49 Can’t Miss Things to Do in Kauai for the Ultimate Vacation

The Hawaiian Islands are a dream destination for many. While the hustle and bustle and beaches of Oahu and Maui draw many visitors, those looking for a more laid-back Hawaiian vacation should consider Kauai.

Known as the Garden Isle, Kauai is a tropical paradise filled with lush forests, waterfalls, and wildlife. Quaint towns and beautiful beaches dot the coastline of the island, while the rugged cliffs of the Na Pali Coast have served as a backdrop for numerous films and shows.

However, don’t let this quiet and quaint island fool you. There are plenty of things to do in Kauai, giving you an opportunity to relax and explore.

If the Garden Isle is on your bucket list, here are 50 can’t miss things to do in Kauai.

Saving Money on Kauai

Before we jump into activities, a quick word on saving money on Kauai is a must.

It’s no secret that the Hawaiian Islands are an expensive destination, and Kauai is no different. While there’s no way around the fact that a Hawaiian destination will be more expensive than other U.S. states, there are some ways to cut down on costs.

Time of Year

Despite being a year-round destination, there are times when it is cheaper to visit Hawaii. The least crowded, and cheapest, times of year to visit are the shoulder seasons of spring and fall. Shoulder season vacations will yield cheaper flights and accommodations and less crowds.

Flights

Flights to Hawaii can be pricey, but there are some tricks to saving money. If possible, book your flight one to four months out for the best deals. If you don’t want to be stuck watching for the best deals yourself, consider signing up for a service like Scott’s Cheap Flights, which will send you alerts when deals arise.

Check out this article for other tips on getting cheap flights.

Accommodations

Hawaii is known for its luxurious resorts, and Kauai is no different. Resorts will also likely be your most expensive accommodation option. If resort-life is what you’re after, see if you can score a deal with Redweek, which allows you to book resort room suites as a fraction of their normal cost. Another option is to try getting a deal with a resort that offers timeshares. Many chains will give you a discounted stay in exchange for attending their timeshare presentation.

You could also consider an Airbnb, camping, or if you’re okay really roughing it, consider renting a larger vehicle and sleeping in the car.

Food

The last major expense of a Hawaiian vacation is food. Eating out is expensive as is but eating out on Kauai takes it to a whole new level.

Save tons of money on food in Kauai by bringing non-perishable items with you (such as CLIF or protein bars) and taking a grocery trip upon arrival. Lihue has both a Walmart and a Costco, and you’ll save money by buying groceries and making many of your meals. You can also shop at the local Big Save store.

When you do go out, skip the alcoholic beverages, and consider sharing meals to cut down on costs further.

49 Can’t-Miss Things to Do in Kauai

20 Free Things to Do in Kauai

First, let’s explore free things to do in Kauai to save even more money.

Explore the Beaches

beaches

Kauai is hailed as the most beautiful of the main islands and its beaches don’t disappoint. Numerous beaches dotted around the island allow you to sunbathe, snorkel, swim, participate in watersports, and see wildlife.

Probably the most popular is Poipu Beach on the southeast corner of the island, but Tunnels Beach, Ke’e Beach, Hanalei Bay, and Polihale Beach are other great options.

Snorkel at Tunnels

snorkel

There are plenty of options for snorkeling on Kauai, but the best location is Tunnels Beach on the north shore thanks to the crescent-shaped coral reef that sits offshore.

Snorkelers will be treated to a variety of beautiful corals and sea life, including tropical fish. You might even see a sea turtle!

Hike to Queen’s Bath

Queen's Bath

Queen’s Bath is a tide pool on the north shore of Kauai near Princeville. Named after Queen Emma, the mother of Prince Albert (where Princeville gets its name), Queen’s Bath is a beautiful place to relax during the summer when the pools are calmer.

To get there, drive down Ka Haku Road and turn right on Punahele to Kapiolani. There’s a small parking area at the trail head, so be sure to get there early. The trail down may be muddy and slippery so wear good shoes. It takes about a half hour to reach the pools. Make sure to be cautious and safe around the pools and ocean to avoid accidents.

Spouting Horn

spouting horn

Near Poipu on the south shore, the Spouting Horn blowhole is a lava tube that releases huge spouts of water as the waves roll in. The spouts can reach 50 feet and you’ll also hear a hiss and roar sound when the Horn is about to blow.

The lookout is also a great place to spot whales.

