After seven hours of cruising over a blanket of white clouds hiding a seemingly endless stretch of Pacific Ocean, the plane begins to descend. Soon I can see emerald mountains spiking into a bright sky. Ocean swells meeting palm-tree lined beaches. Minutes later, I’m rolling my suitcase out of the open-air baggage claim area, and heading to my rental car.
Kauai, the northwest-most island in the Hawaiian islands chain, is nicknamed the Garden Isle. The reasons why are abundantly clear as I drive to my hotel. Vine-covered trees line the road, punctuated by tumbles of wildflowers. The island tends to get less attention than its splashier siblings like Oahu and Maui, but that contributes to a more laidback vibe. And there’s certainly no shortage of outdoor adventure.
Hiking Waimea Canyon
Dubbed “the Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” Waimea Canyon forms a 3,000-foot-deep gash along Kauai’s western edge. Numerous hikes thread through and above the canyon, affording views of its colorful cliffs and waterfalls. Several trails also head into the nearby Koke’e State Park and its otherworldly Alakai Wilderness. Take a day hike, drive along the rim stopping at overlooks, or don a backpack and descend into the canyon’s depths.
Though Hawaii is perhaps more famous for its massive waves and dangerous currents, there are plenty of safe snorkeling spots in the islands — ditto Kauai. Most of them are clustered around the island’s south shore, though there are a few good options elsewhere. It’s easy to find a rental shop and grab a set of mask and fins for around $10 a day. Options like Po’ipu Beach, ‘Anini Beach, and Tunnels Beach will make you feel as though you’re floating through an aquarium exhibit.
Zodiac Boating the Na Pali Coast
Dozens of tour companies offer boating excursions that zip visitors along the dramatic Na Pali coast, where mountains plunge thousands of feet into the sea. You can opt for a catamaran tour, which may include comforts like cocktails and bathrooms, or you can amp up your adrenaline with a zodiac boat trip. Snag a spot on a tour with Blue Ocean Adventures, whose guides gun it on a 70-mile round trip rollercoaster ride. The trip involves sea cave visits, breaching humpback whales, and views of remote beaches that provided dramatic scenery for movies like 1976’s King Kong and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.
Trekking the Kalalau Trail
Perhaps Kauai’s most famous attraction, the rugged Kalalau Trail crisscrosses 11 miles of pristine Na Pali coastline, offering dizzying views and access to hard-to-reach beaches and waterfalls. Turn this into an overnight backpacking adventure (permits required) or choose a day hike to Hanakapi’ai Beach (two miles in) or continue on to 300-foot-tall Hanakapi’ai Falls, four miles in. Keep an eye out for the cat colony at Hanakapi’ai Beach and depend on visitors for food; the Kauai Kitty Rescue is able to help anyone interested in rescue.
Kayaking the Wailua River
Ancient Hawaiians considered the Wailua River, along the island’s east side, sacred. Their royalty lived along its banks, and you might still spot remnants of heiau, or religious sites built of stone. Paddle about an hour along the gently-flowing north fork of the river, either on a guided tour or by renting a kayak and going alone, where you’ll reach a small beach and a trail that leads into a tropical forest. The way is a bit muddy, but there’s one hell of a reward at the end: 100-foot-tall Uluwehi Falls, complete with a lovely swimming hole.
Where to Stay
An array of accommodation options on Kauai range from high-end resorts to budget-friendly camping. Among the best options on the south shore are Ko’a Kea Hotel & Resort, a low-key yet high-end option with a great snorkeling beach just steps away from your room. Family-oriented and stunningly landscaped Sheraton Kauai, with family-oriented activities and a large central pool area.
Further to the east, the charming Fern Grotto Inn consists of a collection of plantation-style cottages along the Wailua River, the perfect jumping-off point for a trip to Uluwehei Falls. There are even kayaks for guest use.
And showing off the north shore’s epic scenery are the Westin Princeville, perched on a bluff above the ocean with an infinity pool plunging towards the cliffs and plenty of activities for the whole family. The serene Hanalei Colony Resort, whose condos look out over a quiet stretch of beach with memorable sunrises and occasional whale sightings. A free guest shuttle drops you at popular beaches and the Kalalau trailhead, which are often overflowing with cars.