Hawaii Bucket List: Top Things To Do In Kauai – Discover hidden gems, must-see landmarks, and best attractions and excursions on the island!
The island of Kauai, in Hawaii, is my personal happy place.
Of all the destinations I’ve traveled around the world, it’s the one place I want to visit repeatedly, and the only other place I think I might want to live.
Although the island of Kauai, Hawaii is small enough to explore in just a few days, there’s so much to do, you could spend weeks there.
You can drive from the end of the road on the North Shore, around the island to the end of the road on the South Shore in about 2 – 2 1/2 hours. That means you really can stay anywhere on the island and have access to all it offers.
The road does not circle the island entirely. The western shore of Kauai is covered in rugged rain forests and the famed mountainous Na Pali Coast. To access the Na Pali Coast you must either hike into it, or take a boat trip.
Most repeat visitors have a favorite side of the island.
The South Shore tends to be sunnier, with lots of restaurants, shopping, a water sports available. However, it can seem a little more crowded at times, and steamy in the summer months.
The North Shore is covered in rain forest land, so it’s stunningly lush and green. However, you do have to deal with short daily rain showers most of the year.
There are plenty of restaurants, beaches, and activities up north, but not quite as many as on the South Shore of Kauai. Yet the atmosphere up north is relaxed and quiet, and there’s natural beauty ever where you look!
You can also stay on the East Shore, in between the attractions of the North and South Shores. There are several little towns along the Eastern coast of Kauai with plenty of shopping, dining options, activities, and stellar beaches.
Because the Eastern Shore is not quite as sought-after as the North and South Shores (which is actually pretty silly because all of Kauai is amazing) the prices on lodging tend to be a tad less.
I actually think the East Shore is the best place to stay for first-timers.
You will have less driving time to all the areas you will want to explore on your first visit, and be able to get a feel for which side of the island you like the most for future visits.
We are hardcore North Shore people. We always take a day or two to drive down to the attractions on the South Shore. Yet to me, the North Shore is the very epitome of Hawaiian daydreams, even with a little rain here and there.
Over the years we have visited the island of Kauai five times. We have certain areas we like to stay, favorite restaurants we love to visit, and natural wonders we long to explore again and again.
On our most recent trip to Hawaii, I decided to take notes, so I could share these travel tips with you. Hopefully our family’s favorite jaunts in Kauai will make your first (or next) trip to Hawaii truly spectacular!
Hawaii Bucket List: Top Things To Do In Kauai
Free Kauai Landmarks and Things To Do
On the North Shore –
Queens Bath is a natural swimming pool set in the craggy lava coast of Princeville. To access it, you actually drive through a neighborhood and park at the entrance of a short trail. After a ten minute walk, you will find yourself on lava rock over looking the water. Turn left and continue walking down the coast until you find the completely enclosed pool.
There are several inlets before you find the actual Queen’s Bath pool. You may even see people cliff diving into these areas. There are signs not to do this, as there have been quite a few deaths in this area, from swimmers being smashed against the rocks when the water is rough, or even pulled out to sea.
But never fear, the Queen’s Bath is fully enclosed, other than a small inlet that fills the pool. It is completely safe for swimming.
Kalalau Trail is an 11 mile trail that starts near Ke’e Beach on the North Shore and ends on an isolated beach on the Na Pali Coast. You can hike a short section of the trail to experience some of the natural beauty of the Na Pali Coast. Or for serious outdoor explorers, you can hike the entire trail in one day, or camp on one of the exclusive beaches.
Wet and Dry Caves. Near the end of the road on the North Shore you will find a large Dry Cave across from Ke’e Beach and Wet Caves just up the road in Haena State Park. These caves are fun to explore, and have been featured in several movies.
Hanalei is the jewel of the North Shore for dining and shopping. It’s a small village by Hanalei Bay, with charming shops, restaurants, food trucks, and vibrant green mountains and waterfalls in the background. You could spend a day here shopping around, or make it a lunch stop as you head to outdoor attractions.
Princeville is another wonderful village, known for its epic coastline and stellar golf courses. Visit nearby waterfalls. Shop and dine in Princeville Center. Make make sure to have cocktails at the Saint Regis Hotel at sunset overlooking Hanalei Bay.
Secluded Beaches. There are awe-inspiring beaches all along the Kauai coastline. Some are easy to access and some are considered hidden or “secret” which makes them all the more fun to find!
Our favorite beaches are on the North Shore. Get a beach map from your hotel concierge desk and spend a day or two finding your favorite beach.
We are partial to Lumahai Beach, known as the setting of the song “Wash That Man Right Out OF Your Hair” in the musical South Pacific. Water conditions are usually pretty rough here, so it’s not known as a swimming beach. However, the draw is the natural beauty and the Lumahai River merging into the ocean. Our kids love swimming in the cool clear river water, right on the beach!
Kilauea Lighthouse. Ok, this landmark is not free, but it is cheap and a must-stop on the North Shore. Gaze at the charming lighthouse, then take your time strolling the grounds for epic views of the North Shore coast… And often seals and whale sightings!
On the East Shore –
Wailua River State Park is home of the breath-taking Wailua River and access to Wailua Falls and Opaekaa Falls. You can drive to certain overlooks and trailheads within the park. Or kayak up the river and explore its beauty in closer proximity.
Kapaa is the largest town on the East coast of Kauai. Find unique shops, restaurants, and fabulous food trucks.
Wailua. Another charming village along the East side of Kauai. Get a classic Hawaiian Shave Ice, meander through the streets, and visit a traditional Hawaiian Village nearby.
Swimming Beaches. Some of the best swimming and sporting beaches in Kauai are along the East coast. Be sure to check out Lydgate Beach Park, Anahola Beach Park, and Nukolii Beach Park.
On the South Shore –
Waimea Canyon State Park is the top reason the visit the South Shore of Kauai, in my opinion. Every single time we go to Kauai, our day trip to Waimea Canyon is the thing I’m most excited about.
Waimea Canyon is often called “The Grand Canyon of the Pacific.” With layers of color cascading down the steep canyon walls, it’s a sight to behold. I suggest you stop and thoroughly explore every single overlook within the park, to take in all the canyon has to offer. There are marked and unmarked hiking trails… Please stick to the marked trails for safety purposes. Some of the unmarked trails have sudden drop offs.
Once you are done exploring Waimea Canyon, don’t leave the park! Continue up the mountain to the Koke’e State Park Overlook. It offers a stunning view of the southern side of the Na Pali Coast, and is a fabulous place to watch the sunset.
Adventurers, there are trailheads here to hike down into Koke’e State Park. Make sure to do your research, as some hikes might be considered overnight trips.
Spouting Horn is a waterfront landmark and quick stop. As the waves crash against the shore, watch the water shoot high into the air, through lava tube holes.
The Tree Tunnel. Once you turn onto highway 50 leading down to Old Koloa Town and Poipu, you will find yourself traveling through Kauai’s mysterious eucalyptus tree tunnel. No one knows the exact origin of this long stretch of overhanging trees. Therefore, local folklore provides several theories, including the involvement of the Menehune, Hawaii’s own version of magical dwarves.
Poipu is the South Shore’s most popular and vibrant town. Here you will find luxurious hotels, great shopping, white sand beaches, water sports, and trendy restaurants.
Old Koloa Town is Kauai’s oldest plantation village. It’s close to Poipu, yet smaller and more charming, in my opinion. Shop, relax, and visit the history center for information about the plantation era.
Lively Beaches. Some of the most popular beaches in Kauai are on the South Shore. If you like a busy active beach scene, Poipu Beach and Brennecke’s Beach are right up your alley.
Find Hidden Gems – All over the island of Kauai you will see alluring side roads with overlooks, trailheads, waterfalls, smoothie stands, and feral chickens roaming the countryside.
I suggest you take as many of these off-the-beaten-path roads as you can, and explore on your own.
Hawaii Bucket List: Top Things To Do In Kauai
Best Activities and Guided Adventures in Kauai
Sailing Up The Na Pali Coast
When in Kauai, you have to see the Na Pali Coast. It’s an absolute must. The easiest way to do this is by planning a boat trip up the coast. We’ve been on several Na Pali coast tours over the years.
My super cute mom and dad.
My favorite is Blue Dolphin Charters Niihua + Na Pali Coast Tour. It’s an all day trip including breakfast and lunch, guaranteed dolphin sightings, a slow ride up the Na Pali Coast with lots of photo opts, and finally a detour to “The Forbidden Island” of Niihua for snorkeling.
Blue Dolphin Charters has the most amazing crew of any boat trip I’ve ever been on. Seriously. They were friendly, helpful, highly educated on the island, and so much fun! Along with the natural beauty, the crew absolutely made the experience.
If you don’t have an entire day available for a boat trip, my second pick is Blue Dolphin’s Na Pali Sunset Dinner Cruise. The Na Pali Coast is overwhelmingly beautiful at dusk. You can’t go wrong with either tour!
Explore Kauai’s Backcountry
Princeville Ranch offers guide horseback riding tours, off road AVT experiences, and the best zip lining on the island.
