Kauai Travel Guide

Kauai is my favorite beach destination and Hawaiian island.  There are obviously many beaches, I haven't visited, but Hawaii will always have a special place in my heart.  I was born on Oahu and spent two summers there in college, I've visited each of Maui and the Big Island several times, and I kayaked the north shore of Molokai'i on a week-long trip.  Each island has its own vibe and feel and to me Kauai is the perfect mix of modern conveniences and small island charm, warm weather, spectacular beaches, fun surf, and friendly people.  

I've spent 7 weeks on Kauai in total and the following includes my favorite beaches, restaurants, markets, and activities, plus a few random thoughts.  I'm far from an expert, but we did a fair bit of exploring and I always have an opinion.  Most of our time was spent on the north and east coasts of Kauai because those are our favorite spots - I've included some recommendations from friends for the west and south coasts as well.

Before You Go
The Ultimate Kauai Guidebook - This is an incredibly detailed and thorough book for beaches, hiking, and activities.  The directions to beaches and hikes are accurate and detailed.  
The Kauai Adventure Map - I like looking at beaches and activities on a map and this one is well-labeled with descriptions of beaches and hikes.  Cell service can be spotty on the island, which makes this map extra handy.
Kauai Beach Scoop - Info on all the beaches
Hawaii Gaga Kauai Online Map
36 Hours in Kauai from the NYT
Spotify Mix - Hawaiian Dreams 
Hawaii is expensive.  Most everything you buy here arrived by boat or plane so don't be surprised that everything costs more than it does on the mainland. 

Taro fields on a rainy day

Taro fields on a rainy day

Weather, Etc. 
Kauai is nice year-round and on our visits in late November, January, and February, the temperature ranged from the low 70s to the mid-80s.  We had one day in the low 90s.  The north shore of Kauai gets close and rains on a regular basis, but often it is short rain shower that passes before you can pack your stuff up at the beach.  I prefer the beauty, ruggedness, and isolation of the north shore to Poipu and don't mind the somewhat unpredictable weather.  If you visit in the winter and you want to prioritize good weather over anything else, the west and south coasts are your best bet.  Similarly, the waves are much larger on the north shore in the winter so the beaches on the south and west sides are less likely to be affected by large wave and riptide warnings.

Where to stay:

I’ve only stayed on the north shore of the island and I think the best place to stay is in the heart of Hanalei. Housing is limited and mostly to private homes that are available for rent.  We stayed here and cannot say enough good things about our visit - our hosts were welcoming and attentive (but not overbearing), we had our own space (including our own outdoor shower), the place was modern and classy, and we were provided with everything we needed, including surfboards, cruiser bikes (with a kid seat!), SUPs, beach chairs, a high chair, and a crib.  The best part was the 5 minute walk to the beach!  Staying in Hanalei means that you can bike/walk to everything in town, including the beach, but you are 10 minutes farther away from anything outside of Hanalei (e.g., Waimea Canyon, Lihue).  

A perk of staying in Hanalei is riding your bike to the farmer's market on Saturday morning.

A perk of staying in Hanalei is riding your bike to the farmer's market on Saturday morning.

We’ve also stayed in two different places in Princeville, the Westin and a condo in Puamana (adjacent to the Westin).  The Westin is nice for a shorter stay.  Rooms have a kitchen and the pools here are awesome for kids (multiple pools and a water slide) and there is beach access to Wyllie Beach from both of these places.  The resort has all of the amenities you'll need if you are traveling with a child, which means you can pack less (e.g., crib, diaper pail, high chair, beach toys), plus grills all over the property under cover from rain and near the pools for cooking dinners while kids still splash in the pools.  Puamana 26A where we stayed was perfectly nice and it was a luxury to have two bedrooms and a large living space.  The kitchen wasn’t updated, but we had everything we needed.  It isn’t quaint like staying in Hanalei, but Princeville affords other benefits - you are walking distance to the library, the grocery store, the playground, and a collection of small shops.  If you are looking for a luxury hotel, the St. Regis is your best bet, although you really would be better off renting a fantastic home in Hanalei.  If you are visiting the island and want to stay in a condo or house, I'd suggest calling a local real estate company directly to talk about short-term rentals (we used Oceanfront Sotheby's).  

