Planning a trip to the Garden Island of Kauai, Hawaii? These are the best things to eat, see, and do in Kauai, from shave ice to sea turtles, whales to waterfalls, and hiking to hula!

Planning a trip to the Garden Island of Kauai, Hawaii?  These are the best things to eat, see, and do in Kauai, from shave ice to sea turtles, whales to waterfalls, and hiking to hula!

Our family recently got to spend a week exploring picturesque Kauai and had the most amazing time. It's probably our favorite of all the Hawaiian islands because of how laid-back and lush it is.

I did tons of research before we went and had tons of suggestions from friends and readers who have gone that were incredibly helpful in deciding how we wanted to spend our time (and $$!) on our trip.

I've compiled the best ones here to help you plan your next trip to Kauai. Or convince you to visit this stunningly exotic, tropical island if you haven't been!

a blue ocean next to white waves and a hilly landscape

If you have been and have ideas or recommendations I haven't mentioned here, please leave them in the comments below! 

There is literally so much to do, see, and eat on Kauai that we had to sacrifice some activities until we return. Fortunately, the Hawaiian Islands are relatively convenient and easy to travel to (Southwest is even starting up flight service with direct flights from California to Hawaii later in 2019!)

We are already dreaming about our next trip to do some of the things on this list that we didn't get to this time around!

Exploring Kauai with Kids

We took our keiki (Hawaiian for children), ages 7 and 5, with us on this trip, so most of the things that we did were very kid-friendly, although some of what we did would have been harder with babies or toddlers.

a family of 4 standing near a retractable gate

We love traveling with our kids and seeing the world through their eyes. It's a totally fresh perspective that I sometimes forget about without their playful reminders. 

Like playing underneath the pier at Hanalei Bay with Rose, our youngest. Or listening to them squeal about every rooster they spotted on the island. 

Okay, that got old pretty fast since there are roosters literally everywhere on Kauai. But really, some of our favorite memories are going to be of the simple joys of digging moats in the sand with our kids or just sitting on a bench enjoying a shave ice and talking about the things we did that day.

a girl playing in the sand at the beach

So whether you are going on a couple's trip to Kauai or bringing the kids along, I've got you covered. Either way, you pretty much can't go wrong.

Adventure in Kauai

Kauai is known for being an adventure lover's paradise. From hiking the dramatic ridgelines of the Na Pali coast, surfing and boogie boarding at Tunnels Beach or Hanalei Bay, or soaring around one of the wettest places on earth, Mt. Waialeale, in a helicopter, there is something for every thrill-seeker in Kauai.

Doors off helicopter tour of Kauai:  If you have never flown in a helicopter before, Kauai is definitely the place to do it. And you only increase the adrenaline factor by flying with the doors off so you not only take in the unbelievable scenery, but feel the experience even more. 

a couple posing for a photo in front of a helicopter

Seeing the breathtaking Na Pali Coast from the sky is unlike anything I have ever experienced before and definitely the highlight of our trip. I've done helicopter tours of some pretty incredible places like Bryce Canyon in Southern Utah and around the city of San Francisco, but none of them come close to flying around Kauai.

Here are just a few reasons why we think you should do a helicopter tour of Kauai, even though it's expensive:

  • This is the ONLY way you will get to see vast portions of the island, including getting up-close to otherwise inaccessible waterfalls
  • Even though Kauai is a small island, it's impossible to drive around it because of the rugged Na Pali Coastline. Also, much of the land is either privately owned, or the waterfalls are just hidden from view because of the thick vegetation. 
  • Getting an aerial perspective gives you a completely new appreciation and understanding of the splendor of the island.
  • You feel so small, tiny even, in your helicopter that feels almost toy-like next to the immense, towering cathedrals of the Na Pali coast.

We went with Jack Harter Helicopters and had a fantastic pilot and guide who grew up on the North Shore. He pointed out landmarks and filming locations from movies like Jurassic Park, which was pretty awesome for nerds like us. 

a woman smiling in a helicopter above blue water
a long thin waterfall in a hilly landscape
looking down from up above into a hilly landscape and valley
on a tour of the island from the sky views of greenery below
viewing the island from the sky and looking at the valley and mountains below
a hilly landscape
a large valley on the island
a hilly landscape overlooking the option
very pointy rocks and peaks on the island
blue skies, pointy hills and white waves crashing onto the island
a calm blue ocean
blue ocean next to the island

We took off from Lihue Airport and flew all the way around the island, circling back up around the North Shore. The big crescent shaped lagoon in the picture below is Hanalei Bay.

a green hilly island with white waves and blue ocean
a person on an aircraft with a headset looking at the island below
a beautiful green island next to a blue ocean

We lucked out and were there right after some major rainstorms so where Kauai normally has around 200 waterfalls, our pilot explained that there were over 1,000 of them while we were there in mid-February. I don't even feel cliche saying that this experience was epic.

a hilly green montainside with several thin waterfalls
a waterfall through the green hills
a green landscape with hills and rivers

Other helicopter companies you might want to check out include Blue Hawaiian, Safari Helicopter Tours, and Mauna Loa (the only other company that offers doors-off flying besides Jack Harter). Each company takes a slightly different approach, so choose your adventure and just go for it!

Be sure to pack a jacket and long pants because the temperature can drop 10 to 20 degrees up there. And if you are really worried about flying with the doors off, there is a doors on option as well that might make you feel more secure. 

But trust me, go doors off. You won't regret it. This one is pricey, but totally worth it. 

Oh, and this is the one time on our trip where we let our girls stay at the kids' club at the hotel rather than take them with us. It was my husband's first time in a helicopter and right after Valentine's Day, so we called it our Bachelor-style date on Kauai. Paul's a big Bachelor fan (only one of the many reasons I love him).

Zodiac boat tour of Na Pali Coast: There are a number of companies you can book with to do a boat tour of the Na Pali Coast. We used Go Blue Ocean Adventure Tours.

a family of 4 all jumping up above water and in front of a hilly landscape

Sure there are also sunset cruises, day-long catamaran excursions, and other boating options, but for thrill-seekers and adventurers, the zodiac boat tour is the way to go. We weren't sure how our girls would handle it, but they LOVED when the boat banked steeply up on a wake or we got sprayed by waves.

Zodiac boats are the same watercraft used by the Coast Guard and Navy SEALs. They have speed and maneuverability that larger craft do not, making it so you can do sharp turns that tilt the boat at extreme angles and actually enter the incredible water caves carved out of the Na Pali coast by the ocean and erosion.

people on a small boat on water
a family of 4 posing for photos in front of a rocky landscape
a man applying scuba headset to a girl

If you have problems with any kind of motion sickness, definitely take Dramamine before heading out on the water for your boat tour. Not only does seasickness factor in, if that's something you suffer from like me, but it is a lot like being on a roller coaster for much of the day. So much fun, but seriously, not for the faint of stomach. 

We made a number of stops for photo ops and snorkeling where we saw three Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles and enjoyed fresh pineapple with Li Hing Mui powder (a plum powder that you can find in the candy aisle in Hawaii that is so tasty sprinkled over pineapple, mango, or shave ice), chips, and beverages. 

a hand holding sliced pineapple

We even saw a small shark at one point (thankfully not while we were in the water with the girls or I might have freaked out) and humpback whales with their babies.

But the highlight of the day was when a pod of at least 30-40 spinner dolphins came up alongside the boat and played and swam and jumped all around us for at least 20 minutes. It was magical and definitely the thing the girls have talked about most about the trip.

I found out about this particular tour company from my blogging friend Christy from The Girl Who Ate Everything when she and her husband went to Kauai six months before us. I totally followed her insta-stories everyday taking notes on what they did while they were there. 

Taking vicarious vacations through other people on their insta-stories while they are traveling is basically my favorite pastime. Also, can I call The Girl Who Ate Everything a friend if I only have fangirl crush on her and have never actually met her in person and think of her more by her blog name than her actual name? 

No? We've dm'd on Instagram so.....we're pretty much besties, right? She wrote a post with her favorite things about Kauai as well, which is another great read if you are planning a Kauai trip soon!

a blue ocean and blue sky with a large rocky mountain in the middle

Hiking:  Kauai offers tons of amazing hiking, which is FREE! 

While the first two items on our Kauai adventure bucket list cost a pretty penny, you don't have to pay a cent to enjoy some of the best of what Kauai has to offer:  tropical, lush, vine-filled jungles and incredible vistas of soaring peaks and Pacific Ocean panoramas, often with plenty of rainbows to go along with them.

There are so many hikes to choose from on Kauai that it's hard to know where to begin. My top picks were both out of the question when we happened to be there because the trails were so muddy from recent rains. Plus, we had our kids in tow and didn't think they were up to 6+mile round-trip hikes this time around. 

