Kauai is one of the most remote islands amongst the Hawaiian archipelago. 80% of the island isn’t accessible by car or by foot. It’s also one of the oldest islands ( 5 million years old). For us, it was a real treat to be able to hop there, even for 2 days. We longly hesitated between chilling 2 more days in Maui or resting less/exploring more. If you have read the previous travel articles on the blog, you will know by now that we always end up picking extra discoveries.
The flight from Maui to Lihue airport in Kauai is 30 minutes long. We arrived on the island a Thursday at 5pm. We picked up some poke at a cute little joint called Makai Sushi (so tasty) and started our adventure with a crazy beautiful sunset.
During both days, we stayed in Lihue, in the middle of the island’s main roads both for convenience and price. This area is perfect to drive both sides of the island and is still budget friendly. We stayed at Kauai Palms Hotel. A tiny and very well kept motel-style hotel. If you are budget-sensitive and spending most of your vacation outside, this place is made for you. Clean, comfortable and efficient!
On day 1 we took a fantastic helicopter tour I’ll tell you about a little below and drove on the North Shore, stopping by a few heavenly places. On day 2, we took care of exploring the South Shore all the way to the Grand Canyon of the Pacific and the Wailua River.
I’ll outline the 10 main attractions you should not miss while on Kauai in the next pages!
#1 Poipu beach and the Spouting Horn
Poipu beach park is the cutest little beach around. It offers great views for sunset. We picked up a couple of pokes from a place next to the beach called Makai Sushi, as I told you in the intro of the article. Makai Sushi is well recommended on TripAdvisor and that’s no surprise. You enter a supermarket and the small sushi shop is located on the left side. It doesn’t look much but at 5pm we picked the last 2 pokes available. They are so successful they were all gone…
We carried our pokes to the beach, picked up a shave ice on the way and sat on a picnic table facing the ocean. The sunset attracts a small crowd so make sure you arrive early and find your spot before anyone comes blocking your view. Enjoy the spectacle! If you are lucky you might spot turtles and seals. We didn’t get that chance but we heard it’s very common there.
A few miles away, you will encounter a touristic attraction that I thought was really cool. We went there the second day for sunset. It’s called the Spounting Horn and it is a scenic blowhole right on the coast. Basically, the waves get into a natural lava tube and creates a huge spout of water that can reach as high as 50 feet into the air. You’ll also hear a hiss and a roar as the water comes out. We spotted two turtles swimming close to it, which really added a bit of magic to the place. Spouting Horn was not very busy when we went and there is more than enough parking around.
#2 Open door helicopter ride above the Napali Coast
This phenomenal experience was Bobby’s birthday gift. It’s definitely on the more expensive side and will not suit small wallets but it’s also a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I have no regrets breaking the bank for it. A helicopter tour over any hawaiian island is probably a sublime activity to do but overflying Kauai made more sense for us. Most of the island being unreachable, remote and wild, only a helicopter ride can show you the secrets of the garden isle. And it was spectacular!
We went for a 1-hour flight over the entire island, starting at the airport in Lihue, going South to Waimea Canyon, explore the Napali Coast and then come back through the North and middle of the island (Hanalei, the Wailua River etc…). The itinerary is complete and in 60 minutes you have the opportunity to see all kinds of landscapes.
Our tour was offered by Mauna Helicopter tours. l highly recommend them if you chose to take a heli tour there or on Oahu/Maui. They are professional and well-organised. You fly inside tiny helicopters for a private tour (2 or 3 seats). Our pilot was so knowledgeable and really focused on security – which I think remains an important variable in a successful helicopter tour. We chose to ride with the doors off and I couldn’t stress enough how much of a game-changer it was. You can feel the rain, the wind, the cold as well as the warmth of the air, depending of which area you fly over. It’s also the best way to get the best pictures, without any reflections/blurriness coming from the windows. And by the way, if you are curious and would like to see pictures of the entire tour, go check out my photos series on the matter!
Two things really caught my attention on the tour :
- The Na Pali coast : Hundreds of kms of wild cliffs – orange and green, creating a strong contrast with the deep blue of the ocean. Called the Emerald cliffs, this natural beauty has no equivalent on earth. It’s impossible to grasp the magnitude of such a beauty even when seeing the pictures. It was breathtaking. I want to go back and see it from boat just to have the chance to see it again with my own eyes.
- The valley where you encounter more than 200 waterfalls aligned in a row, including Ka Hili (The 5 sisters), Manawaiopuna (Jurassic Falls)… Just impressive views, surreal sights!
This was simply the best thing we did on Kauai…
#3 Kilauea Lighthouse and bird sanctuary
On the way between Lihue and Anini/Hanalei, you will find a US National Park. There is a small parking just before the entrance where you can catch a pretty good view of the lighthouse and spot a few birds. To me, that could have been enough.
We went a little further and ended up paying 20$ to get inside and see the lighthouse closer but it’s really not necessary. Save your money and just enjoy the first views, except if you are a bird specialist and want to see some species closer.
A good pit stop but not the most interesting on the north shore.
#4 Anini Beach
Anini Beach is not as accessible as other beaches and therefore is more special and more quiet. We went there in the morning and we must have been only 3 or 4 groups/families laying there. There are a few entrances that take you to Anini Beach. I would advise staying on the far right (see map below). Entrances are numerous in between the houses that are on Anini Road. The further right you are, the less people and the smaller and more secluded the beach is.
