Kauai is known as Hawaii’s “Garden Isle” for a reason…It’s lush, wild, and beautiful, one of the things Hawaii is famous for. Because it’s far less developed than Oahu, Big Island, or Maui, Kauai is truly paradise for beach goers, hikers, and adventurers. Your biggest challenge here? How to see it on a short visit! Here are my recommendations for the perfect Kauai itinerary, whether you have 3,5, or 7 days on the island.
There are so many things to do on Kauai! With more than 3 days in Kauai, spend part of your time on the north shore and part of the time on the south shore and move your base once. (See “Where to Stay North Shore” and “Where to Stay South Shore” in gray boxes below.)
3 Days in Kauai
Begin your Kauai adventure on the wild and wonderful north shore. This is my favorite area of the island because it feels remote and untouristed.
Roads are small; in fact, you’ll wait to cross narrow one lane bridges while cars cross from the opposite direction. There are also barely any street lights at night!
Princeville makes a good base for exploring here. Or Hanalei. These are basically the only developed areas on the north shore so it’s also where you’ll find restaurants.
If you only have three days in Kauai, I recommend adventure lovers and beach goers explore the north shore. However, if you’d prefer resort amenities, easy access to flat beaches, and scenic drives, skip below to my recommendations for Kauai’s south shore.
Yes, you’ll need a car in Kauai.
Of all the Hawaiian islands, Kauai is the island where you’ll most need a rental car to get around.
My top two recommendations are:
1. Discover Cars has no hidden fees, 24/7 customer service, and free cancellation. They search all the major rental car companies so you don’t have to.
Check price and availability on rental cars here.
2. Turo is like Airbnb for cars. It saved us $$$ during the pandemic on our Hawaii rentals when rental car prices were sky high.
Day 1: Hike the Kalalau Trail
Hiking the Kalalau Trail is my #1 recommendation for things to do in Kauai. It’s an 11 mile trail that leads up, up, up along the absolutely stunning Nāpali Coast.
But you don’t have to do the whole 11 miles! In fact, you’ll get a big pay-off with just 30 minutes hiking here so don’t let the length of the hike deter you.
This is a challenging hike, however. The first hour is straight up. And because the natural beauty here is so memorable, it’s also a popular hike.
But don’t be discouraged! This (often hard to secure) permit is only required for hikers who want to camp overnight at the end of the trail.
However, you will still need an advance reservation (available up to 30 days ahead) to enter Hā’ena State Park by either car or shuttle so you can hike the beginning of the Kalalau Trail or enjoy Ke’e Beach (see below).
If you’re here in spring or summer, take a morning dip at Ke’e Beach before or after you explore the Kalalau Trail. Kauai’s north shore is wild and rainy in the winter. In fact, it’s home to professional surfing contests and big waves then.
So if you’re visiting in winter, I recommend a one day jaunt to the north shore with most of your time on the south shore. (Because I love the north shore, I like to visit in shoulder season visit, i.e. early September or April,just before the rain arrives when there are better airfares and fewer crowds.)
Aside from winter, you can expect idyllic swimming and snorkeling conditions. Fantasy beaches abound here, but if you need to choose just one for your first day, let it be Ke’e Beach, the last beach you can reach by car on the north shore.
It’s literally at the end of the road! If you could keep going past Ke’e Beach, you’d be conveniently in Waimea Canyon. However, since there is no road, you’ll need to drive counter clockwise around the whole island (which takes just under two hours).
Ke’e Beach is the perfect spot to enjoy calm water for swimming in the summer. The protected lagoon keeps waves to a minimum for great snorkeling.
When we visited, we saw a monk seal sleeping in the sun on the beach here not far from us. (If you’re fortunate to encounter Hawaiian green sea turtles or seals in your Kauai adventures, please remember these are endangered animals and give them a wide berth.)
Another reason Ke’e Beach is the perfect place for your first stop is that it is literally at the entrance to the Kalalau Trail.
You’ll see a small market on your left as you approach the beach which makes a great place to grab sandwiches and drinks for the trail. (And trust me, the heat and humidity will make you thisty. Bring lots of water.)
Travelers who have reserved permits and planned to camp overnight will take a full day to arrive at the remote beach at Kalalau. (And then hike back the next day.)
