Verdant, yet bursting with shocks of red, pink, yellow, and blue flowers, Kauai represents all that mainlanders imagine when jetting to the Pacific. The fourth largest in the Hawaiian chain, Kauai might be 100 miles northwest of O’ahu, yet this tropical isle feels continents away from the hustle of Honolulu. Surrounded by turbulent reef breaks, one of the rainiest places on the planet, and with only five percent of the island accessible by car, nature has done its part to ensure Kauai’s isolation.
Home to Mount Wai’ale’ale, one of the wettest spots on Earth, this lush heart features waterfalls that vein in all directions, feeding rivers for the five percent of the island that is populated. Fringing the sea, Kauai’s coastal regions boast no building higher than a palm tree. Locals, wearing flip-flops and board shorts, talk story over kalua pig, leave work early to surf, and make it clear that every moment on this tropical isle is a makana, a gift.
These days intrepid travelers have found the charms of The Garden Isle. Surfers flock to the North Shore’s Hanalei Bay and Tunnels. Kayakers paddle along the Na Pali Coast in search of migrating humpback whales and spinner dolphins. Hikers brave the challenging Kalalau Trail, or the Christmas-colored Waimea Canyon. Avian fans wax poetic about rare birds unseen anywhere else on the planet along the trails of Koke’e. Families play in the clear waters of sun-soaked Poipu Beach and Lydgate Park. And when it rains, which it probably will, there’s no shortage of places to sip a cocktail and watch the rainbows when they inevitably appear.
Yet, at its core, Kauai is a small community. Those pesky chickens outnumber residents, most of whom reside in and around Kapa’a/Lihue area. These sister towns are home to government buildings, museums, and the island’s best hole in the wall eateries. The south shore’s central hub is the resort town of Poipu, favored by golf fans, sun-soakers, and multigenerational families. As you meander farther south, historic towns like Hanapepe and Waimea act as gateways to natural treasures like Waimea Canyon, Koke’e State Park and the stunning Polihale Beach.
To the north, the flora turns greener, the rain clouds hover and the thick tropical air hangs in the air. The famed North Shore houses hidden beaches, epic winter surf, snorkel spots, and funky communities like Kilauea and Hanalei. Most repeat visitors yearn to return to Hanalei for its DIY mentality, weekly slack-key guitar shows, farmers’ market, and sleepy beach-town vibe.
Regardless of where you spend your time, as one surfboard stuck up on the trees on the way to ‘Anini Beach reads, Slow Down. It pays in Kauai to take off your watch. Turn off your cell phone and just be OK with Hawaii Time. Things move slower here. Meals take time. Grocery store clerks want to talk story. People (except for some locals, but don’t take their lead) drive slower. There is nothing to hurry for
A classic week in Kauai without regrets … A first timer’s guide; gift yourself a week on the Garden Isle
Finding Kauai’s Best Beaches … Sun, surf and sand: tailor-made for your mood
Here’s what it’s like to travel on $150/day in Kauai … A budget traveler’s heavenly guide
Traveling with kids in Kauai is a breeze … The ABCs to keep tots and teens happy
Where to experience epic Kauai nature … From Instagram-worthy gardens to nature-filled eateries
Kaua’i pleases visitors year round. Even in the Northern Hemisphere’s winter, it’s still possible to surf without a wetsuit and enjoy alfresco dinners wearing sandals. In those warm summer months, beach days are plentiful, allowing the overabundance of families that populate the beaches ample sunny days. The shoulder seasons, as autumn and spring are called, prove the best time to travel to Kaua’i. Temperatures are pleasant, the crowds have dispersed, and prices are low. Unfortunately for families, there’s no way of avoiding the astronomical rise in prices during the December holidays and summer months.
It’s wise to give yourself enough time to fully experience both the sunny south shore and the more tropical north shore. This is especially true since traffic now plagues the island. Driving the 70 mile stretch between the north and south shores can take up to two hours. Give yourself at least a week (though more is advised) to experience the best of Kaua’i, splitting your trip between the north and south shores. That way when rain hinders beach and hiking days, you can appreciate the deluge that makes Kaua’i so lush, and save a beach visit for tomorrow. If you only have a few days, try to center yourself in Kapa’a, the central hub of the island, so you can more easily travel the distances between the north and south shore sites.
Summer and winters lure the masses to Kaua’i, driving up prices. In fact during the December holidays, expect to pay three times the typical rates of hotels and condos. Low season is generally considered spring and fall, though February can often offer significantly lower hotel occupancy rates.
A popular phrase on Kaua’i is you can’t get the rainbows without the rain. While sounding like an optimistic tourist slogan, finding joy in Kaua’i’s storied downpours can make your experience on the island more pleasurable. That being said, the sun is not a foreign object, especially on the south shore, which offers plenty of fab beach days.
