The most stunning of the Hawaiian Islands, it is easy to understand why Hollywood comes to Kauai when searching for a paradise setting. Known as the “Garden Isle”, a simple drive to the supermarket becomes a scenic affair on the oldest island in Hawaii. Given all this time, Mother Nature has managed to sculpt Kauai’s lush peaks into artwork and created a wealth of dream beaches for us lucky visitors to choose from. With these and lots of other natural surprises, Kauai is a Hawaiian Island that you cannot skip. This 5 days in Kauai sample itinerary will ensure you see the very best of the island. So pack those hiking shoes and let’s hit the road!
I spent 10 action-packed days in Kauai during the month of March while touring the main Hawaiian Islands to write this and other travel guides. It’s important to note that, as on other islands in the state, Kauai’s tour operators offer visitors an enormous choice of paid activities and organized tours. In this sample itinerary, we’ll stick to the basics, showing you the very best of the island with little to no organized activities.
- Day 1: Essential Kauai Tips, Lihue, Poipu and Hanappepe [Current Page]
- Day 2: Waimea Canyon and koke’e State Park
- Day 3: Lihue to Hanalei Bay
- Day 4: Na Pali Coast, Kalalau Trail & Tunnels Beach
- Day 5: Relax on North Shore Beaches
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Why Visit Kauai?
There’s a good reason why Hollywood often heads to Kauai to shoot scenes of a tropical paradise.
Everything grows in abundance on the Garden Isle and heavy downpours mean waterfalls galore.
Breathtaking beaches and exceptional hiking opportunities are some of the excuses for leaving your hotel room behind.
5 Days In Kauai Map
This map contains all the places mentioned in this sample itinerary. Click on the image to open in Google Maps.
Kauai Travel Tips
Here are a few essential travel tips for Kauai. Don’t forget to go over the things you need to know before visiting Hawaii, where you’ll find general advice on visiting the Hawaiian Islands including how to save on costs.
When is the Best Time to Visit Kauai?
When thinking about when to visit Kauai, two factors should be kept in mind: weather and peak tourist seasons.
Weather: Kauai is certainly worthy of its nickname – “The Garden Isle”. It is as green as it is thanks to enormous amounts of rain which soak (and erode) its jagged peaks and lush valleys throughout the year. Kauai’s interesting weather patterns are covered more in-depth later on but, in general, you should expect drier conditions during the North American summer months and wetter conditions from November-March.
Peak tourist seasons: Kauai gets a lot of visitors… seriously a lot of visitors. It is a busy place throughout the year and we haven’t even discussed the locals. There are lots of those too. Roads are often congested even out of peak seasons. Unless you absolutely have to, avoid traveling to Kauai during US school holidays or the official summer tourist season. During these times, the island will be even busier, travel times multiplied, and accommodations either fully booked or extremely expensive. The best time to travel to Kauai is in the ‘shoulder season’ when the weather is OK and your time on the island is more enjoyable (March-May and September-October).
Where to Stay in Kauai?
Kauai is not such a huge island but it is large enough for it to make sense to split your time between the north and south coasts. Factor in the driving distances and road congestion and this makes even more sense. I recommend splitting your time between Princeville-Hanalei on the north coast and Poipu-Hanapepe-Waimea on the south coast.
Here’s a link to a complete list of Kauai accommodations that you can book online.
North vs South
In general, the leeward south coast of Kauai (Poipu-Hanapepe-Waimea) sees a lot more sunshine than the wetter and more tropical windward north coast (Princeville-Hanalei). So if your Kauai holiday is geared more around beaches or if you don’t mind the driving times, the south coast is probably where you want to spend most of your time. That said, the north coast is where you’ll be closer to Kauai’s dramatic eroded peaks and it is often quite cloud-free in the mornings.
If you absolutely do not want to switch accommodation in the middle of your stay in Kauai, a compromise can be Kapaa and Wailua which are both, more or less, in the middle of the ‘sightseeing crescent’ (Waimea to Ke’e Beach).