East of Hanalei and Princeville but still close to the north shore is The Palmwood, which friends recommended after having the best visit there. This “curated lodging experience” has 3 rooms/suites for rent and is located just off of Moloa’a Beach.  Our friends raved about their experience and particularly the food and the rates are surprisingly affordable for Kauai.

I’ve visited friends at two places near Poipu that were well-appointed, the Marriott Waiohai Beach Club and the Kiahuna Plantation Resort.  The Marriott is comparable to the Westin but located right on Poipu Beach Park, which is really touristy and busy.  The pools look ideal for kids!  The Kiahuna is a spectacular property and they have everything you could want or need on hand, plus a huge pool with a natural rock bottom and water slide.  I'm not sure I would have left the resort if we had stayed at the Kiahuna...


Where to swim (starting from the NW and heading clockwise around the island):

  • Ke'e Beach - This is the last beach accessible by car on the north shore.  This is also where the Kalalau Trail starts so if you don't get there early, parking can be a nightmare.  This isn't a great swimming beach and there is no surfing, but the snorkeling is supposed to be awesome.  That said, we have visited this beach several times and it has not been open for snorkeling on any of our visits because of high surf.  Best visited in the summer months or on a calm day.  

  • Tunnels / Makua Beach - Gorgeous crescent-shaped beach with tiny pebbles (that don't hurt at all and brush off easily) rather than sand.  Nice spot for snorkeling with a reef running right along the shore and apparently this is one of the top scuba diving spots in the world (some day I will get certified).  You have to find a good spot for swimming because of the reef, but there are plenty and the reef offers protection from high surf making this a good beach for kiddos.  We saw a monk seal napping at this beach.  Note that parking can be tricky as there isn't a parking lot, only side street parking.

Tunnels Beach

Tunnels Beach

  • Hanalei Bay - Our favorite stretch of beach on the island, hands down.  Hanalei Bay is a nearly 3-mile long crescent-shaped bay in the town of Hanalei comprised of 3 beaches - Black Pot, Hanalei Pavilion, and Waioli Beach Park.  Each beach has parking, restrooms, and showers.  Black Pot (which is located at the pier) is family-friendly with easy waves and access to the Hanalei River.  Hanalei Pavilion (in the middle of the crescent) is our favorite spot with good water access for Blythe and waves that Rob and I can surf.  
Hanalei Bay

Hanalei Bay

  • Pali Ke Kua / Hideaways Beach - Located just outside the gates to the St. Regis, this requires a tricky and steep downhill to a stunning and private beach.  We did the hike with B on our back and it was fine - there are ropes to hold onto.  I wouldn't do it immediately following a rainstorm as the trail would be muddy and slippery.  In any event, this is well worth the short hike and you may have this secluded spot to yourself.  On a calm day, the snorkeling appears to be incredible.
  • Wyllie Beach - This is a short walk down from the Westin in Princeville and there is a small parking lot if you aren't staying within walking distance.  The walk is downhill but totally manageable (Blythe would sometimes walk this herself).  Wyllie is an ideal beach for kids - protected, shallow, and calm, plus there are 3 swings located in the trees here and we saw tons of turtles.  There is also a small river that flows into this beach, which is fun for splashing (albeit chilly).  Usually this is a very quiet spot.
  • Kalihiwai Beach - Located just outside of Kilauea, this seems like more of a locals beach (in a good way).  There is some nice beginner surfing here, plus good boogie boarding,  I wouldn't recommend this beach for really small children as the waves were a bit big - this is where we built B her first beach bath tub!  I loved the fact that this was a really quiet spot and still a beautiful beach.  Parking is located about 25 feet from the beach so loading and unloading is easy (no hiking).
Kalihiwai Beach

