A three-month overdue post.
I have heard, since I have not visited all the islands of Hawai’i yet, that what makes Kaua’i stand out is its natural beauty. It is the oldest of all the islands and is known as the “Garden Isle” for its lush landscape. Oahu has almost 1 million people while Kaua’i has less than 70,000. Most of Kaua’i is inhabitable to humans and is instead full of greenery and beautiful, varying geography such as mountains, streams, and canyons. For nature lovers and those who want to get away from the crowds but still have some source of civilization nearby (unlike, I hear, Moloka’i), Kaua’i is a good island to visit.
Rent a car
One of my few biggest gripes about Kaua’i (and Oahu) is that public transportation is pretty sparse. You will need to rent a car, and the best way to do that is from a company you can reach close to the airport. There are many of the standard options (Budget, Enterprise, Alamo, etc.) available via a short shuttle ride.
Budget, as of this writing, seems to have a sole partnership with Hawaiian Airlines such that booking a car rental to Budget with a flight through the airline gives you extra mileage points for the airline. I thought this was a good deal and a convenient thing to do, but I suspect many other people thought the same thing. When we arrived towards the end of the high tourism / start of low tourism season in late August, the line for Budget was a bit long. It wasn’t much of a problem for my husband and me since we are generally patient people and weren’t in a hurry the day of our arrival, but it is something to keep in mind. We enjoyed Kaua’i a lot and would come back one day, and if we do, I may consider doing a different car rental option.
Download the Shaka Guide app
I believe I downloaded the Shaka Guide tours for Kaua’i for $15. The Shaka Guide is a phone app that acts as a self-paced GPS tour. You turn it on while in your car and drive around the island as the narrator on the app tells you about historical and modern sites, as well as provide tips on local eats, hiking spots, and photo opportunities. We really enjoyed having this app! It was such a cheap and fun alternative to a group bus tour, and something I was comfortable doing, i.e., driving within U.S. driving laws as a U.S. citizen and driver license holder. (I am much less comfortable driving outside the country.)
As the Garden Isle, Kaua’i has tons of excellent hiking trails in all difficulties. The Shaka Guide lists several, as well as the free All Trails app (that also includes a premium option for offline viewing and live guiding). Kaua’i arguably has the best trails out of all the islands.
But be careful when it comes to rain! For being such a lush island, Kaua’i is one of the wettest spots on the Earth. Rain is frequent and makes many trails rather dangerous during and after a heavy rainfall.
Visit Waimeya Canyon
Almost all of Kaua’i is beautiful, but the canyon itself is beyond comparison. Just do it. There are so many photographic sites and hiking trails on the way to the farthest point you can drive to on the road for this canyon as well. It will be easy to get carried away with all of them. Be aware of the time: it sucks driving there past sunset. The roads are narrow and winding, and there are no lights as with the rest of Kaua’i–but it feels especially precarious on top of a canyon road. Also, make sure you have enough gas. You’ll use more gas going uphill so much, and the nearest gas station is at least 15 to 20 minutes away from the start of the canyon road.
Beach-hop and settle in to a beach all to yourself
Kaua’i has tons and tons of beaches. With our Shaka Guide app, we must have visited at least a handful in just a few hours, and many of them had so few or even no other people on them. It was surreal in comparison to the crowded beaches on the mainland and in Oahu. The beaches are also gorgeous and have few human-made sites to ruin your view. Best of all, the water is blue, clean, and pleasantly warm!
Fly in a helicopter
Since so much of the island is uninhabitable and inaccessible except by air, a helicopter ride is the best way to truly see all of the island. There have been several tragic accidents, to be frank, but they are rare. If you can brave the risk (and the hit to your wallet), the sights and experience are unforgettable. If you want the best pictures, opt for a doors-off flight. Jack Harter is one of a few companies that offers this and is highly rated. We thoroughly enjoyed our tour with them. Doors-on flights are prone to glare from the glass. Companies advise passengers to wear dark clothing to lessen glare, but you know, not everyone listens 🙂 and it doesn’t completely eliminate the glare.
Meditate and wander around a Hindu monastery
The only Hindu monastery in Kaua’i has an impressive plot of land and garden. It is one of the most tranquil places I’ve ever visited. It is free as well. If you go, do dress modestly, that is, no shorts or short skirts from above the knees, and hide that cleavage. (If you mess up, you’ll need to borrow a sarong from the entrance to cover yourself.) Check their website for visiting hours. There are mixed reviews on their guided tour, which you’ll need to book in advance.
Sip free coffee and tour around a coffee estate
The Kauai Coffee Estate is in the south shore of Kaua’i. We found it via the Shaka Guide. There you can sample as much free coffee as you like, have a drink or bite to eat at their café, buy gifts, take a free self-guided tour, or join a paid guided tour (must book in advance, I think). This was such a fun find. I never really considered myself a coffee connoisseur, but after trying so many different kinds of quality coffee there, a novice like me even tasted subtle nuances between them and could suss out the kinds I preferred. Their flavored coffee is so far the only flavored coffee I’ve liked without any added sweeteners or creamers. But I still prefer their top-of-the-line peaberry beans.
Shop, eat, and drink around Kapa’a
Kapa’a is on the east shore of Kaua’i. We passed by this small, lively town on our way to the north shore, but wished we could’ve spent more time here. This town has a lot of little shops, cafés, and restaurants to enjoy. If we come back to Kaua’i, we’d consider lodging around here.
See also: Kauai: Where to Eat
Honorable mention: go zip-lining
I had my first experience ever zip-lining here in Kaua’i. I chose the Just Live! zip-line company because it is woman-owned, gives back to the local community, and uniquely created zip-lining routes through treetops rather than human-made towers from the ground. It was a great experience zip-lining in general and also with the specific instructors with whom I was. I will admit, though, that the sights were not “spectacular.” The site itself is on a private property off the main road surrounding grain fields. This itself is tranquil but not “Kaua’i wow”, so-to-speak (when comparing to views of mountains, streams, canyons, etc.).
I say zip-lining is an honorable mention because I have a feeling that doing it once anywhere is great, but after that it is a similar experience no matter where you do it–that is, unless the sights are spectacular. Perhaps if I had found another company who did zip-lining in a visually more interesting location, I would do it again.
Honorable mention: hike to a prehistoric cave
The Makauwahi Cave is a free site to visit after driving through some pretty rocky terrain and hiking a 15-minute trail through mostly sand. The cave and the area in front of it are truly otherworldly–or other-timely, as it were–as if you were stepping backwards in time. The cave is maintained voluntarily by this one enthusiastic man every day, as of this writing (check the website for updates). While the site is free, if you can afford it, do donate a few dollars for this man’s time. He is eager to provide information on the site if you ask.