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 island” of Kauai has snagged a special spot in our hearts. It’s just so darn picturesque!
Kauai has also blossomed big time over the years. Fab new restaurants. More fun activities. Fine hotels refurbished.
So what are the best things to do in Kauai today? Read on!
12 + 1 Awesome things to do in Kauai
1) Take a Kauai helicopter ride
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.
Most fun? 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 the southern Poipu area 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.
Intrigued? 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 beautiful botanical gardens
“Hang out with shady characters, do-gooders and beauty queens.” So says the van’s sign on the drive into the Allerton-McBryde tropical gardens.
Even if you lack a green thumb, you’ll love these 350-acre conservation grounds (part of the National Tropical Botanical Garden).
On a guided tour, stroll through a cool bamboo forest and outdoor “rooms” with fountains and rippling pools.
Also learn about 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 Jurassic Park.
6) Try SUP on a river
Stand on a specially-designed surf board and paddle up the Hule’ia River with Outfitters Kauai.
Stand-up paddle boarding is the world’s fastest growing watersport. And Kauai’s calm rivers are ideal for SUP (as it’s known for short).
It’s easy to learn SUP in Kauai. You’re a little wobbly at first, but soon you’ll be happily gliding past mangroves and hau bushes, whose yellow sea hibiscus flowers turn scarlet within 24 hours of blooming.
On this SUP adventure, you also hike through a jungle of vines and jump from a rope into a deep freshwater pool.
7) 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?).
Some great restaurants are 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 – the culinary farmers market held every Wednesday afternoon, with live music and chef demonstrations.
8) Sail the Na Pali Coast
Sailing trips up the spectacular Na Pali Coast are also popular 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 – keep an eye out for sea turtles!
9) Hike the Kalalau Trail
The Kalalau Trail is an 11-mile path fringing the Na Pali Coast cliffs in northern Kauai. You join it 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 do this difficult, epic hike.
Most people just tackle the first two miles to Hanakapi’ai Falls, then retrace their steps back. And if you love hiking, this makes for a great day trip – the views of the dramatic sea cliffs are stunning!
It’s not a beginner hike though. And 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.
10) Kayak a river
Kauai has the only navigable rivers in Hawaii. That means great kayaking in Kauai!
The Wailua, Hule’ia and Hanalei rivers are calm picturesque waterways, sprinkled with sea-hibiscus flowers. Kayaking or stand-up paddling combined with hiking, swimming and/or ziplining are offered by several outfitters.
Wailua River adventures usually include a two-mile roundtrip hike to Sacred or 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.
Or if you choose a Hule’ia River excursion (which starts near the cruise ship pier), make like Tarzan at the end by jumping from a rope zipline into a deep jungle pool.
11) Graze at Kauai Grill
It’s worth dining at the Kauai Grill in the Princeville Resort as much for the views as for the food.
If you can keep your eyes off the ruby glass hibiscus chandelier and ocean views out the floor-to-ceiling windows, you’ll delight in the artful presentations of roasted lobster with potato gnocchi and soy-glazed short ribs with green papaya-jalapeno puree.
Can’t decide what to order? Graze on the five-course tasting menu with wine pairing.
(Note: The restaurant is temporarily closed for now, but is scheduled to reopen December 31, 2019.)
12) Gape at Waimea Canyon
Nickhamed the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” Waimea Canyon is another of those Kauai attractions you absolutely must see (along with the Na Pali Coast).
If you’ve rented a 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 along the rim.
Trails off Koke’e Road offer opportunities for hiking too.
Bonus: Hit the best beaches in Kauai
Yes, all of this is great. But what about the beaches?
Well, we did say we’d cover what to do on Kauai besides beaching.
Then again, you can’t visit the island and not go to any Kauai beaches. So let’s cover them anyway!
The first point to note is that different beaches in Kauai are calm and good for swimming at different times of the year. In general, beaches on the north shore (e.g., Hanalei Bay) are best in the summer months (June to August), while beaches down south (e.g., Poipu Beach) are best in winter (December to February).
Located on Kauai’s north shore, Hanalei Bay is right at the top of the list of best beaches in Kauai. This is where you want to be in summer for swimming and stand-up paddle boarding, as the bay is calm this time of year.
Set against a backdrop of lush green hills, Hanalei Beach boasts two miles of soft powdery sand. There’s lots of room to shake out your towel here, and the beach never feels crowded.
On the south shore, Poipu Beach – named by the Travel Channel as one of “America’s Best Beaches” – is a great hot spot in winter.
Dry and sunny, the Poipu area has its own micro-climate. Even when the rest of the island is cloudy or drizzling with rain, Poipu can be sunny with blue skies.
Poipu Beach is a series of golden sand coves. Protected by a reef, a smaller crescent offers shallow swimming that’s perfect for wee ones to splash about in. A larger bay is great for swimming and boogie-boarding in the waves.
If hunger strikes, make your way to Brennecke’s Beach Broiler. Right on the beach and with a great surfer-hip vibe, it’s the ideal place for a casual lunch (or dinner) with an ocean-view.
The gold sand crescent of Kalapaki Beach is just a short walk from Nawiliwili Harbor on the east coast, where cruise ships dock.
Protected from the surf, its calm waters are ideal for swimming. Or try stand-up paddle boarding; you can rent a board from a beach vendor.
It’s also fun to see the cruise ships pass by (usually late in the afternoon or at sunset).
Photos © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase (except where noted)