Ah, Hawaii – the ultimate bucket list item. Seven inhabited islands make up this beautiful state. Each island has its own charm, but Kauai is, arguably, the most unique. What do you get if you pack a continent worth of nature onto a tiny island? Kauai! Although you can drive the island in just a few hours, few visitors actually do. From the Mars-like Waimea Canyon to the enormous oceanfront Makawehi Cliffs, you can’t help but stop to take it all in. There is so much to do and see in Kauai that it is easy to spend a week exploring the island. In this Kauai itinerary, will discover all the major attractions – as well as many hidden spots.
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- History of Kauai and Hawaii
- Kauai Attractions Map
- The Geography of Kauai
- Do you need four-wheel drive in Kauai?
- West Shore Kauai Itinerary
- North Shore Kauai Itinerary
- South Shore Kauai Itinerary
- East Shore Kauai Itinerary
- Kauai Travel Tips and Saving Money in Kauai
Please note: This blog post may contain some affiliate links. More info.
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Approximately 2500 years ago, sailors from Polynesia (3,000 miles away) discovered paradise. The Hawaiian archipelago, rich with volcanic soil, diverse life, and gentle climate, would be an ideal place to start a settlement. The new Hawaiian people brought with them, among other things, advanced astronomy skills and Taro (a vegetable rich in starch). They settled first on the small island of Kauai and shortly spread to neighboring islands. The first Hawaiians also brought with them an Animistic belief system. They believed that you can find spirit in many things, including animals, waves – and the sky.
It was irony, or perhaps fate, that 2200 years later, Captain James Cook landed on the same island as the original settlers. The first voyage passed without incident. But, on their return to the archipelago, the Cook ships landed on the big island – Hawaii. Initially, the Hawaiian people mistook the explorers for a deity. However, relations soured after Cook tried to kidnap the king. James Cook was captured and killed. Still, the Hawaiians treated his body as they would treat a chief or an elder. Although they were not cannibals and did not consume the body, the sailors on the ship misunderstood the Hawaiian’s death rituals and incorrectly believed that Cook was eaten.
If you are traveling to Kauai don’t forget to download this custom google map to help you create the best Kauai itinerary.
Kauai Itinerary Printable Visual Map
Kauai Itinerary – The Geography of Kauai
For the purposes of this Kauai itinerary, let’s divide the Island of Kauai into four geographic zones – north, south, east, and west. When you explore the island, cut down driving time by exploring only one zone each day. Kauai is a small island, so it is easy to stay in one hotel for your entire trip. I recommend staying in Kapaa, on the east side. On the east side, you’ll find plenty of restaurants, hotels, and homes for rent. Here too you’ll discover many major attractions. Additionally, you will be equidistant between North and South and within a short ride to the airport. Unlike Iceland‘s ring road, the road in Kauai does not wrap around the entire island, and portions of the north can only be reached by foot.
And speaking of the north, a major typhoon hit Hawaii last year. The typhoon damaged some of the northern road and attractions. When I visited, portions of the northern road were still closed. If you are visiting after spring 2019 some of the attractions may reopen. Unfortunately, for the purposes of this Kauai itinerary, I can’t give you advice on these attractions as I was unable to visit them – so you may need to do additional research for your own Kauai itinerary.
Hawaii Travel Tip
Many people combine Kauai and Maui into one ultimate Hawaii vacation itinerary. Take a look at this great Maui 5 day itinerary to help you plan the second portion.
The best way to get around Kauai is by car. If you are on a very tight budget, the Kauai bus is a good option. The bus stops in many major towns and within walking distance of some major attractions. However, assuming you chose to rent a car, you’ll need to decide if you want to rent four-wheel drive.
There are advantages to having
In addition, when you rent the four wheel drive the salesperson at the counter will tell you not to go on any dirt roads. They will warn you that if you do, your insurance is null, and you will be responsible for all repairs. It’s an odd system – there are spots you can’t access without four-wheel drive, the sales reps push you to rent the four-wheel drive, but you are supposed to stay on paved roads anyway. This is a decision you’ll need to make based on your situation. Some people just rent a sedan and use it to go everywhere – including dirt roads. Again, this is a risk and you would have to decide for yourself.
