Kauaʻi is blessed with a bounty of outdoor adventures. Whether in the air, on the ground or at sea, there are countless ways to engage with this fascinating island and its unique, often idyllic environment. There is something for everyone, no matter what your age, shape or skill level.
Diving & Snorkeling
While Kauaʻi waters cannot quite compare to the calm, clear waters off the Big Island’s Kona Coast, diving is still excellent. South Shore waters see the most diving activity, both from shore and dive boats, as the swell isn't quite as strong here most of the year. In the summer when South Shore surf picks up, the North Shore offers wonderful conditions. Translation: there's always somewhere beautiful to dive on Kauaʻi.
Snorkeling can also be quite good, with sheltered sites and turtles aplenty. Whether or not you dive, don't leave the island without donning a mask or you'll be missing something.
Note that the closest hyperbaric chambers for recompression therapy are located on Oʻahu. For members, Divers Alert Network gives advice on diving emergencies, insurance, decompression services, illness and injury.
South Shore & Eastside
Thanks to mostly smooth conditions which nurture ample visibility beneath the surface, the South Shore is Kaua‘i's scuba mecca. For nine months a year, it's the only place to dive, which is why it's the base of operations for all the island's dive shops, and with a dozen sites within a short boat ride from Kukuiʻula Small Boat Harbor, there's plenty of variety to keep you coming back. The best part – the proximity of the harbor to the dive shops and the dive sites to the harbor – means it takes less than half a day to suck two tanks dry, unless you are lucky enough to be heading to Niʻihau. In that case, three tanks are a must.
Koloa Landing is the best shore dive on the island, and with a maximum depth of 45ft most beginners will do at least one tank here. You'll see frog fish, leaf and devil scorpion fish, and dragon moray eels with orange horns peeking out of rocks sprouting with new corals. You're likely to see turtles too. Koloa Landing is also where Freedive Kauai drops a line and leads students down to the ocean floor on a single breath. Often they move a bit offshore, away from the reef that the scuba divers enjoy, to get a bit more depth. Beginners will hit 66ft; intermediate students may hit 100ft on a single breath. In the summer they bring students to ʻAnini Beach Park on the North Shore.
Stone House, another terrific beginner's dive, is a finger of lava jutting from the sand ranging from 35ft to 65ft beneath the surface. Big schools of domino damsels and pinnette butterfly fish are common and look like floating walls of color. There are some octopi hiding in the lava rocks here too.
Nukumoi Point is a turtle-cleaning station stretching from 25ft to 55ft and is another great beginner's dive and ideal if you want to dance with turtles. There are some lovely nudibranch and tiger cowrie shells here, and in winter you'll hear whale song almost the entire dive. If you're really lucky, you just might be visited by a pod of spinner dolphins. You can almost see the reef. Look for where the waves break outside from the Poʻipu Beach Park lifeguard tower.
Sheraton Caverns, a series of collapsed lava tubes home to giant, 100-year-old sea turtles who nap on the lava rock shelves for up to four hours at a time, is considered the best beginner's dive on the island because the visibility is so dependable and you can find a little bit of everything, including octopus, eels, adorable fingernail-sized harlequin shrimp and white-tip sharks. Maximum depth here is 65ft.
Turtle Bluffs looks like an underwater version of the cliffs you'd find above water at Salt Pond Beach Park. They plummet from 55ft to 85ft and feature big sand caves where sharks are often napping or staking out prey. Lobster, crabs and big bait balls are also common.
Picture a lava rock structure carved by water and time into a series of bowls, and you've got Fish Bowl, where big schools of blue stripe snapper and yellow goat fish can lure apex predators. In summer 2016, Seasport Divers spent quality time with a 15ft tiger shark here. Depth ranges from 35ft to 75ft and visibility and water color are almost always marvelous.
General Store is another dependable dive site with good visibility even when most sites are murky. It's centered around an 1892 (mostly decomposed) shipwreck. But nearby lava rock formations are punched with shadowy swim throughs where (harmless) sharks often lurk, and some big moray eels too.
Closest to the boat dock, Harbor Ledges isn't deep but is a wonderful night dive. Turtles and sharks are common, and reports of dolphins are too numerous to count.
Advanced scuba divers have plenty of terrain to explore off the South Shore. Set between Brennecke's Beach and the Hyatt, Zac's Pocket, a ledge that runs from north to south, has arguably the best living coral reef on Kauaʻi (not including Niʻihau). Conditions can be temperamental thanks to swirling currents that often blow divers off the reef – so it's a rare treat to be able to dive here, but if you are so lucky you may glimpse Galapagos, white-tip and grey sharks, manta rays, and humpback whales in winter. The reef stretches from 80ft to 120ft and it's a drift dive.
Another deep dive suitable for advanced-level folks is Brennecke's Ledge, a rock outcrop growing with pristine black coral and a depth between 65ft and 85ft. On the branches you can see rare long-nose hawkfish, sponge crabs and the odd manta ray. You'll hear whales in season, and may even see them down there.
Ice Box, a horseshoe-shaped reef with boulders on either end, is another of the deeper sites (65ft to 85ft) but suitable for intermediate divers. It's patrolled by white-tip reef sharks and octopus, lobsters, bigger morays and occasional rays.
The Eastside has one notable dive site. Ahukini Landing, a Lihuʻe shore dive for all levels when conditions are calm, contains ordnance from WWII and is often home to rays, octopi and lobster. Occasional humpbacks cruise by in winter, though the water is usually too rough for beginners and visibility is hit and miss. Depth ranges from 10ft to 65ft.
North & West Shores
If you happen to arrive on the island in summer, some of the South Shore sites may be murky and hard to access. Thankfully that's perfect timing to explore the often inaccessible north and west shore.
The only scuba dive on the North Shore, Tunnels is a reef made up of lava tubes on the inside and outside of the barrier reef that produces epic surf nine months a year. It's a shore dive, with swim throughs aplenty, common sightings of spotted eagle rays and monk seals, frequent white-tip reef sharks and occasional Galapagos sharks. Depth ranges from 5ft to 65ft. Though there is current, beginners are welcome.
A huge fissure in the Na Pali Coast, between Polihale and Miloliʻi, Mana Crack is an advanced-level drift dive with phenomenal visibility ranging in depth from 60ft to 120ft and set more than a mile offshore. Expect sharks, rays, eels and much more.
