Kauai Travel Guide

USA  #1 in Best Hawaiian Islands
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Kauai Area Map

Neighborhoods

Kauai is both the fourth-largest island in Hawaii and its oldest. Of all the major islands, Kauai is the least populated, with fewer than 59,000 people (smaller islands, such as Lanai and Molokai, both have less than 7,500 residents). As such, expect way less development than more commercialized islands like Oahu. Most of the island's towns and cities are located on the coast, while inner Kauai – home to many of the island's forest and wilderness preserves – remains largely uninhabited. The best way to navigate Kauai is to split the island up by its north, south, east and west shores, as conditions and amenities vary greatly by area. 

The west side of Kauai is a wild one. The area is largely covered in mountains, valleys and forests. It is here where you'll find Koke'e State Park and Waimea Canyon, along with Polihale State Park. There's also Salt Pond Beach Park in the small town of Hanapepe, Kauai's art capital. Unlike Polihale, Salt Pond Beach Park is safe to swim at and has lifeguards. The beach is a favorite among families for its calm waters, tide pools and facilities (there are restrooms, picnic tables and pavilions). Waimea is also a notable town on the west side, known as the place where British explorer James Cook landed in 1778. Stop here if you want to get a sense of local life, as there are few accommodations for visitors. 

In comparison to the western shore, the southern area of Kauai is more developed. Here, you'll find the Poipu resort area, home to the popular Poipu Beach Park, as well as a handful of golf courses. If you stay here, amenities of any kind, whether that be dining or shopping options, are never too far from reach. Another town to visit in the south is Old Koloa Town, situated just 3 miles north of Poipu. Old Koloa Town holds historical significance in Kauai for its ties to the sugar industry. The town's first sugar mill, which was established in 1835, eventually set the standard for commercial sugar production in all of Hawaii. While the sugar industry is long gone, much of the town's businesses occupy old planation buildings, giving it an authentic charm that you might not find in the resort areas of Kauai. 

The eastern side of Kauai is a healthy mixture of the natural beauty of the west and the commercialism of the south. The east side is the most populated part of the island, with its biggest town, Lihue, housing the local government as well as the island's main airport, cruise port and commercial shipping harbor. You'll find resorts lining the shore, including the Kauai Marriott Resort, home to Kalapaki Beach. There's also the popular Lydgate Beach Park. Lydgate is actually more of a series of pools than a beach thanks to the rock walls that prevent the ocean's surf from coming in. For untouched natural beauty, head to Wailua River State Park, situated about 2 miles west of Lydgate Beach. And if you're wanting to bring home some unique Hawaiian souvenirs, Kapaa Town, located 5 miles north of the state park, features numerous shopping plazas offering everything from Hawaiian shirts and one-of-a-kind crafts to antiques.

Kauai's north shore is probably the island's most popular region. Here is where you'll find the breathtaking Napali Coast, easily the island's most popular attraction. Some of the island's most beautiful beaches can be also be found here, including Hanalei Bay, Tunnels Beach and Ke'e Beach, the latter of which can be found right next to the Kalalau trailhead. Other popular shorelines on this region include Haena Beach Park, located about a half-mile west of Tunnels Beach, and Anini Beach, located in Princeville. Princeville is the premier resort area of Kauai, right after Poipu. It's here where you'll find the island's best hotels, as well as multiple golf courses. Other points of interest in the northern region include the Daniel K. Inouye Kilauea Point Lighthouse, a breathtaking vantage point that also serves as a prime spot during whale watching season. There's also Hanalei Town at Hanalei Bay, which features plenty of charming shops and restaurants.

Safety in Kauai isn't so much about watching out for crime as it is watching out for Mother Nature. When hiking or going to the beach, it is highly advised to consult local resources about the conditions. Weather is known to be fickle in Kauai, especially when it comes to rain. It's not unusual for a bright, sunny day to suddenly experience unscheduled downpours. Hawaiian state park officials recommend all hikers bring a hiking partner (hiking alone in Kauai is not safe), don proper hiking boots, and wear waterproof attire, sunscreen and a hat. It's also recommended to bring at least two liters of water while hiking.  

Another key feature on the Kalalau Trail, as well as other trails and popular outdoor adventures in Hawaii, is crossing streams. Streams are subject to flash floods and have resulted in numerous tourist deaths on the island. If you see a stream start to rise, or is risen, do not cross it. Wait until it goes down. If you're uncomfortable taking on the terrain by yourself, consider booking a tour with an experienced operator. 

It's equally important to be mindful of the weather conditions when at any of the island's beaches. Generally, winter sees rougher conditions unsuitable for swimming, especially on the northern and western shores. It is advised to only swim at beaches where lifeguards are present; you can find a list of lifeguarded beaches on the Hawaii Tourism board's website. If you are going to a beach but not swimming, you'll still want to be mindful of the ocean. High tide can quickly sweep in and take an unsuspecting traveler close to the shore out to sea. 

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