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Visit Waimea Canyon and Koke'e State Park
Kauai is Hawaii's Garden Isle, known for its lush foliage, beautiful flowers and long white sand beaches. Kauai is the oldest of the main Hawaiian Islands.
It's the perfect island for a honeymoon or romantic getaway, but also a great place for a family vacation. We've chosen our top 20 things to do on the island of Kauai, Hawaii.
Waimea Canyon and Koke'e State Park
A must see for all visitors to Kauai is the amazing Waimea Canyon. Ten miles long, two miles wide and 3,600 feet deep, Mark Twain nicknamed Waimea Canyon the "Grand Canyon of the Pacific."
With its deep reds, greens and browns, each created by a different volcanic flow over centuries, many feel that is much more colorful than the Grand Canyon, and I'm one of them.
The canyon itself was formed by the Waimea River as it cut it's way from Alaka'i Wilderness Area to the ocean.
Waimea Canyon is located in the western part of Kauai. Two roads make their way up to the canyon, both from the southern part of the island - Waimea Canyon Road... (State Highway 550) from the town of Waimea and Koke'e Road (State Highway 55) from the town of Kekaha. Both have a number of viewpoints offering excellent views of the coast and the island of Ni'ihau. My suggestion is to take one road up to the canyon and the other down.
It will take 30-45 minutes to reach the first of several lookouts from which you can view Waimea Canyon. Be sure to stop at the Waimea Canyon Lookout, the Pu'u Ka Pele Lookout with its excellent views of Waipo'o Falls and the Pu'u Hinahina Lookout.
Beyond Waimea Canyon, the highway enters Koke'e State Park and the Ku'la Natural Area Reserve. Koke'e State Park is over 4,000 acres with about 45 hiking trails some of which head into Waimea Canyon and some of which are short hikes to non-canyon overlooks. The Koke'e Museum is well worth a stop.
The road ends at two lookouts for Kalalau Valley, one of the spectacular valleys along Kauai's Na Pali Coast. There are two lookouts for the Kalalau Valley, the Kalalau Lookout and the Pu'u o Kila Lookout which marks the beginning of the Pihea Trail which leads to the Pihea Overlook and the Alaka'i Swamp Trail. Weather conditions can make the road and trail very dangerous in this area.
Related Features About Waimea Canyon and Koke'e State Park
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See Kauai from the Air
If you ever take a helicopter ride in Hawaii, do so on Kauai. Why? Our friends at Island Helicopters say it best:
"Everyone should experience a helicopter tour at least once in a lifetime. We believe there is no better place than Kauai because so much of this magnificent island can only be viewed from the air. Over 80% of our diverse terrain is inaccessible making the helicopter the best way to see our spectacular waterfalls, canyons, mountains, valleys, rain forests and secluded beaches."
I agree full-heartedly.
What You'll See
Highlights of most helicopter tours on Kauai include Nawlliwili Harbor, the Menehune Fish Pond, Jurassic Park Falls, the Hanapepe Valley, Waimea Canyon, the Na Pali Coast, the Hanalei Valley, Mt. Waialeale and Wailua Falls.
Most tours last between 50 minutes and an hour. Some companies offer longer tours, usually accompanied by a stop or designed for the serious photographer. At least one company offers tours with the doors off, allowing for even better photos (no... glare from the windows).
Do Your Research
The smart traveler does his or her research and makes sure that they are comfortable with the company they choose. On Kauai, I have flown with Blue Hawaiian Helicopters, Island Helicopters and Jack Harter Helicopters. I have flown with Sunshine Helicopters on Maui. I can recommend those companies, but other companies are equally good. I only recommend companies with which I have flown. It's really a personal choice. Check out their websites and read reviews on sites such as tripadvisor.com.
Kauai is a tropical paradise and it rains a lot. For your safety and enjoyment flights often are canceled due to bad weather. I recommend that you book your helicopter tour early in your visit to Kauai so that you have time to reschedule should it be canceled. Most companies offer significant discounts if you book online. Prices vary widely, so check the websites of the various companies for current pricing.
