Part of the idyllic Hawaiian archipelago, Kauai has been dubbed “The Garden Isle” owing to the tropical rainforest that extends across large swaths of the island. Indeed, Kauai’s raw natural beauty accounts heavily for the fact that it is one of Hawaii’s most popular tourist destinations, boasting dramatic cliffs, a 10-mile canyon, and endless hiking trails that captivate all who visit.
While those who come to Kauai tend to focus their itinerary around the island’s natural attractions, there’s also an impressive smattering of man-made things to see and do, as well. To help inspire you to come and see it for yourself, we’ve picked out 10 of the most unique sites, landmarks and activities to enjoy across the island of Kauai.
Embark on an enchanting hike through nature
An 11-mile trek through paradise, the Kalalau Trail starts at Ke’e Beach, winding along the Napali coast, alongside sparkling ocean and across emerald-hued valleys, isolated beaches and waterfalls, before reaching Kalalau Beach. The trail is only accessible by foot or boat, which means the rugged terrain has remained largely unchanged for centuries. While you can complete the full hike in a day, it’s worth taking your time and pitching up a tent at the halfway point in the Hanakoa Valley. Not for the faint hearted, it’s a steep and unrelenting hike to the finish line, but it offers big rewards along the way.
Visit a historic lighthouse
Perched at Kuai’s northernmost tip, the Kīlauea Lighthouse is one of Kauai’s most iconic landmarks. The 52-foot lighthouse was built in 1912 in the heart of a wildlife sanctuary. The refuge is home to one of the largest populations of Hawaii’s nesting birds and one of the only places you can find albatross, shearwaters and the red-footed booby anywhere on the island. Other wildlife includes spinner dolphins, green sea-turtles and monk seals, and from December to May you can spot humpback whales too. Beyond the extraordinary wildlife, the lighthouse offers guided tours and spectacular views of the island.
LOCATION 3580 Kilauea Road, Kilauea
Join a magical road trip adventure
Kauai is awash with beautiful driving routes and among the very finest traverses both the island’s North Shore and East Side in one go. Taking in the coastline’s picture-postcard landscape, as well as the Kilauea Lighthouse, bird sanctuary, Hanalei Bay, and other notable spots, the Hanalei-North Shore & East Side tour is simply mesmerising. And for those who want to give their full focus to the scenery, it can even be enjoyed during a privately guided sightseeing tour. Hosted by a friendly local expert called Doug – AKA the Kauai Tour Guy – these fully guided 5-hour adventures for groups sized 1-4 invite you to embark on a journey to remember, stopping off at some of the most spectacular Hawaiian beaches along the way, all aboard a comfortable and sturdy 4Runner SUV. Tours run from 9am-1pm, with pre-arranged pick-ups available.
Discover a truly unique glass-flecked beach
On the south coast of the island, nestled between an industrial zone and a Japanese cemetery, is Kauai Glass Beach. A stark contrast to the island’s wild, natural landscapes, the tiny beach is covered in fragments of aqua, terracotta and blue glass. Before the arrival of a landfill, the area was a notorious dumping zone for waste. Over the years, the waves smoothed the surfaces of the broken bottles, windows and windshields to create pretty pebbles. Park at the old cemetery and hike down to the lava shelf to see metal and glass embedded in the sides of the cliff too.
Check out the awe-inspiring ‘Grand Canyon of the Pacific’
Known as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, Waimea Canyon is one of the jewels in Kauai’s crown thanks to its vast and awe-inspiring expanse. One of the best ways to see the attraction is on a private and fully customised guided tour, such as that offered by Noah’s Ark Kauai. Called the Waimea Canyon and South Side tour, after you’re picked up from anywhere on the island, you’ll not only get to see the canyon, but also some of the island’s other major landmarks, including the Menehune Fish Pond, the Kauai Coffee Plantation, the Kalalau Valley Lookout and Poipu Beach. Along the way you’ll be regaled with fascinating stories about the island as you walk amid mother nature’s finest, peruse local markets, stop for lunch, and take plenty of photos.
LOCATION Waimea Canyon Drive, Waimea
Attend an authentic Hawaiian luau
Located in the sacred Wailua River Valley in a 30-acre botanical garden, the Smith Family Garden Luau is one of the longest running ‘luau’ on the island. (Check out our article on the best luaus on Kauai here.) And, with four generations of experience, it’s also one of the best. Tuck into a feast of Kalua pig roasted in an earthen imuoven, pounded taro plant, chicken adobo and tasty ono mahi mahi, all set against the lyrical sway of the Hawaiian hula. The event features live music with traditional songs and chants called ‘mele’, as well as spectacular performances like the Samoan fire knife dance and Tahitian drum dance.
LOCATION Kuhio Highway, Kapaʻa
Traverse the Kauai terrain on a thrilling ATV tour
For those of a more adventurous disposition, exploring Kauai’s natural wonders aboard an off-road vehicle could be just the ticket. Kipu Ranch Adventures are an acclaimed local company that run tours that take visitors on adrenaline-thumping journeys they’ll never forget. The Ultimate Kauai Off-Road Ranch Tour rides through lush green pastures, into tropical Huleia Valley, and ascending from under the canopy of the rainforest, all set against the breathtaking backdrop of Mt. Haupu. Alternatively, the Waterfall Triple Trail Expedition offers an extended ride, including stop offs at numerous movie locations, and culminating at Waterfall Lookout where you’ll get to drive right up to a stunning private waterfall – and even swim in it if you wish.
Marvel at a cascading waterfall
The double-tiered Wailua Falls waterfall reaches an impressive 85 ft. high and 30 ft. deep. Tucked behind the Kalepa Mountain Forest Reserve in Hanamā‘ulu, the site is easily accessible too. The viewpoint, located within walking distance of the car park, offers spectacular views of the dramatic cascades emptying into the tangle of dense greenery. If you’re lucky, you may spot a rainbow extending from the base of the falls into the mist – nothing short of enchanting. Legend has it that centuries ago Hawaiian men would test their endurance by jumping into the shallow waters below. Alas, today, swimming in the waters is banned.
LOCATION Wailua River State Park
Enjoy a thrilling mountain tubing adventure
More than a century ago, the Lihue Sugar Plantation built an intricate network of canals and tunnels to extract water from the waterfalls and streams of Mount Waialeale. Today, the historic waterways serve a different purpose – providing water tubing adventures for thrill-seeking visitors. Backcountry Adventures offers a three-hour excursion which includes a guided tour through the 17,000-acre plantation and tubing along the flowing waters of the canals. At the end of the tour, indulge in a picnic and a paddle in the nearby natural swimming hole.
Immerse yourself in Kauai’s rich history
It may be tempting to spend all of your time in Kauai outdoors, but it’s worth stepping inside the Kauai Museum to learn the history of the oldest island in Hawaii. Built into a lava rock structure in Lihue, the museum features a range of exhibits showcasing the island’s rich history, arts and culture, including several unusual collections from the artisans of Kauai and Niihau. As well as learning about Kauai, visitors can learn more about the geological formation of the islands, early Native Hawaiian life, Captain Cook’s arrival and the Hawaiian Monarchy. Guided tours are available upon request.
LOCATION 4428 Rice Street, Lihue HOURS Mon, Weds & Thurs 9.30am-2.30pm Closed Fri-Sun & Tues