But if you’re not an elite hiking athlete—or just want to save time for exploring the rest of the island—you can still plan to hike an hour or two of this trail. Your rewards include epic coastal views, generous waterfalls, and the opportunity to saunter through an otherworldly bamboo forest.
More things to know: You will be so happy you have hiking/trekking poles! Expect other hikers to eye yours with longing. You can grab a pair on Amazon here.
Also, if you do make it to Hanakapi’i Beach‚ just a mile in, be vigilant for big waves. A rogue wave nearly washed away 40 people here in January 2020!
And finally, check conditions a few days before you plan to hike the trail and swim at Ke’e Beach. The road here occasionally washes out with winter rains and stays that way for awhile.
Where to Stay on the North Shore, Kauai
Princeville makes the perfect base to minimize drive time for beach time here.
1. Oceanfront Luxury Penthouse Pua Pua. Enjoy one of the most iconic views on Kauai of the legendary Bali Hai coastline from this top floor penthouse. Listen to the birds sing and the waves crash below from the privacy of your lanai.
Check price and availability on the oceanfront luxe penthouse here.
2. The Westin Princeville Ocean Resort Villas is nestled on a cliff with all the amenities, including three swimming pools, Nanea Restaurant, and a shuttle service to golf courses and shopping.
Traveler review: “Spacious and clean villa. Very friendly staff.”
Check price and availability on the Westin Princeville villa here.
Day 2: Take a Na Pali Coast Boat Tour
And the very best way to fully appreciate this beauty—complete with rushing waterfalls—is to get out on the water!
So be sure to book a snorkeling cruise while you’re here to fully appreciate this view. The best snorkeling cruises are small catamarans for a more intimate and personalized experience.
Expect to see spinner dolphins and Hawaiian green sea turtles. Even whales if you’re lucky! You’ll snorkel among the colorful fish in the clear turquoise water and maybe even explore the incredible sea caves here. Stay fueled with breakfast and a buffet lunch on board.
Day 3: Visit Hanalei Bay and North Shore Beaches
This is the day to explore the hidden beaches and beautiful views on Kauai’s north shore. There are so many incredible beaches to enjoy here that I recommend adding any extra days in your itinerary for more time here.
However, as I noted earlier, Kauai’s north shore is wilder than the south shore near Poipu so some beaches require a bit of a scramble down a cliff.
In the list below though this is only true of Queen’s Bath and Secret Beach. The others are easy to access.
With one day, choose from among these options:
Tunnels Beach (Makuna)—Located just before Ke’e Beach on the North Shore, this won’t be your closest beach if you’re staying near Princeville, but it’s one of the very best for snorkeling in particular.
This also is everyone’s favorite beach for diving, swimming, and kite surfing. Features include golden sand, a shallow reef with plentiful tropical fish, and plenty of sea turtles.
Be aware that as of August 2022, the State of Hawaii restricted snorkeling to an area near the beach and prohibited snorkeling in the large inner reef where the large coral formations are (Makua Lagoon) to protect the fish nursery there.
You can still see fish at the shoreline though!
Anini Beach—Perhaps slightly lesser known than Tunnels, waves break farther out at Anini Beach due to the wide reef, making it also a great spot for snorkeling and turtle spotting. Public restrooms are also available here.
Families like the shallow water protected from the wind. Plus, it’s often less crowded than other north shore beaches.
Secret Beach—Possibly my favorite Kauai beach! This is a beautiful soft sand beach and it was deserted on the day we visited. Be prepared to scamper down a steep and muddy trail for this reward though. You’ll see experienced surfers and body board surfers here.
Hanalei Bay—Hanalei Bay is the biggest bay on Kauai’s north shore. You may remember it from the song Puff the Magic Dragon (“in the land of Hanalei.”) It comes with a wide crescent-shaped beach. And the cute wooden pier makes for a great sunset photo.
This beach backs up to the little town of Hanalei, which is a great spot for lunch or a meal. And on your way here, be sure to stop by the Hanalei Valley Lookout. With lush panoramic views, it’s as pretty as a postcard and one of the most photographed spots on the island.
Update June 2022: Due to even more drownings here, the trail to Queen’s Bath remains closed. It’s illegal to ignore signage so be safe and skip this attraction.
Queen’s Bath is a unique and impressive tide pool on a lava shelf in Princeville. To enjoy this special spot, however, you’ll need to climb down a steep and frequently muddy trail and then hike briefly across the hardened black lava that lines the coast here.