Undoubtedly the very best diving around Kauaʻi can be found on Niʻihau, that small island visible offshore and off-limits to visitors. This is the best place to dive with monk seals and sandbar sharks, and trip itineraries almost always include three dives. Lehua Rock is the star of the scene. Picture an underwater, extinct volcanic crater with walls dropping down to between 200ft to 400ft on either side. You'll need good breath control to explore the walls, though there is easier diving inside the crater too. Here you may be fortunate enough to swim with wild dolphin pods and watch manta rays soar among massive schools of tropical fish.
A labyrinth of archways home to ghost shrimp, moray eels, frog fish, octopi and sponge crabs, Niʻihau Caves is another favorite. The big feature here is TV Cave. Large and square just like your grandpa's television, some divers spend up to 30 minutes exploring that one cave alone. Neon Cave is another stunner. It's home to a resident monk seal and is often graced by the presence of huge manta rays. Maximum depth in the caves is 70ft.
OK, so scuba and freediving aren't for you; still, don't leave Kauaʻi without having snorkeled. It’s a wonderful entrée into a completely different, beautiful world. Almost anyone can do it and it’s dirt cheap. Rental equipment is freely available, but if you’re passing through Lihuʻe, you can buy some for under $10 at big-box chain stores.
The South Shore has the most snorkeling locations around Poʻipu. The twin lagoons in front of Poʻipu Beach Park offer terrific entry-level snorkeling. You're likely to see turtles and bunches of tropical fish. The same goes for the beach in front of the Sheraton. If you can make it past the break off Brennecke's Beach, however, the rocks that tumble to the sea from shore on either side offer much better visibility, and there's much more life. Think: turtles, baby reef sharks and tons of fish. Further offshore, Nukumoi Point beckons, but that's a serious swim and should only be attempted by extremely strong open-water swimmers. If that's you, make sure to check in with the lifeguards before you take off. Koloa Landing is the best of the bunch on the South Shore. In each and every case, never go it alone.
If you’re on the Westside, go to Salt Pond Beach Park, with its shallow waters. On the Eastside, choose Lydgate Beach Park, which has a protected lagoon perfect for kids. On the North Shore, head to ʻAnini Beach Park year round; in summer hit Keʻe Beach or Makua (Tunnels) Beach. The latter can often be spectacular, but are off-limits to snorkelers when the surf's up. Snorkeling is also a key part of most Na Pali Coast boat tours.
Diving & Snorkeling Tips
- Ensure your travel medical kit contains treatment for coral cuts and tropical ear infections, as well as the standard problems.
- Have a dive medical before you leave your home country – local dive operators may not always ask about medical conditions that are incompatible with diving.
- It may be a worthwhile investment to bring or buy your own high-quality mask, if you plan on snorkeling more than once or twice.
- As a rule, snorkel early – morning conditions are often best, and if everyone else is sleeping, they won't be crowding the water and kicking up sand to mar visibility.
- Follow coral-reef etiquette: don't touch any coral, which are living organisms; watch your fins to avoid stirring up sand and breaking off pieces of coral; and finally, don't feed the fish.
On the Water
Tucked into Kauaʻi’s 90 miles of coastline are more than 60 beaches. You need not drive far to find another (and yet another) gorgeous strand. North Shore and Westside beaches are most hazardous during winter (November through March) thanks to big surf, when South Shore and Eastside beaches are relatively calm. The pattern reverses in summer.
Before plunging in, click to Kauaʻi Explorer (www.kauaiexplorer.com), a Hanalei-based resource on beaches, ocean safety, marine life, ecotourism and much more.
The Hawaiian Islands don’t have a continental shelf. Consequently, the ocean doesn’t roll up gently to their doorstep: it strikes hard. This creates swimming conditions that are altogether different than those on the mainland. The ocean has a devastating power here, producing dangerous rip currents, rogue waves and undertows. For most visitors, the following warning applies: you cannot think of swimming in Hawaii the way you think of swimming back home. This is particularly true of Kauaʻi, which has the highest per capita drowning rate of all of the main Hawaiian Islands. About seven tourists drown here each year. In 2016 there were 11 drownings through to November, or one a month.
To protect yourself, heed the basic warnings:
- Never turn your back on the ocean.
- Never swim alone. If you’re an inexperienced swimmer, swim only at lifeguarded beaches. At beaches without lifeguards, swim only if (and where) locals are doing so.
- Observe the surf for a while before entering. Look for recurring sets of waves, currents and other swimmers.
- Observe the wind. Windy conditions increase ocean chop.
- Don’t walk on coastal rocks, where an unexpected wave can sweep you out. It’s easy to misjudge the ‘safe zone.’
- Don’t assume that water conditions are consistent in all regions.
There is, of course, no reason why you can’t have a great time swimming on Kauaʻi. Just use your head, and if that little voice is warning you about something, listen to it. In Hawaii there is a saying: 'When in doubt, don't go out.' These are words to stay alive by. For current information and more advice, read the ocean report and safety tips at Hawaii Beach Safety (http://hawaiibeachsafety.com) and Kauaʻi Explorer (www.kauaiexplorer.com).
Na Pali Coast Sea Tours
Glimpsing the Na Pali Coast by sea is an unforgettable experience. Primordial valleys of green not only beckon you to explore, but also to head back in time. Depending on your craft, you can paddle, snorkel, venture into sea caves or just kick back with a tropical drink, luxuriating in one of the world’s great views. Assuming you can stomach the wave action, there’s really no question of whether you should experience this Kauaʻi highlight – the only question is how. Here’s some help with sorting through the complexities.
You have three types to choose from: catamarans (powered or sail), rafts (either Zodiacs or rigid-hulled inflatable boats; RIBs) or kayaks.
Catamarans are the cushiest, offering smoother rides, ample shade, restrooms and crowd-pleasing amenities, like on-board water slides and unlimited food and beverages. Some are equipped with sails (and actually use them), while others are entirely motorized. If you’ve only sailed monohulls before, this is a far more stable and roomy experience.