Instead, we opted to do the Ho'opi Falls hike, which is a short, easy hike that takes you to two waterfalls. Because of the heavy rains, there trail was literally all mud. Not just surface mud, but the kind of mud that threatens to suck your shoes off your feet if you aren't careful to step on sticks and rocks as much as possible. 

We saw a number of people turn back within 50 feet of the trailhead, but even with the mud our 5 and 7 year olds were able to manage the hike to the first falls.

two girls walking on a dirt path
a family of 4 posing for a photo on a hiking trail
a girl holding a walking stick on a dirt hiking trail with people further away
taking a rest break with walking sticks on the hiking trail
a girl sitting on a rock with her stick in hand looking at a small waterfall
a family of 4 with walking sticks near a waterfall
a woman and 2 girls holding walking sticks near the river
a man and two girls on a walking trail holding sticks and a giant leaf

We stopped there for pictures and a snack but definitely no cliff jumping as the torrential flow of water made jumping and swimming completely out of the question this day. 

While there we talked with a couple of hikers who had gone on to the second falls, the ones featured in the Jurassic Park movies, who said the trail only got worse to the point of being almost impassable, so we turned around and headed back at that point, much to the relief of our 2nd grader who described the mud as "revolting" but mostly with amusement in her voice.

But NEXT time we are definitely hiking these trails (if they are open and accessible):

  1. Kalepa Ridge Trail in Koke’e/Waimea State Park.  It's a long drive to the end of the road so this hike is most easily accessed if you are already staying on the South Shore near Poipu or Waimea town. If you are staying on the North Shore, be sure to factor in extra driving time. Kalepa Ridge Trail is an unmarked, unofficial trail, but it also seems pretty well known since it gives absolutely magnificent views of the Na Pali Coast.
  2. Kalalau Trail along the Na Pali Coast.  An 11-mile trail on the North Shore of Kauai from Ke’e Beach to Kalalau Beach that was closed when we were there in February 2019 due to Hurricane Lane the year before. It's supposed to reopen later this year, but for now it's inaccessible. Many people just hike the first two miles in to Ke'e Beach and then back out, but my younger sister did the whole thing a couple of years ago and camped at Kalalau Beach and her pictures had me picking my jaw up off the floor. There is also a side trail to Hanakapi’ai Falls that is two miles from Ke'e Beach if you want to swim in the freshwater pool beneath the 300-foot waterfall.
  3. The Sleeping Giant Trail on Mount Nounou above Kapa'a. This is another one we almost did but chose not to because of rain and young kids. But again, the scenery and views are almost unbelievable and it's supposed to be especially gorgeous at sunrise or during the golden hour just before sunset. Be sure to get shave ice afterwards in Kapa'a as a reward!

I found this article from the blog Journey Era super helpful for learning more about some of the best hikes in Kauai along with some gorgeous photography.

Boogie Boarding/Surfing:  There are lots of places near the big surfing/boogie boarding beaches where you can rent boards for the day for really reasonable prices or even join group or private lessons. The best surfing is found during the summer when the waves are tame, so we didn't attempt it this trip. 

But we did get a couple of boogie boards and enjoyed playing in the waves closer to shore and helping our kids learn how to catch some waves.

a girl with a surfboard in the water

ATV riding, Ziplining, and Kayaking:  You can ride ATV's, horses, or zipline around Kauai's backcountry at Princeville Ranch or with Kipu Ranch Adventures and see where many of the scenes from Jurassic Park and other Hollywood blockbusters were filmed. Or kayak up the Wailua River to see waterfalls.

We didn't get to any of these activities this trip and it was a hard call not to do them. But definitely check out The Girl Who Ate Everything's Kauai post where she shares about some of these adventures that she and her husband did on their anniversary trip. Both are definitely at the top of our Kauai bucket list for the next time we visit.

Fun Things to do in Kauai

There are so many fun things to do in Kauai, even if you don't consider yourself much of a thrill-seeker or adventure lover. These are some of our favorite activities for a more relaxing vacation-vibe while on Kauai.

Beaches (of course!):  Kauai is well-known for it's gorgeous beaches and shoreline. There are fantastic beaches no matter what side of the island you are on, and each is a little bit different. Here are some of the most popular beaches in Kauai, broken down by which side of the island they are on.

