View of Na Pali Coast, the stretch used in the fly in at the beginning of Jurassic Park, as taken by my iPhone
Kauai is known as the “Garden Isle”. Of the main islands of Hawaii, Nihau (the Forbidden Island) is the westernmost. However, Kauai is the most west of the islands that tourists are freely allowed to visit. I did not visit Kauai during my 2015 Hawaii trip. Consequently, it became my excuse to return to Hawaii in 2016. It earns its nickname because of its lush rainforest. Kauai is also unique because of its geography that changes drastically in a short amount of distance and time with a massive canyon and desert contrasting the rainforest. This diverse landscape arguably makes Kauai the most beautiful Hawaiian to visit. A helicopter ride is definitely the best way to see the entire island. On the other hand, the island is comprised of only small towns. As a result, most of it is closed by 8 PM. Nevertheless, part of Kauai’s appeal is that there is great natural beauty to enjoy during the day but not a lot to do in addition to it and at night. For this reason, you are forced to just relax and enjoy your surroundings on Kauai. Another unique aspect about Kauai is that wild roosters and chickens roam the island freely. You will see them everywhere. They were introduced to the island ages ago. Since there are no natural predators on Kauai, they bred often and unchallenged. The same is true about goats and boars. However, they generally stay in the mountains and other remote areas of the island so I did not see any roaming around.
On Kauai, there are a number of multi-day, extreme hikes available that I did not do. Unless you want to do one of them, 3-4 days on Kauai is definitely enough. The two must sees are the Na Pali Coast and Waimea Canyon. At the care rental office, we were advised to rent a 4X4 Jeep as the best way to see the island. The elevated view definitely helps. It is also a must if you want to do some off-road driving during your trip. Otherwise, I do not think you need to splurge on a jeep. It is also more difficult to drive. I stayed at the Kauai Beach Resort which was solid, clean, and modern. There are a number of resorts throughout the island you can choose from. AirBnb is also an option. The food did not overly impress me on the island but there are a few solid gems.
- Na Pali Coast
1. Via Air – Jack Harter Helicopters (4231 Ahukini Rd, Lihue, HI 96766)
There is no better way to see Kauai than via the air in a helicopter. Waimea Canyon and the valleys and mountains of the Na Pali coast provide incredible views from the helicopter as you fly into and around them. While there is a strenuous, multi-day 11 mile hike on the Na Pali coast hikers can venture on; the more feasible ways to see the Na Pali Coast is via air or boat. In my opinion, air is the best way. It is also a once in a lifetime experience. In addition, a lot of waterfalls [big and small] run down the mountains of Kauai and most are not accessible via car or foot. A helicopter ride is the only way to see them. As a result, it is the only way to see all of Kauai.
I also recommend Jack Harter Helicopters. It offers a no doors helicopter so you can take great pictures. It is scarier than it sounds. I had never been on a helicopter ride before this trip. When I saw the small helicopter and no doors, I got nervous. However, the ride is very smooth. You do not feel anything outside of the first twenty feet and even that part is not that big of a deal. I also felt comfortable with the Jack Harter pilots. They have plenty of flight experience. My pilot had logged over 10,000 hours. Naturally, it was a little nerve racking looking down at the beginning of the flight. I held onto the hand strap for a bit. However, I eventually got accustomed to being in the air and also realized I was well strapped in by the seat belts. You also need a strap for your camera or phone. I went to Wal-Mart and bought a $5-$6 dri-dock sleeve for my phone that has a strap. It is also good for keeping your phone dry from water if you are on a boat on Kauai. You will also need a jacket. It is open door at high altitude and you will fly at 100 miles per hours at points during the trip. It will get cold. The helicopter is not the most spacious. I am almost 6 foot tall and my legs were slightly cramped. I would not recommend it if you are much taller than 6 feet. In addition, there is a weight limit. Individually, the limit is 250 pounds. As a pair, you need to be a combined 400 pounds or less. You are weighed right before the flight. If you exceed either limit, you will need to pay for an extra seat. However, there are safety reasons for the policy. You are in a helicopter so weight and weight distribution is critical for a safe flight. If you have issues with it, you can also check with the other helicopter companies as alternatives. The reservation system is not that sophisticated (i.e. not really clear if you made one). I called to follow up on my appointment a couple of times.
