Kauai is a lush paradise, with mountains, waterfalls and dramatic coastline. It is the oldest and westernmost of the major islands in the Hawaiian chain and as a result has the most diverse plant life. The main attraction is the beautiful Waimea Canyon which competes well with other scenic locations around the world. Unlike Oahu, which focuses on cultural, urban, and entertainment-related attractions, Kauai offers a land of adventure. Some of these options include boat trips to view the scenic Na Pali Cliffs on the northwest coast, kayaking on streams, helicopter flights, hiking, and the beaches.
The island can be viewed in two full days with one day devoted to sites along the road west of Lihue, which curves upward toward Waimea Canyon, and a second day focusing on the road that heads to the north coast. However, most visitors want to spend much more than two days on Kauai.
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1 Na Pali Coast State Park
Na Pali Coast State Park covers a remote area of Kauai, featuring a dramatic mountain landscape with cliffs, waterfalls and lush vegetation. The Na Pali Coast in the northwest of the island is one of the most inaccessible parts of the island of Kauai. The mountain range, which climbs to 3,938 feet in places, forms steep cliffs that plunge into the sea, the beauty of which can only be appreciated from the water or the air. Steep valleys on the landward side divide the mountain peaks.
This seclusion has allowed a unique variety of vegetation to survive here, which together with the high steep cliffs provide a fascinating view of nature. The bizarre shapes of the weathered volcanic mountains with caves and waterfalls, the intense green of the thick layer of vegetation and the hidden sandy beaches at the foot of the mountains are all worth experiencing.
It is easiest to see this part of the coast by boat or helicopter. Both options offer fantastic views of the impressive cliffs and coastlines. Those who want to spend more time and are not afraid of strenuous exercise can explore part of the Na Pali coast on foot.
2 Waimea Canyon
Waimea Canyon rivals some of the most scenic canyons in the world. Not only is it deep, but the red earth in the area, the green jungles along the streams and waterfalls, the black volcanic rock and the mist flowing from the plateaus make it a colorful scene. There are two major lookouts and several hiking trails from the road that runs along the rim. While the Canyon runs to the sea along Waimea Canyon Drive (SR550), the deepest part of the canyon is located in Kokee State Park.
3 Koke’e State Park
Koke’e State Park is an extension of Waimea Canyon State Park and contains the deepest parts of the canyon. Another key point is the Kalalau Lookout, which in theory offers views of 4,000 foot cliffs of the Napali Coast and is the only place to see this spectacular feature of Kaua’i from land. Please note that the cliffs are often misty. The viewpoint is located at the end of the scenic road that runs through the park. Koke’e maintains numerous hiking trails, most of which extend from the Natural History Museum and Koke’e Lodge.
The Kokee Natural History Museum focuses on the weather, geology, botany, wildlife and Hawaiian culture associated with Waimea Canyon, Kokee State Park and Kauai in general.
4 Kalalau Trail
Kalalau Trail is an 11 mile trail along the Na Pali Coast originally created and used by the early Hawaiians. This trail is difficult and taxing, even for experienced hikers. The climb starts in Haena State Park in the north and ends after almost 18 km in the Kalalau Valley. To get an impression of the landscape and vegetation, just cover the first 2 miles to Hanakapiai Beach. This section is easier to walk, but it can be slippery after rain and good footwear is needed at all times.
Those wanting to tackle the entire hike should bring a tent and food and stay overnight before returning. Two to three days should be allowed to complete the 22 mile round trip. The path past Hanakapiai is steep, stony and not without danger. At the right time of year it is possible to taste wild fruits such as mangoes, bananas, guava and apples, which grow next to the path. Campers must obtain permission from the Division of State Parks.
5 Polihale State Park
Secluded Polihale State Park on the west side of the Na Pali Coast offers a wide white-sand beach backed by the Makaha Ridge. Despite the beauty of the surroundings, swimming and water activities in this area can be dangerous and should be carried out with caution.
The small village of Hanalei is located in Hanalei Bay on the north coast of Kauai. Blessed with a fine sandy beach, the village is also a gateway to the scenic Hanalei Valley. On the edge of town, on Route 560, is the Waioli Mission House, built in 1841. It is one of the best preserved mission houses in Hawaii. On the left side of the street is the old Waioli Huila Church, with stained glass windows. It is now a community centre.
The best views of Hanalei Valley are experienced from Hanalei Lookout, on route 560, which is indicated by one of the usual Kamehameha signs. The Hanalei River flows like a silver thread through the entire valley, a patchwork of sugar cane and taro fields. Mountains form the background.
7 Limahuli Garden & Preserve
Backed by mountains and overlooking the ocean, the Limahuli Garden and Preserve is spread over 1,000 hectares and three ecological zones. It provides a resource for research and education programs in watershed protection and plant and animal conservation. The plants are native to Hawaii or culturally significant in some way. Visitors can take a guided tour or tour of the garden.
Official site: https://ntbg.org/gardens/limahuli.php
8 Wailua Falls
Between Lihue and Hanamaulu, road 583 branches off from road 560 and winds its way for a few kilometers to a waterfall. This double waterfall plunges 80 meters deep into a rock wall. Legend has it that the leaders of ancient Hawaii had to take the risk of jumping from the top of this waterfall to prove their strength and courage.
Poipu is located on the warm and sunny south coast of Kauai, where the most beautiful beaches on the island are located. Until the tourism boom sugar was the main source of income for Poipu and its surroundings. The development of tourism here started relatively late and, consequently, it was much more intense than in other places. Now Poipu has Kauai’s largest number of luxury hotels and vacation homes. An urban development regulation allows buildings to be no more than three stories high so that Poipu can protect and preserve its rural character.
Its convenient location near Lihue Airport, along with its pleasant climate and excellent surfing, have helped make Poipu one of the most popular resorts in Kauai. The long, white sandy beach and clear, blue water invite you to swim and surf.
Where to Stay on Kauai for Sightseeing
We recommend these tropical Kauai hotels and resorts near Poipu Beach and Lihue:
- Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort & Spa: beachfront luxury, Poipu Beach, lush gardens, multiple pools with water slides, lazy river ride, championship golf course, excellent spa.
- Marriott’s Waiohai Beach Club: mid-range pricing, Poipu Beach, rooms and villas, multiple pools, game room, beautiful spa.
- Garden Island Inn: affordable Lihue hotel, family-run, colorful interior, free use of beach gear, kitchenettes.
- Kauai Palms Hotel: budget Lihue hotel, near airport, clean and compact rooms, kitchenettes and full kitchen options.