Kalihiwai Beach

  • Secret Beach (Kauapea) - Wow, this is a spectacular spot.  The hike down was easy (we put B in the backpack and it never felt unsafe) and when you arrive you'll be met with a huge expanse of sand and some stunning (albeit huge) surf.  There are tide pools at the west end of the beach that are good for kids.  When we visited, Rob and I each had a ton of fun in the big waves, but we didn't take Blythe in at all - the surf was just too high.  
  • Pila'a Beach - We stumbled upon the hike to this beach driving down a random road outside of Kilauea and I'm so glad we did.  The hike has one dicey section about 10 feet long where it was tricky to be carrying Blythe (mostly because you had to bend down low to go under a tree while going downhill).  That said, we'd never do anything unsafe with her and we continued on.  The hike takes about 30 minutes and you'll be rewarded with a picturesque beach that includes a freshwater stream (perfect for little ones), incredible coral and shells in abundance, and solitude.  We were the only 3 people at this beach for half the morning and one other couple arrived mid-morning.

  • Moloa’a Beach - An off-the-beaten track kind of beach where you won't run into tons of people.  At the southeast edge of the beach there are a number of tide pools and a shallow corner that was perfect for B (this was a rare find in north/east shore beaches).  This isn't a good surfing spot, but the waves were nice for swimming and boogie boarding.
  • North Aliomanu Beach - Aliomanu Beach gives Hanalei Bay a run for its money in terms of being our favorite.  Here you will find solitude, beauty, and incredible tide pools.  The hike down to the beach is not for the faint of heart and involves a fair amount of rock-hopping; it takes about fifteen minutes in total.  I did it with B on my back and was fine but I'd recommend really grippy shoes or going barefoot.
Aliomanu Beach

Aliomanu Beach

  • Maha'Ulepu Beach - Moving down to the south shore, this is just east of Poipu at the end of a (very bumpy) dirt road.  You'll be rewarded for the drive with a secluded spot, protected reef, and shallow water.
  • Poipu Beach - Quiet and secluded this is not, but it is located in the heart of Poipu where you can easily rent equipment (e.g, boogie boards, SUPs), pick up food, and go to the nearby playground.  There's a special spot for kiddos. 

What to do:

  • Go to the beach! Perhaps I should start with the obvious: learn to surf, stand-up paddle board (surprisingly challenging and fun), build a beach bath tub (Blythe's favorite), kayak, or just relax at the beach!  If you are on Kauai for an extended stay and are learning to surf, consider buying a board at the monthly Hanalei surfboard swap, which occurs on the first Saturday of each month starting at 9 AM just in front of Hanalei Bread Co.  Beach equipment is available to rent or purchase in each of the decent-sized towns on Kauai.  In Hanalei, you can try your hand at SUPing or kayaking on the Hanalei River before you brave the bay.

One of the many beach bath tubs we built on Kauai

One of the many beach bath tubs we built on Kauai

  • Limahuli Garden and Preserve (Hanalei) - Almost at the end of the road on the north shore, these are stunning gardens located in a verdant valley.  The focus of the garden and preserve is on native species, although the gardens depict both indigenous and invasive plant life.  We took a family tour and had a private guide, which actually cost less and we learned a lot.  Our guide was incredible (Sari!), so patient with B, and let us sample various plants.
  • Waimea Canyon - Best to get to the canyon early to be the clouds/fog that often move in by late morning.  The Kalalau Lookout is a nice starting point that offers views of the beach where the Kalalau Trail terminates.  The Kilohana Lookout affords views of Hanalei from the west.  For hiking, favorite hikes include the Awa'awapuhi Trail with spectacular views and Waipo'o Falls (which takes you into the canyon).
  • Kilohana Plantation Railway - We tend to shy away from really touristy activities, but this train ride around a plantation seemed like something B would love.  Surprise - she loved it, as did we!  It lasts about 45 minutes and you see a ton of local fruit growing as you ride through a huge plantation.  You stop to feed animals at one point and learn a few things along the way - did you know it takes 2 years for a pineapple to grow?  Neither did I...

