Kauai, Hawaii – the Mega List

  • Note – we just returned from Kauai and will be making a major update to this page. Stay tuned.

Kauai is one of our favorite destinations. Not only is Kauai a rural paradise chock full of outdoor adventure, it is Ms T’s Mom’s hometown (her Mom is 3rd generation Japanese).  The house she grew up in is still standing, and her grandparents are ensconced in the Buddhist temple across from Kapaia Stitchery.  Except for Grandpa Shigeru, whose ashes were scattered at Ahukini Landing.  Highlights of Kauai are hiking, snorkeling, sightseeing, and local eats in a very laid back atmosphere.  Car touring is also very rewarding, there are many extremely picturesque beaches that you don’t have to snorkel to enjoy, lots of small towns, and Waimea Canyon with its overlooks. And those deep dark pitch black Hawaiian nights with the tradewinds blowing in the palm trees makes you realize you are on a eensy weensy teeny tiny island 2700 miles from LA…and 4700 miles from Polynesia, the ancient origins of the Hawaiian Islanders.  Kauai invites you to slow down, look around, get in sync with island time.  It helps to find a Mai Tai just as soon as you possible can on your first day.


  • Alakai Swamp in Waimea Canyon. My goal on our next trip is to hike out as far as the boardwalk area. However you have to cross a muddy, clay-ey section to get there, and if it is wet and/or muddy it will be extremely slippery.
  • Kalalau trail. Kauai is kind of the Australian outback of Hawaii. Everything here is just a little more challenging than on the other islands.  This trail is rated a difficulty of 10 out of 10 by the Sierra Club. We have actually never hiked it.  Even a 1 or 2 mile out-and-back is supposed to be terrific. Note: the hike should not be done in flip flops.
  • Mahaulepo – easy but spectacular shoreline hike. The trail runs along the edge of the cliffs and leads to a deserted beach with huge rock outcroppings to scramble on.  This is a good one for kids.
  • Ke’e beach.  Once you get out in the water, turn around and look up at the towering pali cliffs and palm trees above you.  Feel small and insignificant.
    • Visiting Ke’e is an investment. You have to get there before 9am, otherwise no parking. You think I am kidding but I am not.  And it is over an hour’s drive from Lihue/Kapa’a.
    • Bring snacks to tide you over until your late lunch at Bubba’s in Hanalei.  Maybe invest in a squeaky cooler (styrofoam cooler) for the drinks.
    • Plan to take everything to the sand – no one will swipe it but you won’t want to walk back to the car to get the cooler.
    • You will snorkel on either side of the channel (see picture below).  The open channel is actually quite large so there is little chance of accidentally floating out down the channel.  Therefore this is a pretty safe place for kids to snorkel. There is also a lifeguard at Ke’e these days.
An extremely calm, low-tide summer day.
    • Kauai sand can feel rough to Californians, and there’s plenty of coral pieces, so bare feet is not advised.  Wear your water socks , water shoes, or Tevas.  You don’t need fins.
    • On the way back, have lunch in Hanalei. Do some shopping.  Stop at the Hanalei overlook to take some pictures. Grownups may like to stop at the Princeville hotel for drinks on the patio.
    • Typical snorkeling sights video at Ke’e.
  • Tunnels beach.  Tunnels is the big snorkeling playground of the North Shore.  If you snorkel, don’t miss Tunnels. Bring your underwater camera.  You could do Tunnels and Ke’e both in the same day but only if you move your car from one to the other after 3pm when the parking situation eases up.


The Beginner’s Area is also shown below and is a little tricky to find.  I marked what we call “Tunnels Express”, and the exit, in red. This is at the Eastern end of the Beginner’s area.  The current will take you from left to right.  In fact you do not even have to swim, just float on the water, and you will be zoomed down the reef.  The reef wall will be on your left. Observe the wildlife!  Then, when the reef opens up on your left, make your left turn, and kick back to the beach following the 2nd red arrow. This is where fins will help you a lot.  I don’t recommend floating westward any further than this – the current will only get stronger as it pulls you out into the bay and beyond the reef – never recommended.
Here’s another closeup of Tunnels Express with the escape hatch.  The reef portion is 40-50 foot long so it’s a nice long ride before you turn left.
Here is another picture of Beginner’s Area, circled.  This area is really quite large, and the reef that you will be exploring from the shore is quite vast.  There is really no danger of you accidentally reaching the dark blue bay beyond.
It’s in this area that you will find this famous “honeycomb” portion of the reef.

