Kauai Is a Paradise on Earth — Here's What to Do When You're There

Kauai Travel Guide
Photo: Salvatore DiBenedetto

Few places on Earth possess the sublime beauty of Hawaii's Kauai. Vacationers with their eye on golden sand and Pacific water will find refuge along Kauai’s shores, and the Hawaiian island is well equipped with restaurants, resorts, and beaches that impress, especially given the destination’s secluded nature.

Travelers who seek to go beyond the surface will be further rewarded with a treasure trove of experiences that inspire and thrill: Kauai’s geological and cultural history are rich, and the thunderous landscape, lush waterfalls, and spiritual core can make for the trip of a lifetime.

The island brings to life every aspect of travel that I covet, which is why I’ve returned to its shores numerous times since my first visit four years ago. If you're lucky enough to be headed to this paradise, here is a Kauai, Hawaii guide to make sure you experience what the island has to offer.

Arrive on a Hawaiian-inspired Flight

Hawaiian Airlines
Salvatore DiBenedetto

Of all my flights to Kauai, the most convenient and relaxing has been aboard Hawaiian Airlines. The airline's New York City to Hawaii route is direct, which makes an arrival to the islands’ seamless. To get to Kauai, a quick layover and 40 minute flight from Honolulu will be required.

In Hawaiian Airlines' business class — if you can swing it — the 11-hour ride doesn’t just become comfortable, but enjoyable as well. Lie-flat seats, Hawaiian designed bedding and gracious staff set the tone for a flight inspired by Hawaiian culture and hospitality. It’s an ideal journey to transition into island mode.

Start with a mai tai before elevating into a commendable four-course airline meal that is highlighted with Hawaiian elements and designed by Hawaiian chefs. Soothing Aloha music, hot towels, and a sizable entertainment menu combat the stigma of a Wi-Fi-free flight. This proved easy for me as I find airplane Wi-Fi to be more of a stress trigger than convenience, especially on ocean-crossing flights.

Vacation in the South Shore While Exploring the Wild West

Kauai, although relatively small, is separated into distinct regions with tailored charm. The South Shore, which you enter through a tunnel of trees, is a staple of the island’s vacation scene. It’s also a comfortable place to launch your adventures into the rugged West which is home to Waimea Canyon and the Napali Coast.

Stay & Dine at One of T+l’s World’s Best

Beach, luxury, and amenity cravings will all be satisfied at Koa Kea Resort. The property, which came in third last year in Travel + Leisure's World’s Best Awards for Hawaii, is a prime example of Pacific hospitality. Those who seek to capitalize on the Hawaiian aesthetic should book an oceanfront suite which comes with a lanai inspired bedroom, living room and balcony that gives guests a front row seat to Poipu’s iconic sunsets and surfer-dotted waves.

Koa Kea Resort and Red Salt
Salvatore DiBenedetto

Koa Kea also hosts one of the area’s most acclaimed restaurants, Red Salt, which is helmed by Kauai native Chef Noelani Planas. The restaurant’s windows overlook palm trees and the Pacific, while simplistic yet stylish design sets an ambiance ideal for any dining situation. Chef Planas’ cuisine, with its infusion of Hawaiian ingredients, parlays well against modern-American flare.

Guests will find it easy to relax at Koa Kea as well. Take a dip in the resorts lava-rock encrusted pool or kick back at the nightly fire pits that sit below starry skies. The spa also offers interesting treatments, like its Ho’ala Kauai Coffee Scrub Wrap, which gives a nod to Kauai’s thriving coffee bean industry.

Where to Eat on the South Shore

Poipu’s buzzing tourism scene has given rise to a variety of culinary stories. One of my favorites in this region is Makai Sushi Bar, which finds its home in Kukuiula Market, one of Kauai’s only mom and pop shop’s left. Operated by Chef Matthew Oliver, the small stand is dolling out rolls and poke bowls stocked with high quality fish in an unexpected venue. Don’t miss their signature dish, the Gorilla Bowl or my custom roll order: Ahi tuna, king salmon and avocado with the works.

A quick walk outside and you’ll come face to face with Waikomo Shave Ice, owned by Chef Matt’s brother, Thomas Oliver. The stand’s mango and strawberry shave ice with coconut cream is a standout of my shave ice experiences on the island.

