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.
It’s just so darn picturesque!
21 Awesome things to do in Kauai
Kauai has also blossomed big time over the years.
You probably know there are wonderful beaches in Kauai for swimming and soaking up the rays.
But 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 (besides the beach)? 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 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.
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
There’s a reason Kauai is known as the garden island. You only need to look at its five 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).
Read more: Kauai’s Allerton and McBryde botanical gardens are a must to see!
Other botanical gardens:
On the northern part of Kauai, the Limahuli Garden and Preserve is also part of the National Tropical Botanical Garden collection (along with the Allerton and McBryde gardens).
Built on a terraced mountainside, 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.
Also check out the Na Aina Kai Botanical Gardens in Kilauea.
It goes against the grain by featuring 120+ bronze sculptures. These gardens make for a good family outing – kids, especially, are drawn to the 16-foot “Jack and the Beanstalk” fountain in the children’s garden.
And in Princeville, you can learn about chocolate making and taste chocolate at the Princeville Botanical Gardens, while also enjoying splendid views of the island.
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
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.
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).
8) 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. You can 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.
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
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!
This culinary farmers market held every Wednesday afternoon, with live music and chef demonstrations.
11) 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!
12) Watch the sunsets 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.
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!
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: 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 adventurous things to do on Kauai.
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.
14) 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.
15) 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.
16) 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.
17) 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.
18) 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 by foot too.
19) 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 (19912) 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).
20) 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!
21) 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.
The isolated beach is wild and we wouldn’t recommend it for swimming. But you may see Hawaiian monk seals sunning on the sand.
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.
Read next: Aloha! Check out these Hawaii cruises for families!
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Photo Credits: 20 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase