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Things to Do in Kauai

Time has dramatically carved the landscape of Kauai, the northernmost and oldest of the main Hawaiian Islands. It has a more rural and intimate feel than neighboring Oahu, and still teems with authentic Hawaiian culture and heritage. Lush and enchanting, many of the aptly named Garden Isle’s natural wonders are seen only by air or water, and myriad tours and backcountry adventures abound. A first stop for many visitors is the western Na Pali Coast, where snorkel, kayak, and sunset sailing cruises navigate the waters beneath steep, brilliantly hued mountain ridges framing waterfalls and deep valleys. Some boat tours visit sea caves and nearby Niihau, the Forbidden Island, or ply the Pacific in search of spinner dolphins and migrating humpback whales. Back on land, coursing down trails on a mountain bike is an exhilarating way to explore Waimea Canyon—the Grand Canyon of the Pacific—and neighboring Koke'e State Park. Head east to the serene Wailua River for kayaking and hiking among fern grottos and hidden waterfalls. Down south, fly through the treetops on a Koloa zipline tour. And then, of course, there are Kauai’s heavenly beaches—Hanalei Bay and Spouting Horn are two of the island’s most scenic. Come evening, head to Luau Kalamaku for Hawaiian cuisine and Polynesian entertainment. And don’t be fooled by Kauai’s small size: There is a lot to do, so a multi-day tour may be the best way to see it all—or if you’re short on time, a helicopter tour reveals Kauai’s natural beauty from above.
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Na Pali Coast
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Kauai’s Na Pali Coast is famous for its seaside beauty, marine life and water sports.

The 15-mile (24 km) length of coast is lined by cliffs, white-sand beaches and turquoise sea.

Come here to whale watch or spot dolphins and monk seals on an eco-cruise or sailing adventure. Follow the Kalalau Trail to go hiking across the cliff tops to Hanakapiai beach and waterfalls.

Say hello to the local marine life on a snorkeling excursion, with the opportunity to see tropical fish and green sea turtles.

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Huleia National Wildlife Refuge
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Visible by kayak from the Huleia River, or from a roadside overlook, the otherwise closed-to-the-public Huleia National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Kauai is a popular bird watching spot. The site is one of just two sanctuaries on the planet (both National Wildlife Refuges on Kauai) home to wild populations of five species of endangered Hawaiian waterbirds—the Hawaiian coot, stilt, duck, goose (the state bird) and the elusive moorhen.
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Hanalei Bay
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One of Kauai’s most beautiful stretches of water, Hanalei Bay is a hub for watersports on the island’s north shore.

Flanked by idyllic stretches of beach and backed by mountains, the bayside town of Hanalei is filled with shops renting kayaks, sailing boats, surfboards. Come here to soak up the rays on the beach, dip your toe in the water, take a stroll on the pier or bring a picnic to enjoy on the sand.

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Mt. Waialeale
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Be prepared for more colors of green than you’ve ever seen before in the area surrounding Kauai’s central Mt. Waialeale—it’s one of the wettest places on planet Earth, receiving more than 450 inches of rainfall each year. It’s dominating sheer green 5,066 cliff wall has also been called the Wall of Tears, for the many waterfalls that fill its crevices and stream down its face during frequent rains. And, if the setting looks familiar, that could be because it starred as the backdrop for opening scenes of the original 1992 Jurassic Park movie. To get to the base of Waialeale, and to the the Wailua River, you’ll have to take a 4x4 down the bumpy Wailua Forestry Management Road and then trek in. Alternatively, several helicopter tours take you much closer to its cliff face—and its waterfalls—than you could easily get to on a hike.

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Niihau
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Known as the Forbidden Island, Niʻihau is mostly untouched by outsiders, creating a microcosm of Hawaiian history and culture. Just 17 miles (27 kilometers) off the coast of Kauai, the island’s fewer than 200 residents speak Hawaiian and live without cars, electricity, and modern amenities.
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Menehune Fish Pond
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The Menehune Fishpond is scenic—set amid lush jungle where craggy mountains are close enough to frame the edges of a killer sunset photo shot. But this giant pool of green-brown water has been attributed mythical qualities that are evident even in its name. Menehune is a mysterious race of little people—some say they’re like Hawaiian leprechauns—that have been credited with building sites throughout the Hawaiian Islands swiftly and stealthily. Legend has it they built this particular 39-acre loko wai (freshwater pond) by passing stones to each other from the village of Makaweli more than two dozen miles away, damming up the Hule’ia River with walls 900 feet long and five feet tall. In a single night. To get up close and personal with the work of the Menehune, join a kayak tour of the Hule’ia—it’s the only way to gain access into the otherwise off-limits Hule’ia National Wildlife Refuge that surrounds the pond.

