My first impression of Hawaii was not that favorable. Like many people visiting the Aloha State, I landed at the Honolulu International Airport after a 5-hour flight from California. But instead of the miles of palm-rimmed, sandy beaches I expected, I saw a coastline packed with skyscrapers. And the traffic! By the time I laid my jetlagged head on my pillow that night, I was wondering why I’d spent the time and money to travel to the middle of the Pacific Ocean if the experience was simply Los Angeles on an island.
Fortunately, my time in Honolulu was short. The next day, after a sobering visit to Pearl Harbor and a festive luau, I boarded a plane for the 20-minute flight to Kauai. And as the cabin door closed behind me, I sincerely hoped the next stop would be nothing like the Hawaii I was leaving behind.
With its forested mountains and fertile fields, it’s easy to understand how Kauai earned the nickname of the Garden Island. But Hawaii’s oldest island is more than a lush landscape surrounded by a deep blue ocean. As you explore, you’ll gaze in wonder at waterfalls that cascade over volcanic cliffs, creating rainbows that dance in the spray, and you’ll inhale the intoxicating fragrance of plumerias. And as the sun slips below the horizon at night, you’ll be treated to some of the most breathtaking gold, tangerine, and crimson sunsets you’ll ever witness.
After spending two weeks in this tropical paradise, these are my favorite places to visit on gorgeous Kauai.
Home to Kauai’s only commercial airport, Lihue is commonly a visitor’s first stop. And because so much of Kauai is inaccessible by car, most destinations are reached by traveling clockwise and counterclockwise from Lihue on the main highway, which encircles a portion of the island like a backward C.
2. Wailua Falls
Just north of Lihue, you can see the twin plunge of Wailua Falls cascading over a volcanic ledge into the Wailua River. And you won’t need to unpack your hiking boots! Not only are the falls less than 15 minutes from the airport, but breathtaking views beckon just a few steps from the parking lot.
If this gorgeous waterfall seems vaguely familiar, you may remember it from the opening credits of Fantasy Island (although most of the television series was filmed in Burbank, California).
Pro Tip: If it’s the waterfall from Jurassic Park you’re after, it’s much more difficult to reach. Manawaiopuna Falls, the 400-foot-tall waterfall featured in the opening of the movie, is on a remote piece of private land and is only accessible by air.
3. Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge
Continuing counterclockwise around Kauai, stop next at the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge. Stretching across the northernmost coast of Kauai, this park offers phenomenal views of the Pacific Ocean while also allowing visitors to connect with native plants and wildlife. As you look out at the water, watch for spinner dolphins frolicking in the surf and Hawaiian monk seals resting on sandy beaches and volcanic rocks. Soaring overhead or nesting on land are a variety of migratory seabirds.
Pro Tip: The Hawaiian state bird is the nene, a tropical goose that looks a bit like a Canada goose with a shorter, cream-colored neck and black mask. But while Canada geese are often seen as a nuisance, the Hawaiian creation chant recognizes nene as guardian spirits that join the mountains and coast with their seasonal migrations. Once critically endangered -- with only 100 birds left in the wild -- the nene is making a comeback, and the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge is one of the best places to spot one.
4. Kilauea Point Lighthouse
Guarding the jagged northern coast of Kauai is a bright white lighthouse crowned with a red roof. The Kilauea Point Lighthouse has guided ships away from the rocky coast since 1913, but its flashing light also helped the first flight from the mainland to Honolulu back in 1927 as it navigated bad weather. When the pilot spotted the lighthouse, he realized that he was flying over the island of Kauai, corrected course, and redirected the plane to Oahu.
Climb the narrow stairs and stand in the watch room directly beneath the lighthouse’s lantern by signing up for a free tour on a Wednesday or Saturday.
Fun Fact: The Kilauea Point Lighthouse and the international airport in Honolulu are both named for Daniel K. Inouye, a Hawaiian congressman and Purple Heart recipient. As president pro tempore of the United States Senate from 2010 to 2012, Inouye was the highest-ranking Asian-American politician in American history.
5. Princeville Botanical Gardens
Filled with fragrant flowers and tropical fruits, the lush Princeville Botanical Gardens are certainly a place of serene beauty. As you wander through the flourishing paradise of plants on a 3-hour walking tour, your guide will add color by sharing the history, culture, and uses of the flora. You’ll also get to taste seasonal fruit, local honey, and gourmet chocolates.
6. Hanalei Bay
Going to Hawaii and not enjoying its sandy beaches would be like spending a weekend in Philadelphia and not seeing the Liberty Bell. So as you make your way around the northern coast of Kauai, be sure to relax in the sun and listen to the waves gently lapping at the coast.
Jutting into the island in the shape of a giant U, Hanalei Bay is a calm basin with nearly 2 miles of beach set against the backdrop of the Napali Coast. It is a beautiful spot to sunbathe, swim, snorkel, paddleboard, or otherwise enjoy the island vibe.
7. Ke’e Beach
Ke’e Beach is quietly tucked away at the end of the Kuhio Highway, often overlooked by tourists. And between you and me, this secluded spot was my favorite place to visit on Kauai.
A large barrier reef creates a calm lagoon protected from the ocean’s waves, making it the perfect place for casual swimmers and beginner snorkelers (like me) who can’t help but hear the Jaws theme song every time they take a dip in the ocean. As I lazily snorkeled, watching for bright saltwater fish, a giant sea turtle swam my way, paddling in the water next to me. It was a travel moment that left me truly breathless, and I had to remind myself to keep breathing through the tube connecting me to the oxygen above the water.
Fun Fact: Unlike in other coastal states, all beaches in Hawaii are open to the public.
8. Napali Coast
The enormous moss-green cliffs that define Kauai’s northwestern coast are another can’t-miss sight on the Garden Island. One of the most spectacular ways to see the Napali Coast is by helicopter, but visitors can also take in the awesome beauty of the cliffs from the water or by hiking the Kalalau Trail.
I opted for an hour-long helicopter tour that flew over majestic waterfalls and hovered above the Waimea Canyon in addition to circling the Napali Coast. It was one of the more expensive activities I enjoyed during my stay in Kauai, but it was worth every penny!
Pro Tip: In addition to a helicopter tour, here are eight other adventurous things to do in Kauai.
Those who’d like to see the Napali Coast by sea can take a half-day catamaran tour that typically includes dolphin sightings, sea cave exploration, and snorkeling stops.
If a strenuous, multiday coastal hike is more your style, you can also admire the beauty of the Napali Coast by following the Kalalau Trail. With a 6,100-foot elevation gain, the full 11-mile trail between Ke’e Beach and Kalalau Beach is typically tackled by experienced hikers. However, those with less hiking experience (and limited time) can always trek as much of the trail as they’re comfortable exploring from Ke’e Beach.
9. Waimea Canyon
Accessed by traveling clockwise on Highway 50, the 10-mile-long, 3,000-foot-deep Waimea Canyon is known as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific. Visit the Waimea Canyon Lookout, where three viewing platforms overlook the striated canyon accented by crystal waterfalls. And if you’re lucky, you just might catch a brilliant rainbow above the deep gorges, bestowing a glimmering crown on this tropical paradise.
From soaring green mountains to deeply carved canyons, and from quiet beaches to abundant waterfalls, these are the best places to visit on the Garden Island of Kauai.