10 Things You Need To Do When You’re on Kauai

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When people first envision Hawaii, they probably think of a landscape much like Kauai’s.

This isn’t a coincidence, as the island has been used as a setting for Hollywood films for decades.

Known as the Garden Isle, much of Kauai is uninhabited tropical rainforest that covers its mountainous terrain, making it an ideal backdrop for any film set on a tropical island.

As you’d expect, this makes it a popular destination for hikers, nature lovers, and all types of outdoorsy individuals.

Here’s a list of things (in no particular order) that you need to do if you’re ever on Kauai.

1. See Waimea Canyon

waimea canyon
Red earth peeks through green vegetation at Waimea Canyon. via Shutterstock

Often referred to as “the Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” Waimea Canyon is a massive canyon on the northwest side of Kauai.

Although it’s not nearly as large as its Arizonan sister, at 10 miles long, 3,000 feet deep, and up to 1 mile wide, Waimea Canyon is much larger than anything you’d expect to find on an island.

The canyon’s name “Waimea” is Hawaiian for “reddish water,” which refers to the red sediment that would often stain any water that ran through the canyon.

The reddish earth of Waimea contrasts beautifully with the lush green vegetation of Kauai, making it a beautiful sight to behold, especially if you’re able to catch a sight of a waterfall flowing down its walls.

2. Run away from wild chickens

You read that right: Kauai is filled with wild chickens.

wild chicken
Wild chickens—approach with caution. via Shutterstock

Partially, this is because there are no natural predators in Kauai that would feed on the chickens (mongooses weren’t introduced here).

The main reason there are so many of them, however, is that many chicken coops were destroyed during Hurricane Iniki in 1992.

These chickens aren’t the type you’d find on a farm, though: many of these roosters were bred for cockfighting before toughing it out in the wilderness.

This has led, over the generations, to some pretty mean cocks.

Many tourists feed the chickens (because why not), but be warned: roosters can get territorial, and even hens will pick a fight with you if they feel like their brood of chicks are being threatened.

3. Go mountain tubing

This has got to be the best way to explore the grounds of an old plantation.

Mountain tubing isn’t nearly as extreme as it sounds: basically, you sit on a water tube and float down an old irrigation ditch that once was part of a sugarcane plantation.

The ride is pretty relaxing, but you’ll have a miner’s hat—complete with headlamp!—just in case you bump your head in one of the tunnels you float through.

Complete with lunch, this activity is fun for all ages and lets you learn a bit about Kauai’s plantation history.

4. Eat shave ice

shave ice
Shave ice is a local favorite! Eat it plain, or top it with fruit, mochi, or azuki beans. via Shutterstock

One of the best things about Kauai’s island-wide small-town feel is that there are a ton of shave ice stores all over.

Whether you’ve just landed in Lihue, are staying up in Hanalei, or are all the way out in Waimea, you can be sure to find a shave ice store somewhere near you.

Take it from me: there’s nothing like a large shave ice after a long hike or a day at the beach.

And with all the variety, you’re bound to find something you like!

5. Visit Wailua River & Fern Grotto

The Wailua River is the only navigable river in the state of Hawaii.

This means going on a river cruise is unique for the islands, and provides a relaxing experience—especially as you’re being serenaded by live Hawaiian music performed by the Smith family!

wailua river
Wailua River, with Smith’s boat visible. via Shutterstock

What’s more, at the end of the river cruise is the Fern Grotto, where the ferns grow downward from the roof of the cavern.

This picturesque destination is filled with tropical Native Hawaiian plants, hidden in the middle of a rainforest in Wailua.

And if you do decide to take the cruise, then you should definitely attend Smith’s Luau.

The Smiths family, who runs the river cruise, has been hosting a luau in their tropical garden for over 50 years.

Starting with a stroll through their beautiful botanical gardens, not too far away from the highway to Lihue, but secluded enough that you’ll feel you’re in a different place altogether.

Smith’s luau features a traditional imu ceremony before the luau feast.

If you haven’t been to a luau before and don’t know what an imu is, I’ve got the perfect blog post for you.

For the most part, Smith’s luau is much like every other—a night filled with traditional Hawaiian food, song, and dance—but not every luau has an imu to cook in, so watching the ceremony is a special delight.

6. Explore the Na Pali Coast (4 ways)

Of all the destinations in this article, the Na Pali Coast is the single place that everyone visiting Kauai must see at least once in their lives.

Beautiful, treacherous, and untamed, the Na Pali is the one place that perfectly represents the natural beauty of Hawaii.

Hike the Kalalau Trail

The most difficult (but also most rewarding) way to explore the coast, this 11-mile long (one-way) trail is secluded, difficult, and dangerous, but it’s also the only way to access Kalalau Beach on the Na Pali Coast.

kalalau beach
Kalalau Beach (bottom left) is only accessible via the Kalalau Trail. via Shutterstock

Due to its length, the Kalalau Trail takes most hikers two days to complete, so bringing enough food, water, and other backpacking essentials is mandatory for anyone that wants to test their mettle.

