From its dramatic Na Pali coastline on the North Shore to sparkling beaches on the South Shore, there are so many things to do in Kauai. It’s one of my favorite Hawaiian islands to visit!
The Garden Isle is a wonderland of breathtaking ocean vistas, secret plunging waterfalls, and scenes straight from a movie set (literally). It’s one of the best ways to visit Hawaii.
Best Things to Do in Kauai
I’ve explored Kauai thoroughly. It’s especially nice as a sunny winter destination in the U.S. Some of my favorite activities on the Garden Isle are listed below.
Whether you’re looking for memorable hikes, where to snorkel, or how to see the best of Hawaii’s lushest island, you’ll fall in love with paradise.
Here’s what to do and where to go on your Kauai itinerary…
1. Snorkel the Na Pali Coast.
If there’s one thing you should definitely spring for in Kauai, it’s a boat tour. It’s hard to convey the sheer beauty and dreamy tropical nature of Kauai’s Napali Coast on the North Shore. It’s one of Hawaii’s most impressive landmarks and one of the best-loved excursions in Kauai by tourists!
Verdant steep peaks disappear into the clouds here…frequently accompanied by rainbows. It’s impossibly beautiful. Your tropical fantasy come to life.
There are really only two ways to fully appreciate the sheer scale of nature’s majesty here. It’s nicknamed “The Eighth Wonder of the World” for a reason.
Tour it by helicopter (see #14 below) or by boat to seek out remote beaches, sea caves, and spinner dolphins along the way.
When choosing a snorkel tour, choose one that sails on a smaller catamaran with fewer people.
Enjoy a buffet lunch as you watch sparkling waterfalls drift down the remarkable cliffs.
You can check price and availability on my recommended Na Pali Coast sail and snorkel cruise here.
2. Walk the Kalalau Trail.
Whatever you do during your days in Kauai, plan at least a half day to hike the incredible Kalalau Trail. If you’re looking for things to do in Kauai on a budget, you’ll be happy to know this one is free!
It’s 11 miles (the first hour is mostly up, up, up) along a muddy, rocky path on the Na Pali Coast on the wild North Shore.
It’s true that it’s on the steep side. In fact, serious backpackers and adventurers get a permit months ahead of time to hike the whole thing, camping overnight on a far flung beach and then heading back.
But don’t let that deter you! Even if you hike only the first half mile, you’ll be oohing and ahhing the whole way as you ogle the panoramic view of the turquoise ocean through a sea of bright red hibiscus flowers and greenery. Don’t miss this experience!
Just remember to bring lots of water. And I also highly recommend trekking poles here.
Seriously, you’ll notice lots of jealous hikers around you if you have these…especially because they will totally save your knees on the way back down.
Trekking poles are not just for old people (even though my daughter thinks they are). You can get some hiking poles on Amazon here.
Note: The State of Hawaii now requires you reserve an advance day pass entry ticket with either parking or shuttle into Ha’ena State Park here…even if you just want to hike the first half mile.
How to Rent a Car on Kauai
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.
3. Get a bird’s eye view on a helicopter tour.
There’s no better way to fully appreciate the beauty of the Garden Isle than to soar over the dramatic green spires of the Na Pali coast, waterfalls of Waiapuna, and majestic Waimea Canyon.
Kauai is definitely the place to see by helicopter. Whatever you do, be sure to choose a company that can demonstrate its commitment to safety.
Blue Hawaiian has earned the FAA’s Certificate of Excellence, or Diamond Award so you can enjoy this onece-in-a-lifetime experience with confidence.
Plus, their Eurocopter Eco-Star helicopter reduces flight noise by 50 percent. You’ll also be able to communicate with the pilot by two way radio.
On this tour, you’ll explore stunning Manawaiopuna Falls (known as Jurrasic Falls), fly over views of the Olokele Canyon, and weather permitting, fly over Mount Wa’ale’ale, the second wettest place on earth.
This helicopter tour out of Lihue has more than 1,500 five star reviews from happy customers.
Guest review: “Chelsea was an amazing pilot and her narrative of what we were seeing was perfection.” —Debra A, Aug 2021
4. Snorkel at Tunnels Beach.
The perfect thing to do after all that exertion on the Kalalau Trail? Hit the beach at nearby Tunnels, also known as Makuna Beach.
In fact, you’ll park at the beach here to access the trail (or take the shuttle) so it couldn’t be easier to swap your hiking gear for snorkel gear and a beach towel after you’re done.
