How do you plan your trips, or do you plan them at all? My approach is: find a beautiful photo and plan the day around the location of it. I used the same approach when planned a Hawaiian trip. The only problem is that the whole of Kauai looks like a paradise. So the following locations are what we were able to see in our short week-long trip.
It’s common to divide the island into four sections based on geographical orientation. The north and south part of the island is less populated, have the most trails and parks. North Shore is the home of Nā Pali Coast State Wilderness Park and a famous and very popular Kalalau Trail that requires advanced reservation (which we didn’t get in advance). However, we visited several very scenic beaches in the area. All of them have one thing in common: they have the smallest parking lots.
Makua, or Tunnels, Beach
You saw the photos of this place. Beautiful stip of the sand with amazing views of the mountains should be a nice place to see sunset and sunrise. We weren’t lucky. Storm clouds covered most of the sky and made it dark blue.
It would be a nice place to swim, sunbathe or have a picnic—small parking.
Hanalei Pier and Hanalei Valley Lookout
The small harbor is famous for its photogenic pier. However, the beach is almost every time busy with beachgoers and surfers. I wish I had a chance to visit this place at night (for astroshoot) or before sunrise (when everyone is still sleeping).
Another place worth a stop is Hanalei Valley Lookout that opens a sweeping view of the valley covered with taro fields.
Princeville, the north’s biggest town, is of the popular places to stay on the island. There are several big-name hotels and golf clubs. During the summer month, it’s Queen’s Bath is busy with swimmers and cliff jumpers. When waves become extreme and dangerous in winter, it’s not the safest place to be.
However, the town has another very photogenic place to check out – Hideaway Beach. Bright blue and crystal clear water looks amazing from the top cliff when you hike to the beach. Through its trailhead was hard to find, the trail, however, as all trails on the island, could be dangerous itself – slippery and muddy.
If you’re not staying in the town, there could be a problem finding a parking space. The only open parking place could host only a few cars.
We didn’t plan to visit this beach. However, Secret Beach’s trail was all the mud. And being always afraid to slip and fall, I decided against hiking to it. So we drove to nearby small Kalihiwai Beach. The beach is created by the Kalihiwai River flowing into the ocean, so the water after the rain could have this dirty soil color. You should not swim in that type of water. But the beach is a great place to watch surfer closeby. Which exactly what we did there. The parking is along the beach and has a lot of space. One could sit in the car, eat his lunch (dinner, breakfast, etc.), and watch how brave guys take the waves.
One of the place s that is a must-visit. The picturesque lighthouse sitting on the edge of Kīlauea Point and overlooking the ocean and shore west of it is one of the great places to stop on your way to or from the beaches. Drive careful there, as it’s on the grounds of the national wildlife refuge. Nene (the state bird), the nice looking and friendlier that Canadien Goose, could walk along or across the road. Also, don’t walk away from the trails; there are a lot of nests around.
Also, before visit check their site for info about closures, operation times, and passes.
This one we visited right before our flight back. I read about it but only briefly and didn’t return to it right until the last day. We wanted someplace where we could walk without thinking about getting dirty because of mud. The place should be easy to drive to. And it should be nice so that we will spend our last hours on the island taking all the island’s beauty.
Larsen’s beach has all of these. Sandy beach, easily accessible from the parking, easy to drive to, no need to worry about parking. If you’re lucky, you will be able to see locals: sea turtles and Hawaiian Monk Seals.
East Shore is more populous, close to the airport, and feels less like paradise but more like a living and working island. It was the closest to our rented condo region, that’s why we ate most of the time in places there.
We chose this area as the base to have the ability to drive around the island and not spent quite a lot of time on it. However, the western part is still way far from what we liked. I would not select this area to stay in for our next visit, but it was ideal as the base for the first exploratory trip.
Ho’opi’i Falls Hike
This short hike was the most pleasant of the trip. The trail a quick and pleasant introduction to the jungles of the island. The falls at the end of the trail is very impressive, surrounded by dark greenery. You should hike to the base of the falls in summer but when we visited everything was wet and slippery. And we weren’t able to find a safe trail.
Ke Ala Hele Makalae Path to Lae Nani Beach
We stayed in a condo in Kapa’a, so we had a lot of time exploring local beaches and trails. Waipouli Beach was my favorite place to swim. Sandy beach wasn’t busy with vacationers, and the shore had no rocks.
However, Ke Ale Hele Makalae Path was my most favorite thing in town. The paved path passes along the shore and is an amazing place to run in the early mornings or after the rain.
Wailua and ‘Opaeka’a Falls
Two of the most iconic falls on the island are a must-see. You can easily drive to their viewpoints. There is a short but dangerous trail that leads to the base of Wailua Falls. It could be very slippery; however, those who did said it’s well worth it.
