Even more easy-going than other bigger Hawaiian islands, compact Kauaʻi is a diverse showcase of the best the island state has to offer. Negotiate superb coastal hiking trails, kayak the state’s only navigable river, or surf world-renown shore breaks – and be back in civilization for pau hana (happy hour) snacks at the end of the day. 

Both the food and arts scene of the island are proudly local and authentic, and outdoor vistas on Kauaʻi, such as the Na Pali Coast and Waimea Canyon, rate among the Pacific’s most spectacular. Here are the best things to do in Kauaʻi.

Explore a hiker’s paradise

Kauaʻi’s versatile Pacific trails meander through lush mountains and fertile valleys or plummet deep into red-rock canyons. View-friendly trails take in clifftop vistas from remote and roadless coastlines, while other routes through primordial forests feature the natural surprise of spectacular waterfalls. Hiking opportunities include shorter routes that will have you back in time for a sunset cocktail or the overnight adventure of a two-day hike.

Best hikes on Kauaiʻi

Kalalau Trail Kauaʻi’s most popular trail traverses the unforgettable Na Pali Coast. Grab an early start from the cafes of Hanalei to kick off the 22-mile, two-day round trip at Ke̒e Beach. Look forward to remote beaches, the spectacular Hanakapi̒ai Falls, and the vertiginous lava rock cliffs of the Kalalau Valley. Hikers must make an advance reservation to enter Ha‘ena State Park, and anyone proceeding beyond Hanakapi̒ai Falls must have an overnight camping permit from Napali Coast State Wilderness Park.

Mahaʻulepu Heritage Trail This trail segues from the popular beaches of Poʻipu to a far wilder stretch of coast, full of secluded coves, snorkeling reefs, blowholes, and sea cliffs. Experienced South Shore surfers and kitesurfers carve the shallow reef break offshore.

Kuilau Ridge & Moalepe Trails A wonderful exploration of Wailua’s fertile highlands, the highlights of this scenic and beautiful trail include moss-cloaked glades, tropical ferns, and keyhole views onto Mt Waiʻaleʻale.

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A woman sitting on stand up paddle board in Hanalei bay, resort destination, Kauai, Hawaii, USA
Kauaʻi has a stretch of shoreline for all kinds of travelers © M Swiet Productions / Getty Images

Hit the beach

When it comes to finding that ideal stretch of sand, Kauaʻi offers an embarrassment of riches. Whether you crave the rugged and all-natural, or something more easygoing and family-friendly, the island is a spectacular example of the paradox of choice. Thankfully, with time and judicious planning, you can explore many of Kauaʻi’s best. Relaxing, bodyboarding or the underrated art of beachcombing all await.

Kauaʻi's best beaches

Lydgate Beach Park A fun-filled playground for the kids, plus bathrooms, lifeguards, and two safe pools protected by a breakwater make Lydgate Beach Park a great option for families.

Hanalei Bay Kaua'i's preeminent horseshoe bay is the ultimate destination for many travelers, and the global gods of surfing built their reputations on its half-dozen surf breaks. The beach superbly combines a wide sweep of white sand with jade mountain views.

Polihale Beach Ancient Hawaiians considered Polihale a spiritual beach, and nothing has changed. Sprawled at the base of the Na Pali cliffs, this is the perfect spot to relax and reflect after a lengthy hike or a busy trip. Suitably, it’s at the end of a long, bumpy dirt road – note: many rental companies prohibit the use of their vehicles within Polihale Beach Park, so check before heading out.

Dive into Hawaiian culture

The people of Kauaʻi love a good festival, and attending one is a great way to learn about traditional Hawaiian culture. There’s usually a decent array of good-value food stalls serving up ono grindz (local food), so it’s a good way to score a well-priced and authentic lunch or dinner. Most festivals run through spring and summer, and popular events focus on traditional music, dance and games. 

Best of Hawaiian culture

Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar Festival The Hawaiian musical style of slack key guitar (ki hoʻalu) is performed by masters at this free annual event. The music’s creative tunings were traditionally secrets only known by extended family. Due to pandemic restrictions, the event was live-streamed virtually in November 2021, but is planned to return as a live event in late 2022.

Koloa Plantation Days A paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy) rodeo, traditional Hawaiian games and Polynesian dancing all reinforce the island’s culture and history at this annual family-friendly South Shore festival. 

Hula Competition The three-day Kauaʻi Mokihana Festival Hula Competition provides the opportunity to see dancers perform authentic and traditional routines beyond the sometimes touristy confines of a lūʻau.

A man kayaks on Wailua River as early morning light turns the sky a soft pink with palms on the right
Kayaking along the sacred Wailua River is something of a must © Wildroze / Getty Images

Play in the water

You’ve explored the land, you’ve chilled on the beach, now it’s time to get your aquatic adventure on. From boating to paddling, diving to surfing, Kauaʻi offers a multitude of ways to get wet and be happy. And as it’s such a compact island, it’s very practical to schedule a week of exciting adventures at diverse locations.

