The island of Kauai is known as the Garden Isle, because it is always green, lush and there is a chance you will find rain at some point in your day. While we didn’t have the worst of the weather (the locals told us if it was raining to wait 15 minutes and it would stop, or to drive 15 miles south and you’d find sunny skies; the south of the island is known to have the best weather), we did arrive shortly after the terrible flooding that happened up north in Hanalei. Many of the northern beaches and roads were still closed, including the Napali coast. We had hopes of hiking the Napali coast and had many plans on the Northern shore, however we had to change many of our plans to get around the flood damage. That being said, this itinerary might not be in the most logical order and we ended up driving the length of the island, but we definitely packed our days full of adventure and would recommend many of the hikes and beaches we found.
Most likely you will start your adventure in Lihue when you arrive at the airport. We started our morning with a quick stroll down to Ninini Point Lighthouse. It was a little tricky to find, and you have to drive through the Marriott and a golf course to park, but it was a pretty place to watch the sunrise over the Pacific ocean and to see the planes coming in. Not a must do, but a great way to kill some time if you’re early to the airport or waiting for someone else to arrive.
From there, we were hungry from our flight so we head to a top-rated Yelp spot, Hamura’s Saimin. Saimin is a noodle soup dish that takes its inspiration from Japanese ramen, Chinese chow mein, and Filipino pancit. We were served a huge bowl of piping hot saimin noodles with green onions, a hard boiled egg, sliced spam, wontons, and nori (or seaweed). While neither of us had ever had this dish before, for the price and the amount of food you get, it was definitely worth a stop; we both enjoyed our meals. This tiny, little cash-only restaurant was also known for their lilikoi chiffon pie, which is the exotic Hawaiian fruit of yellow passion fruit whipped up into a pie and covered with whipped cream. It’s like a tangy and tart treat for your mouth.
Next we headed to Poipu Bay to hike Mahu’ulepu Heritage Trail. We sparked at Shipwreck’s Beach and you’ll see a path to the left up your first cliff. The views from there are amazing, but if you keep walking, you’ll have spectacular views the whole way. It was a fairly easy hike, but you’ll want sun protection, water, and athletic shoes. Along the path you’ll discover sea cliffs, secluded coves, dunes, tide pools, lava formations, sacred grounds, and even a golf course. Just keep going. The trail ends at Mahaulepu beach, where you can hike up to Makauwahi Cave. The cave was closed when we were there, but we can still see inside the area and it looked like an interesting place to explore. It was about 4 miles round trip, and you can reward yourself by lounging on the beach when you return.
We decided to head on, as we were staying up in the town of Kapa’a for the night. We knew we had to make our way through highway 520’s Tree Tunnel on Maliuhi Road. The road is shaded by about 500 Eucalyptus trees that line the highway, and it is like escaping to another world. Having been on the island for nearly a half a day and not yet having shave ice, Fresh Shave in Koloa road was our next stop. This hipster trailer has partnered with nearby food trucks to have a little haven of Instagram fame. Your shave ice is served with a mustache straw, perfect for gulping down the delicious juice. At $6 a cup, it’s a pricey shave ice, but you can tell the ingredients are fresh and local, and they even top off the treat with fresh fruit or coconut shavings. It’s a high quality and fancy shave ice, but if you’re headed by on the highway, it’s worth a stop.
Finally, we hit Kealia Beach for sunset as we came into Kapa’a town. It was about a half mile long beach where the waves were large and crashing, and you could watch surfers out in the water. There were some picnic tables around, but we opted for a piece of driftwood on the beach to have a sundowner and watch the sunset. Our first day in Kauai was a success, and it was off to our AirBnB for the night to get some rest.
The next morning we hit up Kealia Beach again to see the sunrise. Hawaii is one of those places where you need to be outside at both sunrise and sunset for great views and beautiful colors. Plus, we wanted to get an early start on the day because we planned to hike the Sleeping Giant Trail. We got to the trail head by typing in “Sleeping Giant trail head” or “Nounou East Trail” into our google maps. The trail starts off strolling through the forested mountain, but then quickly starts with the switchbacks up through the shady forest. Of course, with my mom and I together, we got lost and ended up rock climbing up some precarious cliff sides, but once we found the real trail, it was much easier. You’ll get great views of Wailua Bay and Kapa’a as you keep ascending. When you get to the top, there is a fork that will take you to a picnic shelter which is a great place to stop for lunch. Just beyond the table, there is another trail heading down and then straight back up. If you’re brave, you can rock climb your way up onto the Giant’s face and see a breathtaking 360* view (or maybe it just takes your breath away because you are standing on the edge of a ledge).