Rafts are the thrill-seeker’s choice, bouncing along the water, entering caves (in mellower weather) and making beach landings, but most lack any shade, restrooms or comfy seating, so they’re not for everyone (bad backs beware). The best rafts are RIBs, with hard bottoms that allow smoother rides (sit in back for less jostling but potentially more sea spray). The largest may include a canopy and even a toilet.
Kayaks are for people who want a workout with their Na Pali Coast tour. They’re of the sit-on-top variety, with seat backs and pedal rudders. You don’t need to be a triathlete or kayaking expert to use one, but you should be in top physical condition, as kayak tours can last 12 hours and you'll be paddling 17 miles.
You can access the Na Pali Coast from the North Shore or from Westside. If you’re visiting in the summer months, the North Shore – whether Hanalei or ʻAnini – is definitely preferable, and the only option for kayaks, which paddle 17 miles from Haʻena Beach Park to Polihale State Park. Kayak trips are organized by two outfitters in Hanalei.
Boat trips from Westside have to cover a lot of extra water before they reach the Na Pali Coast. As a result, they only get to see half the coastline. But in the winter months when waves are brutal on the North Shore, those tours stop running, leaving you no other choice. Westside tours depart from Port Allen Harbor. However, winter weather still takes its toll, preventing landings at Nuʻalolo Kai and limiting snorkeling opportunities.
Book Na Pali Coast boat or kayak tours as early in your trip as possible (ideally before you arrive), as high surf or foul weather may cause cancellations. If you are prone to seasickness – a very real issue – inquire about sea conditions, take medication ahead of time and opt for the catamaran. Morning trips generally see the calmest seas.
Bodyboarding & Bodysurfing
While bodyboarding (aka boogie boarding) is less glamorous than surfing, it’s more affordable and more doable (from day one). Bodysurfing appeals to minimalists who prefer to catch waves without a board, using only specialized hand held fins called planes (if that). Aim your body down the wave diagonally with one arm stretched out front and the other stuck to your side. The drop is the rush, after that it feels like you’re riding a high speed conveyor belt to shore.
Good South Shore breaks include Poʻipu Beach and, for the skilled, Brennecke’s Beach or Shipwreck Beach. In Lihuʻe, newbies should start at Kalapaki Beach. Further north up the Eastside, experts can test themselves at Kealia Beach. Hanalei Bay near the pavilion is a top North Shore spot. On the Westside, head to Kekaha Beach Park when conditions are right.
Boogie board rentals cost $5 to $10 per day and $20 to $25 per week at local surf or snorkel shops, often located near the beaches.
Deep-sea fishing is fantastic off Kauaʻi, which is surrounded by uber-deep waters quite close to shore. You can sail to depths of over 6000ft within an hour at trolling speed. The day’s offshore catch includes giant marlin and tuna, plus midweight fish such as mahimahi and ono (white-fleshed wahoo). Inshore catches include uku (gray snapper), ulua (giant trevally), kaku (barracuda) and kamanu (rainbow runner).
Both shared and private charter boats usually depart from Nawiliwili Small Boat Harbor in Lihu’e, Port Allen Harbor in ʻEleʻele, Kikiaola Small Boat Harbor in Kekaha or Lihi Boat Ramp in Kapaʻa. Island policy is for the captain to share the catch at his discretion, a policy that seems lopsided at best. Those prone to seasickness need to take appropriate safeguards or think twice.
Freshwater fishing – for largemouth and smallmouth bass, rainbow trout, beautiful peacock bass and even bluegill – is much less well known, but nonetheless interesting. Kauaʻi has a handful of rivers and 165 reservoirs ranging in size from 2 acres all the way up to the 1000-acre Waita Reservoir. Almost all were constructed as irrigation impoundments for pineapple and sugarcane fields and are privately owned, with introduced fish. To cast independently at regulated public fishing areas you’ll need a freshwater license from the Division of Aquatic Resources. For a guided bass fishing trip, consider going out with the experienced bass fisherman at Koloa Bass Fishing or with Tom Christy at Hawaii Fishing Adventures & Charters. He has the keys to several impoundments around the island.
With seven rivers, including the only navigable one statewide, river kayaking is all the rage on Kauaʻi. A Wailua River tour, which includes a dip at a 130ft waterfall, is the classic. Due to the river’s popularity, the county strictly regulates its use (eg no tours on Sundays). Most outfitters are located in Wailua, Hanalei and Lihuʻe.
If you’re seeking a solitary nature experience, you should visit Kauaʻi’s other rivers, smaller but perhaps more charming and leisurely. Hanalei River and Kalihiwai Stream are highly recommended. A handful of kayak tours navigate the Huleʻia River, which passes through the off-limits Huleʻia National Wildlife Refuge.
Sea kayaking off Kauaʻi should be done on tour because of rough surf. Beginners can learn in Poʻipu and Hanalei, while the fit and ambitious can challenge themselves on the grueling 17-mile Na Pali journey, possible only in summer. If you are indeed experienced, in summer it's possible to rent kayaks and camping gear for a Na Pali paddle under your own steam.
Kitesurfing, also known as kiteboarding, is an emerging sport with roots in wakeboarding, windsurfing and traditional surfing. It combines surfing maneuvers, windsurfing speed and the aerial thrills of paragliding. The experience requires lessons (currently not available on Kauaʻi), and no small amount of athleticism. When the wind cranks up above 15 knots, spectators can watch the action at Kapaʻa Beach Park, Hanalei Bay, Lydgate Beach Park and along the Mahaʻulepu Coast.
A raft is not just an inflatable boat – it’s a sport. What else would you call bashing through waves and zipping in and out of sea caves? On Kauaʻi rafts – aka Zodiacs – are used mainly to see the Na Pali Coast, and either depart from Kikiaola Small Boat Harbor in Kekaha, or for a bumpier ride, Port Allen Harbor in ʻEleʻele. Enjoying the Na Pali Coast by sea is one of Kauaʻi's great outdoor experiences, and rafts get you much closer than catamarans. Riders should be good swimmers and not prone to seasickness.
Given all of those Polynesian navigators, you might think that Kauaʻi would be a great place to rent a sailboat. But the mighty Pacific is no Caribbean Sea, friendly to bare boaters. The island's lack of harbors and anchorages, and the magnitude of the waves, particularly in winter, translates into no sailboat rentals. That does not mean there is no sailing to be had. There are several companies who will take you on a sailing (non-motorized) catamaran tour of the Na Pali Coast, and this is a wonderful experience, as long as your stomach agrees. Most catamaran tour companies are located at the Port Allen Marina Center in ʻEleʻele; book ahead.
