Kauai – Trip Highlights

Note: Our trip highlights are presented using a 3-star rating system ★★★

Snorkeling in Hanauma Bay ★★

We haven’t had much experience with snorkeling before this trip, but this was a real eye-opener as it was so much fun and just an overall amazing experience to be able to see so much brightly colored marine life from up close. 

Although often called a beach park, Hanauma Bay is actually a nature preserve established to protect the delicate ecosystems in the bay. With its calm and protected turquoise waters, only a few minutes from the road for Honolulu, Hanauma Bay is the main snorkeling destination on the island of Oahu. It is home to over 450 kinds of tropical fish, many of which can only be found in Hawaii. Here you can observe marine life up close, including the humuhumunukunukuapua‘a, the Hawaiian state fish, and our personal favorite, the green sea turtle. 

Perfect snorkeling conditions in Hanauma Bay

Beaches, beaches, and more beaches ★★★

It’s really hard to beat just spending your afternoons relaxing at some amazingly scenic beaches. Our favorite Oahu beach (though we only tried three) was Waimanalo Beach (northeastern coast). Located centrally on a 5-mile soft white sand beach of Waimanalo Bay, just a 35 min car ride from Honolulu, is the longest beach on the Windward side of the island.  The views from the beach are just spectacular, with the distant Makapu’u cliffs and lighthouse to the right, Wailea Point to the left, off-shore islets and a mountain range behind you creating a spectacular circular vista, all capped off with endless bright light-turquoise waters ahead. Waikiki Beach was not especially spectacular, but was conveniently located a few blocks from Waikiki’s main drag. Given its location, it can get hectically busy, makes up for with conveniently close food and drinks options.

Hanalei Bay

Kauai had so many amazing beaches. Here are some of our favorites:

  • Hanalei Bay (Waioli Beach Park) Beach wins for most spectacular backdrop with mountains and clouds behind and to the sides as the beach sits in the middle of two mile long crescent-shaped bay of Hanalei Bay;
  • PoiPu Beach along the southern coast is a favorite for bodyboarders. Small waves break gently on the shallow sandbar and create a fun area to hang around when the waves come crashing  in;
  • Anini Beach is a long and narrow beach on the northern coast, perfect for taking a stroll along the water as there is the occasional tree hanging over (and that even extends over the water) you for some shade. Anini boasts the longest and widest fringing reef in the Hawaiian Islands, making the water by the beach extremely calm, in sharp contrast to Poipu beach. Although, Anini Beach is usually less crowded than Poipu or Hanalei, we still found it to be a very scenic beach. 

*note that for some beaches around the island it is strongly suggested not to swim in the water because of powerful rip tide currents; none of such beaches were mentioned above. 

Waioli Beach Park

Hiking in Oahu ★★

We didn’t have the time to fully explore the hiking seen in Oahu, but we did climb two trails that provided us with splendid vistas. The first was the Diamond Head Trail, which is possibly the most famous hiking trail in all of Hawaii that takes you to the of an extinct volcano. In part because this is the trail that gets you those iconic panoramic views on top of Waikiki and downtown Honolulu (in addition to providing you with nearly endless views of the southern coastline) but also because it’s a fairly short trail, just under a mile, and takes under an hour to reach the 760-foot summit. Note that:

  1. You have to pay to get in (US$1 per person, US$5 per car) and that only cash is accepted (2015);
  2. Because of its proximity to Honolulu, it is a very popular destination and can get quite busy;
  3. Most of the climb is up man-made staircases and that there is little shade;
  4. Be sure to notice the old WWII bunkers at the top and the picturesque lighthouse right below the final viewpoint. 

The second hike was the Kuliouou Ridge Trail. Going at an easy pace the entire hike will take about four hours and you’ll cover about five miles. This is more of a standard mountain hiking trail, beginning in under the cover of trees and opening up as you near the top. The incline of the trail becomes more intense near, particularly when you encounter two sets of stairs: a first set of just over 250 steps and a second of just under 200. At the end of the steps, though, will be the peak of Kuliouou Ridge. Here, on a clear day, you will find spectacular views of the eastern and northern coastlines. The summit is a great place to have lunch and enjoy the view. 

For detailed information on the location of different Oahu hiking trails, please consult this map and this map

Hiking in Kauai ★★

He hiked significantly more in Kauai, and four different trails merit mention. For a complete map of Kauai trails, see here

On the western part of the northern coast you can find the Kalalau Trail. This was easily our favorite trail as it provided several viewpoints with highly rewarding sight lines of the Na Pali Coast. Note that although this is a very long 17 km trail, we only did the first 4 km (8 km including return) portion of the trail  between Ke’e Beach and Hanakapi’ai) – Hanakapiai Falls and beyond Hanakap’ai is recommended for very experienced hikers only and requires a hiking permit).