  • Mini-Golf at Anaina Hou - Mini-golf with a side of Hawaiian history, this is a surprisingly creative, clean, and organized mini-golf course.  This is a rare activity that allows me and Rob to have an adult conversation while doing something fun and keeping B entertained.  We went twice!
  • Napali Coast Boat Tour - We desperately wanted to see the Napali Coast either by kayak, foot, or boat, but it was not meant to be.  We took a boat ride out of Port Allen, but found out the morning of the trip that the surf was too high on the north shore so we headed south (it was quite boring).  We later found out these trips rarely, if ever, make it to the north shore in the winter.  If you come in summer, you'll be able to go, but if you are here in the winter, I wouldn't bother.  The other way to see part of the Napali Coast is to hike the Kalalau Trail, which I highly recommend (more below).  We did see whales, dolphins, and sea turtles on the boat ride, plus did some offshore snorkeling so it was still a fun day.

  • Na 'Aina Kai Keiki Day - If you are on Kauai with kids, check the Na 'Aina Kai Keiki Day calendar.  Once a month, this expansive children's play area is opened to the public for the day.  There is a huge fountain for splashing, slides, a Swiss Family Robinson-esque treehouse, a maze, rocks for climbing, and much more.  The entrance fee is a bit steep so plan to come and stay for the day. Note that the remainder of the gardens are not open to you, just the children's area.  You can alway play in this area if you book a private tour, although it would be a bit lonely to be the only kiddo (or couple of kids) in this huge space.

Food:
First thing first, get thee to a farmer's market (or two).  The array of produce is incredible, you'll meet some interesting people, and you'll get a feel for what is growing on the island.  The market schedule is available here.

  • Hanalei - Tahiti Nui has delicious food and live music most nights, which is really fun.  Bar Acuda is a bit fancier than Tahiti Nui with tasty food, fun cocktails, and good beer.  This piece in Afar Magazine gives some background on the owner of Bar Acuda.  This place filled up the second it opened so make reservations if you don't get there right at 5:30.  For coffee, pastries, homemade bread, and sandwiches, check out the Hanalei Bread Co. and Coffee House.  This is a great spot to sit and people watch in the heart of Halanei.  For healthy beach snacks, smoothies, and sandwiches, check out Harvest Market.  Finally, the Dolphin is both a seafood/sushi restaurant and the Dolphin Fish Market in the back, where you can purchase fish to grill, but also get poke bowls.  We had really good seafood at the sit down restaurant and love the poke bowls.  If you want a unique dining experience, consider a farm to table dinner under the stars with Kauai Ono.  Tropical Taco is a good quick bite option for fish tacos or a burrito, and we had some seriously good local seafood for lunch at Trucking Delicious.  Cap off any good meal or cool off in the afternoon with shave ice from Wishing Well, which makes its own natural syrups and also aca'i bowls.  One tip from the locals is that really good (and fresh) poke can be found at Foodland (the grocery store) in Princeville.  They'll dish you up some rice with poke on top for $6.99, which is a bargain compared to what you'll pay elsewhere and it is really good.  This was a go-to lunch for us to take to the beach.
Enjoying the music and food at Tahiti Nui

Enjoying the music and food at Tahiti Nui

  • Kilauea - The Bistro is Kilauea is a must visit for a nicer meal on the island.  We had a tuna tartare appetizer that was so, so good and I'm still dreaming about the steak with gorgonzola mashed potatoes.  There was live music the night we were there (not too loud, but perfect as a background to the meal).  The Kilauea Fish Market is fantastic and open for both lunch and dinner.  The ahi wrap and the fish tacos were our favorites and both could easily be taken to a nearby beach for lunch.  This is BYOB and there is a small liquor store just a few minutes (walking) away.  If you need sandwiches, smoothies, breakfast bowls, or some groceries, check out the Healthy Hut.  And sharing the parking lot with the Healthy Hut is Paco's Tacos, where we didn't eat but the menu was enticing.  For breakfast, try Kilauea Bakery & Pau Ana Pizza.
Fish tacos at Kilauea Fish Market

