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Kauai – The Ultimate Tropical Paradise
My parents honeymooned on Kaua’i. I’m not sure if it was that little piece of their history, the opening scene from Jurassic Park, or the occasional photo I’d come across of impossibly green ridges jutting out of a wild ocean, but Kaua’i has always had a special allure to me. A romantic paradise floating in the middle of the Pacific waiting to be explored.
Of course, Kaua’i is not alone out there. It’s surrounded by its sister Hawaiian islands. Each one uniquely attractive in her own way. I grew up going to The Big Island. Expansive and covered in black lava rock, The Big Island always felt like an uncharted world – stark and empty. Then there was Maui, the glamorous sister, famous for her 5-star resorts and pristine beaches. Oahu has a little bit of everything. A bustling metropolitan city, the world’s most renowned surf, and dramatic scenery. And then there’s Kaua’i – The Garden Isle. The oldest of all the sisters, Kaua’i, is endowed with unrivaled natural beauty. Which is saying a lot considering she’s part of an archipelago that is world-renowned for its good looks. Needless to say, it’s not hard to find the perfect slice of tropical paradise in her verdant embrace.
I’ve been fortunate enough to visit Kaua’i a hand full of times now in the last few years, and the following things to do on Kauai are some of my favorite ways to experience this special island.
Where To Stay On Kaua’i
The Sheraton Kauai Coconut Beach Resort was kind enough to host Quin and me during our trip to Kaua’i. A lot of accommodations on Kaua’i are located either on the southern coast or the northern coast, which means if you’re interested in exploring the entire island, you’re in for A LOT of driving. The Sheraton at Coconut Beach, on the other hand, is centrally located, so you can easily explore all sides of Kaua’i. Plus, the Coconut Beach Resort just underwent a massive renovation. The Sheraton did a great job seamlessly incorporating the outdoors into all their new communal spaces. This upgrade made me feel like I could still enjoy the natural beauty of Kaua’i without needing to leave the hotel. And I don’t know about you, but as much as I love a good adventure while I’m traveling, it’s also really lovely to take a few down days just to lay around the pool, read, and relax.
The Best Things To Do In Kaua’i
Every time I visit the island of Kaua’i, it seems like my Kaua’i bucket list just get’s longer and longer! But I’m not complaining. It’s one of my favorite places on earth, and I’m always looking for an excuse to go back. Whether you are an avid hiker or you prefer to spend your vacations lounging on the beach, Kaua’i has something for you!
Enjoy One Of These Top Kaua’i Hikes
Kaua’i has to be one of my favorite hiking destinations! Plus, hiking is the best (and in some cases, the only) way to experience some of Kauai’s most scenic vistas. Because Kaua’i is a small island, its fragile ecosystems are even more susceptible to environmental pressures such as erosion and invasive species than other popular hiking destinations. Moreover, many of the trail systems are unregulated, they suffer from erosion issues and are particularly susceptible to cross-contamination for invasive species. So please use best practice guidelines when hiking in Hawai’i. Please consider taking the time to read through my friend Chelsea Kauai’s helpful guide about Mindful Hiking in Hawai’i before hitting any trails.
One last note on hiking in Kaua’i. The trails are often EXTREMELY MUDDY, and your shoes will likely never be the same. Especially if it happens to rain while you’re there – which it probably will at some point. This is one of the wettest places on earth after all! Other than just being messy, the mud can make for some very slippery conditions. I would highly recommend bringing hiking shoes with good traction, and maybe even trekking poles if you want to be extra careful. Both Quin and I took some pretty nasty spills while we were there (not surprising for me, but Quin never falls!).
If you have time for a longer hike while you are on Kaua’i, then I would highly recommend the Awa’awapuki Trail. Like many of the hikes in Koke’e State Park, the Awa’awapuhi Trail winds its way down through dense forest until it abruptly hits the coast. That’s where the real magic happens. At the official lookout, you’re greeted by dramatic drop-offs on either side of the Awa’awapuhi Ridge and views up and down the Nā Pali Coast as far as you can see.