The Best Way to Rent a Four Wheel Drive Vehicle in Kauai
I chose to rent a four-wheel drive car. If you decide to do so as well, your best bet is to rent the cheapest car you can online and upgrade at the counter. My initial rental was $265 for 8 days, and I paid an additional $231 at the counter. If I rented the four-wheeler online I would have paid more than $600. The price of the rental depends on the season, winter is the cheapest time to visit Kauai.
Waimea Canyon State Park
Kauai’s answer to the Grand Canyon, the Waimea Canyon is slightly smaller than its more famous cousin – but no less grand. The canyon appeared over millions of years as the Waimea river (aided by plentiful rain) cut into Kauai’s extensive lava and basalt fields. More than 14 miles long and 3600 feet deep, the canyon views get more and more impressive the further you drive into the park.
In addition to traditional canyon views of deep valleys and peaks, you will find red (lava) fields that look just like mars – if mars had water. In Waimea Canyon State Park you’ll also find plentiful hiking opportunities. But even if you are not looking to hike, the dozens of viewpoints along the canyon road will keep you occupied for several hours.
Although the Canyon is on the west side of the island, it faces east – which means if you are an early riser you will find incredible sunrise views on this stop of your Kauai itinerary.
Kokee State Park – Kauai Itinerary
As you proceed on the road northwest, further into Waimea Canyon you will eventually cross into Kokee State Park. Although the two parks are adjacent to one another, they couldn’t be more different. The stark beauty of Waimea Canyon is immediately replaced with the rain forest luxury of Kokee. In all my travels, I have rarely seen a change of scenery this quick.
On the border between Kokee and Waimea, you’ll see a lodge, a restaurant, and a store. Dozens of hiking trails start from this rest area – the length ranges from an hour to several days. If you need help figuring out which trail to take, check with the store clerk – they are very helpful. In this area, you’ll also find the start of a short nature trail suitable for the youngest travelers.
As you drive along the road deeper into Kokee State Park, you’ll encounter several lookout points. Although the first few look very impressive, don’t spend too long here. Keep driving, until you reach the last one – Kalalau
A moderate hiking trail starts at the Kalalau Lookout. As you begin to walk along the trail, you’ll discover more incredible views of the valley below. The best time to visit the Kalalau lookout is in the morning, between the hours of 9 and 11 – when the sky is often at its clearest and the water at its bluest.
Polihale Beach State Park – Kauai Itineary
Located at the end of a long dirt road the Polihale Beach State Park is one of the hardest attractions in Kauai to reach – but also one of the most famous. Once you get here you’ll see why – the enormous cliffs, the strong surf, and the white sand, it all conspires to create an otherworldly look and feel. If visiting Waimea is a little like visiting Mars, and Konee is like paradise on earth, then a stop in Polihale is like a visit to the moon. If the moon had lots of salt water, of course.
Polihale is the westernmost beach in the United States and open to elements. The winds at Polihale are strong and lifeguards do not patrol these waters. In Polihale you’ll find a camping/tenting area, several picnic areas, as well as freshwater supplies. The main appeal of this beach is isolation and stark, natural beauty.
Kekaha Beach and Park
On the far west side of Kauai, you’ll discover the perfect place to watch the sunset – Kekaha Beach and park. Although the beach is open to the elements, lifeguards do patrol the park. Popular with surfers, fishermen, and beachcombers Kekaha is a great place to visit if it’s raining everywhere else. The islands unusual geography means this area gets less rain than almost any other part of Kauai.
Kilauea Lighthouse and Wildlife Preserve – Kauai Itinerary
Originally built in 1913, the historic Kilauea lighthouse helped guide the ships navigating Kauai’s rocky north shore. Since then, the lighthouse underwent several transformations, and today it is the home of Kilauea Wildlife Preserve. Today, you can visit the preserve, from Tuesday through Sunday 10 am to 4 pm. The entrance fee is $10. From the lighthouse, you can observe several rare species of bird, including a huge colony of red-footed bobbies, and at times – whales. This is a quick attraction and will take you about an hour.