Stand Up Paddle Surfing
In the 1960s, Waikiki watermen developed stand-up paddle surfing (SUP) when teaching groups of beginning surfers. Standing on their boards, using a paddle to propel themselves, they could easily view their surroundings. In the early 2000s, SUP emerged as a global sport when big-name pros, including and especially local boy, Laird Hamilton, started doing it as a substitute when waves were flat or when they wanted to catch especially big surf outside the main lineup. Companies that provide rentals and lessons have cropped up by beaches and rivers island-wide, including at Lihuʻe's Kalapaki Beach, near Wailua on the Eastside, around Poʻipu on the South Shore and in Hanalei on the North Shore.
You can find protected swimming lagoons year-round at Lydgate Beach Park and Salt Pond Beach Park. Elsewhere, swimming is a seasonal sport. On the North Shore, swimming is lovely in summer, when waters are glassy at Hanalei Bay and Keʻe Beach. In winter, when giant swells pound the North Shore, head to the South Shore, especially Poʻipu Beach Park.
Lap swimmers who need lanes and walls can take advantage of the Olympic-sized YMCA pool in Lihuʻe.
Lifeguard staffing is subject to change, so check with Hawaii Beach Safety (www.hawaiibeachsafety.com) online to confirm that the following beaches still have lifeguards:
Waterskiing & Wakeboarding
Waterskiing is not a major sport on Kauaʻi, and only one company is permitted to tow skiers on the Wailua River: Kauai Water Ski Co, based in Wailua. But the calm, freshwater river is a gentle place to learn. You can also try wakeboarding, the aquatic version of snowboarding, in which you’re towed behind a boat on a single board.
While Kauaʻi lacks Maui’s world-class windsurfing beaches, it does have some decent sites. On the North Shore, ʻAnini Beach Park, with calm, shallow, reef-protected waters, is ideal for beginners. Instructors use specialized jumbo boards that offer stability and small, lightweight sails. Book ahead for lessons with Windsurf Kauaʻi. More experienced folks can likely handle the North Shore's Makua (Tunnels) Beach or Kawailoa Bay on the South Shore.
Each winter about 10,000 North Pacific humpback whales migrate to the shallow coastal waters off the Hawaiian Islands to breed, calve and nurse. Whale-watching boat tours are a hot-ticket item, especially during the peak migration season (January through March). Although it can't compete with the sheer number of whales spotted off Maui or the Big Island, Kauaʻi still sees plenty of migratory whales, with some of its North Shore waters protected by the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. Whale-watching boat tours depart mainly from Port Allen Harbor on the Westside. But if you park yourself on the Princeville cliffs, Kilauea Point or at Poʻipu Beach Park on any winter's day, you are likely to see whales spouting and breaching all day long.
People have been riding the waves of Kauaʻi for over 500 years, and there are an estimated 300 surf breaks surrounding the island. There are a few decent beginner spots – especially along the South Shore – but mostly you'll find powerful waves, tubes and reef breaks that are better suited to practiced experts. Locals rule the waves – especially on the North Shore – so check the local surf shop before you head out.
The best time of year for surfing depends on your skill level. You can definitely get good breaks year-round. For experienced surfers, the North Shore is terrific in winter, especially at Hanalei Bay, where winter waves average over 6ft (with 20ft or higher surf possible anytime). North Shore breaks are crowded year-round, especially when the surf is under 6ft and attracts the masses. The vibe in the local lineups can be aggressive, with everyone trying to claim a piece of the action.
From May to October, head to the South Shore, where you'll find consistent swells that are more accessible to riders of all levels. The Na Pali Coast has a few waves, but with access a challenge (and a reputed large population of Tiger Sharks), it might not make it onto many surf itineraries.
Learning to Surf
There are dozens of surf schools and surf shops. Classes usually last 60 minutes to a couple hours, with board rental included in the price. Try for small classes to get the most out of the instruction. Surfing lessons and board rentals are available primarily in Hanalei and Poʻipu, as well as at Kalapaki Beach in Lihuʻe.
Beginners don't normally require much more than an intro class. Classes generally run from an hour to two. Trust us, you won't be able to paddle after a two-hour session. They include some practice on the beach, then you head to the lineup. Instructors will often push you on to the waves to help you get the hang of it.
Surfing is an intuitive sport. The best way to learn to surf is to just get out there and surf. Start with a few requisite jumps to the top of your board on the beach (á la Point Break), then find a small set of waves to try to ride. The key to catching a wave is power. Paddle as hard as you can, then try to stand up. After you fall, try it again.
Kauaʻi's Surf Beaches & Breaks
Given the steepness of the waves, short boarders and big gun riders will find more versatility on Kauaʻi's waves. Long boards still make their way into the lineup, especially when the waves aren't quite so big. You can also ride stand-up paddle boards, boogie boards or just head out for bodyboarding sessions. Bringing your own board can be expensive. Consider renting or buying locally (then reselling upon departure).
Water temperatures range from 78°F to 82°F (26°C to 28°C), and most people just ride with board shorts and a rash-guard. If you get cold easily, you may consider a light wetsuit in winter.
Staying safe here means not paddling out for waves that are too big for your abilities. Watch rip currents, know where the channel is, and think about the way the shape of the reef might just affect the shape of your head.
Hanalei Bay is the sexus, nexus and plexus of Kauaʻi surfing. Here, you will find both reef and point breaks. Head to the south side of the pier to surf the gentle waves at Kiddies if you are just getting your start. The eastern point of the bay has four reef breaks (The Bowl, Flat Rock, Impossibles and Super Impossibles) that can sometimes be connected for one of the longest rides on the islands. A quarter mile east of here, Summers is big with the SUP crowd, while still further east below the cliffs you find Hideaways.
Near Kilauea, check out Rock Quarry Beach on the eastern edge of town, or head to Kalihiwai Beach west of here for a killer right point break.
