Kaua'i. The northernmost of the main Hawaiian Island, 80 miles (129 km) from Oahu and its busting Honolulu Metropolitan Area (it's actually 108 miles from Honolulu to Lihu'e airports), a 25 minute airplane ride to an island that seems a world away. Nicknamed the Garden Isle, it truly resembles a paradise on Earth. However, Kauai is much more than its beautiful beaches, romantic sunsets, emerald blue waters and ever-present waterfalls. Filled with natural beauty and unspoiled by human development, where many of its iconic places are inaccessible by car, Kaua'i feels more like a journey, an Indiana Jones kind of adventure rather than a lazy vacation trip.
The Hawaiian Islands consist of eight major islands- at its northernmost tip lays Ni'ihau and Kaua'i, then O'ahu, with the state's capitol Honolulu, followed by the group of four islands- Maui, Lanai, Moloka'i and the unhabituated Kaho'Olawe in the center of the chain and finally, at its southern end the largest and youngest- the island of Hawai'i, commonly known as the Big Island. Hawaiian Islands are all of volcanic origins, their geological history tied to an enormous magma “reservoir” called mantle plume, situated deep beneath the Earth’s surface and responsible for the archipelago’s creation. If you are interested in the topic, please read our in depth analysis of the geological forces that shape this part of the Pacific Ocean by following this link Geology of the Hawaiian Islands.
Kaua'i, at approximately 6 million years old, is the oldest of the main Hawaiian Islands. The volcano that created it is considered to be extinct, its last eruption dated at 400,000 years ago. Kaua'i moved away from the hot spot that is now continuously spilling lava from the Big Island volcano Kilauea and entered its late rejuvenated stage of island development. Millions of years of wave, water and wind erosion made it into unreal, Eden like place we see these days.
Kaua'i lays at a close proximity to Tropic of Cancer and experience tropical weather all year long. Due to its topography and the ever prevailing trade winds, parts of the island have their own micro- climates, based around on the annual rainfall they receive. Centrally located Mount Waile'ale has by far the most precipitation and it’s in fact one of the wettest places on the planet with average annual rainfall of 452 inches (11,500mm). It is home of the only high altitude bog in the Hawaiian Islands- the Alaka’i Swamp. The north shore is quite rainy too, at80 to 120 Inches (2030-3050 mm) of annual rainfall. It is here where majestic Na Pali coast , with its amazing, reaching 4000 ft (1200 m), weather carved cliffs, lays. The south and west shores of Kaua'i are a complete opposite when it comes to weather, with as little as 20 to 40 inches (510 to 1015 mm) of precipitation a year. West part of the island offers an undeveloped, rough shoreline and the longest beach in the entire state- Polihale State Park. The west is home to Kaua'i yet another famous landmark- Waimea Canyon.
The abundance and diversity of geological formations Kaua'i has is astounding, especially given its relatively small size. The island covers 562.3 square miles (1,456.4 km2) of land and it’s the fourth largest in the archipelago. Southwest from it lays an island of Nii'hau, nicknamed the “Forbidden Island” for the fact that it’s privately owned by the Robinsons family and in turn inaccessible for visitors ( unless you get a personal invitation from the owners; the only way to see the island is from above by taking an expensive helicopter tour from a company owned by the Robinsons). The topography and climate of Ni'ihau differs drastically from its neighbor- because it lays in a “rain shadow” of Kauai mountain ranges, it receives very little rain. There are no permanent streams on Ni'ihau and its flora resembles that of the dry, sunny southwestern part of Kauai. Once a stage of extensive cattle ranch operations, Ni'ihau of today supports a population of 130, majority of them of Hawaiian ancestry. It is the only island in the archipelago where Hawaiian is an universally used language.
Kauai is home to 67,000 residents, most of which live in the eastern towns of Kapa’a and Lihue. There is one major road that almost circumference the island, cut only by the impassable Na Pali Cliffs. The road ends in the Ke’e Beach in the North and Polihale State Park in the south. Most of the island is inaccessible by car and can only be seen on foot, by boat or from a helicopter. This fact makes Kauai unique amongst Hawaiian Islands. On top off that, huge land masses are in private hands, the “No trespassing” signs are everywhere you go. Fortunately, in the state of Hawai’i coastline is a public dominion and therefore all beachfront properties owners are required to allow access to the beach for everyone (find a blue sign with “PUBLIC BEACH ACCESS” written on it to access the beach).
