Kauai, the oldest of the Hawaiian Islands, is still relatively untouched by commercial development. The pace is unhurried, beaches are pristine, fauna is shockingly verdant and locals (mostly expats) are happy to see you.
Whether you’re a foodie, an outdoor enthusiast or a family with little ones, Kauai is a crowd-pleaser — and word is getting out. In the last few years, U.S.-based airlines have beefed up non-stop routes from major cities to the island, making a Garden Isle getaway much more convenient.
When you do visit, here are our must-see things to see and do:
More than a mile wide, 10 miles long and up to 3,600 feet deep, this fiery-red canyon dotted with bright green ohia lehua trees is an example of Mother Nature’s brilliant artistry.
There are many points along the drive on Highway 550 from which to snap a postcard-worthy photo; the official lookout is just past mile marker 10. When you hit the end of the road, stretch your legs with a hike up one of the trails off the last major lookout, Puu o Kila.
Plan to go on a clear day — due to the high elevation, the canyon is often fogged over.
On any Hawaiian island, going to a luau is practically obligatory, especially if you’ve never been.
One of the island’s best shows is at Forbes Travel Guide Recommended Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort and Spa. Held Wednesdays and Sundays, the performance includes a Hawaiian feast of everything from poi (a Hawaiian dish of fermented taro root paste) to roasted pig, authentic Polynesian and hula dance, ukulele music and even fire-throwing, all done in fantastic traditional costumes.
You’ll leave amazed and slightly giddy from the fabulous food and exuberant entertainment.
A Rum Tasting at Koloa Rum Company
For a taste of Kauai, head for Koloa Rum Company in Lihue. One of the island’s few distilleries, it produces the only Hawaiian rum still using local sugar—the state’s last sugar plantation ceased operations in 2016.
What sets this spirits brand apart is its dedication to producing quality rum using Kauai-grown products. For example, local coconut juice (instead of coconut flavoring) is used in the coconut rum, and the coffee variation is infused with Kauai-grown beans.
Visit Koloa’s tasting room at Kilohana estate to enjoy complimentary sips of the popular spiced and coconut rums. Hot tip: The mini bottle sampler box of the entire lineup makes a great take-home gift — plus, it’s TSA friendly.
Mountain Tube at a Sugar Plantation
Unique to Kauai, this family-friendly activity is like floating down a lazy river. But instead of it taking place in a water park or hotel, a former sugar plantation’s 19th-century irrigation system provides the excitement.
From Kauai Backcountry Adventures, this aquatic ride is a relaxing three-hour float on an innertube through canals and tunnels, with incredible scenery to soak up along the way. At the end, cool off in a natural swimming hole.
Tasting Kauai, the only food tour company on the island, offers a wide variety of experiences that provide special access to tiki bars, food trucks and Kauai’s other hidden culinary gems. Whether you want a custom tour of the island’s best Spam delicacies or a tasty afternoon infused with local culture, this team delivers.
Sampling shave ice — a snow cone slathered in brightly colored, fruity syrups and condensed milk — is also a must, and one of the quickest ways to look like a local.
And lucky for you, shave ice stands are everywhere on Kauai, from little roadside shacks to trendy trucks in the middle of town. Some of our favorite stops are The Fresh Shave at Warehouse 3540 (an artist co-op) in Lawai and the Wishing Well Shave Ice in Hanalei Bay.
A Helicopter Tour
Because more than 70 percent of the island is inaccessible by land, a helicopter tour is really a must to see the most striking natural attractions.
Make sure the tour you book includes flights over Waimea Canyon, Na Pali Coast, Manawaiopuna Falls (the “Jurassic Park” waterfalls), Hanalei Valley and Mount Waialeale.
For the ultimate thrill and the best photo ops, book a helicopter tour with the option to go without doors, like those offered by Mauna Loa. Tours are usually an hour long.
Film buffs will want to make a beeline for this stretch of dramatic coastline that has served as a backdrop in blockbusters like Jurassic Park, Pirates of the Caribbean and Avatar.
Besides an epic 11-mile hike or a canoe trek, boating is the only way to access this remote northwestern corner of the island. Book your visit with Holo Holo Charters to have experienced captains navigate you safely through volcanic sea caves and hidden coves while expounding on the history of ancient Hawaiians who settled along the coast.
The tour company is also the only one that provides a sail around nearby Niihua, nicknamed the “Forbidden Island” because it doesn’t allow outside visitors.
Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge
For birdwatchers, Kilauea Point on the North Shore offers an opportunity to observe thousands of rare seabirds such as Laysan albatrosses, red-footed boobies and wedge-tailed shearwaters.
Even if you’re not an avian enthusiast, it makes for a lovely picnic stop. The lawn in front of the historic lighthouse is particularly picturesque. Bring binoculars — you might just spot humpback whales, monk seals and green turtles in the surrounding waters below.
If you’re up for a little more adventure, check out Kauapea Beach (or as locals call it, Secret Beach), an uncrowded stretch of sand accessed by a steep, unmarked trail.
Unlike in Maui, you have to work to see a waterfall up close in Kauai, but it’s well worth the effort.
In Ha’ena State Park, 300-foot Hanakapiai Falls is a must. It requires a challenging four-mile round-trip hike and a permit to visit the park, but a swim in the pool beneath the waterfall is unforgettable. A more leisurely option is Opaekaa Falls, which is visible from a lookout off Kuamoo Road.
The favorite local recommendation is the duel deluge of Wailua Falls. Head here in the morning for the chance to catch a rainbow above the roaring water.
The Local Art
Thanks to Kauai’s breathtaking beauty and tranquil vibe, the island attracts many creative types from around the world. And lucky for you, there are ample opportunities to see and support their art.
For unique souvenirs, head to the closest farmers market (each town has at least one) or Warehouse 3540, a co-op with dozens of different artists, from printmakers to fashion designers, exhibiting their work.
Another cool option is the weekly Art Night held on Fridays in Hanapepe, one of the trendiest towns on the island.