Although Kauai is a small island, it doesn’t fall short of plenty things to do, especially in the unique highlights department, with landmarks abound that are exclusive to this Garden Isle. This Journey takes you from the dry canyons of the West side to the lush waterfalls and lookouts of the North Shore (or start at the North Shore… or scramble everything up and embark on this adventure in your own way!)
However you choose to travel through it all, this Journey will undoubtedly leave you satisfyingly exhausted, your camera kaput, and the image of Kauai pressed firmly in your memories. This is an island to absolutely explore; from the mountains to the sea, and this Journey will have you feeling like you’ve discovered what makes Kauai so incredibly enticing.
Nothing beats starting off your day with some ritualistic Kauai coffee and a hearty breakfast made with fresh ingredients. We suggest this breakfast spot for its menu array, cappuccinos, Hawaiian-style fresh toast, and mouth-watering baked goodies. (Their blueberry muffins are seriously beyond this world!) Plus, the walls are adorned with local artwork, seating is plentiful (and outdoors if you so choose), service is friendly and fast, and you really can’t beat the food or the atmosphere. Also, be sure to check out their daily specials, as their omelettes are usually the way to go (Portuguese sausage, green onions, pineapple, macadamia nuts- the goods are always uniquely Hawaiian!) Just make sure to grab a menu at the front and order at the bar, because many make the mistake thinking you receive tableside service here.
This iconic west side image helps give the town, Hanapepe (Kauai’s biggest little town) its quaint and precious reputation. Park near the Banana Patch Studio along the main road and you won’t walk very far before you see this rickety old footbridge. It lies across Hanapepe River and is supported by thick cables that swing loosely under weight. Although it has a natural sway on its own, many like to give it a boost to really get it swinging! Built in the 1900’s as a way for residents to cross the river, it was damaged by Hurricane Iniki, and then restored soon thereafter in 1992. As a popular historical point of interest for many, the swinging bridge is a great landmark; just make sure to keep your footing!
Koke‘e State Park
The drive alone to this wondrous park is worth the visit, with views and lookout points that rival the Grand Canyon. The iron-rich red dirt here makes the landscaping stand out amongst the green valleys, and you’re sure to spot steep waterfalls carving down into pools of fresh water. Stop by the visitors center, explore the various roads, snap some photos, or plan a hike, Koke‘e is a multi-faceted state park that is both fascinating and beautiful. Mountain Tubing is also another exclusive activity option, along with camping, hiking, or over-night stays in the wooden cottages. This is a fun place to toss the tour map aside and get a little lost, as chances are, whatever you come across will be an adventure.
This place will seriously astonish you with its grand performance. Spouting Horn is a blowhole ticked within the natural lava tubes along the coast. Ocean swells force water through the opening, shooting white water up to fifty feet into the air. You’ll also hear the hiss and moan of the crevice, a feature that gave birth to the ancient Hawaiian legend of the giant moo (lizard) named Kaikapu, who is said to be trapped in the hole after being outsmarted by a local boy. There is also a small outdoor marketplace here as well, where you can find unique Kauai treasures like black pearls, bamboo wind chimes, shells, and other nifty trinkets. This is one of the places I come to every time I’m on Kauai; browsing through the stands and marveling at Spouting Horn just never gets old.
Old Koloa Town
This cute little shopping town holds onto its old-fashioned charm through its funky shops, small history museum, old restaurants and wooden boardwalk that runs from one end to the other. We recommend stopping here for lunch, either at Pizzetta’s for some pizza, pasta, or fresh salads, or Tom Kats Grill for some burgers, sandwiches, or some other filling options. You can walk through this small town in a matter of minutes, but we like it because it traces the history of Koloa Town and its roots in the sugar cane industry. It also has a great surf shop, local grocery store, and the Koloa Variety Store where you can find anything from an ukulele to fishing tackle to guava jam to Japanese candies. During the day, Old Koloa Town is quiet and slow-paced, but if you’re looking for nightlife on Kauai’s south side, Tom Kats is usually the place to be.
