An Epic Kauai Travel Guide

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Sorry Kauaians — I’m going to let the secret out: Kauai is a can’t miss destination in the Hawaiian island experience.  Before traveling to the “Garden Isle,” I had previously visited Maui (one of the more popular picks), and could not have imagined a more mesmerizing island escape.  While Maui’s fame is well deserved, Kauai’s more undiscovered terrain has beckoned those searching for an off-the-beaten-path experience.  You may start your day relaxing on white sandy beaches with crystal clear waters, and end it by hiking through the Pacific Grand Canyon.  The next day you’ll see the abundant green mountains of the Nepali Coast, and cool off at the base of a 300 ft waterfall.


Kauai has recently become a more popular destination, but luckily it’s still early enough in the game to see the land undeveloped, au naturale, and in its purest form.  This (relatively) smaller Hawaiian island is only 25 miles wide, yet has 90 miles of coastline!  The Nepali Coast’s dramatic scenery has served as the backdrop for several Hollywood movies (think Jurassic Park), and the Waimea Canyon and pristine beaches will be sure to leave a lasting impression on your travel memories.  It’s an adventure seekers paradise and this epic Kauai travel guide details everything you need to know for planning an unforgettable luxury vacation -- I've included info on where to sleep, eat, and play.  While we visited in the days before kids, we most definitely hope to return soon with them as well.


Nepali coast from helicopter - ultimate duie to kauai
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    For your Planning Purposes

    Getting there:  There are direct flights from the (mainland) USA to Kaui.  Alternatively, you can fly to Maui or Honolulu, and catch a connecting flight to Lihue Airport.

    Getting around:  It is not advisable to use the public transportation on the island; the stops are located far apart from one another, and it is not always reliable.  This is a vacation where you’ll absolutely need to rent a car. 

    When to visit:  The temperatures in Kauai are mild all year long -- winters average 70’s, while the summer months are in the 80’s.  Keep in mind that this is known as “the wettest spot on Earth,” which means you’ll inevitably experience rain at some point.  It’s why this island is covered in vibrant greens and nicknamed “The Garden Isle.”  

    Need help planning your trip?

    What to do in Kauai

    An epic Kauai travel guide would not be complete without covering some of the best ways to see the Nepali Coast by air, sea, and land.  I had the most fun viewing this majestic coastline from the air and also by exploring it up close and personal on hikes and through trails.  Here are some not-to-miss experiences in Kauai!

    Highlights if you're in a hurry!

    • Experience the Nepali Coast by air:  If you’re going to book only 1 excursion, make this it!  Our 60 minute helicopter tour, over the plunging valleys and around the sky-high mountains of Kauai, was one of the most memorable and fun-filled travel experiences of my life.  You really go for quite the ride!  Three pieces of advice: book ahead of time, try to fly earlier in your vacation (to see the lay of the land), and research safety records.  For reference, I used Jack Harter Helicopters, and had the option to choose a door-off helicopter ride. My husband said yes before I could even think twice.  Other popular companies are: Mauna Loa, Blue Hawaiian Helicopters, Sunshine Helicopters, and Safari Helicopters.

    • Explore as many beaches as you can:  It’s impossible to pick a favorite beach in Kauai, so I won’t even try.  Don’t visit only the beach close to your hotel!  I recommend spending a day beach hopping, and visiting 4-5 beaches along the way.  The island is not that big, and if you start early you can make a mini Hawaiian road trip out of it.  I went to Poipu Beach, Secret Beach, Anini Beach, Tunnels Beach and Ke’e Beach, spending about an hour at each one.  Anini has that “desktop screensaver look,”  Tunnels beach is snorkeling heaven, and Secret Beach has golden sand and massive waves.  

    • Go hiking along Kalalau trail:  There are hundreds of hiking trails located throughout this island, but my favorite was the famous Kalalau Trail, which hugs the Nepali Coast.  As you walk along the coastline, you’ll see crystal clear waters below, gigantic waves cresting the shores, and keep your eyes peeled for whales and dolphins!


    tunnels beach from the air- ultimate guide to kauai
    Waimea Canyon from air - ultimate guide to kauai
    jack harter helicopter ride - ultimate guide to kauai
    Nepali coast from sea
    waipoo falls from the air
    Annini beach - ultimate guide to kauai

    Don't Miss These Related Compass Roam Articles

    Ready to explore the beaches, hiking trails and waterfalls of Kauai? Check out this article to help plan your trip.  It includes important tips if you'd like to see the Nepali Coast by air.  Additionally, you'll find tons of hiking tips and advice of which beaches are must-visits!

