Do you dream of digging your toes into white powdery sand or wading into warm crystal clear waters?
Or is the dream to snorkel with vivid coral reefs amongst gigantic sea turtles?
Maybe it is lounging on a catamaran, umbrella drink in hand, watching the spinner dolphins play in the surrounding water?
Or is it soaring through the air in a helicopter over one of the wettest places on Earth?
Whatever your wildest Hawaiian dreams are made of, rest assured you will live them out in Kauai!
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Kauai Trip Planning
Kauai is the quintessential Hawaiian destination. Even if you don’t realize it, I’m sure you’ve seen photos or movies featuring this relaxing and pristine island. Jurassic Park, anyone?
Kauai is known as the Garden Island and once you set foot on the ground you’ll quickly see why. Ranging from beautiful clear water and white sand beaches to lush forests with miles of hiking trails to the dramatic rugged coastline that is Na’Pali, Kauai is the world’s ultimate outdoor playground.
If you don’t know, Kauai is the second most Western island of Hawaii. The island of Niihau is about 20 miles off the coast of Kauai but is largely closed to tourists in order to preserve the history and culture of the island. I have heard through the grapevine that there are some helicopter tours that will do half day visits to Niihau, but they are quite spendy and there is no interaction with the local people.
Ultimate Tour Guide to Kauai
Day Zero: Arrival Day
Getting to Kauai is not tough, but it is a very long day. Depending on where you are coming from will determine if you have one or two stops. I flew into the Lihue airport from Minneapolis with one short layover in Los Angeles, California. Total travel time was about 10-11 hours.
We were all traveling to Kauai for my brother’s wedding. My other brother just happened to land shortly after I did (he doesn’t live in Minnesota and flew in on a separate flight) so after I found my bags I spent some time wandering around the airport waiting for him. The airport is pretty small, but it’s largely open air so as soon as you land you’re hit with the warm salty air and realize you’re now on island time. Makes me want to kick off my shoes, put on a bikini, and go swimming!
After Stephen and I met up we hit the rental cars and picked up our spiffy 4 door hard-top Jeep Wrangler. You’ll find as you’re driving around Kauai that most of the rental cars are Wranglers. If you have any plans on driving the North Shore (which you should) or visiting Waimea Canyon (which you should) or driving your car onto the beach (which maybe you shouldn’t, but you probably should) save yourself the heartache of digging a Prius out of the sand and rent a Jeep.
Due to some logistics (Us deciding to travel a day before our AirBNB reservation) we spent the first night at the Sheraton Kauai Resort. The super cool thing about this resort is that it is right on Poipu beach and the whole campus sits on about 20 acres on Kauai’s southern coast.
Poipu beach is gorgeous and is one of the top rated beaches in the country.
Another cool thing? Monk seals.
You are almost guaranteed to see the seals laid up on the beach, casually reading a book while sunning themselves. Well, maybe not reading a book, but they’re relaxed AF and don’t mind us annoying tourists watching them. With that said, be a good person and always give marine mammals, or any animal, the space they deserve.
So, by now it’s pretty late in the evening. Once you’re checked in and lei’d (heyyyo) head down to Lava’s for a drink and dinner!
Day One: Get to know Poipu
I usually like dedicating my first day somewhere as a quiet, relaxing day. I like to do a little bit of sightseeing but I want to get my bearings about my new home first. So, that’s what I’m going to recommend you do!
Another neat thing about the Sheraton is the multitude of activities they offer. Anything from snorkeling, scuba, yoga, lei making, and more can be found here. The schedule changes monthly so stop down at the desk for an updated one.
While we were there we…
Made a lei…
…and tried our hardest to master the ukulele. Kudos to anyone who can play that instrument – it’s so hard!
We also took the island craft class and made a seashell bracelet.
Once you’ve completed a few of the classes and had lunch, a walk down to the beach would be nice.
Feel free to swim or layout anywhere. Also, there are many snorkel shops in town that rent out gear on the cheap…like $20 or something for the week. I recommend doing that on day one and just keeping it in your car. As you’re driving around the island in the coming days you’ll find many incredible spots to stop off and go for a swim.
Now, if most of you planned your trip properly you can skip over this part. But if you did what we did and went down a day earlier than planned, check out of the hotel and head over to your swanky Airbnb!
Y’all know I love staying at Airbnb’s, especially with a large group of people.
ALSO, IF YOU SIGN UP THROUGH MY LINK TO AIRBNB YOU’LL GET A $40 CREDIT FOR YOUR FIRST STAY!
My sister finally made it to town so now we’re really ready to rock! If you do end up renting a house you can head out to the grocery store – Kauai has a Costco! and stock up on stuff for the week.
Day Two: The North Shore
Head out pretty early this morning because we’re driving the North Shore!
But first, a TURTLE!
