A quick travel guide to my favorite place in the world: the Hawaiian island of Kauai
It’s been 132 days since we got home from Kauai, and I still dream of the island. I’ve never been so enchanted by one place, and Kauai’s astonishing hues of blues and greens, tropical flowers, fresh food, and friendly people won me over – heart and soul.
As we drove our little blue rental car through switchbacks, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Every turn earned yet exclamation about tropical plants so dense you can hardly see through them and vines dangling from every tree. The brilliant tropical flowers had an otherworldly elegance and radiance. It’s mind-blowing to imagine the island before roads and people. Mountains rise up from the earth like gentle giants, draped in lush foliage and dripping with waterfalls. The Garden Island, as Kauai is called, is so verdant that it took my breath away.
We ate wild guavas on the trail, fresh fish for every meal, and so. many. bananas. Cold pineapple was the perfect snack after a long snorkel adventure, and Kauai Juice Co. kombucha kept me fueled and energized. I found I’m happiest when noshing on the freshest fish and the most flavorful fruit on a beach on Kauai. If you’re planning a vacation to Kauai, here are my tips.
Kauai Travel Tips
I do my best to experience every part of a new place when visiting for the first time. When I first researched our trip, online forums split their favor of the North vs. South shores, so we decided to spend time all over the Island and form our own opinion. I’m really happy we did, because every part of the island is so different and special. The North Shore is beyond gorgeous, with tropical foliage in every direction and lush mountains towering above ombre waters fading from turquoise to cobalt.
We experienced the best snorkeling on the North Shore in waters filled with friendly, curious, colorful fish, and specks of coral among the ocean floor. I didn’t mind the afternoon rain on the North Shore – actually, I appreciate it as I know it’s the reason for the tropical climate and plants. As we moved down the coast, we ate some of the best food in Kapaa (to the East) and on the South Shore in Poipu, where restaurants are plentiful and less expensive.
Here are our favorite eats and activities from our stay:
Where to Eat on Kauai
The name Foodland sounds like my kind of amusement park, however, it’s a grocery chain on the island. Most grocery stores in the U.S. have a deli with potato salad and the like, but on Kauai, Foodland offers something a bit different.
Foodland’s “deli” sells some of the best, and certainly the most affordable poke on the island. Each location has numerous flavors and different types of fish, from your typical ahi tuna to salmon, shrimp, and even clams.
You may think it sounds sketchy to get poke from a grocery store. I felt the same way, but the reviews on Yelp told another tale and I’m so happy we gave it a try. Pro tip: These stores are all over the island, and you can easily get a rewards card, which will save you money on groceries during your whole stay.
Let’s face it: eating out is expensive on Kauai, especially on the North Shore. Since we were mainly going to beaches/hikes/snorkeling (times when we wanted to bring food with us), we did a big grocery run at Foodland for things like:
- Toast ingredients (apricot jam, guava jam, cream cheese, peanut butter, whole grain bread)
- Snacks (Hawaiian Luau BBQ chips, dark chocolate)
- Granola bars
- Tons of fresh fruit (Pineapple & apple bananas are a must. We also bought plums and lychees)
- Water bottles
- A package of pasta and a jar of sauce for the night before our big hike (more on that below)
- Kauai Juice Co. kombucha
We ate breakfast in our airbnb and poke from Foodland almost every day, and tried to only eat out for dinner on the North Shore. On the days when we hiked or snorkeled for the entire day, we packed a cooler with cut pineapple, peanut butter sandwiches, granola bars, and water bottles. Trust me, there’s nothing better than snacking on cold pineapple on the beach after a long snorkel! Once we traveled south to Kapaa and Poipu, we ate out for most lunches and dinners as there were more affordable restaurant options.
Shaved ice from Wailua Shave Ice in Kapaa is incredible and so refreshing – the coconut one is a dream 🍨. Most shaved ice places use syrup and artificial flavors, but Wailua serves up gourmet shaved ice with real ingredients. I spent my whole stay hunting down passion fruit (lilikoi), so they graciously added a scoop of fresh lilikoi to my coconut shaved ice and it was pure island bliss.
