So, what is a Humuhumunukunukuapua'a? It's a tiny fish and the name translates to "triggerfish with a snout like a pig" and it's furthermore the state fish of Hawaii. You'll likely meet the cute guy on one of your snorkeling trips, it's a colorful little fish with blue lips and yellow and black colored body. Learn more
Kauai was our first island to visit in Hawaii and we couldn't have picked a more beautiful place. A week of relaxation, super fresh food, snorkeling and hiking adventures.
If you're looking for a guidebook, we'd highly recommend to get The Ultimate Kauai Guidebook - hands down the best guide to explore the island. If you plan on getting a car (you'll need it) - get a Jeep (yes, you'll need it).
Kauai is less visited than Maui or Big Island and has been featured in numerous movies like Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones. The Na'Pali coast with its emerald green, lush mountains, valleys and waterfalls is probably known to everyone who remembers the scene when the helicopter approached the dinosaur island in the first part of Jurassic Park.
Kauai has one long road that goes around approximately 75% of the island. You can't go around entirely as the remaining 25% are the Na'Pali coast which can only be travelled by foot or boat.
The south shore is where you'd find the classic beaches (sandy and rather calm sea) and the resorts with their restaurants. The north shore around Hanalei is less touristy, you'll find more vacation rentals, hippie communities and some really upscale hotels. The beaches are less accessible and have rougher sea conditions but are not less beautiful. The Eastern shore is dominated by its biggest town, Lihue, the airport and some cheaper vacation towns like Kapaa but also got a few nice beaches and some great jungle hikes. The western shore got the Waimea Canyon and the other half of it is the world-famous Na'Pali coast.
Kauai must be wonderful in every season and weather conditions can be quite different than on other islands. It's raining a lot more on average. However, you'll find very different weather conditions in different parts of the island. Drive for a few minutes and you'll get from rain to blue sky and sun. Also, the rain is warm and light and usually not annoying at all.
Where to stay
You got all the options: fancy resorts like the St.Regis close to Hanalei or the Grand Hyatt, small B&B's or backpacker hostels on the eastern side and numerous vacation rentals across the island.
We chose to stay at an AirBnB and just had the best time. We expected a decent place that would be clean and nice - and landed in paradise. It was a 1BR cottage, nestled in a tropical rainforest on a huge property and we were all by ourselves. Check out the Bird Song Cottage if your looking for a great place to stay as a couple. It came with snorkeling gear, a BBQ, lanai, fresh fruit garden and an outdoor bath tub - it was incredible!
Overall, staying at the north shore might mean more driving but you can also totally dive into a very relaxed and remote atmosphere without the resort-style buzz around you. There are gorgeous beaches up there, great for swimming, snorkeling and boat trips along the Na'Pali coast.
Where to eat
Staying in a rental with a fully-equipped kitchen should allow you to save a few bucks by cooking at home. But - not an option for foodies like us who love to finish a day of hiking and snorkeling with a tasty meal at a nice place. So we ended up driving to a few great places and had fantastic food in gorgeous settings.
Bar Acuda is a Tapas Bar in Hanalei and recommended in every guide about Kauai. It's a nice spot and always booked so make sure you have a reservation. Overall, we found it overpriced and a bit overrated, the food is good but you'll have to spend a lot for just a few things. We left full but with a very deep hole in our wallet.
Kilohana Plantation (Gaylord's) - Hands down our favorite spot. We came here twice, one time for dinner and another time for brunch. Both counted towards our top 10 list of most pleasant foodie experiences ever. It's an old plantation with a gorgeous garden to stroll around, before heading to dinner. They have tables on a patio which are nestled around a fountain. Absolutely beautiful, they have enough space between the tables and great lighting to allow a very romantic and private atmosphere. The food was fantastic, they call it island-inspired and that is exactly what it was. I felt like I was eating a piece of Kauai. The Brunch was the best one I had since moving to the States - bottomless mimosas, a huge buffet of cold and warm dishes, pastries and also a la carte items included (I had ahi tuna eggs benedict.... incredible). And all for $30 per person fix-priced. They also offer a Luau on Wednesdays, we had dinner in the restaurant but could check it out while strolling around the garden. We're not big Luau fans but this one looked quite nice.