Driving the North Shore is one of Kauai’s must-do activities. Do not leave the island without doing so! From Lihue, you’ll head up the East coast making your first stop in the town of Wailua.
You can enter Wailua River State Park and see the lush forest, river, and the Opaeka waterfalls.
Next up, keep driving up towards Kapaa. We’re going to be stopping at Ono Ono for some shave ice! It’s a TINY place, tucked away in the back corner of a strip mall, next to a bike rental shop and a shoe shop. You’ll see shave ice places everywhere, but hold out for the good stuff. And by good stuff, I mean Ono Ono.
This place is basically synonymous with Kauai. And they’re the best on the island. Shave ice is infinitely better than a snow cone because the ice is so fine that it almost instantly melts in your mouth. You’ll find that the syrup flavor is much more prominent than a typical snow cone as well…yum.
You’re met by friendly staff and tons of menu options. You’ll find the classic flavors, but also some interesting ones like taro. Taro is a purple potato that is locally grown and sort of taste like a sweet potato. Be sure to make the right decision and get ice cream in the center.
Also, they’re the size of a small child.
Next up, Kilauea lighthouse! It’s about a 30-minute drive if there is no traffic. If so, just make some extra stops and gawk at the pretty scenery. Kilauea lighthouse sits at the northernmost point of the island and is a treasure trove for birders. The whole area (which is a dormant volcano) is listed as a wildlife refuge and home to many of Hawaii’s seabirds. If you’re lucky you can also spot seals, sea turtles, and humpback whales frolicking about.
From Kilauea, you’ll make your way to Princeville on the way to the Hanalei Valley Overlook. While in Princeville make sure your car is full of gas, this is the last place to fill up!
The Hanalei Valley Overlook is one of the most photographed overlooks in all of Hawaii. It’s easy to see why though, right? Mountains, waterfalls, the aptly named Hanalei river, taro fields, and birds. That’ll do.
Keep progressing forward, stopping at any of the North Shore beaches as they’re all incredible. Do check which beaches are okay for swimming – some of them are not appropriate due to the strong undercurrents. The end of the road will be Kee Beach so hang out here for a bit and then turn around and proceed back down to Lihue.
Or, if you’re feeling adventurous you can go for a little hike, keep reading for more information on that!
Oh, but don’t forget to stop at the roadside stands for a fresh coconut!
Day Three: Snorkeling
Get ready because today we’re going snorkeling! Are you stoked? I hope so!
We booked the Napali snorkel sail with Holo Holo Charters. The tour states it is about 5 hours in length, but if my memory serves me correctly, I think we were out a bit longer. The tour departs around 8:30 with an 8:00 check-in. On board the 50-foot catamaran you’ll find a continental breakfast, drinks, water, lunch, beer, and wine (alcohol after snorkeling only).
As the tour is named the Napali snorkel sail you will have two chances to jump off the boat for a snorkel before making your way around to the Napali coast.
The snorkeling wasn’t the best I’ve ever done, but it was still really fun. We were out on a very windy day and had to change our snorkel locations from the usual, so maybe that was why it wasn’t that impressive.
After snorkeling, hop back on board, get yourself a drink, sit back, and relax. As you’re sailing through the water keep your eyes out for spinner dolphins! We happened upon a huge pod of them just enjoying life. They are little and very fast so definitely try to take video instead of photos!
Once you reach the Napali coast make sure you’re sitting down because IT. IS. ROUGH. We had several people on our boat get sea sick so if you have a weak stomach try to sit towards the back of the boat. Also, don’t drink too much alcohol – that won’t bode well, haha.
But seriously. How pretty is Napali? It is definitely a true wonder.
Napali remains so pristine due to its geography and the fact that it is largely inaccessible. The 15-mile stretch of sheer cliffs that drop thousands of feet straight into the ocean makes this a very tough landscape for anyone to traverse.
There is an epic, albeit very strenuous 11-mile (22 round trip) hike on the Kalalau Trail that you can take from Kee beach (the end of the road on the North Shore) to the Kalalau Valley. The trail is rated 9 out of 10 on difficulty so you really should be in good hiking shape before attempting. Your tough work will be rewarded with miles of unspoiled beaches, sea caves, and electric blue waters.
The trail can be completed in sections, the most popular being the stretch from Kee to Hanakapiai. This stretch is either four or eight miles roundtrip depending on your ending location.
Be careful at Hanakapiai Beach as there are no lifeguards and it can be quite dangerous. If you do plan on hiking the whole trail and camping out in Napali, you will need to get a state permit. These are very popular and usually sell out quickly so plan your trip accordingly.
Day Four: Helicopter Tour
Now that you’ve seen Napali from the ocean, wait till you see it from the air!
