Hawaii is a favorite winter holiday destination for us North American west-coasters. (Hello, are you nodding “yes” in L.A. or Vancouver?)
We’ve visited all the Hawaiian islands several times each.
But the garden isle of Kauai has snagged a special spot in our hearts. And can you blame us? It’s just so darn picturesque!
There’s no question that the beaches of Kauai are stunning. You can easily spend hours, days (maybe weeks!) just lounging around or beach hopping.
But with so many natural wonders – from immense canyons and serene rivers to emerald forests and Eden-like gardens – there are oodles of other things to do in Kauai too.
And that’s a big part of Kauai’s appeal.
In fact, if you’re trying to decide between Kauai or Maui, Kauai wins by a hair in the adventure department because of its diverse landscape.
Top things to do in Kauai, Hawaii
Kauai has also blossomed big time over the years.
Fab new restaurants have exploded onto the scene. And there are now several great hotels in Kauai too.
So what are the best things to do in Kauai today (besides hanging around on its beautiful beaches)? Read on!
1) Take a Kauai helicopter tour
How does an exciting chopper ride sound?
Scenic helicopter tours in Kauai are perhaps the best way to get a megadose of the island’s beauty. (Choose a “no doors” chopper – awesome pictures and more fun!)
In 90 minutes, you can see the whole island from the air.
To the west, you’ll soar over the 14-mile-long Waimea Canyon – dubbed “the Grand Canyon of the Pacific” – incised with dramatic red, purple and ochre cliffs.
To the north, gape at the unspoiled Na Pali Coast, where 3,000-foot-high emerald mountain cliffs rise up from the ocean floor.
Movie directors love filming on Kauai. So your pilot may point out the valley cleft where the giant ape cradles the heroine in the 1976 King Kong flick.
Not a boomer? Okay, he (she?) may show you the idyllic Hanalei Bay Beach that George Clooney jogs along in The Descendents (2011) instead.
2) Go tubing in sugar plantation canals
Don a helmet with headlamp and jump into a big inflatable tube. You’re going tubing!
Kauai Backcountry Adventures has exclusive access to the historic ditches and canals once used to irrigate Kauai’s sugar cane plantations.
This Kauai adventure has you floating down gently-flowing waters on former plantation lands in the island’s lush remote interior.
Feel like a kid again as your tube bumps into the lava rock canal walls and twirls about.
Bumper-tubing through five pitch-black tunnels (now you know why you have headlamps).
Definitely one of the more unique things to do in Kauai!
3) Learn about monk seals
They’re cute and gentle, weigh from 400 to 600 pounds, have folds of skin around their neck and tend to live alone.
We’re talking about monk seals.
You often see monk seals snoozing on the sandy beaches in Poipu Beach Park, on the south coast of Kauai.
But they’re endangered.
One of only two species native to Hawaii, their total population has shrunk to less than 1,200 monk seals.
You can discover more about them through the Monk Seal Education Program, offered weekly at the Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort & Spa, in partnership with the Kauai Monk Seal Watch Program.
Learn about the biology of the seals and what to do when you spot one, and go on a short easy walk to the beach to view the seals from a safe distance.
4) Savor seafood at Red Salt
Ever since opening its doors in 2009, Red Salt has received rave reviews as one of the best restaurants in Kauai.
The menu focuses on fresh Hawaiian seafood and local flavors. Think spicy seared ahi and ono with King crab hash.
Produce is locally sourced too (the resto’s Kailani Farms mixed green salad is tossed with Big Island hearts of palm, roasted macadamia nuts and avocado vinaigrette).
The setting – creamy travertine floors and granite tables – is spare, though sophisticated and welcoming.
Red Salt is a bit pricey.
But the food sings and is worth the dollars spent.
5) Visit the Allerton-McBryde botanical gardens
There’s a reason Kauai is known as the garden island. You only need to look at its beautiful botanical gardens to see why.
Two of the most stunning are Allerton Garden and McBryde Garden, side-by-side tropical gardens on the island’s South Shore.
“Hang out with shady characters, do-gooders and beauty queens.”
So says the van’s sign on the drive into them.
Even if you lack a green thumb, you’ll love these 350-acre conservation grounds.
On a guided tour, stroll through a cool bamboo forest and outdoor “rooms” with fountains and rippling pools.
Also learn about some unique Hawaiian fruits – like the blue-cheese-stinky noni fruit (studied for its medicinal cancer-fighting properties) – and “canoe” plants brought to Kauai by early Polynesians.