Next we headed to Opaeka’a Falls to see the 150 foot waterfall. It’s not a waterfall you can get close to. In fact, you park in the overlook parking lot, get out, walk a few feet, and you can see the falls. From the other side of the highway, you can see the Wailua river. I wouldn’t make a special trip to see it, but if you’re on the road that goes right by it, stop to see the beauty that is Kauai before moving along. The Wailua river looked like a fun place to kayak or paddleboard, but we didn’t get to do that this trip.
We were headed next to the Kuilau Ridge Trail to get in another 4.5 mile hike. This trail was easy to find and well marked. There was parking right at the trail head and it starts off with a large dirt road. It ascends slowly up for about a mile at which point you’ll see a picnic table, which is a great place to stop for lunch as well. From there, it starts the switchbacks up to see the views of The Sleeping Giant (where you just hiked!). I’m not sure how far we made it into the trail. We got to a trail intersection and a small waterfall, but we were covered in mud. We sludged our way back to our car and were off in search of our next treat.
Skinny Mike’s Shave Ice was on a list I had read somewhere, and while sunrises and sunsets are important, I also have a daily quota of shave ice when I visit the islands. They are located in Harbor Mall (perfect for us because there was a bathroom to get some of the mud off) and had a variety of delicious treats. They have locally made ice cream, with great tropical flavors, and a ton of shave ice options. We got the “Taste of Hawaii” sampler, which had five flavors: coconut, pineapple, lychee, passionfruit, and mango. The shave ice was enormous (bigger than my head). Each flavor was very good, but the best part was when they all ran together at the bottom of the cup; it was like a tropical taste bud sugary explosion.
From there we hit the closest beach: Kalapaki Beach. This crescent shaped beach was the perfect place to relax, cool off, and nap. There were many paddleboarders out in the water, and a sandy, gradual bottom to enter the water. You can watch the planes fly by over head. The beach is in the back of Duke’s restaurant and the Marriott, but we didn’t think it was too crowded. This would be a great beach to sit by while you wait for your flight.
We headed back into Kapa’a town and had dinner at one of the many restaurants and bars along the road. Our dinner was not memorable, but there were plenty of places to choose from. I’m sure you’ll find something that is to your liking. There is also quick beach access to Kapa’a beach, which was a great place to watch another gorgeous Hawaiian sunset.
Needing a new place for sunrise, we opted to take a walk through Lydgate Beach Park. There is a great 3 mile walking path that goes along the coast, and would be great for walkers, runners or bikers. It is a flat path and a perfect way to start the day. There’s also this point in the path where you might start seeing some stray cats; we stopped to say hello and saw this Japanese man feeding them. He had named them all and said he feeds them every morning–too cute. We then headed to Ha Coffee Bar in Lihue, a spacious coffeehouse using locally roasted beans, and off to our next adventure.
We had booked a Helicopter Tour through Blue Hawaiian because we knew that might be the only chance to see the Napali coast (as most of the roads were washed out due to flooding). You sit down to a 15 minute orientation about flight safety and then off you go to the helicopter. My mom and I were the first two in, meaning we got the front seats. Liftoff and landing are a piece of cake compared to an airplane, not scary at all. It is a bit unnerving to sit through a few bumps of turbulence in a helicopter, but for the most part our ride was smooth sailing all around the whole island of Kauai. The helicopter takes you over the Waimea Canyon, around the Napali coast, and to see some of the amazing hidden waterfalls along the island. It is arguably the most beautiful of the Hawaiian islands, and this was money well spent to be able to see the lush, green island from above.
After our adventure, we had to drive up to Princeville where we were staying for the next few nights. The drive along the coast was absolutely gorgeous, and we took advantage of stopping at a few locations along the way. Many people had suggested not making the drive at night the first time, so we were racing the sun. Our first stop was Wailua Shave Ice in Kapa’a. This tiny truck is serving up delicious shave ice with fresh fruit and no artificial flavors. They top their masterpieces with different flavored foams. We had one that was made with coconut milk, haupia foam and roasted coconut flakes.