We booked our flight around the island with Jack Harter Helicopters and had literally the best time ever. I know it’s expensive at $290 a person, but please please please put this in your budget as you will not regret it!
You will be taken up in the air by a very experienced pilot on either a 4 or 6 seater helicopter. They offer both a 60-minute and a 90-minute tour. Before leaving the staff will assign seats based on weight to obtain an even distribution and you’ll be given a safety lesson.
After that is out of the way – it’s time to fly!
What I liked about this tour was that there was not pre-recorded information during the flight. Everyone is given a two-way way head set and you are able to converse with each other and the pilot.
Also, the pilot will play a very specific playlist that correlates to the area you are flying over. Jurassic Park theme song when flying over the waterfalls… Over the rainbow when you’re flying near Mt Waialeale etc etc. The music truly made the flight incredible!
After this, feel free to explore the island, go shopping, or lay on the beach. This was wedding day for us!
The wedding took place on the beach behind the Grand Hyatt – just beautiful.
Day Five: Ziplining, Snorkeling, and Shopping
We booked our ziplining outing with Koloa Zipline for two reasons:
- Longest zip line in Kauai at a half mile!
- The flying Kaua’ian harness which allows you to fly head first across the zip lines #omgyes
The Koloa Zipline course takes place on 22,000 acres of Hawaii’s first sugar plantation. The standard zip line tour lasts about 3.5 hours, covers 8 zips, and it’ll set you back about $150. Like the helicopter tour, there is a weight restriction so check that first.
You do stop for a snack break about halfway through the course.
But beware of T-Rex!
T-Rex loves snacks.
Comin’ in hot!
Not really – this was the longest zip and I got stuck about 3/4 of the way through and had to be rescued.
Once the zip lining extravaganza is over, feel free to relax on the beach and snorkel a bit more.
Same turtle…different day. The life.
If you enjoy shopping, spend the afternoon browsing the Hawaii trading post and other cute little shops on the island.
Day Six: Waimea Canyon
Today, we’re heading West!
Waimea Canyon is known as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific” and for good reason. While it is not as old or impressive as the Grand Canyon in Arizona, Waimea is well deserving of your visit.
The canyon is about 14 miles long, 1 mile wide, and over 3,500 feet deep. As you’re driving you’ll have panoramic views of ridges, valleys, and gorges for miles.
Continue the drive all the way up to the lookout point for breathtaking views. Be prepared to be blown away.
If you continue your drive along Waimea Canyon Road you’ll pass through Mt Waialeale area and end your drive at Kokee State Park.
Mt Waialeale is considered the second wettest spot on planet Earth. Waialeale means “overflowing water” in Hawaiian which makes sense with the average rainfall of 450-500 inches of rain per year!
For a fun jeopardy question: The wettest spot on Earth is Mawsynram in India which just barely beats out Mt Waialeale.
After you’ve explored the area to your satisfaction drive back to Waimea and watch the sunset on the beach.
And drive your Wrangler on the beach for a bonfire!
Day Seven: Kayaking and a Luau
Today is the last day in Kauai, whomp whomp.
We spent part of the morning walking along Poipu beach for the last time.
And breaking all the rules.
I don’t think I’ve mentioned this yet but Kauai is overrun with chickens! They are everywhere. I happen to love chickens, but I can see how they would be annoying to a lot of people.
After the morning walk, let’s go kayaking! I don’t remember what company we booked this through, but it was sort of a last minute excursion.
We mostly had tandem kayaks, which if you’ve never done before can be a total shit show. We somehow managed to complete the tour and not have killed each other.
Stephen managed to snag one of the two single boats before anyone else could.
The tour was pretty fun, it involved a shortish kayak portion, a little hike through the forest, and swimming at a waterfall.
Tonight, we’re driving back up to Kapaa for a traditional luau. If you remember, Kapaa is where Ono Ono is located so you know…when in Rome…
We did extensive research on the luaus in Kauai and settled on Smith’s Family Luau because of the overwhelming number of positive reviews. Tickets are about $100 per person which includes a huge buffet-style dinner featuring kalua pig that has been roasted in the ground. They make a big production out of taking the pig from the oven so make sure you catch that.
Then, it’s time for the show!
I’ve never been to a luau before so I don’t really know how this one compares, but I had a great time. The show starts with the slow hula and moves into various dances, chants, and songs from other cultures. You’ll see the Tahitian drum dance, the Samoan fire dance, and some really intense shouting from New Zealand, maybe?
Day Eight: Head home
The time in Kauai ends here, but if you still aren’t finished with Hawaii catch a quick flight and explore another island!
Until next time,
IS ANYONE PLANNING A TRIP TO OR PREVIOUSLY VISITED KAUAI?
WHAT ABOUT THE OTHER HAWAIIAN ISLANDS?
COMMENT BELOW AND LET ME KNOW!
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