Kaua'i, having more hiking trails than any other island in the archipelago, is an outdoors enthusiasts’ heaven. Combine that with numerous streams and rivers that can be kayaked or SUP, many dirt roads for biking/off-reading and a great number of surf spots having dependable waves for months at a time and it truly paints a picture of an “adventure island”. That brings us to the next chapter in Kauai primer...
KAUA'I- WHAT TO EXPECT
There is a phrase often repeated in guide books that accurately describes Kauai- “It’s lush, it’s wet and wild- it’s the real Hawaii!” The “laid back” atmosphere is rooted in the island history and compared to other islands in Hawaii we visited, it shines with its underdeveloped nature. Here’s what to expect when planning to come to Kaua'i (please note that the below paragraphs are based on our own personal opinion and your experience may vary):
The island of Kaua'i is by far the least developed island in the chain- forget about night clubs, party boats and bars open till dawn- this is not what Kauai is about. Even the few resorts the island has are somewhat hidden from view, tucked between golf courses and thick foliage. That being said, there are few options to spend a night of fun and shame, just not as many as other islands offer.
Kauai is rugged, dirty and outright gorgeous- with it’s abundance of rain and its undeveloped nature, getting to some of the island’s landmarks is an adventure if it’s own. If you want to see “the real Hawaii” you’re going to get dirty. Leave the Gucci high heels, khaki pants and white woven shirts at home. The appropriate dress code in Kaua'i are trekking boots, cargo shorts and disposable, dark colored shirt. Many backcountry trails and paths to beaches will be muddy and overgrown with vegetation. The rust colored volcanic clay that makes up Kaua'i will easily leave permanent stains on your clothing. That’s the reason why light colored clothing sells poorly amongst local residents.
There are miles of hiking trails in Kaua'i, huge waves to ride, a couple of rivers to paddle, many dirt roads to ride a mountain bike, few good snorkeling spots and many more opportunities for outdoor activities. If you enjoy being active on vacation, Kaua'i is a dream island to visit. That being said...
... Kaua'i has numerous sandy beaches all over the island, many of them picturesque and easy to access. On top of that, there is a good chance you have the less traveled spots all to yourself. If you are trying to just lay back and enjoy the warm sand while listening to waves, you couldn’t find a better island to come to.
The waters surrounding Kaua'i are amazingly beautiful, but also very dangerous. The island is more exposed to the wrath of the Pacific Ocean than other in the archipelago, which in turn leads to to unsafe swimming conditions. Unpredictable and unforgiving, underwater currents and rogue waves can easily sweep a person away from the coast and into an open ocean. Be aware of ocean conditions before planning to get in water and if in doubt, don’t go out.
Being a scuba diving enthusiasts, we have to say the reefs surrounding Kauai are less impressive than these in Mau'i or Big Island. Consisting mainly of corralline algae and less of stony coral cover, Kaua'i reefs cannot compete with these around other Hawaiian Islands. The ever changing ocean conditions may thwart your diving plans as well.
By all means, the above list should not discourage you from coming to Kauai, because what this island lacks in comparison with others in the state, it compensates with unbelievable natural beauty. Every minute spent here feels like an adventure, there are so much to do and so many places to visit, you won’t be bored on your vacation, guaranteed.
WHEN TO COME
I can’t speak from experience, because I visited Kaua’i only once, but the island, like all islands in the Hawaiian Archipelago, is considered a year-round destination. No matter the month you choose to visit, there is always so much to do you won’t be disappointed. Kaua’i climate does not change much during the year- air temperature fluctuates only slightly from winter to summer seasons and ocean temperature stays pretty much the same at all times. The only major factor dictating weather patterns on the island are the so-called Northeast Trade Winds (not counting the unpredictable storm systems and hurricanes that do occur in Hawaii) . In the wintertime the trade winds winds bring powerful waves to the north shore, making ocean conditions in Na Pali outright dangerous. It rains more frequently on the north side, too. Summer season witness change in wind pattern change when trade winds are shifting direction. The south shore waters become choppier, while the north experiences a window of calm seas (the months of May through September are the only timeframe to kayak Na Palin safely). Shoulder seasons (spring and fall) is where ocean conditions are the most unpredictable, due to the shifting wind pattern.
