Kauai is our absolute favorite island to visit and finding things to do in Kauai is easy if you love beautiful beaches. Its chill vibe makes it the perfect Hawaiian destination for those who are looking for less touristy things to do. Read on to learn our favorite things to do in Kauai and let us help you plan a perfect itinerary on The Garden Isle.
We used to take our kids to Kauai almost every year before we became full-time RVers and absolutely loved staying on the north shore of Kauai, playing on the white sand beaches, getting shave ice in Hanalei, and sitting on our lanai reading for hours on end. We almost never even hiked or did any sort of excursion because just being in Kauai was enough. I still love this about Kauai.
While there are things to do in Kauai, rushing from one paid excursion to another is not the goal here. If you are looking for that or a busy nightlife, Maui and Oahu are better choices.
Best Time To Visit Kauai
Kauai is the most northwest of the Hawaiian islands which means it receives more rain than the other islands. The north shore of Kauai can be quite cool, especially during the winter. However, it’s also the lushest and most tropical part of the island. The south side gets significantly less rain than the north side making it a better home base if you want warmth and sun. With that in mind, Kauai really is a perfect place to visit year-round.
What I Love About Kauai
It’s a Small Island
With a population of only 70,000, I feel like I can breathe and relax better on Kauai. Plus, Kauai is smaller, making it easy to stay on the north shore and drive all the way around the island to Waimea Canyon and back in one day.
Kauai is not as hot as Maui or the Kona side of the Big Island so I love not having to constantly seek shelter from the intense sun rays. Plus, Kauai has the most cleansing sea breezes in the world.
The Natural Beauty
Mt. Waialeale is the wettest spot on Earth, averaging 450 inches of rain per year which means there are always waterfalls flowing year-round. I think Kauai has the most gorgeous beaches to choose from. My favorites include Makua and Kiwili. The Na Pali coast is only accessed by foot or kayak/boat, making it a great place to immerse in nature without crowds. And the chickens. They are everywhere and I love it!
Lack of Commercialism
I love the one land bridges on the north shore because it’s kept the commercialism out. There are no large cities in Kauai either. The biggest city is Kapaa and while you may sit in some traffic here between 4 and 6 p.m., you could still walk through this town in 15 minutes. Also, there are no skyscrapers on Kauai. Kauai code only allows buildings to be 4 stories or less.
Where To Stay In Kauai
If you want more sun and love the resort feel, then Poipu is perfect for you. I’m on the opposite end of the spectrum. While warmth is nice, I prefer staying in condos on the north side of Kauai so that I am close to my favorite beaches that I love to just chill at. The east side is a great option if you plan on trying to squeeze it all in because then you’ll be halfway between Waimea Canyon and Na Pali Coast, both of which are must-dos IMO.
Where to stay on the North Shore of Kauai
- I personally think the absolute best place to stay in Kauai is at the Hanalei Colony Resort. Sadly our family is too big to stay here now, but when we only had 3 and 4 kids we’d squeeze into these condos and had the most perfect vacation. There are many other condos near this area of Ha’ena that you can book here if Hanalei Colony Resort isn’t available.
- If you prefer resort stays over condos then you will love The Princeville Resort (note that the resort will be closed for renovations for 1-3 years). Families with 2 or less children should check out The Westin Princeville Ocean Resort Villas.
- We’ve also stayed in Princeville a few times and loved it. If you are looking for a mid-range priced condo, stay at Hanalei Bay Villas in Princeville or The Cliffs at Princeville.
- For budget accommodations for families, try the Makai Club Ocean Resort condos with full kitchens, washer/dryer, and a pool/spa.
- We’ve also stayed at Airbnbs in Princeville and loved it!
Where to stay on the East Side of Kauai
- If you want to be close to all the liveliness of downtown Kapaa, stay at Kauai Shores Hotel, a vibrant, beachfront boutique hotel, or Ashton Islander On The Beach which is a more typical resort feel. There are also many beachfront condos in Kapaa if you don’t like resorts.
- For a more budget-friendly option, check out Honu’ea International Hostel. Bonus, by staying here you’re right at the start of the scenic coastal bike path.
- Finally, for a more cozy, intimate Hawaiian experience, check out Fern Grotto Inn which features private cottages and is in close proximity to Kapaa.
Where to stay on the South Side of Kauai
- The entire Poipu side of Kauai is definitely the most resorty area of the island but it can be really nice because it’s almost always warm and the beaches are calm. In Poipu, I recommend staying at the Sheraton because you’re the boardwalk and you can surf a beginner-friendly wave right out in front of the resort.
- I personally really loved the historic town of Koloa. Though there aren’t many places to stay in the quaint, forested town, you can stay at this condo (Waikomo Stream Villas) and be within walking distance of Koloa and only a 5-10 minute drive from the beach.
Tips for Visiting Kauai on a Budget
In the winter, bring a jacket. One year we visited in April, and I had to buy everyone sweats because it was that cold. The ocean isn’t that warm either. I get cold easily and so I always pack a thin wetsuit when I go to Kauai.
Related: Minimalist Hawaii Pack List
Sign up for Hawaiian Airlines emails to make sure I don’t miss their sales. If you follow us on Instagram, we often post on our stories when Hawaiian fares go on sale. Also, Alaska Airlines and Southwest fly to Hawaii and often have sales so keep an eye out for those.
Camping is super cheap and most campgrounds are totally safe. We recommend camping at Anini Beach in Kauai.
Cook your own food. We rarely eat out and instead, when we land, we head to Costco to stock up on food. In addition, there are Foodland grocery stores on all the islands. Get their Makai Card to save tons of money on food. For example, their poke is $10/lb and a cup of coffee $1 with your Makai Card. Foodland sells a variety of prepared foods at an affordable price.