We had some of the best snorkeling on our trip here. It makes a great beach for diving, swimming, and even kite surfing.
The sand is golden and divers love the dramatic underwater topography here. Some say it’s the best shore dive on the island.
Go at low tide and in the morning for best visibility for tropical fish and, hopefully, lots of sea turtles.
However, some things to know: In August 2022, the State of Hawaii announced that snorkeling in the large inner reef known as Makua Lagoon is now prohibited to protect the fish nursery there. (This is where the large coral formations are.)
There is still a snorkeling area near the beach where you can see fish in the rocky reef at the shoreline though.
Where to Stay in Kauai
If you’re staying a week or more, consider basing in Princeville on the North Shore for part of the time (except in winter when it’s rainy) and the rest in Poipu on the South Shore. I recommend:
1. The Westin Princeville Ocean Resort villas—This North Shore beachfront paradise includes a full kitchen, on-site restaurant, and ocean views galore.
Check price and availability on the Westin Princeville Ocean Resort villas here.
2. Hideaway Cove Poipu Beach—The sugary white sand of Poipu Beach is just steps away when you stay here.
Tropical decor, private lanais, and your own kitchenette make Hideaway Cove the place to be!
Check price and availability on Hideaway Cove Poipu Beach here.
5. Hike to Queen’s Bath.
Update October 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 if the gate is locked when you visit.
Not far from Princeville on Kauai’s North Shore, Queen’s Bath is a natural pool on a shelf of hardened lava.
To arrive at this prize, you should anticipate a hike down a muddy cliff and then across the lava shelf.
This is no place for fancy sandals. I saw many abandoned along the way.
I highly recommend Keens for both men and women when in Hawaii. It’s one of my top items on my Kauai packing list.
They’re comfortable with a great sole for hiking in the mud and protect your feet from sharp coral in the water (so no need to pack water shoes). You can grab a pair on Amazon here.
As you enter the trail to Queen’s Bath, you may notice the dire warnings on a signpost about drownings here. Heed them!
The occasional rogue wave regularly washes tourists into the open ocean as they pose for Insta here.
I promise you’ll see plenty of people making it look safe and inviting but be smarter.
In fact, in winter when waves can be huge here on the North Shore, the trail can be closed to visitors because it isn’t safe. Be sure to follow the rules for your own protection.
(Many a local has risked their life to save a tourist here. Don’t be one of them.)
6. Kayak Hanalei Bay.
Hanalei Bay, also on Kauai’s North Shore, is the biggest bay on island. And the little wooden pier makes a great backdrop for a sunset photo.
You might recognize it from the 2011 movie The Descendents with George Clooney, which was filmed here.
The little town of Hanalei is a great spot for a meal here, too. Then head over to the bay to watch the paddle boarders and sailboats drift by.
It’s also the perfect spot for a kayak and snorkeling tour. This family-friendly tour paddles the Hanalei River before entering the bay to look for Hawaiian green sea turtles.
Swap your kayak for snorkel gear and then enjoy lunch on the beach.
7. Explore Waimea Canyon.
With the moniker “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” Waimea Canyon State Park should not be skipped!
Starting in April 2021, the state of Hawaii now requires anyone who enters to purchase both parking and individual entrance fees ($5 per person) at parking pay stations. It’s worth it though!
Waimea Canyon is actually not far at all from the Kalalau Trail on the North Shore but since there’s no access from that end of the island, you’ll need to drive counter clockwise all the way past Poipu on the South Shore.
So if you’re spending time on Poipu, Waimea Canyon makes a great day trip. You can do it as a day trip from the North Shore but expect to spend two hours driving each way.
Or, if you’d prefer to leave the driving to a local, book a private full day tour. You’ll enjoy scenic stop at Kalalau Lookout, Poipu Beach Resort, and more.
And you’ll benefit from the personalized attention for a local guide who’ll share Kauai’s fascinating cultural history.
At a minimum—whether you book with a tour or go on your own—check out the view from the Kalepa Ridge trailhead.
It offers stunning views across the lush cliffs to the Pacific Ocean. And be sure to catch the incredible canyon views at Waimea Canyon Lookout at mile marker 10.
With more time, check out the 18 hiking trails in Koke’e State Park. Or—even better—how about a thrilling downhill bike ride?
