Kauai is known for its diverse microclimates and stunning landscapes. From dusty red-rock desert canyons to the postcard-perfect Na Pali Coast, endless outdoor adventure awaits. I love this Hawaiian island because in comparison to bustling Oahu and tourist-friendly Maui, Kauai is a lot more quieter and nature-oriented. Every day you can road trip to a different part of the island, stopping at roadside takeout counters for plate lunches. You can wander around tiny surf towns in search of shaved ice and the best beaches in Kauai. Best of all, do as the locals do and learn how to slow way down and embrace island time. Here’s a Kauai itinerary that will allow you to see the highlights of this magical island.
This post contains affiliate links (with no extra cost to you). Read the full disclosure policy click here. Thank you for supporting Small World This Is.
3 Days In Kauai
Day 1-Na Pali Coast
If you see only one thing on your Kauai itinerary, make sure it’s this stunning coastline that features dramatic cliffs dropping into the Pacific Ocean below. The coastline is officially part of the the Na Pali Coast State Wilderness Park, and one of the best ways to see the landscape is by a daytime boat tour that brings you up close and personal at a leisurely pace (often with lunch included). Make sure to take Dramamine or Bonine (less drowsy for me personally) with you on the boat, since the water can get rough.
If you prefer to be up in the air, a small plane or helicopter flight are a bit more of a splurge, but will let you see a unique aerial perspective, as well as have access to spots only reachable by air. For hiking options, here’s some of the most popular options:
- Kalalau Trail-situated in Hāʻena State Park, this popular trail is the only way to access the coastline by land and is a challenging 22-mile (round-trip) stretch has a 800 ft. elevation gain, but the first 2 miles are a popular alternative that ends at Hanakapi’ai Beach, overnight camping permits are required beyond Hanakapi’ai Valley
- Hanakapi`ai-also located in nearby Hāʻena State Park, hike into a lush river valley, two trail options are the 4-mile round trip to Hanakapi`ai Beach (open only during the summer) or a 8-mile round trip to Hanakapi`ai waterfall, large elevation changes make this a difficult hike
Before you go check for state park/road closures and required permits that need to be purchased beforehand on this government website.
Day 2-North Shore
Head north towards Kilauea, and stop at Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge and Lighthouse, with a stunning, rugged coastline as a backdrop, and the Pacific Ocean as far as the eye can see. Be on the lookout for native birds like the endangered Nēnē. Depending on the season, you might also see whales, monk seals, and dolphins. The lighthouse is right outside of the town of Kilauea and there plenty of parking. The path to the lighthouse itself is paved and is an easy 10-minute walk. The entrance fee is $10.
Afterward, make a brief stop in Princeville, which is often referred to as Haolewood by locals because of the local lavish lifestyles. Wander around the Princeville Center for some window shopping and indulge in local Lappert’s Ice Cream. In the shopping center there’s a Foodland grocery store, which is one of my favorite spots to pick up fresh poke.
The last stop of the day is nearby Hanalei, a decidedly more relaxed town where you can stretch your legs, admire the local murals, and browse the souvenir shops. Get something to eat at Harvest Market, the local health food spot that offers smoothies, acai bowls, and pre-made lunch-type items (try the ahi tuna wrap).
On your way home, stop by Hanalei Bay for unparalleled views of the North Shore’s largest bay. On your way out of town, the surrounding taro fields and lush mountains make for an excellent photo backdrop and are worth pulling over on the highway for.
Waimea is reminiscent of the Old West with its sleepy towns, paniolo (cowboys), and a layer of red dirt covering everything. Make your way through the town, admiring the historic art deco Waimea Theater, which is a great alternative activity to add to your itinerary for rainy days. Treat yourself to a fancy lunch (or dinner) at Merriman’s, which is part of the local Hawaiian food movement and offers locally-raised beef and fresh seafood.
The highlight of the area is Waimea Canyon, which is often referred to as the Grand Canyon of the West. Route 550 winds along the canyon, offers several scenic lookouts and ends in Koke’e State Park. Make sure to stop at the Kokee Natural History Museum to get a lay of the land (and insight into trail/weather conditions) before venturing out. Make sure to also dress in layers, since the higher elevations can get chilly. The following are popular lookout points in both Waimea Canyon and Koke’e State Park that offer views of the canyon or lush valley below:
- Waimea Canyon Overlook-this is where you go to see dramatic views of the canyon from 3 separate viewing platforms, the lookout is just past the 10 mile marker on Kokee Rd (Hwy 550)
- Pu’u Hinahina Lookout-located just 3 miles down the road from the main lookout (at the 13 mile marker) is this spot that gives you a view from the end of the canyon, this is also the trailhead for the Waimea Canyon Trail, where you can hike to the Waipo’o Falls that’s situated across the canyon
- Kalalau Lookout-with the highest elevation reachable by road at 4,000, this viewpoint boast views of Kalalau Valley (where the only access is by the strenuous Kalalau Trail), this valley is easily recognizable from Hollywood films like Jurassic Park, try to go in the morning before 11am, since clouds can obscure your view during the afternoons and evenings
- Puu O Kila Lookout-a less crowded alternative right down the road where you can enjoy valley views in more solitude, the Pihea Trail starts right behind the lookout and provides additional views, but be careful if it’s wet since it can get slippery and there are no railings to hold on to
On your way back home stop at the neighboring town of Hanapepe, which feels like an artsy, frontier town and if you’re around Friday night stop by for the popular Friday Art Night (every Friday, 5-9pm), which features local artists and plenty of food trucks.