Though rain occurs throughout the calendar, storms pass more frequently from August-December, occasionally bringing heavy winds and flooding. The North Shore and inland parts of the island see the most amount of rain. While the south and west shores might have you wishing for a downpour, especially in the height of summer. Most days, the average weather reaches in the 80s during the day and the low 70s at night.
The inland Mount Wai‘ale‘ale is one of the wettest places on earth, receiving an average of 450 inches of rain a year. Considering Seattle gets an annual 36 inches of rain, you can imagine the effect of all that water—waterfalls and swamps. Occasionally all that rain will find its way down to the coast and cause flooding like it did in 2006, when it rained for 40 days straight, causing a dam to break and a number of deaths.
Over a month of rain might seem like nothing compared to a hurricane. And Kaua’i has had its share. In the recent past, the island was slammed by two major ones: Hurricane ‘Iwa on Thanksgiving in 1982 and Hurricane ‘Iniki on September 11, 1992. With 80 mph winds, Hurricane ‘Iwa plummeted the island, causing one death and over $200 million in damages. But little did the island folks know, almost exactly 10 years later, they would be pounded by one of the fiercest storms in history. The 175 mph winds caused eight deaths and almost $2 billion in damages. Though it hit hardest in Poipu, no part of the island was spared. A third of the houses on the island were destroyed, major hotels are still yet to be rebuilt, cars were buried, boats turned upside down.
Two other noteworthy natural phenomenon that help shape the island into what it is today are earthquakes and tsunamis. Though they are not to be taken lightly, the chances of one happening while you are visiting are slim. Kaua’i has not been affected by a major tsunami since the 1950s, when a wave generated by an earthquake in the Alaska Aleutian Islands wiped out a few north shore communities. As for earthquakes, there have been no major ones on Kaua’i in recorded history.
National Holidays include:
January (1st): New Year’s Day
January (third Monday): Martin Luther King Day
February (third Monday): Washington’s Birthday
May (last Monday): Memorial Day
July (4th): Independence Day
September (first Monday): Labor Day
October (second Monday): Columbus Day (aka Native American Day)
November (11th): Veteran’s Day
November (fourth Thursday): Thanksgiving Day
December (25th): Christmas
Local Celebrations Include:
As with most tight knit communities, Kaua’i’s seasonal events celebrate local heritage, with an emphasis on Hawaiian arts, crafts, and history. Families use these events as excuses to get together and talk story, and of course, eat a ton. These events are pretty low key.
This weeklong festival honoring the diversity of Kaua’i. Packed with plenty of entertainment, Hawaiian games for children, sporting events, workshops, dinners, and cultural festivities, you’ll witness Kaua’i pride at its finest.
Waimea Town Celebration
This two-day celebration of Waimea’s rich history is held on the Friday and Saturday following the President’s Day weekend. Kaua’i’s oldest festival presents live music, ukulele and ice cream eating contests, tons of food and drink, an outrigger canoe race, a “Fun Run”, softball tournaments, and cowboy events.
Prince Kuhio Celebration of the Arts
Keikis get the day off of school to celebrate the birthday and birthplace of the first Hawaiian state representative. The ceremony at Prince Kuhio Park is full of flowers and song. And afterwards organizers re-create an ancient Hawaiian village. All week leading up to the event, a variety of concerts and art exhibits are held. During this time, beaches tend to get crowded with locals barbecuing.
Lei Day Celebration
May Day is Lei Day at the Kaua’i Museum. Sample local food, marvel at the vibrant colors and tropical fragrances of the leis on display, and purchase handmade crafts.
Kaua’i Polynesian Festival
Memorial Day weekend the island hosts this Polynesian dance competition, cultural workshops, plus arts and crafts. Expect a giant luau, Samoan Fire knife dancers, Poi Ball, and Hawaiian hula workshops.
Kamehameha Day Parade and Ho‘olaule‘a
The grandiose floral parade features entertainment, arts and crafts, and island-style food favorites to celebrate the birthday of King Kamehameha.
Concert in the Sky
Every Fourth of July, residents and visitors gather at Vidinha Stadium from 3pm to 9:30pm. Sample local food from Kaua’i’s top restaurants and hotels, live entertainment, and an aerial fireworks show set to music.
Koloa Plantation Days
This nine-day festival on Kaua’i’s south shore celebrates the sugar-industry’s history in Koloa. Free family-oriented sports events such as tennis, softball, rodeo, and sailing canoe races, plus historic walks, block parties, a craft fair, Polynesian dancing, watercolor workshops, entertainment and a slew of food.
Kaua’i County Farm Bureau Fair
A four-day family event held at Vidinha Stadium in Lihue each year. This celebration of agriculture is packed with floral and cooking demonstrations, hula exhibitions, a petting zoo, and tons of plate lunch fixings.