On the day of your flight, you drive to the office. A shuttle is provided to the airport where the helicopters take off. It is a very quick ride as the office is right outside the airport. A safety briefing is given during the drive over. On the helicopter, you are given a headset. You can ask questions or speak to the pilots during the flight with the microphone. The pilot does a great job pointing out all the sites during the hour flight such as valleys, waterfalls, key locations where famous movies were filmed, etc. For example, our pilot flew us to Jurassic Falls where the fly in for the helicopter scene at the beginning of Jurassic Park was filmed. He also highlighted the location where the Tyrannosaurus Rex chased the jeep and the section of the Na Pali Coast where the landscape for Jurassic World was filmed. Another interesting part of the island is the northeast section where a lot of celebrities have vacation homes. Mark Zuckerberg recently bought 750 acres of land for $100 million.
The tour cost me $289 for the no doors helicopter before I tipped the pilot. Honestly, it was totally worth it. It is an experience that I will never forget and I am happy that the first helicopter ride I took was over Kauai.
- Via Sea – Captain Andy’s Sailing Adventures and Raft Expeditions (4353 Waialo Rd #1a, Eleele, HI 96705)
The other popular way to see the Na Pali coast is via a boat tour. On the other hand, seasickness is a concern as the waves are very strong. I did not get seasick but another passenger did. If you are worried, bring some seasickness pills. Sitting at the front of the boat with open air also helps. If you are very concerned about getting sick, it may be best to go via helicopter. Some passengers showed up and left the boat before we set sail because they got worried on the boat while we were docked.
Captain Andy’s has a fleet of boats that sail you around the west coast of Kauai to the Na Pali Coast on the north. The first stop is a snorkeling spot on the west coast where the water is calmer. Snorkeling gear is provided by the boat. Personally, I buy my own snorkel so I do not have to share a used one. I brought the one I bought at a Wal-Mart on Oahu for $30. There are some pretty fish at the snorkeling area. Snorkeling is always fun but I have seen better spots on Oahu and Maui. The ride up, around, and along the Na Pali coast is amazing. A lot of dolphins will swim along and with the boat on both legs of the trip. It is definitely one of the highlights of the tour. You may also see whales on the tour. On my trip, the crew searched for it on the trip but we unfortunately did not spot any. On the west coast, the crew also pointed out the missile silos that are in place to defend the country. Moreover, there is a military testing facility for advanced weaponry. Afterwards, the Na Pali coast is stunning. The beauty of the valleys and mountains on the coastline are breathtaking. The crew pointed out various areas of the coast, including the area where the fly in for Jurassic Park was filmed and the valley where the first Hawaiians settled on Kauai.
The food provided on the boat was decent. I did not like the breakfast. Baking sausages into cake was odd so I ate some fruit. The lunch was various sandwich meats. It looked catered or bought from a supermarket but it was very good. Macadamia nut cookies were provided at the end, which are always a plus. Beer was available. Soft drinks and soda were kept in large coolers for you to grab.
Overall, I really enjoyed the Captain Andy’s experience and would definitely recommend it if you are looking for a boat tour of the Na Pali Coast. It is not cheap at $149 per adult but I think it is worth it.
- Waimea Canyon
Waimea Canyon is known as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific. There are various lookout points along Kokee Road (Highway 550) to enjoy the canyon and Kokee State Park. The first major lookout is Waimea Canyon Lookout. It is where you will find the location for most of the iconic pictures of the canyon. In the distance to the left, you will also see Waipoo Falls.
If you are looking for a hike, I definitely recommend the Canyon Trail. I started at the Puu Hinahina Lookout, which is approximately at the 13.5 mile marker. There is plenty of parking there. The trail begins at the end of the parking lot. From there, it is approximately 4 miles round trip and takes a little over 2 hours to complete. Parts of the trail are steep but I have been on much steeper hikes. In addition, I found the trails well defined and pretty smooth to hike. There is also a lot of tree cover so I did not feel too hot during the hike. Overall, I rate the hike as a moderate. Near the end of the hike, there is a large clearing where you will be treated to more great views of the canyon. You can also climb down to rocks that hang over the edge. Although I saw other hikers do it, I personally thought they were nuts and reckless. I would advise staying back and being cautious. Any slips will lead to death. The trail ends at the top of the Waipoo Falls. You can only see the top so do not try to climb rocks in attempt to see more of it. Before the final stretch to the Falls to the right, you can also make a left and climb over some minor boulders to see a much smaller waterfall that flows down to the Falls. It provides a small pond where you can go in the water if you like. If you want to cut half and the steepest parts out of the hike, you can drive down Halemanu Road and park in the parking lot that connects to the trail. However, you will definitely need a 4X4 to drive back up the dirt, steep road.