Our next stop was a hike at Ho’opi’i Falls, which has an upper and a lower set of waterfalls. You park in a neighborhood and follow the groups of people to the trail head. After walking about a half a mile, you will get to the first falls where you will see crazy locals jumping from the rocks into the crashing water below. The second falls, another half a mile beyond the first, are just as impressive and there is a pool to swim in down below. The trek down to the bottom of the pools is a bit challenging at times, especially if it is muddy–which it often is on Kauai, but the refreshing dip in the water is worth it. There is a rope swing hanging on one side of the pools as well for the adventurous at heart. The whole trek is about 2 miles round trip.
The next stop was at Anahola Beach Park. Unlike many other beaches on the island, this one you can drive up to and park right at. It was a nice quiet beach with calm water. We then went to check out one more check, Moloa’a Beach–another tiny, quiet beach in the area. We didn’t stay long at either, but if you have supplies for the day, they would both be peaceful places to spend your time.
We finally made it to Princeville to check into our place, and then headed off to Hanalei Bay to catch the sunset. The bay is this long stretch of sand surrounded by towering mountains. There were many people out there surfing, paddleboarding, or just soaking in the ocean. The pier was closed, but we heard that you can jump off of it and into the water. It is definitely one of the most stunning views on the island and should be on your list.
When the sun went down, we headed into Hanalei town to get some grub. We were starving from our day’s adventure and just wanted something quick and easy we could take back to our hotel hot tub. We grabbed L&L Barbecue in the Village shopping center where there were a ton of options. We both enjoyed the bbq mixed plate, which came with rice and beans.
Up early yet again to catch the sunrise. This time at Kalihiwai Beach where there was plenty of parking and we were almost the only ones. There is a boat loading dock and just out from that we snorkeled and saw a sea turtle. The snorkeling wasn’t amazing, but if you have your own gear, it’s worth heading out to see if you can find any sea life.
Next we headed to find the Queen’s Bath Hike. There are tons of warnings about this hike, but if you’re up for an adventure you shouldn’t miss this one. The parking area is tiny, only space for about 10 cars so go early. It’s about a 10-15 minute hike down from where you park to the lava bench. It was MUDDY! However, there were tons of footholds to help you on your way down. Once you’re at the bench, turn left and walk toward the “bath”. Another 10 minutes and you’ll see what you came for. Be sure to use caution and respect the sea. Before we went, we watched videos of the ocean current taking over the bath and drowning people. Swim at your own risk. Of course, we checked the tides before going and made sure it was safe before climbing down into the bath. The water is crystal clear and you can snorkel in it. If my 60 year old mother can complete the hike, so can you!
Next we cleaned up and headed to toward the Kilauea Lighthouse and Wildlife Refuge, but first we had to stop by the Kilauea Bakery for some breakfast goodies. They have a whole case of pastries to choose from and all were delicious. We tried the lilikoi lemon bar, which was sweet and tart and super good. They also have a variety of beverages–coffee, tea, etc. Just down the road is the lighthouse. The lighthouse is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10am-4pm. Admission is $5 per person over the age of 15. The lighthouse is great for photos, but the real stars of the show are all the birds that you will see. It is one of the few locations where you can observe the red-footed booby and other awesome feathered friends. Depending on the time of year, you might also see sea turtles down below, Hawaiian monk seals, or humpback whales.
For lunch our Hawaiian friends had recommended Kilauea Fish Market. We ordered and split an Ahi wrap, which was made with fresh ingredients and quite tasty. It had brown rice, lettuce, carrots, cucumbers and sprouts mixed together with a sauce and then fresh ahi tuna. It was light, not too filling, and plenty big for two to share.
It was time to hit the beach, and this time we chose Secret Beach. This beach was anything but a secret. There were rows of people parked and then it was about a 10 minute fairly easy hike down to the beach. The beach is quite a paradise when you first see it. Long stretch of sand, gorgeous blue water that you can swim in, and views of the Kilauea Lighthouse and Mokuaeae Island, on a clear day. It’s a nice flat beach and we played a round of paddleball before heading back toward town.
For dessert we, of course, had to have shave ice. We tried Jo Jo’s Shave Ice in downtown Hanalei. The portions were huge and tons of flavors to choose from. We had our shave ice with a huge scoop of macadamia nut ice cream inside. If you haven’t yet tried the ice cream and shave ice combo, you should. Cold heaven.
Needing yet another adventure for the day, we thought we’d try our luck with kayaking. We rented kayaks from Kayak Hanalei and had just enough time to either head out into the bay or to kayak along the river to the Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge. Hoping to see some turtles, we opted for the latter. You can rent either stand up paddle boards or kayaks from the company, who were very helpful and friendly. You can go about two miles along the river; we didn’t make it the whole way since we were being pelted by rain, but it was still a fun experience. We also went late enough in the day where we got a discounted rate (anytime after 1pm). Along the way we saw some turtles, nene (Hawaiian goose), and listened to the tranquil song birds. It was peaceful being surrounded by nature.
After sitting at Hanalei Bay for sunset, we decided to call it a night since we had planned another full day for tomorrow. We stopped by Foodland in Princeville, where you can get fresh poke bowls or sushi to go. The grocery store was fun to walk around, as they had a ton of Hawaiian specialties and supplies for our lunch the next day.
Today’s sunrise location was Kilauea Lighthouse, where we had visited yesterday. It was a pretty place to watch the morning sun and you could hear the birds and watch them fly overhead. The Refuge isn’t open, but you can peer over the fence at the lighthouse and the sea below.
We stopped back by Kilauea Bakery after reading reviews of their macadamia nut cinnamon rolls. It was a warm gooey pastry with cinnamon flavor throughout and toasted macadamia nuts on top. It was a great way to start the morning and get ready for our long drive.
Today’s adventure was the Waimea Canyon Drive. This is a MUST DO activity when you are on the island. The drive is gorgeous and perfect for any age. This area is known as the Grand Canyon of Kauai and is known for its reddish lava beds. We had seen it from above in the helicopter, but knew we had to get closer. The drive is along a windy road with various lookout stops and places to pull over to take pictures. There are three official lookout spots with parking lots, and of course we hit all three.
The first place to pull over is Waimea Canyon Lookout, located between mile markers 10 and 11. This place had amazing views of the valley, and you could even see the Waimea river down below. There was a guy selling fresh fruit and lumpia in the parking lot; we tried the strawberry papaya, which is the sweetest of all papayas. All fruit is amazing on the island, see as it is the Garden Isle, but this especially hit the spot and gave us energy to continue our drive.
The second lookout is between mile markers 13 and 14, and it is the Puu Hinahina Lookout. However, before you reach that, look for a smaller turnout called Pu’u Ka Pele; here you can see your best view of the Waipo’o waterfall. Take a couple of quick pictures and then head to Puu Hinahina parking lot. This viewing platform is a bit smaller, but you can see the canyon reaching all the way out to the distant ocean. There’s another short trail that will take you to a lookout where you can see Nihau island.
Around mile marker 18 is the last stop: Kalalua Lookout. This is the most photographed spot on the island, as it has the clouds, the ocean, and the Nepali coastline in the background. The views are breathtaking. We went just past the lookout along the trail. About 10 minutes in you are going to get some gorgeous views of the Nepali coast, and your perfect Kauai picture to take home. We continued walking as far as we could (some of the trails were close due to the flooding at the Nepali coast) up to a lookout point. It was completely muddy and we slid down a few times; we looked like we had taken a mud bath by the time we returned to the car.
On the way back down through the Waimea Canyon, we decided to stop one more time at the Puu Hinahina Lookout to do the hike to Waipo’o Waterfall. At about 3 miles round trip, the Canyon Trail leads you right down to the waterfall. You can swim in the upper falls, and you can see the 800 foot plunge made by the Waipo’o Falls (you can’t actually go down to swim in that one). It’s mostly downhill to get to the falls, so the way back up is quite a climb. There is a little turn off called Cliff Lookout that has some pretty views of the valley if you’re not too tired. But on the way down to the falls, you’ll get great views of the canyon below.
Back in the car, we decided to take the long route home and head for the beaches of the west side of the island. We went to Kekaha Beach, which is the longest stretch of white sand on the island. The sand seems to go on for miles. We heard it’s a popular spot for fishing and surfing, and that also the water can sometimes appear red from the tinting of the nearby Waimea river runoff. We were a little early for sunset, but I bet they are perfect here on the west side.
Needing to watch a championship Warriors basketball game, we headed to the Saddle Room back in Waimea. A typical bar, they had great food, drinks and atmosphere. On the other side of the bar area is a huge steak house and a little gift shop with some really cute items. We both sipped on the Passion Fruit Mai Tai, which was described as having rum, some passion fruit syrup, and more rum. My mother loved the place because they allowed her to climb on the Saddle out front for a photo op.
