Choosing which of the Hawaiian islands to visit can be daunting for a first time visitor. Each island brings a unique quality that makes it worth a visit. Bubbly Tourist has had the good fortune to visit each of the major islands and can make a strong case for each of them. In the end, it really comes down to what you're truly seeking and what you're interested in doing. Here's the top 12 reasons why Kauai is our favorite.
1. It's remoteness helps define its beauty. This island is perfect for those seeking solitude. Maybe because it's the furthest Hawaiian Island from the US "mainland" or maybe because one third of the island is owned by one family (truly), but whatever the reason it is less developed and there are simply less tourists here. Kauai is an off the beaten Hawaiian path island. It's such a pleasure to drive down single lane roads without the traffic surrounded by tall grass and just love the wild nature as it was once upon a time. You don't have to deal with many traffic lights nor stop and go traffic like you can find on both Oahu and Maui.
2. See the Na Pali coast. In our opinion, this is the most beautiful thing to see on Kauai! The colors you see along the coast are mind-blowingly beautiful. This is rugged landscape where the mountains edge down to the sea and the lush forests carpet the lands along the beach. The challenge is this part of the island is so remote that accessing it requires aid and some effort. You can take a tour via boat or by air or you can hike the trail which literally takes hours (one way). Bubbly Tourist took a spectacular full-island plane tour that provided views like the one below. You can see an extended video of this coastline here. Not only did we see the coastline at Na Pali but we also flew over the Waimea Canyon and saw the amazing Manawaiopuna waterfalls of Jurassic Park and Fantasy Island (de plane). You can also hike the coastline as described below in item #4...
3. See the "Grand Canyon of the Pacific". Waimea Canyon State Park is simply stunning. It's likened to the Grand Canyon but is a lot more lush and greener. You can drive into the park where there are numerous vantage points and hikes. The canyon is ten miles long, a mile wide and more than 3,500 feet deep. The views are endless and depending on your orientation can be deep into the canyon like at Pu'u Ka Pele lookout where you see the Waipo'o Falls. See photo below. Other lookouts of Waimea Canyon are at Pu'u Hinahina Lookout just beyond Pu'u Ka Pele and Waimea Canyon Lookout near mile marker 10. There are numerous hikes that one can take including one that will take you to see Manawaiopuna Falls know from the movie Jurassic Park. See a link to the best hikes here. Bubbly Tourist did an amazing downhill bike tour through the park where we we drove to the lookouts by van and then descended the park by bike to the ocean in time for a sunset toast. We'd highly recommend it!
Another stunning vista within Waimea Canyon is the Kalalau Lookout. The view of the Kalalau Valley down at the Na Pali coast and of Honopu beach is just breathtaking. The contrast of the blue ocean with fertile green hills against light brown cliffs at its base makes it simply an absolute must-see view. See photo below.
4. Hike the Na Pali trail at Ha'ena State Park. The views from the trail are quite beautiful as evidenced by the photo below. See the different colors of the ocean through the trees and experience the tropical splendor of the Hawaiian islands as you listen to the birds chirp while getting in some exercise. Bubbly Tourist hiked to Hanakapi'ai which is a rocky beach where the river meets the sea. Crossing the river over the rocks is treacherous and can be dangerous. From there you can hike a steep trail up the mountain another two miles to the water falls. We were able to make the 2 mile hike (each way) to Hanakapi'ai and back to the bus stop in 2 hours.
Be forewarned that this is not an easy trail because it can be very steep, quite muddy in spots and a long hike before reaching your destinations. It also requires you to reserve a spot on a bus to access the Ha'ena State Park. See details here and book your bus and park entrance pass in advance. FYI, it's an 1.25 hour drive from Poipu to get to the bus access carpark and then it's another 30 minutes on the bus to get to the State Park from the carpark. Unless you're a local, it's the only way you'll be able to access Ha'ena State Park. Once dropped off by the bus, you can reach the Ke'e Beach in .25 miles (one way) or reach a scenic coast viewpoint in .5 miles (one way) but everything else is at least 2 miles (one way). For those wishing to camp, you need to book at least a month in advance and there are a set number of spots per month.
5. Kayak to the "secret" waterfall of Uluwehi. The waterfall is reachable only by the river. From where you dock your kayak, you must first wade through the river, then walk through the tall grasses and finally hike through the enchanted forest to the falls. The hike takes about 45 minutes. It's easiest to do with a tour but you can go on your own if you know the directions. Once you arrive at the falls, you can swim the very cold water to the base of the falls and literally step behind them or just let the water fall down on you. What's really cool about these waterfalls is that this is where the kings used to meet so it has a feeling of sacred grounds. Allow at least a half a day for this sporting experience.
6. Snorkel with the sea turtles. Have you ever swam with the turtles? It is quite the divine experience if you haven't. It's one of our favorite things to do! There's something majestic about swimming the ocean when you suddenly see a sea creature of that size meandering through the water. In general, they like to keep their distance and you're definitely not supposed to touch, but it's always fun to stumble upon one underwater and then get right up to it while you check him/her out as he/she does the same to you. In Poipu, there's a few spots to see the sea turtles: 1) from Poipu Beach Park which is large and sandy, 2) Lawa'i Beach which is a smaller sandy beach with a more rocky shore, and 3) Koloa Landing which is less convenient with no beach but a good spot where lots of divers go.
7. Just chill on the amazing beaches. With all the physical activity one can get on Kauai, sometimes it's fun to just chill. It's part of the reason why you fly all this way to Hawaii, right? Just relax at some incredible beaches both on the south part of the island in Poipu or on the north part of the island near Princeville. We went to the beaches on both sides of the island and had perfect weather with fantastic beach experiences. In addition to the snorkeling beaches mentioned above (item #6), there's also the beautiful Kiahuna Beach in Poipu. There is a good chance that you'll find the monk seals chillin' there too. On the north part of the island near Princeville, we also took in Hanalei Beach with its large sandy beach, calm waters and beautiful views of the surrounding mountains (see photo). Bubbly Tourist also tried to access Pali Ke Kua Beach, known as the Hideaway Beach, near Princeville but was unable to find parking. Apparently it's a highly sought after beach and has only 10 spots for parking so if you want to go, get there early.
8. Sunset dinner or cocktails. In our opinion, there is no better way than to eat dinner and have cocktails than at sunset with gorgeous views. For these reasons, we highly recommend The Beach House. Bubbly Tourist ate there twice because the food was excellent, the sunset views are amazing, and they have a great selection of cocktails and wine. It's right next to Lawa'i Beach (see #6 snorkeling with the sea turtles above) so the sunset views from your dinner table are right over the Pacific Ocean. It's so beautiful that most people interrupt their dinners and take a few steps out to the lawn to start taking their sunset photos over the sea. Whether at this restaurant or others, do yourself a favor and enjoy your meal or at least a cocktail while the sun goes down.
9. Have fresh sushi with some bubbles. We found some fresh seafood at a couple of locations on the south side of Kauai near Poipu. One is a small restaurant, Honu Bar, right above Poipu Beach with amazing views of the ocean and an even better tuna poke bowl. We had lunch there a couple of times because of its convenience, affordable pricing and delicious tuna. Yeah, it's at a Marriott resort but you'd never know it and who cares anyways with views and tuna poke this yummy. For an upscale dinner experience, Bubbly Tourist headed to Stevenson's Library within the Grand Hyatt Kauai resort. The sushi was beautifully prepared, the champagne selection was fantastic, the views were terrific and the sushi was out of this world excellent. See our photo below. We highly recommend both these eating establishments.
10. Watch the surfers or take it in yourself. In Poipu and Kalapaki, you'll find beginner-friendly waves. However, if you want wild waves, the kind that attract world champion surfers, then head to the North Shore of Kauai. But it definitely is NOT for the inexperienced surfer. Although Bubbly Tourist was visiting Kauai in January the North Shore surf was relatively calm and therefore we weren't able to see any crazy surfing. The North Shore is best during winter, from November to April, and the South Shore is best in summer, from May to October.
11. Gaze at the stars. No light pollution makes for incredible stargazing. It truly is incredible to see the billions of stars that populate the universe so vividly in Hawaii. The best stargazing can be seen on the observatories on top of Mauna Kea on the Big Island (our second favorite Hawaiian island) where there is the least amount of atmospheric disturbance. However, this trip was all about Kauai and the views at the night sky here were just beautiful. We can only imagine what the night sky would look like from the remotest areas of the Waimea Canyon or Na Pali coast.
12. Share in the "Last Beer before Tomorrow". Fabulously creative, this is the slogan for the Kauai Island Brewing Company which markets itself as the world's westernmost brewery. As the westernmost bar in the US, they might truly have a stake in that world claim before one reaches the international date line. The beer is good and you can grab yourself some chow if you find yourself in Port Allen. We swung by after a visit to the Wailea Canyon for some lunch and a refreshment, and of course had to pick up the merch as seen below...
Bubbly Tourist Bon Voyage!