You’ll take in view of Waipo’o Falls, the canyon, and sweeping views over three state parks on this easy downhill route with a guide.
8. Go ziplining in Koloa.
What could be better than a bird’s eye view of Kauai’s native forest? Soar on Kauai’s longest ziplines—it’s an 8 track course— near Koloa on the South Shore.
Hang on to the handlebars, cruise hands-free—or even upside down—over lush forests and the Waita Resevoir. It’s totally up to you!
Guest review: “Amazing experience and guides were awesome!! Highly recommend to anyone looking for some adventure or if you have preteen/teenage kids.” —William P. Aug 2021
9. Visit Kilauea Lighthouse.
If you’re a bird watcher, bring your bincoluars and head to the Kilauea Lighthouse on Kilauea Point on the North Shore.
It’s located inside a wildlife refuge that works closely with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to support Kauai’s wildlife.
The lighthouse itself has been here since 1912, when it was constructed to aid in navigation…not just of ships but also the very first flights here.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor during WWII in 1941, the light station went dark until the end of the war.
Today, you can admire the historic lighthouse as you search the horizon and the coastline for red-footed boobys, brown boobys, white-tailed tropicbirds, and so many other native birds.
10. Enjoy a sunset dinner cruise.
See the breathtaking Na Pali coast at the most romantic time of day. A sunset dinner cruise is the perfect evening out for two.
After you board your catamaran at Port Allen Marina, you’ll toast the light show in the sky with champagne and appetizers as you sail past the jagged green cliffs plunging into the sea. Keep a look out for spinner dolphins.
A buffet dinner, accompanied by Mai Tais and fresh juices, completes this magical experience. I can’t think of a better place for a sunset cruise than on the Na Pali Coast.
11. See Wailua Falls and Opaeka’a Falls.
There are epic waterfalls to see in Kauai! You’ll find Wailua Falls just north of the airport in Lihue.
Wind your way on country roads out into the middle of nowhere, past the occasional wild boar (yes really), and behold… Wailua Falls!
Tip: Visit in the morning for possible rainbows as you take in the 80 foot drop of these majestic falls.
Opaeka’a Falls has a steeper drop than Wailua Falls (151 feet). This one makes a great stop if you’re with someone who needs easy accessibility.
12. Visit Limahuli Garden and Preserve.
When we visited Limahuli Garden, we were the only tourists there! That’s probably because there’s a $25 entrance fee involved.
And even though you’re probably wondering why you’d spend money to see a garden when you’re essentially living on one in scenic Kauai, it’s worth every penny.
This is one of the most biodiverse valleys in Hawaii. It’s home to so many endangered plants and birds that you’ll find nowhere else on the planet.
My favorite experience here was wandering through the canoe gardens, a true slice of history.
The archaeological terraces here are 700 years old and show how native Hawaiians used to cultivate taro.
In fact, the canoe gardens feature more than two dozen plants that Hawaii’s original Polynesian settlers brought from home.
You’ll find Limahuli Gardens conveniently located near the Kalalau trailhead and Tunnels Beach.
13. Take a surfing lesson.
If you’ve always wanted to learn to surf, now’s your chance.
Try on the ultimate island experience for yourself here in Kauai during a relaxed group lesson from a local professional surf instructor.
No need for special equipment. Your lesson includes a surf board, rash guard, and water shoes to save your feet from coral while you learn.
Guest review: “Monica was great! The whole experience was super fun and really chill! We had so much fun catching waves.” — Crush, Apr 2021
14. Hit the Beach in Poipu.
North Shore beaches in Kauai feel wild and untamed. And many of them require a significant hike to access.
South Sore beaches near Poipu are just the opposite. The shoreline is flatter here and beach access is easy.
They’re also dramatic with lots of black volcanic rock. Plus, snorkeling can also be amazing here!
I find that some visitors to Kauai are die hard North Shore fans while others vastly prefer the area near Poipu.
If this is your first visit and you’re not in either camp yet, be sure to explore both.
Popular beaches near Poipu include Poipu Beach Park, Shipwreck Beach, and Baby Beach. Makawehi Lithfield Cliffs makes a scenic hike above the beach here, too.
15. Eat shave ice.
What would a visit to Kauai be without taste testing all of the delicious shave ice?
Never had it? Shave ice resembles fluffy snow and then is topped with flavored syrups that range from passionfruit to papaya.
It’s often served with a scoop of ice cream at its core. YUM!