Visit Puff the Magic Dragon at Hanalei Bay

puff

Puff the magic dragon lived by the sea

And frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honah Lee

Do you know this famous song by the folk group Peter, Paul, and Mary? The Honah Lee referenced in the article is Hanalei, Kauai, and you can see the inspiration for the song when visiting Hanalei Bay.

If you look at the west side of the bay, you’ll see the green hillsides resemble a sleeping dragon, and in one particular location, a large round rocky area that forms Puff’s eye.

See Sea Turtles and Hawaiian Monk Seals at Poipu Beach

sea turtle

As you stroll the beach in the mornings and evenings, be sure to look out for resting monk seals and sea turtles on Poipu beach. We saw as many as 11 turtles resting on the shore on a recent trip to Kauai.

Whale Watching

whale watching

Humpback whales annually migrate nearly 6,000 miles from their summer homes off the Alaskan shore to the warmer winter waters of Hawaii. Around 10,000 of these majestic animals migrate to the Hawaiian Islands between November and March, and Kauai is one of the best places to see them.

Explore the Maniniholo Dry Cave

dry cave

The Maninihola Dry Cave is located across the street from Haena Beach Park on the north shore. The large opening makes this cave easy and safe to explore with children, although you’ll want to bring a flashlight to explore the deep recesses of the cave.

There are also two sea caves in the same area, but these are not currently available to explore due to damage from storms.

Crawl into the Makauwahi Cave

If caving is your thing, you won’t want to miss the Makauwahi Cave near Poipu. This 17-acre archeological site is home to the largest limestone cave in Hawaii and numerous fossils. Although you’ll have to crawl to enter the cave, it soon opens into an amphitheater and two caves, one of which contains a lake.

Free guided tours are available daily from 10am to 4pm.

View the Sunrise and Sunsets

sunset

Watching the sunrise and sunset is like seeing a new work of art every day, and the sunrise and sunsets of Kauai don’t disappoint. The best places to view the sunrise/sunsets are in Poipu on the south end and near Princeville on the north shore.

Drive Through the Tree Tunnel

tree tunnel

You won’t miss the famous Kauai Tree Tunnel if you’re driving to Poipu. This mile-long stretch on Maluhia Road is lined with over 500 Eucalyptus trees planted over a century ago.

Bird Watch

rooster

Anyone who has been to Hawaii already knows about the abundance of wildlife on the islands, especially birds. One of the more unique aspects of Hawaii are the wild chickens that can be seen almost anywhere on Kauai, but don’t forget to spot nenes (Hawaiian goose), egrets, albatross, and cardinals.

Photograph the Wai’oli Hui’ia Church

church

Another green icon of Hanalei is the emerald Wai’oli Hui’ia Church. Holding continuous services since 1834, the church site began as a mission and is now part of the National Register of Historic Places.

Hike the Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail

Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail

This four-mile roundtrip trail runs along the coast from Shipwreck Beach to Mahaulepu Beach and is a great place to enjoy the landscape and wildlife while also getting some exercise.

Stroll Across the Hanapepe Swing Bridge

Hanapepe swinging bridge

Historic Hanapepe is a quaint little town on the southern shore of Kauai. In between visiting the shops, take a stroll across the Hanapepe Swing Bridge, which was built in the early 1900s so that residents could easily cross the river.

Hike the Sleeping Giant

sleeping giant trail

The Nounou East Trail, known as the Sleeping Giant Trail, is a moderate 3.5 mile hike up Nounou Mountain above the town of Kapa’a. It’s said that the mountain looks like a giant sleeping on its back, hence the name.

Marvel at Wailua Falls

Wailua Falls

The twin Wailua Falls gush down more than 80 feet. This beauty of Kauai can easily be seen from the end of Maalo Road at the vista point.

Visit Opaeka’a Falls

Opaekaa Falls

Another of Kauai’s beautiful waterfalls, Opaeka’a Falls is 150 feet tall and 40 feet wide. Easily accessible, visitors can marvel at the falls from the lookout about two miles up Kuamoo Road and even enjoy lunch at one of the picnic tables.

View the Wettest Spot on Earth

wall of tears

Mt. Waialeale rises 5,000 at the center of Kauai and is known as the wettest spot on Earth, receiving an average of 450 inches of rain a year.

Check Out Film Locations

Jurassic World

If the landscapes of Kauai look familiar to you, it’s likely because you’ve seen them before in film. Kauai has served as the setting for numerous movies and TV shows, the most famous of which include Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and South Pacific. While many locations are remote and only accessible by air, many are easy and free to get to.