Marvel too at the towering Moreton Bay fig trees, whose gigantic roots hid the dinosaur eggs in the Jurassic Park movie.
We were surprised at how interesting these gardens are.
Visiting them really is one of the top things to do in Kauai (especially if you want a break from the sea and sand).
6) Take a shelter dog on a field trip
This Kauai activity idea is just too adorable to pass up!
If you’re a dog lover, why not do a good deed for a four-legged friend and take in the amazing Garden Isle sites all at the same time?
The Kauai Humane Society offers a brilliant program where you can pick up a shelter dog and take him or her out on a field trip for the day!
The Humane Society staff is happy to offer day trip suggestions depending on what you want to do and the furry friend you’ve been paired with.
7) See the Spouting Horn blowhole
When you’re down on Kauai’s South Shore, stop at the Spouting Horn.
It’s a blowhole in the lava rock through which the surf shoots up, creating a huge plume of water, sometimes as high as 50 feet.
When the water shoots through, it makes a loud eerie noise too.
8) Eat shave ice
On a hot day, nothing tastes better than shave ice!
There are several cool little shave ice stands in Kauai.
And don’t think just fresh pineapple or strawberry flavors (though we love these). You can get the fluffy colorful scoops with sweet condensed milk or macadamia nuts on top.
Wailua Shave Ice:
At Wailua Shave Ice (in Kapaa), the coconut foam topping is popular. Or maybe go bold and ask for your shave ice with whipped cream and fruit nuggets.
Waikomo Shave Ice:
Waikomo Shave Ice (in Poipu) uses all-natural ingredients (and you can even get yours in an actual half coconut). Get it topped with home-made coconut cream sauce and local honey.
JoJos Shave Ice:
JoJos Shave Ice has three locations – in Waimea, Coconut Marketplace in Poipu and in Hanalei.
Their syrups are all home-made using cane sugar. The cream toppings are also home-made.
And at the bottom of your shave ice, you’ll find a nice ice cream surprise (vanilla or macadamia nut ice cream, depending on your shave ice choice).
9) Try SUP
An ancient Hawaiian sport, stand-up paddleboarding (or SUP for short) has been revived and is now the world’s fastest growing watersport. It’s great core exercise, as you stand on a specially-designed surf board and paddle through the water.
SUP is easy to learn. You’re a little wobbly at first, but soon you’ll be happily gliding along (if the water is flat).
There are several great places to go paddleboarding in Kauai.
A popular spot is the calm Wailua River. If you’ve ever wanted to try SUP, one of the must-do things in Kauai is to take a board out on this river. You can also combine SUP on the river with a two-mile hike to the 120-foot-high Sacred Falls.
For ocean paddling, Kalapaki Beach is good. In winter, Anini Beach and Hanalei Bay are usually also tranquil.
10) Drive through the Tree Tunnel
You can’t miss the famous Kauai Tree Tunnel if you’re driving to Poipu.
This one-mile stretch of Maluhia Road (Highway 520) is the gateway to Kauai’s South Shore (Koloa Town and Poipu Beach).
It’s lined with over 500 majestic Eucalyptus trees, planted more than 100 years ago.
As the trees grew, their branches linked above, forming the leafy canopy over the narrow road.
(It’s difficult to take pictures of the Tree Tunnel, though, as there are hardly any safe places to pull off and park.)
11) Shop at Kukui’ula shopping village
Shopaholics rejoice. The Shops at Kukui’ula are for you!
They’re tasteful, upscale and blend in with the south Poipu landscape.
Discover several art galleries plus interesting shops selling surfboards, Roxy sportswear, Hawaiian sea salt, unique jewelry and gourmet foods (fresh-baked pie anyone?).
You’ll find some great restaurants here too, including Merriman’s Fish House (for seafood) and the much-loved Bubba’s (a local eatery serving old-fashioned burgers).
And don’t miss the Kauai Culinary Market!
This culinary farmers market is held every Wednesday afternoon, with live music and chef demonstrations.
12) Sail the Na Pali Coast
Sailing trips up the spectacular Na Pali Coast are also one of the best activities in Kauai.
(Just take precautions if you’re prone to seasickness, as the swells can be wicked, especially in winter.)
As there are no roads accessing this coastline, the only way you can visit these wildly rugged shores is by boat (or from above on a helicopter ride).
Spinner dolphins like to race along at the bow.