Logistics: This trail is a moderately challenging 6.5-mile hike – and can take longer than expected in wet conditions. You will descend 1500 ft on the way out to the lookout. That means you will have to gain back all that elevation on the way back, so keep that in mind when rationing your energy and provisions, like water.
Nu’alolo Ridge Trail
In many respects, the Nu’alolo Ridge Trail is very similar to the Awa’awapahi Trail. In fact, if you are feeling ambitious, you can actually connect the two trails in a giant loop. However, because they are so similar, I would suggest choosing one, rather than attempting to squeeze in both these classic Kaua’i hikes. That is unless you’re lucky enough to have a good chunk of time on the island – then, by all means, do both! The last quarter mile or so before the Nu’alolo lookout, the trail breaks out of the forest onto a narrow ridge with an impressive drop-off to the right side. Along this portion of the trial, you can see deep into the valley below all the way out to the azure waters of the Nā Pali Coast.
Logistics: The Nu’alolo Ridge Trail is a 7.5-mile hike inside the Koke’e State Park. Like the Awa’awapuhi Trail, you will lose quite a bit of elevation on the way out, and then gain it all back on your return. That being said, I actually found going up-hill easier than going down, because I had more control navigating the mud.
Waipo’o Falls Trail Via Canyon Trail
The Waipo’o Falls Trail leads you to an expansive view overlooking the Waimea Canyon before ending at Waipo’o Falls. This 3.6 mile out and back trail has a few separate viewpoints, all of which are worth checking out. It should be noted that despite the name of the trail, you won’t actually ever get a solid view of the Waipo’o Falls, because the trail ends at the top of the falls. You can really only see the beginning of the waterfall. The best views of Waipo’o Fall are actually from the opposite side of Waimea Canyon.
Logistics: Waipo’o Falls Trail can actually be attempted from several different trailheads, but the most straight forward is from the popular Pu’u Hinahina parking lot inside the Koke’e State Park. The trail is well defined and generally easy due to its relatively short length. That being said, when Quin and I did this hike, we passed a few groups that had turned around because they felt unsafe on the mud.
Kalalau Trail (Nā Pali Coast Trail)
The Kalalau Trail is arguably one of the most famous hiking trails in the world. The 11-mile trail winds along the dramatically scenic Nāpali Coast from Ke’e Beach to Kalalau Beach, where you can set up camp and pretend you were shipwrecked on a tropical paradise for a night, or several days. Hiking the Kalalau Trail is a once in a lifetime experience that requires a permit. You can find more details about my experience hiking the trail, as well as permitting logistics on my blog post dedicated to backpacking Kauai’s Kalalau Trail.
For those that don’t have days to spend hiking the Kalalau Trail, there is another option! You are allowed to hike the first two miles of the trail down to Hanakāpīʻai Beach (4 miles round trip) without a permit. From there, you can extend your hike two additional miles inland to Hanakāpīʻai Falls (8 miles round trip). These day hike options still offer stunning views, and I would highly suggest adding it to your Kaua’i itinerary. While you won’t need a permit to hike this section of the Kalalau Trail, all day-use visitors make a parking reservation online before arriving. Reservations are limited to reduce overcrowding on the trail. You can make reservations up to 30 days in advance, and no later than the day before you plan to visit the park.
Take A Doors Off Helicopter Tour in Kaua’i
Short of backpacking out to Kalalau Beach, perhaps the most awe-inspiring way to experience the Nā Pali Coast is from a helicopter. And if you are hoping to get that perfect photograph to share with friends back home, then a doors-off ride is the way to go! At the time of writing, only Mauna Loa Helicopter Tours offered doors-off tours. Note, this is not for the faint of heart (no helicopter ride is), but if you can stomach it, it’s an experience you won’t soon forget!