Turtle Cove – How to Get Here
One of the most physically challenging attractions in Kauai, a visit to the turtle cove is not for the faint of heart. You can find the start of the trail in a residential town of Princeville (5 min by car from Queens Baths). You’ll see no signs to guide you to the beginning of the trail. However, follow my google map coordinates to get to the correct area, and then walk to buildings 1 and 4. Be sure to download my custom google map – the cove does not appear on the general map. You’ll know you are in the right place when you see the “no parking” signs everywhere. I parked next to the store.
Between buildings 1 and 4 facing the shore, you’ll see a lookout point over the water and a “go at your own risk sign.” Again, there is no description of where you are going – I think they try to discourage visitors. At first, the trail is easy. Although the slope is sharp, it is also dry and there are plenty of branches and roots to hang on to. Very quickly, and almost without warning the trail becomes wet and slippery. The gentle slope turns into a dirt cliff and keeping balance becomes ever more difficult.
Turtle Cove – The Climb Down
Using at times four points of contact if you proceed down you’ll eventually get to the rocks at the bottom – and this is where things become hairy. You’ll find yourself on a large boulder, waves lapping around you. If you carefully scoot over to your right and work your way over to the next boulder around the corner and now you’ll see you are 20 feet away from a cave. Between, you and the cave, waves hit the rocks. If you do not see an entrance, the cave is totally flooded – in which case you’ll need to turn back.
If the cave is dry or partially flooded, you can go in. First, carefully climb off the boulder and into the water, then wade over (or swim, depending on the depth at the time). Finally, inside the cave (bring a headlamp), walk or swim towards the back. Be careful not to step on any of the rocks – these may be sea turtles, some of them nesting. For the turtles, it is perhaps a good thing the cave is so hard to get to. The tides in the area change quickly and I suggest you give yourself only a few minutes to stay here. I gave myself 10 minutes. If the
If you do make it, do not use flash photography or anything to disturb the turtles. I found 3 large turtles, including 2 possibly nesting. The hardest part of going back is actually getting back on the huge boulder, barefoot or in water shoes from water. Like I said – not for the faint of heart. There is no cell phone signal once you get past a certain area of the cliff so don’t come here alone – you won’t be able to call for help if something goes wrong on this stop of your Kauai Itinerary.
Queen’s Baths – The Climb Down
Although less dangerous than turtle cove, Queen’s Bath is another “go at your own risk” attraction. Located inside a residential development, just five minutes by car from turtle cove, you’ll find a small parking lot and a fenced in trailhead. The fence door is open or chained, depending on the waves at the bottom. However, even when the door is chained the dedicated parking lot fills up quickly.
The hike itself is moderate to difficult, depending on the weather. I did it twice – once in full daylight to check the location, and a second time before sunrise. The second time I did it in total darkness (with a headlamp). I climbed down with all my equipment and a full cup of coffee. If you are an experienced hiker this trek is fairly easy. However, the fence was installed because dozens of people get hurt climbing down every year. You’ll need to make your own judgment call.
The really treacherous parts are the rocks of Queens Bath. After you finally make your way down to the enormous boulders, you’ll see a plaque – a grim reminder of all the lives lost here. Some visitors foolishly jump into the water for a “swim.” Others stand too close to the edge when a rogue wave hits them. Still, others get close to the edge to take a picture and lose their balance.
I don’t need to tell you to stay away from the edges, right? Just in case: Stay away from the edges. Queen’s baths are just stunning when you stand firm in the middle and far away from any potential rogue waves. And bonus – if you happen to lose your balance and fall, as long as you are away from the edge you’ll likely walk away with nothing more than a couple of bruises.
For thousands of years, native Hawaiians used the wetlands of Hanalei Bay to grow Taro, a traditional staple of Hawaiian diet. Things began to change in the 1860s when the immigrant Chinese population grew to outnumber the native Hawaiians. Instead of Taro, rice became the new staple food. With the growing population in Hawaii came the need for more food and easier trade. The Hanalei pier was constructed to help facilitate new shipping routes and transfer of rice.
Today, the Hanalei Pier is a landmark and a gathering point for the residents of Hawaii. Badly damaged in several hurricanes it is quickly restored to former glory with donations and state funds. Hanalei beach is world famous for surfing, although the weather here can change very quickly. If you are looking to take surfing lessons this is one of the best places in Kauai to do so.
As of this writing (January 2019), the famous Kalalau Trail is temporarily closed due to flooding damage. Check
Maha’ulepu Heritage trail
I discovered the Maha’ulepu trail my first morning in Kauai and afterward, I went back here four times. To call the trail “stunning” or “beautiful” would be to do it an injustice. The Maha’ulepu heritage trail runs over a large stretch of undeveloped south coast shoreline. It starts in Shipwreck beach, continues over the giant lithified sand cliffs, and ends on a long and isolated beach. The trail takes about 2 hours at
Millions of years of water, wind, and salt conspire to create the great work of nature that is the Makawehi Cliffs. It is virtually impossible for me to describe the scale of the cliffs. Even pictures fail to provide the desired effect. The sound and fury of waves hitting the gigantic lithified cliffs is something you should see for yourself. Inspired by the incredible beauty around them, native Hawaiians believed that the bluff and these land are sacred. This territory is home to ancient burial grounds – tread lightly.
Even if you decide not to do the entire Maha’ulepu Heritage trail, be sure to explore the Makawehi Cliffs (the cliffs are part of the trail). You will find the bluffs within a short walk of a public beach. This is an easy walk, and almost anyone can do it. However, I still suggest you wear good shoes, such as hiking sneakers or hiking sandals because the rocks can be slippery. Bring water – you will be exposed to the elements with no cover, and the sun is surprisingly hot. If you wish, stop by a supermarket in advance to pick up a sandwich – (you will find a wide selection of hiking friendly foods in supermarkets). Enjoy lunch as you watch the water meet the cliffs.
The Kāneiolouma Complex
The site of an ancient Hawaiian village and sacred ground, the Kaneiolouma Heiau, is an ongoing cultural restoration project in front of Poipu Beach. Although the complex is still in the beginning stages, stop by before your visit to Poipu to learn about Hawaiian culture and scientific advances – including Astronomy discoveries, far ahead of their time.
Poipu Beach and Park
One of the best family-friendly beaches on the island, the Poipu Beach and Park boasts a natural protected bay, gentle waves and a stunning variety of sea life. Both Hawaiian seals and turtles choose this beach to relax after a long day of… whatever it is seals and turtles do all day. Corals, located in shallow water offer plentiful snorkeling opportunities for even the youngest family members.
During my visit to Poipu beach, I found a family of Hawaiian Seals, one very lazy and very large sea turtle and plenty of two-legged little creatures relaxing with their family. Remember – regular sunscreen causes coral bleaching. Be sure to buy coral safe sunscreen prior to your visit to Kauai to help preserve the corals for generations to come.
Spouting Horn State Park
The first thing you’ll notice about Spouting Horn State park is the sound. The people of Hawaii believed that a dragon lived under the rocks – and the sound is right out of a Harry Potter film. The sound (and the spouting effect) is created when water is forced under the lava shelf and out of a blow-hall. The Spouting Horn Park is a quick but fun stop on your Kauai Itinerary.
Ke Ala Hele Makalae Trail
An easy and fun Kauai Itinerary stop, the Ke Ala is a paved trail that runs along miles of the east shore. The best way to explore this trail is by bike (rentals are available in many of the stores nearby). You can also jog, walk or rollerblade. I walked a good portion of the trail – it’s a great way to relax and wait for the sun to set. This trail is family friendly and easy to walk with a stroller.