The summer months are the best time for snorkeling, the surf is much calmer.  In the fall/winter/spring, please test the currents first before committing your whole family.
Parking at Tunnels is a challenge. There are 2 places to park and neither holds more than 20 cars.  The dog leg alley below puts you at Tunnels Express.
This side street is good for the Beginner’s Area.  You can also park at Ha’ena Beach Park, just down the road, but it is a bit of a hoof back to the Beginner’s Area – on the sand.
  • Queens Bath.  Near Princeville.  A natural pool at the surf’s edge, spectacular when the surf is calm. However, don’t go at or near high tide, or if the waves wash over the side of this natural pool, people have gotten badly hurt by the surf.  Don’t stand on the rocks between the pool and the ocean where a rogue wave could knock you down. http://www.hawaiiweb.com/kauai/sites_to_see/QueensBath.htm
  • NOTE ABOUT THE BEACH – NEVER SWIM OUTSIDE THE REEF.  ONLY SWIM WHERE THERE IS A REEF AND A LIFEGUARD, no matter how many people are in the water.  Kauai’s beaches are not very good swimming beaches – not at all like Maui or California – steep beaches, treacherous currents, riptides, strong waves.  If you cannot tell the difference between Kauai surf and California surf by looking at it, then please only swim at a lifeguarded beach.
  • Rely on blue book for vendor recommendations. Go to Hanalei, not Wailua. We liked Kayak Kauai, www.kayakkauai.com 808-826-9844 800-437-3507
Dining – do not miss:
  • Fish Express. A recently added gem, we have yet to make it here before they run out of the entrees. Don’t let the styrofoam fool you.  Appearances can be deceiving.  Another island lesson. Slow down and take a look at what is in front of you.
  • Hamura Saimin. You should try Saimin once while you are there and the place to try it is Hamura’s.  In a humble (rundown?) shack on a side street in western Lihue, this place has been there forever (80 years) and looks like it. Sit down at the extra low counters (remember, japanese people short) and order away.  I recommend the special saimin or the wonton saimin.  Add some chili pepper water or whatever is in those large bottles on the counter and spice it up.
  • Brick Oven pizza. Brick oven pizza is famous with the locals for having the best pizza.  The original location is in Kalaheo and there is another one in Wailua now.
  • Island Palm. We liked Island Palm enough to go twice, they have very good fried rice and portuguese sausage and other hawaiian-style dishes like kalua pig omelet and smoked mahi mahi omelet.
Won’t need lunch and might not need dinner…OK, maybe just a Mai Tai.
  • Duke’s, Kauai Marriott.  We always go here on our first night in Kauai. Duke’s is our favorite restaurant on the island, we went twice this trip.  Attention Rum lovers: this may sound like blasphemy, but i actually like a drink called tropical itch better than the mai tais at duke’s.  if you like fish and spicy food, i like their “firecracker ono” but this preparation seems to have been removed from the menu.  they have good steaks and if you like mud pie you should try the hula pie. Don’t forget to stroll back along the boardwalk fronting Kalapaki Bay.
  • Tidepools at the Grand Hyatt.   We love this one for the atmosphere and the food.  It’s at the Grand Hyatt so you already know it will be expensive.  It is like a small village of open air huts in the middle of a tropical pond.  Make reservations and ask for a table by the water.  No ocean view, but the Hyatt is right on the ocean anyways for a nice stroll before or after dinner.  Don’t forget to come early for lots of picture taking in your fancy duds.  While you are at it, catch the sunset ceremony around 6pm from the main lobby bar.