Makai Sushi and Waikomo Shave Ice, Kauai, Hawaii
Salvatore DiBenedetto

Travelers who seek scenic dining experiences on the south shore should book reservations at both Plantation Gardens and The Beach House.

Each restaurant offers different aesthetics that appeal to Kauai’s ocean and garden character. Plantation Gardens, located in the historic Moir Gardens, is a refreshing experience rooted in botanical aesthetic and cuisine (try the lavender piña colada!) While getting lost in the vibrant colors of your flowery surrounding, you’ll indulge in a menu that focuses heavily on local resources. Try the signature seafood lau-lau which substitutes prime fish, shrimp and scallops in lieu of the traditional pork.

The Beach House is best visited during sunset hours given its waterfront location. Start with their famous Monkeypod mai tai, which comes crowned with a honey-lilikoi foam. Take in the crashing waves and color changing sky while you sink into favorites like lobster deviled eggs, crispy fish tacos and a delicious seafood linguine.

Explore the Grand Canyon of the Pacific

Though the vacation aspect of the South is enticing to get lost in, make sure to embark on a Kauai adventure in the West. Aside from the Napali, which can only be fully seen by boat or aircraft, the West side is famous for the monstrous Waimea Canyon. The 3,600 foot deep natural wonder is an awe-striking scene. Marvel at dramatic landscape that is splashed with waterfalls, red volcanic dirt, and vibrant green hues that roll along the surface. Whether you simply stop at the lookout to peer, find a hike that’s suitable for your skill-set or roll out a picnic blanket to relax, Waimea Canyon is an essential piece of visiting Kauai (and it’s free, too).

Kipu Ranch ATV, Kauai, Hawaii
Salvatore DiBenedetto

Take an ATV Through Hollywood’s Favorite Film Set

On Kipu Ranch Adventure’s ATV tour, you’ll be treated to a scenic, knowledge driven ride. The excursion puts the steering wheels of an ATV directly in guests’ hands while whisking them to a variety of scenic lookouts around the ranch. It’s easy to see why this land has consistently been chosen by Hollywood’s elite as the backdrop for various blockbuster films. Throughout the tour, guides delve into the history of the centuries old property and how it intertwines Kauai’s legacy both past and present. This is a great option for those looking to get adventurous and see the sights at a comfortable, approachable pace.

Marvel at Kauai’s Iconic Napali Coast by Sea and Air

The traveler who has never laid eyes on Napali has never truly seen Kauai at all. As the oldest of the Hawaiian Islands, Kauai’s iconic West Coast transcends natural beauty, becoming a visual testament to the island’s story of creation and its evolution into today.

Cruise Alongside Wild Dolphins and Whales as You Ride the Coast

A boat ride through Napali showcases its sheer grandeur and power by putting you at the foot of its colossal presence. I hopped on a boat with Makana Charters for an in-depth tour of the coast. The company, which is owned and operated by Kauai local Cain Robinson, takes a particular interest in creating a fun, authentic experience laced with Hawaiian storytelling.

Along our boat ride we rode the waves into the very heart of Napali, capturing a whole new appreciation for the island. Marine life is abundant in the waters off the coast. Along our tour we spotted a hammerhead shark treading the surface, rode alongside pods of wild dolphins and even reveled in the wake of breaching Humpback whales.

Napali Coast Boat Tour, Kauai, Hawaii
Salvatore DiBenedetto

The company offers a variety of tour sizes, from 32 passenger to luxury private charters. All come equip with deli lunches, beverages and a vast understanding of the land and waters trekked along the tour.

Pro Tip: Stop at Ishihara Market and grab a poke bowl before the boat tour. It makes for a great photo opportunity too!

Hop on a Doors Off Helicopter Ride for an Eagle Eye’s View of Napali

Jack Harter Helicopter’s doors off excursion is an essential for anyone willing to brave an open air flight. Despite my anxiety and fear of heights, I’ve done this tour twice and each time I’ve felt nothing short of exhilaration while in the air. It’s oddly peaceful. Flying along Kauai’s mountainous ridges and soaring deep into Waimea Canyon can barely prepare you for your emergence out onto the Napali Coast. No doors means unrivaled views of its powerful presence.