Fish tacos at Kilauea Fish Market

  • Kapa'a - We had a date night out at The Locals, which we loved. Rob had the best cocktail I've ever tasted and we were still raving about our small plates the next day.  The owner cooked at PokPok in Portland (yum) before opening The Locals.  Wailua Shave Ice is just down the street and has tasty shave ice, including the option to get haupia cream on top of your shave ice (yes, you should).  The best fish tacos I've ever eaten came from Al Pastor food truck (only open until mid-afternoon) and good coffee can be found at Java Kai and Small Town Coffee Co.  For an amazing burger, check out Kenji Burger and order a side of fries with seafood on top - yum.
  • Elsewhere - The best poke bowls on the island that we found was at Makai Sushi in Koloa, which is inside the Kukuiula Market.  Don't be dissuaded by the run down appearance of the market, the sushi and poke is so, so good.  Plus, while you wait for your sushi or poke bowl to be made, you can visit the smoothie / aca'i bowl stand in the back of the market and pick one up for dessert.  The Living Foods Market in Poipu also had a "choose what you want" poke bowl station that looks really good, plus a nice coffee bar with baked goods.  This is the closest market to Whole Foods on the island.   The Right Slice serves up pie in an array of Hawaiian-inspired flavors.  I tried a slice of the Lilikoi cheesecake and it was divine.  They can be found in Lihue, Kalaheo, and at the farmer's markets on Tuesday (Waipa), Wednesday (Poipu), and Friday (Hanapepe).  And don't forget shave us in Kalaheo at The Fresh Shave!
Sunset on the Napali Coast from the Kalalau Trail

Sunset on the Napali Coast from the Kalalau Trail

Where to hike: 

  • Kalalau Trail (Ke'e Beach) - Unequivocally, the most incredible waterfall I've ever visited was on this hike.  Getting there was challenging, but so worth it to swim in the pool at the bottom of these falls and just marvel at where we were!  We hiked the first section of this trail from Ke'e Beach to Hanakapi'ai Beach and then from the beach up the valley to Hanakapi'ai Falls.  Round-trip, this was an 8 mile hike that we did with Blythe in the backpack.  It was challenging, but so worth it.  If you are traveling with small children, get a babysitter and do this hike!  The views of the Napali coast are unparalleled.  If you go beyond Hanakapi'ai, you need to get a permit in advance of the hike.
Hanakapi'ai Falls.

Hanakapi'ai Falls.

  • Okolehau Trail (Hanalei) - This 2.5 mile trail (one way) is a ridgeline ascent behind Hanalei and affords the best view of Hanalei Bay and the surrounding mountains.  This trail meanders through forests and does climb, but not super challenging.  This took us about 2 hours round trip, including about 15 minutes of snack and rest time at the lookout.
Hanalei from the ridgeline on the Okolehau Trail

Hanalei from the ridgeline on the Okolehau Trail

Sleeping Giant (Kapaa) - Take the eastern trail up Sleeping Giant for sweeping views of the entire Wailua Valley from Anahola to Lihue.  views of the entire island.  This trail includes a lot of switchbacks and is 2 miles each way but at a totally manageable incline. Rob and I were without B for this and trail ran the entire way.  This is a heavily used trail, but don't let that deter you.

From the top of Sleeping Giant

From the top of Sleeping Giant

  • Wai Koa Loop (Kilauea) - This is a 5-mile loop that starts from the mini-golf course and weaves through a number of forests, including the largest Mahogany Forest in the U.S.  The hike is relatively flat and I wouldn't go out of my way to recommend it except that at roughly the halfway point of the hike you reach the historic stone dam, which includes immaculate gardens and a dam with a rope swing that makes a lovely spot for a picnic, a swim, and a rest.  You can also rent mountain bikes.
  • Other hikes recommended that we didn't do:
Rob surfing on the last evening of our time in Kauai

Rob surfing on the last evening of our time in Kauai