There’s a feeling that Kauai is in short supply of mid-range and budget accommodations. Demand is high and instead of local authorities encouraging the opening of small family-owned accommodations, I have actually heard they’re clamping down on those who are already in business. Perhaps it’s because some do not possess the appropriate permits or perhaps it’s something else. I am not 100% sure and things may change by the time you visit. My biggest advice is to book your Kauai accommodation as soon as you can.
When it comes to choices, Kauai has its f share of resorts (though nothing like Maui), mostly around Poipu, Princeville, and Kapaa. Bed and breakfasts are in short supply, backpacker hostels are in bad condition, and there are plenty of Airbnb’s though the good ones get snatched quickly. If you’re into camping, get your Kauai camping permit well in advance. You will also find a lot of condos for rent. Those are more or less proper apartments that are usually in some kind of timeshare resort or vacation rental community. When renting condos and staying at bed and breakfasts, you can expect to have a cleaning fee added to your bill. This can range from $50 per stay all the way up to $200. It’s extremely annoying and makes no sense but it is a common practice, especially in Kauai and Molokai.
Personally, I stayed at a cozy Airbnb in Hanapepe for a few days and then splashed out at the Wyndham Ka ‘Eo Kai in Princeville for a few more days. The location is near perfect, inside the lush grounds of the Princeville resort area (featured in the awesome film The Descendants) and close to the charming village of Hanalei and its fellow north shore highlights. There’s a Foodland supermarket just 5 minutes away from where you’ll also find other shops and restaurants.
Units are very modern, spacious and feel more like a home rather than a resort. There’s a swimming pool, BBQ facilities, tennis courts, daily free activities, and everything you would expect to have at this sort of place. I was quite reluctant to book this place since I prefer more local-style accommodations, but it really turned out for the best as the price was reasonable and the experience top-notch.
Weather in Kauai
Home to one of the wettest spots on the planet – Mount Wai’ale’ale – Kauai could never be this beautiful if it weren’t for the enormous amounts of rain it receives. With comfortable temperatures throughout the year, rain is the biggest factor in making or breaking your holiday. If you look at Kauai average weather, the drier months are April-September and the wetter months October-March with heavy rainfall during the Christmas season.
However, Kauai has very interesting patterns and it is always wise to check the National Weather Center’s website the night before and switch your itinerary accordingly, though even this must be taken with a grain of salt. This weather forecast allows you to drill down into different sections of the island where the weather can greatly vary. Kauai’s northern mountain range generates a lot of precipitation that would otherwise simply ‘pass over’ the island. So much of the heavy rain tends to concentrate on the north coast and in the uninhabited interior. Most of the time, it rains in the form of a shower but in some rare cases, the island sees constant rain for days and even weeks. Moreover, heavy rain tends to fall at night – for some reason – so you can expect very sunny mornings that warrant hitting the road early. This is also the best time to photograph the jagged peaks.
When I visited Kauai in March, the weather forecast called for heavy rain throughout the week. In reality, we enjoyed unusually sunny weather for the most part and even when it did rain, once you passed Lihue heading south, the skies were completely clear. So bottom line: try to avoid the super wet months and in any case, drill down into the island’s weather forecast by specific area but with a critical eye.
Getting Around Kauai
I highly recommend renting a car from the moment you land in Kauai to the time you leave.
Traffic in Kauai is quite an issue, especially during the peak tourist seasons. Roads to major attractions (ex: Hanalei to Na Pali) are often reduced to a single lane in each direction and one-lane bridges. Traffic will also be bad around the major urban areas of Lihue and Kapaa, with Kapaa’s traffic lights often causing major delays (use the bypass road). In fact, Kauai uses the contraflow system to cope with morning rush hour traffic into Lihue. Cones are placed on the road essentially adding another southbound lane at the expense of the northbound route.
have an early morning flight and heading to the airport from the north coast (Hanalei, Princeville, etc.)? Check driving times on Google Maps or Waze and leave extra time.
Listed here are all options I can think of for getting around Kauai.