Waikomo Shave Ice in Poipu is the place locals recommend as there are no artificial flavorings or colorings.
On the North Shore, try Wishing Well Shave Ice, a food truck, in Hanalei. This is aloha in a bowl! Bonus: friendly staff and parking.
16. Kayak Wailua River.
The Wailua River is the only river on the island that you can kayak.
Weave your way through the lush flora and fauna and then stop for a guided nature hike to a waterfall.
Afterwards, refuel with a picnic lunch and then enjoy a refreshing dip at the base of the waterfall.
This is a favorite day out for many in Kauai. No kayaking experience required.
Traveler review: “This was a perfect experience on Kauai. We had the best tour guide, Po. We were even treated to Po’s song and conch shell ceremony at the waterfall.” —Beth T, August 2021
17. Ogle the monk seals.
Seeing Hawaiian monk seals is such a magical experience.
Their numbers unfortunately are currently on the decline as a threatened species due to things like sharks, lack of food, and climate change but they’re hanging in there.
There are are just 1,400 of them left throughout Hawaii…which is why you should be extra careful that you don’t add to the stress by approaching them.
In fact, it’s illegal! Maintain a respectful distance instead.
The best place to see them? Poipu Beach is a popular spot to find them napping on the sand.
We met one at Tunnels on the North Shore. Keep your eyes peeled as they could be anywhere!
18. Snorkel the forbidden isle of Ni’ihau.
The island of Ni’ihau just off the coast of Kauai’s North Shore is known as “the Forbidden Isle” since it’s closed to outsiders who don’t live there.
While you can’t visit, you can admire it from the water and learn its unique history from the water.
This is a “two for one” tour as you’ll first make your way along the Na Pali Coast and then head across the channel to Ni’ihau.
There, you’ll snorkel the coral reefs around the island and nearby Lehua Crater, one of Hawaii’s best snorkeling spots.
19. Buy a new bikini.
As soon as I arrived in Kauai, I realized two things: I’d overpacked and I’d under packed.
With all the outdoor activities and humidity, I never reached for my make-up, hair accessories, or fancy clothes once!
I wished I’d packed several bathing suits, however, and a few loose and feather light dresses that could double for beach cover-ups and sunset cocktails.
Thank goodness for Pualini Hanalei on the North Shore. This is the top place to find a bikini that fits…even if you’re curvy. Use my reader discount code LOVE25 to save 25 percent!
Lots of other cute boutiques nearby too.
Check out South Shore Bikinis for a nice selection of sarongs too.
20. Take a hike.
Aside from the famous Kalalau Trail, Kauai is home to some of Hawaii’s most scenic hikes. And you’ll find hikes for every level of ability here.
Try Awa’awapuhi Trail (6 miles, moderate) which begins in Kokee’e State Park and goes through the Napali Kona Forest Reserve.
Hoopii Falls Trail is another moderate but short (1.7 miles) trek to a scenic falls.
Looking for easy, flat hikes? Try the Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail from Shipwrck Beach to Punahoa Point on the South Shore near Poipu.
With just 318 feet of elevation gain, this 2.7 mile walk is good for every skill level.
Plus, it’s a great spot for whale watching in winter!
21. See secret Kauai.
Looking to get off the beaten path? Hire a private guide for a customized itinerary and five hour tour of Hawaii. You’ll watched geysers spray at the Spouting Horn blowhole, explore the rugged backcountry, and so much more.
Traveler review: “DJ was absolutely amazing. He was super knowledgeable and made the tour exciting from start to finish. Definitely not your average tour. He personalized the tour just for us.” —Brandon K, July 2021
22. Take a shelter dog on a field trip.
What better than to take a four-legged friend on your Kauai adventure?
It’s easy when you sign up for the Kauai Humane Society’s field trip with a shelter dog. Win-win, right?
Here’s how it works: You’ll pick up your dog between 10 am and 12 pm and arrive back at the shelter by 5 pm. It costs $40 which covers field trip supplies like a harness and treats. All dogs who are eligible for a field trip have been cleared by a veterinarian.
When you arrive, you’ll be asked a few questions to match you with the best dog (i.e., Are you heading for the beach all day with young kids in tow?
A mellow, older dog might be the best fit. Or are you experienced with dogs and going on a challenging hike? You might be a good match for an energetic younger dog who is working o n their manners.)