It’s not as hard as it sounds though. You don’t have to be an athlete to get there. Just be sure to wear good shoes. (I’ve seen plenty of flaps and cute sandals abandoned midway).
I always take my Keens with me to Hawaii and highly recommend them. They’ve got a great grip on the bottom so you can wear them in the ocean, through a river, and for non-technical hiking on a trail when you don’t want to overheat in hiking boots. You can get them on Amazon here.
Also, do not get into the tide pool! You’ll see the sign as you enter the trail, keeping a tally of the number of people who have died here when the open ocean washed them away as they were lounging in Queen’s Bath.
And that’s if the trail is even open. It’s often fenced off in winter because the waves can be so huge on the North Shore then, making it particularly dangerous.
And yet, I promise you’ll see people floating in the bath. Be smarter.
In fact, if there is a high surf advisory, do not even walk down to Queen’s Bath. People have been swept away even taking photos here on the lava shelf. So do your due diligence and make sure conditions are safe.
Kilauea Lighthouse—The Kilauea Lighthouse is located on Kilauea Point in the wildlife refuge here and makes a great photo stop with the deep blue ocean beyond.
It’s also a great spot for bird watchers with lots of Hawaiian seabirds. Look for red-footed boobyes, albatross, and others here.
Limahuli Garden & Preserve—Do you have garden lovers in your group? Spend an hour or two at the Limahuli Garden & Preserve near Tunnels Beach, one of the five gardens in the National Tropical Botanical Garden. Tickets are $25 to enter.
As one of the most biodiverse valleys in Hawaii, it’s spectacular. I particularly loved exploring the canoe gardens here.
They showcase the plants that Native Hawaiians brought with them originally from French Polynesia as they thought about how best to make life on a new island.
5 Days in Kauai
Ready to explore Kauai’s beautiful south shore? If you have five days in Kauai, day 4 is the day to move your base to Poipu.
If the north shore is wild and adventurous, the south shore is more flat and accessible. It’s also home to more resorts.
This area is dryer and you’ll see lots of the black volcanic rock along the beaches here. Visit Waimea Canyon for epic views and beach time on the south end of the island.
Where to Stay in Poipu on the South Shore
1. Stay oceanfront at Kuhio Shores in a corner condo with unsurpassed sunset views. Floor to ceiling windows, a glass balcony, and elevated views from the third floor give you an up-close view of parakeets that visit here…not to mention surfers, dolphins, turtles, and whales.
Check price and availability of the Kuhio Shores condo here.
Guest review: “You can enjoy your morning coffee while watching the turtles and in the evening you get spectacular sunsets. Location is perfect with snorkeling and activities near by. Very clean and modern feel with a lot of amenities.”
2. The stunning penthouse at the Villas at Poipu Kai offers a luxury residence with resort amenities. These include a beachfront restaurant, heated pool, and hot tub with a waterfall. Plus, you can walk through the manicured grounds to the white sand of Shipwreck Beach and Poipu Beach.
Check price and availability at Villas at Poipu Kai here.
Day 4: See the Grand Canyon of the Pacific
Keep going past Poipu and wind your way clockwise back around towards the top of the island. If the road went all the way through, it would be easy to zip over here from the north shore.
But since it doesn’t, you can expect to drive just under two hours (without stops) to arrive at Waimea Canyon.
And it’s worth the drive! Continue on Highway 550 to into Koke’e State Park until you arrive at the Kalepa Ridge Trailhead.
Even non-hikers will be mesmerized by the view of the Na Pali Coast here. And you can see it from the parking lot. With more time, check out some of the hikes here for an even more spectacular view.
Before you head back to Poipu, be sure to check out Waimea Canyon, known as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific.” This Hawaiian treasure isn’t as old or big as the Grand Canyon in Arizona, but it’s absolutely awe-inspiring…especially due to the waterfalls and green foliage.
Some great lookout points include Waimea Canyon Lookout (mile marker 10) for panoramic views of the canyon if you don’t want to hike, Puu Hinahina Lookout (mile marker 13) to see the river winding into the sea at the bottom, and the Kalalau Lookout (mile marker 18).
You can only enjoy the Kalalau Lookout, however, if you hike from Ke’e Beach. Puu o Kila (mile marker 19) is another lookout where you can get out of your car and hike to the lookout.