The Red Swing – Kauai Itinerary
Located along the trail in Kapa, the “red swing” is a hidden gem of Kauai but does not appear on any general maps. To locate it download my google map. Additionally, all the places I post (and many places I didn’t have room for in this blog) are on Vero, so if you already follow me they are in your collections.
One of the best sunrise spots in Kauai, you can find the Ninini Lighthouse just a few miles from the airport, on the east shore. The best view of the lighthouse is from the Mariott hotel next door. To get here, drive onto the property (public beach access requires security to let you in even if you are not a resident). I found a great spot to watch (and take pictures) of the sunrise is on the golf course. To get close to the lighthouse, you’ll need to drive a long dirt road (four-wheel drive). The inside of Ninini lighthouse is not open to the public, but you can check out the beautiful views from the bottom of the structure.
Another attractive spot to watch the sunrise, East Shore’s Lydgate beach is rich in beech-wood and boulders. Although the beach is not swim friendly, Lydgate is a great spot for beachcombing.
Hoopi is a waterfall at the end of a short but difficult trail. The trail is muddy and slippery, especially after rain. It is not well maintained so you’ll encounter many felled trees and branches. Wear good shoes and if you are going during dusk, a headlamp. When you come to the large fork disregard your instinct – the path up goes to the bottom of the waterfall, and the path down goes to the top of it.
The trailhead to Hoopi falls is located in a residential community. When you get here to look for lots of cars parked next to a fence, and then walk along the fence until you reach the open gate. Trailhead to Hoopi is also marked on my custom google map.
Wailua State Park
Wailua State Park encompasses the lush Wailua Valley and river (the same river that helped to create Waimea Canyon). A visit here can be fairly short, a quick stop by the river lookout, and the two drive up waterfalls. Alternatively, you can go for a hike in the park or take a river tour.
Located at the end of a long, winding road these falls are impressive. Unfortunately. you can only see them from some distance. Still the site is still a great addition to your Kauai Itinerary – as much for the drive as for the falls.
Located inside Wailua State Park, the Opaeka Falls lookout is not as impressive as its Wailua Falls cousin, but still worth a visit.
Kauai is one of the most beautiful – and expensive – places in the world. If you are a luxury traveler you’ll find no shortage of high-end hotels and restaurants in Kauai. If you are not – things get a little more complicated. Here are a few travel tips to help save you some money.
- Consider renting a regular sedan instead of a four-wheel drive vehicle. Without four-wheel drive, you will probably not be able to visit Polihale beach (unless you carpool) but only a few other places are off limits. 90% of locations in Kauai can be accessed via a regular sedan.
- Pre-order coral safe sunblock before your trip. Kauai is an island and everything here is more expensive than on
mainland. Bring your own sunblock to save both money and the coral reef.
Saving Money on Food in Kauai
- Pick up prepared food in supermarkets. All supermarkets offer a huge variety of prepared foods, sandwiches and other traveler-friendly items. Instead of eating in restaurants, consider buying some meals in supermarkets.
- Eat from food trucks rather than restaurants. Food trucks offer amazing deals, fresh meals, and local favorites
- Tread lightly and save. Bring your own water bottle or buy a large plastic bottle to refill. The water in Kauai is safe to drink and you can ask to refill your bottle in most coffee shops, restaurants, and supermarkets.
- Bypass the straw and drink from the cup. I know this technically doesn’t save any money but it is a totally free way to help save the planet and that’s even better 🙂
Saving Money on Accomodations in Kauai
- Instead of a hotel opt for a private house or an Airbnb. The difference in price is huge – I was hard pressed to find a hotel for less than several hundred dollars a night but quickly found an Airbnb for far less.
- Book early! The good Airbnb deals are taken months in advance. Book as early as you can.
I hope you have enjoyed this Kauai Itinerary and found it useful. Thank you so much for coming along. Please be sure to follow me on Vero (@traveltipster) for lots more behind the scenes, videos, and food recommendations. Please don’t forget to share this blog on social, and see you on the road!