Well, my friends – there’s good news and bad news.
The good news is I’ve been to Garden Isle half a dozen times and have lots of tips for unique things to do in Kauai. The bad news is – many of you ask me what to do in Maui. So far, I can’t help you with that.
10 Unique Things to Do in Kauai
1. Take a Helicopter Tour in Kauai
If there’s one activity on Kauai that’s an absolute MUST DO, it’s a helicopter tour of the island. I’ve done two choppers and one small plane and all three times I was moved to tears. This island is just stunning from above and it makes you appreciate its vast wildness when you can see it from up high.
On our last trip, we flew with Safari Helicopters, the only outfit that stops mid-tour on a peak within the Robinson Ranch overlooking Olokele Canyon. If you’re lucky, you may have the chance to meet with Keith Robinson to learn a bit about his family’s conservation efforts on the island. It’s unparalleled access to forbidden Kauai, and I’m not kidding — there’s no other way to get where you go on this chopper.
Ask for pilot Julia. She’s legitimately a bada$$.
Other Helicopter Options in Kauai:
- Deluxe Sightseeing Flight
- Entire Kauai Island Air Tour
- ECO Adventure Helicopter Tour
- 55-Minute Adventure Flight
- Vintage Biplane Flight
Where to Stay Near Lihue: Royal Sonesta Resort (formerly Kauai Marriott Resort)
2. Na Pali Coast Catamaran in Kauai
You really can’t go wrong with any of the available Na Pali boat adventures, from romantic sunset cruises to adventurous rafting to whale watching to snorkeling with turtles to sailing alongside a pod of spry spinner dolphins. Really, it all depends on what you hope to gain from the day and how much you’d like to spend. Rick and I recently went out with Blue Dolphin Charters on the Deluxe Na Pali Snorkel & Scuba trip, and had an awesome time. Well, except for the seasickness – a first for me!
For what it’s worth, Blue Dolphin is the only outfitter to guarantee that you’ll see dolphins. If they’re on your bucket list, this may just be the company for you.
Other Options for a Na Pali Coast Excursion:
- Snorkeling Cruise with Lunch
- Buffet Dinner Cruise
- Snorkel Tour with Optional Scuba
- Sunset Dinner Cruise
- Snorkel & Rafting Tour
Where to Stay Near Poipu: Grand Hyatt Kauai, Koa Kea Boutique, Kiahuna Plantation
3. Hike the Na Pali Coast*
You’ve seen the fingerlike green mountains reaching down to the Pacific from a helicopter. You’ve marveled at the caves and towering cathedral peaks from the deck of a catamaran. Did you know you can also experience Na Pali on foot? This is no leisurely jungle walk – this is an adventure at the end of the earth! Untouched, wild and potentially dangerous, you need to know what you’re getting into before you set off.
*For experienced hikers with at least a few days, proper gear and a permit issued by the state of Hawaii, you can hike all the way to the end of the Kalalau Trail. It’s 11 grueling miles of the most beautiful coast in the world, traversing uninhabited, unreachable mountains and valleys.
It’s hard. I’ve never done it, and I don’t intend to.
For less experienced hikers or those with just a day to spend on the trail, check out the Hanakapi’ai Trail. You can walk to the NO SWIMMING beach (4 miles roundtrip) or Hanakapi’ai Falls (8 mile roundtrip). Be advised, parking can be a real challenge at the trailhead at Ke’e Beach, cell phone connectivity is limited and/or non-existent and should an emergency arise, timely rescue is not a guarantee.
The trail is closed often due to flash flooding and dangerous conditions. I’m not trying to scare you, but you should be prepared. There are way too many people who tackle this trail without any knowledge of the risks and challenges, and many have been injured/killed in the process. Don’t be one of them!
It goes without saying, but make sure you’re wearing proper hiking shoes for the Na Pali coast. I like the ones from the Walking Company.
Where to Stay Near the Na Pali Coast: The Westin Princeville, Hanalei Colony
4. Rent a Bike
Kauai Cycle is just up the road from the airport in Kapaa. If you’re looking to do some epic off-road biking, these guys know their stuff and can hook you up with everything from custom bikes to guided tours. If you’re like me and consider an adventurous bike ride to be any bike ride, you can still join in the fun. Rent a bike and cruise up the scenic Ke Ala Hele Makalae path that runs up the island’s east side. It’s a flat path that’s easy to navigate, but the views make you feel like you’re out there crushing it with the pros.
Where to Stay in Kapaa: Courtyard by Marriott
5. Snorkel, SUP, Surf and Swim
Kauai’s beaches are some of the prettiest in the world, but they can also be dangerous. Before even stepping on the sand, confirm that conditions are safe. You don’t want to be swept out to sea – something that happens all too often to unsuspecting tourists who turn their backs on the ocean. You’ll know if it’s ok to proceed because there will be color-coded flags and signs everywhere. Keep in mind: the North Shore tends to be calmer during the summer months, and the South Shore is a better bet in the winter.
Now that you are well-versed in being over-prepared, consider these spots:
- North Shore | Tunnels Beach, Pu’u Poa Beach. Check for a tour here
- South Shore | Salt Pond Beach Park, Poipu. East | Lydgate Park, Anahola Beach Park. Check for a tour here
Depending on your level of expertise and comfort, rent a board from any of the local outfitters in Hanalei Town and paddle out to Hanalei Pier/Bay/River. I ran into big-wave surfing superstar Laird Hamilton out in the bay once while attempting to SUP with Alex and Alex. Check here for other SUP options
For general frolicking in the waves, I like Anini Beach, Maha’ulepu Beach and Black Pot Beach Park.
Depending on the time of year, surf lessons are an amazing way to experience the real Kauai. Hanalei Bay can’t be beat for sheer beauty – a huge horseshoe shaped bay with clear water, turtles, waves for beginners and pros and mountains, waterfalls and rainbows all around. There are several outfitters in Hanalei to choose from. Down South, Poipu is almost always sunny and offers multiple surf school options for beginners. Check here for lessons
6. Fishing for Peacock Bass
In 2012, my brother and I fished and fished and fished and fished for peacock bass and never caught one. So Rick’s top priority was showing up his brother-in-law on our recent trip. And boy, did we ever!
Where to stay near Koloa: Sheraton Kauai
7. Eat Shave Ice
This is no mere snow cone, guys. Don’t even think about calling shave ice a snow cone. It’s demeaning and it’s downright rude.
Shave ice is special. Unique. Shave ice is … SHAVED ICE.
I go about four years in between visits and one of the unique things to do in Kauai that makes me most excited about returning is my first shave ice. What flavors will I pick? Banana, mango, cherry? Lilikoi, guava, root beer? Macadamia nut ice cream or vanilla? Beans or nah?! The options are endless, so it helps to start thinking about it on your flight from the mainland.
Some of my favorite places for shave ice in Kauai are The Fresh Shave, Wailua Shave Ice, Shave Ice Paradise in Hanalei and JoJo’s.
Where to stay in Hanalei: Hanalei Bay Resort, Luxury Vacation Homes on the North Shore
8. Go to a Local Market
If you’ve never had a Kauai Sugarloaf pineapple , a just-picked papaya or a plumeria lei made by a real Hawaiian auntie, you really have to check out one of the local markets. Fresh, organic produce, homemade sauces and canned goods, cut flowers, salsa, honey and jam, gourmet goat cheese and crafty souvenirs are just a few of the treats you’ll want to indulge in. At the very least you’ll want to load up on fruit and granola for tomorrow’s breakfast!
9. Visit Kilauea Lighthouse & Wildlife Refuge
The steep ocean cliffs of the North Shore offer an incredible breeding ground for Hawaiian seabirds, from shearwaters to boobies to albatross. If you’re lucky, you may also spot Hawaiian monk seals, sea turtles and Humpback whales below. From the lighthouse, there’s a magnificent view of the mansions that dot the cliffs of Kalihiwai Ridge. It doesn’t require a very long visit to take it all in, but if you happen to be on Kauai in the winter when the waves get enormous, it’s a stunning place to see nature in full force.
Note that the refuge is closed Sundays, Mondays and federal holidays. On the way out, hit up Pau Hana Pizza or the Lighthouse Bistro in Kilauea for some of the best eats on the whole island.
Where to stay near Kilauea: The St. Regis Princeville Resort
10. Experience Waimea Canyon
Kauai isn’t all beaches and water activity, and you’d miss a lot of that’s all you did. Waimea Canyon State Park, dubbed as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, is one of the neatest things to see on the whole island! My favorite way to spend a day road-tripping up the winding road to the canyon, stopping at every lookout along the way to appreciate the rust-colored canyon, its waterfalls and rainbows.
The canyon is 14 miles long, a mile wide and 3,000 feet deep in spots, so cruise on up Waimea Canyon Drive in your rental Mustang or Jeep — odds are you’ll get one of the two! For hikers, this area is a must visit.
This is also the only way to get a peek into the lush, uninhabited Kalalau Valley without hiking there yourself or flying by on a chopper.
Where to stay near Waimea Canyon: Cabins at Koke’e, Waimea Plantation
3 Tips for Adventuring on Kauai
Bring Dramamine. Helicopters & boat rides offer magnificent views, but if you’re reliving breakfast, you won’t appreciate them quite as much. Take a motion sickness med the night before your activity, whether you usually need it or not. Trust me on this one. Ginger candies, wristbands, etc. are also super helpful, and will save you from a potentially uncomfortable excursion.
- Bring shoes and athletic wear you don’t mind getting dirty… or leaving behind. Kauai is famous for its red dirt, so if you’re hiking or taking an ATV tour, you’re going to get covered in it. Brand new white tennis shoes are just not a good idea.
Make sure you have enough space on your camera card or phone. You don’t want to see that familiar “Not enough storage” message 10 minutes into your once-in-a-lifetime helicopter ride! Also think about getting a gopro for underwater photos!
So those are just a few of my favorite unique things to do in Kauai. No matter which you choose, you’ll have an amazing trip. It’s impossible not to on the Garden Isle!