Most people are familiar with the "Big Three" among the Hawaiian islands; Oahu, Big Island and Maui are staples for Hawaii tourists and are usually first stops for visitors. But there's a strong case to be made for why Kauai, the Garden Island, should be your first stop in Hawaii.
Under-appreciated island and lesser-known, Kauai is at the end of the island chain (only Niihau is farther than Kauai, and sorry, that island is private). It’s rainier and it’s smaller. But the Garden Island has that isolation and climate to thank for it’s wildly verdant landscapes, significantly less-populated attractions, and the truly peaceful spirit you sought in your Hawaii trip in the first place. Here are seven reasons why Kauai should be your next Hawaii destination.
1. Na Pali Coast
The Na Pali Coast is arguably the most stunning coastline in Hawaii, if not the world. Crystal clear waters splash up against lush mountains. Rainbows abound. Hiking the Kalalau Trail above the coast is an incredible experience, but to do the entire trail is eleven miles one way and not for the novice hiker. The best way to see Na Pali is from the water itself. Boat tours leave early in the morning to guarantee spinner dolphin sightings and often offer breakfast and lunch. Snorkel or scuba off the boat and see panoramic views of the entire Na Pali coast.
2. Hanalei Bay
Hanalei Bay is simply beautiful. It’s a peaceful, two-mile-long beach, perfect for swimming in the summer and observing (or partaking in) world-class surf in the winter. Hanalei Town borders the bay and several resorts are close by. It’s on the way to the Na Pali coast and is a great place to unwind after a hike. Sick of gazing at the turquoise waters? Spin around and soak in the backdrop of huge green mountains. You’ll probably catch another rainbow.
3. Tunnels Beach
Tunnels is known as a snorkeling and diving beach, and it doesn’t disappoint. The waters are full of sea turtles and brightly-colored fish. Divers can explore underwater caves formed by lava tubes. Beware of high surf in the winter months and a sneaky rip tide -- the beach is lifeguarded, so check with the guards for any swimming precautions.
4. Shipwreck Beach Trail
This is a much more accessible and safe hike than the one above the Na Pali Coast. A rocky trail along seaside cliffs offers views of the south shore of Kauai, which often tends to be sunnier and drier in the winter months. One can see sunset from the tops of the cliffs and whales in the winter. It’s easy to spot endangered monk seals and sea turtles from the bluffs, and plenty of flat rock areas mean the trail is a great place for a sunset picnic.
5. Breakfast at Kalaheo Cafe & Coffee Company
Three words: Get. The. Pancakes. The only thing you won’t like about this place is how stressful it is to pick what to eat. Located on the west side of Kauai, this adorable cafe has delicious food, Hawaiian coffee, a plantation-style ambiance and a great mix of locals and visitors. Come here for breakfast on your way to Waimea Canyon and Polihale Beach (see below), and maybe even for dinner on the way back.
6. Waimea Canyon
Despite being the rainiest island, one of Kauai’s most stunning attractions is a dry, red rock, mile-wide chasm called Waimea Canyon. Called the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” the canyon is 14 miles long and over 3,600 feet deep. The red lava rock glows as the sun hits it. After a heavy rain, waterfalls crash down the sides of the canyon walls and into the red Waimea River.
7. Polihale Beach
This beach is the perfect place to wrap up a trip to Kauai. Remote and largely unpopulated, Polihale is only accessible by dirt road (not a good idea to drive there without a 4-wheel-drive vehicle). The 17-mile-long beach faces west and provides the most beautiful sunsets on all of Kauai. Find a secluded place to camp and feel like you have the entire Garden Island to yourself.