North Shore Beaches

  • Hanalei Bay Beach Park - This stunning white sand beach in a crescent shaped bay is a great spot for a day of surfing or boogie boarding. Our kids had a marvelous time playing in the waves and around the pier at the end of the beach where scenes from the movie "South Pacific" were filmed. The town of Hanalei nearby is a favorite spot to explore as well.
  • Tunnels Beach - We didn't get to visit as it was closed while we were there, but it's infamous for being the beach where Bethany Hamilton was bit by a shark while surfing.
  • Ke’e Beach - This beach marks the start of the Kalalau trail along the Na Pali coast. It was closed at the time of our visit.
  • Anini Beach
  • Hideaway Beach
a man and two girls at a sandy beach
under a walkway bridge at the beach
a man and his daughters standing on a walkway at the beach
a girl in a blue bathingsuit playing in the sand at the beach

South Shore Beaches

  • Poipu Beach - Two separate crescent shaped lagoons divided by a small sandbar make up Poipu beach, which was voted “America’s Best Beach” by Travel Magazine. The right lagoon is popular for boogie boarding and playing in the waves, while the left lagoon is protected by lava rock which makes for calm waters, perfect for kids to swim and snorkel. Our girls loved seeing the fish that came swimming right up next to us and there was even a Hawaiian green sea turtle lying on the beach. Endangered Hawaiian monk seals also come hang out here sometimes too, although we didn't see any the afternoon we were there.
  • Shipwreck Beach - This is one of our favorite beaches on Kauai! It is located right in front of the Grand Hyatt and we had fun wading and beachcombing, although the strong shore break makes it a little dangerous for swimming. There were quite a number of surfers here though. It's not uncommon to sight whales from Shipwreck beach. We spotted them breaching out of the water, which caused everybody on shore to cheer. It's also the start of the Maha’ulepu Coastal Trail and there is a gorgeous point for watching the sunrise in the mornings. We even saw people cliff jumping from the point into the ocean below, although it looked too dangerous for us to want to try it. Next time we go we are going to plan ahead and do a family photo session here in the evening, something we saw quite a lot of families doing every night, since the sunsets are beautiful here.
a girl on a sandy beach with a turtle in the background
a man and his daughter sitting on rocks by the ocean
a family of 4 standing near the water at the beach

East Shore Beaches

  • Lydgate Beach Park - (near the Wailua River)

West Shore Beaches

  • Salt Pond Beach Park
  • Waimea Beach
  • Polihale Beach State Park - Also known as "Barking Sands" beach, this is the last beach on the west side of the island. To get here, you have to drive down a rough five mile dirt road. But if you brave the bumpy road, the setting is unbelievable with a backdrop of the dramatic Na Pali coast at the end of the white sandy beach. 

Be sure to bring plenty of sunscreen and a big hat to protect you from the sun. I did good all week until the last day when I forgot my hat and got burned on my shoulders and neck as a result!

a woman in a hat smiling at the camera

Hanapepe Swinging Bridge:  This historic swinging bridge in charming Hanapepe town was built in 1911 over the Hanapepe River and rebuilt after Hurricane Iniki in 1992. It's still used by locals today but is a fun and interesting stop for tourists as well. 

The bridge definitely bounces and sways as you walk across, which made our 5 year old very nervous but our 7 year old thought it was a blast. The quaint, sleepy town was the inspiration for the movie Lilo and Stitch, and has a strong art culture and a cute main street with shops and cafes that is fun to stroll down. 

a girl on a narrow bridge
a man and 2 daughters looking at a river under the bridge
a girl in a hat on a narrow walkway
a girl looking up at a very tall and full tree

Kilohana Plantation Train Ride:  Sugar cane plantations used to be a big part of Kauai's economy until it became too expensive to ship the sugar that could be produced elsewhere. But the Kilohana Plantation Railway, which is close to the Lihue airport, gives you a glimpse into that part of Kauai's past with a laidback and family-friendly 40 minute train ride through an actual working farm. 

a girl posing in front of a train
a man and two girls standing near a train
a man sitting on a couch looking at a piece of paper
a girl standing on a balcony looking out
kids standing next to a gate with goats on the other side

We learned a lot about Kauai from the guided ride, like the fact that wild boar outnumber the human population of Kauai 5 to 1 and the economy on Kauai is trying to reinvent itself after the loss of sugar production, with macadamia nuts and coffee being the current chief agricultural crops, while there is also a big focus on eating local, hence the number of farmer's markets on Kauai. 

After the ride, be sure to explore the sprawling plantation mansion, which now has cute shops and art galleries set up in the former bedrooms and enormous closets, with a restaurant and lounge in the living room, dining room and courtyard.

