There’s just something about the islands – full of warm Aloha, lush vegetation, white sandy beaches, graceful hula dancers, jumping dolphins, and towering palm trees. Hawaii is beautiful no matter where you go, but there is one island that, in my opinion, wears the crown jewel: Kauai. Some of the other islands may be a bit drier and sunnier, but Kauai is stunning. The towering mountains jetting into the ocean floor make it unlike any other place I’ve seen in the world. There is a touch of the magical that seems to grace this island.
We have stayed on Oahu, Molokai, and Maui several times. Molokai is the sleepiest and least populated, Oahu feels more like a city (which it is), and Maui seems to be the hot spot. Most people we talk to head to the tourist-heavy Maui. And for good reason. The weather on Maui is predictable and the snorkeling is amazing. That is the one aspect of Maui that is better than Kauai, but the only one (in my opinion). But who are we kidding? Hawaii is Hawaii and its all THE BEST.
Kauai is known as the garden island. I would also call it the adventure island. There is so much to do. We felt as if we could endlessly explore and never tire of its surprises. I lived in Costa Rica for a year and this island felt like parts of that country, just without the wild animals and snakes. We were warned about the weather on Kauai (we went in the winter), and while it did rain a bit, the sun was out the majority of the time. Locals informed us that the weather forecast on the iPhone consistently says “partly rainy” every single day, but we didn’t find that to be accurate at all. And if it does rain, it is a warm rain and it makes the adventure all the more fun and memorable.
If you are headed to this island paradise, consider yourself truly blessed. We loved every single minute!
I’ll first answer some questions then get to our itinerary:
Should we stay on the north or south shore?
Poipu, on the south shore, is the driest part of the island and has the most predictable weather. If sun is ultra-important, then consider staying here. I personally would not stay near the airport. The Poipu area is much more scenic.
The scenery on the north shore is unmatched. If you are wanting a Jurassic Park-like experience, stay here (after all, this is where it was filmed). I’d recommend Princeville or Hanalei.
Or stay in both places like we did! We stayed in Poipu for the first part of the trip, then moved to Princeville for the second part.
Should we rent a car?
Yes! You should. This island is full of fun and mystery and you don’t want to miss it. Rent a car and get exploring. My encouragement is to get out – beyond the hotel beach and pool (though there will be time for that too)!
Should I hit the grocery store?
No question. EVERYTHING is expensive in Hawaii. Costco will save you so much money. The prices at Costco are much cheaper than at Safeway (in general, yes, but even more so in Hawaii), so buy most of your groceries at Costco. Here is a list of what we bought at Costco and at Safeway.
Note: Normally we travel with six people, but this time it was just my husband and I, plus our daughter for some of the trip. We opted for breakfasts and lunches in and dinner out (though some days we ended up just doing apps at sunset). I bring a Magic Bullet blender in my suitcase so we can do protein green smoothies for breakfast.
- Fruit & Berries
- Chinese Chicken Salad Mix
- Dried fruit
- Snorkel masks
- Boogie boards
- Chairs (if will be using)
- Gifts to take home (or stop again) – they have all of the fabulous chocolate covered Macadamia nut options
- Protein drinks or bars
- Bottled water
- Peanut butter
- Cut up pineapple
- pina colada mix
- Coconut milk
- Cut up pineapple
- Coffee creamer
- Solo cups
- Plastic forks
- Plates and/or bowls
Extras I brought from home for food planning:
- A magic bullet blender
- Protein powder
- Cocoa Nibs
- Pressed peanut powder
- Isagenix Orange Want More Energy Flavoring
- Small extracts (I know, I take my smoothies seriously)
- Ziplocks of all sizes
- Travel Coffee Mug (I like taking my coffee on the road while we drive to our adventure)
Besides our normal toiletries and clothes, what else should we pack for Kauai?
- Binoculars to see whales (they are incredible to watch)
- Collapsible hiking poles (if needed – but they make a HUGE difference hiking in mud)
- Shoes that can get very dirty
- Backpack for day hikes
- Water bottles
- Breathable raincoat
Where did you stay?
With our size family we normally stay at VRBOs or Air B & Bs. But since we didn’t need to this time, we actually got to stay in hotels! Exciting! Prices were lower when we were traveling since it was not high season. Also, you will notice that hotel rates significantly fluctuate. Reserving when they are low is the goal. Sometimes you don’t hit it right, but I’d encourage you to keep checking back.
