For three weeks, our family of four (plus one set of grandparents) canvassed Kauai. From the relaxed and sunny South Shore to the more adventurous and remote North Shore, we – and our trusted minivan rental – sought out all that the isle had to offer, which we’ve bundled up below to hopefully assist in your own travel planning.
I’ll start with a quite note. Pre-kids, Trevor and I visited Kauai. Similar to this trip, we spent time on both the South and North Shores, and somehow, we stepped away (or, more accurately, hopped a plane for the Big Island) having enjoyed – but not loved – our first visit. It was beautiful, without a doubt, and we stayed in gorgeous resort properties …but maybe that’s exactly what our problem was. We didn’t properly explore the island while housed in cushy hotel environments.
This time around, with significantly more time at our disposal, and far less onsite amenities, we had an opportunity (and a need, quite frankly) to leave the confines of our cozy homes and drive a bit farther than we may have otherwise. That said, you’re never driving too far on Kauai. From the South side to the North, it’s no more than two hours, despite the fact that there is no single road that circles the island, given the stunning and treacherous geography of the western Napali Coast.
We began our stay on the South Shore, near Poipu, on a residential side street just off the main roadway that cuts through town and along the coast. In our rented bungalow, we had three bedrooms, a spacious patio and a mere 10-minute walk to what turned out to be an incredibly family-friendly beach, Poipu Beach Park. With a shallow swim area that’s sheltered from waves by reef, this small bay is perfect for splashing around. It’s also attended by lifeguards, has a small playground, and is the nightly home to dozens of sea turtles and seals, who lazily make their way on shore as dusk approaches each day.
If you didn’t have an itch to explore, you could simply spend each day at this beach, popping home for naptime and grabbing Puka Dogs (a Hawaiian hotdog) and shave ice at the restaurant across the street. (Another lovely option for little ones is Salt Pond Beach, further west along the South Shore.) And there’s reason to get comfortable in this stretch of sand; we watched a whale breach from the shore one February afternoon.
For even better views, however, look for Shipwrech Beach near the Grand Hyatt. Tucked to the side, you’ll find the Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail. A gorgeous oceanside walk, this sweet hike is about as magical as it gets. Pack a picnic. (Expect some light rock scrambling; we left the kids with grandparents.)
When you’ve had enough sun but are looking to stay close to home, you can make the quick drive up to Old Town Koloa. It’s a tiny stretch of shops and restaurants, but there’s more packed in than meets the eye. In fact, our opinion is that this is where you’ll find the island’s best shave ice (at The Fresh Shave) and we also had a quick, delicious and reasonably priced (hard to come by) meal at Kenji Burger. If you’re looking to shop-shop, then you may want to swing into The Shops at Kukui’ula, which combine higher-priced retailers, restaurants and a couple of small markets.
But best yet, when you have an afternoon open to hit the road, is a drive up to the Waimea Canyon lookout, the prettiest dang driveable views on Kauai. Head to the main canyon lookout point where you’ll pay per car and per person to park and take a peek. Then, drive to the end of the state park road, where you can peer through the canyon toward the ocean. If it’s rainy, just give it time. Epic rainbows await.
And a word of caution: The roads in the state park are treacherous. Loads of pot holes and shallow, flooded passages. We braved it all and are SO glad that we did, but it made for some admittedly nail-biting moments the closer we got to the last lookout. (On your way back down, stop into Kokee Lodge Restaurant for a snack and pick up chicken feed… if you dare.)
Worth a mention: Visiting Warehouse 3540 on rainy days for coffee, drinks and sweet pop-up shops; booking Kauai Carts for four- or six-person EV cart rentals; and The Beachhouse Kauai for sunset cocktails and to watch thousands of parakeets fly in nightly.
We left the sunny south shore knowing full well that the North Shore was one of the wettest places on the planet. Yet we were still surprised when the skies opened up and dumped on us for most of the week. If we’d learned to slow down in Joshua Tree, our stay in Hanalei taught us patience. It was more remote, more lush, and more wet than we could have imagined. Here, you feel very much at the whim of Mother Nature.
But you can’t argue the fact that the scenery is downright gorgeous. We stayed in the walkable and quaint surf stop, Hanalei, just a few minutes drive from Princeville. Given the lack of hotels and motels in Hanalei, it was more overrun with tourists than we expected, but it’s easy to understand why folks flock here. The hippy vibes and surfboards per capita are exactly what spring to mind when you imagine the best parts of Hawaii. With that small-town persona, comes one drawback, however… the Hanalei Bridge.
A one-lane bridge, it’s the only way in and the only way out of town. Typically, that’s no issue given that traffic is never too congested, but in rainy seasons, when the mountains are blanketed in stormy clouds, it’s not particularly uncommon that the bridge will close for a period of time. And if that happens to be when you’re scheduled to head to the airport for your flight home, well then, you’re out of luck. We had an entire day where we were “stranded” in Hanalei, which wouldn’t have been a big deal, but it meant that only one of the dozens of restaurants were open and even the grocery store was closed. (It was no issue for us, but I dreamt up a million scenarios that could have been extremely problematic.)
Okay, onto the good stuff. Hanalei Bay: It’s obvious, the main attraction is this gorgeous swath of beach with majestic mountain and waterfall views. In winter, swimming isn’t recommended, but playing in the sand, picnicking, walking the beach and wading in the water are enough, given just how epic those views are.
Further west, you’ll find Haena Beach Park. Set across the road from a deep and wide cave that’s worth a quick stroll into, and with a sometimes-rain-fed waterfall a few steps away, this beach was Mack’s favorite. A shallow river runs through the sand, which banks on one side and makes a great sliding and jumping point for kids. Like on Hanalei Bay Beach, you’ll find a lifeguard stand here.
At the end of the North Shore road, just before the Haena State Park entrance (which you’ll need reservations to visit; it’s a strict 30-day reservation policy, so look into it asap), you’ll find Limahuli Gardens. No bright and colorful floral here, but loads of thick fauna and gorgeous views. Terraces that date back 700 years and still look perfectly maintained. You can make reservations and give yourself an hour or two to simply walk the paths and relax.
Back in downtown Hanalei, you’ll want to swing by Wake Up Delicious for made-to-order breakfast and lunch options; JoJo’s Shave Ice or Wishing Well Coffee and Tea and co-located Wishing Well Shave Ice for caffeine and sugar in equal doses. For epic bar views, stop by Hanalei Gourmet and consider a dinner reservation at Ama Hanalei if you want to dine on the prettiest covered patio in town.
On rainy days, you can find drop-in classes at Black Coral Yoga or book a seat in the BYOB ukelele lesson at Hanalei Music Strings and Things. You could also consider a visit to the Kilauea Point Lighthouse that offers striking bluff views, or the small town itself, with a cluster of shops and dining options.
Princeville’s newly opened 1 Hotel Hanalei Bay (formerly the St. Regis) is another lovely respite that overlooks Hanalei. Room rates are steep, but it’s absolutely worth stopping by to stroll the grounds and grab a drink or dinner, if you’re into that sort of thing. Which I am. (Wink.)
Lastly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Hawaii travel Bible, which is the “Revealed” series by Andrew Doughty. He has books on each of the islands, written in remarkable local detail. We found ourselves looking up tips and recommendations daily in the Kauai book, and have purchased his other books when traveling on other islands, too. The no-nonsense advice is worth far more than the cost of the book if you’re planning to splurge on a trip, and I can’t recommend it enough.