  • Beach House restaurant in Poipu, considered one of the most romantic restaurants on Kauai
  • Keokis Paradise
  • Puka Dogs. if you like hot dogs there is a place to get “island style” hot dogs in the poipu shopping village called puka dogs http://pukadog.com/ .  this place has been featured on several food channel programs.  i can vouch for this combination: mild “garlic lemon secret sauce”, mango relish, and lilikoi mustard.  i forgot to mention it in my oahu writeup but there is a puka dogs in waikiki too, behind the international marketplace.
  • Bubba burgers or Duanes Ono char burgers
  • Prepared foods at Times supermarket
  • Go for cocktails at sunset at The Livingroom, Princeville Hotel (unbeatable view)
  • Cafe Hanalei at Princeville hotel (again – an unbeatable view)
Other Stuff:
  • Kauai Products Fair. A mini swap meet at the north end of Kapa’a. Look for other farmer’s markets & sunshine markets for tshirts, trinkets
  • Kilauea Lighthouse – Bird Sanctuary, picturesque lighthouse, and dolphin and whale watching from the bluff. And the westernmost public bathroom in the U.S.
  • Banana Joe’s Fruit Stand
  • Drinks at sunset at the bar at St Regis Princeville (spectacular!)
  • Waimea canyon and Kalalau Lookout, go all the way to end of road.  If you have time, and good tread on your sneakers, try the Pihea trail that leads East from the furthest parking lot.  First part can be very slippery but the trail is covered in mist and this habitat is home to birds that exist nowhere else on earth.
  • Walk along Hanalei bay beach. Late afternoons are magical.
  • Shop at Costco, Walmart, Kmart for food/souvenirs/flipflops/snorkels/sandals . Costco has $20 flats of Ahi Sashimi – or at least they used to – ’nuff said.
  • Shop at Macys for aloha shirts – in 2015 I thought the selection was pretty damn good.
  • Boat ride. Try Captain Andy’s. Even 2 hr trip was memorable.  Be prepared for wind; rain; sun; splashes!
  • Art night in Hanapepe
  • Watch the sunrise every morning from the beach.  Helps if you are staying at a property on the beach.  Stumble out onto the sand with your bed-head and watch the sun come up over the water.  Listen to the doves and the surf.  The color and clarity of the air is magical!
  • And as always, stop and watch the sunset every evening.  It’s what everyone else is doing.
Recommended hotels: Radisson, Couryard by Marriott, Kauai Beach Villas, Kauai Beach Resort.  Good location, not the cheapest, not the most expensive, moderate 3star.  Plantation Hale is like a motel6 but good location and cheap but definitely NO FRILLS, 2 star.
you can sometimes get timeshare “preview” deals.  marriott waiohai timeshare is in a good location and has fabulous new rooms and a great pool.  you can usually get $150/nt rate on a timeshare preview, you just have to go to a timeshare presentation.  usually only 5 nights max tho.
unfortunately, you will not be overly impressed by the hotels on kauai.  most are very old, some are still musty smelling from hurricane iniki in 1992.  old or new, prices are outrageous.
we’ve never stayed at the marriott but we would like to do so one day.  it is a very beautiful hotel.  you won’t believe the pool.  the beach is very nice there, it is on a protected bay rather than being directly on the ocean.  if you look at the right time you’ll be able to see cruise ships coming and going on certain days.
there are just three fancy hotels on kauai, the marriott being one of them.  the others are the grand hyatt in the south and the st. regis princeville in the north.  the one we like the most is the hyatt although it is ridiculously expensive and the south is pretty damn far from most island destinations – an additional 30 min south of Lihue.  the hyatt is also the least snooty, with the marriott in the middle and the st. regis the snootiest, although it has actually been toned down since st. regis took it over if you can believe that.
flying weds-weds will be the cheapest.  sat-sat or sun-sun will be the most expensive.  play around with the dates and see.  cheapest to fly out of lax.  some hotels will let you stay the night and leave the car there for a week, called “park and fly.”  see doubletree and crowne plaza links in our website. should be ~$150.  doubletree is the better hotel.  shuttles run to lax all the time.  otherwise good luck driving up to LA for a 9am flight!!!!  ha ha!!  we don’t dare do this when a flight or cruise is on the line.
Rental Cars:
I always book Alamo rental cars with the Costco discounts. http://www.costcotravel.com/#11_rentalCars
That always gets me the best prices.  Book your car right away and then check back and reprice your trip to see if the price goes down.  We usually get a full-size car because it is usually only a couple of dollars more than a compact.
