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Hawaii is one of my favorite places to visit. I spent a semester in college living in Honolulu and my mom and I took a hiking trip to Maui and Lanai a few years ago. One of my biggest goals in life is to visit every island in Hawaii.
Hawaii is six hours from the west coast. Check out my carry-on packing list to make your flight a breeze.
Since I’ve already been to Oahu, Maui, and Lanai, that leaves three more major islands: Molokai, the Big Island, and Kauai.
A few months ago, I saw a video on Facebook about a sugar plantation irrigation system that had been made into a tube run on Kauai. Since then, Kauai has been at the top of my list of where I want to travel to next.
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When I’ll Go
Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash
Kauai, the Garden Isle, is the wettest of the Hawaiian Islands. This damp climate makes the island lush and beautiful, but it also makes some parts of the year better times to visit than others. Spring and fall are arguably the best times to visit, because it isn’t too wet and it isn’t too hot and there aren’t too many crowds, but I plan on visiting in winter. November through March is the rainy season on Kauai, but it’s also humpback whale migration season. I’ve never seen a whale in real life, so I’m excited to have to chance to spot some.
Where I’ll Stay
There are four major areas on Kauai to choose from: the North Shore, the South Shore, the West Side, and the East Coast, or Coconut Coast. The Guide of US: Hawaii website lists the pros and cons of each area.
The Coconut Coast sounds perfect for me. It has plenty to do, from learning about Hawaiian culture to trying out new activities, but it’s also a convenient spot if you want to explore the whole island.
The Coconut Coast has plenty of big hotels and resorts if that’s your thing. I like the charm of something a little smaller. Fern Grotto Inn in Kapaa looks adorable and has great reviews on Yelp. The plantation cottages are located along the Wailua River and have bikes, kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, and beach gear for guests to borrow. There are no restaurants on the property and breakfast isn’t served, but each cottage has a full kitchen or kitchenette so you can feel a little less like you’re on vacation and a little more like Kauai is your home.
What I’ll Do
That video of tubing down a sugar plantation’s irrigation system is what shot Kauai to the top of my list of places I want to go. Kauai Backcountry Adventures offers zipline adventures as well as tubing. Their mission of providing eco-tourism activities means you can have fun without worrying about hurting the environment. Kauai Backcountry Adventures helped restore the plantation irrigation system that is used for their Mountain Tubing Adventure, so you can learn about the Kauaian history they’ve helped preserve as you float down the canals.
If you love the outdoors, Kauai is the best island in Hawaii for you. There are hundreds of hiking trails on Kauai, so it’s easy to find a place to explore no matter your skill level.
Sleeping Giant Trail
The Sleeping Giant Trail, or Nounou Trail, on Nounou Mountain is only 2 miles to a picnic area, but it’s far from easy. There’s a 1,000 foot elevation gain and the trail can be hazardous, especially when it’s wet. From afar, you’ll be able to make out the sleeping giant who forms the mountain. Legend says the giant was tricked by villagers into eating rocks hidden in fish. He fell asleep after the meal and still hasn’t awoken. The trail switchbacks up the mountain to the giant’s chest, where you can stop for lunch and admire the breathtaking views of the island and the ocean.
Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash
The Kalalau Trail in Napali Coast State Wilderness Park is one of the most difficult and dangerous trails in Hawaii, but also one of the most rewarding. The 11 mile long trail has an 800 foot elevation gain and some of the most beautiful views in the world. The trail, originally built in the 1800s and rebuilt in the 1930s, begins begins at Haena State Park and winds through five valleys before ending at Kalalau Beach.
The first part of the trail is a 2 mile day hike to Hanakapiai Beach. Even though it’s only 2 miles, this part of the trail isn’t easy. It crosses the Hanakapiai River, which meets the ocean, causing dangerous currents. Swimming in the ocean or the river can be dangerous and plenty of people have drowned here.
Beyond Hanakapiai Valley, you must have an overnight camping permit. There are campsites at Hanakoa and Kalalau, and while it’s possible for experienced hikers to reach Kalalau in one day, it may be better to take your time and stop at Hanakoa overnight. Remember, you’ll be hiking along switchbacks into and out of valleys and along dangerous ridges while carrying heavy gear. Stay safe and enjoy the views.
NOTE: The Napali Coast State Wilderness Park, including the Kalalau Trail, are currently closed due to flood damage. The Milolii section of the park will be reopened soon, but most of the park will remain closed for at least three months until repairs can be done.
Kuilau Ridge Trail
If you’re looking for an easier trail, Kuilau Ridge beginning in the Keahua Arboretum may be right for you. The trail is just over 2 miles each way and an elevation gain of just under 500 feet. While it doesn’t have the spectacular views of other, more intense trails, it does have plenty of beautiful native and non-native plants to admire and birds and other wildlife to watch for, as well as views of Mt. Waialeale, arguably the wettest place on earth. A small wooden bridge marks the end of the Kuilau Ridge Trail, but you can continue on the marked path that becomes the Moalepe Trail.
Don’t forget to dress appropriately and bring food and lots of water for your hike. Before any hike, you should always check the weather and let someone know where you’re going and what time you plan to be back.
Snorkeling & Diving
Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash
If you’ve never been snorkeling before, Lydgate Park is a safe and fun place to practice your skills. However, it’s very popular and there isn’t much to see besides fish. If you’re a more confident snorkeler, Nualolo Kai on the Na Pali coast is an incredible place with so much to see. The beach is protected by a barrier reef featuring lots of healthy coral as well as plenty of fish. You may even see some monk seals lounging on the beach. Not all tours go to Naulolo Kai, so be sure to book with one that does. If you’re looking for an adventure beyond just snorkeling, Kauai Sea Tours’ Na Pali Coast Snorkel Raft Adventure will take you into sea caves and under waterfalls as you learn about some of Kauai’s history and legends.
If you have your scuba certification, Kauai has lots to see under water. Since Kauai is the oldest of the Hawaiian Islands, its reefs have had more time to develop than the other islands, giving it rich biodiversity. Humpback whales, spotted eagle rays, and manta rays can be seen in the winter, and there are plenty of tropical fish and sharks to see. What I’m most excited about, however, are the honu, or Hawaiian green sea turtle. My mom and I saw a few when we were snorkeling on Maui, but other tourists quickly chased them off before we could really admire them or get some pictures. Remember, wildlife should be enjoyed from afar and not interfered with!
There are plenty of dive shops on Kauai to help you get in the water. PADI‘s Find A Dive Shop search makes it really easy to find a Five Star Dive Center or Resort wherever you go. Seasport Divers caters to all skill levels, whether you’ve been diving for years or are just dipping your toes into the water. They even have different charter trips for divers of different skill levels. If you have plenty of experience, you can head out on the morning trip, but if you’re new to diving or less confident in your skills, the afternoon trip is for you. On Tuesdays and Fridays, Seasport Divers also offers a trip for experienced divers to Niihau, the Forbidden Island, which is privately owned and off-limits to most people. If you’re not yet certified or, like me, haven’t been diving in a while, you’ll still be able to get a few dives in after some lessons in the pool. You can even get the ultimate souvenir by completing your Open Water certification in Kauai!
Photo by Amy Humphries on Unsplash
Winter is whale watching season on Kauai. The kohola, or humpback whales, spend December through May in Hawaii’s warm waters breeding and giving birth to calves. While there are plenty of vantage points to see the whales from the shore, a tour or charter boat can get you up close (but not too close!) to these playful giants. Blue Dolphin Kauai‘s whale watching tours also offer hydrophones, so you can hear the whales talking as well as seeing them play.
Photo by Ryan Magsino on Unsplash
Even though I’ve been to Hawaii a few times, I’ve never tried surfing. I’m used to calm lake waters, so the idea of intentionally going out into the waves seems scary. However, just because something is scary, doesn’t mean it isn’t fun, and I always like to challenge myself and try new things.
There are a lot of places that offer surfing lessons all over the island, but some of the best reviews I’ve seen are for Learn to Surf on the East Shore. Lessons last an hour and a half and kids as young as 5 can participate, so this is a great way to spend the morning having fun with your family.
You can surf the Great Lakes! Read my article about lake surfing here.
Kayaking is an amazing way to experience Kauai, but it isn’t for everyone. If you’re prepared for a challenging adventure, Kayak Kauai has several options for ocean tours. Spend a few hours, a day, or several days exploring Kauai’s beautiful coastline from the water. Be aware that tours can change or be canceled due to weather. The one-day tour of the Na Pali coast is not offered in fall or winter.
If you’re not quite up to kayaking in the ocean, Kayak Kauai also offers a tour on the Wailua River to Wailua Falls. This kayaking and hiking tour is much more relaxing than the ocean kayaking tours, making it perfect if you’re looking for a less strenuous adventure.
NOTE: As mentioned with the Kalalau Trail above, flooding has altered access to many areas on Kauai, which affects some of these tours. Always check the website for any tour you plan on booking or call the company to get the latest information on any tour changes.
Don’t forget to pack…
Badger Balm Sunscreen is reef safe, so you know coral will be as safe from you as you are from the sun when you hit the beach. Most sunscreens contain oxybenzone, butylparaben, octinoxate, or 4-methylbenzylidene camphor, all of which damage coral reefs. Always check the ingredients before purchasing sunscreen to be sure you’re doing your part to protect our environment.
A cute swimsuit
Any time there’s a beach, a cute swimsuit is important. Whether you’re playing in the water or laying on the sand reading some trashy romance novel with Fabio on the cover, you want to look good.
This adorable one piece from Eomenie has adjustable straps, so there are several different options for how to wear it. I love switching it up, so this suit is great for when you want to pack light, but have a new look every day.
I love halter tops, so this beautyin bikini caught my eye when I was searching for swimsuits. It comes in several different floral patterns, but the one constant is the adorable striped top.
Can you tell I like stripes? This Cupshe bandeau one piece is so cute! You can wear it strapless or with the removable halter if you’re like me and need a little extra support.
If you’re going tubing, you’re going to need water shoes. These ALEADER water shoes are actually pretty cute, which is not something you expect from water shoes. They’re also sturdy, so they can hold up to any adventure you take them on.
An Underwater Camera
There’s so much to see beneath the surface in Kauai and you should have a camera that can capture it all. The camera I use right now is a GoPro, which is great for when you want to focus on the experience and worry about what you got on film later. If you’re looking for more control of your images and footage, a SeaLife camera is a great option that has plenty of add-ons so you can customize your camera for your exact needs.
What does your dream vacation look like? Let me know where you’d go and what you’d do in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you!