An Alternative - See the Island by Airplane
A flight with AirVentures Hawaii is a fine alternative to a helicopter tour on Kauai. It's perfect for the significant number of people who are afraid of flying in a helicopter or who tend to get sick in a helicopter. It is an economical (about $100 less expensive per person) and eco-friendly (lower fuel consumption) alternative to a helicopter tour. For folks who have taken a helicopter tour on Kauai, a flight with AirVentures Hawaii offers the opportunity to see areas of the island from the air that are not on the standard helicopter route.
More About Helicopter or Airplane Rides on Kauai
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Explore Limahuli Garden and Preserve
Selected in 1997 as the best natural botanical garden in the U.S by the American Horticultural Society, Limahuli Garden and Preserve extends over 1,000 acres in a verdant tropical valley covering three distinct ecological zones on Kauai's wet north shore in Ha'ena.
Limahuli Garden and Preserve is set in the Lawa'i Valley in Ha'ena on the north shore of Kauai. It extends over 1,000 acres in a verdant tropical valley covering three distinct ecological zones.
The Garden is back-dropped by the majestic Makana Mountain and overlooks the Pacific Ocean. In Hawaiian, the name Limahuli means "turning hands," which recognizes the ancient Hawaiians who built agricultural terraces out of lava rock and planted cultivars of kalo (taro), an important cultural food crop.
Mrs. Julet Rice Wichman acquired this property in 1967 and along with her grandson and his wife began the restoration of the site.
The 7-acre garden portion closest to the ocean was gifted by Mrs. Wichman to the non-profit NTBG in 1976.... In 1994 her grandson Charles "Chipper" and his wife Hau'oli gave the remaining 985 acres of the valley to the National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG), creating the Limahuli Preserve.
In 1997, the American Horticultural Society awarded Limahuli Garden its "Best Natural Botanical Garden" designation for demonstrating "best sound environmental practices of water, soil, and rare native plant conservation in an overall garden design."
The plant collections at Limahuli Garden focus on the beauty of plants that are native to Hawaii and/or culturally significant to Hawaiians. They include endemic Hawaiian species, plants introduced by the early Polynesian voyagers, as well as culturally important plants that were introduced during the plantation era starting in the mid-1800s. The collections in Limahuli Garden are used for the purposes of conservation, cultural perpetuation, and education.
Both guided and self-guided tours are offered over a 3/4-mile walk on a loop-trail.
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Take an ATV Tour of Kipu Ranch
The only way that you can explore the area of Kauai between Lihue and Po'ipu that is marked by the majestic Ha'upu Mountain Range is on an ATV Tour with Kipu Ranch Adventures.
Kipu Ranch is a 3,000 acre working cattle ranch located in the historic Kipu area of Kauai. The land was once owned by the Hawaiian monarchy, but sold to William Hyde Rice in 1872. Rice, the son of Protestant missionaries, was a loyal subject who later served as the last governor of Kauai under Queen Liliuokalani. Rice intended to use the land to breed cattle and horses.
Livestock remained the ranch's primary business until 1907 when Rice's son began to grow sugarcane. In the early 1940's the family once again returned the land to ranching which remains its use today.
In order to supplement their income, the ranch has contracted with Kipu Ranch Adventures to offer a limited number of daily tours. These tours are the only way to explore the ranch since the land has no public access roads.
The Ranch Tour enters the... ranch down a long road lined on each side by tall Norfolk pines. On either side of the road are the homes of the ranch owners and manager. An unpaved road then crosses a wide pasture where you'll likely see cattle, wild boar, pheasants, peacocks and other wildlife.
The tour then pauses for a brief overview of the ranch and its history. The guides make sure that everyone is comfortable with their vehicles and let you know the plan for the rest of the tour.
The next, and most important, stop is a training hill where you learn how to handle the vehicles in the rocky, hilly and often muddy paths that you'll be traversing.