Float Down Sugar Cane Irrigation Canals
Our recent tubing adventure was the kids’ favorite experience in Kauai! It offered both peaceful moments and exhilarating fun. Kauai Backcountry Adventures provides guided tours down old sugar cane canals, through lush rain forests and dark mountain tunnels. (Headlamps are provided!)
My daughter Ava smiled the entire 3 hours. This a family repeat for sure, on our next trip to Kauai!
Take In the Flora and Fauna
Beyond the raw natural landscape, Kauai has several renowned Botanical Gardens to explore. If you love wandering down picturesque garden paths, there are botanical gardens on every side of the island. However, Allerton and Limahuli Gardens are our top picks.
Kayak Up the Wailua River
Lt. Dan and I kayaked up the Wailua River with Kayak Kauai. It was a marvelous day of peaceful paddling through panoramic countryside and jungles, hiking, and waterfall swimming. This is a great adventure for couples, and families with older children.
Party Like A Hawaiian
When in Hawaii you MUST go to a luau. It’s almost a crime not to experience this island tradition. We have been to several luaus on Kauai over the years. Some were upscale culinary experiences, others were casual beachfront buffets.
My favorite luau on Kauai is the Smith’s Garden Luau. It combines the campy flavor of old Hawaii with historical local traditions. Come early and watch the kalua pig being lifted from the pit. Then experience a traditional Hawaiian feast, while you watch an eye-popping Polynesian show with hula dancers, Tahitian dancers, and fire dancers!
See The Island From A Bird’s Eye View
Some would say the best way to really get a feel for an island is from the air. If you’ve got the funds, helicopter tours are an exciting way to view the rain forests, Na Pali Coast, and Waimea Canyon, all in one hour!
Top Eats in Kauai
I cold not possibly list all the amazing places we have eaten in Kauai over the years. And part of the fun of dining on the island, to stumbling upon your own hidden gems.
We used past experiences, Yelp, and Trip Advisor to determine where we ate on this trip. I will say, sometimes the reviews on these large travel sites don’t quite lineup with our personal experiences. Diners often have different priorities and taste preferences, that don’t match ours.
We were happy to see that the food truck movement has hit Kauai in a major way. There are food trucks everywhere! Some of our most memorable meals on this particular trip were quick lunch stops at a food truck. Cost effective and delicious!
Here is my current MUST TRY list…
Dolphin Fish Market – Best poke on the island! If you’ve never tried Hawaii poke, a raw seafood salad, this is the first place you should experience it. There is a restaurant on one side of the building and a take-out fish market on the other. You can purchase drool-worthy poke in either place. First timers, go with the traditional ahi poke and the tako (octopus) poke.
Wailua Shave Ice – There are numerous Hawaiian Shave Ice stands in seemingly every town in Kauai. However the absolute best Shave Ice I’ve ever tasted was at this little food truck in Kapaa. Our favorites were the Lilikoi Cream and the Almond Joy!
Kauai Pasta – If you get tired of eating all the fresh local seafood (it could happen if you stay long enough) take a break and have Italian one night! This casual little restaurant is open in two locations. The Lihue location has a better ambiance than the one in Kapaa, but both restaurants serve up some truly inspiring Italian cuisine.
Lava Lava Beach Club – We ate here on my birthday. The food was very good, yet it was the atmosphere that put this restaurant on the hot list. Reserve a “toes in the sand” table out on the beach and enjoy live music, tiki drinks, and perfect waterfront view.
Moloa’a Sunrise Juice Bar – This roadside stand on the way up to the North Shore has the best fruit smoothies in the whole wide world. We always hit it at least twice on every trip. The Date With Fate smoothie is a MUST!
Hanalei Gourmet – Hands down, the best fish and chips on the Island!
Postcard Cafe – A quaint classy-casual restaurant serving fresh catch prepared in a artful way. The seasonal menu makes the most of seafood you can only find in Hawaii.
Al Pastor Tacos – A food truck with fabulous fish, al pastor, and kalua pork tacos!
Ono Char-Burger – Crazy for a classic fish sandwich with ultra fresh catch of the day? This little roadside shack is the place.
Gaylord’s at Kilohana Plantation – Elegant outdoor dining in an old plantation house. The menu offers fresh catch of the day, steaks, and ribs.
Brennecke’s Beach Broiler – The quintessential beachfront diner. Overlook the beach from the second story, and make sure to try the pupu platter.
We hope our vacation in Hawaii helps you plan the most magical island adventure you’ve ever experienced.
Make sure to come back for next week’s travel post on Hawaii, The BIG Island!