By car: by far the best way of exploring Kauai. The cost of renting is quite reasonable, especially if you book well in advance. Keep in mind that the major car rental companies are located within Lihue airport grounds while the smaller ones (like Fox) are outside and require using their shuttle which doesn’t run 24/7. The most important thing to keep in mind and to watch out for is the topic of insurance. Since Hawaii is a ‘no-fault’ state, car rental companies will scare you to death and offer incredibly expensive insurance plans. With the larger companies, you can usually decline this, but with the smaller ones, they often force you to take at the very least the cheapest package which can amount to about $15 per day.
American car owners usually have an insurance policy that covers rental cars, but foreigners do not. If you’re traveling from abroad, perhaps your travel insurance can include this type of coverage. In this case, you will need to show at the counter that you have coverage so bring a copy of your policy (in English). A 4WD is not a must in Kauai unless you wish to visit Polihale State Park and Ha’ula Beach (remote beaches).
By bus: Kauai does have a bus system consisting of small buses that run on several routes along the coast. However, it is not really convenient for heavy sightseeing and geared more for locals.
Hitchhiking: with so many hippies on the island, hitchhiking is quite common and safe. However, if traveling solo, take extra care and use your good judgment.
Cycling: Kauai’s coastline is quite flat for the most part but I cannot recall seeing too many cyclists on the road.
What to Pack for Kauai?
Together with this 5 days in Kauai itinerary, I recommend grabbing a Lonely Planet Kauai guidebook and if visiting other islands, perhaps also Lonely Planet’s Best of Hawaii. These guidebooks provide useful information at your fingertips and give a better understanding of Hawaii’s culture and history. Needless to say, they make for a great souvenir in your travel library.
As far as packing goes, a visit to Kauai revolves mostly around the outdoors with the rest of the time spent at the beach. You must pack proper hiking and rain gear, keeping in mind that trails are often muddy and mosquitos present. For example, pack good waterproof shoes, sweat repelling clothing, light rain gear with a hat, camping gear if relevant, and even hiking poles for those who struggle with inclines. For the beach, it’s really just the usual stuff. Have a look at this page for more information and recommendations.
Are Scenic Helicopter Tours Worth it in Kauai?
Helicopter tours offer a unique vantage point over Kauai’s spectacular and often inaccessible wilderness. I seriously contemplated whether to join one of these but decided to opt-out. Like everything in life, they have their pros and cons:
- Access to Kauai’s impenetrable interior on scenic tours which include flying over (or landing) in Jurassic Park Falls
- Unique vantage point to the Na Pali cliffs and Waimea Canyon
- Possibility to experience the Na Pali cliffs and Waimea Canyon if you cannot hike those for physical reasons or if traveling with children
- Awesome photos!
- Very (very) expensive
- The actual flight time (i.e. the hovering) over the most scenic sections is very (very) minimal
- You’ll likely be snapping photos ALL the time
- Tours are often prone to cancellations, and certain departure times (ex: ‘early bird specials’) are often prone to poorer weather (i.e. clouds)
- You need to check the departure airfield and see if you are geographically close enough to do some exploring by car or on foot after landing
- It is bad for the environment: for people hiking the trails, the air quality, and most importantly for the resident birds and animals
Staying Safe in Kauai
- When sightseeing, do not leave anything visible inside your car or even in the trunk. Car break-ins are unfortunately common in some parts of some of the islands in Hawaii. Kauai is not as bad as other islands (like Maui) but it’s best to not tempt anyone.
- Cellular reception (including mobile data) is not that amazing, to say the least in Kauai. Therefore, ensure your accommodation has free wifi and download an offline Google Map of Kauai.
- Kauai beaches can be dangerous at times with high surf and strong currents. State parks will have proper warning signs and sometimes even lifeguards, but unofficial or remote beaches will not.
- Don’t be tempted to go for a swim in streams. These can often hide bacteria that can lead to nasty infections.
As mentioned above, Kauai is blessed with a lot of rainfall. In the event of heavy rain, here are a few activities to consider.