The Beach House is a very romantic spot on the south shore and you'll exactly get what you'll expect for the high prices of the food - great location right at the beach, jaw-dropping views of the sunset, fantastic food, great cocktails and friendly service folks. It's really worth the money you leave here. Make sure to make reservations, its booked weeks in advance. Also, next time we'd probably have a cocktail at the beach to watch the sunset and have a later dinner reservation. We were lucky and got a great window table but most of the other tables don't have a direct ocean view. So it might be better to watch the sunset with an unobstructed view from outside.
Besides these Top 3 places to eat, the best thing to do is stopping at the numerous fruit stands to get fresh papaya, mango, pineapple or a fresh smoothie.
Best photography spots
We found a couple of great spots to capture the beauty of the island during all times of the day. We headed out for sunrise and sunset to the beaches and did a couple of hikes to waterfalls and rainforest pools. Great adventures were also the boat trip along side the Na'Pali coast and the area around Waimea Canyon.
The boat trip was ideal to capture the breath-taking views of the Na'Pali coast. Alternatives to this would be a helicopter flight or a hike which have their own advantages.
For sunset shooting, we loved Ke'e Beach, the last beach on the north shore before the Na'Pali coast begins. Great spot to capture the profile of the coast as a stunning background motive for the sunset.
We tried to get a shot from Waimea canyon on three different days but were always greeted with fog and couldn't even see the canyon rim. On the third day though, while on our way back to the north, the sky suddenly ripped open and the sun bursted through the formerly foggy canyon which gave us an unreal shot of the canyon with a rainbow above it.
Take your camera to every hike, there is often overcast so ideal conditions to shoot the variety of flowers and there are some stunning hidden waterfalls to capture as well.
For sunrise, we headed to Hideaways Beach which is a small but cute beach with great vegetation to feature in the photos. I felt this was the beach you might know from the movie "The Thornbirds" but couldn't confirm it.
Where to play
For us, it was either a beach & snorkel, adventure or a hiking day.
Our favorite beaches (just to name a few) were all on the north shore - Ke'e Beach, Anini Beach and Kaweonui - and had great snorkel opportunities while not being very crowded. We even spotted sea turtles at Anini beach and a sea lion at Ke'e beach. Kaweonui is only reachable via a short (0.5 miles) but steep hike, starting behind the Sea Lodge. Don't take heavy things down there as the last part of the way is just climbing over rocks. The water is not very deep but its a nice remote place to get away from it all.
There are numerous adventurous things you can do on Kauai. Hike the entire Na'Pali coast trail and spent a night at a beach that can only be reached via this trail or boat, explore the Waimea canyon, hike through thick rainforest and explore underwater life from a boat and with a snorkel.
We booked a full day boat trip including snorkeling with Captain Sundowner and can highly recommend it. It's a small catamaran tour and you'll do the trip with just 15-17 people total. We had plenty of time for snorkeling, got decent sandwiches for lunch and had lots of fun. They leave at Hanalei.
Luau - You'll love it or hate it. We left even before the dancing started as we didn't want to waste any more vacation time but this is definitely a subjective opinion. We booked Smith's Garden Luau. The location is very pretty but we didn't like the way it was set up with eating in shifts, watery cocktails and sitting like chickens in a coop. The food was ok, not great. Just a tad to touristy for us, we should have known better.
We've done a few hikes through lush rainforest and ending at tunnels or natural pools and could take a refreshing dip into the green waters.
A great area with numerous trails is on the western shore in the Koke'e state park terrain. We did the Po'omau Canyon Ditch trail but cut it a bit short as we didn't want to hike the full trail and also got lost so decided to turn around. Regardless, it was a great hike.
Another great one is the Jungle Hike (I couldn't even find it on the web, I guess you definitely need the guide book now). To get to the trailhead you have to drive down a 4x4 only road and cross a stream - don't attempt to do this with a regular car, you'll likely get stuck in the mud or can't get back up a slippery rocky road on your way back. This trail leads to a famous location from Jurassic Park, where the entrance gate scene was shot. You'll eventually get to a pretty little waterfall and a pool - great for refreshing bath before turning around to your car.
A few of the famous waterfalls can be reached after a quick stroll from your car, some require a long strenuous hike. It's worth reading through the guidebook and pick a few but be cautious: If they say easy and accessible via normal car - don't believe them, we were thankful for our Jeep throughout the entire time there.