If you continue down Highway 550, you will enter Kokee State Park. There are lookout points where you can see lush, beautiful valleys on the Na Pali Coast. I did not get a chance to drive down there. I also saw them via boat and helicopter so I did not feel the need to return to finish the drive. Nevertheless, the views of the valleys are definitely worth it if you have the time.
Other Good Things to Do
- Sleeping Giant – Nounou Trail (Haleilio Rd, Kapaa, HI 96746)
Sleeping Giant is an excellent hike on the east side of Kauai. It is 2 miles up and 2 miles down. It provides awesome views of the east side of the island. The Nounou, East Trail, is the easier of the trails up Sleeping Giant. Stay on the marked trails. The official trail is easy to hike on. My biggest issue was the heat and humidity even though there are trees for some cover. Near the beginning of the hike, there is some minor scrambling over one boulder. You take a sharp right. Initially, I was confused whether I was going in the right direction. However, the trail goes down only for a little bit before going back up. Trust the signs and the direction they are pointing you in. Near the top, there is a right turn that brings you on the north trail. Make sure you stay left. There is a picnic table at the top. There are also various lookout points near and at the top of the trail. At the end of the trail, there is a sign telling you to not go any further. I saw plenty of hikers, including more senior ones, making their way up Sleeping Giant. It requires rock scrambling. When I was reading about that section, I read that the rock is not granite so it is not as stable. I also read warnings online to not to go past the sign. Although I was not overly concerned about proceeding and saw a lot of hikers doing it, I did a quick cost-benefit analysis. I was at my last full day of a two week trip to Hawaii and had already seen Kauai from the air. I am sure the views from the top of Sleeping Giant are amazing but it would not top the views from the helicopter. Even if the risk of falling on Sleeping Giant seemed remote, any possibility of it steered me away from passing that sign. It is just not worth the chance of falling. I was also more concerned about coming down than going up.
- Remnants of Jurassic Park Sign
Jurassic Park is one of my favorite movies of all-time. I saw the Jurassic Falls from the fly in scene at the beginning of the movie during a helicopter tour. I also saw the part of the Na Pali coast used for that fly in during a boat tour. The sign from the movie no longer stands. The only things remaining from it are two tall poles. However, it is not easy to get to them. It requires some serious off-roading in a 4X4 over an extremely bumpy dirt road. In addition, three parts of the road are slightly overrun by a stream. For these reasons, do not even attempt the drive without a 4X4. If you are using a GPS, set it to Keahua Aboretum. The poles are another 20-30 minutes past that point. There is not much to see past the poles. A jeep in front of us kept on going because they told me they were going tubing in an irrigation system by there. It was a fun time off-roading. I am thrilled to see the polls as a Jurassic Park fan. I would not do it again.
- Polihale State Park (Hwy 50, Waimea, HI 96796)
It is a good location for sunset on the beach with strong waves hitting the sand, cliffs to your back, and Nihau in the distance. The violent clash of the waves contrasts with the peacefulness of the moment and all the other natural beauty around you. Nevertheless, it was not an overwhelming experience. My pictures are actually better than seeing it with my own eyes. In addition, it requires about 30 minutes of off-roading on a rocky dirt road, Lower Saki Mana Road. At the end of Highway 50, you take a right on Kiko Road and then a quick left on Lower Saki Mana Road. You will see a clear entrance. I have experienced plenty of potholes in New York City. They have nothing on how the depth and quantity of holes on the dirt road leading to the beach at Polihale State Park. It is actually better to drive faster than slow down and feel every bump and crevice.
- Luau Kalamaku (3-2087 Kaumualii Hwy, Lihue, HI 96766)
The luau is held at a tropical planation. There is a roof over the luau so it will be held rain or shine. However, it is only run on Tuesdays and Fridays. On the day of the show, you can go early to take tours of the plantation for an additional price. I did not do so. There are also vendors that set up shop before the luau in the outside courtyard like a mini flea/ farmer’s market. I sampled some Kauai nuts and actually bought a few bags of them. The luau itself is decent. The food is not the best but acceptable. The highlight of this luau is the show. It is very theatrical with a well-produced and performed story. The fire show at the end is also top notch. On the other hand, the show was so different from the other luaus I have been to that it felt more like a play than luau.
My favorite luau in Hawaii is Chief’s Luau on Oahu but Luau Kalamaku is a solid one if you are only on Kauai and want to experience one.
There are a lot of extraordinary waterfalls on Kauai. Most of them can only be seen by air or an extreme hike. Nevertheless, there are two amazing ones you can just drive to lookouts to see on the east side of the island: Wailua and Opaekaa Falls.