Kauai Juice Co. is a game changer if you love fresh pressed juice and/or craft kombucha. Kauai Juice Co. kombucha is sold all over the island in grocery stores like Foodland, but the juices are only available in the shops, which are located in Kapaa, Kilauea, and Poipu.
We were enamored by the Omega This – a tropical blend of soursop, orange, dragonfruit, pineapple, chia seeds that is to die for. I’ve never savored a juice as much as I did that one, trying my best to extend my enjoyment by taking tiny sips. It was the most perfect taste of Kauai we could have ever dreamed of.
I also loved every flavor of kombucha, especially the Jun variety (made with honey rather than sugar). Kauai Juice Co. makes several varieties of hot sauce, too, including the Sambal and Thai Chili sauces that I brought home with us.
Right inside the grocery store where Da Crack is (below), you’ll find an unassuming sushi stand. But it is INCREDIBLE. Get everything. Drool. I loved it so much that we went back twice, and I enjoyed the Hapa Roll and Gorilla Bowl. I still crave the Hapa Roll constantly.
The first time we went to Da Crack/Makai, I got one taco from Da Crack and a hand roll at Makai Sushi because decisions are hard. Da Crack is right outside of Makai Sushi and near a beach, so just get everything and go have a feast picnic near the water. Or eat on the bench outside of the restaurants, because why wait? The food is that good. We enjoyed the pulled pork tacos and burrito, and we went back twice.
On our way back to our airbnb, I spotted a sign for a farm stand. Ever on the quest for the best local fruit and those elusive lilikoi, I made a quick right and rolled up to a condo complex dotted with food trucks and a tiny farm stand. I was craving an acai bowl, but I wanted a tropical take on it. Frozen Delight graciously made their tropical smoothie into a bowl and it was fantastic. So good that, after enjoying some of a wood-fired pizza, Ty decided to order a tropical bowl for himself. We brought them to the beach and ate them while watching the sunset. The bowls were so delicious that we talked about them for ages afterwards.
On an exceptionally hot day in Kapaa, we spotted Ono Ono Shave Ice and knew we had to get something. Pro tip: Don’t get the shave ice – it’s all syrup. Instead, get the soft serve banana with pineapple on top! Ultra refreshing and guilt free.
Holy cannoli, savage shrimp was both savagely spicy and delicious. We came here for dinner one night and shared the coconut shrimp plate and the No Ka O’i – sweet and spicy shrimp with pineapple. Savage Shrimp is pretty unassuming in a shopping complex, but you won’t regret eating there. I’m craving it again just while typing this. So delicious.
After singeing your tongue on Savage Shrimp’s No Ka O’i, wander over to Lappert’s to cool down with some ice cream.
Pizza is probably not what you’re going to Kauai for, but when you just finished the Kalalau trail (more on that below), you want carbs. Alllllll the carbs. Enter: Hanalei Bay Pizzeria. We ordered the Honey Trap pizza and a side of calamari. I’d skip the calamari next time, but the pizza was rich, flavorful, spicy, and satisfying. Ty especially loved it.
What to Do on Kauai
If you’re going to Kauai, it’s likely that you’re searching for tropical beauty. If so, look no further than the Kalalau trail. As you climb gentle switchbacks, glimpses of glimmering shoreline show through the trees, eventually opening up to panoramic views of the legendary Na Pali coast. It gives me chills just to write this. On the trail, you’re surrounded by hundreds of varieties of tropical plants in every shade of green. It’s mother nature’s playground, as if she had a hayday with a paintbrush. Then, if you’re up for it, continue the hike another two miles to a breathtaking waterfall.
Hiking the Kalalau Trail was the highlight of our stay on Kauai.
The Kalalau Trail can be a full day hike, so it’s smart to pack food, sunscreen, and a lot of water. Alternatively, you could only hike the beginning of the trail, but it’s hard to describe how cool it is when you take a few steps and feel a slight shift as you enter the jungly region on the way up to the waterfall. One moment you’re in a moderately humid and tropical climate, and the next, the air is dense with the smell of guava and humidity hangs in the air and cloaks your lungs and clings to your skin in the most beautiful way. Ty hates humidity, but he raves about this hike. The only word I can use to describe it is magical. I suggest researching the hike before doing it, and do not swim in the beach where it ends after 2 miles because the waves are deadly.
