Kauai is the northwestern most of Hawaii’s major islands. Nicknamed the Garden Island, it is covered with lush greenery and tropical plants, watered regularly by abundant rainfall. As the oldest of the islands, it has been changed the most by the forces of erosion, and this has resulted in natural wonders such as Waimea Canyon and the Na Pali Coast. As a consequence of its age, Kauai also has more miles of sandy coastline than the other Hawaiian islands. The word “city” might be an exaggeration for an island of 68,000 people, but here’s some information on the towns of Kauai.
Kapa`a, on the east side, about a 20 minute drive north of Lihu`e, is the largest population center on the island. It anchors what is known as the Coconut Coast, which hosts many inexpensive to moderately priced resorts and much commercial activity with many strip malls along the highway. The corridor between Lihu`e and Kapa`a is the island’s most congested.
Lihu`e, on the island’s southeast side, is the civic and commercial center of the island, host to the island’s main airport, county offices, and largest shopping mall (Kukui Grove Center). The Kaua`i Museum, located in the old part of Lihu`e and is the island’s best museum on the history, geography, and people of Kauai.
Po`ipu, on the south side, branded “the sunny side of paradise”, is the major visitor destination for the island. Poipu features beautiful beaches, swimming, snorkeling and surfing, sea turtles, whales, monk seals, trade winds, palm trees, and spectacular sunsets. The Allerton and McBryde National Tropical Botanical Gardens of the Pacific are located in Poipu. The Grand Hyatt Kauai, Marriott’s Waiohai Beach Club and Coastline Cottages Kauai lead the area’s accommodation choices.
Princeville is a planned resort community on the north shore, consisting of homes, condo developments, the St. Regis hotel, and 2 golf courses. Kauai’s impressive north shore mountains form the backdrop. Several small beaches are located within Princeville, with many more a short drive away.
Waimea, on the west side, is a small town with a flavor of old Kaua`i. Most visitors pass through town on the way to Waimea Canyon and Koke`e, but the town itself is worth a relaxing visit.
In many ways, Kauai is different from the rest of the islands. It’s almost as if you’ve stepped into a separate kingdom, and for many years Kauai was just that in relation to Hawaii. Kamehameha I was able to conquer all the islands by force, except Kauai. Two separate campaigns to take the island ended in failure. In the end, it took diplomacy, a royal kidnapping, and an arranged marriage to bring Kauai into the kingdom of Hawaii.
Kauai is also known as the place where the sugar cane industry in Hawaii was born. Sugar was once the industrial mainstay of the Kauai economy but in recent years has taken a back seat to tourism. In October of 2009, Gay & Robinson harvested the last sugar crop in Kauai, ending 117 years of the sugar business in Kauai.
In short, compared to Oahu, Maui or the Big Island, Kauai is smaller, less populated, more rural, and more laid back. That’s why it’s the favorite destination for many visitors to Hawaii, and for many Hawaii residents as well. Visitors come to explore the island’s beaches and natural wonders, but the multitude of resorts on white sand beaches provide ample opportunity to just sit and do nothing if you’re so inclined.
Because tourist development reached Kauai considerably later than the other islands, the island has a larger proportion of timeshares, condominiums, and bed and breakfasts. Also, a strict cap on building heights (hotels can be no more than 40 feet high) prevent the development of the mega-resorts and towering skyscrapers found on the other islands. The local rule is that nothing can be built taller than a coconut tree.
One look at a map will show you an important difference between Kauai and the more populous islands of Hawaii: Due to the massive Waimea Canyon and Na Pali Coast, no roads circle the island. Once you’ve made the drive along the south shore to Waimea and seen the canyon, the only options are to go West on dirt roads to Polihale Beach or turn around and go back the way you came. Same story for Princeville and Na Pali on the north shore. However, the island is compact enough that both ends of the road can be seen in the same day. But the Garden Island cannot be enjoyed or appreciated if you are pressed for time.
Also visitors should beware of the fact that along many of Kauai’s streets and especially their main highway that there are wild roosters and chickens everywhere! It is almost like the equivalent of seeing squirrels in more eastern parts of the United States, that is how common it is to see wild birds! Also, and quite surprisingly, stray cats are also everywhere in Kauai.
How to get in:
Lihue Airport (LIH) is Kauai’s main airport, a small terminal served with inter-island flights by Hawaiian and go!. Alaska, American, Delta, United Airlines, and US Airways offer non-stop service from the U.S. West Coast.
Tip when flying into Lihue: For the best incoming view, select a window seat on the left side of the aircraft. More often than not you’ll be landing to the north thanks to the trade winds. From that angle you will see a dramatic cliff view off the left side on final approach.
There is now also a deep water port at Nawiliwili for cruise ships. Norwegian Cruise Lines offers cruises between the islands that start and end in Honolulu.
What to do:
People come to Kauai primarily for one thing: the beaches with their great snorkeling, surfing, swimming, and sunning. But Kauai also boasts more navigable rivers than the other Hawaiian Islands making kayaking very popular. If the surf is calm you can even combine a river run with time paddling the bays and ocean shoreline. You’ll find kayak rentals near the mouth of the most popular rivers. Many will also rent roof-top strap-on kayaks for travelers interested in trying one of the several smaller river runs.
Kauai has great hiking and mountain biking trails as well. The Waimea Canyon area has extensive hiking trails both into the canyon itself as well as great overlooks of the Na Pali cliffs.
There are many commercial tour guides that offer various land and sea adventures such as guided hikes, downhill bike tours, back-country ATV trips, river tubing adventures, and more.
What to eat:
Like the rest of Hawaii, the plate lunch is ubiquitous in Kauai. However, many of Kauai’s beaches and natural attractions (like Waimea Canyon) have no amenities nearby. Pack a lunch and bring enough water for the day - then stop at the restaurants for dinner.
For a tasty snack, pick up some red lychees from a roadside stand or a farmer’s market. Waimea Canyon visitors can drive a few miles further up the road to the Koke’e Lodge, located in the Koke’e State Park next to the museum. It serves breakfast and lunch.
Where to sleep:
Before making lodging reservations it’s best to review a map of the island and plan ahead. Think about the activities and sightseeing you want to do. While it’s true that you can drive to any part of the island within an hour or two you’ll spend less time in the car if you book your lodging in a spot that’s closest to the places you’ll spend most of your time. The one main highway is only two lanes *one each way* and tends to get fairly congested at times.
The “windward” side, especially the north coast can get up to twice rain than the sunny south coast. If you come from a cold and rainy region looking for a sunny Hawaiian vacation you could be disappointed if you stay on the lush, green, tropical - and wetter - north coast. Yes, it will still be warm but with more cloud cover and showers.
Location and setting also affects lodging prices. There can be a sizable price difference between ocean view and non-ocean view units - the so-called ‘garden’ or ‘mountain’ view rooms - all within the same resort. Also, resorts or condo properties set inland - even a block or two - can sometimes be 10-20% cheaper than properties that front or connect directly with the beach. Yes, you’ll have to walk a bit or bike or even make a short drive but if it helps to fit Kauai into your budget it may be worth the walk.
Another option is camping. There are many county and a state park where camping is allowed. Permits are cheap but required.
Text courtesy WikiTravel, Creative Commons License
Published: March 19, 2015 - Volume 13 - Issue 49