As a general rule, surf tourism is relegated to the South Shore around Poʻipu. Not such a bad deal as there are some fun waves to be had there. Breaking best in the summer on south swells, spots such as PK’s, Acid Drop and Centers challenge even advanced surfers. First-timers can get their feet wet at Waiohai near the Marriott resort, and Donovans (aka Learners), in front of the Kiahuna. Only bodyboarding and bodysurfing are permitted at Brennecke's Beach – no stand up surfing.
Pakalas, also known as Infinities, near Waimea, is the Westside’s hottest break, but it's for locals only and the unprotected western waters mean winter breaks are treacherous.
In Polihale State Park you get mostly beach breaks, with the takeoff points and rides changing with the winds. On the south end, look for a reef break at Queen's Pond. On the north, hit up the beach peaks or go to Echo's, just at the start of the Na Pali Cliffs (advanced riders only). Boogie boarders have fun here.
Transitional swells happen on the Eastside, where surfers hit Kealia Beach Park and Lihuʻe's Kalapaki Beach, a good spot for the SUP crowd. Eastside swells often break on distant reefs and hence get blown out except during early-morning hours and leeward wind conditions.
On the Eastside, Unreals breaks at Anahola Bay. It’s a consistent right point that can work well on an easterly wind swell, when leeward winds are offshore. Locals rule at Anahola and can be unwelcoming to outsiders.
Just as Hawaiian royalty had certain breaks reserved just for them, so goes it on Kauaʻi's surf breaks. Respect locals and local customs or you might end up with a black eye (and a bad reputation). Tourists are welcome – especially on the South Shore – but deference to local riders is always recommended.
In the water, basic surf etiquette is vital. The person closest to the peak of the wave has the right of way. When somebody is already up and riding, don’t take off on the wave in front of them. Don't paddle straight through the lineup. Rather, head out through the channel where the waves aren't breaking and then find your way into the lineup. When you wipe out – and you'll do this plenty – try to keep track of your board.
Also, remember you’re a visitor out in the lineup, so don’t expect to get every wave that comes your way. There’s a definite pecking order and, frankly, as a tourist you’re at the bottom. That said, usually if you give a wave, you’ll get a wave in return.
As a tourist in Hawaii, there are some places you go and there are some places you don’t go. For many local families the beach parks are meeting places where generations gather to celebrate life under the sun. They’re tied to these places by a sense of community and culture, and they aren’t eager for outsiders to push them out of time-honored surf spots.
Hawaii has a wonderful linguistic tradition, and the surfing lexicon here is fabulous. A few words you definitely want to know.
- Aggro Aggressive.
- Barney Defined in the classic 1987 surf movie North Shore as a 'kook in and out of the water,' it means somebody who doesn't know what they are doing.
- Betty Hot surfer chic.
- Brah Brother or friend.
- Green room The inside of a wave's tube.
- Grom or Grommet Younger surfers (who are probably better than you).
- Howlie White person or non-Hawaiian.
On the Land
Kauaʻi has some of the best land-born adventures of any of the Hawaiian Islands. The steep, verdant mountains of Waimea Canyon and the Na Pali Coast offer world-class hiking, longer treks and even short family adventures. When you've had your fill, spend a day or two taking on a zipline, heading out for a horseback ride, cruising on backroads on ATV, camping in lost corners of the forest or golfing on drop-dead-gorgeous golf courses.
Kauaʻi has an endless number of dirt tracks, and large expanses of unpopulated private land. This makes it a beckoning playground for an all-terrain vehicle (ATV). If you’ve never driven one before, don’t be cowed by the great big four-wheeled thing; it’s a breeze, and loads of fun. Just be prepared to swallow a few bugs and get dirty. Most operations now have traditional four-wheeler ATVs, as well as more modern (and more stables razors and other off-roaders). You have to be 16 years or older to drive, and generally, tours require riders are at least five years old.
Kauaʻi offers camping at all levels of roughin’ it. Some campgrounds, such as ʻAnini Beach Park, are within view of houses; others, such as the campground at Kalalau Beach, are miles from civilization. For camping supplies and rentals, the best rental source is Pedal 'n Paddle in Hanalei. You can also buy camping gear from some outdoor outfitters, such as Da Life at Kalapaki Beach and Aloha XCHNG in Kalaheo, or from chain retailers like Kmart, Walmart and Costco in Lihuʻe.
Another backcountry option is to stay in the number of rustic cabins located within the state parks and preserves. Whatever you do, make sure you are not camping on private campsites. Everybody loves going to the beach at night – to look at the stars, drink wine, and make out. It's generally fine, but you should check with locals first to make sure you're going to a beach that's cool for tourists.
State-park campgrounds can be found at the following parks:
- Na Pali Coast Wilderness State Park Camping at Hanakapiʻai and Kalalau Valleys requires an overnight hike.
- Kokeʻe State Park Drive-up and hike-in camping, and a bunch of cabins.
- Waimea Canyon State Park Hike-in camping only, and a few cabins worth checking out.
- Polihale State Park Beachfront camping.
Permits are required from the Division of State Parks, obtainable either in person in Lihuʻe or online at https://camping.ehawaii.gov up to a year in advance. Fees range from $18 to $30 per night (or $20 per person per night on the Na Pali Coast). Maximum-stay limits of three to five nights are enforced.
For backcountry camping on the Westside, the Division of Forestry & Wildlife issues free permits for four backcountry campgrounds in Waimea Canyon, three campgrounds in and around Kokeʻe State Park, and the Waialae campground near the Alakaʻi Wilderness Preserve. Apply online or in person at the Lihuʻe office.
The county maintains seven campgrounds on Kauaʻi, all of which have bathrooms, cold-water outdoor showers and picnic tables. Moving clockwise around the island, these are the following:
- Haʻena Beach Park (closed 10am Monday to noon Tuesday)
- Black Pot Beach Park (Hanalei Pier) (open Friday and Saturday nights only)
- ʻAnini Beach Park (closed 10am Tuesday to noon Wednesday)
- Anahola Beach Park (closed 10am Thursday to noon Friday)
- Hanamaʻulu Beach Park (temporarily closed for camping at the time of research)
- Salt Pond Beach Park (closed 10am Tuesday to noon Wednesday)
- Lucy Wright Park (closed 10am Monday to noon Tuesday)
- Lydgate Park (open 7am to 6pm)
The best county campgrounds are the coastal parks at Haʻena, Hanalei, Salt Pond Beach, and the particularly secluded and idyllic ʻAnini Beach. The parks at Lucy Wright, Anahola and Hanamaʻulu tend to attract a rougher, shadier crowd and are not recommended for solo or female campers. Each campground is closed one day a week for cleaning and in order to prevent people from permanently squatting there.