The doors off helicopter ride is an ideal experience for landscape enthusiasts and thrill seekers. Though the concept of flying with the doors off seems terrifying, the entire hour long ride is quite digestible and by the end you’ll be grateful you did it.

Jack Harter Helicopter Ride, Kauai, Hawaii
Salvatore DiBenedetto

Lihue & The Royal Coconut Coast

The East Side is arguably the most strategically located and energetic of all Kauai’s coasts. Offering direct access to all of the island’s inhabitable shores, the region is brimming with artisan businesses, spiritual retreats and natural beauty.

Catch Sublime Views, Watch Breaching Whales From an Infinity Pool and Dine on Farm to Table Cuisine at This Resort

Timbers Kauai, though the newest of Kauai’s resorts, is poised to be one of Hawaii’s most desired. Opened in 2018, the oceanfront property features stunning apartment-style suites which range from two to four bedrooms.

Timbers Resorts, Kauai, Hawaii
Salvatore DiBenedetto

Make your stay even more memorable in the Kaiholo units with striking views of ocean blues and lush green mountains. These sights make for an elevated hospitality experience, especially when they are framed by balconies, wall sized doors and bathroom windows. Interior designs are chic and clean, paying homage to Hawaiian aesthetic through cool colors, oceanic textures and modern simplicity.

The property is by all means an immersive experience with panoramic views of its surreal surroundings. The resort’s two tier infinity pool and indoor-outdoor restaurant sit perched above the Pacific with sweeping views of both the ocean and Kauai’s famous Ninini Lighthouse. In the Winter months, guests enjoy a front row seat to breaching whales in the distant sea. Timbers Kauai’s closest beach, Kalapaki, sits a mile away and is also within view.

Food enthusiasts will greatly appreciate a stay here given Timbers Kauai’s incredible farm to table operation. The resort’s property hosts a fully functioning vegetable farm that provides the greens to its culinary team. The farm is open to guests who may visit with operator Cody Lee Meyer whose infectious enthusiasm shines in his efforts here. “Our goal is to create such a surplus that we’re able to provide vegetables for all schools in Kauai,” he told me as we drove through fields of eggplant, lettuce and basil.

The kitchen who receives the bounty is run by Chef Jafet Tellez. His cuisine at Timbers Kauai’s Hualani Restaurant draws on inspiration from his Mexican heritage and local Hawaiian ingredients. The poke crowned guacamole serves as a fine example of this fusion. If you’re staying in a unit, you can even have Chef Jafet cook dinner for you in your suite. I took advantage of this and indulged in a surf n turf feast of Kauai sourced chimichurri skirt steak, grilled Kauai shrimp and a medley of vegetables we handpicked from the farm.

Where to Eat on the East Side

Dining on the East Coast is rich in diversity with everything from upscale dining to food trucks. Begin your days with a bottle of Kauai Juice Company, whose varying products don’t just taste great but also aid in health. Sourcing all ingredients for their cold pressed juices from Kauai, this is a fantastic way to taste the island while racking up nutrients.

Those seeking quality breakfast and brunch options should take haven at Art Cafe Hemingway, Kountry Kitchen or Passion Bakery. Art Cafe Hemingway serves up a finely curated menu of food and coffee in a space inspired by author Ernest Hemingway’s adventures (with art to match!) Those who are more keen on breakfast platters will find Hawaiian and American classics at Kountry Kitchen, whose humble space is great for morning afters. Passion Bakery, which is a fully functioning pastry and breads shop, is also home to incredible breakfast sandwiches. The jalapeño-mozzarella currently stands as one of my favorites in the world.

You’ll also find great lunch choices on the East Side. Food trucks, a popular culinary culture on the island, have varying outposts on the Coconut Coast. Kapaa is particularly rich, with an entire court and scattered staples throughout. Don’t miss 3 Girls Local Grill for plate lunches, Scorpacciata for Neapolitan pizza, Porky’s for Kalua pork hot dogs or Al Pastor for tacos.

