The Best Activities in Kauai
Nepali Coast By Air:
If you travel to Kauai, one common thread of advice you’ll hear is to see the Nepali Coast 3 different ways: by air, by sea, and by land walking along the Kalalau trail. Although all 3 excursions were unforgettable, if I could only choose one, I'd hop onboard the helicopter ride. Don't wait any longer about making your decision -- just do it! Here are some tips to keep in mind.
- It's a splurge: This helicopter experience will be the ride of your life -- for both your tummy and pocketbook ($600 for 2 adults), but it’s the vacation experience you’ll revisit again and again in your head years from now. I certainly do!
- Research the helicopter companies carefully -- especially their safety ratings: We booked with Jack Harter Helicopters, which offers a no-doors ride. Despite my queasiness with heights (and love of secured doors thousands of feet up), I’m so glad I chose this option. I felt perfectly safe (in the middle seat), and was able to see unobstructed views of the land below.
- Reserve ahead of time: Depending on the time of year, these experiences can be booked up, so make your reservation in advance.
- Fly early in your vacation: You’ll want to soar through the clouds the first day or 2 of your arrival. Not only will it give you a lay of the land, but it also provides you some flexibility to reschedule if any weather delays occur.
- What will you see? In short, everything! You’ll start by viewing parts of the eastern and southern beaches, and then it’s up, up and away over the Pacific Grand Canyon! You’ll be able to view 800 ft waterfalls from above before swinging over to the north side of the island to view the Nepali Coast and Hanalei Bay. Lastly, you’ll come over the Wailua River State Park in the east, and then land safely back on solid ground.
Hiking: Nepali Coast and Waimea Canyon
Nepali coast (kalalau trail)
You’ll want to carve out time to hike the Kalalau trail (which hugs the Nepali Coast) for two reasons.
- First, it’s simply stunning -- you’ll have the lush vegetation stretched out before you, and deep blue waters bordering the trail (be on the look-out for whales and dolphins). I think it just may be my #1 favorite hike!
- Secondly, it’s free! The views may look like a million bucks, but they won’t cost you a dime to see. It’s a whole day of hiking, so strap on some comfortable shoes and don’t forget to pack snacks.
Some important tips to keep in mind:
- It is NOT a loop. Every step you take forward, you must walk back. The whole trail is 22 miles (11 in, 11 out), but it’s only possible to complete this whole stretch with proper camping permits. Instead, I hiked 2 miles to Hanakapi’ai beach (red trail) then inland 2 miles to a 300 ft. waterfall on the Hanakapi’ai Trail (blue trail). Then it was 4 miles to get back to the parking lot. Let’s just say I slept really well that night.
- A good spot to stop for a snack is 2 miles in. The trail is not conducive for a sit down snack until Hanakapi’ai beach. It is not permissible to swim due to strong currents and waves, but you can sit and watch the tide go in and out from the rocky shore, as you refuel before the next hiking stretch.
- Not a mobility-impaired friendly path, or small kid friendly path: There are numerous switchbacks, and points where it’s necessary to climb over rocks and streams (see my graceful maneuver below). I needed two hands for stream crossings, and it was not easy to balance. Additionally, there are no guardrails along the cliffs of the coastline. While it felt perfectly safe for walking, I wouldn’t want to be chasing my toddler! That being said, I think it’s do-able to complete the first part of the journey (to Hanakapi'ai Beach) with an infant, if you have a proper baby carrier.
- Dress appropriately for crossing large streams/small rivers. It is not optional to avoid crossing through water, so keep this in mind when dressing for the day. Wear breathable clothes that dry quickly. I mistakenly wore sneakers and by the end of the day my toes were wrinkle-y from walking in wet socks. Next time, I’d wear my Keens, as they have the durability of a sneaker, but can get wet without a problem.
- If you decide to hike inland to the waterfall... bring extra water, snacks, and a bathing suit/towel. By the time you arrive, you'll be ready to jump right into the cold refreshing water. Give yourself some time to enjoy the views and eat lunch before heading back.
Waimea Canyon (Pacific Grand Canyon)
- The Grand Canyon meets Hawaii. The west side of Kauai has completely different terrain compared to its north side sister. I found myself mesmerized by its deep red canyons and rocky cliffs.