Tubing on the old sugar can plantation canals:  We didn't make it to this one, but it looks like so much fun! Kauai Backcountry Adventures offers guided tours tubing down the old sugar cane irrigation canals built in the late 1800's by Chinese laborers on Kauai. There are mountain tunnels you float through, and chutes that you slide down. It's like a giant lazy river and sounds like lots of fun for kids and adults alike!

Catamaran Sailing:  Go on a popular sunset cruise or opt for a day excursion searching for marine life with any number of cruise companies. We opted to skip this in favor of the zodiac boat tour instead, but it sounds like an easy and enjoyable way to spent part of your day on Kauai.

Learn About Hawaiian Culture:  Whether it's taking a hula class, making leis, or playing the ukulele, take some time to learn a little bit about the local culture. We stayed at the Grand Hyatt and our girls loved the lei-making class on Wednesday morning, followed by a hula class where we learned an easy hula dance called "pearly shells".

an older woman helping two girls to string flowers together
carefully putting flowers on string
kids and adults stringing together flowers for a hawaiian necklace
kids standing at a table making flower leis
a pink flower
purple flowers
a parrot on a tree

Many other hotels and resorts also offer classes, and a number of shopping centers have free hula shows, storytelling, and Hawaiian music on certain days of the week. Poipu Shopping Village has free hula Dancing on Thursdays and Coconut Marketplace in Wailua has free hula shows on Wednesday and Saturday.

Things to See in Kauai

Waterfalls:  There are over 200 waterfalls on Kauai (hundreds more after heavy rains!) but Wailua Falls and Opaeka'a Falls are two of the most well-known. They are easily accessible and you can actually drive right up to overlooks for both of them. 

Getting down to the base of Wailua falls is another story and requires either kayaking up the Wailua River or braving a slippery, steep (and unofficial) trail down to the pool below the falls.

a man and his daughters looking at a waterfal

There was a man set up near Wailua Falls weaving baskets from pond fronds and he let me take some pictures of him while he worked. It was really fascinating to watch!

a man carefully weaving a green basket
a green leaf woven basket being handmade by a man

Supposedly there used to be an unofficial trail to the pool at the base of Opaeka'a Falls as well, but it was blocked off after a couple of hikers fell to their deaths here back in 2006. But the view from the parking lot is pretty spectacular and definitely convenient!

distant waterfalls in a green landscape

Sunrise and the sunset:  Hawaii has some of the most stunning sunsets I've ever seen. But take advantage of your jet lag by waking up early and getting out to enjoy the sunrise as well. 

Once our girls had adjusted to the time change, Paul and I took turns going for walks up to the point about Shipwreck Beach where a number of people were also enjoying watching the sky perform the most beautiful show as it went through every shade of purple, pink, orange, gold, yellow, and blue each day.

a sunset through the window
a tropical setting with black shadows in front of a blue and orange sunset
a view from a resort balcony

Go to a Luau:  Luau's are kind of cheesy, but they are also so much fun, especially if this is your first visit to Hawaii or you have never been to a luau before. Many of them feature a traditional imu ceremony where a pig is cooked in an underground oven all day with hot lava rocks and banana leaves, then uncovered for the feast. 

We almost skipped a luau this trip because they are so pricey and we've done one before, but decided last minute to take our kids to the Smith’s Garden Luau. The girls loved the dancing, costumes, and music, and were especially entranced by the fire dancer at the end. 

a girl getting a beaded shell necklace put on
two girls standing near a cart
a live show of women in grass skirts dancing

Many of the larger resorts like the Grand Hyatt and the Marriott host luaus on different days of the week. The Sheraton hosts Auli'i Luau, which is the only oceanfront luau in Kauai and the one I would probably choose for our next visit since it's pretty hard to resist hula dancing with the Pacific Ocean as your backdrop. 

Standard Luau food is usually decent but nothing spectacular since it's typically served buffet style. It just can't compare to the many amazing restaurants on the island, in my opinion. But it involves kalua pork, lomi lomi salmon, macaroni salad, rice, and poi made from taro root (which, let's be honest, is gross, but I always try it anyway).

Wildlife:  Just driving around the island you will frequently see wild boar (often as roadkill), chickens (they are EVERYWHERE), egrets, and other birds. But you also stand a good chance at seeing spinner dolphins, humpback whales, sea turtles, Hawaiian monk seals, and maybe even a shark if you go out on the water. We even saw most of these from shore! 