Camping permits cost $3 per night per adult camper (children under 18 years free) and are issued in person or by mail (at least one month in advance) by the Division of Parks & Recreation in Lihuʻe. For mail-in permits, only cashier’s checks or money orders are accepted for payment.
Kauaʻi has only nine golf courses, but there’s something for every taste and budget. Pros and experts can try the Makai Golf Club in Princeville. The best course in Lihuʻe is the oceanfront Hōkūala Resort, while the Puakea Golf Course is no slouch in and of itself. Nearby Wailua Municipal Golf Course is a cheaper alternative. Poʻipu Bay and Kiahuna Golf Courses in Poʻipu are a little more affordable than the northern counterparts. Probably the cheapest course by far is the Kukuiolono Golf Course on the South Shore near the village of Kalaheo. To save on resort fees, golf in the afternoon for the ‘twilight’ rate. All the courses rent clubs and several require carts. For an afternoon of fun with the kiddos, check out the North Shore's Kauai Mini Golf & Botanical Gardens.
Vast pastureland from open coastal cliffs to jungly rainforests provides ample terrain for horseback riding. A handful of stables offer tours, mainly for beginners and families. On the South Shore, CJM Country Stables rides along the Mahaʻulepu Coast, while on the North Shore, Princeville Ranch Stables and Silver Falls Ranch traverse green pastures, ranch lands, streams and waterfalls. Even though it's hot, it's recommended that you wear long pants to avoid very painful riding sores on your inner thighs and ankles. It's how the cowboys do it!
Ziplines, which first appeared in Costa Rica, are now proliferating across Hawaii. But location matters – and Kauaʻi’s magnificent forests are hard to beat. This outdoor adventure requires neither skill nor training, but participants must meet minimum age (generally seven years for a tandem ride) and maximum weight restrictions (ballpark no more than 280lb). Some operators offer superman flights (where you fly head first), others include rappelling through waterfalls or ATV tours.
Top outfits include
Hiking & Biking
Kauaʻi arguably has some of the best hiking and trekking of all the Hawaiian Islands. The biking is OK, but not as amazing as you might expect. Trails can be extended over a few days, with stops at camps or cabins, and there's loads of variety (from beachfront walks to slippery treks down steep slopes). For inexperienced hikers or families with small kids, plenty of shorter trails get you close to the nature, flora and fauna of Hawaii, while historic trails in some of the older villages introduce you to a unique history.
If you don’t explore the island on foot, you’re missing out on Kauaʻi’s finest (and free) terrestrial offerings. Hike up mountaintop wet forests, along steep coastal cliffs and down a colossal lava canyon – places you can’t get to by car. Trails range from easy walks to precarious treks, catering to all skill levels. For the most variety, head to Waimea Canyon and Kokeʻe State Parks. Don’t miss the Pihea Trail, which connects to the Alakaʻi Swamp Trail, for a look at pristine native forest filled with singing birds, or trek the Awaʻawapuhi Trail or Nuʻalolo Trail for breathtaking views of the Na Pali cliffs.
Along the Na Pali Coast, the wilderness Kalalau Trail now attracts anyone with two legs – but only for the first section to Hanakapiʻai Beach. Eastside hikes head inland and upward, such as the Nounou Mountain Trails, which afford sweeping mountain-to-ocean views, and the Kuilau Ridge and Moalepe Trails. In addition to official trails, Kauaʻi’s vast coastline allows mesmerizing ocean walks, particularly along the cliffs of the Mahaʻulepu Heritage Trail and the endless carpet of sand in remote Polihale State Park. In Lihu'e, an afternoon walk out to the Ninini Point Lighthouse is a gorgeous way to spend the afternoon.
On the South Shore, the McBryde and Allerton Gardens are a great spot to walk with families and friends and take in an afternoon picnic, while on the North Shore, the Limahuli Garden provides a tropical entrance to Eden and fun hikes through large gardens. Combine your river adventures on the Wailua River with a hike to a lost waterfall.
Some of the bigger hikes in the state parks will likely be too strenuous for young kids. But your tots will love running through the maze at Lydgate Beach Park, or cruising the boardwalk at Ke Ala Hele Makalae on the Eastside. The short jaunt to Kilauea Point is a top spot for birdwatching. The Canyon Trail in Waimea Canyon State Park is widely considered the best kid-friendly hike on the Westside, as are the short interpretive trails out to the lookouts along the drive.
The villages of Koloa, Waimea and Hanapepe all have signed historical walks.
Hiking Safety on Kauaʻi
People have died in Kauaʻi hiking out on trails that have been closed, or out to remote beaches that see large waves. Don't be a statistic. And don't cross private property.
- Before you leave, tell somebody where you are going and when you expect to be back.
- Take enough water for your entire trip, especially the uphill return journey, and treat any water found along the trails.
- Pack first-aid supplies and snacks.
- Cell phones can be handy, but may lack reception in many remote areas (eg Kokeʻe State Park, Na Pali Coast).
- Wear appropriate footwear: while Chacos or Tevas are fine for easy coastal walks, bring hiking shoes or boots for major trails.
- Rain is always a factor, especially on the North Shore, at Kokeʻe State Park and in Waimea Canyon. Trails that are doable in dry weather can become precariously slippery with mud.
- Flash floods are real threats wherever there are stream or river crossings. Never cross a waterway when it's raining. River fords may quickly rise to impassable levels, preventing you from returning for hours or days.
- If possible, hike with a companion.
- Don’t go off-trail or bushwhack new trails.
- Lava terrain is frequently eroded and can be unstable, especially along cliffs.
- Never go beyond fenced lookouts.
- Note the time of sunset and plan to return well before it’s dark. Be aware that daylight will fade inside a canyon long before sundown.
- Bring a flashlight just in case.
- Most accidents occur not due to a trail’s inherent slipperiness or steepness, but because hikers take unnecessary risks. Park and forestry officials have little patience for this, because it requires expensive rescue missions that jeopardize others’ safety.
