How to Do Kaua'i, Hawai'i, Like a Local
The oldest of Hawai‘i’s islands, Kaua‘i is a garden of delights, with steep, wild ridges, navigable rivers, a lush North Shore, and a sunny, sandy South Shore. Here, the insider's guide to the island's can't-miss beaches, activities, restaurants, and more.
Famous and Worth It: The Nāpali Coast
Kaua‘i’s Nāpali Coast blows your mind when it appears in Jurassic Park; it will blow your mind forever when you see it in person. The only land access into this steeply dramatic and verdant terrain is on foot via the treacherous Kalalau Trail. For a more leisurely experience, book with Capt. Andy’s Sailing Adventures and gaze upon its majesty from the water—$79 for a two-hour cruise.
Culture Excursion: ‘Alekoko
Just outside of Līhu‘e sits this nearly 1,000-year-old fish pond invented by ancient Hawaiians to capture and harvest fish. Its meticulous construction from lava rock is credited to the Menehune—tiny people of Hawaiian legend—who are reported to have done it all in one night. Overlook it from Hulemalu Road, or book a kayak tour to explore the Hulē‘ia River as part of Outfitters Kauai’s Hidden Valley Falls Kayak Adventure.
Knockout View: The Ocean Course at Hōkūala
You’ll forget you’re golfing when you take in the view over Nāwiliwili Bay from the Ocean Course at Hōkūala, on the island’s southeast shore. And prepare to wake up to that view: Timbers Resorts is finishing a resort and community there in 2021.
Meal of the Moment: The Local Kauai + Street Burger
The charming town of Kapa‘a has some of Kaua‘i’s most exciting restaurants. Get in on the scene at executive chef Erin Keller’s The Local (grown-in-Hawai‘i ingredients in every dish and cocktail) and chef/owners Aaron and Kristin Leikam’s Street Burger (made from Kaua‘i-raised, grass-fed beef).
Rest Your Head At: Ko‘a Kea Hotel & Resort + The Palmwood
For the twin pleasures of luxury and nostalgia, check in at the beautifully updated Ko‘a Kea Hotel & Resort in sunny Po‘ipū Beach. Explore a string of beaches along an oceanfront path, or just park contentedly at the pool. Rates start at $389. For a verdant escape, head for the mountains of the North Shore and The Palmwood, a jungle-like sanctuary modeled on the Japanese ryokan style of guest-house. Here, a sublime trio of rooms takes the notion of boutique property to a new level. Rates start at $295.
Top-Notch Mai Tai: Merriman’s
Get to Peter Merriman’s eponymous restaurant in Po‘ipū for the most elevated mai tai on the island. Here, the house version has Maui-distilled Old Lahaina Premium Silver and Dark rums, house-made macadamia nut orgeat, and a hand-whipped honey-and-liliko‘i foam topper that took weeks to perfect.
Related: Perfect Weekend in Oahu, Hawaii:
Prime Watering Hole: Eating House 1849
You’ll be hard-pressed to give up your seat at Roy Yamaguchi’s homage to Hawaiian plantation cuisine. There’s an excellent wine list (the “50 Bottles Under $50” section is hard to beat) and inventive, tropical takes on classic cocktails at Eating House 1849. Keep the party going with savory pupu plates (crispy cauliflower and pork-and-shrimp pot stickers, to name a few).
Shopping Stop: Aloha Exchange
You’ll want to buy it all at this lifestyle shop bursting with surfer-skater style. The Kalāheo boutique near Kaua‘i’s southern shore is best-known for its line of super soft cotton T-shirts.
Secret Beach: Hideaways + Pali Ke Kua
Separated by a major outcropping of rock (you can swim around this, with caution, when the waters are calm), both of these North Shore beaches are stunning escapes. Hideaways, reachable via a steep (and sometimes slippery) trail, is known for its turquoise waters and deep reefs for avid snorkelers. Pali Ke Kua (also reachable on foot, if you don’t fancy a swim-around), is a small, golden-sand beauty.
Sweet Sunset Spot: Kekaha Beach
Locals love to surf and fish on this long, sandy stretch located on Kaua‘i’s far west side (be careful of strong winds and currents if you’re considering a swim). It’s also a great place to beachcomb while waiting for the sun to drop behind the horizon.
Old-School Favorite: Tahiti Nui
Hunker down at this ramshackle-perfect joint on the North Shore made famous in a scene from the film The Descendants. Stay for the nightly live music, and do it up right by ordering the #5 pizza topped with Kalua pork and, of course, pineapples.
Souvenir Power Move: Java Kai
Polishing off a surfer-worthy breakfast at Kapa‘a's Java Kai is optional. Either way, make sure you grab a bag of the artfully packaged, small-batch coffee (or the urban-meets-island-style swag for sale). The handcrafted roaster churns out offerings including the full-bodied 100% Kauai Yellow Catuai.
Don’t Leave Before You: Explore Waimea Canyon
Known as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” the 14-mile-long gorge on Kaua‘i’s west side is dotted with stunning waterfalls that inspire a serious number of rainbows. Hike the canyon’s trails for up-close views of them; for sweeping vistas—including Waipo‘o Falls—drive to Pu‘u Ka Pele or Pu‘u Hinahina lookouts, both of which have convenient parking.
Insider Take: How to Eat Like a Boss on Kaua‘i
“I start with fresh Hawaiian fruit, followed by brunch at Sam’s Ocean View in Kapa‘a. It’s a great place to relax and watch the waves roll in while sipping on a bloody Mary. For a cool snack in the heat of the day, I go to Wailua Shave Ice. Lunch is at the fruit stand in Moloa‘a, which has great sandwiches and fresh juices, and is an easy pit stop en route to the North Shore. Finally, dinner is a simple noodle bowl at Ama, where you can watch the waterfalls dance off of the mountain.” —Adam Watten chef and owner of Hānai market/restaurant