Best water activities

Sea kayaking For experienced kayakers, the 12-hour, 17-mile paddle along the Na Pali Coast is a scenic blast of mind-boggling beauty. Beginners can learn to paddle on the more benign waters around Poʻipu.

River kayaking An essential Kauaʻi experience is paddling up the sacred Wailua River to secret waterfalls. Getting away in the quiet of early morning is the perfect way to start.

Surfing Kaua‘i is a great place to learn how to surf, especially on the more sheltered breaks of the South Shore. Small group sizes and free practice time make Poʻipu a good choice.

Eat local

You’re sure to be eating local on Kauaʻi, an island with dozens of organic farms, grass-fed beef aplenty, and a fishing fleet plying the waters offshore. Establishments across the island range from affordable and convenient food trucks to restaurants that pamper and plate with elegance. Factor in local coffee roasters, Kauaʻi’s very own kombucha and craft beer, and freshly squeezed juices for the ultimate in ongoing island sustenance.

Kauaʻi's best food experiences

The freshest seafood Poke (diced raw fish), sushi, and sashimi are all delicious staples on Kauaʻi. Fish Express in Lihu’e serves up some of the finest, and spiciest, poke on the island. Get there in the morning as it often sells out around lunchtime.

A diverse culinary menu Asian culinary influences fuse with traditional Hawaiian food around the island. The brilliant flavors at Wailua Drive In reflect the island’s social jigsaw.

Farmers’ market bounty Self-catering is easy with the freshest of seasonal produce. Stock up at popular events like Saturday morning’s Kauaʻi Community Market.

A whute young man with long hair looks out across the rust-red rocks of the Waimea Canyon in Hawaii
The Waimea Canyon on Kauaʻi is a spectacular hike © maximkabb / Getty Images

Be spellbound by the Garden Isle’s spectacle

From the soaring pinnacles and waterfall-adorned valleys of the Na Pali Coast to the red-dirt depths of the Waimea Canyon, Kauaʻi’s reputation as Hawaii’s most spectacular island is gloriously intact. Opportunities to experience what makes the archipelago’s oldest island so special include catamaran sailing trips, sightseeing by helicopter, or negotiating a jeep through the twists and turns of a landscape dubbed the Grand Canyon of the Pacific.

How to experience Kauaʻi’s best sights

Hit the road The island’s signature scenic drive is a long ascent that takes you from one end of Waimea Canyon to another. En route, stretch your legs on a number of spectacular short hikes. 

Take to the skies There’s nothing like seeing Kauaʻi by air. Twisting through tropical valleys, landing at remote waterfalls, and soaring over the stunning coastline are all possible. 

Cruising the coast The Na Pali Coast rises out of the sea with its knife-edge pinnacles and alluring valleys. For a spectacular view, board a comfortable catamaran. A refreshing mai tai is always included.

Plan an adventure

Discover Kauaʻi’s landscapes on a variety of action-packed adventures. Local guides are easygoing but professional, and always equipped with an entertaining sense of humor. It’s a great way to discover the island’s rugged hinterland, and most of the activities are also ideal for adventurous traveling families. You may also learn about the island’s history of moviemaking along the way.

Best tours and outfitters

Kipu Ranch Adventures Drive an ATV around the ranch from Jurassic Park and learn about other Hollywood blockbusters filmed on the island. If it’s been raining, this slippin’ and slidin’ adventure on red dirt tracks is even more fun. 

Ke Ala Hele Makalae Rent a mountain bike, tandem or beach cruiser to negotiate the Path that goes by the Coast, a shared-use trail along the island’s east coast. Kapa̒a’s cafes are a great post-ride treat. 

Kauaʻi Backcountry Adventures Drift in an inner tube through tunnels and former irrigation channels amid the forested mountains inland from Lihu̒e. These tours are a combination of gentle thrills and easygoing relaxation.

Shop local art and design

Kauaʻi has plenty of art galleries and stores with all manner of collectibles. Surprises to discover include 1950s Japanese fishing buoys, heritage maps from all around the Pacific, and contemporary photography. Modern sculpture, oil paintings, and carved woodwork all reinforce diverse and contrasting styles, while a new breed of artisan makers are repurposing and reinventing amid compact workshops.

Where to shop

Warehouse 3540 This converted warehouse has an eclectic array of out-of-the-ordinary arts and crafts stores – interesting clothing, jewelry, and stationery all feature along with a tasty park-up of food trucks. 

Browsing in Hanalei Head north to Hanalei for interesting shopping, including retro surprises at the Yellowfish Trading Company and stunning collectibles from around Asia and the Pacific. 

Local art and design in Kapa’a Standouts amid the historic wooden shopfronts of Kapa’a include Kela’s Glass Gallery and the Red House Collective.

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