The best season for whale watching is November to April (peak season is January through March) when the whales make their way to the warm waters around Hawaii to bread, birth, and nurse their calves.

Kileau Lighthouse:  This wildlife refuge has a short .4 mile loop trail out to a lighthouse set above rugged coastal cliffs. There are binocular stations to help you spot whales that are frequently seen from here, along with the thousands of nesting and migratory birds that come to this area.

a family of 4 posing for a photo in front of a lighthouse
a distant lighthouse on a cliff near white crashing waves
a girl using binoculars through the holes in a gate
a lighthouse

Waimea Canyon:  Known as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific”, Waimea Canyon on the Western side of the island was formed by the Waimea River through erosion and has just incredible red rock cliffs, green vegetation, and waterfalls. 

Our views weren't the best the day we drove up here because it was raining pretty heavily, but it was still quite a site to behold. And we got a better glimpse from the air later in the week on our helicopter tour of the island. 

But even the lookouts on the drive up into the park were pretty fantastic. And since we weren't in the clouds and rain yet, we could see a lot better.

a man and two girls looking into the valley
a family of 4 standing near the valley
a girl standing on red ground near a waterfall
a girl with her back turned to the camera standing on a red hill
a man with his arm around his daughter by a fence at an outlook point
double rainbow near some sharp hills

The canyon is over 10 miles long and at least 3,000 feet deep. There are multiple popular lookout spots to pull out and take in the breathtaking panorama. 

Queen's Bath:  I really wanted to see Queen's Bath, but it was off-limits with big chain-link fences blocking off access to the trail when we were there thanks to recent storms. But it's supposed to be a beautiful, interesting natural tide pool that you can swim in during summer months when the water is calm. I wouldn't risk it in the winter though, because waves crash into the pool and there are signs everywhere about how dangerous it is. 

Spouting Horn:  Another fascinating natural landmark is the Spouting Horn, just outside of Koloa on Kauai’s South Shore. It's an ancient lava tube with a blowhole of water that sprays into the air as the tide and waves come in.

Flora & Fauna:  Granted, you will see incredible beauty everywhere in Kauai. But it can also be really interesting to learn the names and more about some of the tropical vegetation on the island by visiting one of the many botanical gardens in Kauai. 

You could book guided tours or take self-guided options at the Allerton Garden and the adjacent McBryde Garden in Koloa (South Shore), and the Limahuli Garden and Princeville Garden on the North Shore. 

a pink flower
tall trees on grassy fields behind wire fences
colorful plant
a yellow flower

Where and What to Eat in Kauai

Kauai, Hawaii is home to some amazing food and flavors. The big hitters, flavor-wise are pineapple, coconut, guava and macadamia nut (think macadamia nut pancakes, macadamia nut crusted mahi mahi, macadmia nut ice cream, and so many other options).

The local produce is fantastic and there are lots of farmers' markets you can visit if you are staying in an Airbnb or condo and want to do some cooking for yourself.

But these are some of favorite spots for eating out while in Kauai.

Shave Ice:  Always start with dessert first, right? Hands down, our favorite shave ice on Hawaii was from Wailua Shave Ice and Hee Fat General Store (both in Kapa'a on the East Shore). They are literally right down the block from each other, but we kept going back even though we were staying on the South Shore. 

Both offer real fruit juices or syrups made from fresh fruit with no dyes that taste light and fresh and amazing. Which is 100% how shave ice should be for me, rather than the classic syrups.

Go to Wailua Shave Ice and order their Toasted Coconut shave ice (my unequivocal favorite) with haupia foam on top or the Lava Flow with pineapple juice and strawberry puree. 

a girl in a blue bathingsuit holding a shave ice
aerial view of ice cold treats
a woman eating a cold treat

Or pop into Hee Fat General Store and get tropical real fruit flavors like guava, coconut, mango, lilikoi (passion fruit) or strawberry (okay, that one isn't tropical, but still so good and there are lots of other flavors, these just happened to be our favorites) with macadamia nut or coconut macadamia nut ice cream on the bottom and snowcap (I think it's evaporated milk with a simple syrup or maybe just sweetened condensed milk) on top. Heaven.

a hand holding up an ice cold treat infront of a store sign
two girls and a woman getting drinks from a vendor
a woman and her daughter buying snacks

Other places to try are Waikomo Shave Ice, Koloa Shave Ice or The Fresh Shave in Poipu, Uncle’s Shave Ice in Lihue and Poipu, and Wishing Well Shave Ice in Hanalei.