Check out this list of film locations and conduct your own film tour while in Kauai.

17 Inexpensive Things to Do in Kauai

Here are the best things to do in Kauai that won’t break the bank.

Trek the Kalalau Trail

Ne Pali Coast Trail

More adventurous visitors to Kauai can challenge their endurance on the Kalalau Trail. This 11-mile trail runs along the north shore of the Na Pali Coast from Ke’e Beach to the Kalalau Valley and is considered one of the most dangerous hikes in the U.S.

While the most experienced of hikers may be able to make the 22-mile round trip in a day, most require at least two days to complete the trek and camp along the trail in designated locations. The first two miles of the trail can be hiked for the price of admission to Ha’ena State Park ($10) but those wanting to hike further will need a permit at the cost of $35 per-person per-day.

Explore Waimea Canyon

Waimea Canyon

Known as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, Waimea Canyon is a 14-mile-long canyon that is around 3,600 feet deep on the western side of Kauai. Much of the canyon can be accessed for free, but admission to Kokee State Park will run $10 per vehicle. Waimea Canyon Drive will lead you past many lookouts and many of the best vistas can be accessed with a short walk. Adventurers can take longer hikes within the park, including one to a waterfall.

Visit Kilauea Lighthouse

Kilaulea Lighthouse

Kilauea Lighthouse and Wildlife Refuge is located on the Kilauea Point on the north side of the island. Built in 1913, visitors can now enjoy the beautiful views and spot wildlife, including whales and red-footed booby’s, for just $10 per person.

Grab a Burger at Bubba’s

Bubba's

Bubba Burger is a Kauai classic that’s been offering good ol’ fashioned burgers since 1936. With locations in Kapa’a and Poipu, Bubba’s is one of the more reasonably priced places to eat on the island. A basic Bubba burger will only set you back $5 and the priciest thing on the menu is only $12.

Eat Shave Ice

shave ice

Shave ice is a Hawaiian specialty. Made by shaving a block of ice and flavoring it with syrup and other ingredients, shave ice is a wonderful cool treat for hot Kauai days. Shave ice shops can be found in every town and sampling this delicacy is a must on the list of things to do in Kauai.

If you have an extra sweet tooth, Kona Coffee ice cream is a must as well.

Take a Surfing Lesson

surfing

Surfing is another staple of Hawaiian culture and there are many opportunities to learn to surf while visiting Kauai. Most resorts offer surfing lessons, but you can also take lessons with private companies. Most lessons will cost between $75 and $150.

Pick a Pearl

pearl

When you think of Hawaiian jewelry the first thing most think of are pearls. Pearls can be found in shops throughout the islands, and many shops allow you to pick your own.

For around $15, visitors can select an oyster, engage in the ritual Aloha blessing of the chosen oyster, and then see what color pearl they’ve chosen once the oyster is opened. If you want, you can choose a setting and have your pearl placed in a necklace or ring for your own custom souvenir. If you’re lucky, you might even get a two-for-one!

Visit the Allerton-McBryde Gardens

Allerton Gardens

The Allerton and McBryde Gardens are side-by-side tropical gardens on the south shore of Kauai. Take a guided tour through the more than 350 acres of bamboo forests, pools, fountains, and beautiful plants. The Allerton Garden tour is $60 per adult and admission to the McBryde Garden is $30 per adult.

Take a Shelter Dog on a Field Trip

Dog field trip

Are you a dog-lover? If so, you’ll love the dog field trip program at the Kauai Humane Society. For a donation of $40, you can take one of the shelter dogs (matched to you) out on an adventure for the day. Hike the trails, play on the beach, and swim with your furry companion!

Explore the Limahuli Garden

Limahula Garden

Can’t get enough of the flora and fauna of Kauai? Head over the Limahuli Garden built into the terraced mountainside of the north shore. This garden is home to native Hawaiian plant species not found anywhere else as well as archeological sites. Self-tours are $25 and guided tours are $40.

Take the Kids to the Na Aina Kai Botanical Gardens

Na Aina Kai Garden

It’s no surprise that the Garden Isle would be full of gardens, but the most family-friendly is the Na ‘Aina Kai Botanical Gardens. Amid the lush gardens stand over 120 bronze sculptures and you’ll find a large Jack and the Beanstalk fountain in the children’s garden. Self-guided tours are $20 a person and various guided tours are available for $40 a person and up.