- When hiking along the coast, be aware of rising tides, tide tables and frequent large waves. Kauaʻi has more drowning deaths than any of the Hawaiian Islands. A lot of people visit beaches that should be off-limits.
The Kauaʻi chapter of the Sierra Club leads guided hikes ranging from beach clean-up walks to hardy day-long treks. With a suggested donation of only $5 per person for nonmembers, these outings are an extraordinary bargain. All hikers must sign a liability waiver, and those aged under 18 must be accompanied by an adult. Advance registration may also be required; check the website in advance.
Kauaʻi Nature Tours offers hiking tours all over the island. While they are expensive, they include guides who are full of endless tales, scientific facts, and colorful historical and cultural information about the island.
Hike Kauaʻi Adventures offers bespoke hiking adventures all over the island with a friendly guide that knows the island backward and forward.
Cycling & Mountain Biking
It’s possible to ride along the belt highway in the Westside, South Shore and most of the Eastside, but there are no bike lanes and road shoulders can be narrow or nonexistent. Only experienced cyclists should consider cycling as transportation on Kauaʻi.
Once the Eastside's coastal path, Ke Ala Hele Makalae, is completed, cycling from Lihuʻe all the way to Anahola will be doable by the masses. For now, the path is used only recreationally in stretches near Lydgate Beach Park and from Kapaʻa Beach Park north to Paliku (Donkey) Beach. Bear in mind that cyclists share the path with pedestrians.
Cycling the North Shore past Princeville is impossible along the narrow cliffside highway. However, the Westside is a very different story. Cycling downhill on Hwy 550 from Waimea Canyon is so spectacular that it has been turned into a guided tour; book ahead with Outfitters Kauai.
If you aren’t afraid of mud and puddles, you can go wild on countless dirt roads and a few trails islandwide. The Powerline Trail is a decent, if potholed and muddy, option – and you can start from either Wailua or Princeville. The dirt roads near Poʻipu, above Mahaʻulepu Beach, are flat but nice and dry, and you’re less likely to encounter rain showers there. For a solitary ride, your best bets are the hunter roads at Waimea Canyon State Park. For more information contact Na Ala Hele and Kauai Cycle, an Eastside bike rental and repair shop with a knowledgeable crew.
On an impossibly scenic island, it seems superfluous to point out those avenues, roads and highways that earn exceptional status even by Kauaʻi's high standards. Especially when the most casual drive to the nearest Big Save is capable of golden reveals – such as, say, a double rainbow over a humble plantation cottage nestled on a lawn – and that doesn't count the extraordinary sights you're likely to see in Big Save itself. Yet point them out we must, because on the Garden Island there are roads to paradise within paradise, places and vistas the hordes might miss on their mad scramble to do and see. Although, to be fair, we've listed obvious winners too. Some of the drives are long, others quick, and each one breathtaking in its own way.
End of the Road – North
Heading north out of Hanalei, Kuhio Hwy narrows a bit further and becomes a dreamy ribbon of asphalt that snakes between jungled lava cliffs weeping with waterfalls, and a coastline that's among the most beautiful on earth. Along the way there will be a succession of one-lane bridges, rivers to cross and empty beaches on which to stop and stroll. They'll flick by one after another: first Lumahaʻi then Haʻena, until you pass the jade Eden that is Limahuli Garden on the left and enter Haʻena State Park, where you'll meet the end of the road. Time your arrival for just before sundown and the explosion of color you're sure to witness should come with plentiful parking.
Highway 580 (Eastside)
The drive into the Wailua Homesteads along Kuamoʻo Rd is among the island's most textured. Starting at the river mouth in Wailua River State Park, you'll pass two heiau and ʻOpaekaʻa Falls, and wind your way past several trailheads and quiet neighborhoods quilted in farmland surrounded by jade peaks. Rainbows are common and, on drizzly days, the mist only makes it more beautiful. Follow the route all the way to the Keahua Arboretum at the end of the road.
Menehune Fish Pond Detour (Lihuʻe)
Here's a drive many overlook. Beginning at Kalapaki Beach, head southwest on Niumalu Rd, past Nawiliwli Harbor where cruise and container ships dock, through tiny Niumalu and onto Hulemalū Rd. As the road rises you'll enjoy a mountainous landscape, looming and gorgeous until you reach the Menehune Fishpond Lookout. The mountains themselves tell the story of the naughty supernatural prince and princess who were turned to stone and have guarded the fishpond for eternity. You can see them: two knobs jutting from the top of the sheer cliff. Continue on Old Hulamalū Rd and more of tranquil rural Kauaʻi will unfurl. This is a proper, potholed backroad with sweeping views. Hang a right on Kipu Rd and you'll connect to Hwy 50, with access to the Eastside, South Shore and beyond.
The various well-trod routes from Hwy 50 into Koloa, from Koloa to Poʻipu, and from the beach through Lawai and back to the highway, may be routine but they are still stunning. The eucalyptus trees that form the Tree Tunnel along Maluhia Rd – the main branch that connects Koloa to the highway – were planted in 1911. The trees are well over 50ft tall and their canopies interconnect. From there you have two options into Poʻipu. The loveliest is the Koloa Bypass Rd, and while it skips Koloa town, you're rewarded with views of the old Koloa Sugar Mill and the rolling grasslands of Puʻu Hi, which rumbled with volcanic activity, oh about 150,000 years ago. On your way back to Hwy 50 after a day at the beach, consider taking the westerly Ala Kalanikaumakai bypass past the Kukuiʻula development and through lush Lawai.
Heading west from Kalaheo toward ʻEleʻele, Port Allen and beyond, you have two choices. You can stay with Hwy 50, which is rather straight and uneventful – though on Kauaʻi there are always mountain views – or you can make a left on Hwy 540, aka Halewili Rd, past Kauaʻi Coffee Company's coffee bushes and facilities with gorgeous ocean views beckoning beyond. The road is straight at first but banks right hard, so watch your speed. Now you are parallel to the coast on your way back toward the highway, which you'll rejoin in ʻEleʻele. This is a quick but worthy detour, and can sometimes be faster than staying on the highway.