Another amazing place on the east shore. It’s actually a park south of the mouth of the Wailua River. The beach has stunning sunrises.
Also, while there, check the Hikinaakala Heiau, the remains of the ancient temple.
Ninini Point and Kuki’i Point lighthouses
I’m glad I found these two lighthouses! Ninini Point Lighthouse is 86-foot tall building overlooking Nawiliwili Bay. The shore around it is covered with huge black volcanic rocks. However, the most beautiful it’s seen from the shore closer to the smaller Kuki’i Point lighthouse.
Where to eat
Probably because we stayed in the area, we ate mostly in the places nearby. Here are places that we liked the most
- Java Kai
- Ono Ono Shave Ice
- Coconut’s Fish Cafe
- Immua Coffee Roasters
- Lava Lava Beach Club – we loved early morning breakfasts on the beach.
- Island County Market – our go-to place for grocery and quick bites. Also, they have prepared food when other places are closed.
- The Greenery Cafe – our definite favorite
Not to miss
Coconut Marketplace Farmers Market – a great place to get local fruits.
Comparing to other parts of the island, we spent in the south less time. However, there were several of my favorites.
The beach was so amazing that I forgot to take photos. Ha-ha, no, really, it was one of the best places on the island to swim.
Shipwreck’s Beach to Point Poipu (plus Sprouting Horn)
Like us, if you have almost no time to explore this part of the island, find one evening to walk along Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail. We parked at the end of Ainakoa Street right near Shipwreck Beach that was very busy that day. From there, we found a paved path along the shore and walked west on it.
I had in mind to visit the arch near the Poipu point right at the end of the trail.
The trail is great for waves or storm watching. However, pay additional attention when walking on the rocks. And while in the area, stop for a minute or two at Sprouting Horn. Though it looks fun, I mostly loved the sound water made passing through the rocks.
For us, this part of the island was the hiking playground. This part of the island was farthest for us to drive, but here we found the best views, most challenging tracks, and the impossible beach to swim and sunbathe.
Waimea State Recreation Pier
The pier is a nice place to stop for the sunset after getting your shaved ice at nearby Jo Jo’s Shaved ice.
Red Dirt Waterfall
Though no must-see, this place is interesting to visit. The Red Dirt waterfall is seasonal. The most interesting, however, are the red dirt hills surrounding it.
Waimea Canyon Lookout
The first major lookout on Kokee Road is a must-see. The view on the falls is amazing, and the canyon itself is unique looking.
Waipo’o Falls Trail
If you have time to hike only one trail at Waimea Canyon State Park, do Waipo’o Falls Trail. It has views, some challenges, and falls at the end. The trail is very popular; the parking lot fills up quickly.
Honopu Ridge Trail
All ridge trails in this part of the island have many things in common: they are muddy, overgrown, and could be dangerous. Why did we select Honopu Ridge Trail? Mostly because it was less popular than other trails and wasn’t close like some nearby ridges.
Wear long pants. My hiking leggings only barely helped from scratches. Also, I wish I had long sleeves. The trail was extremely muddy though there were no rains in two days. However, the views were worth it!
Kalalau and Pu’u O Kila Lookouts
If you are not a hiker, consider stopping at these two lookouts (in this exact order). I found Kalalau less impressive than Pu’u O Kila Lookout. We planned our day, so we were at Pu’u O Kila right before the sunset. It was already almost empty, and we had a lot of time to explore and take photos.
Polihole State Park
The one place that you drive for way too long on a very bumpy road. I read many who say it’s not worth it. We had a different experience. We drove almost till the end of the road and find a nice place for ourselves on the long beach. We ended spending almost a day here swimming and sunbathing, and I still feel it was the best beach on the island.
Rental Jeep did the road easy, we passed sedans, but I would not suggest driving this road if you have a rental sedan.
Where to eat
Two places were we stopped to get some food before or after our explorations.
- Jo Jo’s Shaved ice – they are legendary.
- Ishihara Market – sandwiches, poke, deli, and grocery – everything you need for the day on the beach or a picnic.
Links and Info
- Do not be me, and plan your hike at Napali Coast Wilderness in advance. Check their site for details!
- Check the official site on how to visit Kilauea Lighthouse.
- Ho’opi’i Falls Trail description on AllTrails
- Waipo’o Falls Trail description on AllTrails
- Honopu Ridge Trail on AllTrails. Always read about the latest condition before doing any ridge trails in the region.
- Check out other ridge trails available in Koke’e State Park on AllTrails
- Check the official site of Polihale State Park on closures before the visit.