Pono Market, an unassuming grocery store, may have the island’s best poke. Vegans will rejoice at Eat Healthy where plant based recipes come alive underneath Kauai’s Sleeping Giant mountain. And one of the new kids on the block, The Local, also makes a strong lunch case with creative spins on humble classics and an interesting curation of craft cocktails.

Hukilau Lanai, Kauai, Hawaii
Salvatore DiBenedetto

Dinners are the pinnacle of the Coconut Coast’s dining scene. My favorite restaurant on the island is undoubtedly Hukilau Lanai, who rides the line of comfort and upscale. Reserve a table outside just before sunset begins. You’ll be treated to smooth live music while dining on classics like Okinawa sweet potato raviolis, poke nachos, lobster & goat cheese wontons and farmer’s market vegetable lasagna. JO2, though lacking scenic power, serves up dynamite, creative cuisine by Chef Jean-Marie Gosselin. Bull Shed is a noble oceanfront restaurant choice whose surf n turf options will be appreciated by steakhouse enthusiasts.

Though nightlife on Kauai is scarce, you’ll pacify your needs at Rob’s Good Time Bar & Grill or Kauai Beer Company. Rob’s Good Time Bar & Grill is a local favorite for bar style food and a plethora of entrainment like karaoke, DJ and trivia nights. Kauai Beer Company is a fully functioning brewery and restaurant whose laid back drinking room is ideal for leisurely conversation with your traveling companion(s).

Watch a Luau and Feast on Hawaiian Tradition

A trip to Hawaii isn’t complete without attending a festive luau. The celebration is a marker of Hawaiian culture through cultural showcasings and historic cuisine. Visit the Smith Family Garden Luau, a 50 year old family affair that takes place on 30 acres of botanical beauty in the coveted Wailua River Valley. The dinner takes place after an imu ceremony and serves guests a buffet of Hawaiian classics like Kalua pork, poi, chicken teriyaki, salmon lomi and mac salad. The show is a splendid blend of theatrics, authenticity and entertainment. Did I mention the open bar?

Go Beyond Vacationing With a Spiritual Experience

Legend has it that Kauai is a spiritual vortex and the energy of its landscape certainly creates a mystic vibe. In fact, Anahola a place where all souls enter the world. There are many places on this side of the island that cater to deep serenity that is worthy of carving time out for. Please note that though these sites are open to the public, adherence to each site's ethos should be heavily respected.

In the mountains you’ll find the Kauai Hindu Monastery. The growing site is fit with breathtaking jungle grounds that even feature a banyan tree. The morning puja ceremony is an immersive cultural experience that is meditative, relaxing and insightful. After a stroll, head down the road to the Sacred Forest which is covered in elaeocarpus ganitrus trees that fill the ground with sacred Rudraksha seeds. It is the only of its kind in the Western Hemisphere.

Also on Kauai’s East Side is a variety of heiaus, most notably Kukui Heiau and Hikinaakala Heiau. These ancient Hawaiian temples are significant markers of Hawaiian culture prior to Western contact. Though mostly archeological in sight, the land is still deeply sacred to Hawaiians. A visit to any of the temple remains should be marked with silence, observance and adherence to the rules posted.

Take a Shelter Dog on a Field Trip to the Beach or the Sleeping Giant

Tie a good deed into your trip when you visit the Kauai Humane Society whose giving new meaning to embarking on a journey. In an effort to get dogs out of cages and into the fresh air, the shelter allows for both visitors and locals to take potential rescues on a “field trip.”

You can bring your new friend to the beach or even go on a hike. Those with moderate hiking experience should head to Sleeping Giant, a mountain whose ridge resembles that of a snoozing titan. The trail is one of Eastern Kauai’s easier hikes and has several scenic outlooks along the way to the top. Or you can keep it leisurely at one of the Coconut Coast’s many beaches, which are usually dog friendly.

The North Shore

As you make your way into the North Shore, you will understand why Kauai has earned its name as the Garden Isle. As the wettest of Kauai’s regions, the North blooms in vibrant colors, creating an Eden that has become a staple of exclusivity and luxury on the island.