Waimea Canyon Drive & Kokeʻe Road
A can't miss (read: obvious) choice, and for good reason. Rising from Waimea, the canyon road passes multiple overlooks with majestic views of what Mark Twain once called the Grand Canyon of the Pacific. This jigsaw of red rock, dappled with green in the winter when it's gushing with waterfalls, looks the part too. Soon after, you'll join Kokeʻe Rd, which passes a last canyon lookout at 3120ft above sea level, before meandering into Kokeʻe State Park where you can access multiple trails. On the way back, stay with Kokeʻe Rd all the way downhill and you'll get a different view before landing in Kekaha, the most westward town on the island.
End of the Road – West
Past the Kekaha cornfields and the Pacific Missile Range Facility, Hwy 50 peters out to a rutted and rough dirt track that branches northwest for 4 miles to Polihale State Park. Your cell coverage may die, and as the red dust rises behind you, and the Na Pali cliffs rise to your right, you may feel like the last people on earth. That's not necessarily a pleasant feeling, but it is exciting, and when the road ends you will be on Kauaʻi's wildest, longest and widest stretch of sand. From here the coastline is roadless until those cliffs wind back around to Keʻe Beach on the North Shore. Make sure you're in a 4WD-capable vehicle with high clearance and a spare tire handy, but don't you dare miss it. If you bring beers (and you should), bring a tent too. Camping is not only allowed, it's encouraged at Polihale.
Kauai by Air
Seeing Kauaʻi from the air is a singular experience that may just define your trip. In fact, it's the only way to see much of the island, the majority of which is privately owned. It's also a thrilling experience, one you might want to have at all costs (and it will cost you). Helicopter tours are by far the most common option: while planes can fly no lower than 1000ft to 1500ft, helicopters are allowed to fly as low as 500ft and can hover. To check any tour company’s flight record, consult the National Transport Safety Board (www.ntsb.gov) accident database. Consider all options before making a decision.
Fixed-Wing Scenic Flights
With one exception, there seems to be no point in choosing a fixed-wing aircraft to tour Kauaʻi, not when you can take a helicopter right to the cone of Mt Waiʻaleʻale and hover there to your heart’s content. The exception is an open-cockpit biplane, which flies so slowly it may as well be hovering. The combination of the romance of early aviation, the sheer sensation of the wind and roaring engine, and the emerald tropical island sliding below, not to mention sitting side-by-side in near embrace, makes this many a honeymooner’s first choice. In fact, if it were up to passengers, biplanes would probably be as popular as helicopters on Kauaʻi, but there's currently only one company that offers these scenic flights: AirVentures Hawaii, based in Lihuʻe. The tour leaves from Lihuʻe Airport and takes you north past the Wailua River and Kilauea Lighthouse. From there, you travel up the lush Hanalei Valley, continuing over the ridge to see waterfalls and cascading 4000ft cliffs. It then continues north past Hanalei to the Na Pali Coast, wrapping past waterfalls and canyon drops through Waimea Canyon, and back to the South Shore, where you might just spot your hotel. They even give you the cool throwback hat and goggles!
The most popular choice for seeing Kauaʻi from the air is to take a helicopter ride. You’ll have to decide what kind of aircraft you want to fly in, what kind of tour you want (some land in neat places), and whether you want the doors on or off (some passengers like the visibility, others don’t like the exposure to wind and possibly rain). Most helicopter tour companies depart from the airports in Lihuʻe.
Trips generally last 60 to 90 minutes, and start at around $289 (make internet reservations ahead of time to save some money). Doors off helicopters are totally the way to go if you are an avid photographer (and suffer little from vertigo). But it's noisy and windy, and maybe just a little bit scary. On a six-seater helicopter, two people may be stuck in the middle. You can request a window, but the captain may move people around for weight balance.
You also get to choose from big window, little window and bubbles (like the ones on MASH). The big difference is always visibility and noise. More modern helicopters are quieter and generally have big windows. You always wear earphones so you can talk with fellow passengers and lower the noise, but even the slight reduction in sound can make your trip more pleasant. Then again, some of the older helicopters have that sweet Magnum P.I. feel that make for a thrilling ride.
Rain delays do happen, and tours will vary their route based on rain and winds. Make sure to check the weather policy with your operator before booking. Generally 24-hour cancellations are required. Consider booking early during your stay, so you can reschedule later if need be.
What should you bring? Ideally, strap everything down (hats, cameras, iThings etc). It can get a little cold, so bring a jacket and long pants, plus decent shoes in case your tour does a landing.
You always approach a helicopter from the front (never the back). The captain will generally indicate what side you should board on. Put your head down and hold onto your hat (just like they do in the movies).
From Lihuʻe, expect to see the Nawiliwili Harbor and the Menehune Fishpond, Kipu Kai and the Tunnel of Trees, Manawaiopuna Falls in Hanapepe Valley, Olokele Canyon, Waimea Canyon, the Na Pali Coast, North Shore beaches like Keʻe and Hanalei, and Mt Waialeale. While the rips up impossibly steep canyons are an adrenaline junkie's dream, it's really the close proximity to waterfalls – many of which can only be seen from the air – that make these trips amazing.
While the tours follow pretty standardized routes, you can talk with your pilot to customize the tour experience, especially if it's just you and your family or sweetheart taking the flight. This means getting closer – or further away from the ground – making more acrobatic banking turns or going with a more easy-breezy approach, and generally determining the way you fly.
Tours include ongoing narration from the knowledgeable pilots. Yes, you can tip them afterward, but it's not required.
For a really unique trip consider doing a tour to Niʻihau. The trips can be combined with diving and hunting adventures. Niʻihau Helicopters does a flyover of the island and ends with snorkeling, while Niʻihau Safaris includes air transport and the hunting of boar, feral sheep and oryx.
Top Helicopter Operators
Some top operators include the following:
- Island Helicopters With a landing on top of Manawaiopuna Falls, more commonly known as Jurassic Falls.
- Mauna Loa Helicopters Noted for the chance to take the doors off...freaky but fun.
- Jack Harter Helicopters Take a flight with one of the pioneers in flight tourism on the island.
- Blue Hawaiian Helicopters These high-end choppers are said to be less noisy.
- Sunshine Helicopters Departing from Princeville.
Skydiving & Ultra Lights
There are currently no operations on Kauaʻi offering skydiving, paragliding or ultralight service. Some past operations have been closed because of safety concerns. Keep your eye open for new opportunities, but definitely check the company's safety record before booking.