You’ll need a rental car for the entire Kauai portion of your trip.  If you’re only going to rent a car for a duration shorter than your stay it would probably be a better idea to rent at a location near your hotel rather than at the airport. Conceivably you could do multiple one-day rentals and avoid the overnight parking fee, but cost of a single-day rental (or even a 2-3 day rental) is usually so high it becomes non-competitive.
Mr A’s General Discussion:
The main road on kauai is shaped like a giant backwards C.  it dead-ends at both ends and you can’t drive all the way around the island because of the steep cliffs on the west shore called “na pali coast” (na pali means the cliffs in hawaiian).  speaking of na pali coast we recommend a boat tour to go out and see the cliffs.  we did this on our first trip in an inflatable boat which i think is the most exciting but they have larger boats now too.  some of these trips include snorkeling time.
it is typically warmer and sunnier in the south and colder and rainier in the north.  Often, rainshowers pass quickly. This is where beach wear and tevas come in handy – don’t let the rain stop you, keep going, you will just drip dry and the sun will come out later.  If it’s the rainy season it can become a deluge at times – we experienced 6″ in a morning once.  That was a lot of rain.
there aren’t as many beaches on kauai but there are some noteworthy ones.  the two most interesting ones are poipu (in the south) and ke’e in the north at the end of the road.  of the two, i would rate ke’e as the “don’t miss” spot although you will need to get up early to go there because there is limited parking.  we got there at 9:20am and we got almost the last parking spot in the close lot (there is another larger lot).  we really enjoyed the snorkeling at ke’e.  it was best toward the left side near the rock wall.  ask the lifeguards where it is safe to snorkel.
the other thing about ke’e is the beauty of the north shore itself.  getting there really is half the fun.  right across from princeville just past the hotel entrance is the hanalei valley overlook on the left (mauka side), a must stop. then continue on down the hill where you cross a one-lane bridge and enter the town of hanalei which is very cute with many shops and restaurants.  continuing past hanalei gets you to a sleepy area with more beaches and many one-lane bridges before you get to ke’e.  the whole north shore is very cool.
if you’re in the north shore at sunset an awesome spot to watch it would either be from hanalei beach park near the pier or from the outdoor patio at the bar at the st. regis hotel (valet parking only, no charge except tip).
a nice place to stop if you’re going toward the north and maybe not in a big hurry to get to ke’e early is the kilauea lighthouse.
another day you might enjoy waimea canyon for spectacular views and hiking. mark twain called it “the grand canyon of the pacific”.  there is an overlook on the right (mauka side) a little past kalaheo and before hanapepe which will give you a glimpse of the end of the canyon.  the road to the canyon is in waimea just past a restaurant called island tacos http://www.islandfishtaco.com/ with unique hawaiian-style tacos which would be a great place to stop for lunch (they close at 5 which makes it iffy to count on on the way back down).  the tacos are on the large side but i really enjoyed the cajun ahi taco and the kalua pig taco that i had.
there are two excellent vista stops on the way up waimea canyon.  you’ll see them as you go, you can hit them on the way up or down.  drive all the way to the top where you’ll find the kalalau lookout with just amazing views of kalalau valley, part of the na pali coast.  there is even another overlook farther along at the end of the road but the views from there are not quite as good.  but this is a good place todo some hiking.  there are probably quite a number of other good hikes in waimea canyon including one to alakai swamp but we didn’t have the time or the stamina to try them.  i’m sure the blue book will help out in this regard.
other places to hike are mahaulepo, which is way down south at the end of the road but a nice hike and there is even a dry blowhole there (listen for the rushing air sounds).  an adventure just getting there because you’re driving on unpaved cane truck roads full of potholes.  another hike i’ve heard about is up the side of sleeping giant (a mountain range near kapa’a said to look like a sleeping giant).
poipu in the south has a nice beach with decent snorkeling, and a blowhole called spouting horn.  i think there’s a botanical garden there too.  on the way to poipu is a quaint little shopping town called koloa that you drive through (don’t take the bypass road unless you’re going to the hyatt or mahaulepo).
if you like art galleries and you’re looking for something to do friday night, the town of hanapepe has art night every friday.  all of the art galleries are open and many have local artists doing art, there is live music and food booths cooking food.  we did it for the first time on this trip and enjoyed it but we had to leave to get back to waipouli at a decent time.

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