Stay at a Lush Beachfront Villa

A bespoke stay on Kauai’s North can be entirely curated by Pure Kauai, a company which constructs getaways on the North Shore for its clients. Rental homes vary in price and size but all share in the supreme sense of place and fine precision to details. After staying in resorts along the South and East, a home stay was a welcomed perspective to island life. Each home comes equip with an ‘island host’ who will help with everything from insider knowledge to setting up amenities and excursions.

Pure Kauai, Kauai, Hawaii
Salvatore DiBenedetto

I stayed at the Anini Beachfront Home, which sat directly on a secluded part of Anini beach. Dreams of falling asleep to waves crashing in Hawaii came to life and mornings offered panoramic views of the property’s stunning backyard. Sticking true to the exclusive spirit of the North, the company has access to the island’s most respected artisans, chefs and professionals.

The vast amount of services available include taking a private yoga class in your living room, hosting a private luau in your backyard or enjoying finely crafted meals cooked by a private chef. I opted for the latter and enjoyed vegan cooking classes and meals prepared by Kauai local Chef Hollan Hamid who goes by Hollan Hawaii.

She has made quite a name for herself in Kauai’s culinary world. After founding Eat Healthy in Kapaa, where her recipes are still in use, she is now preparing the launch of her vegan cookbook that is also laden with lifestyle advice. Luckily for me, she is available for private cooking sessions exclusively with Pure Kauai and I got to try out some of her new recipe from the book. Though I’m not vegan, I was very impressed with how each dish made the diet switch seamless. Ask for the Anini beach vegan picnic for a Bohemian inspired experience.

Where to Eat on the North Shore

When you finally decide to leave your house, the North Shore has a great selection of food options. Those craving a carb fix should make a pilgrimage to Piazza, whose chic-tropical ambiance create a great space to indulge in pizza, pasta and wine. The showstopper here, interestingly enough, was their gelato selections, among the best I’ve ever had.

The Dolphin, whose success in Hanalei has resulted in a new Poipu location, fuels guests with freshly caught sashimi, fusion rolls and poke alike. Speaking local, the Hanalei Farmers Market is a treat for those in the area on Saturday mornings. Artisan craft makers, farmers and bakers set up shop in an area that comes with a thunderous mountain view.

Food trucks are also abundant in the North’s Hanalei area. You can sink into the rich flavors of India at Tumeric Cafe, grab a Kalua pig eggs benedict at Saenz Ohana Breakfast, or feast on solid plate lunches at Trucking Delicious. Holey Grail Donuts which only operates on Sundays, crafts beautiful vegan donuts fried in coconut oil that shouldn’t be missed.

Holey Grail Doughnuts, Kauai, Hawaii
Salvatore DiBenedetto

Horseback Ride to an Exclusive Waterfall

Take to the land atop a horse at Princeville Ranch Adventures’ Waterfall Picnic Ride. The tour whisks riders through Northern Kauai’s countryside before hiking down to the ranch’s onsite waterfall. The primal experience was quite approachable, even as someone who has never been on a horse.

Princeville Ranch, Kauai, Hawaii
Salvatore DiBenedetto

Once you arrive to the waterfall, which is fairly exclusive to the ranch, you’ll have ample time to soak in the scene. The tour includes a deli lunch picnic which will fuel you up for the small rock climb and waterfall crossing ahead.

Marvel at the North’s Natural Beauty

Kauai’s North Shore is riddled with beaches, from discreet hideaways to high profile staples. Beach goers should pay particular attention to surf reports to ensure safety, especially in the Winter months.

Moloaa beach is one of the island’s more obscure and undeveloped sandy outposts which usually results in scarcer crowds. The picturesque beach was the location for the first episodes of Gilligan’s Island. Hanalei Bay and the Hanalei Bay lookout provide beach goers with scenic views and commercial conveniency. Anini Beach is characterized by a 2 mile coral reef (Hawaii's longest) which soothes and calms Anini's shores. In the aftermath of rain shower, it's a great place to catch a mesmerizing rainbow too!

The Takeaway

Whether you consider Kauai a spiritual vortex, luxury vacation or tropical getaway, there is no denying the island’s intensely unique spirit. While the landscape and natural beauty tell the story of the island’s five million years of history, its dynamic businesses and artisans bring the place to life. Regardless if you travel for adventure or vacation, you’ll leave its shores calling it one of your new favorite places on Earth.

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