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Kauai aka the Garden Isle is the oldest and smallest of the four main Hawaiian islands. It takes its nickname from the lush, tropical landscape brought about by frequent rain. (Seriously, it rains at least once a day.) Kauai is so laid back that it’s hard to compare it to its more popular siblings: Maui and Oahu. There are no towering buildings or interstate highways. Kauai is a place where you go to truly relax.
When we visited in December 2012, the most important question we asked ourselves each day was: do we drive north or south? With only one main road that goes 3/4ths of the way around the island, there’s really no wrong answer. But if you’re looking for inspiration, here are 12 can’t miss things to do in Kauai.
1. Snorkel at Tunnels Beach
If you go north, snorkel at Tunnels Beach. This is one of our favorite places to snorkel in the entire world. There are two reefs at Tunnels. The outer reef protects the inner reef from harsh waves which makes the inner reef a great spot to snorkel. “Tunnels” refers to the lava tubes that create tunnels through the reefs. Honestly, it’s a little terrifying as you snorkel over a large black hole, but the area is full of tropical fish and other wildlife. My husband even saw an octopus on one of our visits!
Keep in mind that the past the outer reef is the location where surfer Bethany Hamilton lost her arm in a shark attack. The outer reef is probably best explored by expert swimmers and surfers. As with all beaches and snorkel locations in Hawaii, make sure to check the surf report before you jump in.
2. Snorkel at Poipu Beach Park
If you go south, stop at Poipu Beach Park. This popular snorkel spot is just outside the town of Poipu near Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort and Spa and Sheraton Kauai Resort. The snorkeling is great, but the beach gets crowded. You might even catch a glimpse of Hawaiian green sea turtles or monk seals. Both of which are endangered so keep your distance. Or, if you keep your eye on the ocean, you might see humpback whales spouting nearby. Again, check the surf report before you get into the water.
3. Enjoy the Sunset at Salt Pond Beach
Head farther west from Poipu and you’ll find Salt Pond Beach. This is great place to swim and snorkel as it has several shallow, protected pools. The abundance of salt in the water also helps you float. But we found this to be a great spot to enjoy the sunset. While it’s not the westernmost beach on the island, it’s got a great view as the sun dips into the ocean at night. It’s just a short drive from the larger towns, like Poipu, on the southwest side of the island.
4. Check out the Spectacular Waimea Canyon
Waimea Canyon takes up a large portion of the west side of Kauai past Salt Pond Beach. This is a sight you need to see. Mark Twain dubbed it the Grand Canyon of the Pacific and it’s an appropriate nickname. The Waimea Canyon lookout is easily accessible by car and it’s a short walk for a great view of this spectacular canyon. You can also see the back side of the Na Pali coast which is inaccessible by car.
5. Take Boat Ride Along the Na Pali Coast
As soon as you see the Na Pali Coast, you’ll recognize it from movies like Jurassic Park. This area is only accessible by boat or helicopter tour. In fact, the Na Pali Coast is that last 1/4th of Kauai where the main road doesn’t go. A boat tour is an all day excursion. You can find some great deals on tours with Viator like this Na Pali and Ni’ihau The Forbidden Island Kauai Snorkel Cruise. (Ni’ihau is the “forbidden” Hawaiian island where only relatives of the island’s owners are allowed. You can see it from several places in Kauai, but you’ll get the best view during the snorkel cruise.)
6. See All of Kauai from the Air
Another way to see the Na Pali coast, and the entire island of Kauai, is by air. There are both helicopter tours and sightseeing airplane flights available through Viator. Both will get you amazing views of this incredible island. This is a great activity for your first day or two on Kauai. Then you can decide which areas to explore in greater detail by land or sea.
7. Drive up to Wailua Falls
A short drive from Lihue or the Lihue airport will take you to Wailua Falls. This is one of the most easily accessible waterfalls in all of Hawaii. You practically drive right up to it and get a great view from the parking lot. It was featured in the opening credits of the TV show Fantasy Island. You might see people walking to the base of the falls, but keep in mind that it’s very treacherous and not recommended. I prefer to enjoy the falls from the lookout. The waterfall feeds the Wailua River which is considered the only navigable river in all of Hawaii. While this waterfall is considered double-tiered, it looks like a single waterfall during periods of high rain as pictured above.
8. Enjoy the Smith Family Garden Luau
Most people think a visit to Hawaii is not complete without a luau. I disagree, BUT I did enjoy my first luau which was the Smith Family Garden Luau in Kauai. This luau is a Kauai tradition dating back over 50 years. They serve traditional Kalua pig which is roasted in an earthen imu oven as well as other Hawaiian specialties like poi. The gardens are beautiful so take time to explore before dinner. We really enjoyed the after dinner performances including Hawaiian hula, Tahitian drum dances, and Samoan fire knife dances.
9. Take a Boat Ride to the Fern Grotto (and Get Married?)
While you’re at the luau, consider booking a river tour with Smith’s to the fern grotto. This spot on the Wailua River is unique because the ferns grow upside down from the lava rock formations. You can get married on a platform facing the grotto which makes for great wedding photos. As you travel up the river to the fern grotto, keep an eye out for locations where movies like Jurassic Park, Outbreak, and Indiana Jones were filmed.
10. Find Secret Beach or Queen’s Bath
Secret Beach is officially known as Kauapea Beach. It’s located on the north side of Kauai, just east of Princeville. The trail is hard to find and very steep which is important to remember when you try to leave. The beach is beautiful and mostly deserted. There are also tide pools to the left which are pictured above. High tide is very dangerous in this area and there are no lifeguards on duty so they are best admired from a distance.
Queen’s Beach is a more popular area with tide pools located just outside of Princeville. It’s also on the north side of Kauai. We did not venture to Queen’s Beach as we were both exhausted from our trip back from Secret Beach, but, like I said, it’s a very popular spot for tourists. Again, these tide pools can be very dangerous so check the surf report before you go in the water.
11. Watch the Surfers at Hanalei Bay
If Secret Beach or Queen’s Bath are not your thing, head to Hanalei Bay which is just west of Princeville. This is a popular spot for surfing and stand up paddle boarding. You can buy surf lessons at Hanalei Bay from Viator. The town of Hanalei is also worth exploring. It’s a seriously laid back, beautiful town for those who want to experience the Hawaiian hippy lifestyle. It also served as the backdrop for the musical film South Pacific and the movie the Descendants.
12. Go Mountain Tubing in an Old Sugar Plantation
My number one regret from our visit to Kauai was not going mountain tubing with Kauai Backcountry Adventures. The ditches and tunnels from an old sugar plantation have been re-purposed to create a serene location to float down the waterways while enjoying the beautiful landscape of Kauai. This is number one on our list of activities to do next time we’re in Kauai. It might even be the reason we go back. Just kidding, Kauai is wonderful. We don’t need any specific reason to go back, we loved everything about it.
Bonus Tip: Watch out for Chickens!
Chickens are common on most Hawaiian Islands, but they are EVERYWHERE on Kauai. The chickens have few to zero natural predators on Kauai except for humans. If a rooster wakes you up, get out of bed and get a head start to some new wonderful destination on the island!