See the Kauai’s Nā Pali Coast By Boat Tour
Another great way to experience the Nā Pali Coast is by boat! Not only will you get to see the famed Kalalau Beach without actually putting in the effort to hike to it, but you’re also likely to see massive pods of dolphins and maybe even some whales too. I did a boat tour with Go Blue Adventures and really enjoyed it. That being said, I think any boat ride is probably more enjoyable in the summer when the water tends to be a lot calmer.
Explore Kauai’s Waimea Canyon
Even if you’re not up for a hike, you shouldn’t miss out on Koke’e State Park! The park is located at the end of a long, windy (but well maintained) road on Kaui’s Northwestern Coast. As the crow flies, it’s actually quite close to the North shore, but the highway that circumnavigates most of Kaua’i does not traverse the Nā Pali Coast, so you essentially have to drive around the entire island to get there. There are four lookouts you can stop at along this road to enjoy some jaw-dropping views of Waimea Canyon and Kalalau Valley.
There are some unofficial pullouts along the road that takes you up to Koke’e State Park (Hwy 55). You can stop at any of these to snap some photos, but the first two official lookouts you will see are the Waimea Canyon Lookout at mile marker 10, and the Pu’u Hinahina Lookout, around mile marker 13. Several hikes also start at the Pu’u Hinahina Lookout, including the Waipo’o Falls Trail.
About 5 miles further up Hwy 55, you will see signs to the Kalalau Lookout. The view here is beautiful, but in my opinion, it’s not quite as good as the view at the Pu’u O Kila Lookout just a mile further up the road. If you’re short on time and can only stop at one lookout, this would probably be the one I recommend. From here, you can enjoy expansive views of the Kalalau Valley, it’s many many jagged ridges, and the azure blue Pacific far down below.
Drive To Kauai’s Wailua Falls
Kaua’i has no shortage of waterfalls, but Wailua Falls is arguably the crown jewel. Not only do these picturesque twin falls encapsulate the strikingly lush beauty of Kaua’i, they are also incredibly accessible. Unlike many of Kauai’s waterfalls, Wailua can be enjoyed within almost no effort at all. Simply park your car and enjoy the view! If the sun hits just right, you might even get a rainbow or two.
Paddleboard Hanalei Bay & Explore THE Town
Hanalei is a quintessential little surf town tucked away up on Kauai’s north shore. Here you will find health stores, food trucks, cute boutique shops, and of course, surf shops. It’s also easy to rent a surf or paddleboard in Hanalei. On a calm day, pick out a stand-up paddleboard, head to Hanalei Bay, and enjoy quintessential Kaua’i views from the water. Afterward, you can head back into town to feast at one of the delicious restaurants, or pick up lunch to-go at one of the yummy food trucks. My favorites while I was there was Fresh Bite.
Escape The Crowds at Tunnels Beach in Kaua’i
There are a lot of beautiful beaches in Kaua’i, but Tunnels Beach might be my favorite. Located on the remote north shore toward the end of the Kuhio Highway, Tunnels is wedged between beautiful turquoise water and towering mountains. If you’re lucky, you might even see an endangered Hawaiian Monk Seal enjoying the beach. If you are so fortunate, remember to respect its space and give the animal a wide-berth.
If I had to plan one perfect day up on the north shore, I would start with coffee or brunch in Hanalei, then I’d hike the first 2 miles of the Nā Pali Coast Trail (don’t forget to get a parking permit in advance!). After the hike I’d head to Tunnels Beach for some fun in the sun. I might even stay until it sets.
Whatever you decide to do during your time in Kaua’i, don’t forget to slow down, and soak in some of the Aloha spirit. There’s no where else quite like Kaua’i, and I hope this Kauai travel guide will help you bring back memories that will last a lifetime!
Photos for this blog were created in collaboration with Quin Schrock. I can never thank him enough for his ability to make the best moments stand still just long enough to capture them forever.
A special thanks to Sheraton Hotels for hosting us in Kaua’i. As always, all ideas and opinions expressed in this post are entirely my own.