The actual difference changing seasons bring (and the major reason to choose one over another) is the number of tourists visiting Kaua’i. The busiest times are the summer months when kids are out of school and wintertime when it’s cold and ugly almost anywhere else in the country. If you come in the high season (June-September and December-March), expect increased traffic, crowded parking lots and booked vacation rentals. In the low season tourist numbers dwindle, prices fall and traffic is less of a hassle.
WHERE TO STAY
The island of Kaua'i is contractually divided into four geographically accurate parts- the North, South, East and West. It happens that each of these “districts” have their own unique weather pattern, differentiate from one another by their annual rainfall. The center of the island, with it’s majestic Waiale'ale mountain, is rugged, undeveloped and hard to get to. It is the wettest part of Kaua'i and in fact one of the wettest places on Earth, not an ideal home base for exploration. The second wettest part of the island is the north shore, with it’s charming towns of Hanalei and Princeville. The north has the most amazing scenery (the boardwalk in Hanalei Bay speaks for itself) and is at the closest proximity to Na Pali. The jungle vegetation, waterfall carved mountains and numerous sandy beaches make the North Shore an attractive place to stay. The surf is up in the wintertime, calming down around April-May. Summer is when seas are the calmest.
The east coast is were most residents live and it’s the island's busiest business hub. Starting with Lihu'e, a town you mostly likely visit first (the inter-island airport is located here) and north to Kapa’a, the east is less lush than north (as it receives less rainfall), but still amazes with beauty. Kapa’a sits in the slope of Mount Waiale'ale and the Nonou Mountain Range and in the mouth of Kauai’s most famous river, the Wailua. Beaches are abundant and waves are up year-round. The east coast is also the cheapest option when it comes to accommodation and it’s the central point in the island’s main road, with similar distances to the north and west shores. Surf is reliable all year long on the east coast (or so they say).
It’s always sunny in the south. OK, not always, but if you really freak out about rain while vacationing, booking something along the south shore is your best bet to avoid the clouds. Sitting in the rain shadow of Kaua'i mountain ranges, the weather here is hot and dry. Do not expect to find lush jungle setting like on the north and east coast, the vegetation here resembles more the American Southwest rather than a tropical island. What south lacks in green, it delivers in yellow- miles of sandy beaches, amazing coastline and again, no rain. The charming towns of Waimea and Koloa, with their close proximity to Koke’e State Park and Waimea Canyon, are great places to stay. Winter is when seas are the calmest in the south shore, with wind starting to pick up around May. The end of Kaumualii Highwa (Hwy 50) ,marks the longest continuous beach in all Hawaii- the Polihale State Park, part of which is the site of Pacific Missile Range facility
The west side of Kaua'i is where the road ends. Two amazing state parks (Koke’e and Waimea Canyon) are located here, both offering breathtaking vistas and miles of hiking trails. There are far less accommodation options on this side of the island and no beaches, although the view from atop the Na Pali coastline, a visit to Alaka’i Swamp and the drive alongside the rim of Waimea Canyon easily compensate for that.
There are plenty of options when it comes to finding a place to stay in Kaua’i- from fancy resorts, beach front properties, condominium complexes to motels, private rentals and even few campgrounds operated by the state. Whatever you choose, keep in mind not to isolate yourself from Kaua’i everyday life (I hope that makes sense). Resorts and high end hotels are great, no doubt, although by staying at one of those “gated vacation spots” you’re taking a bit from the whole experience of life on a tropical island. Please consider renting with private home owners- not only it’s a cheaper option, you also get to meet interesting people, see places that you would otherwise missed and make your vacations more fulfilling. Moreover, you’re supporting real people living on the island instead of multimillion corporations. There are dozens of vacation rental homes available, many of them in beautiful, secluded places. We’ve used two websites to search for a place to stay and can recommend both of them from previous experience:
We’ve found a great 1 bedroom apartment in Kapa’a, with an amazing view on Mount Waiale'ale in the background for less than $100 a day. Here are the details: LINK If you decide to book with Tony& Michelle, tell them Marcin and Kamila say hello:)
Renting a vehicle while visiting Kaua’i is a necessity- to get to most of the island’s points of interest, you need your own mean of transportation. There is a bus system connecting larger towns, but it can only get you so far, while cabs are prohibitory expensive. All major car rental companies have their locations steps from the airport in Lihu'e. You can check and compare prices at LINK. It is a good idea to check each company’s own booking sites, as sometimes prices differ by a significant margin. We’ve personally always book with Alamo, mainly for their “skip the counter” feature (you pay for your rental upfront, put all your information and go directly to your vehicle of choice upon arrival, skipping the long lines to the rental counter) and the fact they allow you to pick any car parked at their lot within your paid vehicle class.
