How to Make the Most of Your Trip to Kauai — State Parks, Epic Surfing, and the Largest Limestone Cave in Hawaii Included

The oldest of the main Hawaiian islands, Kauai offers dramatic scenery, endless outdoor adventures, a rich history and culture, and ono (delicious) eats. You don’t need us to convince you that Kauai is an extraordinary place, but with so much to do, see, and eat, you may need some help planning your visit. With that in mind, we’ve gathered some expert tips to help you plot your dream Hawaii trip, including the best things to do on Kauai, where to stay, what to eat, and the best time to visit.

Best Time to Visit Kauai

Aerial shot of a waterfall in the middle of a forest in Kauai

Jason Griego/Getty Images

Kauai is a year-round destination, but there are a few things to keep in mind when choosing travel dates. The best time to visit Kauai depends on your budget and interests. 

The winter months (November to March) can be wet, and heavy rains can impact travel plans, views, and road, trail, and ocean conditions. Due to the islands’ microclimates, you can typically find sun somewhere on Kauai — often on the south shore, though it’s not guaranteed, particularly in the winter. 

Naturally, a larger number of visitors travel to Kauai during the drier summer months, when students are out of school (June to August), as well as during the holidays (especially Christmas, New Year's, Easter, and spring break). If costs and crowds are a concern, you may want to consider visiting Kauai during the winter months or shoulder seasons (September and October, and parts of April and May). 

How to Get to Kauai

Unless you’re taking a transpacific cruise or have the means and training to sail to Hawaii, you’ll need to book a flight. According to the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau's analysis of Diio Mi air data, there are currently more than 120 direct flights to Lihue, Kauai, from the continental U.S. each week, including departures from Los Angeles, Seattle, Denver, and Phoenix. There are also four direct flights per week from Vancouver, Canada. 

Best Places to Stay on Kauai 

Ocean view suite at Ko'a Kea resort

Courtesy of The Meritage Collection

The best place to stay on Kauai depends on your interests, travel style, and budget. The island offers a range of accommodations, from quaint inns to large luxury properties. “When planning a trip to Kauai, finding a place to stay with the right atmosphere and vibe will shape the entire trip,” says Joanna Pascual, Kauai resident and the island experience manager at Koʻa Kea Resort

Travelers looking to immerse themselves in otherworldly landscapes are often drawn to the north shore. There are a handful of affordable inns and high-end resorts here, including Hanalei Colony Resort, a beachfront retreat that encourages guests to unplug (no TVs in the condos here). This part of the island receives a fair amount of rain, which keeps it lush, but can lead to road closures and rough waters in the winter. 

Living room area in suite at Timbers Kaua’i at Hōkūala

Courtesy of Courtesy of Timbers Kaua’i at Hōkūala

The east side of the island, where the Lihue airport is located, offers a variety of options, from affordable hotels to mid-range resorts and luxury residences. Timbers Kauai at Hokuala is the ideal home base for a multigenerational getaway, with upscale amenities and activities — including spa and wellness programs, organic produce from the on-site farm, 13 miles of trails, a variety of cultural activities, an 18-hole golf course, and unique experiences such as the bird and wildlife tour with naturalist guide Alan Silva — and genuinely warm hoʻokipa (hospitality). 

The south shore of the island tends to be the sunniest, so you’ll find numerous hotels here, as well as a larger number of visitors. Koʻa Kea Resort in Poipu is well-suited for sociable travelers seeking a waterfront stay with walkable access to Poipu Beach, shops, and restaurants. For families craving the south shore sunshine, but wanting a place slightly more removed from the bustle of Poipu, The Lodge at Kukui‘ula is the answer. Stand-alone villas and cottages promise privacy, the Hiʻilani Spa offers rejuvenation, and adventure activities provide opportunities to make memories and interact with other guests if you choose.

Travelers looking to retreat even further afield will appreciate the quiet properties on the sparsely populated west side of the island. For a tranquil stay, Jeremiah Felsen, owner and lead guide of Kauai Hiking Tours, recommends Waimea Plantation Cottages. “Located just outside of charmingly rustic Waimea Town and down the hill from the trails in Waimea Canyon State Park and Kōkeʻe State Park, the property has...affordable, multiroom cottages with full kitchens,” he says. 

Best Places to Eat on Kauai

A woman with a fruit stand at a farmer's market in Kauai

Courtesy of Hawai‘i Tourism Authority

Kauai’s location and environment are ideal for growing an abundance of foods and sourcing fresh seafood from the surrounding waters. 

You can find a farmers market somewhere on Kauai every day of the week, and this is an ideal place to try tropical fruits, vegetables, honey, chocolates, and more (keep an eye out for locally made Lydgate Farms chocolate, or book a chocolate tour and tasting on their family-run farm).