You’ll also need a camping permit to be allowed to the beach, and those are limited, especially at the busy times of year.

For more information on permits and the Kalalau Trail, check out this (unofficial) website dedicated to the trail.

Take an air tour

The second way to see the Na Pali Coast is to fly over.

But you and I both know that helicopter tours are for squares, so if you’re going to be flying over the Na Pali Coast, you’re gonna do it in style.

Which is why it’s a no-brainer that you’ll be riding in this vintage, cherry-red open-cockpit biplane—you even get a nostalgic cloth helmet and flight goggles to keep you comfy in the air!

Explore the coast via ocean raft

While an air tour can give you a spectacular overview of Na Pali Coast, you won’t see any of the nooks and crannies that have been carved into the cliff walls by the ocean over the last six millenia.

The only way to get into the hidden beaches and sea caves, though, is by small, maneuverable sea craft, such as inflatable-hull ocean rafts.

This way, you can explore places that nobody’s ever been before and even go snorkeling at a hidden beach.

Relax on a sunset cruise

If you aren’t looking for adventure and just want a pretty view, it’s definitely a worthwhile experience to be able to sit back and relax on a catamaran as the fading sun hits the sea cliffs, casting beautiful shadows across the many valleys of Na Pali.

na pali coast
The beautiful Na Pali Coast at sunset. via Shutterstock

The Na Pali Coast is on the northwest side of the island, so it’s a great place to watch the sunset.

There are plenty of sunset cruises available on each island, but the Na Pali Coast is a one-of-a-kind destination that’s a definite must-see for anyone on Kauai.

7. Rappel down a waterfall

If you think the Kalalau Trail is too intense, but still want a thrill, here’s an idea:

Take a quick (but thorough) rappelling lesson, then put what you’ve learned to use immediately as you rappel down a waterfall.

You think I’m making this up, but seriously, check these guys out.

They call it the “Hawaiian Dundee Rappel,” and they’ve got an entire private waterfall to rappel down.

You’re in good hands: your guides are professionals with decades of experience and top-of-the-line equipment, so don’t let fear dissuade you from this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

8. Kayak down Hanalei River into the Bay

Wailua River might be the only navigable river in the state, but it isn’t the only river on the island.

Hanalei River on the north shore of Kauai is a small river that empties out into Hanalei Bay.

Despite its size, the river flows through some of the wettest spots on the planet and waters the many lo’i, or taro farms, of Hanalei.

Kayaking down Hanalei River is a pretty relaxing ride.

There aren’t any rapids or waves to watch out for, but the river current will still be able to lead you into the ocean.

Once you’re in Hanalei Bay, you can continue ocean kayaking, or you can take the opportunity to snorkel in the bay, which is popular for swimming, kayaking, and stand-up paddleboarding.

Hanalei Pier (Edited)
Iconic Hanalei Pier, originally built in the 1800s. via Shutterstock

Take the time to explore, as the famous Hanalei Pier is located here, and the bay was used as a filming location for The Descendants, starring George Clooney.

9. Snuba dive at Poipu beach

If you like snorkeling, you’ll love snuba.

For the uninitiated, snuba is a portmanteau of “snorkel” and “scuba,” and works like this:

You’ll have a mask, tube, and fins like you’re snorkeling, but your tube will actually be an air line connected to a raft at the surface that will hold your air tank.

This way, you can dive down to 20 feet without having to worry about air, but also not needing to lug around a heavy air tank with you.

You don’t need to have any sort of training or certification to snuba, which it’s why it’s become such a popular activity.

Snuba combines the ease and fun of snorkeling with the freedom and extra depth of scuba diving.

Poipu Beach is the perfect place for snuba (or any other beach-related activity), as it’s actually two beaches separated by a tombola—the effect is one giant beach shaped like a ‘Y,’ the “tail” of which creates a natural barrier against the tides.

10. Ride a horse at a paniolo ranch

princeville ranch
Ride like a Paniolo! ©Princeville Ranch Adventures

Believe it or not, Hawaii has a long-standing cowboy tradition.

After cattle was brought to the islands, they quickly multiplied and began causing damage to plants and property throughout the islands.

Thus, a tradition of cattle-rearing was necessary in the islands.

Paniolo (Hawaiian cowboys) learned how to work cattle from the Mexican vaqueros (the Hawaiian word “paniolo” is thought to be a transliteration of “español”).

This influence can still be seen today in the clothing, saddles, and even names of the ranches throughout the islands.

At Princeville Ranch, on the north shore of Kauai right next to Hanalei, you can get the opportunity to ride a horse like a paniolo in a real Hawaiian cattle ranch.

Princeville has been a working cattle ranch since 1831, so riding around the grounds feels like traveling through a part of the past.

That’s our list! Want to know more about a particular activity? Think something’s missing? Sound off in the comments!

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