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Kalalau Lookout
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The Napali Coast tops nearly everyone’s Kauai bucketlists with its sheer green undulating cliffs dropping directly into cerulean waters. The Kalalau Trail takes you back in and along Napali’s Valleys for 11 miles down to the beach and back up and out for another 11—a trip that takes most people at least two days to complete. Not for everyone. Enter the Kalalau Lookout, an easily accessible vantage from which to take in the deep expanse of Napali’s most recognizable Kalalau Valley and get a taste of Napali from land without all of the hiking. Sitting at an elevation of 4,000 feet, the lookout is perfectly positioned to take in the full two-mile-across valley and the ocean beyond.

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Opaekaa Falls
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Kaua‘i, is green, and Kaua‘i is wet—but that’s also why it’s so beautiful. Parts of the island receive over 400 inches of rainfall every year, and all that rain means the “Garden Isle” is dripping in dozens of waterfalls. While some of these waterfalls require trekking through mud just to gain a glimpse of their splendor, others ones such as Opaeka‘a Falls only require stepping out of the car. Tumbling just over 150’, Opaeka‘a Falls is a year-round waterfall that is guaranteed to be flowing. The falls usually feature two separate streams that splash their way down the cliff face, but after periods of especially heavy rain, the two falls can merge into a single, explosive cascade. Whatever the size, the best time to visit is usually in the late morning when the falls are bathed in sunlight—and if it happens to be cloudy day, the falls are so close and easily accessible it’s easy to pay another visit.

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Fern Grotto
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Perfect acoustics and gorgeous scenery come together at Fern Grotto, the highlight of a cruise on the Wailua River.

A natural amphitheater, the fern-filled grotto provides a unique venue for visitors to hear traditional Hawaiian music in one of the islands’ most beautiful outdoor settings. The beautiful grotto was created by volcanic activity, and is draped in tropical ferns.

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More Things to Do in Kauai

Waioli Mission House

Waioli Mission House

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Daniel K. Inouye Kilauea Point Lighthouse

Daniel K. Inouye Kilauea Point Lighthouse

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Guarding the tip of Kilauea Point since 1913, this historic Kilauea Lighthouse is one of Kauai’s most visited attractions.

One of the most intact historic lighthouses in the USA, the lighthouse was decommissioned in 1976 and now forms part of a wildlife refuge for migrating seabirds. Gaze out to sea and imagine the ships that were guided by its light, pick up a souvenir in the gift shop, and learn about the restoration project that’s currently under way.

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Makua Beach (Tunnels Beach)

Makua Beach (Tunnels Beach)

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Waimea Canyon

Waimea Canyon

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Known as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, Waimea Canyon is a wild and wonderful river gorge. Carved over the millennia by the volcanic activity and the floodwaters of the Waimea River, the red rock canyon measures up 16 km long, and 900 m deep. Known for its spectacular views and hiking trails, Waimea Canyon offers plenty of scenic lookouts, picnic areas and nature trails.
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Wailua River

Wailua River

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Kauai’s Wailua River runs from the volcanic Wailua crater to the coast, flowing through the Wailua River State Park.

It’s Hawaii’s only navigable river, so make the most of the experience with a boat tour or cruise into the island’s rugged interior. Along the way, you’ll pass waterfalls, nature reserves and walking trails as the river slowly meanders its way inland. The river’s highlights are Fern Grotto, Wailua Falls and Secret Falls, reached by a secluded walking trail.

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Spouting Horn

Spouting Horn

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When the island of Kauai erupted from the sea between 4 and 5 million years ago, parts of the coastline were riddled with tubes where molten lava once flowed. One of those spots is the Spouting Horn on the island’s southern coast, where waves are channeled into the tube before violently erupting in a saltwater geyser over 50 feet in the air. Compared to other Hawaiian blowholes, what makes Kauai’s Spouting Horn unique is the guttural moan that precedes the powerful eruption. A second, smaller hole in the rocks funnels air as opposed to water, and the result is a sound that makes it seem like the rocks themselves are groaning. No wonder Hawaiians believed that a mo’o was stuck inside of the rocks—a mischievous lizard of Polynesian lore that can still be heard to this day. Once finished admiring the geyser and feeling the ocean’s fury, peruse the homemade souvenir stalls erected by local vendors.

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Wailua Falls

Wailua Falls

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Kauai is known as “The Garden Isle” for its exceptionally verdant beauty, and when you first catch sight of Wailua Falls it’s easy to understand why. Spilling 80 feet over a rocky ledge into a fresh water pool below, this double-streamed, misty cascade so perfectly captures the tropical essence that it was used as part of the opening scene for the TV show, Fantasy Island.