A snorkeling stop is often included in the boat trip – keep an eye out for green sea turtles!
13) Indulge your green thumb at Limahuli Garden and Preserve
Along with the Allerton and McBryde Gardens (see #5 above), the Limahuli Garden and Preserve is also part of the non-profit National Tropical Botanical Garden collection.
Built on a terraced mountainside on Kauai’s North Shore, it’s home to native Hawaiian plant species not found anywhere else in the world, along with special archaeological sites that give you a deep appreciation for the human history.
Complimentary walking sticks are offered, and the gift shop sells wonderful books, artwork, locally-made Hawaiian throws and other items.
14) Zipline through the jungle
On the list of the most adventurous things to do in Kauai is ziplining. Between taking in the views and sailing along at heart-pounding heights, you’re in for quite an adrenaline rush!
Near Poipu, the award-winning Skyline Hawaii zipline operation has 8 thrilling ziplines. If you like the idea of zipping along in the air at more than 50 mph, then you’re in for a treat!
(We like that 1% of your booking proceeds go to the “1% for the Planet” campaign to help preserve Hawaii’s landscape and non-profit organizations.)
More ziplining fun can be had with Koloa Zipline, which boasts having 3 of the 5 longest ziplines on the island. Try some ziplining acrobatics, like the Superman, Upside Down and Spinning.
You can find various other zipline spots throughout the island too, like at Princeville Ranch and Lihue.
15) Watch the sunset on Kauai
Kauai sunsets are quite magical.
You can enjoy the sunset in Kauai most places on the island. But Hanalei is the ultimate Kauai sunset spot (in our view).
Plant yourself on the beach at Hanalei and drink in the gorgeous golden scene.
16) Hike the Kalalau Trail
The Kalalau Trail is an 11-mile path fringing the Na Pali Coast cliffs in northern Kauai.
You join the trail at Ke’e Beach.
If you hike the whole trail, you end up at Kalalau Beach, which can only be accessed by foot.
Note, however, that you need time (a minimum of two days) and camping permits to hike the Kalalau Trail, difficult and epic – to say the least!
Most people just tackle the first two miles to Hanakapi’ai Falls, then retrace their steps back.
If you love hiking, this short section of the Kalalau Trail makes for a great day trip – the views of the dramatic sea cliffs are stunning!
Expect to get dirty, as the trail can be muddy in sections.
One time we went, no matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t wash the red dirt out of our socks and shorts (scrambling = bum contact), so we simply had to throw these clothes away.
Note: There are several lovely easy hikes in Kauai. The Kalalau Trail isn’t one of them – it’s not a beginner hike. It’s one of the most demanding things to do on Kauai (especially once you hit the tough part after the Hanakapi’ai Falls).
17) Visit the Kilauea Lighthouse
Built in 1913, the Kilauea Lighthouse is part of the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge.
Located on the North Shore, the 52-foot-tall structure stands on a rocky peninsula 180 feet above the Pacific Ocean below.
As well as offering panoramic views, the area is a nesting site and haven for large populations of migratory seabirds, including red-footed boobies, albatross, wedge-tailed shearwaters and great frigate birds.
From the bluff, you may also spot dolphins and humpback whales breaching in the distance in winter.
Admission is $10.00 per person.
18) Check out the Na ‘Aina Kai Botanical Gardens
On the list of family-friendly, non-beach related Kauai activities is visiting the Na ‘Aina Kai Botanical Gardens in Kilauea.
The lush gardens are gorgeous and offer a splendid variety of exotic flowers in all colors, shapes and sizes. The 120+ bronze sculptures are also a bit of a surprise.
Kids, especially, are drawn to the 16-foot “Jack and the Beanstalk” fountain in the children’s garden.
The venue offers tour options including a self-guided walking tour, a seasonal bird tour, a family tour and several others.
19) Try poke
If you’re looking for a truly authentic culinary treat of the islands, it doesn’t get more Hawaiian than poke (pronounced “po-kay”).
Poke is a Japanese word that means “to cut into small pieces” – which aptly describes this traditional dish, made up of raw fish (usually ahi tuna) that’s cut up into cubes. It may be seasoned with salt or soy sauce, green onions, onions, seaweed, chopped macadamia nuts or other condiments.
What’s now a staple of the Hawaiian diet originated back when fishermen prepared snacks from leftover cuts of the day’s catch.
Nowadays, you find many varieties of poke that include squid, crab and salmon – in all forms from small appetizer plates to meal-size poke bowls.