    Hotels and Rentals in Kauai

    Kauai may be one of the most beautiful places on Earth, but it is also relatively underdeveloped compared to other Hawaiian islands.  You won’t find luxury chain hotels like Four Seasons, Ritz Carlton, and the Rosewood; however, you will find plenty of hotels that have clean and comfortable accommodations.  Additionally, there are apartment and condo rental options.  We stayed at both hotels and rentals and had excellent experiences.  

    My Picks

    • Most well known hotel chains dot the Eastern and Southern shores of Kauai. If you want to maximize your fun in the sun, stay in the south.  We chose to stay at the Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort and Spa for a few nights, and thought they offered excellent amenities, pools, and views of Shipwreck Beach.  


    • For the second half of the trip we stayed in this stunning HomeAway rental and soaked up the same 5 star scenery as nearby resorts for a fraction of the cost. I love a good deal! The resort complex had excellent amenities, including a swimming pool and tennis courts. 
    view from resort of Hanalei Bay - ultimate guide to kauai
    grand hyatt kauai - ultimate guide to kauai
    shipwreck beach

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    Would you like to learn more about the places I stayed?  Here's an additional article detailing my North Shore vs. South Shore experience

    I Also Considered These Hotels

    • Koloa Landing - This is another excellent south shore option.  If you’re looking for luxury, Koloa Landing is part of the Autograph Collection, and has 25 acres of lush property.  You’re steps away from Poi’pu Beach and Kukui’ula Village.


    • Marriott Kauai Beach Club - On the east side of the island, you’ll have faster access to the north shore trails and south shore sun.  The Marriott is located directly on Kalapaki Beach and has suites and condos for families.


    • The Westin, Princeville - The Westin is one of the newer luxury properties on the island and is located in my favorite part -- the North Shore!  It’s situated along the cliffs with views across the bay of the Nepali Coast. 

    The Most Delicious Places to Eat in Kauai

    Kauai is not the island of posh chain restaurants. Instead, the focus is on the fresh flavors found in local eateries, taco stands, and bakeries.  You won’t experience the morning Starbucks rush at the coffee shop next door; instead native Hawaiians and tourists embrace island time in open air eateries.  I wish I could’ve tried all of these places, but I’ve included some of our favorites and other local hot-spots that are popular.

    fruit stand in Hanalei Bay - ultimate guide to kauai

    Local Favorites and Popular Picks

    • Hanalei Bread CompanyLocated in the heart of Hanalei Bay, this organic bread and coffee house makes fresh pastries and baked goods every day.  The line is usually out the door, and it’s a popular spot to grab a bite to eat before embarking on a beach day or hike along the Kalalau Trail.  We trekked here every morning! 


    • Tropical Taco:  I have never been hungrier than the night I walked into this taco takeout eatery -- and it did not disappoint!  After 9 hours on the Kalalau Trail, I was ready for a taco feast.  Try the fish tacos featuring the local catch by North Shore fisherman. 


    • Java Kai Kauai:  When you’re ready to start your day, head over to Java Kai for organic smoothies, a fresh cup of coffee, or freshly squeezed juices.  


    • Kilauea Bakery and Pizza:  This spot has a nice selection of healthy, local food choices.  Grab some meals to go before a big hike,  or dine in for some delicious pizza.


    • Kilauea Fish Market:   Sometimes a refreshing poke bowl is just what I’m craving!  Kilauea Fish Market has some of the most delicious ones on the island.


    • Saenz Ohana Breakfast:  Local Chef Juan Saenz uses native ingredients to spice up his state-of-the-art food truck.  He’s worked at some of the best restaurants in Kauai, and now he offers his own twist on island favorites.


    • The Shrimp Station:   After a hike through Waimea Canyon, you’ll be ready for some food truck calories!  The Shrimp Station features all things shrimp and seafood, which leave you licking your lips.


    • Island Taco:  If you love tacos, then don’t miss out on the homemade tacos made here.  It’s another great option for food refueling after you’ve visited Waimea Canyon.  


    • Da Crack Mexican Grinds:  This spot is known as the best Mexican on the island.  The takeout eatery uses all natural ingredients in their food, and everything is made fresh daily.  Everyone from vegans to meat lovers will find something to wet their appetite.


    • Little Fish Coffee Kauai:  If you’re on the south shore, you’ll want to stop here for some food before you hit the beach!  They have food and drinks with the freshest ingredients -- including organic fair trade coffee, and Hawaiian acai bowls.


    • JoJo’s Shaved Ice - You can’t go to Kauai without trying the shaved ice!  I suggest saving it as a post-hike snack.  There are many Jojo’s locations around the island.