Kipu Ranch has been a favorite spot for Hollywood. Numerous motion pictures have been filmed on the ranch's land including Diamond Head and The Hawaiians both starring Charlton Heston, Islands In The Stream, The Lost World (the sequel to Jurassic Park), and Outbreak.
The best known films that have used the ranch are The Descendants and Raiders of the Lost Ark.
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Take a Drive Along Kauai's North Shore
No visit to Kauai would be complete without a drive along Kauai's North Shore.
A drive along the North Shore takes you to several beautiful locations including Na 'Aina Kai Botanical Garden, the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge, Secret Beach, 'Anini Beach, Princeville and the St. Regis Princeville Resort and the Hanalei Valley Overlook.
If you then drive down into the Hanalei Valley you can visit the Hanalei Pier, Hanalei Bay and Hanalei Town. From there you can visit some of the most lovely beaches on Kauai - Lumaha'i Beach, Wainiha Beach, Kepuhi Beach and Tunnels Beach.
Then you should definitely stop at Limahuli Garden which sits at the foot of the awe inspiring Mt. Makana. Finally you can enter Ha'ena State Park and end your journey at Ke'e Beach and the start of the Kalalau Trail.
The drive is not that long, but to see it all in one day is really hard. You'll want to plan on spending at least a couple of days exploring all that Kauai's North Shore has to offer.
Join me on a Drivin...g Tour of Kauai's North Shore.
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Spend an Afternoon and Evening at Kilohana Plantation and Luau Kalamaku
On Kauai there's only one place where you can ride an historic train, hike through a rainforest and orchard, taste Kauai's only island-made rum, shop, dine at one of Kauai's top restaurants and finally enjoy one of the island's best luaus. That place is Kilohana Plantation.
Kilohana Plantation is located just one mile out of the town of Lihue next to Kauai Community College on Highway 50 heading towards Po'ipu.
Kilohana Plantation is rooted in Kauai's long history of agriculture. The centerpiece of Kilohana Plantation is the historic Gaylord Wilcox mansion built in 1935 by Gaylord Parke Wilcox and his wife Ethel.
Located within the historic Gaylord Wilcox Mansion is Gaylords at Kilohana, one of the top restaurants on Kauai.
The Koloa Rum Company produces and markets world class, small batch micro-distilled, authentic Hawaiian rum and related products. Their Tasting Room and Company Store sells all of the company's products as well as a number of other Kauai-made and distinctive food... and beverage products. They also operate the only manufacturer's rum tasting room in the Hawaii.
The Kauai Plantation Railway recreates the sugar trains which once crisscrossed the Island in the days of steam engines. The 2.5 mile train ride takes passengers through a 70 acre plantation, where they can view exotic crops, enjoy views not seen from public highways, and learn of the history and future of tropical agriculture in Hawaii.
Lu'au Kalamaku has been welcoming guests since 2007 and is the state's only lu'au show performed "in-the-round," offering great views from every seat in the house. Featuring a state-of-the-art media system and an interactive stage design, the show includes a cast of approximately 50 dancers and musicians including an award-winning fire knife dancer.
More About Kilohana Plantation and Luau Kalamaku
Check out our feature on Kilohana Plantation and Luau Kalamaku.
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Explore the Wailua River Valley
A trip up the Wailua River Valley either by boat or kayak is a must for any first-time visitor to Kauai. The valley has been used to film such films as Outbreak and Raiders of the Lost Ark. A boat trip takes you to the Fern Grotto which has recently been restored after years of neglect. A kayak trip can take you even further on Hawaii's only navigable river.
The trip down the two-miles of the river is as delightful today as it was when we first experienced it over 15 years ago. The boat captain narrates the ride along the river pointing out points of interest, describing the flora a fauna along the river's banks and relating tales of the significance of the river and surrounding areas (such as Mount Kapu) to early Hawaiians.