Having to head all the way back to Princeville tonight, we had to get back on the road. We did a quick stop at Waimea Pier State Park, which wasn’t too much to see, and then Salt Pond Beach Park to watch the sunset. At the southern end of the beach, you’ll see the salt ponds–the only place in Hawaii where salt is still produced in natural ponds. The ponds fill up with ocean water and then are left to evaporate, leaving salty rock crystals behind.
Needing a quick, on-the-road dinner, we stopped by Mark’s Place in Puni. This over-the-counter lunch spot had great reviews. They were closing and we didn’t know what to order, but we somehow ended up with chicken, brown rice and salad. I’m not sure we ordered the right thing, but everything looked good and we’d definitely go back. They also had a case of Hawaiian handmade popsicles called OnoPops with really interesting flavors like crackseed lemon peel, salted watermelon cream, lilikoi cheesecake, and Kona latte. They are available at 30+ locations in Kauai, and are made from local farm ingredients. Definitely check them out if you see them on the island.
Hideaways Beach was a great morning snorkel for our last day. We saw many fish and sea turtles, and the coral is just beautiful. It’s a great place to see the state fish too: the humuhumunukunukuapua’a.
We then headed into Hanalei town for breakfast at Hanalei Bread Company. The place was packed. They had delicious smoothies and baked goods. They were out of what we wanted to order, but you could tell all the meals were made with fresh, local ingredients.
Next we went to Mokolea Point Trail, which is a part of the Kilauea National Wildlife Refuge area. We drove down this bumpy dirt road and parked our car off to the side as far as we thought our little rental would make it. We walked along the dirt road for a while, next to the Kilauea river. You’ll then see a stream that you can cross (about waist high) to get to a beach, or you can continue straight to the lava bench. To the left of all the lava, you’ll find the Pools of Mokolea, which were formed from lava rock and are now a bunch of little tide pools. We saw a little blowhole, a ton of sea turtles cruising through the caverns, crabs, and some fish. It was definitely worth an hour or two to check out this unique place.
We were staying back on the south shore tonight, so we had to make our way back down the coast. We stopped at Tropical Dreams Ice Cream Shop in Kapa’a on our way through town. Each day they have 24 unique flavors to choose from. The ice cream is handmade from cream and super dense, thick and creamy. All the fruit sorbets were delicious, but we were in the mood for something more hearty so we had the Coconut Almond Fudge Swirl, which was amazing.
One of our favorite adventures on the island was climbing down beyond the guard rail and hiking down to the Wailua Waterfall for a swim. When you arrive to the falls there is parking just beyond it or off to the side. We recommend getting there early, as it will fill up. It is one of the most picturesque falls on the island, with its double-tiered waterfall; plus, if you time it correctly, you may catch a rainbow overlooking the falls like we did. The waterfall is about 85 feet high and has a 30 foot swimming hole at the bottom. If you ignore the caution rail and hop over, you will see a trail to the right. Follow that trail down, down, down and you will eventually get to the falls. This trail was no joke. It has places where you have to hold onto branches, hop over logs, climb backwards down a little cliff…but it is so worth it. The water is so refreshing and cold, and everyone down at the falls is just as proud as you are to have made it the whole way. The hike up is a bit easier, although there are still many places where you are pulling yourself up using tree branches. If you’re up for an adventure, this was definitely one of our top choices.
Next we headed over to Hanapepe Town to explore and check out the Swinging Bridge. This cute little historic town served as the inspiration for the Disney movie “Lilo and Stitch”. There is just one main road in the town with cute little shops. Behind the town is a river and a wooden swinging bridge that you can walk across. On the other side of the river is a little museum where you can learn the history of the bridge. Hanapepe Town is a cute place to stop by for the day, or if they have an event or farmer’s market, it would be a fun town to stroll through.
Next we headed to the town of Eleele where we checked out Kauai Chocolate Company and Kauai Island Brewing Company. The chocolate store is a tiny little place across from the brewery, but as you walk in you’ll get hit with the smell of melted chocolate. Behind the counter, you can see the workers mixed up the day’s creations; in the display cases you will find perfectly crafted chocolate delights. We grabbed a few truffles before heading over for a beer. The Kauai Island Brewing Company is the world’s westernmost brewery. The brewery was open and spacious with some tables and a long bar area with stools. We grabbed a bar table and, of course, the lilikoi ale. The beer was light and refreshing with a hint of passion fruit flavor.