Referred to as the Garden Isle, Kauai‘s consummate beauty is measured by some of the most dramatic scenery in the world—let alone the Pacific. With emerald rainforests, magnificent waterfalls and towering sea cliffs, the Hawaiian island has created its own uniquely laid-back vibe within an archipelago that has perfected the art. And, as the oldest island in Hawaii, Kauai has a deeply spiritual and mystic history.
Like many of the Hawaiian islands, visitors can—in theory—drive Kauai’s entire perimeter in a few hours, but due to the rugged shores of the Nā Pali coast and the immense 2018 rainfall that caused landslides still blocking parts of the highways, some of the island is only accessible by sea or air—and why would anybody rush, anyway? After picking up a rental car at Lihue airport, the island is yours to explore. Here are some of our suggestions.
Perhaps the most logical spot to visit first, the 170-foot-high Wailua Falls is just six miles (about a 15-minute drive) from the airport—a quick detour off of Highway 56. To note: this is one of the few Kauai waterfalls you don’t have to hike to get to. That said, there are glorious trails that will take visitors right to the base, so you can get close to its powerful water flow and, on a good day, a rainbow.
Kilauea Fish Market
About 45 minutes away, at northern tip of the island, lies the quaint country town of Kilauea. Drive to the end of the town road toward Kilauea Point and find the Kilauea Lighthouse, where you can take in ocean views. On a clear day, you can see thousands of seabirds including albatrosses, or perhaps even whales during mating season. Up the highway and off a nondescript dirt road you can find a short hiking trail to Secret Beach. While it’s a steep and muddy trek down, the secluded beach—surrounded by dense forest and cliffs—is well worth the effort as it provides a serene, meditative space. Back in town, you’ll find shops, galleries and restaurants including Kilauea Fish Market—a must stop for its locally-caught fish sandwiches, plus ceviche and poke.
While only 15 minutes away, the drive to Hanalei takes you on a stunning journey—as the one lane Hanalei Bridge sits amidst a tropical rainforest that gives way to the magnificent Hanalei Bay. Enjoy the beach, take a surf lesson or wander through the hip town of Hanalei, where you can create your own gallery crawl (start at Havaiki Oceanic and Tribal Arts, Infinite Arts or Michal Art Studio of Hanalei).
Before heading home for the night, we suggest dinner at the outdoor, wood-clad eatery AMA, where you can watch the sun set over the impressive mountain landscape while eating the strangely good combination of raw fish plates and ramen.
Kauai Shores Hotel
A mile from central Kapaʻa town, the Kauai Shores Hotel is a laid-back, easy basecamp. Newly renovated and set on six acres of gardens and beachfront, the rooms are minimal, colorful and comfortable. While there are more luxurious places to stay, this cheerful hotel offers just what’s needed after days of exploring.
Waimea Canyon State Park
Sometimes called “the Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” Waimea Canyon is over an hour from the hotel, and well worth the trip. Stretching roughly 10 miles and 3,000 feet deep, the stunning park provides vistas of deep gorges, rivers and the Waipo’o Falls. You can continue on the road further into the mountains for some of the most epic hiking trails in the world, as well as viewpoints over Nā Pali itself.
Heading back toward the south-east, a stop in Kalaheo is essential. For snacks and shopping, visit Warehouse 3540—a community marketplace with artist studios, artisanal coffee and food trucks. If you can’t decide, we recommend hitting up The Fresh Shave first. The little food truck serves shaved iced with local organic ingredients and handmade syrups.
McBryde + Allerton Botanical Gardens
Continuing back toward your hotel, stop off at the lush McBryde + Allerton Botanical Gardens. This glorious place is a sanctuary that various artists, architects and Hawaiian queens have shaped over the last century, and it is a wonderful representation of Hawaii’s agricultural history. There are plenty of ways to enjoy the gardens—including our pick, the twilight tour, which is guided by moonlight. The organization behind it (National Tropical Botanical Garden) is also dedicated to conserving endangered flora.