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17+ Cool things to do in Kauai (plus the best beaches)

Please only travel when it’s safe to do so.

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!

Things to Do in Kauai

Kauai has also blossomed big time over the years.

Fab new restaurants have exploded onto the scene. And there are now several beautiful hotels in Kauai too.

So what are the best things to do in Kauai today? Read on!

Best Things to Do in Kauai

17+ 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!)

One of the best things to do in Kauai? A Kauai helicopter tour
You can only see Kauai’s spectacular Na Pali Coast by air or sea (Credit: Blue Hawaiian Helicopters)

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.

View of the Na Pali Coast from the air
View of the Na Pali Coast from the air

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.

Kauai helicopter tours

These helicopter companies offer scenic tours:

Jack Harter Helicopter Tours

Blue Hawaiian Helicopters

Safari Helicopter Tours

Mauna Loa Helicopter Tours

2) Go tubing in sugar plantation canals

Let's float gently down the canal on this Kauai tubing adventure!
Let’s float gently down the canal on this Kauai tubing adventure! (Credit: Kauai Backcountry Adventures)

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.

Tubing in Kauai
Getting ready to go tubing through a pitch-black tunnel (Credit: Kauai Backcountry Adventures)

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!

Tubing in Kauai

Tour times: The 3-hour tours are offered at staggered times throughout the day.

Equipment: Gloves and headlamps are provided.

For more information: See Kauai Backcountry Adventures’ website.

3) Learn about monk seals

things to do in Kauai
We love watching the monk seals in Poipu

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.

Sleeping monk seal on Kauai (Credit: Jared Wong, Flickr)
Sleeping monk seal on Kauai (Credit: Jared Wong, Flickr)

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

Creative seafood is the specialty at Red Salt (Credit: 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.

Red Salt, which focuses on seafood, is one of the best restaurants in Kauai
Onaga with citrus curry, beet, ginger, palm hearts and giant snow peas in the bottom photo (Credit: Red Salt)

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.

Where to eat in Kauai? You won't be disappointed with Red Salt
Where to eat in Poipu? You won’t be disappointed with this Kauai restaurant (Credit: Red Salt)

Red Salt is a bit pricey.

But the food sings and is worth the dollars spent.

5) Visit beautiful botanical gardens

Just one of many beautiful blooms at the Allerton Garden and adjacent McBryde Garden
One of the many beautiful blooms at the Allerton Garden and adjacent McBryde Garden (Credit: NTBG)

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 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.

These Moreton Bay fig tree roots played a part in the original Jurassic Park movie
Impressive, right? These Moreton Bay fig tree roots at the Allerton Garden played a part in the original Jurassic Park movie (Credit: NTBG)

Read more: Kauai’s Allerton and McBryde botanical gardens are a must to see!

6) 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.

7) Eat shave ice

Kauai shave ice
The shave ice in Kauai is some of of the most delicious anywhere!

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 this). You can get the fluffy colorful scoops with sweet condensed milk or macadamia nuts on top.

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 (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.

8) Try SUP on a river

Stand on a specially-designed surf board and paddle up the Hule’ia River with Kauai SUP.

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).

You can go paddle boarding in Kauai!
Yes, you can do it! You can go paddle boarding in Kauai! (Credit: Outfitters Kauai)

It’s easy to learn to 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 the SUP adventure up the Hule’ia River, you can also hike through a jungle of vines and jump from a rope into a deep freshwater pool.

9) 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.)

10) Shop at Kukui’ula shopping village

This Poipu shopping village is always popular (Credit: The Shops at Kukui'ula)
This shopping village is always popular (Credit: The Shops at Kukui’ula)

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).

Products for sale at the Wednesday Kauai Culinary Market
Products for sale at the Wednesday farmers market (Credit: Kauai Culinary Market)

And don’t miss the Kauai Culinary Market!

This culinary farmers market held every Wednesday afternoon, with live music and chef demonstrations.

The shops at Kukui’ula

Hours: Opening hours are 10:00 am to 9:00 pm daily.

More information: For a directory of shops, see here.

Shopping in Kauai

What to buy in Kauai?

Some of the best Hawaiian souvenirs include macadamia nuts, Aloha shirts and Koa wood bowls.

Local treats include estate-grown Kauai Coffee; hand-made soaps and candles infused with island fragrances like plumeria, coconut and mango; Aunty Lilikoi jams and passionfruit wasabi mustard; and hand-crafted pottery from Kilohana Plantation

Made in Kauai:

To ensure you’re getting authentic local products made on Kauai, check out Kauai Made – it lists the stores and products.

Psst… The Walmart on Kauai often has the best prices.

Something special?

For a special memento, check out the leis and jewelry made with tiny rare shells by local artisans on the nearby “forbidden” island of Ni’Hau.

11) 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.)

Na Pali Coast boat tours are a popular Kauai activity
We’ve sailed the Na Pali Coast when it was rough (not fun if you’re seasick), and we’ve gone when conditions were perfect (a super day!)

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!

Na Pali Coast boat tours

Various Kauai boat tours sail up the Na Pali Coast. These include large comfortable (and more stable) catamarans and smaller, high-speed, Zodiac-style inflatable rafts. Smaller vessels can go through the sea caves and explore the ancient lava tubes.

Some of the better-known Na Pali boat tour companies are:

Captain Andy’s

Blue Dolphin Charters

Kauai Sea Tours

Holo Holo Charters

12) Watch the Kauai sunset

Kauai sunsets are quite magical
Hanalei is one of the best places for watching the sunset in Kauai

Sunsets are quite magical on Kauai.