20) Kayak the Wailua River
The island of Kauai has the only navigable rivers in Hawaii. That means great kayaking in Kauai!
The Wailua River, in particular, is a popular place to paddle. Kayaking adventures here usually include a two-mile roundtrip hike to Uluwehi Falls (Secret Falls).
The 120-foot falls aren’t exactly a secret anymore, but hey, a cool dip in the freshwater pool at the base is still a treat.
21) Play a round of golf
Although the island isn’t teeming with golf courses, at one of the nine that Kaui does offer, you’ll get one of the most satisfying golfing experiences of your life.
Imagine taking in the cool ocean breeze as you tee up against a backdrop of green-covered cliffs that drop down into the vast Pacific Ocean, like at the Ocean Course at Hokuala.
If a relaxing round of golf is what you’re looking for on your Hawaiian island vacation, Kauai’s courses will not disappoint.
22) Graze at Bar Acuda
It’s worth dining at Bar Acuda in Hanalei for the chance to taste lots of creative dishes.
Serving a Hawaiian take on tapas, the dishes are meant to be shared. Delight in the local cucumber salad with crispy garbanzo beans and feta, seared scallops with butternut squash and Hanalei bison-and-pork meatballs.
And for dessert? The creamy Lilikoi cheesecake is always a hit.
The setting is casual, but reservations are a must.
23) Watch the sunrise at Lydgate Beach Park
Of course, to watch the sun rise, you need to find a beach facing east, right?
On Kauai’s East Shore, Lydgate Beach Park is a great place to watch the dawn break.
With picnic tables, you can sit and enjoy your coffee too.
24) Ride an antique train at Kilohana Plantation
Kilohana, an historic 150-acre plantation built in the 1930’s, is the island’s most famous plantation estate and on the list of best places to visit in Kauai.
A highlight is hopping aboard one of the classic mahogany passenger cars on the plantation train for a full tour of the Kilohana grounds.
Along the way, you see over 50 varieties of the plantation’s fruit tree orchards, vegetable gardens, tropical exotic flowers, and resident animals. The train will even stop to let you feed the goats and wild pigs!
The Kilohana Plantation is a lovely place to stick around for a while. Enjoy a chef-prepared meal at a table with garden views at the renowned Plantation House restaurant. Or book a rum tasting at the Koloa Rum Company Tasting Room.
25) Take a dip in the Queen’s Bath
The Queen’s Bath is a natural tide pool of sea water, carved into the lava rock shoreline in Princeville, on Kauai’s North Shore.
The size of a swimming pool, this rock pool was once used in ancient times by Hawaiian royalty to bathe and relax.
The water is usually calm in the summer months, and this is the best time to visit the Queen’s Bath.
26) Gape at Waimea Canyon
Nicknamed the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” Waimea Canyon State Park is another of those Kauai attractions you absolutely must see (along with the Na Pali Coast).
If you have a rental car (recommended for exploring Kauai), plan a driving day trip to see this craggy, mile-wide canyon with its dramatic red and ochre cliffs. There are lots of scenic lookout points on Waimea Canyon Drive to gaze at the natural wonders here.
Hiking trails off Koke’e Road offer opportunities for exploring on foot too.
27) Watch hula dancers
The hula dance is an art form that’s totally unique to Hawaii. Its roots go back to ancient times when dance was used to preserve and tell the stories and traditions of the islands.
The graceful undulating moves of the hula dance have stood the test of time and continue to be an honored tradition.
Watching hula dancers perform and being seduced by the peaceful rhythm of Hawaiian music, all the while taking in the glorious sunset, is one of those Kauai activities everyone must experience.
You’ll find plenty of prime locations that offer spectacular luaus and hula performances. The most popular are at large tourist sites like the Sheraton Kauai Resort, Grand Hyatt Kaui and Kilohana Plantation Estate (#24).
28) Count the chickens on Kauai
One of the oddball fun things to do in Kauai is to count how many wild chickens you see on your holiday.
Yep, there are thousands of wild chickens running around on the island.
They cross the roads, wander around people’s gardens, squawk about in parking lots. They’re sometimes even on the beaches!
So why are there a lot of chickens in Kauai?
Locals say the Kauai chickens descended from birds that escaped coops when Hurricane Iwa (1982) and Hurricane Iniki (1992) tore through the island.
Anyway, it’s quite hilarious to see all the wild roosters and chickens in unexpected places (though not so funny if you’re woken up early by crowing roosters outside your window).