Guests arrive at the grotto area in less than 30 minutes and the make the short walk through the rainforest to the Fern Grotto area itself where they encounter a small group of entertainers who perform the Hawaiian Wedding Song, a long tradition in at the Fern... Grotto. Over 19,000 weddings have taken place at the Grotto. Even today four or five take place each week.
As is a long tradition with Smith's, the return trip down the river features live Hawaiian music and hula dancers.
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Play a Round of Golf
There is no question Kauai is a golfer's paradise. The Garden Island is home to many of Hawaii's top golf courses and boast some of the most scenic and challenging layouts in Hawaii.
In fact, no fewer than six of Hawaii's top golf courses are located on the Garden Island of Kauai: Kiahuna Golf Club, Makai Golf Club, the Ocean Course at Hokuala Resort, the Poipu Bay Golf Course, Princeville Golf Club, and Puakea Golf Course.
Kauai has a great selection of courses with greens fees that range from discount to resort, but even the more expensive courses offer some specials when you purchase multiple rounds. There are courses located all around the island, so no matter where you're staying, there will always be a fine golf course nearby.
Check out our feature on the great golf courses on the island of Kauai.
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Visit Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge
The Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge is a must stop for visitors to Kauai's north shore, offering amazing views overlooking the Pacific, a unique opportunity to observe seabirds in their habitat and a chance to visit the historic Kilauea Lighthouse.
The centerpiece of the refuge is the historic Kilauea Lighthouse, built in 1913 and in operation until 1976 when it was replaced by an automatic beacon. The lighthouse was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979
Managed since 1985 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the ocean cliffs and open grassy slopes of an extinct volcano provide breeding grounds for native Hawaiian seabirds and nene, the endangered Hawaiian goose.
Kilauea Point offers the opportunity to view red-footed boobies, Laysan albatrosses, wedge-tailed shearwaters, and other seabirds in their natural habitat. The National Marine Sanctuary waters surrounding the refuge are home to Hawaiian monk seals, green turtles, and, in winter, humpback whales.
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Enjoy Kauai's Sunny South Shore
The southern shore of Kauai is the area between Maha'ulepu Beach in the east and Lawa'i Bay in the west.
It includes the expansive Poipu Resort area with its excellent hotels, resorts and condominium resorts and some of the world's most beautiful beaches with beautiful sunsets and sunny days. You may even see a monk seal sunbathing on the beach in the late afternoon.
The new Kukui`ula Village shopping center offers excellent shops, galleries and restaurants. A short drive along the coast will take you past Koloa Landing and Prince Kuhio Park to Spouting Horn where you can see one of Hawaii's most famous blowholes. The nearby National Tropical Botanical Garden offers tours. Their Allerton Garden Tour is the only way to access beautiful Lawa'i Bay.
A short drive inland will take you to historic Koloa Town, once a major plantation town in the Kauai sugar industry. Today there is an excellent History Center and numerous shops and restaurants.
If time allows, head further inland and back to Rt.... 50 (Kaumuali'i Highway). Head west and explore the lovely towns of Hanapepe and Waimea. Be sure to stop by Salt Pond Beach Park near Hanapepe, one of Hawaii's loveliest beaches.
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Go to the Beach
The island of Kauai has 43 gorgeous white sand beaches stretching over 50 miles - more beach per mile than any other island in Hawaii.
Here are just a few examples of Kauai's great beaches.
Po'ipu Beach is the beach-lover's beach, a family-friendly spot for swimming, snorkeling, boogie boarding, and simply peering into tide pools. Turtles love this reef-protected beach, so turtle-watching is often a bonus.
On the west side, partially protected by a reef, the Salt Pond Beach Park is the best family beach, popular for swimming, picnicking, or exploring tide pools near the Hawaiian salt ponds that give the beach its name.
In Nawiliwili, near Lihu'e, the half-mile crescent of Kalapaki Beach is beach boy central, a recreational nexus of canoe riding, catamaran sailing, surfing, swimming, wave riding, and every beach sport imaginable. And you don't have to limit yourself to the ocean. Kayakers can explore the glassy Hule'ia River nearby, featured in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and gaze... at the koloa duck and other endangered birds from a wildlife refuge on the river.