BBQ: Chicken in a Barrel has legitimate bbq and their smoked chicken is crazy delicious. We ate at their Waimea location twice, it was that good. But they have locations in Hanalei and Kapa'a as well so you can enjoy it whether you are on the North, East, or South shore.

The Waimea location had the most amazing atmosphere on the veranda of a plantation cottage style building with a giant lawn lined with palm and banyan trees leading to a glittering ocean view. The girls played on the grass, running around the palm trees while we waited for our food and then we strolled around the grounds afterwards for one of the most relaxing afternoons we spent on Kauai.

a family of 4 sitting at a table to eat
two girls eating a meal
two girls playing near a very large tree
tropical trees spaced out around little house-like structures

Mexican Food:  Paco's Tacos also has four locations on Kauai and it was truly some of the best Mexican food I have ever had. The Kiahuna Golf Course location has a stunning back patio where you can eat al fresco and enjoy the beautiful sunset.

two girls at a table with food turning their heads back to watch a live band playing music

Coconuts Fish Cafe (a small chain that started in Maui but now has a handful of CA and AZ locations also) has yummy island-style fish tacos and coconut shrimp. We also heard good things about Verde in Lihue not too far from the airport, but never got the chance to stop and check it out.

Pizza/Italian: Scorpacciata is a food truck right next to Wailua Shave Ice in Kapa'a that makes wonderful Neapolitan pizza if you are on the East Shore. Pizzetta in Old Koloa Town on the South Shore is also supposed to be really good, as is La Spezia which came highly recommended from our friends who go to Kauai twice a year.

a girl eating pizza

Burgers:  We ate at Bubba's Burgers in Poipu, but they have a couple of other locations on Kauai as well. I mean, how can you go wrong with a juicy burger and fries after a day spent at the beach?

Fish/Steak:  Keiko's Paradise (South Shore) or Duke's (East Shore) - both of these are owned by the same group that also owns Kimo's in Maui, which we have eaten at multiple times and LOVE - and Tidepools (South Shore on the Grand Hyatt property) are all on the fancier (and pricier side) offering such deliciousness as macadamia nut encrusted mahi-mahi, steaks, and hula pie for dessert (how did we not have a slice of hula pie while in Kauai?!?!). 

We decided not to splurge on this kind of dining for this trip, opting for a luau instead more for entertainment than the food. But I'm regretting not doing at least one "nice" dinner at one of these places. And missing that slice of hula pie!

Puka Dog:  We never made it to Puka Dog for their award-winning hot dogs served in a Hawaiian sweet bread roll with garlic lemon secret sauce, fruit relish, and mustard sauce. But they sound so tasty!

Ice Cream:  Pink's Creamery in Hanalei on the North Shore has delicious, gourmet ice cream flavors and their milkshakes are fantastic. We picked some up and took them to the beach (which is only a block or two away) and noticed others doing the same. The coconut and chocolate macadamia nut milkshakes were absolutely delicious! 

ice cream smoothies grilled cheese shakes on a sign with a hand holding up a tray of food and drinks

Lappert's Ice Cream is also supposed to be pretty fantastic as well, but we got a little caught up in our shave ice frenzy to sample too much ice cream beyond that in the bottom of our shave ice treats. 

I don't have restaurant suggestions for the North Shore area around Hanalei and Princeville since we stayed on the South Shore and only made it up to the Hanalei area one day, but my friend Melissa from Modern Honey (who I DO know in real life!) did a post about their Kauai trip where they stayed on the North Shore and she has some great-sounding recommendations! A Spicy Perspective also has some great restaurant recommendations in her Kauai bucket list post that we didn't make it to but plan to choose from on our next trip.

Where to Stay in Kauai

While you CAN drive from the end of the road on the North Shore, all the way around the island to the end of the road on the South Shore in about 2 ½ hours, you are probably going to be spending the most time visiting the things closest to you with just a day or two spent on the other side of the island. 

This is why most people tend to choose to stay either on the North Shore or the South Shore. It's not an easy choice, but just remember that you can still do things on the other side of the island from wherever you choose to stay, you just need to factor in driving time.

The choice of where to stay is going to depend on budget and accommodation preference, but no matter where you choose you can find an Airbnb or condos with kitchens or upscale resorts that will take care of everything for you.

South and West Shore: Poipu, Old Koloa Town, Waimea, Hanapepe

Kauai's South Shore is known for being sunnier, with lots of restaurants, beaches, water sports, golf courses, and shopping. It is also the entrance to Waimea Canyon.