Anini boasts the longest and widest (as far as the eye can see!) fringing reef in the Hawaiian Islands and because of the unique conditions it usually has well protected waters and some of the most consistent conditions for water activities such as snorkeling or paddle boarding.
The sand is thin, the water is transparent, you can walk a long time in very shallow waters and just relax next to the tree-built swing 🙂
#5 Chill at Hanalei Bay
Hanalei Bay is a very special place to me. I have never been to Asia yet and I feel that the bay is just very similar to landscapes you can find in eastern Asia. Tall lush mountains and waterfalls in the background and a peaceful, large beach with palm trees in the front. It looks like a painting and you will probably see a variety of climates just there : storms in the back and sunshine on the beach. If the weather is consistently nice, you will be able to see a tiny part of the Na Pali Coast from there.
We walked the whole beach and could see some of the front beach houses being reconstructed (after a storm destroyed and flooded the area in beginning 2018). Parking is also a little limited because of those recent floodings but you can find spots in the streets around.
We ended up staying under the shades of the pier, observing the families enjoy the long sandy beach and the fun waves. A man was playing a local instrument I could not name. It felt like time stopped there.
It’s a family-friendly beach and is basically the last point you will be able to reach as a tourist on the North Shore. The rest of the North can only be visited by its inhabitants. Do not miss it.
#6 Waimea Canyon and the Red Dirt Falls
Waimea Canyon State Park is a wonder of nature. Also called the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, I can attest the nickname was well chosen. The canyon was created with the path of the large Waimea River and is 16km long (10 miles) with heights of 900m.
The drive up to the Canyon overlook is scenic and allows you to stop several times to take in the sights. The overlook itself was not overcrowded and we really appreciated our time there, even if the weather appeared a bit overcast with heat fog. We still were able to take in the massiveness of the area.
We did not hike any trails in the park but we noticed people hunting (permits required) and camping. We did stop for a while at the “Red Dirt Falls”, a tiny spot on the side of the road that is caracterised by small waterfalls making their way through the red sand. From there, you can observe the vast ocean on one side and the canyon on the other side.
A rather beautiful place, very quiet in the morning and an amazing way to take in the grandness of Kauai.
#7 Kauai Coffee Plantation
Kauai Coffee Estate was a surprise. One of those spontaneous road trips stops you don’t expect much of and come out enriched. On the way back from visiting Waimea Canyon, we stopped at their visitor centre to see what services they offered. The estate is quite big and as you enter, you are welcomed with a warm cup of coffee. You can taste all kinds of coffees (decaf, medium roast, espressos, vanilla, coconut, caramel etc…). They have 3 tables in the lounge area where you can sip your coffee from while you watch interesting videos on how they make their Hawaiian coffees. I understood the estate is the biggest coffee one in America, so that’s at least another reason to stop by.
No need to pay anything, you can take your own walking tour – which we did of course :). During the tour, you can learn about the history of the plantation and the explanation of coffee making processes.
Visit their website here.
#8 Hanapepe and the hanging bridge
Hanapepe is the tiniest village, it basically consists in 1 street. Everybody tells you to go see the hanging bridge but don’t expect too much. It’s not worth a detour if it’s not on your way. Buuut.. if you are looking for a cute spot for breakfast, make sure you grab coffee and a bagel at Little Fish Coffee. They have great service and the bagels are legit!
If you can’t make it for breakfast, you can also go check the little town in the evening as you will encounter tourists and locals at their street market selling clothes, vintages items and food. There you can also find Nii’hau shell jewelry (or so they say) that is supposed to be so rare that it can be sold at prices higher than 1,000 dollars.
Anyway, after breakfast or an evening stroll at the market, go check out the hanging bridge. It’s cute and has a nice view over the river. On the other side of the bridge stands an old art gallery that can interest art enthusiasts.
#9 Wailua River and Opaeka’a falls
I was worried about island hopping in Hawaii because of the fear of wasting time and cutting our days to travel. If you are in the same mood, you should go read my guide on island hopping – it should help! It’s below 🙂
2 hours before leaving for your flight to Oahu, we wanted to do one last thing and decided to go check out the Wailua River a little closer. If we had spent a week in Kauai, we would definitely had done a cruise or a kayak excursion on the river. They offer really great options at the harbour.
However since time was not on our side for Kauai, we just went the tourist way, driving up the river until Opaeka’a falls. Very pretty area. Would definitely advise to plan 6 hours or a full day there and enjoy the group or private activities. We will come back 🙂 but I still leave you with a few pictures of our visit.
The falls are 150 meters high and just epic. They overflow year-round and are easily accessible so just know you won’t be without other tourists.
On the way we also went and checked the Wailua falls we saw from the helicopter. Quite incredible to see how big they are.
#10 Lava Lava Beach Club
Great spot for sunsets. Right on the beach, feet in the sand, wind in your hair. The place is not too fancy and serves really good food. I won’t promote their “happy hour” cocktails as they are worth the $5 you pay and made out of syrups which I really don’t like (Mai Tais). But the beer is great :).
Go check their website here and go visit them on the shore at Kapa’a. Go to the hotel Aston Islander as far as you can and park with their car service. After that, you can get seated by a lovely hostess and enjoy a very special end of afternoon. They have tons of events I believe and several tv screens for sports addicts out there!
I would really say Kauai was an incredible 48 hour journey for us. We don’t know when we will be able to go back to Hawaii and for this, I don’t regret going even for the short amount of time that were 2 days. But of course, I would advise to spend at least 4 days there, if you want to take your time hiking and going on river adventures.