    For a Nice Night out

    • Red Salt - If you need a fancy night out, Red Salt has delicious fine dining food with locally sourced ingredients. 


    • The Hanalei Dolphin - This North Shore favorite is known for its fresh sushi and beautiful ambiance along the river.  It also includes a full menu of fish, steak and seafood options if sushi is not your cup of tea.

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    Would you like to learn more about my favorite local spots to eat? Check out this article for more information regarding favorite dishes and foodie experiences.

    Tips for traveling to Kauai

    • Learn about each region and then map out your vacation from there.  The eastern shore is the commercial center, is closest to the airport (and airport noise), and has quick access to kayaking and tubing.  The southern shore has pristine beaches, resorts with top-notch amenities, and access to golf and tennis.  The western shore is the least populated.  You’ll find the Pacific Grand Canyon with plenty of hiking trails.  Lastly, the lush north shore is the most scenic -- the rugged Nepali Coast looms above the ocean and town.

    Compass Roam Itinerary Tip:

    We began our vacation in the south, and explored nearby beaches in that area.  It was also easy to access the Waimea Canyon from the south shore.  After a few days, we road-tripped north, stopping along the way to visit more beaches.  Our final destination was Princeville and Hanalei on the North Shore -- and boy, it did not disappoint!. The Northern Shore is home to the Nepali Coast, and was my favorite region in terms of views and scenery.

    map of kauai
    map courtesy of
    Secret beach- ultimate guide to kauai
    man relaxing on secret beach
    kauai waves - ultimate guide to kauai
    • Listen to the beach signs:  Kauai has the highest drowning rate per capita in the world.  Yikes!  The signs posted by the local government are there to keep you alive — plain and simple.  Luckily, there are plenty of safe beaches to enjoy the warm waters, and islanders are diligent about marking them.  It can be tempting to take a dip if all seems calm, but the size of the waves can change drastically, and the currents are very strong.  If you see a sign, heed the warning.  Even my adrenaline-junkie husband didn’t mess with Poseidon.


    • Start your hikes early in the morning and pack enough water:  You’ll find hundreds of hiking trails on this tiny island!  Even the ones that you’ve bookmarked as “quick and easy” will most likely take a few hours, factoring in all the photo opps.  Give yourself plenty of time, and pack double the amount of water you think you’ll need!


    • You may need a permit to access certain hiking trails along the Kalalau Trail:   The Kalalau Trail hugs the Nepali Coast.  Only certain parts of it require a permit -- if you plan to explore past the Hanakapi’ai Lookout and go camping, then you'll need to obtain one.  If you’re interested in learning more about camping on the Kalalau Trail, you’ll want to read about hiking permits here.


    • Buy reef-safe sunscreen:  Chemicals found in sunscreen, such as oxybenzone, may help protect your skin from sun damage, but it unfortunately can wash off in the water and kill coral!  In efforts to preserve the natural beauty of the islands, and protect the wildlife living amongst the coral reef, it is greatly appreciated if you wear mineral based sunscreens.  Here’s a great guide about reef safe sunscreens,


    • Read The Ultimate Kauai Guidebook:  I read this cover to cover based on a recommendation, and loved it.  It’s not a dry tourist book, but is instead sprinkled with humor, and contains many helpful tips.


    • You will most likely experience a rainy day:  Kauai is home to one of the wettest places on Earth!  It often rains in the north, and that’s why it’s so lush, green, and gorgeous. Sometimes it rains in the north, while the south remains completely dry.  We experienced monsoon rains one afternoon, causing the waterfalls to overflow, forcing us to cross a mini mud lake to get back to our car. In any case, don’t be dismayed if your forecast for the day predicts rain — there will probably be a passing shower at some point, but after the rain has cleared get ready for spectacular #nofilter greenery.
    Nepali coast from sea - ultimate guide to kauai
    Waipoo falls - ultimate guide kauai
    parking lot filled with a giant mud puddle
    kauai waterfalls - ultimate guide to kauai

    That's a Wrap

    Kauai is an island destination that I think about revisiting often, and plan to return one day with my kids.  There were numerous hiking trails that we didn’t have time to explore, and multiple beaches that I could visit again and again.  It’s a long journey (from NYC), but worth every minute of plane time.

    I hope this article has inspired your own adventurous getaway to Kauai.  If you have any questions, or your own travel tips, please leave them in the comments below.  Also, don't forget to sign up for the monthly newsletter, packed with travel tips, upcoming news, and access to FREE destination itineraries.

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