Speaking of vehicle class, Kaua'i is an island where renting an 4x4 high clearance car (like Jeep Wrangler) really makes sense (if you can afford the premium, obviously). While in Big Island or Maui, having a real off-road machine wasn’t necessary, Kauai differs by the fact there are many roads inaccessible to front wheel and all wheel drive vehicles. Take for example the Camp 10 road in Koke’e State Park, from which many interesting trails start off- you need high clearance to get further than few miles on the road. Even that we had a quite capable “sort of” 4x4 Nissan Pathfinder (we booked a smaller car but there was literally nothing to choose in our class, so we got a free upgrade), there were parts where we could get stuck easily because of lack of clearance between the car’s base and terrain. Many unpaved roads on the island are muddy due to frequent rain and there are even some river crossings that may be dangerous during flash flood conditions. The point is, if your budget allows, go for a 4x4 car, you won’t regret the choice. On a side note, choosing an open top car will almost guarantee a quite opposite experience- passing showers will force you to have the top unfolded at most times (unless you enjoy sitting on puddles of water).
Car rental prices are considerably higher in Hawaii compared to mainland and so is gasoline. Both fluctuate with market supply-demand ratio and between low & high seasons. Consider renting a fuel efficient vehicle (if available) to save some cash and/or stay in close proximity to places you think you visit the most. The island is on a small size, but remember that the highway does not circumfere Kaua’i and in order to get from the west side to the north, the drive will take around 2 hours.
Oh, there’s so much to do on Kaua’i !!! Below is a list of most popular activities in order from the most expensive to cheapest:
Helicopter ride- by far the most expensive tour to take, but what a tour it is! If you always wanted to fly a helicopter but never fulfilled this dream, now is the time to do it. It would be hard to find a better place to see Earth from above (OK, Grand Canyon MAY be a tie) than in Kaua’i. There are several companies operating from Lihu'e heliport that will take you for a ride in one of two available helicopter classes. You can opt for a larger, more stabile chopper that takes 6 people, although you may end up in the middle seat, as sit assigmnents are arranged based on weight distribution rather than preference. The other option is a less powerful, 4-seater, where every seat is a window seat and the pilot can get you closer to some of Kaua’i features. Finally, there’s an option in both the large and small helicopters to have the doors off during the flight. Photographers love that freedom. Expect to pay around $200-$250 per person for a 60 minute flight. The pilot will take you on a grand tour around the island, with fly-bys such as Na Pali coast, Waimea Canyon, Mount Waiale'ale, Nonou Mountain Range, numerous waterfalls and more. We actually skipped diving this time around just to take the helicopter tour and we do not regret that decision as it is truly an “once in a lifetime” experience. The company we used is called Mauna Kea Helicopters and we can recommend them without hesitation- our pilot was very informative and he kept us entertained while showing the beauty of the island. We even had an opportunity to get close to Waiale'ale crater, which is not an option when you fly in the 6-seater (or so we’ve been told)
Bi-plane rides- if helicopter tour is not your thing, there’s an alternative in form of a two winged airplane with no roof:)
Skydiving- there’s a company in Port Allen that will take you on a plane ride and then throw you out (attached to an instructor) off the plain to skydive around the Mana Plain
Diving- as I mentioned before, there ate several diving operators in Kaua’i, offering both rentals and boat/shore dives in the few locations the island has to offer. Few companies also offer an “exclusive” dive off the shore of Ni'ihau, where diving is known to be excellent. The downside- a 3-tank dive tour costs even more than a helicopter ride. Use your own judgment:)
Zipline tours- I personally so not understand what’s exiting about a sluggish, 1 minute ride down a steel cable stretched between two trees, but if you think otherwise, there are a number of pipelining operators available.
Kayaking- Kaua’i is a heaven for kayakers. From organized adventure trips on the Na Pali Coast (summer months only) to guided river tours, there are countless spots to explore.