For a true farm-to-fork meal with Surfrider Foundation’s Ocean-friendly Restaurants stamp of approval, book a Tuesday night table at Hualani’s. The restaurant utilizes organic produce from their on-site farm, combined with other locally sourced ingredients, to create a prix-fixe dining experience featuring a menu that changes each week.

Looking for no-frills restaurants loved by locals? Pascual recommends Tip Top Cafe. “It’s a beloved local spot that has been open for more than 100 years,” she says. Or, if you’re craving noodles, consider Hamura Saimin. “This restaurant has been in business for 50-plus years, and anyone who is from Kauai frequents it,” says Native Hawaiian Joy Stedman, the senior business development executive at Timbers Kauai. “I recommend you pair their ‘extra-large special,’ which features cabbage, onions, and fishcake, with skewers of beef or chicken, and lilikoi pie for dessert.”

Poke, a popular raw fish dish, is also a must-try on Kauai. If you time your trip right, you can taste some of the best poke in Hawaii at the Kauai Poke Fest With Sam Choy & Friends at Koloa Landing Resort. “Professional and amateur chefs across the state compete for the best poke recipe, and the winning dish is added to the resort’s Holoholo Grill menu,” says chef Sam Choy. “As an attendee, you get to talk to the chefs, sample the competitors’ creations, and vote for your favorite poke.”

If you’re keen on trying shave ice, Pascual recommends JoJo’s Shave Ice. “The portions are large, and they’re known for their delicious, generously drizzled, flavorful syrups.” 

Best Things to Do on Kauai

A person on top of a mountain taking a photo of Waimea Canyon

Sunny Fitzgerald

Kauai is such a gorgeous place, you could do absolutely nothing and still enjoy it. (And you really should leave room in your schedule to embrace the slower pace.) But there's plenty to do and see on the island, from mauka (toward the mountains) to makai (toward the ocean). 

The famed Kalalau Trail and well-trodden routes in Waimea Canyon State Park attract a large number of hikers — which has led to overcrowding on some of the more popular paths. Fortunately, Kauai is home to dozens of hiking trails, from accessible paved paths, like the coastal Ke Ala Hele Makālae, to 3,000-foot ridge trails, so there are plenty of other options for a range of ages and abilities. 

Go on a bird-watching walk at Kīlauea Point National Wildlife Refuge, home to one of the largest populations of nesting seabirds in the state. Stroll in the shade of towering redwoods, Japanese sugi pines, and “swamp mahogany” in Koke‘e State Park. Or, take a guided trek with Kauai Hiking Tours along a section of the Mahaulepu Heritage Trail to Makauwahi Cave Reserve, the largest limestone cave in Hawaii and one of the state’s most significant archaeological sites.

Take a surf lesson or try outrigger canoe paddling, and experience the thrill of riding waves. The southern shore of Kauai tends to receive larger swells in the summer, while waves in the north are bigger during the winter months. Explore the underwater world with a day of diving or snorkeling. Stedman recommends one of her favorite snorkeling spots – Anini Beach Park — where you’ll find lifeguards on duty and a long coral shelf for snorkeling. 

While the ocean around Kauai is beautiful, it can be dangerous; abide by posted signs and lifeguard warnings, and don’t enter the water if you’re inexperienced. Take a lesson with the experts such as the team at Hoku Water Sports, or join a guided tour like Holo Holo Charters' snorkel sail. If you’re looking for a full day on — and in — the water with the chance to snorkel near the “Forbidden Island” of Niihau, consider their Niihau and Napali Super Tour.

Whatever you decide to do, remember to travel pono (with righteousness, respect, and alignment). “Travel pono means to explore with care, to help preserve our natural resources, cultures, and communities,” Stedman says. “Embrace the malama Kauai (care for Kauai) way — leave the island better than you found it.” The Kauai Visitors Bureau offers tips and inspiration for experiencing the island safely and respectfully.

A great way to give back while also learning about the culture, land, and traditions is to join organized volunteer efforts. Stedman recommends participating in a workday at 'Alekoko Fishpond. “According to local folklore, the site was built nearly 1,000 years ago by the mythical Menehune. It is said that the Menehune lived in the forest surrounding the fishpond and built it in one night. Although the actual pond itself is not open to the public, every third Saturday of the month, Mālama Hulē‘ia holds a community workday with environmental stewardship programs that honor Hawaiian culture and values,” Stedman says. “During these voluntourism activities, you'll get a rare up close and personal look at the pond.”

Felsen volunteers monthly at Makauwahi Cave, and also recommends joining voluntourism experiences with Travel2Change, including beach cleanups on the north shore and invasive species removal on the south shore.

Be mindful not to overbook your trip to Kauai. As Tiffany Dusenberry, the director of food and beverage at The Club at Kukui‘ula, says, a lot of the best things to do on Kauai are free. “Take in all the rainbows. Savor eating a juicy lychee. Admire the stunning seashells. Relax. Eat. Reset.”

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