The first hotel we stayed at was The Grand Kauai Hyatt Resort & Spa. It was fabulous. We would highly recommend staying here if you can hit the price when it is reasonable. It is in Poipu (the sunny side) and sits next to two beautiful natural spaces that I will explain below in the itinerary.
Pros: Great jumping off point to get to Waimea Canyon. Fabulous pool areas. Extensive workout gym that we used a few times for strength training. Close to town (can walk or bike to dinner). Free bike rentals. Beautiful restaurants. Lots of little hidden spots for enjoying the grounds (ie. fire pits and hammock).
Cons: you can’t swim in the ocean in front of the hotel (but surfing is good)
When we moved to the North Coast, and for my birthday, we stayed at the upscale St. Regis Priceville. From the moment we arrived it was a top notch experience. The hotel has a full view of the world famous Napali Coast and the full picture windows in the lobby take advantage of that vista. The staff was over-the-top friendly and kind. It is a five star experience, and we were so grateful to get a little bit of time there. Bonus: they were oversold on the room we reserved so we got upgraded to an ocean view terrace room! INCREDIBLE BIRTHDAY GIFT.
Pros: The view – heavenly!; the beach/pool area is stunning and you can swim in the ocean there
Cons: The workout room is pretty minimal; valet parking only; expensive restaurants
Our last night we stayed at The Marriott’s Kauai Beach Club. The resort has some beautiful features, but it’s huge and didn’t have the same magical feel as the other two hotels. It also sits in the middle of a cove in an inlet. Because of this it didn’t have the sunrise or sunset, which I didn’t like. The upside is it is very safe for swimming. We did go on a beautiful walk above the hotel (you take the elevator up to the street level) through the golf course and got to see some energetic whales jumping in the morning light.
Pros: Close to the airport; swimming cove; less expensive than the other hotels
Cons: No sunrise or sunset; impersonal; big and beautiful, but bland
So when comparing The Grand Kauai Hyatt Resort and Spa vs. the St. Regis Princeville vs. The Marriott’s Kauai Beach Club, I’d stay most of the time at the Hyatt, a couple days at the Princeville and skip the Marriott.
Is there anything else I should know?
- The red mud you read about in Kauai is a real thing. Your shoes will get dirty. Plan for it. Go as dark as possible on color (my daughter brought her white tennis shoes – didn’t work out so well).
- Make the most of your daylight hours. Plan to get up or leave right when the sun rises. When the sun goes down, it gets very dark. We planned our dinners as much as possible around the sunsets. They were stunning. By 6:45pm-7:00pm the colors were completely gone, so that would be a good time to plan for dinner. Early to bed, early to rise is the rhythm here.
Let’s get to the itinerary. Obviously this is just one idea, you can find several different ones online. We like to balance high adventure with rest and relaxation, so our itinerary reflects that. We make room for both. This itinerary would be best for adults or families with kids ages 10 and up. If you have hearty kids, then they might be able to do it younger than 10! You know your family best.
Day 1: Arrival
Get the car, stop at food truck on way in for Sushi, hit Costco and Safway, go to the hotel.
Right across from the airport there is a food truck, Ikuchi’s, and it has fabulous sushi or steam buns. We’d recommend stopping if you arrive in time!
Day 2: Transition to Vacation Mode
I like the first day to be a transition day into vacation mode, so that involves settling in to our hotel, going on a nice long walk or run to see the area, eating at a local favorite, swimming in the pool, and reading a book in a hammock. So that is what we did.
Sunset is my favorite part of the day, so I try to find the perfect spot. This night we walked up to the rocks above shipwreck beach with our wine and cheese. I loved it! Highly recommend.
Day 3: Waimea Canyon
Waimea Canyon is considered the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific”. We got a local tip to go visit the lookouts first thing in the morning before the fog rolls in (or rain), so that is what we did. We enjoyed several big, sweeping views. Beautiful.
We stopped at the nature center 3/4 of the way up the canyon and got a trail map. We decided to do the Nu’alolo Trail hike. It just opened a month ago, so it is a new hike. It drops 2,000 feet and is almost 8 miles round trip. I found going down in the red mud to be harder than the 2,000 foot climb back up.