We stayed at the Grand Hyatt in Poipu. It was incredible and I cannot recommend it enough. Their pools and water slide were fun for the kids, the grounds are immense and beautifully landscaped, and the rooms and the whole resort and just top-notch. The ocean front view was amazing and gave us easy access to Shipwreck Beach for morning walks and sunset strolls.

a tropical resort with beautiful landscaping
a hotel room with a girl kicking up her leg on the bed
a mother holding her girls in a shallow pool of water with tropical trees in the background
a man with his arms behind his head on a chair at the beach and a daughter talking to him with her arm out
a girl with a blue bathingsuit walking on the and towards the water
a girl coming down a water slide
a hammock set up on a sandy area between palm trees

Paul was showing me how he forgot to put sunscreen on just one arm when Rose decided to photobomb this shot in one of the Grand Hyatt hot tubs.

a man and his daughter near the steps of a pool
a sandy beach resort with a lot of green shrubery and trees
two girls looking at a small pond while eating their meals
two girls in matching floral dresses walking on the sidewalk
two girls and their dad walking away from the tidepools

North Shore:  Hanalei, Princeville

Kauai's North Shore has a reputation for being rainier, with almost daily short rain showers most of the year. The rain doesn't last long though, and it's a warm rain that we don't even mind, so don't let that deter you. Many people prefer the North Shore to the South Shore because it is much more lush and green thanks to the extra rain!

The St. Regis on the North Shore is all about luxury accommodations, but I've heard great things about the Princeville condos. And of course there are numerous smaller hotels and Airbnb's to choose from.

East Shore: Wailua, Kapa'a

We really loved the East Shore with it's easy access to waterfalls, the Wailua River, and our favorite shave ice in Kauai in Kapa'a. One big draw to staying on the East Shore is that it is in between the more hyped North and South Shores. The East shore makes it so you can visit both without less driving time each day. It 's a really good choice if this is your first trip to Kauai and you don't have a strong preference for the North or South yet.

Things to Know Before You Go

  • Traffic can be bad on Kauai. There is really just one main road and it gets backed up at any time of the day. We could never discern the traffic pattern or source of the slow down, but just be aware that you might encounter delays.
  • There are chickens everywhere. It sounds like the chicken population exploded around 1992 when Hurricane ...... hit the island and destroyed chicken coops and let loose roosters that were being used for cockfighting. They proliferated from there. Some people refer to the roosters that you will see all over the place as the Kauaian alarm clock.
  • Bring a jacket if you are here during winter months or planning to do a doors off helicopter tour.
  • Water shoes are a really great idea. The beaches are sandy, but as you wade out many of them have rocks, which makes for great snorkeling but can be brutal on your feet! Water shoes are also a good idea if you are going up the river or playing beneath waterfalls.
a rooster walking on a little sidewalk

So tell me - have you been to Kauai? Share your favorite things and recommendations in the comments below so I know what to add to my list for our next trip!

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About the author

Hi, I'm Amy

I enjoy exploring the world through food, culture, and travel and sharing the adventure with mostly from-scratch, family friendly recipes that I think of as modern comfort cooking.

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Reader questions and reviews

  1. Wow... what a wonderful post! I'm pretty sure I will never get to Kauai, but after reading your amazing visit and seeing your beautiful pictures, it almost feels like I've been there. Thanks for sharing! It was particularly nice to see all the fun your girls were having... such happiness!

  2. You definitely look like you're living your best life! <3 We're going to Maui in August, but when we do Kauai, you know I'll be using this as my guide! 🙂

  3. Kauai is our favourite place to visit - we keep going back again and again. You've given a really well-rounded review of things to do. I'd add one more - the Kauai Humane Society has a field trip program where you can sign out a dog (or two!) and take them anywhere dogs are allowed - hiking, walking, or the beach. We took two sweet pups hiking on Sleeping Giant the last time we were there. It's great for the dogs to socialize, get exercise, and helps if you're missing your own dogs!

  4. Thank you for the thorough and excellent recommendations! We enjoyed a trip to Kauai in early November, and your post was a much-appreciated guide. We especially loved the Zodiac tour of the Na Pali Coast on Go Blue Ocean Adventures Tours!

    1. I'm glad you guys had such a great trip! It was so fun to finally meet you at the retreat after hearing so much about you from Paul!

  5. Will be there next May looking to going and want to resorts monk seal dolphins turtle's shopping counting down the months love to take alot of pictures which will be exciting