On the east side, families love Lydgate Beach Park, near the mouth of the Wailua River. Its protective boulders keep the lagoon calm and snorkelers happy, and its pavilion, small playground, and white-sand beach are tailor-made for families.
Further north, in Ha'ena, Makua Beach, called Tunnels, is an aquarium during the summer months, its underwater caverns and cathedrals a thriving habitat for tropical fish and a Technicolor treat for snorkelers and divers.
North shore beaches have larger swells during the winter, so heed the warning signs and always be sure to pick a beach with a lifeguard.
A great sources of information to check out before exploring Kauai's beaches is KauaiExplorer.com.
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See Where Jurassic Park Was Filmed
Anyone who has seen the movie Jurassic Park remembers these trees. They're Moreton Bay fig trees and you can see them up close and personal at Allerton Garden on Kauai.
Allerton Garden is part of the National Tropical Botanical Gardens which has three individual gardens on Kauai.
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Visit Kauai's Hindu Monastery
With guided tours offered one day per week, the Kauai Hindu Monastery is a beautiful and spiritual place on Hawaii's Garden Isle of Kauai.
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Sail Along the Na Pali Coast with Kauai Sea Tours
One must thing for any visitor to Kauai from the spring to the fall is to sail along the Na Pali Coast of Kauai.
One of my favorite companies to sail with is Kauai Sea Tours and you can read my review of a sail on their catamaran, Lucky Lady.
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Take a Movie Tour
Kauai is a movie maker's paradise and has been for over 70 years! Over the years well over 100 motion pictures and TV shows have been filmed on Kauai and the pace has not slowed.
The list of iconic motion pictures that have filmed on Kauai is very impressive. They include: Blue Hawaii, The Descendants, Jurassic Park, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Six Days Seven Nights, South Pacific, and The Wackiest Ship in the Army.
It's not surprising then that a natural fit for the tourism industry and Kauai would be a tour that focuses on taking visitors to many of the actual locations used in filming many of these motion pictures. Polynesian Adventure Tours offers an Ali'i Movie Excursion and Scenic Hanalei tour.
Following hotel pickup, the tour's route begins at Ahukini Pier at Hanama'ulu Bay near Lihue Airport and proceeds northward along the eastern coast of Kauai, better known as the Coconut Coast. The tour makes several stops along the way to... Kauai's North Shore and the town of Hanalei where they stop for lunch. They then make their way back down the coast by early afternoon.
The tour bus is equipped with a large, flat screen television on which guests see clips from the actual movies made on Kauai just before stopping at the location seen in the clips that have just been shown. In between stops, the tour guide talks about the island, it's culture, history and geography, and keeps guests thoroughly entertained with his great sense of humor.
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Take a Horseback Ride
One of my favorite things to do on Kauai, is to ride horseback.
Fortunately there are some great horseback rides available.
Read our review of a scenic trail ride on Kauai’s southern shore with CJM Country Stables.
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Take a Hike
Today many repeat and first time visitors are making their way to Kauai with a primary goal to experience some of the island's excellent hikes.
For an overview of the top hiking opportunities on the island of Kauai, check our feature on the Best Hiking Trails on Kauai.
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Revisit Kauai's Plantation Days at Grove Farm
Grove Farm is a beautifully preserved one hundred acre homestead in the center of Lihue that includes the original plantation main house, owner’s cottage, guest cottage, old office, as well as other resident and plantation workers’ housing camp.
The ongoing active household and farm with its animals, gardens, banana patches and pastures, maintain the same cleaning and agricultural schedules and practices that were established in the 1870’s.
Read more about the Grove Farm Sugar Plantation Museum and plan your visit.
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What to Do If It's Raining
Afterall, Kauai is called The Garden Island for a reason. There will be times during your stay when it's raining. Don't fret, however, even when it rains there's plenty of things to do.
Check out our feature Fun on a Rainy Day on Kauai.
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