You can take your dog with you to nearly anywhere that’s dog-friendly on the island. Some favorite field trips include Kalapaki Beach near Lihue, Sleeping Giant Trail and the Arboretum in Wailua, Secret Beach on the north shore, and Shipwrecks Hiking Tail near Poipu in the south.
Dogs are not allowed in Waimea Canyon, anywhere past Princeville or at any county parks and beaches as all dogs are prohibited there.
Dog-friendly restaurants where you can take the dogs include Kauai Beer Company, Jimmu’s Bar & Grill, 808 Grill, Sleeping Giant Grill and the many food trucks on the island.
Best of all: If you fall in love, you can pay an extra fee and take your dog home!
23. See Spouting Horn Blowhole.
Spouting Horn is one Kauai’s most photographed spots. You’ll find it near Poipu on the south shore of Kauai.
This beautiful blowhole shoots spray up to 50 feet in the air.
How did this blowhole come to be? Over time, waves have eroded the lava rocks on the spectacular coastline here. And these narrow openings force water through with every wave.
You’ll even hear the hiss of the water as it shoots up!
24. Experience a luau.
Have you ever been to a luau? If not, now’s your chance to experience a Hawaiian favorite.
Luau Kalamaku is conveniently located in Lihui, near the airport. Located on the historic Kilohana Plantation, your evening includes hula dancers, flame throwers, and a talented troupe of musicians.
You’ll enjoy a traditional imu ceremony…where a whole pig is cooked in an underground oven…open bar service, and a fresh flower lei greeting.
Luau Kalamaku was voted “best luau” by Lonely Planet.
25. Take a food tour in Hanalei.
Walkable Hanalei on Kauai’s north shore is home to some great food. And the best way to sample the culinary delights here is with someone in the know on a local food tour!
You’ll wander your way through all kinds of original restaurants with a local guide who will fill you in on Hanalei’s local history and Kauai and French Polynesia culture as you go.
Expect to taste delicious Hawaiian specialties like crispy chicken with sweet and spicy sauce, a selection of smoothies, acai bowl, and maybe even an island “PB&J” with Lilikoi butter. Sushi and tacos can also feature on this tour, too. Come hungry!
Consider making a day of it in Hanalei before or after the three hour food tour.
You’ll find two beaches with life guards here, not to mention kayaking, massage, yoga and a farmer’s market!
Check price and availability on the Hanalei food tour here.
26. Take a Self-Guided Scenic Driving Tour
If you’re on a budget—or just looking to explore on your own terms without a guide—consider downloading this bundle of four audio driving tours on your phone before you go.
Each tour ranges from four to eight hours depending on where you’re heading. Tours cover Kauai’s north shore, Waimea and Na Pali, Wailua Valley and waterfalls, and the Poipu and Koloa areas.
Overall, it’s 30 hours of guided audio content to deepen your understanding of the Garden Island’s historic sights, best beaches, and scenic spots. Just start and stop the tour whenever you like!
Check price and availability of the self-guided Kauai audio tour bundle here.
Best activities in Kauai
The best things to do in Kauai are the ones that renew and rejuvenate you. That’s the best recipe I know for the perfect vacation.
Resist the urge to see and do everything. Instead, choose a few bucket list activities and see where your days take you the rest of the time. Whatever you choose to do, may your days be full of Hawaiian rainbows and aloha.
How many days do you need on Kauai?
How many days do you have? Seriously, there’s no end to beautiful beaches here. Spend at least three days to explore the North Shore beaches, drive to Waimea Canyon, and see some epic waterfalls.
If you’re island hopping and visiting multiple islands, add more days to your Kauai itinerary if wilderness and beaches are what calls you to Hawaii. Plan extra days in Maui instead if you’re looking to lounge poolside at premier resorts.
2. What should you not miss on Kauai?
• Tunnels Beach on the North Shore,
• Kalalau Trail (first half mile),
• snorkel sail on the Na Pali Coast
• Popipu beaches
• Waimea Canyon
3. What is the best month to go to Kauai?
For fewer crowds, great weather, and better prices on hotel and airfares, visit Kauai between September to November or April to June.
How many days do you have? Seriously, there’s no end to beautiful beaches here. Spend at least three days to explore the North Shore beaches, drive to Waimea Canyon, and see some epic waterfalls.
If you’re island hopping, add more days here if wilderness and beaches are what calls you to Hawaii. Plan extra days in Maui instead if you’re looking to lounge poolside at premier resorts.