- Waimea Canyon/PGC has many hiking trails: Unlike the Kalalau Trail of the Nepali Coast (which is one straight path), the PGC has numerous hikes of varying difficulty. It’s worth the time to investigate which trail is right for you -- I used the Ultimate Kauai Guidebook as a reference.
- You can drive or walk. Unlike the Kalalau Trail, it's possible to see many of the beautiful views from your car, and there are pull-off spots for you to capture the moment on your phone or camera. Therefore, driving through the Waimea Canyon is a good option if you don’t feel like walking today.
- My must-see spots. If you’re driving around on a good weather day (good visibility), head first to the Kalalau Outlook. You’ve most likely seen this picture on guidebook cover pages, and now’s your chance to see it in person. It is here the PGC terrain starts to gradually transform into electrifying greens. Additionally, don’t miss the 800 foot waterfall -- Waipoo Falls. You can head to the Waipoo Falls Overlook, or hike to the falls by foot.
Top Beaches and Must-See Spots
DRIVING SOUTH TO NORTH:
Halfway through our vacation we headed to the North Shore. We had originally planned to embark on a kayaking excursion, but after monsoon rains the night before, we were forced to switch gears. Instead, we set our sights on an impromptu beach-hopping journey, and it turned into one of our favorite days! Here were my favorite stops along the way:
- First stop- Wailua Falls: We were supposed to go kayaking to the base of this waterfall, but after that was cancelled, I was determined to still sneak a view -- even from the road. Plug this in as stop number 1 on your GPS!
- Second stop -- Secret Beach: This beach is really off the beaten path, making it a true secret. You’ll pull into a tiny parking lot (pray for a spot) and then walk about 10 minutes down a stair pathway through the woods to a beach. Once you arrive, there’s a long stretch of beach that meets the jagged cliff. There are very few people, and it really does feel like your own private island. Swim with caution and follow any warning signs that may be posted (My husband, who lives for body surfing and is a great swimmer, tested the waters and came back 5 minutes later saying the currents were too rough and tough to be messed with). In any scenario, it’s a peaceful place to just sit and wave-watch. Bring your own snacks, as there is no food available (and no bathrooms).
- Third Stop -- Anini Beach: About a 10 minute drive from Secret Beach, make another detour for Anini, which has perfectly calm, postcard blue waters. There’s a small stretch of white sand, with palm trees projecting out over the rocks. It's an ideal beach to play with the little ones, or to plop down with a magazine or book. Note- There are no bathrooms or restaurants, so be sure to pack your own snacks.
- Fourth stop -- Queen’s Bath: Queen’s Bath is a natural swimming hole located inside a volcanic rock formation. The incoming waves fill the bath, but it is not advisable to swim during winter months, or to enter during rough waters. Niall was brave enough to venture in, but I kept a close eye on him. It’s a 5-10 minute hike down from the parking lot, and wear sneakers or Keens, as you’ll be climbing across uneven terrain. Don’t forget to look up now and then to scan the sea. We saw whales off the coast, and sea turtles right next to the bath playing in the waves. Lastly, make this stop a day-date excursion and leave the small kiddos at home. They may love bath time, but this one is not rubber ducky friendly.
not to be missed north shore beaches
- Ke’e Beach: At the start of the Kalalau Trail, you’ll see the small, picturesque beach called Ke'e beach. I was so antsy to start hiking, that I didn’t get to spend an afternoon here, but would most definitely return to check it out on a future trip.
- Tunnels Beach: Tunnels beach is best known for its snorkeling and long stretch of yellow sand. We got stuck in a rainstorm during our visit, and it was still breathtakingly beautiful. We even had a marine visitor plop up next to us on the beach! As you sit and relax on the shores, keep your eyes peeled for a celebrity sighting -- Pierce Brosnon ran right past me on his morning jog! 007 is always training.
- Puu Poa Beach: If you stay at this HomeAway rental, you’ll have easy access to this beach. I loved it for a few reasons. First, it’s calm and kid/family friendly. Secondly, you can see fish and wildlife right as you walk into the warm water. The cherry on top are the views of Hanalei Bay.
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