- Head to the south of Kauai. This is the drier side of the island and it is possible that while it’s raining in Hanalei, it’s sunny in Poipu. In the event of a major storm, this “trick” won’t hold.
- Visit the Kauai Museum in Lihue and learn about the history of the island. You might also be able to join traditional workshops.
- Join a guided tour of Kauai Coffee Company Estate and learn about the history of coffee-making in the island.
- Visit the Grove Farm Museum and learn about the history of sugar cane production in Kauai, a major industry back in the day.
- Tour the Kilohana Plantation. This is also the site of the Luau Kalamaku show.
- Visit the Waioli Mission House in Hanalei. This beautiful and historic building showcases the history of missionary work on the island.
Day 1: Lihue, Poipu and Hanapepe
Start the first of your 5 days in Kauai on the sunny south coast on a road trip that combines historical towns, coastal hikes, and beaches. It doesn’t really matter if you follow this itinerary from east to west (starting in Lihue) or from west to east (starting in Hanapepe).
Pro tip: days 1 and 2 are best explored while you’re based on the south coast. If not feasible, simply account for longer driving times when planning your day.
Lihue is the largest town in Kauai and it is here that you’ll find fast-food joints, shopping centers, large supermarkets and everything else a small town has to offer. There are no must-see tourist attractions in the town itself but check if your visit coincides with either the busting Kauai community farmers market (Saturdays) and the smaller Kauai Grove Center farmers market (Mondays) and Kauai sunshine market (Friday). Here’s a good list of all Kauai farmer’s markets.
Menehune Fishpond Overlook
A brief scenic stop away from the main highway, the overlook reveals sweeping views of the Hule’ia Valley and the river that cuts through it. In ancient times, the river was tamed to form a large pond. The best time to visit the overlook is actually just before sunset, as the changing lights from the setting sun illuminate the valley. However, you can easily come back here for sunset (and drinks at Duke’s Bar) but only if the skies are clear.
Tunnel of Trees
Right after the turnoff to Maluhia Rd (Highway 520) from the main highway (Highway 50), you’ll drive through a brief tree-covered section rightly nicknamed the ‘tunnel of trees’. It’s about a mile-long, enchanting and cool, and in case you were wondering – man-made. For the best photo op, pull over at the fork.
Old Koloa Town
Home to Hawaii’s first sugar mill (1835), Old Koloa Town is on your way so you might as well stop and have a look around. A former plantation town that’s been carefully restored into a tourist shopping complex, you’ll find here a small museum explaining the history of the region, souvenir shops, and eateries. If you happen to be here on a Monday, check out the Koloa Farmer’s Market (noon-2 pm).
Personally, I wasn’t a huge fan of all these ‘historic towns’ in Hawaii. You find them on almost every island. Sure, they are historical, but nowadays, they’re essentially just a collection of tacky souvenir shops. I do recommend stopping by at the Koloa Fish Market for some lunch to go (excellent poke bowls and traditional Hawaiian plate lunches).
This would be the south coast’s prettiest beach if it weren’t for the massive Hyatt resort which reminds you we’re still in America after all. Shipwreck Beach is blessed with soft golden sand and its shaded grassy area has picnic tables. Though the water looks very inviting, swimming can be very hazardous so perhaps just work on your tan, have lunch and rest before the upcoming hike.
Mahaulepu Heritage Coastal Trail
Likely the highlight of the day, it’s time to slip into your hiking shoes and embark on an easy scenic hike along the coastline on the Mahaulepu Heritage Coastal Trail. The trail starts at Shipwreck Beach and ends two miles east in remote Ha’ula Beach (can drive here with a 4WD).
The trail begins with a brief climb to Makawehi Point via the ironwood forest. From here, you’re treated to panoramic views of Shipwreck Beach and the rugged coastline which you’ll now be hiking along. The cliff is also a favorite spot for locals and overconfident tourists who bravely (or foolishly) take the plunge.
From Makawehi Point, the hike is mostly flat going and even if you veer off the sandy main trail, the general direction is pretty clear. Before the halfway mark, you’ll reach a gorgeous cove that’s hugged by sharp limestone pinnacles. On this side of the island, the strong winds have beautifully sculpted the eroding limestone in magnificent works of natural art and it is all yours to enjoy with very few people on the trail.
