Hawaii's statewide reputation as paradise is well earned... but if you go deeper into each island, they're all distinctly different versions of paradise. If you're the adventurous sort who likes things to be as authentic and off-the-grid as possible, then you'll want to plan your Hawaiian vacation on Kauai. This small, jungle-covered island is more on the undeveloped side, hence its nickname: The Garden Isle. Along with the beaches, lush greenery and incredible weather you expect from most Hawaiian islands, Kauai also provides heart-stoppingly dramatic coastline, rare plant life, hidden surf spots, and misty waterfalls. Rent a car and loop around Kauai for an unforgettable road trip through paradise.
If you're an avid hiker, the Kalalau Trail is one you'll want to cross off your bucket list. Traversing the famed Na Pali Coast on foot really lets you appreciate and fully experience the dramatic cliffs. If you plan to do the whole trail, which is 11 miles one way, you should plan to take two days and camp out along the route (permit required). If you do complete the entire trail, you'll be treated to secluded beaches, stunning views of the Pacific, hanging valleys, and waterfalls. It's a steep hike that some might consider dangerous, but it's absolutely worth it. If you don't want to camp out, simply go as far as you can and turn back whenever.
One of the most unforgettable and completely jaw-dropping landscapes in America is the Na Pali Coast. If you've ever seen "Jurassic Park", then you have an idea of what I'm talking about; the cliffs were used as establishing shots for Isla Nublar. Stretching for 17 miles, the coastal park features "velvet green cliffs and cascading waterfalls plummeting into deep, narrow valleys". The only land access to the park is the Kalalau Trail, but if you're not up for the challenging hike, a guided kayak or boat tour offers great views of the cliffs from the water.
As you make your way around the coast, you'll pass by a picture-perfect swimming hole known as the Queen's Bath. It's a tidepool formed from a shallow sinkhole of igneous rock. The name comes from another swimming hole, one that no longer exists, on Hawaii's Big Island. The original Queen's Bath was formed from a collapsed lava tube and filled with natural spring water. It was actually used by royalty (and only royalty... no one else was allowed to enjoy the sacred waters) in the past... but was destroyed by a lava slow in 1987. This modern-day Queen's Bath is accessible to anyone; just be very careful, and only swim in it during the low tides of the summer.
No trip to Hawaii, regardless of which island you visit, is complete without a trip to a beach or two. Kealia Beach on Kauai is a great stop. The spacious stretch of white sand is the perfect place to take a walk, and the ocean and wind swell here make great waves for surfing. If you just want to swim, stick to the north end of the beach; the currents and waves can get pretty strong, but the water at that part of the beach is usually more calm.
There are loads of resorts on Kauai, but if you're here because the low-key vibe of the island appeals to you, you can find hotels that are cheaper and more laid back. Kauai Shores is a perfect example. Located in the town of Kapaa, the rooms are brightly colored and offer views of the garden, the courtyard pool, or the ocean. The onsite restaurant is literally located on the sand, offering cocktails, live music, and happy hour pupus for your pleasure.
Deep within the dense forests and jagged canyons of Kauai are several stunning waterfalls. Opaekaa Falls is one of the most dramatic. The 151-foot-tall cascade is easily viewable from a convenient overlook just off Kuamoo Road. There's not much hiking here, but it's free and perfect for a photo op. The dense forest makes it appear as though the waterfall ends in a hidden pool. The name means "rolling shrimp" since shrimp used to be abundant here.
If you want a waterfall hike, then head to Wailua Falls. The 173-foot falls were famously featured in the opening credits of the 1970s/80s TV show "Fantasy Island". You can hike down to the base of the waterfall and swim below it; while it might be tempting to jump off the top into the pool of water below, it's actually quite dangerous. Legend has it that this was something Hawaiian men used to do to demonstrate their bravery, but it's now illegal to attempt. Swimming in the water below is pretty enchanting in and of itself, though.
There's more to the island than just stunning natural beauty; there's a rich history here as well. The Kauai Museum provides a fascinating look into paradise's past. See art, artifacts, and archives from the indigenous people and early immigrants to Kauai, and how they shaped the island's unique culture. You can experience traditional activities and explore the beautiful grounds while learning a ton and feeling "the essence of true aloha". The town of Lihu'e, where the museum is located, is also worth exploring, as the cultural and historical heart of Kauai.
It'd be a crime to not visit at least a few beaches while in Hawaii, so stop by Kalapaki Beach while in Lihu'e. The beach is on a bay so water here is perfect for swimming, paddleboarding, and even learning to surf. There's public beach access (at the east end) and plenty of white sand where you can lay out or start up a game of volleyball. There are plenty of rental stands where you can rent surfboards and the like, and a few little eateries and shave ice stands around as well.
Since you're touring the Garden Isle, stop by the National Tropical Botanical Garden. They offer self-guided and guided tours of the gardens where the institution researches and works to preserve rare and special tropical plants. Ancient terraces, archaeological sites, historic buildings, storytelling, wildlife spotting, and more come with visits to the various properties, most of which are on Kauai, though one is in Maui. Some of the gardens were even used for filming movies like "Jurassic Park" and "Pirates of the Caribbean".
See the natural beauty of Kauai for yourself on a hike through Koke'e State Park. There are a few easy to reach overlooks where you can witness the majestic Na Pali coast for yourself, as well as 45 miles of hiking trails, waterfalls, campsites, and a natural history museum. Even if you only drive to the two cliff viewpoints and don't get a chance to hike, it's still well worth the trip. Pro tip: get here early in the morning so you're visiting the overlooks before 11am; it gets crowded and is often rainy in the afternoons, so the morning is the best time for the most incredible views.
Waimea Canyon State Park is one of the most famous attractions on the island. To give you an idea of how breathtaking this natural feature is, consider that it's often referred to as the "Grand Canyon of the Pacific". It's ten miles long and up to 3,000 feet deep. The red clay, lush greenery, and blue skies and ocean all create a landscape that's unlike anything anywhere else. Again, fog and rain often move in during the afternoon, so visit in the morning.
Banner Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters, and teach some of us more than we can ever learn from books. -John Lubbock