The island of Kauai sits on the western end of the Hawaiian archipelago, 100 miles northwest of Oahu. It is the oldest of the main Hawaiian Islands and after some 5 million years of volcanic buildup and erosion it has become what is today known as “The Garden Isle”. Large and numerous waterfalls, expansive rivers, thick jungle vegetation and steeply eroded valleys, canyons and sea cliffs make Kauai one of the greenest, most spectacular islands in all of Hawaii to visit!
Kauai is the fourth largest in the island chain at 562 square miles and the only Hawaiian island that does not have a road which encircles the entire island. This is due to the Na Pali Coast, a 4000 ft. high series of sheer cliffs and valleys dropping abruptly to the ocean along its northern coastline. However, the road from the north side of the Na Pali coast to Waimea Canyon in the southwest is only about a 2 to 2 ½ hour drive, making for fairly quick access to nearly any part of the island.
The second highest of the island’s 8 peaks is Mount Wai’ale’ale in central Kauai. At 5,148 ft elevation (nearby Kawaikini is the highest peak at 5,243ft) it is one of the wettest places on earth with an average rainfall of over 450 inches per year! The weather is much more agreeable at the lower elevations with an average of 50 inches annually on the windward side (north shore) to less than 20 inches annually on the leeward side (south shore).
Recent storms in Kauai have caused historic flooding.
Kauai has generally stable weather conditions year around but in April of 2018 a surprise storm caused historic flooding in the north shore area of Hanalei. Over 440 people were evacuated by helicopter after close to 50 inches of rain fell here in a 48 hour period.
The already precarious north end of Kuhio Highway has been closed to visitors since the floods due to a dozen landslides, crumbling cliff faces, damaged bridges and sinkholes along the road.
This means access to Ke’e beach, Ha’ena State Park’s Kalalau trail and the popular snorkeling beach Tunnels off of Makua Bay past Hanalei Bay are inaccessible for now. It is expected to re-open sometime in late November of 2018 with improved access.
The community was devastated by this flooding and though the towns of Kilauea, Princeville and Hanalei are open for visitors and traffic, please be respectful of the residents and businesses who have been through the worst flooding in Kauai’s history.
Things to Do
Kauai may be fairly small, but it packs an amazing array of things to do. Most visitors eventually favor certain sides of the island. The wet and rugged north shore has steep mountains and hiking trails, jungle clad beaches, sea caves and the large and stunningly beautiful Hanalei Bay. The eastern side has the town of Lihue with the island’s only airport, the Wailua river valley, several charming small towns and beautiful beaches, golf courses and resorts. The sunny and drier South side contains excellent swimming beaches and golf courses including Poipu Beach area with several luxury resorts. The West side encompasses Port Allen (where many boat tours to the Napali Coast originate from), Waimea Town (Captain Cook landed here in 1778) and Waimea Canyon – the Grand Canyon of the Pacific!
It’s quite easy to find nearby accommodations and activities to fit whatever side of the island you prefer, but just like the other main Hawaiian Islands it can be difficult to decide what to do when visiting Kauai so we’ve come up with a list of the top things to check out. As you’ll see it can be difficult to do it all – even on this small island!
Wailua River – East Side
The Wailua River is the only navigable river (for boats larger than a kayak) in Hawai’i. It can be explored by fairly large and affordable riverboat cruises or by kayak. The river is 20 miles long from it’s headwaters at Mount Wai’ale’ale (the wettest place on earth) but the last 8 or so miles of the river valley is where visitors can explore historical landmarks such as Opaekaa and Wailua Falls, ancient Hawaiian temple complexes, a restored ancient Hawaiian village, view the river valley from several overlooks or check out the Fern Grotto, all by car.
Na Pali Coast – North and West Side
The sea cliffs and shear valleys of Kauai’s north shore are spectacular and it’s 16 mile length is inaccessible by car but can be seen and explored in several ways. The most ambitious would be the miles-long hike along the Kalalau trail from the north end. There is access to this trail at Ha’ena State Park on the north shore (currently closed due to flood damage) or at Waimea Canyon.