29) See the wettest spot on Earth
For experienced hikers, Mount Waialeale, located in the center of the island, is a challenging, vegetation-rich scenic hike.
The mountain is more than 5,000 feet tall and receives an average of 450 to 500 inches of rain per year – making it one of the wettest spots on the planet.
To access the base of the mountain, fit hikers must follow a rocky trail that starts at the end of Highway 580.
30) Poke around the town of Hanalei
Hanalei is the cutest town in Kauai to stroll about.
Exuding a surfer vibe, it’s filled with many quaint historic buildings (we love the inviting porches!), as well as contemporary art galleries with locally made wood carvings, surfboard shops, cafés, ice cream parlors, excellent food trucks and small boutiques selling Kauai souvenirs.
The town’s landmark – the emerald green Wai’oli Hui’ia Church, built in 1837 – has lovely stained glass windows and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
To get to Hanalei, you need to cross a historic one-lane bridge – always fun!
31) Learn to surf
It’s no secret that Hawaii and surfing go hand-in-hand. Learning to surf is actually one of the best things to do in Kauai!
A good place to start is by booking a lesson with the Hawaiian School of Surfing at Hanalei Bay on the North Shore.
The beach in Hanalei is known for having smaller waves that don’t reach much past waist- to chest-high, with no coral or rocky bottoms to worry about – perfect for beginners.
You probably won’t be ready to enter the Pipe Masters competition after one lesson, but you’re sure to have 90 minutes’ worth of pure Hawaii-style fun!
32) Walk the Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail
The seaside Maha’ulupu Heritage Trail is a 4-mile roundtrip trail following Kauai’s rugged coastline from Shipwreck Beach to Mahaulepu Beach.
The scenery is spectacular – soaring ochre-colored cliffs, sand dunes, tide pools and crashing blue waves. Gulls cry overhead and the wind cools the sweat off your brow.
Mahaulepu Beach itself is wild and isolated, and we don’t recommend it for swimming. But you may see Hawaiian monk seals sunning on the sand.
We never tire of walking the Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail – it’s one of the best things to do in Kauai for free. (And the “free” part is simply a bonus.)
33) Sway on the Hanapepe Swing Bridge
If you’re looking for fun things to do in Kauai with kids, the Hanapepe Swinging Bridge is a winner!
Once built as a bridge for residents in the 1900s as a way to get across the river, the suspension bridge has become a thrilling delight for adventurous young tikes. It sways and rocks enough to make anyone squeal, including adults.
34) Taste chocolate on a chocolate farm tour
Because… How can you go wrong with chocolate?
A fascinating fact about Kauai is that – as one of the oldest of all the islands of Hawaii – it has the most fertile soil. This translates into prime conditions for cultivating the highest-quality cocoa that makes for some mouth-watering artisan chocolate.
You can taste this delicious chocolate at Lydgate Farms, a picturesque 46-acre farm that sits above the town of Kapa’a.
Book a 3-hour tour of the farm for a super interesting and informative tour of the chocolate-making process. The tour includes strolling their lush gardens and tasting fresh tropical fruit and their award-winning honey along the way.
Then comes the best part – the chocolate tasting! Savor a taste of all the dark chocolate grown on the farm and compare it with other craft chocolates from around the world.
It’s a chocolate experience you don’t want to miss!
35) Hike up the Sleeping Giant
The Sleeping Giant Trail (Nounou East Trail) is a 3.5 mile (roundtrip) moderate hike that climbs up Nounou Mountain. Looking up from the town of Kapa’a below, the mountain looks a little like a giant sleeping on its back, hence its name.
The trail ascends gently through forested mountains at first, then rises quite steeply as you start to switchback up the mountain.
There’s a bit of rock scrambling at the end, and the trail could be muddy and slippery in places, depending on the conditions.
Your reward? Knock-your-socks off views of mountains and the coast in the distance.
To access the trailhead, follow the Haleilio Road to the parking lot, found almost at the end.
Okay, but what about the beaches?
Of course, you can’t visit the island and not go to any beaches. After all, relaxing on a beach is probably the absolute best thing to do in Kauai, right?
Don’t worry. Kauai has lots of popular beaches.
So in case you missed it, here’s our post on the top Kauai beaches for swimming and hanging out.
Now you know what to do in Kauai!
We love Kauai (and have already booked another visit). We hope you also enjoy the island and all the amazing things to do in Kauai.
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Photo credits: 20 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase