach towel — while many of the cottages are just steps from the beach, it’s a black sand beach not good for swimming, and the small swimming pool lacks the slides and kid-friendly attractions. Personally, I love staying at Waimea Plantation Cottages, and think it’s a great home base for a few days when paired with staying the rest of the time in another part of the island. But for a first visit to Kauai, the West Side is not the most convenient home base because you’ll have to drive an hour every time you want to go to Lihue (on the East Side).
Conventional wisdom is that the South Shore of the island is sunnier than other parts of the island, particularly the rainier North Shore. The South Shore is also a convenient base for exploring the whole island. There, the place we’ve stayed most often is the Sheraton Kauai Resort. This is a really large property, and your experience can vary greatly depending on your room — whether it is an ordeal to walk to the Sheraton’s beach, or whether a jet lag-induced nap is difficult because of the noise from the pools. We’ve stayed in everything from ocean front rooms where we watched turtles from our lanai to garden view rooms where they turned off the water on Christmas Day. (Seriously.) Unless you are paying for a nicer room, I would not expect the Sheraton to give any upgrades (regardless of any Marriott status) because in our experience, you’re likely to be disappointed, no matter how crowded or full the resort might be. (And bring a paper printout of your confirmation to make sure you don’t get downgraded from what you paid for — an experience we had and that took two days to resolve.) Be sure to take advantage of the cultural offerings, from sunrise outdoor yoga to ukulele and palm weaving classes. All the classes we’ve attended have been interesting and taught by experts on Hawaiian culture. The restaurants on the property are all good, if somewhat pricy, and they will usually give you a day room on the day you are departing since most flights leave long after check out time.
On the East Side, the hotels we’ve stayed at have all changed hands since our most recent stays.
On the North Shore, while many people rave about the Princeville Resort (which has now left the SPG/Marriott family), we’ve preferred the Westin Princeville Ocean Resort Villas. The villas vary, but we appreciated being able to prepare breakfast and have snacks and beverages in the refrigerator, as well as being able to do laundry.
Beyond the hotels above, our favorite lodging in Kauai is renting a house or condo. You’ll find lots of options on VRBO and on Airbnb. Our VRBO inquiries there have usually ended with loads of spam emails, but we’ve had great experiences with Airbnb, especially if you need more than one room.
We have done trips where we have split our time between staying on the North and South Shores, and others where we’ve stayed on the East and West Sides, but if you don’t want to move, consider what you want to do and pick one side of the island to stay on. For a first visit, I would choose between the South Shore and East Side. We usually plan to leave our house or hotel early in the morning and spend one day on each side of the island, and then spend our remaining days going back to the sides we liked best or where there was more we wanted to see.
Buy The Ultimate Kauai Guidebook: Kauai Revealed and study it carefully. I’ve read just about every Kauai guide book, and Kauai Revealed is the best. Just know that any time you go into one of their “undiscovered gems” you’ll see lots of other tourists with the same book.
You’ll find an extensive rack of brochures as you leave the airport and walk past baggage claim. It can be tempting to pass on by. Don’t. Be sure to take the bright yellow, half sheet sized coupon book that says For Locals and Visitors in big red and black letters. (You can even check out the coupons and print them online in advance, but we always just take one copy of the copy booklet for each person in our party on the way past baggage claim.) Other booklets can be helpful, especially for Hilo Hattie’s coupons, but on every trip the yellow one has been the one we’ve used most.
You’ll see (and likely hear) chickens and roosters all over the island. We used to go to an animal feed store to buy chicken feed on every visit, until I realized that those chickens I saw in cages may actually be roosters raised for fighting. Now I buy a smaller bag of chicken feed at Walmart. Wherever you get it, having some chicken food in a ziplock in the back of your Jeep can make you very popular.
On any side of the island, look for the farmers’ or “sunshine markets” and be sure to stop even if you don’t have a kitchen. They’re a great way to learn about the fruits and vegetables grown on Kauai and try new treats. The sunshine markets, run by the county, only allow farmers and farmers who make items with what they grow. Businesses that make products with items grown locally but don’t do the growing themselves, will only be at the independent farmers markets. (Our thanks to Baker Sandy for helping us understand this!) Basically, stop at both, but know that you won't find certain vendors (like our beloved Right Slice or Monkeypod Jam) at the sunshine markets. And either way, look for the baked goods — some of the best banana bread I’ve ever had in my life has come from farmers’ markets on Kauai.
Where offered, always get ice cream in the bottom of your shave ice. You’re on vacation.
If you are arriving at night, make a plan in advance for where you will eat, especially if you are staying far from the airport. (We usually end up having to eat at the Burger King in Lihue. Not the most Hawaiian of experiences, but better than going to sleep without dinner!)
Unless you’re a very serious snorkeler, don’t bother bringing your own equipment —rent it from Snorkel Bob’s. (You can even rent it on one island and return it on another and sometimes they have prescription goggles for those who don’t wear contacts.)
Buy inexpensive, disposable reef shoes at Walmart. You really will be glad you have them for walking in the ocean, and can wear them in place of getting your shoes dirty if you do an ATV ride.
You’ve probably heard that groceries can be expensive in Hawaii. That’s true, but one easy way to reduce the cost is to ask for a membership card at the grocery store, and try to shop at the larger stores for lower prices. Often the clerk will just scan his or her own card for you, but even if you need to spend 30 seconds filling out the form, the savings will be worth it.
Walmart in Lihue has lots of cheap souvenirs, Hawaiian shirts, and good prices on sodas and juice.
If you’ve always dreamed of going to a luau in matching Hawaiian shirts, Hilo Hattie is the place. It is a chain with a huge selection of Hawaiian clothes and souvenirs, but do not go without a coupon. (You can also order online, and they often have coupons there as well.) All the coupon books have a free mug, towel, or other item with purchase of $15, $20, or $25 in them. You’ll find free juice or coffee and a shell lei as you walk in.
Costco in Lihue has good prices on macadamia nuts and other supplies you may need.
If you want a flower lei and your hotel doesn’t give you one, try buying them at the grocery store or at Walmart.
Walmart and other stores on Kauai sell straw mats that you can put under your beach towel. They smell terrible (especially when you leave them in a closed up Jeep overnight — delightful!), fall apart, and seem silly until you actually use them. Then you’ll realize they’re brilliant. It’s worth it to spend $1 extra for the mats that fold up smaller so you aren’t traipsing across the beach juggling the roll-up mats as they go flying in the wind.
Especially if you have a washing machine, it can be worth it to buy beach towels at Walmart or Costco. They’re usually less than $10, and it’s nice to have dedicated beach towels that you can use throughout the week and just leave in your rental car rather than needing to turn them in and check them out, etc. And they make good souvenirs — somehow our $7 towels from our first trip to Kauai are still the go tos when we’re going to the beach or pool.
If you are a usual (or even occasional) church goer, consider going to church on Kauai. My dad and I once found ourselves on Christmas eve at the West Kauai United Methodist Church. When the sanctuary address literally included “Middle of the Corn Field,” we set off very early to be sure we could find it. Instead, we were the first people there. In this very small church on Christmas eve, we were immediately recognized as visitors (the fact we were there first probably helped), given ribbon leis, and treated like long lost cousins. Keith and his family were able to attend Catholic Mass as well. Many other religions are represented on the island as well.
We haven’t written about splitting your time between Kauai and other islands, because we love Kauai so much that we haven’t done that. It is possible, though, to book a day trip to another island, or spend several days in Kauai and then several on another island. Instead, we’ve booked 10 or 12 hour layovers on Oahu. If you do this, be sure to book it on the end of your trip so you aren’t exhausted from the long flight. We’ve rented a van in Oahu and driven around the island, visiting Pearl Harbor, seeing Diamond Head, the Dole pineapple plantation, etc. We’ve also just walked out of the airport and hired a guy with a car to drive us around. I was sure this was an easy way to be murdered and robbed, but had a law school professor who was born on Oahu who recommended it. He pointed out “it’s an island — where is he going to go?” but, having seen Magnum, PI I was still convinced this was a bad plan. Then the professor said that if I was going to miss his class for my honeymoon, I might as well see Oahu. I did, and it turned out just fine. (Your mileage may vary, but that professor has since had a career in politics.)
Overall: If you have the chance to go to Kauai, do! Or, better yet, send us in your place! Kauai is wonderful if you like the outdoors, want a laid back experience, prefer going to a luau over going to nightclubs (because you’ll be hard-pressed to find any) and want to experience a tropical paradise with minimal headache.
Note: We don’t have financial relationships with any of the companies above, but did use our Amazon affiliate link.
Have you been to Kauai? What is your favorite thing to do there? What did we miss? Please post in the comments!