Hiking poles were key for me on this hike. It is a rigorous route, but well worth the view! Most of the way I was wondering if it was worth it, but then we reached the last half mile, and there was no doubt that it was. Look at this stunning landscape. Breathtaking! I’d never seen anything quite like it (and the whales below added further magic). This part of the Napali coast can only be accessed by foot, helicopter, or boat.
On the way home we stopped for dinner at Pizzeta. It had good reviews but I was not impressed with the food. I wouldn’t recommend it.
Day 4: Explore the Coast Line
After a beautiful run along the ocean pathway that runs by the Hyatt toward town, we spent the day exploring the beaches of Poipu. We drove up to see The Spouting Horn, a place where the ocean water rushes up like a geyser from the rock, enjoyed the famous Poipu Beach, and watched surfers on Shipwreck Beach. We took our wine and cheese to again watch sunset, but this time on the lava rocks that look down toward town.
Day 5: Kayak the Wailua River
This day was one of my favorites. We got up early and drove to the Wailua river, where we rented kayaks from a local company, Wailua Kayak and Canoe.
Leaving our kayaks behind on a small bank, we took the muddy trail to Secret Falls. The river crossing was especially fun!
Day 6: Hiking & Beach Day at Mahaulepu Beach
Nominated by Outside Magazine as one of the top beaches in the world, Mahaulepu Beach is located just past the Hyatt Resort (the pavement turns into a dirt and you can park at the end of the road). It is a magical, scenic stretch of coastline, preserved from development. Be sure to explore all the way to the end of the beach to see the vistas. There is a trail that runs through the forest if you’d rather hike on packed ground than beach.
Look for the prayer circle someone created as a memorial at the end of the trail. You follow the maze until it reaches at the center, praying as you go. It’s beautiful.
Biking from The Hyatt to Poipu Beach to watch the sunset was a fun adventure. We then ate at Rum Fire, the Sheraton’s restaurant. It was delicious and fresh. The restaurant itself has a modern coastal vibe with live music. We enjoyed it!
Day 7: Move to Princeville
The drive along the coast to Princeville is beautiful. You can stop at waterfalls along the way, or explore the cute towns. We asked for an early check in to maximize our time at the St. Regis that day, which they accommodated.
That night, for my birthday, we hit the highest rated restaurant in Hanalei, Bar Acuda. It was hands down the best meal we had in Kauai. It’s a tapas bar with explosive flavors and unique combinations. One of my favorites was their honeycomb and goat cheese – be sure to order it! Make reservations early.
Day 8: Napali Coast hike to Hanakapei Beach and Falls
Don’t let the 8 mile (or 9.5 according to the FitBit) distance scare you. While the hike is long, it isn’t terribly difficult and the waterfall at the end is a rare sight and well worth the effort. What a magical experience to sit under a natural wonder that majestic!
The key to this hike is starting early before the trail gets crowded and muddy with footsteps. We were at the trailhead and hiking by 7am. One man we ran into began hiking with a headlamp at 6am. As a result of the early start, we had the waterfall to ourselves. You can swim up to the waterfall and go behind it from the left hand side. It’s a bit chilly but an exhilarating experience you don’t want to miss!
We returned to the hotel tired and happy. A mellow night of watching the sunset was the perfect end to the day.
Day 9: Snorkeling, A Secret Path, & The Pier
We spent the morning snorkeling at the beach in front of The St. Regis Resort (with our masks from Costco), then went walking to explore the surrounding roads. In doing this, we discovered the old Marriott property next door that burned down years ago. They decided not to rebuild on this land, but by the airport, so it remains vacant. Locals use the property to access the public beach in front of The St. Regis. There is a beautiful trail to follow and you can park up top. It’s a fantastic option for those who aren’t staying at the hotel but still would like to enjoy the well known beach front.
Here is the location:
That night we had dinner at Dolphin’s, the well known sushi restaurant. You can also pick up fresh sushi at their market and take it home to enjoy in your own space, but get there early!
Day 10: Moving Day to the Airport
We stayed at The Marriott for a night but if we had to do it over again, I think we’d take one of the many red eye flights out. We really didn’t get any great time at the hotel and ended up just sleeping there and then leaving fairly early the next morning. We did see whales jumping in tandem just outside of the cove while on a walk and it was breathtaking. Other than that, The Marriott was not my favorite.
Overall Kauai did not disappoint in the least! We will be back – hopefully over and over.
What about you? What is your favorite place to go on Kauai?