Moving along, you’ll pass by the sacred remnants of an ancient Hawaiian structure as you round the golf course. It is here that you might, with a bit of luck, spot sea turtles cruising up and down the coast. At this point, you can either turn around or continue to Makauwahi Cave, Mahaulepu Beach and even further to Ha’ula Beach.
Logistics: wear comfortable walking shoes, bring lots of water and wear a hat as there’s no shade along the trail.
Makauwahi Cave & Mahaulepu Beach
One of the coolest spots in Kauai, the Makauwahi Cave is reached via a giant sinkhole and is regarded as one of the richest fossil sites in Hawaii and perhaps the entire Pacific. It has only recently been excavated and is not that frequented by the masses. Through years of detective work, researchers have partially managed to peel the layers of mystery around the religious rituals that were performed on this site by ancient Hawaiians. They have also discovered rare animal species, fossil remains and peculiar “magic tricks” performed by algae. This place is so unique and beautiful, that even Hollywood took notice. Scenes from Pirates of the Caribbean and one of the Indiana Jones films were shot right here!
A short walk from the cave brings you to Lida’s Field of Dreams, a private conservation project where you can get closely acquainted with large turtles. From here, it’s a stone’s throw away to Mahaulepu Beach (a.k.a Gillin’s Beach). It’s one of the wildest beaches in Kauai, where clothing is optional and snorkeling is good at its western edge when the ocean is calm.
Come here to chill, swim, snorkel or just for a quick stroll but bring everything you need because there’s nothing man-made around here aside from a historic off-the-grid home. On some days (especially after storms), beach water might be contaminated from the nearby stream, but there will be signs in such cases.
Logistics: you can reach the cave and beach via the Mahaulepu Heritage Coastal Trail or drive here on the dirt road which begins right after the Grand Hyatt. When you reach a gate, turn right and park along the fence of the horse ranch. Free (and very interesting) guided tours are offered by the researchers themselves throughout most of the week (9 am-2 pm) and donations are highly appreciated.
Poipu to Hanapepe
It’s about a 25-minute drive from Poipu to Hanapepe – the last leg of the day. After all that walking and soaking in the sun, make a pit stop at The Fresh Shave Ice. It’s the best shave ice in Kauai and they quickly run out of popular flavors (~$6 per cup).
At mile marker 14, stop at the signposted Hanapepe Valley Lookout and catch a preview of the type of spectacular scenery waiting in tomorrow’s trip to Waimea Canyon. The lush Hanapepe Valley is prime agricultural land and you should already spot the reddish color of the soil that you’ll be more acquainted with tomorrow.
Dubbed ‘Kauai’s Biggest Little Town’, Hanapepe is actually super tiny. This charming town (I shouldn’t even call it that) was a prosperous place back in the sugar plantation days. These days, Hanapepe is very laid back, attracting young residents who appreciate the sunshine and lack of noise. Over on the main street, Hanapepe’s old wooden structures have been well maintained and a rich art scene has developed.
Hanapepe is a nice place to stop and stretch your legs and even base yourself at if you want to enjoy the Poipu sunshine without the crowds. For an extra bit of fun, cross the swinging bridge. As far as dining options, Hanapepe has plenty of those from the casual to the formal and even awesome local taro chips at Taro Ko Farm.
Sunset in Salt Pond Beach
Celebrate your first day of sightseeing in Kauai with a magical sunset in Salt Pond Park. The beach is quite popular with locals and it is named so thanks to the nearby salt ponds still in use today. There’s a beautiful crescent of golden sand, palm trees that sway in the gentle wind and even a small rocky tide pool for the kids. On a clear day, the forbidden island of Ni‘ihau can be seen in the distance.
Extra: got more time? Check out the peculiar Glass Beach. Thanks to a nearby recycling plant, the sand has pretty much been taken over by tiny pebbles of glass in various colors.