Between the tropical rainforest and scenic hiking trails, the hidden beaches and dramatic coastline, Kauai's landscape offers endless opportunities for adventure. Here are our top ten picks to experience the best of Hawaii's Garden Island.
1. Sunbathe at Polihale State Park
While most folks flock to Kauai's North Shore for the beach, Polihale State Park on the west side of the island offers pristine white sand and tall dunes that feel untouched. Because the state park is accessible only via a rugged, dirt road and many rental car companies forbid their cars from driving, Polihale gets less tourist traffic and remains a mostly local gem. Summon your inner savvy traveler and find a way to get there -- maybe catch a ride from a local -- and completely unplug here for the day. Stay to catch one of Hawaii's electric sunsets, or spend the night -- camping is available for $12 per night.
2. Drop by Alekoko Menehune Fishpond
Though it is a drive-by attraction visible from the road, the Alekoko Menehune Fishpond is worth a bit of extra time -- it's an important piece of native Hawaiian culture and civilization. In short, the ancient Hawaiians created “fishponds” -- which are like tiny lakes -- to supplement their ocean fishing when conditions were too rough or yielded insufficient bounties. The Alekoko Menehune Fishpond was believed to have been built a thousand years ago, and today it remains a tribute to ancient Hawaiian ingenuity and aquaculture. Read up on the legend surrounding its creation and the role fishponds played in Hawaiian culture before you go.
3. Visit Kīlauea Point National Wildlife Refuge
Two miles north of Kīlauea town is the National Wildlife Refuge. Located at the tip of a peninsula, the refuge offers gorgeous ocean and sea cliff views looking back toward the island via a 0.2-mile footpath leading to Kilauea Point. Stop by the visitor Center for dioramas highlighting the native wildlife you can spot in this area.
4. Learn about -- and eat -- Kalo
Kalo, known globally as taro, has been a staple food of the Hawaiian diet since Polynesians first arrived on the Hawaiian Islands. It was one of the twenty-six “canoe plants” that were brought from Polynesia to the Pacific Islands nearly 2,000 years ago. Hanalei Taro and Juice Co. runs the island’s most popular food truck in Hanalei and offers an opportunity to taste and learn about this revered, sacred superfood.
5. Tour famous film backdrops
Television and film buffs may note that Kauai was the backdrop for many movie sets. For instance, Wailua Falls, which drops about 80 feet via two streams, is featured at the beginning of Fantasy Island. Read about all the movies that were filmed on the island, and join a tour or spend a day or two tracking them down yourself.
6. Hike to Hawaiian culture
Kauai is one of the best Hawaiian islands for hiking. Kauai Hiking Tours, a company that seeks to infuse outdoor recreation with Hawaiian history, leads the South Shore Coastal hike for an easy half-day adventure trekking through the site of a land-and-sea war fought in the 1300s. This group hike is available every Wednesday at a discounted rate. Other good options for first-time hikers include the well-marked Canyon Trail, Iliau Nature Loop, and Awa'awapuhi in Waimea Canyon and Kōke'e State Parks.
7. See Hawaii’s Grand Canyon
Did you know that Kauai has its own Grand Canyon? Waimea Canyon is ten miles long and 3,000 feet deep (compared to the real Grand Canyon, which is 277 miles long and 6,000 feet deep). "Waimea" is Hawaiian for "reddish water," which refers to the color of the canyon walls and the tint the water takes on as it runs through. To see it, take Waimea Canyon Drive, which leaves right from the small town of Waimea and offers several lookout points where you can stop off and take in bird's-eye views. The road also gives you access to Koke'e State Park, where there are many hikes in and around the canyon.
8. Explore the Nā Pali Coast
The Nā Pali Coast is Kauai’s number one attraction -- its dramatic seaside cliffs crown the island’s northern shore. There are many ways to see the coastline, including by boat, kayak, helicopter, and on foot; don’t leave the island without experiencing one of them. Consider this, though: Many people find their way to Ke’e Beach at the end of the road and the beginning of the Nā Pali Coast. It is overcrowded and extremely difficult to find a parking spot. For these reasons, unless you have your heart set on hiking the first two miles of the infamous Kalalau Trail, opt for a boat or helicopter ride.
9. Visit a once-hidden Heiau
Ke Kahua O Kāneiolouma, or the Kāneiolouma Complex, has been undergoing a restoration for more than a decade. So far, researchers have uncovered a thirteen-acre complex that contains habitation, cultivation, sporting, assembly, and religious structures believed to date back to the mid-1400s. Remnants of house sites, fishponds, taro fields, irrigation channels, shrines, and altars have also been found. Near its center is what may be the only intact Makahiki (ancient Hawaiian new year festival) sporting arena in the state. The complex is referred to as a wahi pana, or a storied place.
Currently, the project is fundraising to reconstruct the internal rock walls, rebuild the historic houses, restore the fishponds and taro farms, and integrate the public for viewing, which -- for now -- is restricted to a platform. Still, it is worth a stop to read the information boards on your way to or from Poʻipū Beach, as it is one of the largest ancient discoveries in the entire island chain. You can also stop by the Kauai Museum to learn more from a docent.
10. Learn to surf
Surfing is a must when visiting any of the Hawaiian islands, but especially on Kauai. Hanalei Bay is one of the best places to learn in the whole island chain, thanks to its easy rollers and a relaxing, mountainous backdrop. Try Hawaiian Surfing Adventures for a group or individual lesson.