Kauai, west of Oahu, is the least populated of the major islands. According to the 2010 census, Oahu’s population was 953,207, while Kauai’s was only 67,091, so if you’re looking to get away from the crowds, you might be happier visiting Kauai instead of Oahu. Because of Kauai’s smaller population, there is a small-town feel, and you will find none of the high-rise tourist congestion or traffic of Honolulu, but you also won’t find the variety of nightlife, restaurants, and shopping either.
As with the other islands, I will refer you to Andrew Doughty’s excellent guidebooks on the Hawaiian Islands for more details on Kauai, because I can only review the few activities that we were able to do. Please exercise common sense on your adventures, and don’t engage in activities that exceed your physical abilities. Be safe, not sorry!
Lihue is the airport you’d fly into, on the eastern side of the island. From there, you can either head north and stay in the upscale Princeville area or other resorts along the way, or go south to some nice resorts in the Poipu area. There is one main road around the island, but it doesn’t make a complete loop, because a road was never cut through the Na Pali mountains on the northwest part of the island. I hope they never cut a road through there, because the picturesque mountains on that side are the most beautiful part of the island and should remain untouched.
Helicopter Tour of Kauai
Helicopter tours are offered on every single island, but I’ve only taken the tour on Kauai, because I thought it’d be the most scenic. I’ve included some of the aerial pictures I took in the slideshow below. The Na Pali coastline is breathtaking whether viewed from the air, water, or on foot, and I’ve been fortunate enough to see it from all angles. I enjoyed the helicopter tour because not only do you see the Na Pali, you get aerial views of waterfalls on the wet side of the island. In fact, Mount Waialeale on Kauai is one of the rainiest spots on earth, averaging over 452 inches per year. You will also get aerial views of Waimea canyon, often called the Grand Canyon of the Pacific.
Boat tour of Na Pali, Kauai
There are several snorkel boat tours that leave in the morning, cruise over to the Na Pali, then stop somewhere for lunch and a snorkel break. I enjoyed the tour simply because I just love seeing the Na Pali. We also passed a sea cave, something I’d never seen. I have also never snorkeled out in the open ocean (always done it from shore), so that was a little different, though truthfully, I see more fish closer to shore. If you tend to get seasick, make sure you sit towards the back of the boat. Better yet, take some natural ginger before the trip, which is a natural anti-nausea herb.
There are multiple tour boat operators and ours departed from Kikiaola small boat harbor in Waimea, which is on the southwest side of the island, which means we approached the Na Pali from the south. Other tours leave from the Hanalei River Boat Harbor on the north side, so you would obviously see a different side of the island on that tour. Still other tours leave from other harbors, so consider this when choosing your tour operator. Since we had already hiked part of the Kalalau Trail after driving to the north side, we had already seen the approach from the north, which was one of the reasons I picked an operator from the south side.
If you drive the one main road on Kauai north then west as far as it will go, you will end up at Ke’e Beach, which is where the Kalalau Trail that takes you into the beautiful Na Pali Coast State Park starts. Ke’e Beach itself is a small, pretty beach with good snorkeling in the summer. It’s quite shallow and the current and undertow back out to the ocean can sometimes be quite strong, so always be aware of your surroundings and stay close to shore.
The Kalalau Trail is to the left of the beach and as you climb it, you can get a good aerial view of Ke’e Beach, which is where this picture was taken. The trail soon turns left and you start doing some real uphill hiking. This part of the island has frequent rainfall, and the path can be quite muddy and slippery at times, so don’t do the hike in brand new white sneakers like I did, duh! Eventually, you’ll come to a beautiful view of the Na Pali coastline where the dramatic cliffs end in the brilliant blue water. If you hike long enough, you will end up at a beautiful beach called Hanakapiai with the Na Pali cliffs framing the beach. Remember earlier when I said to know your physical limitations? I was hiking with my 10-year-old son and 72-year-old mother, so we did not hike as far as Hanakapiai, but went far enough into the hike to see the gorgeous views and take some nice pictures before turning around.
There are a couple of “wet caves” in the mountainside on the way to Ke’e Beach. These are caves that are filled with water, like a lake. One of the caves is right next to the road so you can stop and take a picture. When we were there one July, there were also a number of small trickle-type waterfalls right alongside the road. Please slow down when driving this two-lane road, because so many tourists stop and pull over to take pictures that you really have to pay attention.
