There’s never been a better time to visit Hawaii’s most laid-back island.
Driving around Kauai, it’s easy to feel as if you’ve been plopped down in a scene of Jurassic Park. (It was filmed there, after all.) Experiencing the lush, postcard beauty and relatively untouched landscapes of this wettest and oldest Hawaiian island feels like going back in time.
That unspoiled beauty is among many key selling points of a trip to the “Garden Island,” where the state’s most magical features — uncrowded, pristine white-sand beaches; a relaxed aloha spirit; and sublime, undeveloped scenery — are done best.
Kauai has long been the favorite island of outdoor enthusiasts and adventure-seekers, while those looking for more luxury or on-trend options might have opted for Oahu or Maui instead. But that’s quickly changing as Kauai has debuted chic hotels and fostered what could be considered the state’s most exciting food scene, all while maintaining its quaint, laid-back, small-town vibe.
Kauai is essentially like a big small town, home to only 70,000 and dotted with tiny, charming settlements. Take Koloa Town, whose Heritage Trail includes 14 culturally important stops and lets wanderers poke into local boutiques or make shave-ice pit stops. And Hanapepe Town, the model for Disney’s Lilo & Stitch, serves as the backdrop for both a lively local farmers market every Thursday and the bustling Hanapepe Friday Night Festival & Art Walk, where artists open their gallery doors and food vendors set up shop every week for locals and tourists alike.
It’s easy to explore all sides of Kauai, and each of its four main shores is worth a visit. The South Shore tends to be the sunniest, so many choose to stay here, with family-friendly hotel options such as the Koloa Landing Resort at Poipu. Near popular Poipu beach, this Marriott Autograph Collection hotel has one of the island’s biggest swimming pools and multi-room suites perfect for larger groups.
Near the airport, the East Shore is ideally situated for exploring while the more dramatic North Shore is known for rugged mountain terrain and some of the island’s most magical beaches. Spend a day along famous Hanalei Bay, a picture-perfect seafront that stretches for nearly 2 miles, surrounded by emerald mountains and home to trendy surfer town Hanalei. Or check out upscale Princeville, dotted with posh resorts.
Also to the north awaits the must-do Kauai experience: the iconic, rugged 17-mile Napali Coast with its beaches, waterfalls, valleys, sea-swept soaring cliffs, and ridgelines in between. The best way to take in this wonder is by helicopter or a variety of boat tours — including Captain Andy’s, which offers daytime snorkel outings and sunset catamaran dinner cruises.
Measuring 14 miles long and 1 mile wide, Waimea Canyon on Kauai’s West Shore is nicknamed “the Grand Canyon of the Pacific.” Admire its multicolored panoramas from lookout points, or get a closer look by hiking into it.
All this adventure requires fuel, which Kauai’s burgeoning food scene abundantly provides. In recent years, cult-favorites, innovative pop-ups, food trucks, and humble eateries have sprung up, including Makai Sushi, the Hanalei Poke food truck, and uber-popular Porky’s — a hot dog joint whose customer favorites include pineapple-pork sausage.
Visitors can also access local culinary treasures through farmers’ markets such as the Kauai Community Market, luaus such as Lū‘au Kalamakū, and tours of such enterprises as Kauai Coffee Company, where visitors can stroll the 3,000-plus acre estate of the nation’s largest coffee grower, or do a deep dive into cacao agriculture and chocolate production at Lydgate Farms.
Flexibility is essential on any trip to Kauai, where rain is frequent. But don’t panic: You can almost always guarantee it’s sunny somewhere on the island. Plus, Kauai’s weather has its perks: rainbows, of course, but also the chance to embrace that laid-back attitude of the locals, who take each day as it comes.
When You Go
Koloa Landing Resort at Poipu, Autograph Collection: 2641 Po‘ipū Road, Kōloa, 808-240-6600, KoloaLandingResort.com.
Porky’s: 9899 Waimea Rd., Waimea, 808-631-3071, Porky’sKauai.com.
Captain Andy’s: 4353 Waialo Rd., #1a, Eleele, 808-335-6833, Napali.com.
Kauai Coffee Company: 870 Haleweli Rd., Kalāheo, 808-335-0813, KauaiCoffee.com.
Lydgate Farms: 5730 Olohena Rd., Kapa’a, 808-821-1857, Steelgrass.org.
Lū‘au Kalamakū: 3-2087 Kaumuali‘i Highway, Līhu‘e, 877-622-1780, LuauKalamaku.com.