- Kilauea Fish Market Waipouli (440 Aleka Pl #5, Kapaa, HI 96746)
It is a casual dining spot where you order up at the counter and the food is brought to you. It is probably the best food I ate in Kauai. Naturally, the fish is very fresh. The ahi steak is great. My friend also ordered the Ono fish tacos. Although I did not get a chance to try it, my friends swears it is the “most memorable bite” he had in Hawaii. We returned again just so he could eat another order.
Of course, trying some poke is a must in Hawaii. There are two great spots I found in Kauai. However, neither place has seating. I ordered and ate in the car.
1. Konohiki Seafoods (3-4301 Kuhio Hwy #102, Lihue, HI 96766)
I was craving poke before my flight home. Unfortunately, The Fish Express is closed on Sundays. As a result, I found Konohiki Seafoods and I am glad I did. Of course, the fish is extremely fresh. The spicy sauce and flavor is incredible. For this reason, it is my favorite poke spot on Kauai. The fried wontons are also great. The spam musubi is solid.
- The Fish Express (3343 Kuhio Hwy, Lihue, HI 96766)
If you are craving poke right after or before a flight, head over to Fish Express unless it is Sunday. It is quick and great. The fish is fresh and the flavors are top notch. I ordered a poke bowl with a mix of shoyu and onion poke and loved them. If you want additional topics, they do charge for them by weighing the bowl before and after. The spam musubi is very good to.
- Shave Ice
Naturally, shave ice is another thing you need to try in Hawaii. I found a couple of good spots in Kapaa.
- Wailua Shave Ice (4-1306 Kuhio Hwy, Kapaa, HI 96746)
It is an excellent shave ice truck in Kapaa. It is known for its “lava flow”. It includes, strawberry, pineapple, and coconut. The presentation is great because it looks like a lava flow.
- Ono Ono Shave Ice (1292 Kuhio Hwy #4, Kapaa, HI 96746)
It is a solid shave ice spot. I ordered the Rainbow – vanilla, pineapple, and strawberry. The syrups are very good and my ice was drenched in them. The price is also not bad at $3.50.
- Fine Dining – Kukui’ula Village Shopping Center (2829 Ala Kalanikaumaka Rd A-201, Koloa, HI 96756)
I was not blown away by any sit down restaurants in Kauai. Nevertheless, it is always nice to go out for at least one formal dinner. Of course, Hawaii is a popular Honeymoon destination. As a result, I am aware some visitors will be looking for a good spot for a romantic dinner. For either purpose, Koloa is your best bet. The Kukui’ula Village Shopping Center offers a couple of decent options.
1. Eating House 1849
It is a beautiful spot for dinner. Although I did not go there for sunset, it would definitely be a perfect location for it if you can make a reservation for it. The food is excellent. I ordered one of its featured dishes, the Kamameshi, which is a butterfish in a hot pot rice bowl. The butterfish lived up to the name as the fish was so smooth and tender that you could cut through it like butter. I did not need a knife to eat it. The rice in the pot was very hot as it should be. I also enjoyed the vegetables in the pot, especially the mushrooms. It is definitely the one restaurant I would recommend the most for a fine dining experience in Kauai.
- Merriman’s Fish House (2829 Ala Kalanikaumaka St, Koloa, HI 96756)
I heard about this restaurant in Maui, where it has another location. I did not get a chance to try it in Maui so I gave it a try on Kauai. It is definitely in a great location. The first floor is actually Merriman’s Gourmet Pizza & Burgers. My friend and I accidentally went there by accident. Since we were sat at the bar and ordered drinks already, we did not want to admit our mistake so we ordered a pizza and ate it before going up to the Fish House. At the Fish House, I ordered the macadamia nut crusted mahi mahi. It is definitely fresh. However, I had very high expectations because of reviews I read and the expensive price. It was not cooked perfectly and a little bit dry. While it is a great location and provides an excellent ambiance for a nice dinner, I was not wowed by the food.
- Lapperts (2829 Ala Kalanikaumaka St, Koloa, HI 96756)
It is my favorite ice cream on the Hawaiian islands. I love its macadamia nut and Kona coffee flavors. After dinner in Koloa, definitely get some Lapperts ice cream if you have room. Of course, you can also get it before. I had to wait to sit for dinner at Eating House so I took a quick trip over to Lapperts for a couple scoops, a chocolate macadamia nut and a regular macadamia nut scoop.
- Food trucks
The food does not blow me away in Kauai. As a result, food trucks offer some of the better food on the island. In addition, they are generally cheaper and quick. I found a solid food truck pod off of the Kuhio Highway (4-1620 Kuhio Hwy, Kapaa, HI 96746).