Additional Day-South Shore
If you have an additional day, spend it in Poipu, where you can visit McBryde Garden, an impressive tropical botanical garden with stunning views of the beach below on the drive in. The adjacent Allerton Garden, is another option, but is a bit pricey at $45 per person, and requires a guided tour, unlike McBryde which is a self-guided one.
Afterward, stop in Old Koloa Town, and walk among the historic sugar plantation buildings which have now been converted into shops and restaurants. This town is a great spot to pick-up plate lunches at Sueoka Snack Shop before heading down to Poipu Beach for a lazy beach afternoon.
At Poipu Beach, there’s plenty to do, whether you want to soak in some sun, or snorkel among a wide range of tropical fish, this lively spot is a must if you’re on the South Shore. There’s an enclosed swimming spot that’s ideal for kids, a restaurant and deli across the street, as well as plentiful parking and free entrance. If you’re lucky you might even spot a sea turtle or monk seal.
After a day in the sun, take a detour to The Tree Tunnel, which is made up of a mile-long stretch of eucalyptus trees that formed a natural canopy over the road and can be seen on the way from Lihue to Poipu on highway 520.
Related post: The Perfect 10-Day Hawaii Itinerary: Oahu and Kauaii
The Hawaiian island of Kauai is easy to navigate and takes about an hour and half to drive from Princeville to Poipu, depending on traffic. The island is divide up into the following areas:
- North Shore – Princeville, Hanalei, Napali Coast
- South Shore – Poipu, Waimea
- East – Kapaa, Lihue
- West – Waimea, Hanapepe
Things To Do In Lihue
When you arrive at Lihue Airport, you’ll be in the island’s capitol where the major grocery stores like Costco (including cheaper Costco gas) will be located. There are also cultural sights to see including the Kauai Museum, featuring local artists and exhibits on local history. Wailua Falls is north of Lihue, and has a 80-foot waterfall and can be viewed from the road or you can hike closer on a 3-mile trek. There is also Grove Farm Homestead Museum, which gives visitors insight into the island’s sugar plantation past. Make sure to make an appointment for the two-hour tour which goes through the Wilcox home, staff quarters, and the lush gardens.
Getting Around Kauai
The best way to get around the island is by renting a car at Lihue Airport, especially if your itinerary includes daily road trips to the different areas of the island. A local bus does exists, but it doesn’t go to the tourist-heavy areas and has restrictions on bringing luggage aboard. There are also alternative ride share options like Uber and Lyft if you want to leave your car behind and go out at night.
The Best Time To Go To Kauai
Kauai has a tropical climate, which means warm weather, but there’s also the chance of rain, especially in winter from November to March. The North Shore gets the most rain, while the south and eastern parts of the island get considerably less. The risk of going during the winter is that seasonal rain storms can be damaging to the island, especially the North Shore. Summertime is warmer with an average high of 85 degrees F, but also take into consideration tropical humidity, as well as families taking advantage of summer vacation and peak hotel prices.
Where To Stay In Kauai
The drier South Shore (Koloa, Poipu, and Lawai), the rainy North Shore (Princeville and Hanalei, and Kilauea), and the East Coast (Kapaa, Wailua, and Lihue), are the popular spots to stay on Kauai, where you’re close to either sandy southern beaches, the rugged coastline of the north or the bustling county seat on the east side. Here’s some mid-range to luxury choices in these three areas.
Located in Lihue, these beachfront condos are a great home base for those who want to be halfway between the South and North Shores, while also in the middle of the action in Lihue. With a spacious outdoor pool, full-service spa, and stunning ocean views, it will be tempting to stay on property. Free airport shuttle included.
These Princeville condos are ideal for guests who want to have the convenience of their kitchen and washer/dryer unit at their disposal. Condo options come with either one bedroom or two. There’s no shortage of things to do on property, with 2 outdoor pools, 3 hot tubs, and an outdoor tennis court.
An expansive, stunning property located in Koloa that includes a luxury spa, panoramic ocean views, and a wide range of pools to cool off in. This central location includes close-by destinations like Poipu Beach, and Poipu Shopping Village, which are both a little over a mile away.
What are your favorite spots to visit in Kauai?
Photo sources: Kauai map