Skip a lot of excursions and create memories hiking or playing at the beach. I know FOMO is a real thing, but I’ve hardly done any paid activities in Kauai and still love visiting enough to try and go there once a year. It’s that magical!
5 Things You Must Do In Kauai
I’ve visited a mix of the Hawaiian islands over 20 times, but Kauai remains to be my absolute favorite. While I do prefer Oahu when it comes to surf, there’s just something magical about Kauai that I don’t experience as much on the other islands. These are the 5 things I recommend prioritizing when you visit Kauai if you want to see the best of what Kauai has to offer.
1 | Hike the Nāpali Coast + Snorkel at Ke’e
Time Needed: 3-6 hours + driving time
This right here is your absolute #1 must do in Kauai. The only drawback is that you have to plan ahead because in order to visit this part of the Na Pali coast and Ke’e Beach you need a parking permit for Ha’ena State Park. Permits run $1 per person and $5 per vehicle. Reservations may be made up to 30 days in advance, and no later than the day before your visit. Click here to reserve your permit or for more details on shuttle service and FAQs.
If backpacking the Napali Coast is on your bucket list, click here to read everything you need to know about getting permits for backpacking and overnight parking, along with tips on the trail itself, what you need to pack, tips for being prepared, and how to make it a more enjoyable experience overall.
What I’m covering here in this blog is just the 4-mile roundtrip hike from Ke’e Beach to Hanakapi‘ai Beach via the Kalalau Trail.
Once you get to Ha’ena State Park, I recommend doing the 2-mile (one-way) hike to Hanakapi‘ai Beach. It’s a moderate hike on a well-maintained trail with some rocky and steep sections. You will probably want hiking sticks to help navigate the descent. With that said, I’ve done it many times in flip flops while holding a child and I see locals do it barefoot.
Note: If you are not in physical conditioning to hike this, or if you want to really take in the views of the Na Pali coast, then you should definitely look into a Helicopter Tour of Na Pali Coast.
After you conquer this beautiful 4-mile hike, it’s time to relax and snorkel at Ke’e Beach. This is a gorgeous stretch of white sand beach with shade, picnic tables, restrooms, and drinking water.
You really could spend your entire day here but you’ll want to pack food as there isn’t anything to buy anywhere nearby.
Plan Your Day 1 Itinerary
After exploring the Na Pali coast and relaxing at Ke’e Beach, I’d choose one of these fun things to do on the north shore:
Hang out in front of the Princeville Resort. You can park here and walk down the staircase just to the left of the security guard, which is public access to the beach in front of the resort. This is a great place for young kids to play in the water, another nice snorkeling spot, a popular place to paddle out to surf the outer reef, or just grab a drink from the Princeville Poolside Bar.
Watch the sunset from the Kenomene Ocean Sunset Outlook.
Anini Beach is another great beach to explore. The water is calm and good for snorkeling and paddleboarding.
Queens Bath is a popular tourist destination, however, it is closed in the winter due to large swells.
Hideaways Beach is another one of my favorite beaches on the north shore. You access it from the same parking area as the Princeville Resort but the trail down is steep and requires holding a rope.
I’ve never gone but Princeville Ranch is a popular place to go offroading, ziplining, and horseback riding.
Another popular activity that I’ve never done is rent kayaks or SUP in Hanalei and play on the Hanalei River.
2 | Snorkel at Tunnels + Chill at Makua Beach
Time Needed: 2-4 hours + driving time
These two beaches really are one and the same. They sit right next to each other and are a short walk from Ha’ena Beach (another one of our favorite places to hang out at). Tunnels Beach is famous for its snorkeling and Makua Beach is famous for its beauty, but what my family loves about this area is that in the summer, when the swell isn’t dangerous, we will go float in the waves right beyond the shore break at Ha’ena Beach.
Safety Tip: We are strong swimmers and when the kids were younger, I’d make them bring some form of floating device that they could hold onto because it is deep and the waves can still be quite strong. This is also one of the beaches to watch some epic kook slams. Basically, the waves crash right on the shore and getting into and out of the water here takes finesse, so if you decide to play in the water here you’ll need to time it well and commit or you too might be featured on someone’s Instagram story.
If your kids are young, you will want to play closer to Makua or Tunnels. The water is much shallower and calmer. Parking near Tunnels is very limited. There is more parking at Ha’ena Beach but you will need to walk a little to get to Tunnels from here.
Plan Your Day 2 Itinerary
On the north side of Kauai, you’ll find the small town of Kilauea. There are a few fun things to do here.
Visit the Kilauea Point for panoramic views of the coastline, catch a glimpse into the rich history at the Lighthouse, and view seabirds at the Wildlife Refuge.
Shop and eat at Kilauea Neighborhood Center. There are a few great restaurants like the Bistro or Kilauea Bakery + Pizza, The Sushi Girl, or Palate Wine Bar. There is also a surf shop and some boutiques in the center that were worth checking out.
Hike to Secret Beach which is a beautiful beach to relax at and take pictures but not a safe place to get into the water and play. Park here and follow the short and well-marked trail to the beach.
Get the best chocolate banana ever at Banana Joe’s fruit stand. You can also pay to take a tour of their chocolate farm or play a round of miniature golf.
Hike the way-too-boring-for-me-but-still-popular Wai Koa Loop Trail. When we hiked it, the dam (which becomes a pretty little waterfall) was under construction so there wasn’t much to see. Check the trailhead beforehand to see if it’s open. On a side note, there is a great playground for kids at the trailhead that my younger kids loved.
Last, I really, really love Kahili Beach, aka Rock Quarry. It’s a great spot to surf and it’s way less crowded than Hanalei Bay (although it can get pretty busy on the weekends and there isn’t a ton of parking). There’s a great area to play in the river too if the ocean currents are too strong.