Along the way, we crossed an elderly man just standing at a viewpoint. After a brief chat, we mentioned that that specific point was his favorite place on earth and that even though he had travelled the globe, he now only travels to Kauai to hike the Kalalau Trail!

Our second trail on the northern coast was the Okolehao Trail. It is a 4 km trail that will give you a workout as you climb to 1,250 ft elevation. Although we did not enjoy it as much as the Kalalau Trail, it is well worth it and you will be rewarded with wonderful views of Hanalei Bay.

Note: It rained briefly for about an hour everyday in the late afternoon while we were in Kauai (with the rest of the day being super sunny), which had the effect of rendering several sections of the trails very muddy.

On the western coast we did two trails: the Awaawapuhi Nualolo Trail and the Waimea Canyon Kukui Trail. The Awaawapuhi Nualolo Trail will take you on a breathtaking path as you descend from 4,120 ft elevation within the Kokee State Park to about a 2,500 ft elevation (therefore you are going up on the way back). The trail is just approximately 5 km each way and takes between 3- and 4 hrs to complete. The Awaawapuhi Nualolo Lookout provides spectacular panoramic views and great picnic area. The Waimea Canyon Kukui Trail is just under 8 km total and initially descends into the Waimea Canyon (you have to climb on the way back). Along the first mile you will have several amazing opportunities for photos, and across the canyon you will be able to see sweeping views of several waterfalls. Waialae Falls is the dominant waterfall that cascades to the valley floor (more on Waimea Canyon below).

Kalalau Trail
View from the Kalalau Trail

Exploring Waimea Canyon

Waimea Canyon, on Kauai’s West Side, is often described as “The Grand Canyon of the Pacific.” Although not as big or as old as its Arizona cousin, it nonetheless stretches nearly 20 km long, over 1 km wide and more than 3,600 ft deep. The Waimea Canyon Lookout provides panoramic views of deep valley gorges. The area has a rapidly changing climate:  Waimea Canyon is very hot and dry (so bring lots of water), a striking contrast to Mount Waialeale, located only 9 km away, which is the wettest point on earth with almost 12 m (yes meters!) of rainfall per year. 

Waimea Canyon

Devouring Ahi Tuna Poke every other meal 

Poké is diced raw fish served either as an appetizer or as a main course and is one of the main dishes of Native Hawaiian cuisine. Quite simply, it’s delicious! It is traditionally served with condiments such as sea salt, candlenut, seaweed, and limu. If you love fresh fish, this is a dish for you. In Hawaii, poke is also a supermarket staple – an entire counter can be found with trays filled with already-marinated raw fish in various flavors.

The snorkel and catamaran tour along the Napali Coast ★★★

This was an amazing catamaran boat tour with Blue Dolphin Charters where we got to snorkel along the endlessly scenic Na Pali Coast, had multiple multiple dolphins swimming and racing the catamaran, and sneaking a peak at the forbidden island of Niihau (it is generally off limits to the public and only relatives of the island’s owners and invited guests are allowed to step foot on the land). The tour starts early in the morning in Eleele (southwest coast of Kauai) and lasts 7-8 hrs. Breakfast and a buffet lunch are included as well as all the snorkel equipment. After the snorkel stop the open up the bar (unlimited beer, wine & Mai Tais).

The amazing Napali Coast

Other activities

We thought we would mention some of the other activities we did on Kauai even though they did not make our personal list of highlights.

On the north coast of Kauai (just east of Princeville) we found this one-of-a-kind 18-hole mini golf of pure fun surrounded by a Hawaiian Botanical Garden – every hole has signage detailing information about the plants around the course.

We also enjoyed renting bicycles and riding the the Kapaa bike path, where anyone can enjoy the magnificent scenery, gentle offshore breezes, and an array of photo ops. At the time of our visit (2015) the path was only 11 km (7 miles) long, but there were plans to extend it up 27 km (17 miles) in length.

The Kilauea lighthouse and wildlife refuge are also worth a visit, where the ocean cliffs and tall grassy slopes of a dormant volcano provide a protective breeding ground for many Hawaiian seabirds. The lighthouse is also on the north coast and a small entry fee ($5US in 2015) is charged.

Finally, we also enjoyed a brief visit to Kauai Coffee Company plantation in southern Kauai. With over four million coffee trees grown on 3,100 acres, Kauai Coffee Company is Hawaii’s largest coffee grower, and thus the largest coffee grower in the U.S. Upon your visit you get to taste from a large variety of free samples, including several funky flavored coffees, such as Pat’s favorite, the Toasty Banana Nut Cream coffee. 

Kilauea lighthouse
One of the many seabirds around the lighthouse

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