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The Island of Kauai: Peaceful, Lush, and Wildly Spectacular!

Updated: Feb 2


Kauai's Kalalau Valley


Kauai, the Garden Isle of Hawaii, retains a wild beauty beyond compare - with waterfalls that carve their way down canyons, green mountains that soar out of the sea, and a call for natural adventures that complements the island's easy aloha spirit. Kauai is so green it almost makes your eyes hurt. Especially with all the rain we had on our recent trip. But with the rain comes rainbows! 🌧🌈


Kauai is the northern-most island of Hawaii and the least populated of the main four - Oahu, Maui, the Big Island, and Kauai. Oahu, home to Honolulu and Waikiki Beach, is the same size as Kauai but is much more densely populated with more than 1 million residents. Kauai, on the other hand, has just 70,000, so it retains that small town charm and wild natural beauty.


Kauai L to R: Kuilau hike, Hawaiian shaved ice, Lydgate State Park (photo credit Hawaii Tourism Authority)


This was my third time on Kauai, but it was my first stay in Poipu on the south shore. When I visited Kauai in ’99 and ’07, I stayed on the north shore in Hanalei and Princeville, which seem a world apart from Poipu. The weather in Poipu is sunnier and drier than the north shore, so most of the more traditional and more popular resorts are concentrated there. However, the whole island was pretty stormy on our recent trip. That’s the thing about Kaua’i – it’s wild and it’s unpredictable!


Photo credit: Hawaii Tourism Authority


Given nature is more common than buildings or roads (70% of the island is inaccessible by car as you can see by the map above), Kauai is not the easiest island to visit. It takes some work to see all that beauty, but it's worth it! Plan on multiple days of driving as well as a helicopter tour, because it's the only way to see it all!


Spectacular Kauai from above



Kauai top 6 things to do

1. Helicopter tour

2. Day on the North Shore

3. Waimea Canyon and beyond - drive + hike

4. Plan to be adventurous – Mountain tubing, Waterfall rappel, Ziplining, ATV and more!

5. Get out on the water around the Napali Coast*

6. Soak it all in – stop for waterfalls, shaved ice and coconuts on the side of the road, botanical gardens, lookouts and beaches. If you see a bunch of cars, stop and explore!


*Seas can be rough in Kauai, especially in the winter, so if seasickness is an issue, leave #5 off your list. We were there in winter our last trip and waters were rough, so getting out on the water was not an option.



#1 Helicopter tour

A bird's eye view is the best way to see all the beauty of Kauai's Napali Coast and Waimea Canyon, so I hope a helicopter ride is on your bucket list! Blue Hawaiian is the best - book them in advance and plan it early in your trip in case it has to be rescheduled due to weather. Luckily, I did a helicopter tour my first visit to Kauai, but on our recent trip, we were only in the air for a few minutes before we had to turn back due to storms, and we were never able to reschedule. :(


My first ride in Kauai was a go in '99. Our recent one was cut short due to storms.



#2 Day on the North Shore

If you’re staying in Poipu or on the east side, plan on multiple days of driving. You’ll spend the day in the car seeing all the sights on the North Shore. It takes about an hour to get there from Poipu, but you’ll be in and out of the car all day to see it all – Wailua Falls, Kapa’a town, Kilauea Lighthouse, Hanalei Bay and Hanalei Town, and the drive to the end of the road with all the amazing stops along the way. Make sure you get a permit ahead of time if you want to park at the end and hike part of the Kalalau Trail (www.gohaena.com).


All the beauty of Kauai's North Shore


#3 Waimea Canyon

Waimea Canyon, the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, and the adjacent Koke'e State Park offer stunning vistas and challenging hikes as well as another full day of driving if you want to see it all including the Kalalau Valley, one of the most beautiful places on earth. Here's where staying in Poipu comes in handy - Waimea Canyon is only an hour's drive from Poipu whereas it's a 2-hour drive from the North Shore.


Kauai's Waimea Canyon and Kalalau Valley



#4 Plan to be adventurous

Kauai's wild terrain makes for amazing natural adventures! My most vivid memory of Kauai is kayaking 17 miles around the Napali coast with my childhood friend, Kim. She thought I was crazy for suggesting it, but it’s something we’ll never forget! Riding the waves in the open ocean, taking breaks in caves with windows open to the sky, not being able to move my arms once we landed on shore but being so that I didn’t mind. Maybe next visit my kids will be ready for this challenge!


Kayaking Kauai's Napali Coast


This trip we had planned to waterfall rappel, but my new hip was not cooperating, so we mountain tubed instead. This half-day excursion leaves from Lihue by the airport and takes you up to Mt. Wai'ale'ale - the wettest place on Earth - for breathtaking views. Then it's on to the old sugar plantation water chutes where we donned our helmets and heavy duty tubes for the ride down the rapids and through the tunnels. This adventure is unique to Kauai and is a traveler favorite. The water is cold, but you get used to it. Although from the look on my daughter's face, I'm guessing this would be an easier adventure in the summer when it's warmer and less rainy. I swear she was having fun!


Kauai Backcountry Adventures Mountain Tubing


While I toured resorts, my husband and kids tackled the Triple Trail Waterfall ATV Expedition at Kipu Ranch. Now we're all excited for ATVing on the beach in Costa Rica! Other adventures on Kauai include ziplining, horseback riding, watersports, and more!

Kipu Ranch Triple Trail ATV Expedition


#5 Get out on the water

If you're on Kauai in the summer, I highly recommend getting out on the water around the Napali coast. Winter months are tricky given the rough water, so I don't recommend it then unless everyone in your party has strong stomachs. You can take a catamaran or venture out in an expedition raft, which can get into the sea caves! Watersports and whale watching aren't as easy in Kauai, which is why we went back to Maui to surf, kayak and see the whales!

The Napali Coast by boat




#6 Soak it all in

One of my favorite things about Kauai is its laid-back charm and lack of commercialization. So on days when you're exploring with no set plans, take the time to be spontaneous! If you see a bunch of cars parked on the side of the road, stop and see what's up. It could be a beautiful lookout or amazing beach or maybe it's just ice cold coconuts for sale. Make sure you get Hawaiian shaved ice and add all the extras they recommend, like a snow cap. Stop for a coffee or bite to eat in that charming town on the side of the road. Kapa'a is on the way to the North Shore and is where I had the best avocado toast of my life!


Laid back Kauai




 


Kauai: Where to stay

Kauai offers three main locations to stay: Poipu to the south, Lihue/Coconut Coast to the east, and Princeville/Hanalei to the north. All three locations are vastly different and have their advantages and disadvantages. Unfortunately, no location has it all.



Poipu (south shore)

Poipu Pros:

  • Sunniest and driest, although there are no guarantees on Kauai, especially in winter!

  • Best beaches (easy to get to, walkable, most are typically swimmable)

  • More traditional beachfront resorts and highest luxury (other than the new resort opening in Hanalei on the North Shore)

Poipu Cons:

  • True Kauai is on the North Shore, so plan on doing multiple days of driving if you want to experience it.


 

Lihue/Coconut Coast (east side)

Lihue Pros:

  • Budget-friendly resorts and hotels

  • By the airport and centrally-located so less driving than Poipu to get to popular excursions and the North Shore

Lihue Cons:

  • Resorts are not as charming or luxurious and area is somewhat industrial

  • Beaches can get pollution and storm run-off


 

Princeville and Hanalei (north shore)

North Shore Pros:

  • The North Shore is true Kauai with dramatic landscapes, picture-perfect beaches, charming towns, and limited commercialization.

North Shore Cons:

  • If you want a traditional beachfront resort with all the amenities and service, your only option is the 5+ star 1 Hanalei Bay, which is opening soon and is formerly the Princeville Resort where my husband and I stayed on our babymoon. You'll need a big budget if you want to stay here.

  • Only other "resort" options are two timeshare properties with limited amenities and service. Other options are AirBnB type offerings.

  • Weather is unpredictable – plan for rainy and cloudy days.


 

Poipu Resorts

As always, I stole away from my family to tour resorts, so I can provide my clients with personal recommendations and build relationships on the island. When my clients have a special request, it's always better to call someone you know! Read below for an overview of the Poipu resorts I toured. For full resort reviews, join our Facebook community.


Sprawling across 50 acres of a sugar plantation, the Grand Hyatt Kauai is one of the most beautiful resorts I've had the pleasure of experiencing. On Kauai where no building can be higher than a coco palm, the Grand Hyatt is built into the hillside in tiers, so no view is obstructed. From our balcony, we gazed out upon gardens that stretched to the ocean. It was only after exploring the grounds a bit that we realized that our breakfast restaurant was underneath those grounds with its own gorgeous view. That intelligent architecture means no looking down on rooftops – just lush gardens, beach and the surf.


Grand Hyatt Kauai: lush landscaping, beautiful beach, pools for days


With multi-level pools, a 1.5-acre saltwater lagoon with its own sandy beach, and a lava-rock lazy river with waterfalls as well as a waterslide, my kids were in heaven. Would have been even better if the water had been heated, but that's Kauai in the winter for you!


So many beautiful swimming and lounging spaces at the Grand Hyatt Kauai!


Shipwreck Beach in front of the resort is gorgeous and great for long walks. On the east end of the beach are sea cliffs and beautiful hiking paths for your daily workout. You'll see chickens everywhere in Kauai - even on the beach. In the photos here from our recent stay, you can see the differences in the weather - cloudy, dark and stormy, sunny and beautiful. You never know what you're gonna get on Kauai, so be flexible and bring a rain jacket!

Shipwreck Beach at Grand Hyatt Kauai: Long and lovely with cliffs for hiking at the end


The only downside to the Hyatt is its size. With more than 600 rooms and lots of beautiful acerage, expect to do a lot of walking. We had a lovely Oceanview room, but it was a hike to get to the lobby, pools and restaurants. After we left Kauai and moved to Maui's Wailea Beach Resort, we were so happy to be in a more intimate setting where our room was just steps from the pool and beach.


If Grand Hyatt Kauai seems like a good fit for you, I get special perks and discounts here, so let's chat!




The Sheraton in Poipu is small (188 rooms across 4 floors and 2 buildings) but it's smack dab right on the beach. Almost all the rooms are beachfront, so you don't have to pay exorbitant prices for the best room. The oceanfront pool is small and nothing fancy, but it's just steps from the beach. I saw a monk seal right on the beach during my tour. Prices are better here versus the Hyatt, as they should be given the resort is less luxurious and more simple. If you want to be on the beach, this is your spot!

Sheraton Kauai in Poipu where almost all rooms are oceanfront


Across the street from the Sheraton is a timeshare property called the Sheraton Villas. Given you're across the street from the beach, the villas would not be a top pick for me.


Koloa Landing is a beautiful unique property that offers 1-3BR suites all with full kitchens, living rooms, and washer/dryers. With 2 adults and 2 teens in our 500 square foot room at the Hyatt, the 2BR at Koloa Landing looked quite nice! This resort has won the best pool in America with a family lagoon pool, a tranquility pool, and a huge main pool. The 25-acre lushly-landscaped property features volleyball, putting green, soccer area, fire pits, poolside BBQs, plus full food & beverage service.


While Koloa Landing is by the ocean, the resort is not beachfront. My clients loved their stay at Koloa and said the walk to the Sheraton beach was only 5-10 minutes. Some days they drove to Poipu Beach State Park and swam with the turtles. I get special perks here, so get in touch if you need space for a larger family on Kauai!

Koloa Landing in Poipu: 1-3BRs with full kitchens and laundry plus fabulous pools!


If you love intimate boutique properties, Koa Kea is the resort for you! I have yet to book this resort because it's more of a romantic adult property and most of my clients are families, but I loved how authentic and charming it is. All 121 rooms were recently renovated, and I was surprised to find the interiors were really the nicest of all the properties I toured. Koa Kea offers one restaurant plus the pool bar and in-room dining. Beachfront is all rocks, but guests can find a sandy beach on either side of the resort. Families with more than one child would need to book two rooms. I get perks here as well!


Koa Kea Kauai: a boutique resort for couples or small families



All three times I've visited Kauai, I've paired the visit with another island. My first time was Oahu/Kauai, then Big Island/Kauai, and this last time was Kauai/Maui - my favorites. When you're ready for Hawaii, I can help you decide which islands to visit, secure the best accommodations with special perks, and design an itinerary with unique experiences you'll remember forever!



Check out all my Hawaii resources here:



 

Heather Vergara is a former Pepsico marketing executive who left the corporate world to be a Mom and never found her way back. Instead, she focused on her passion for travel and adventure and created Show Them the World, a travel concierge service for busy families longing to reconnect and see the world together. In two years, she's helped more than 150 families experience Hawaii, Alaska, Costa Rica, France, England, Greece, the Caribbean, National Parks, and more to come!


Heather has an MBA from Indiana University, a Digital Marketing Exec Education certificate from Columbia University, and a BA in Journalism from UNC-Chapel Hill. She lives with her husband, two kids, and two furry dogs in Zionsville, Indiana.

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