The most popular ways to see these 4000 ft high jungle cliffs, sea caves and beaches is by boat tours originating from either Hanalei (north shore) or Port Allen (west side). The west side port launches large catamarans for dinner, sunset and snorkel cruises. The north shore launches smaller boats and ocean power rafts which allow for closer approaches to sea caves and beach landings the larger boats can’t do. Kayaking and paddleboarding along this coast is also popular.
Another popular option is by helicopter. In fact, most helicopter tours will also do fly by’s of Waimea Canyon as well as waterfalls and river valleys that can only be seen by air. It’s a great way to see this small island from the higher scenic perspective of a helicopter tour!
Waimea Canyon – West Side
Deemed the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific” by journalists in the late 1800’s, Waimea Canyon is ten miles long and over 3000 ft deep! Located on the western side of the island the name Waimea means “reddish water” in Hawaiian in reference to the bright red canyon walls. Waimea town is located at the western mouth of the Waimea river and was the landing place of Captain Cook’s first arrival in the archipelago in 1778. The canyon itself was formed when some 4 million years ago this part of the island collapsed forming a depression which filled with lava from the then erupting volcanoes. The high annual rainfall of the nearby Mount Wai’ale’ale eroded the depression into what is seen today.
Three main overlooks and various other pull-outs are along the road leading up the western edge of the canyon, with the last one at the top with views of Kalalau Valley on the Na Pali coast. It is one of the most scenic overlooks in Hawai’i with views reaching to the ocean. Get there early as fog and rain clouds move in during the afternoons obstructing the view. The hiking trails along the canyon road make for vigorous hikes into the valley and allow access to it’s waterfalls.
There is much to do on the waters around Kauai and sunset cruises are just one of the many activities boat tours provide. From the calm Poipu Coastline where whales frolic in the winter to the dramatic Na Pali Coast, there are options for cocktail and party cruises to full dinner cruises. Either way you will enjoy the experience of stunning Hawaiian sunsets, great food, tasty beverages and listening to the crews “talk story” about the island, people and history of Kauai!
Most of Kauai is inaccessible by car so hiking is a popular way to see the island’s natural wonders first hand. Whether it’s family friendly hikes at Kokee State Park at Waimea Canyon, coastal trails along the southern Poipu coast or Wailua River valley waterfall hikes, there are plenty of options to choose from. For the more adventurous there are strenuous hikes like the 11 mile Kalalau trail along the Na Pali Coasts which traverses five major valleys bringing visitors to the beach in Kalalau Valley were hikers can camp overnight (permit required). It is recommended that hiking and camping permits for Kalalau Valley be made six months in advance as the permits are limited for this incredibly beautiful, remote and popular part of the Na Pali coast! Check with Hawaii State Parks Division for permits and trail conditions.
Kauai’s fern grotto is located along the Wailua River near Kapaa. This lava rock cave is covered in upside down hanging ferns and is accessed by boat or kayak. The grotto is part of Wailua River State Park and which also features two iconic waterfalls and a Hawaiian heiau (temple) complex that was an important seat of ruling power in ancient times.
The grotto can not be seen from the lookout points above the river. Access to it and the rainforest garden path to the cave is only from the river. Large river boats have been taking visitors to this attraction for decades and there are several companies departing from Wailua River Marina daily. These tours are about 1 ½ hours long roundtrip and start at $25 per person.
The Fern Grotto is also a popular place for weddings with hundreds of them performed here throughout the year.
We loved Smith’s Fern Grotto tour! You take a river boat up the Wailua River while listening to some history and then get off the boat and walk through the rainforest to the Fern Grotto. There is some Hawaiian music played and dancing and lots of wonderful photo opps. There is a waterfall to pass by on the walk back to the boat. On the boat ride back, there is hula dancing and live Hawaiian music. We loved this relaxing tour and would recommend! We thought $25 pp was very reasonable.
Smith’s Grotto tours – $25 – Wailua River Marina
Well there you have it! Kauai is a stunningly beautiful island that has a lot to see and do and is very accessible because of its size. Wether your into outdoor adventure, relaxing on the beach or enjoying fine dining and luxury accommodations, Kauai has plenty of variety and vacation style choices!
Aloha Nui Loa