You can enjoy the sunset in Kauai most places on the island. But Hanalei is the ultimate Kauai sunset spot.

Plant yourself on the beach at Hanalei and drink in the gorgeous golden scene.

13) 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!

Hiking the Kalalau Trail
This part of the Kalalau Trail may look easy, but don’t underestimate its difficulty!

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!

Note: 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.

Na Pali Coast hike on the Kalalau Trail:

Planning to hike the first two miles from Ke’e Beach? Be prepared!

Wear proper hiking shoes or sneakers (the trail is rugged), and take water and snacks.

14) 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.

Kayaking in Kauai
Paddling gently down the stream, er… river? (Credit: Outfitters Kauai)

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.

Kauai kayak tours

The following adventure outfitters offer Kauai kayaking tours:

Kayak Kauai

Outfitters Kauai

Kayak Hanalei

Kayak Wailua

15) Graze at Bar Acuda

Scallops anyone? (Credit: 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.

16) Take a dip in the Queen’s Bath

The Queen's Bath, Kauai
The Queen’s Bath is a chill place to hang out in the summer

The Queen’s Bath is a natural tide pool of sea water, carved into the lava rock shoreline in Princeville, on the 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 time, and this is the best time to visit the Queen’s Bath.

Exercise caution:

It requires a bit of a hike down a rocky landscape to reach the Queen’s Bath (and the path can get slippery).

In the winter months, between October and May, the northern coast is exposed to big surf. People have drowned here after being swept off the rocks.

17) 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).

On the west side of Kauai, Waimea Canyon is one of the wettest spots on earth

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?

There are many wonderful beaches in Kauai!
There are many wonderful beaches in Kauai!

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. After all, relaxing on a beach is one of the best things to do in Kauai, right?

So let’s cover them anyway!

Best beaches in Kauai
Ahhh, yes, the beach – Kauai has many great beaches!

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).

Beaches down south (e.g., Poipu Beach) are generally best in winter (December to February).

Kapaa Beach is on the east side of Kauai.
Kapaa Beach is on the east side of Kauai

Hanalei Bay:

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.

Best Kauai beaches? Hanalei Bay is a top contender
Best Kauai beaches? Hanalei Bay is a top contender (Credit: Kyle Pearce, Flickr)

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.

Poipu Beach:

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 the most popular beach on Kauai's south shore
Poipu Beach is the most popular beach on Kauai’s south shore

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.

Kalapaki Beach:

Kalapaki Beach is one of the best beaches in Kauai for swimming
Kalapaki Beach is one of the best beaches in Kauai for swimming because the water is typically calm

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).

Read next: Aloha! Check out these Hawaii cruises for families!

What to pack for your beach vacay?

1) Mask and snorkel | To ensure your snorkel mask fits well, you may want to bring your own. This wide-view clear mask by Cressi (a top Italian maker) gets great reviews. Or check out these full-face snorkel masks.

2) Snorkel skin | Protect your skin from the hot sun when snorkeling, swimming and kayaking with a full-body skin, which you wear over your swimsuit. It’s thin, breathable and fast-drying. Ladies – check out this sassy sport skin which has a bit of pizzazz.

3) Cute and comfy sandals | Do your tootsies a favor and check out these fab travel sandals for both men and women that we’ve sussed out!

4) Good camera | You won’t want to miss those great shots of your trip! We love our Sony A600 mirrorless camera – it’s small enough to throw in your purse or backpack, but it takes awesome photos.

5) Beach gear | Flattering bathing suit? Big-brimmed sun hat? Good sunglasses? (We’re a fan of Ray-Bans). Roomy beach bag for your sunscreen, water bottles, books and perhaps a towel or two? You’ll need these for the beach and pool.

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Ready to book your trip?

See the following helpful services:

Our Travel Resources Guide | Get airline booking tips. Discover great travel, tour and car rental companies. And read useful trip planning info!

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GetYourGuide | Check out local tours and book tickets to attractions.

Our Travel Shop | Find the best travel gear.

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Best Things to Do in Kauai

Photo Credits: 18, 29, 30 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase


About the authors:

Janice and George Mucalov

Luxury travel journalists and SATW, NATJA and TMAC “Best Travel Blog” award winners, Janice and George are the owners and founders of Sand In My Suitcase. Between them, they’ve traveled to all 7 continents.

Find destination guides, global food-and-wine stories, articles on cultural explorations and soft adventure trips, luxury hotel reviews, insanely useful travel tips and more!

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Maschelle

Tuesday 4th of June 2019

We go to kauai every year. we actually renewed our vows last year in poipu. Next year we are hoping to look for our forever home there.

Janice and George

Tuesday 4th of June 2019

Kauai is a lovely island -- and what a beautiful place to renew your vows :-) If you find your "forever home" there, make sure it has an extra bedroom for all the family and friends who'll want to visit you!

G. Maria

Sunday 26th of October 2014

I loved Kauai and now I want to go back again after reading this post and seeing your great pics! Red Salt and tubing the sugar plantation canals both sound awesome. Thanks!

Cheers, G.

Christina

Saturday 29th of March 2014

I LOVE Kauai... and I miss it. It's been over a decade since I last visited! I love that I now have 5 new reasons to visit :) The seal program looks truly special, and the Grand Hyatt looks lovely! Sign me up.

Maddie

Thursday 20th of February 2014

The beaches in the southern Poipu area of Kauai are really worth visiting. Seeing a monk seal is exciting.

Donna Hull

Sunday 16th of February 2014

Tubing the sugar plantation canals is one of my all-time favorite Kauai adventures. For next time, I'm adding the Monk Seal Education Program to my boomer to-do list.