Try Poke

poke

If you love fish, another Hawaiian specialty worth a try is poke. Poke is diced raw fish served on rice. Many poke dishes contain other ingredients like sesame seeds, seaweed, sea salt, onions, and wasabi. Ahi tuna is the most common fish found in poke, but others can also be used.

Munch Some Loco Moco

loco moco

A contemporary Hawaiian dish, Loco Moco consists of white rice with a hamburger, fried egg, and gravy on top. You’ll find many variations on this dish throughout the islands, and it’ll be one of the most filling meals you’ll have!

Cruise to the Fern Grotto

Fern Grotto

The Fern Grotto is a natural lava rock grotto with ferns hanging from the ceiling. Formerly reserved only for Hawaiian royalty, the Fern Grotto is a few miles up the Wailua River and can be accessed by kayak or a boat cruise. The Smith family has been operating river cruises for 4 generations and the beautiful hour and a half trip can be had for $30 per adult and $15 per child.

Ride the Train at Kilohana Plantation

Kilohana Train

Kilohana is a 105-acre plantation built in the 1930’s, and the best way to see the plantation is by train. Ride through strands of sugarcane, taro, and various fruits while learning about the history and workings of the plantation. Take the train for $20 per adult or add a lunch for $88 per adult.

Be Awed at the Pu’u O Kila Lookout

Puu O Kila Lookout

Visitors to Waimea Canyon should keep going to the end of Highway 550 in Kokee State Park for another breathtaking view. The Pu’u O Kila Lookout offers panoramic views of the Kalalau Valley and the Alakai Swamp, which is the widest valley on the Na Pali Coast. For the best views, visitors should arrive between 8am and noon because clouds are more likely to pack in throughout the afternoon. You’ll also need to pay the $10 entrance fee to the state park.

Shop Kauai

shops

One of the best things about Kauai is the small-town feel complete with local shops and a noticeable lack of big chain stores. No matter what else you do, make sure you take a day to pop into the local shops wherever you’re staying and find some local Hawaiian treasures. One great location are the shops at Kukui’ula Shopping Village, but you’ll also find great stops in Kapa’a, Hanalei, and Koloa.

12 Epic Things to Do in Kauai

Those looking for truly epic things to do in Kauai should consider one or more of the tours and activities listed below.

Na Pali Coast Boat Tours

sunset cruise

The Na Pali Coast is famous for its towering pali (sea cliffs), narrow valleys, and cascading waterfalls. It is largely inaccessible except for the Kalalau Trail, so the best way to see this awe-inspiring landscape is by sea or air.

There are a variety of boat tour options available, including snorkel tours and sunset dinner cruises. Most tours will cost around $200 per person. Capt Andy’s is one of the more famous boat tour companies, but there are others that may work better depending on where you’re staying.

Go Ziplining in Koloa

zipline

Adrenaline junkies will love zipping through the jungle at 50mph on the Kauai Ziplines near Poipu. Skyline Hawaii has 8 and 5 zipline tours that allow you to glide over three valleys with views of the mountains and ocean. 5 zipline tours are $119.95 a person and 8 zipline tours are $149.95.

Take a Helicopter Tour

helicopter tour

The other way to see the Na Pali Coast is from the air, and there are many great helicopter tours available to do just that. Soar over the Na Pali Coast, Waimea Canyon, and view all the famous filming locations around the island in these 90-minute tours for between $350 and $400 a person. Alternatively, you could also take a Cessna plane tour with Wings of Kauai, which some prefer to helicopter.

Kayak Wailua River

kayak Wailua

Kauai has the only navigable rivers of Hawaii, making kayaking one of the best things to do in Kauai. The Wailua River is the main kayaking river, and there are many tours available. Tours are around $100 per person and typically take 4-5 hours.

Snorkel the Forbidden Isle of Ni’ihau

Ni'ihau

Snorkel-lovers who also want to see the Na Pali Coast should consider taking a snorkel tour of the Forbidden Isle of Ni’ihau. Ni’ihau is the westernmost main and seventh largest inhabited island in Hawaii located about 17 miles off the southwest coast of Kauai. It is off limits to outsiders except for certain government officials, Navy personnel, and invited guests. These all-day cruises will typically run you $275 to $350 per person and include food.