- Al Pastor Tacos
In its pod of food trucks, it was definitely my favorite truck. It has great fish tacos. The dish is one of the best things I ate on Kauai.
- NOM Kauai
It features an excellent breakfast burger that includes bacon and a fried egg. Is it the best burger I have ever had? Probably not. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it and it really hit the spot. Of course, I also had to add a side of tater tots. The truck may be known more for its chicken and waffles. However, it did not look like anything special and my friend did not like it. Consequently, I definitely recommend a burger as the way to go.
- Chef George of Da Jungle
It is a solid Greek food truck. I ordered the lamb gyro. The lamb is good, I like the thin slices, but I have had better. The pita is great. The gyro includes vegetable, tzatziki sauce, and feta cheese. I would believe it if someone told me it is the best Greek food on the island because it is a small island and this food truck may be the only Greek option. Nevertheless, it is a solid choice if you are craving Greek on Kauai. It is also the food truck in the pod that is open later than the rest. The 9 PM close is liberal. If the truck has business, it will stay open till then. As a result, make sure to plan your trip there well before the stated close time.
- Hippie Café (4-369 Kuhio Hwy, Kapaa, HI 96746)
The café is a solid spot for an acai bowl on Kauai. I ordered the Not So Simple which includes bananas, mac nut coco milk, granola, bananas, and a choice of 3 toppings. The fresh fruit will change daily. I went with the pineapples. Everything is fresh and solid. On the other hand, I have tried a lot of acai bowls in recent years all over the country. Overall, I have had better bowls. I generally favor the ones with berries and a great honey that complements and puts the rest of the bowl over the top. Regardless, Hippie Café has the better acai bowl of the two I tried on Kauai.
Overall, the best coffee on the Hawaiian Islands is on Oahu. Kauai has a solid selection of specialty coffee shops. One of the shops blew me away. Nevertheless, I was generally satisfied but not overwhelmed by the other shops.
- Coffee Talk in Pono Market (4-1300 Kuhio Hwy Kapaa, HI 96746)
Sometimes, you just know something immediately. I knew Coffee Talk had the best latte I tried in all of Hawaii at first sip. I have tried a lot of coffee shops around the country in recent years and Coffee Talk measures up to the very best I have tried. The richness, texture, taste, and art is perfect. Coffee Talk is a small kiosk inside Pono Market. The barista takes his time to craft impeccable lattes. It is worth every second. Do not rush a great painter when he crafts his masterpiece.
On the other hand, I tried the poke in Pono market too. The fish is previously frozen and you can definitely tell. I recommend getting poke at another spot where it is fresh.
- Little fish coffee (3900 Hanapepe Rd, Hanapepe, HI 96716)
It is the best specialty coffee by Waimea Canyon if you are craving coffee before or after a trip there. The richness and taste of the lattes are excellent. The art could be better but it is decent. The restaurant also has a good acai bowl. I had the P.K. Bowl, which includes banana, granola, blueberries, papaya, and goji berries. I personally prefer strawberries over papaya. On the other hand, the goji berries were awesome. In my experience, a great honey puts an acai bowl over the top. It is the one missing ingredient that I felt could really enhance the acai bowl here.
3. Imua Coffee Roasters (440 Aleka Pl #7, Kapaa, HI 96746)
It is a new coffee shop on Kauai. It does not have the best art but it is not bad. The richness and taste are solid. In terms of a shop, it has a great ambiance and is a good spot to relax and sip your coffee.
- Cortado Coffee Bar (2827 Poipu Rd, Koloa, HI 96756)
It is an outdoor kiosk in Koloa by Poipu beach. Usually, great art is an indicator of a good drink and poor art is an indicator of a bad drink. I tried a cortado and latte here. Although no attention was paid to presentation (i.e. no attempt at art), it was a rare instance when the art was non-existent but the drinks tasted very good.
- Small Town Coffee Co (4-1613 Kuhio Hwy, Kapaa, HI 96746)
It is a coffee truck in Kapaa. It has all the makings of a great latte. The coffee tastes rich and the micro foam of the milk is very good. The art could be a little better. Regardless, it offers a solid latte.
- Java Kai Old Kapaa Town (4-1384 Kuhio Hwy, Kapaa, HI 96746)
It was my one disappointing coffee experience on Kauai. I was really looking forward to trying Java Kai. I do not want to make too many conclusions over one drink. It looked like it could have been great. However, my specific latte was just too watery. It showed up in the art in the form of very thin lines of milk and as I drank. I still think it is worth a try with the otherwise solid reviews.
For my guides for other Hawaiian Islands, please see: