Your Trip to Kauai: The Complete Guide

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Few places on earth compare to the island of Kauai. Its mighty sea cliffs, clear blue waters and verdant valleys are the stuff of daydreams. Those lucky enough to travel there will get to experience a five million-year-old island—the oldest geographically in the main Hawaiian island chain—and have the chance to explore the fascinating history and unique landscape that comes with it.

Kauai, also known as “The Garden Isle” due to its famously frequent rainfall, has a total area of over 562 square miles and it is the fourth-largest Hawaiian island. It is home to more than 60,000 permanent residents but welcomes more than 1.3 million visitors each year.

Most people flock to Kauai to escape the hustle and bustle of city life. Kauai offers an opportunity to slow down and enjoy the island’s one-of-a-kind tropical surroundings. Don't leave without taking advantage of nature-oriented activities such as hiking, surfing, and snorkeling, as it is some of the best in the world. What’s more, despite the smaller size and thanks to the abundance of unparalleled and high-quality ingredients grown and raised on the island, Kauai has a great foodie scene for fans of hole-in-the-wall eats and fine dining alike.

Planning Your Trip

Best Time to Visit: Plan your trip from April to June right before summer to avoid peak crowds while still enjoying the warmest weather, and from September to November to beat the rainy season. It’s important to note that Kauai sees the most rain year-round than any other island in the chain.

Language: Hawaii is the only state with three official languages: English, Hawaiian, and Hawaiian Pidgin English.

Currency: USD

Getting Around: Kauai’s public transportation system is called “The Kauai Bus,” which is pretty easy to remember. Use the online bus map and schedule to get around or Google Maps if you have service. Since the public bus doesn’t go everywhere and taxis are sparse, renting a car straight from the airport is the best option.

Travel Tip: Don’t expect to find much nightlife on Kauai. The island is better suited for travelers wanting a more laid back vacation focused on enjoying nature.

Things to Do

There are plenty of outdoor activities to enjoy on this small island, from kayaking to snorkeling to hiking. Above all else, hit the beach and savor in the local food. You’ll find some of the best restaurants in the Koloa and Lihue areas, and many offer free live entertainment from local musicians or live hula dancing. To get a feel of the rich history of Kauai island and the neighboring island of Niihau, spend some time at the Kauai Museum just a few miles from the airport.

  • Take a Helicopter Tour: If you’re going to shell out the money for a helicopter flight in Hawaii, do it on Kauai. The green rainforest landscape provides some of the most accessible, breathtaking views on earth. With local company Island Helicopters, you can even land at the base of the waterfall from the opening scene of Jurassic Park. 
  • See the Na Pali Coast: Spend some time inside Kauai’s most adventurous and picturesque state park. Take a boat tour through sea caves and snorkel with tropical ocean life, tackle the strenuous Kalalau Trail, or take a short hike through the jungle to Hanakapiai Beach.
  • Visit Waimea Canyon: The “Grand Canyon of the Pacific” is a must on any Kauai travel itinerary. Hike to the top of a waterfall, do some camping, or just enjoy the unique canyon climate, which is unlike any other part of the island.

Get even more travel inspiration with our full-length guides to kid-friendly activities on Kauai, the 10 best beaches on Kauai and why Kauai deserves a spot on your bucket list.

What to Eat and Drink

Kauai is full of history, so naturally there are plenty of mom-and-pop spots to find delicious local favorites. Or experience a higher-end eatery that elevates island-grown ingredients and offers a special ambiance. Start with hitting a farmers market or two; you’ll find one somewhere on the island almost every day of the week. Try poke (raw fish cut into bite-sized pieces and marinated) at Koloa Fish Market on the south side. Stop by Duke’s or Keoki’s Paradise for happy hour tropical cocktails (mai tais, anyone?) and pupus (shareable, appetizer-type dishes). To get your fill of comfort food, make time for handmade noodles at the legendary Hamura Saimin in Lihue, and to get a real feel for traditional Hawaiian food, book a luau at Luau Kalamaku in Lihue or the Smith Family Garden in Wailua. 

Explore even more foodie favorites with our guide to the best food on Kauai.

Where to Stay

You’ll find cheaper accommodations in Lihue due to the close proximity to the airport and the greater supply. Many travelers choose to stay on the east side in Lihue because of the accessibility to stores, places to eat, and cruise ships. Hotels are sparse on the west coast of the island near Waimea Canyon, so private rentals are a more realistic option on that side. Staying on the north shore has its pros and cons; there’s a larger chance of experiencing wet weather, but the results of the rain bring incredibly beautiful lush surroundings. On the south side of the island you’ll find popular tourist areas such as Poipu and Koloa, with plenty of resort-style accommodations, shopping, and restaurants.

Find the best area to stay on Kauai with our recommendations for the island’s best hotels.

Getting There

Short of a cruise ship, the Kauai Airport is the only gateway onto the island. It is located in the city of Lihue on the east side of Kauai. Hawaiian Airlines is the oldest airline that specializes in Kauai travel, but Southwest Airlines has recently been added to the mix, causing ticket prices to become more competitive. While Hawaiian Airlines provides daily flights both from the mainland and inter-island, Southwest is currently offering flights only on select days. 

Culture and Customs

As the oldest island in the state, Kauai is full of diverse cultures and historically significant areas. Make sure to show an incredible amount of respect for the land and sacred spots, take the time to learn about the island’s customs, learn a few phrases (such as “mahalo” and “a hui ho”) before traveling and above all, show aloha!

To learn more, read our introduction to Hawaiian culture.

Money Saving Tips

  • If you purchase an admission ticket to the Kauai Museum, it’s good for up to seven days so that you can return during your vacation.
  • Kauai (and all of the islands for that matter) are known for their food trucks. If you don’t mind grabbing your meal at the side of the road, you can find excellent food for under $10 at Porky’s on the east and west sides or Kikuchi’s in Nawiliwili.
  • Renting a car is not only the most convenient way to travel around the island, it is also the most affordable. There are also places on Kauai that are more difficult (and expensive) to access by shuttle or taxi, so renting a car will absolutely save money for those who want to do more exploring.
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