Surfing- Hawaii is a birthplace of surfing, it is then no surprise riding waves is the most popular activity on the island. Whatever month you come, there is always wave action going on somewhere on the island. Kaua’i is a great place to learn surfing, with many spots ideal for beginners and a bunch of resident pros willing to teach you how to ride.
Stand up paddleboarding or SUP- I have to admit we didn’t try SUP due to lack of time, however we learnt it on mainland and boy, it is so much fun. SUP rentals are all over the place in Kaua’i, you can take a board and try yourself in one of the island’s many rivers or, if you already have some experience doing it, ride the waves. Some of the more popular spots are Hanalei and Wailua rivers and many beach spots for ocean boarding.
Mountain biking- the always changing terrain profile, numerous dirt paths and hunting roads make Kauai a perfect outpost for mountain biking. You can rent a bike for a day and hit the track yourself or book with one of the organized trips to Waimea Canyon and few other places.
Road biking- if you prefer asphalt to mud, almost all Kaua’i paved roads are open to bikers.
Snorkeling- there are few safe spots where you can snorkel and see the amazing underwater ecosystem full of reef fish, deep water fish, corals, mollusks, an occasional turtle (or five) and, if you’re really lucky, the endangered Hawaiian Monk Seal.
Hiking- last on the list only for the fact it costs nothing but the equipment you need to have and gas you have to burn to get to the trailhead, hiking is BIG on Kaua’i. Waimea Canyon, Koke’e State Park, Na Pali coast, the island’s interior, south shore, you name it. The views on most of them are spectacular and their difficulty ranges from an easy overlook walks to muddy, rainy and often very steep treks to remote locations not accessible by any other mean of transportation.
WHAT TO TAKE
We already talked about when and why you should visit Kaua’i, what to so while you’re there and how to save few dollars and still have a great vacation trip. That brings us to the last paragraph, where I try to point the necessary things you should bring with you to fully enjoy your time on the island:
Disposable clothes or clothes you don’t mind getting permanently dirty- the oxidized volcanic rock is what gives soil in Kaua’i its distinctive red color; it happens that when it gets on light clothes, it stays there forever. You can even find t- shirts dyed using this red soil in boutiques around the island.
Hiking gear- Kaua’i is by far the most rugged of the Hawaiian Islands and that means two things- dirt that turns to mud when it rains and dangerous, unmaintained trails. No one will “hold your hand” when you decide to do one of the Garden Isle’s amazing trails. Expect thousand foot drops with no rails to hold onto, unpaved trails with technical sections sometimes overgrown with foliage, loose rocks and uneven footing. You will really feel like Indiana Jones by doing one of these trails. To get most of your experience, come prepared. Consider getting (if you don’t have already) a good pair of over-the-ankle hiking boots or good trail runners (I prefer the later for their grip on muddy terrain), hiking sandals with closed toe and water shoes for the beach. A pair or two of durable/breathable socks, a good daypack, preferably with hydration sleeve and hiking poles are useful too
Sun protection- a baseball cap or hat, pair of polarizing sunglasses, UV proof clothes and sunscreen are all must-have when visiting any of the Hawaiian Islands.
Good backpack- a sturdy hiking daypack should be enough for all but few hikes on the island (these “few” being multiday backpacker adventures like the Kalalau trail). Make sure it’s comfy and has pockets for extra water as you’ll need to take plenty on most hikes
Rain gear- waterproof hiking shoes and good rain jacket will make your hikes more enjoyable. Kaua’i is a tropical island and it rains a lot here, but that’s why it is so unimaginably beautiful. Don’t let it discourage you from coming- the rain never lasts long and it’s quite refreshing too
Swimwear and snorkeling gear- there are many places on the island with great snorkeling and wave-riding opportunities so don’t forget to take a swimsuit, mask and fins. You can also rent gear at local dive shops or buy it in Walmart if it doesn’t fit your luggage
Some extra zip-locks and plastic bags- the state of Hawaii does not allow vendors to stuff bag merchandise into plastic bags, so bring some from home for that wet swimsuit after a day on the beach
First aid kit- some of Kaua’i destinations are quite remote, therefore a bandage/hydrogen peroxide may save the day
I hope that little checklist we've made for anyone planning to visit Kaua'I will be of help and we wish everybody a time of their life when you make it to Hawaii.