On our first day on Kauai, we drove up to Tunnels Beach, naive to the immense beauty waiting for us – both on the beach and below the surf. We walked down to the spot we were told was best for snorkeling. Ahead of us, soft waves broke far away from shore, creating a snorkeling oasis. Behind us, mountains and hills were absolutely dripping in plants that were such a vibrant shade of green, they glowed. We loved Tunnels Beach. The water was filled with colorful, friendly, and curious fish, and an easy-to-snorkel shallow reef. I highly recommend spending a day here.
On our second night on Kauai we decided to watch the sunset from Queen’s Bath, which was a fantastic life decision. Queen’s Bath is a natural tidepool surrounded by black lava flow. The beautiful hike down passes a waterfall and jungly plants, vines, and flowers. The North Shore’s afternoon rain misted every inch of our surroundings in the most graceful display of precipitation I’ve ever seen; every inch of the land was kissed by rain.
Queen’s Bath at sunset is one of the most magical places on the island, and possibly on the planet.
Once there, don’t hesitate to strip down to your bathing suit and wade in the temperate water. Colorful fish swim about, and waves crash over the side every so often. Sunset from the pool is a humbling sight to behold. Be sure to bring a towel, bug spray, and a flashlight for the hike back up.
Boat tours are expensive but 100% worth it. We loved ours – it showed us a parts of the island we otherwise wouldn’t have experienced, and made me feel intimately connected to the ocean and Mother Nature. On our tour we saw the majestic Na Pali Coast, including the spiritual Cathedrals and caves with trickling waterfalls and vibrant fish. We went snorkeling among schools of fish and multiple turtles. We even met a dolphin, who swam and played in the water around our boat as we began our journey back to the dock. It was such a highlight of our trip.
We went with the company Na Pali Experience on their Afternoon Adventure.
BIKE TOUR – KAPPA
Kapaa has a great bike path with beautiful views. There are a number of places that rent bikes for a great rate, and it’s worth an afternoon of exploration. If you’re in Kapaa for a day, this is one good option. Fern Grotto, one of Kauai’s signature attractions, is said to be another great option, but we didn’t do that on this trip.
Where to Stay on Kauai – Airbnb
We LOVED our Airbnb on Kauai’s South Shore! It had everything we needed and was so spacious, it felt like a retreat. The decor was on point – we almost didn’t want to leave. It had every amenity you would need, in a great location just minutes from beaches, shops, and restaurants. We were always on the lanai overlooking tropical banana trees. I could have stayed forever.
Our Airbnb on Kauai’s North Shore was not quite as nice as the South Shore, but it grew on us as we stayed. It’s a nice little studio that feels like a treehouse with the gorgeous jungle views. We woke up every morning to the sound of the forest outside. We also really liked that Queen’s Bath and Hideaways Beach were walkable from the condo. The owners have a listing next door that is only incrementally more expensive, but looks much nicer. It wasn’t available during out stay.
- Bug spray is 110% necessary. Also cortisone cream. You will get bit by mosquitoes.
- If your airbnb doesn’t offer free snorkel gear, rent it for the week. Almost all beaches have great snorkeling.
- On that same note, be aware of water safety. When possible, ask a lifeguard about conditions before you get in the water. If a lifeguard isn’t there, try to ask a local. Research water safety at the beaches where you’ll be.
- Bring multiple bathing suits because you’ll probably never not be wearing one.
- If you have space in your suitcase, pack a soft, collapsable cooler. That way you can take lunch on hikes or snorkel trips without worrying about your pineapple going bad in the sun.
It’s incredible what happens when you mindfully disconnect and tune in. You notice everything, from the bugs humming their evening songs outside, to the lizard hunting for dinner on your patio screen. You notice flowers and seashells and waves so big they shake your soul as they crash onto the shore. A trip to Kauai was everything I needed – one full week of tropical bliss, our only concerns were which beach to snorkel and what flavor of poke to eat. I hope this guide helps you do the same.
– With Love, Nicole