And, while there’s definitely no shortage of waterfalls on Kauai, what makes Wailua Falls so popular is the fact that you can see the falls without even having to hike. As you follow rural, Ma’alu Road as it twists its way up the mountain, there will eventually be a large parking lot approximately four miles up from the highway. Here, from a sweeping viewpoint on a country road looking over Wailua Stream, a heart-stopping view of Wailua Falls is only a few steps away.

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Kauai Coffee Company

Kauai Coffee Company

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There was once a time when the island of Kauai was awash in waving green sugar. When the last mill closed down, however, in October of 2009, the island was left searching for a new crop to step in and fill the void. Luckily for island plantation workers and caffeine lovers worldwide, coffee is starting to pick up on Kauai where the sugar cane industry left off.

Nowhere is this more evident than at Kauai Coffee Company in the town of Kalaheo, where over 4 million trees on 3,100 acres officially make this the largest coffee farm found anywhere in the United States. Take a guided tour through the coffee fields to learn the production process, or sample from over 20 different coffees at the large tasting room on site. Every bean that’s served and sold is grown right here in Hawaii, and when you’ve gotten enough of a buzz for the day, look out at the rows of waving green leaves that disappear over gentle hills to the tropical shoreline below.

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Kilohana Plantation

Kilohana Plantation

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About as touristy as you can get on sleepy Kauai, Kilohana Plantation, the former estate of a sugar baron, now boasts a short train ride through tropical orchards, an upscale alfresco restaurant, the headquarters for Kauai’s only major rum distillery, shopping and a spa, plus a luau complete with fire twirlers. Thanks to a 1980s restoration, the 16,000-square-foot manor house retains much of the structural charm it must have had when Gaylord Parke Wilcox, the head of the Grove Farm sugar plantation, built the Tudor mansion in 1935.

Though history buffs will find a few interior nods to the Hawaii Historic Landmark’s former use—vintage photographs, ornate carpeting, hardwood floors and wainscoting—this is no museum. The home’s bedrooms, sitting rooms and sunrooms now host shops purveying a huge variety of 8island-inspired souvenirs from glassworks to pottery, apparel and jewelry to coconut carvings, confections and spices.

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Poipu Beach Park

Poipu Beach Park

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Poipu Beach Park is Kauai’s most popular beach resort for families, with a natural ocean pool, golden sand and an endless array of watersports.

This beach is watched over by lifeguards, to ensure safe seaside fun for all the family. You’ll also find a playground, washing facilities, picnic tables, shady lawns and mini golf.

The vacation activities are boundless at Poipu, from summertime surfing and year-round snorkeling to hiking, horseback riding and golf.

Other beaches nearby include protected Baby Beach for youngsters, body-surfing waves at Brennecke’s, snorkeling from Lawai and shoreline walking at Shipwreck’s Beach.

As this is a resort area, you’ll also find great shopping and dining at Poipu Beach, including popular oceanfront restaurants and seafood beach bars.

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Russian Fort Elizabeth State Historical Park

Russian Fort Elizabeth State Historical Park

11 Tours and Activities

Evidence of a little-remembered attempt by Russians to gain a foothold in Hawaii between 1815 and 1817 can still be found in the remnants of an old fort alongside the mouth of the Waimea River. Though today the site is little more than jumbled red rock walls hinting at its former layout, an irregular octagon guarding entrance into Kauai via the waterway, it once was the site of grand plans to use Kauai as a permanent provisioning and trading station for the state-sponsored Russian American Company. With outer rock walls constructed from ancient heiau (Hawaiian temples), the fort once included residences, a chapel, gardens, a trading center and the main fort building. Visitors can explore what’s left via a self-guided interpretive tour following signage with drawings of how the area once appeared.

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Lihue

Lihue

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Kauai’s capital city is Lihue, though with a population in the low thousands, ‘city’ may be overstating things a little.

It is the island’s main shopping destination, however, with a Macy’s and other big-name department stores you’ll recognize. You’ll also find a variety of good restaurants in Lihue. The town’s proximity to the airport makes scenic air tours a major reason to visit.

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Koke'e State Park

Koke'e State Park

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When compared to the sun-drenched beaches of Poipu or Hanalei, Koke’e State Park is a brisk mountain outpost where bikinis and boardshorts are replaced by flannels and hiking boots. Located at 4,000 ft. in the uplands above Waimea Canyon, the air is cooler than down on the shoreline, and flocks of nene goose meander through the low clouds that linger on the forested mountain slopes.

In addition to being a mountain outpost, Koke’e State Park is known as having Kauai’s best hiking. No fewer than a dozen trails depart from the immediate vicinity, with trailheads leading either towards the colorful ravines of famous Waimea Canyon or into the lush interior which ranks as one of the wettest spots on the world. Still other trails lead towards overlooks which gaze down on the Na Pali coast, and the 3,000 ft. near-vertical drops are definitely not for the faint of heart.

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