Tunnels is one of the best snorkeling sites I’ve ever been to. The reef is extensive and you can see Makana peak from this beach. Makana peak is the distinctive mountain shape that some will recognize as Bali Hai from the movie South Pacific. When we were there, the water was so shallow over the reef that you had to pay attention to where you snorkeled, so you didn’t get “beached” so to speak, because you don’t want to stand on live coral, which kills it. You also don’t want to touch the coral with your hands, because you can get coral cuts, which often get infected. The coral reef here is amazing, like a piece of sculptured artwork, with different shapes, colors, nooks and crannies as you swim through it; the reef was not repetitive at all, like some I’ve seen. I found an open channel area and swam over that, till I eventually reached the end of the reef and gasped, as much as I could, with a snorkel in my mouth. Where the reef ends, the ocean drops precipitously, and suddenly, the bottom of the ocean was now 60 feet below me, when just a second ago it was 2-3 feet below me. I was still floating at the surface, but it was a shock to my perception. Psychologists have found the same response in infants who will not cross over a plexiglass bottom that’s raised several feet above the ground, yet they will cross over a plexiglass bottom that’s barely raised.
The most amazing fish picture I’ve ever taken comes from Tunnels. It’s a partially eaten fish that’s still swimming around. I did a double take when I first saw it. Apparently no vital organs are in the back upper quadrant of a fish, because this one was still swimming around like a regular fish!
Lumahai is a beautiful beach with incredibly vivid, teal blue waters that was featured in the movie South Pacific. It makes for some great pictures but I never see anyone swimming there. I believe it has a dangerous undertow and swimming isn’t advised. You should always be extremely cautious when you find no one at a beautiful beach. The locals know where the safe beaches are . . . that’s where they take their kids.
Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge
There’s a lighthouse and a lot of seabirds here. Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge is on a cliff overlooking the ocean so you get some excellent shoreline views. At certain times of the year you can see whales from here.
Lydgate State Park
Lydgate is a wonderful, safe beach for kids because of the lava rocks that are positioned as wavebreaks. A small, shallow kiddie area is completely enclosed by the rocks, so quite safe for the tiny tots. Adjacent, and to the right of this is a larger, deeper area that is great for adult snorkelers. The rocks break apart any incoming big waves, but you’re still in the ocean and we saw plenty of interesting fish.
Poipu is on the south side of the island and another nice snorkel beach. The waters have always been calm when we’ve been there, and we’ve also seen Hawaiian monk seals on the beach. But truthfully, if you’re an avid snorkeler, you’ll see a better variety of fish at other beaches.
Salt Pond Beach Park
Salt Pond is another safe beach to bring the kids to, because of the lava wavebreak. I tried snorkeling, but it was late in the day and quite cloudy, so I didn’t see much. My son did have a great time walking on the rocks and looking at the tidepools though. They actually make Hawaiian sea salt here, hence the name Salt Pond. I remember seeing piles of salt crystals over in a private area away from the public beach.
Hanapepe, west of the Poipu resort area, is a sleepy old town that most tourists pass through on their way to Waimea Canyon State Park. If you time it correctly, you can return from your day trip to Waimea to catch Art Night in Hanapepe, which happens every Friday from 6-9 p.m. Have some local food for dinner, then check out the the art galleries and meet some local artists, or listen to local musicians perform Hawaiian music on Hanapepe Road, the historic main street through town. The Hanapepe River runs behind the town, and there’s a bridge you can walk across to get to the other side. It used to be a real swinging bridge, but that was destroyed in the last hurricane. When we visited the art galleries, my son became fascinated with a carving of an iguana on hibiscus wood; so it became our Hanapepe souvenir.
Waimea canyon looks like a miniature Grand Canyon, only the colors include greens in addition to the expected deep reds, because of the rainfall in the area. You need to allow a full day for this trip because it’s a long, steep drive uphill, and then downhill, and you will have to put your car into low gear if you don’t want to burn out the brakes. There are multiple pullover lookout points for you to see the canyon itself, and if you drive to the very end of the road, you’ll get to the Kalalau Lookout, where you can see yet another view of the Na Pali from above. It was completely shrouded in clouds when we arrived, but my mother, who was born and raised on Kauai, insisted that the clouds could clear “like that,” so we hung around for awhile and sure enough, the fog did ease enough for me to take this picture! If the clouds weren’t there, you’d be able to see a brilliant blue ocean at the base of these cliffs.
I personally think Kauai is the prettiest island because of the Na Pali coastline. It is the most restful island to visit, with minimal crowds and traffic, and the best choice if you’re really looking to get away from it all.