Attend a Lu’au

lu'au

A lu’au is a traditional Hawaiian feast that features traditional Hawaiian food, music, and hula. They are often held on special occasions, such as a graduation, wedding, or birthday. Attending a lu’au is a must for any first-time visitor to Kauai, where you’ll enjoy great food and learn about the history of the islands and its people. Attending a lu’au will run between $150 and $200 per person.

Play a Round of Golf

golf course

If you’re a golfer, then you must play a round at the Princeville Makai Golf Course, named to the list of America’s “Top 5 Great Golf Settings” in the world by National Geographic Traveler. With six oceanfront holes, you won’t find a more stunning backdrop for improving your golf game. A round of 1-4 players will run you between $288 and $615, but you can also take lessons, play tennis, and disc golf.

Take a Sunset Golf Cart Tour

sunset tour

Another must-do activity that also takes place at the Princeville Makai Golf Course is the Sunset Golf Cart Tour. This guided tour takes you across the greens while you learn about the flora and fauna, wildlife, and cultural and geographical elements of the land and sea. The final stop is at the seventh hole located on a point jutting into the ocean. This is the perfect spot to view the stunning Kauai sunsets. This two-hour tour is only $105 per two-person golf cart.

Go on a Kauai Tubing Adventure

tubing

Kauai Backcountry Adventures has exclusive access to the irrigation system and canals of an old sugar plantation and you can take tubing tours through those systems. On the tour, you’ll also learn about the island’s history, culture, and nature. Tubing adventures start at $136.

Go Horseback Riding

horseback riding

If you thought the beaches of Kauai couldn’t get any better, try riding the beaches on horseback. CJM Country Stables offers a variety of wonderful horseback riding tours on Kauai’s beaches starting at $195 a person.

Sample Chocolate on a Farm Tour

cocoa

Kauai has incredibly fertile soil, which makes it a prime location for growing cacao. At Lydgate Farms, the family has been growing cacao since the days of the Hawaiian kingdom, and you can tour this award-winning farm for $125 per adult.

Take a Dip in an Epic Pool

Royal Sonesta Kauai Resort Pass

There’s nothing better than soaking in the pool after a long day of adventuring around Kauai. But if you didn’t opt for resort accommodations you might find yourself without much of a pool to relax in.

Luckily, you can now stay wherever you want and still have access to epic pools with the Resort Pass. For between $30 and $75 you can grab a day pass to an amazing resort and gain access to the pool and poolside amenities of many local resorts.

Things to Do in Kauai FAQ

Why is Kauai called the Garden Island?

Kauai is known as the Garden Island because around 97% of its land is comprised of undeveloped mountain ranges and rainforests. It’s known for its lush greenery, towering mountains and cliffs, and waterfalls.

What is Kauai best known for?

Kauai is known for its amazing and dramatic landscape. From Waimea Canyon to the Na Pali Coast, with lush mountains and waterfalls in between, Kauai is a tropical paradise.

Is it worth going to Kauai?

If you can afford the trip, it is absolutely worth going to Kauai. The lush rainforests, along with beautiful sand beaches, make Kauai a tropical paradise with far fewer crowds that its island neighbors.

How many days do you need?

You’ll need at least a week to do most of the things listed above, especially if you want to spend a few beach/pool days for relaxing in between. Luckily, many of the best things to do in Kauai can be bunched into the same day, such as the Waimea Canyon, Pu’u O Kila Lookout, and waterfall lookouts.

I’d recommend using this list to determine your top must-do activities and plan your days according to the things you want to do most. If you have more time, you can then add other activities that you’d like to do for a full and fun Kauai vacation.

What should you not miss on Kauai?

This will depend on your preferences, but my recommendations would be snorkeling at Tunnels Beach, Waimea Canyon, the Sunset Golf Tour, and Poipu Beach. If you have a strong stomach, I’d also highly recommend splurging on a Na Pali Coast boat tour.

What is the best time to go to Kauai?

The least crowded and cheapest times to visit Kauai will be during the shoulder seasons of fall and spring. These months will also give you an opportunity to see migrating whales and turtles.

 

 

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Tawnya is an elementary special education teacher by day and co-blogger at Money Saved is Money Earned by night.

She holds an Honors BS in Psychology from Oregon State University and an MS in Special Education from Portland State University. She has had a pretty successful writing career, first as a writing tutor at the Oregon State University Writing Center, and in recent years, as a freelance writer.

Tawnya and co-blogger Sebastian have a wealth of knowledge and information about personal finance, retirement, student loans, credit cards, and many other financial topics. They teach people how to save money, make money, and understand money.