Kalapaki Beach Hut
This is our first recommendation for lunch because the fish sandwiches seem to always hit the spot, and the view from the second story open air seating area is fabulous. Kalapaki Beach is a popular surf break on Kauai, and also contains the main harbor where cruise ships sail in and out. This beach hut restaurant has an easy, laid-back atmosphere, with bar stools lining the front for optimal people watching. We’ve always liked this place because the food is consistently good, it’s inexpensive, and it’s a great stop to or from the north and south sides of the island. It’s also close to the airport, and open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner (hours are 7:00am-8:00pm)- who says you can’t have taro fries for breakfast?
This is Kauai’s most popular waterfall, mainly because of its inspiring beauty, but also because of its easy access. You can literally drive to the top of the falls and have a breathtaking view of the tons of water dumping into the natural pool below. You can also hike to the base of this waterfall, but this Journey takes you by car to the top for an incredible vantage point and some seriously good photos. Although this waterfall tumbles year round, after a heavy rain it is most impressive, and you’re so close, the sound of cracking water rings throughout your ears as fresh water spray refreshes your face.
(Duane’s) Ono Char Burger
Our second recommendation for lunch is what the locals refer to simply as Ono Char. The big highlight of this place is that they sell buffalo burgers. Yes, buffalo. (And I’m pretty sure they have ostrich on the menu as well). These beasts used to be raised like cattle on Kauai’s north shore, and Duane’s has been serving them up at the grill since the burger stand opened in 1988. This joint is located in Anahola, right along the highway. Order up at the small red and white shack and make sure to secure a seat outside, because they go quick. Make friends with the wild chickens and hungry geckos and you’re sure to feel warmly welcomed.
This is one of Kauai’s most popular landmarks, due to its picturesque beauty and historical significance. Built in 1913, this lighthouse acted as a beacon for ships traveling to and from the Orient. The visitor center is very cool, with friendly docents, interesting displays, and a plethora of information on the National Wildlife Refugee, located nearby on Liauea Point. This point of interest offers sweeping views of the Pacific for great photo ops, not to mention some high winds that allow for gravity defying tricks. You’ll also see frigate birds, boobies, and albatross, with the occasional monk seal lounging around as well.
One of my favorite spots on the North Shore, the Hanalei Pier is a much-loved landmark for locals. This stretch of concrete leads out to a pavilion above the waters of Hanalei Bay, offering incredible views of the surf breaks, boats, and lush mountains with waterfalls tumbling down from the peaks. It is safe to jump off the pier, as the ocean bottom is sand throughout this entire bay. The beach that surrounds the pier is also one of the few that still allows vehicles to park on the sand, but make sure to drive on the right-hand side of the pier. The left-hand side is saved for the loungers, surfers, artists, and other beach goers. There is also a wide, open grassy terrace with picnic tables, public restrooms, and fresh showers, which we recommend using, as the sand out here is extremely fine and will get into your swim suit quicker than you can get it out! This is a remarkable location during the sun setting hours, as the sun rays splash over the mountains and water in the most striking way.
Ke‘e Beach Aerial View
This beach is the farthest north you can possibly drive on the island. And the parking lot is usually packed, but it’s worth being patient and scoring a spot, because the quick walk up the Hanakapi’ai Falls trail is well worth the few minutes of parking frustration. Although the trail is 4 miles one-way in length, if you walk for only about 5 minutes you will see the aerial view of Ke‘e Beach, which is a very popular photograph that depicts Kauai’s lush north shore. After the walk, we recommend taking some time to swim through the underwater playground off the coast of this beach- the snorkeling here is absolutely fantastic. Ke’e beach is also great for some local stuff like machete-chopped coconut water cocktails. We love this spot because it’s an idyllic relaxing landmark that is impressively tropical. Oh, and the drive here is through a dense, lush rainforest, over fresh water streams and past sugar shacks lining the beach. Just precious.
The most popular sushi spot on the island, Kintaro Sushi can be treated as either a fancy outing or a casual dining experience. For many locals, this restaurant is a gathering place for social events, due to its fun bar scene, delicious fresh fish, and tepinyaki style cooking (where the chef cooks right in front of you). It’s a fun place to bring a group of people, but also a great date spot as well. The hamachi chunks wrapped in tin foil are to die for, but save room because their green tea ice cream; it’s the perfect palate cleanser to a savory meal. We recommend having a cocktail in the front bar upon entering, because you are almost guaranteed at least a 15-minute wait for your table, even if you have reservations.