There are dozens of wonderful hikes here! For a big pay-off on a short hike, try the Cliff Trail. It’s just 1/10 of a mile with beautiful canyon view (and sometimes includes goats).
Serious hikers should head to the Canyon Trail, a three hour hike with waterfalls, the Black Pipe Trail (8 miles) or the Kukui Trail down to the river (challenging).
Day 5: Head to South Shore Beaches
Poipu’s Beaches are wide and sandy and often feature spectacular sunsets. With young children, try Baby Beach with its protective cove. Or Popipu Beach Park for sheltered areas for swimming and snorkeling (as well as a life guard).
Head to Shipwreck’s Beach for golden sand and a scenic hike along the coast. The Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail is several miles long and begins here. Think ocean views, sink holes, and limestone caves!
Lawai Beach offers great snorkeling from a narrow patch of sand near a resort.
7 Days in Kauai
With 7 days in Kauai, add a helicopter tour and a visit to epic waterfalls to your itinerary. Or, return to your favorite beach!
Day 6: Helicopter Tour
Have you ever done a helicopter tour? My first experience was in New Zealand and it was something I’ll never forget. It took just nine minutes to ascend—practically straight up— from the valley floor to the top of a glacier.
To fully appreciate the splendor of Kauai, see the Na Pali coast from the air. You’ll soar over diverse terrain from Mt. Waialeale’s waterfalls to the dry red Waimea Canyon and the emerald green peaks of Na Pali.
The Eco-Star helicopter tour takes about 50 minutes and gets nearly 1500 reviews from happy customers.
The tour leaves from Lihue (near the airport) so it’s convenient on any day of your itinerary, whether you’re staying on the north or south shore.
Guest review: “This helicopter tour is a must if you are visiting Kauai!!! I could not imagine seeing these amazing views from a lookout down below. A truly memorable experience!!!
Day 7: Waterfalls—Wailua Falls and Opaeka’a Falls
It’s just a 30 minute drive from Poipu to Wailua Falls, just south of Wailua…which is just north of Lihue Airport. If you’ve got an afternoon flight home, this makes a great morning stop en route.
It’s a bit off the beaten track as there’s not much nearby but absolutely gorgeous. The wild boars we saw nearby were a fun bonus, too.
These falls, which were originally featured in the TV show “Fantasy Island” drop 80 feet. Morning visits often come with rainbows!
Opaeka’a Falls is nearby but requires a 20 minute circuitous drive to get there if coming from the south. It’s a steeper drop than Wailua Falls at 151 feet and cascades into a hidden pool. It’s also one of Kauai’s most accessible waterfalls.
Plus, you’ll find parking and restrooms here. If you visit during a rain, you can watch the water run red from the orange soil here!
The best visit to Kauai is the one that delivers on what’s most important to you in a Hawaiian vacation. From helicopter rides and bucket list hikes for adventurers to scenic drives and waterfall galores, Kauai offers something for everyone. Whatever you choose to do, it will be a spectacular trip.
1. How many days do you need in Kauai?
If you’re visiting multiple islands in Hawaii and trying to decide where to spend your time, I’d recommend a minimum of three days in Kauai. Spend more time here if you like the idea of tropical wilderness and remote beaches.
If you’d rather spend time enjoying resort amenities and the restaurant scene, add more days on your Maui itinerary. Big Island has a little of everything.
2. How long does it take to get from one side of Kauai to the other?
To drive from Princeville on the north shore to Poipu on the south shore takes about one hour. Plan on nearly one hour more to reach Waimea Canyon State Park from Poipu.
3. What is the best month to go to Kauai?
Traveling to Kauai in shoulder season offers good weather, better airline deals, and fewer crowds. September to November are great as is April to June.
However, be aware that the north shore is windy and very rainy in winter…and even in fall. Our last early September visit was mostly sunny with a few rainy days mixed in. If you’re looking for reliable sunshine, head south!
4. What should you not miss on Kauai?
Be sure to snorkel with the tropical fish and Hawaiian green sea turtles on Kauai’s beautiful beaches! Spend at least a few hours hiking the Kalalau Trail for epic views of the Napali Coast. Take a boat tour! See Waimea Canyon, “The Grand Canyon of the Pacific.”
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