The island of Kauai may be small, but it is full of life, culture and history. Each region of the island has its own distinct vibe, and thanks to the island's size, you'll have time to experience them all. Here's what you can expect:
The pleasing drive to the North Shore winds along pastures and through small towns, and then to a lookout over a valley lined with taro. This is Hanalei, with its fabled mountains, waterfalls and one-lane bridges, a town immortalized in film and song. With galleries, restaurants and natural beauty, Hanalei is a haven for artists and rock stars, surfers and nature lovers. A picturesque pier and curve of white sand mark Hanalei Bay, a film director’s dream. Plantation-style homes are nestled in lush valleys and along a coastline of bays and multicolored beaches. Princeville, an area named after Prince Albert (son of King Kamehameha IV) and a luxury resort community, encompasses a hotel, golf courses, a shopping center, a spa and restaurants, and its prime real estate has long attracted a celebrity clientele. Past Hanalei, in Ha‘ena, the road ends at Ke‘e Beach, and the fabled Nāpali Coast begins.
The Coconut Coast: Kapa‘a & Wailua
Coconut palms are abundant in the “Coconut Coast,” the most populated district of Kaua‘i. Resorts are sprinkled along the shoreline, and the prevailing view is of Nounou, a mountain also called the “Sleeping Giant.” This eastern region of the island is a mix of residences, shops and restaurants in discreet clusters along a rocky shoreline of subdued but fierce beauty. Kapa‘a, a plantation hub in the 19th century, is today a quaint street lined with locally owned boutiques and restaurants in historic buildings. Residents and visitors love Kapa‘a. The Wailua River is an island signature. The Smith family has led boat tours into the Wailua River Valley and the Fern Grotto for decades. For centuries home to Kaua‘i’s royalty, the valley is considered sacred to native Hawaiians and is known for the heiau (temples), birthing stones and other archeological sites they built and honored along the river banks. Next to the river is the famous Coco Palms Resort, where Elvis Presley filmed “Blue Hawai‘i,” and the thundering ‘Ōpaeka‘a Falls, which flows year-round.
Kaua‘i’s “Biggest Little Town” was built by rice farmers in the 1800s and has since been revitalized by art galleries, cafés and antique shops. Every Friday evening, the streets buzz with activity as the town hosts “Art Night,” a self-guided gallery walking tour. Throughout its reinvention, the town’s original architecture has retained its integriy. Buildings on Main Street have interpretive signs recalling the businesses of the plantation era, and the Hanapēpē Swinging Bridge, a 1911 suspended footbridge, still crosses the Hanapēpē River afer being reconstructed following Hurricane ‘Iniki. At the edge of Hanapēpē, swimmers and snorkelers gather at popular Salt Pond Beach Park, noted for its salt flats tended by generations of local families.
This is the island’s shrine to sun worshipping, even for monk seals. Many of the island’s hotels, vacation condominiums, resorts, upscale restaurants and bars are located in Po‘ipū. Prince Kūhiō and Brennecke beaches have some of the best swimming and body surfing, and golfers find their paradise in the Po‘ipū Bay Resort Course and the Kiahuna Golf Club, designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. The beautifully landscaped Allerton Garden in Lāwa‘i Valley, the former summer home of Queen Emma (wife of King Kamehameha IV), is a force of nature and a sensory delight. Sugar magnates Robert and John Allerton created an idyll of rainforests, bamboo groves, tropical flowers, rippling pools and sculptures, today a part of the National Tropical Botanical Garden network.
Waimea signifies a turning point in Hawai‘i’s history, the place where Capt. James Cook first landed his ships in Hawai‘i in 1778. This is also the spot where Kaua‘i’s King Kaumuali‘i faced the forces of Kamehameha, who was seeking control of the Hawaiian Islands. Waimea was a missionary outpost in the 1800s, when industries from around the world sought a piece of Hawai‘i. The Russian-American Company built a fort at what is now Fort Elizabeth State Park. Today the small town thrives as a historic and commercial destination anchored by the West Kaua‘i Technology and Visitor Center, Kaua‘i Coffee Company and locally owned gift shops and restaurants. Thousands gather here every February at the Waimea Town Festival, and the annual Christmas Parade draws a jovial crowd.
Līhu‘e is the commerical hub of the island and the county seat, full of mom and pop restaurants, government offices and brand-name stores. All flights to the island land here. The Kaua‘i Museum offers Hawaiian crafts workshops and displays native Hawaiian artifacts, and the nearby Kilohana Plantation Estate, once the home of a sugar baron, can be toured by a horsedrawn wagon. Grove Farm Homestead, another local landmark, houses a museum and honors the island’s plantation past. Popular with canoe paddlers, Nāwiliwili Harbor is where incoming commercial and cruise ships dock within walking distance to Kalapaki Beach. The harbor is lined with shops and restaurants and is close to the Hule‘ia River, where the ‘Alekoko Fish Pond, a more than 1,000-year-old archeological site, is located.
Hawai‘i’s first commercial sugar plantation was in Kōloa, now known as Old Kōloa Town. The edifice of the original sugar mill remains, dwarfed by the boutiques and restaurants that have sprouted in the town’s restored plantation buildings. The landmark Sueoka Store, a more than century-old family business, provides everything you need for a day on Kaua‘i. The town’s history center is awash in plantation memorabilia, and the map of the Historic Kōloa Trail, available in many of the shops, is the ideal tool for a self-guided tour of the area. Highway 520 (Maluhia Road) is a canopy of hundreds of eucalyptus trees, known as the “Tree Tunnel,” that makes for a scenic and fragrant drive. If there’s anyplace in Hawai‘i where you should turn off the air-conditioning and roll down the windows, this is it.