Like most everything in life, the best things to enjoy on Kauai are free—or at least pretty affordable. Called Hawaii's Island of Discovery and popularly referred to as "the Garden Island" since it is mostly covered in tropical rainforest, Kauai's landscape is an enticing destination for lovers of the environment, outdoor adventure, and Polynesian culture. At 5.8 million years old, it's the oldest of the major Hawaiian islands and offers miles of beautiful beaches, lush green mountains, waterfalls, rivers, rainbows, and much more.
Mark Twain called Waimea Canyon the "Grand Canyon of the Pacific." It is a sightseer's paradise—2 miles wide, 10 miles long, and more than 3,500-feet deep. Take in the stunning views from several of the lookouts or hike into the crater.
Follow the road through Koke'e State Park to the Kalalau Lookout with unforgettable views of the once cultivated Kalalau Valley that descends 4,000-feet to the Pacific blue. After sightseeing, enjoy a picnic lunch at the top of the crater in Koke'e State Park, surrounded by a forest dominated by koa and 'ohi'a lehua trees.
Kauai is a hiker's dream destination, with spectacular trails that immerse one into the magnificence of the island's verdant wilderness. Hikes range from comfortable walks to challenging treks into hidden valleys streaming with waterfalls.
A must-do for any serious hiker is the beautiful 11-mile Kalalau Trail along the majestic Napali Coast, which has reopened after serious flooding in 2018. Permits are required. Note the trail can be dangerous and on rainy days it can get muddy and thus slippery. Be prepared to stay safe: There are no emergency services, and cell phone service doesn't work. Check the weather forecast, wear appropriate shoes, and join experienced hikers or a local guide.
Prince Kuhio Park was home to Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole (1871-1922), beloved as the "People's Prince" for his tireless work on behalf of Hawaii's people and the last royal heir to the Hawaiian throne.
Located near Lawa'i, this historical setting features the foundation of Prince Kuhio's home, a royal fishpond, a shrine where offerings were made, and a heiau (ancient place of worship) where the kahuna (priests) meditated and lived.
See Cherished Historic Sites
Alekoko Fishpond—listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places—was built 1,000 years ago and is located in the Huleia National Wildlife Refuge that is a habitat for endangered Hawaiian birds. Also known as Menehune Fishpond, the legend is the pond was built by the mythical Menehune (little people) of Hawaii in just one night. Walls 900 feet across and five feet high were created with big stones to separate the pond from Huleia Stream.
The Wailua River is a beautifully scenic area that was once a sacred place in ancient times and reserved for the kings and high chiefs of Kauai. Near the river's mouth in Lydgate State Park are the remains of a heiau that was a place of refuge for those who had broken a kapu (taboo).
For a nominal entry fee, the Kilauea National Wildlife Refuge is a uniquely special setting for bird lovers. The most northern point in Hawaii is known for its famous Kilauea Lighthouse. Framed by breathtaking views of Kauai's north shore, the state's endangered birds can be seen nesting in the cliffs, including the Hawaiian gallinule, red-footed boobies, tropicbirds, albatrosses, and frigate birds.
Look to the ocean and you have a good chance of seeing Hawaiian monk seals (an endangered species), green sea turtles, and Hawaiian spinner dolphins.
Hawaii is the only state with its own music, language, and dance. On Kauai, the host culture of Hawaii can be enjoyed for free or at little cost. Many hotels offer free hula performances, torch lighting ceremonies, and courses in making leis (garlands), among other cultural offerings.
Coconut Marketplace in Kapaa has free hula shows Wednesdays and Saturdays, and Harbor Mall in Lihue has no-cost hula shows every Wednesday. The Poipu Shopping Village has free live Hawaiian music every Monday and Thursday.
The state's only navigable rivers are found on Kauai. Rent a kayak and leisurely paddle along one of the gentle rivers bordered by lush, tropical foliage. If you choose the long Hanalei River on the North Shore, you can walk around the cute small-town Hanalei for shops, cafes, and a bite to eat.
Or, journey by riverboat up the Wailua River with Smith's to the famous Fern Grotto. In this beautiful, jungle-like setting, a natural amphitheater has been formed, creating remarkable acoustics. Hawaiian music and hula are performed on the return boat.
Koloa is a historic 19th-century plantation town that was the site of Hawaii's first sugar plantation, about 20 minutes west from Lihue. Every July the Koloa Plantation Days event celebrates the town's proud heritage. Visitors will find restaurants and specialty shops amid some of Hawaii's oldest buildings.
Hanapepe in Southwest Kauai exudes an old-fashioned, small-town appeal, with its plantation-era buildings and slow-paced lifestyle. Every Friday evening, Hanapepe's nine galleries open their doors for a night of artistic enjoyment. Stroll along historic Main Street to see fine art and listen to live entertainment.
Kauai's waterfalls are a year-round display of nature's ability to keep the Garden Isle green and vibrant. In Lihue, one can drive right up to picturesque Wailua Falls. If the 80-foot waterfall looks vaguely familiar, it was a fixture in the opening credits of the 1970s TV show "Fantasy Island."
In scenic Wailua, Opaeka'a Falls is the island's most accessible major waterfall as it cascades into a hidden pool. And it's a wonderful setting to take photos. Opaeka'a means "rolling shrimp," which were once abundant in the stream.
Local museums offer intriguing exhibits and artifacts that tell Kauai's story. In Lihue, the Kauai Museum educates the public on the island's formation, the arrival of the first Polynesians, more modern times with the start of the sugar plantation, and the various ethnic cultures that have contributed to its history.
Also in Lihue, the 80-acre Grove Farm was established as one of Hawaii's earliest sugar plantations, but today offers a museum display of Kauai's heritage highlighting the old sugar days and through the monarchy to statehood. Seeing this farm is by reservation only.
Waioli Mission in Hanalei was founded in 1834. It is where the early Christian missionaries, Abner and Lucy Wilcox, one of Kauai's most influential families, lived and worked from 1846 to 1869.
This historic New England-style home was shipped in pieces from Boston around Cape Horn and today stands as a showcase of koa wood furniture and other artifacts from the missionary era. Tours are given Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays on a first-come-first-serve basis.
In front of the house is the old Wai'oli Hui'ia Church. Its green shingles and stained-glass windows are one of Hanalei's most photographed sites.
Kauai has over 40 gorgeous white sand beaches stretching more than 50 miles—more beach per mile than any other island in Hawaii.
Whether boogie-boarding at popular Poipu Beach on the south side, relaxing with a tropical drink near the gentle ocean of Kalapaki Beach in Lihue on the east or tossing a towel down in a secluded cove at the north shore's Anini, Kauai's range of beaches matches the island's diversity. For the more adventurous, rent a snorkel and see the wonders and undersea beauty of the island's marine world.