If you are planning to be on the island in late August through mid-September, consider ordering your Aloha Festival Ribbon. With the ribbon not only do you help fund the statewide music, dance, and culture festival, but you also have free access to all events. The festival organizes luaus, storytelling events, and art exhibits island-wide.
Annual Kaua’i Mokihana Festival
This popular weeklong event features a variety of local and ethnic demonstrations, concerts, and competitions. Honoring the seed of Kaua’i’s island lei, you’ll get to experience the Kaua’i Composers Contest, a hula competition for men and women, beauty contests, lectures and workshops on Kaua’i heritage, and excellent handmade arts and crafts.
Hawaiian Slack-Key Guitar Festival
The best slack-key guitar musicians in the state perform in this five-hour event.
PGA Grand Slam of Golf, Poipu, Kaua’i
For the last two decades, the Poipu Bay Golf Course hosts the PGA Grand Slam of Golf. All eyes are on Kaua’i as the winners of the major championships (the Masters, the US Open, the British Open, and the PGA Championship) compete for the million-dollar prize.
Lights on Rice Parade
On the first day of December the holidays arrive on Kaua’i. Even though there is no snow and you have spent the day on the beach, at night one of the most festive occasions takes place: a parade of lights down the center of Rice Street in Lihue. The opening ceremony brings thousands of people downtown, so make sure you get there early enough for good seating.
New Years Eve Celebration
Fireworks on New Years Eve are a Hawaii tradition. You hear and see fireworks exploding from every beach (and neighborhood) around. But even better, the Poipu Beach Park presents a large-scale firework show at midnight.
Kauai is located in the Hawaii Aleutian time zone.
To check the local time in Kauai, click here.
Hawaii does not observe Daylight Savings Time.
Aloha shirts and flip flops are de rigueur, even in most of the island’s nicest restaurants. During the day, most folks don board shorts, bikinis and sun dresses. In the evenings, most will be comfortable in light pants or shorts with a short sleeve shirt, or a dress. A light sweater or rain jacket might also be useful. Hikers will want sturdy hiking boots that you’re ok with getting muddy.
Whether you are aiming for a luxury vacation, or trying to spend time in the islands on the cheap, Kaua’i caters to all budgets. Deal hunters should know that hotels and resorts jack up prices two-three times in summer and during holidays, so if you can travel during the spring and autumn, you will get more for your buck.
Know in advance that food is astronomically expensive on Kaua’i. And if you are thinking of heading to the store to stock up on groceries, know that many items (milk, peanut butter, butter) will cost more than grabbing a plate lunch at a hole-in-the-wall joint. That being said, you can save on food expenses by picking up groceries for breakfast and lunch, leaving your daily budget free for a seafood dinner.
Unless you are camping, budget travelers should expect to spend about $150 a day. In general inexpensive hotels and hostels fall just under the $100 a night mark. Moderate accommodations, including condos and vacation rentals, generally cost about $250, some of which include hefty cleaning fees as well. If luxe travel is your game, there is no shortage of posh resorts or decadent villas (many topping the $600 a night mark) begging for your cash.
Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We donât want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.
Price ranges are quoted in US dollars ($).
See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $10 to $25 per person
$$$ => Tickets over $25 per person
$ => Rooms less than $150 for a double room
$$ => Rooms $150 to $300 for a double room
$$$ => Rooms over $300 for a double room
$ => Up to $15 for average main at dinner (or lunch/breakfast if no dinner is served)
$$ => $15 to $30 for average main at dinner (or lunch/breakfast if no dinner is served)
$$$ => Over $30 for average main at dinner (or lunch/breakfast if no dinner is served)
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $10 to $50 per person
$$$ => Tickets over $50 per person
Fly the Friendly Skies
Airfares are a fickle thing. When you need it to be low, itâs high. And when prices dip, what happens? You canât get off work to travel. Sigh.
But you can get notifications from companies like Kayak, which will email you when airfares drop. Type your destination and the dates you are watching and boom, when thereâs a deal, youâll hear about it immediately via your inbox.
Sites like Momondo also display prices for multiple airlines, so you can compare rates without visiting individual airline sites.
That said, there is an advantage to visiting an individual airlineâs site. Why? Because some of their really great deals donât show up on the aggregator airfare sites. Most airlines share limited-time, super-specials via their Facebook pages or email blasts. So it pays to be their âfriendâ or subscribe to their e-mailings.
Have Car, Will Travel
Like airlines, car rental rates are all over the map. Companies like Expedia and Hotwire offer comparison price shopping.
There are also name-your-own-price sites, like Priceline, where you tell âem what you want to pay and they hook you up with a car rental company who can fit the bill. There are some great deals here, if you are not too picky about the make and model of your rental.
Zipcar is another choice for rentals. Available in many major cities and college towns in the U.S., Zipcar is a great alternative for super-short term rentals. Picture this scenario: you are in a big city with terrific public transportation, so you donât need a car. But then you hear about an amazing restaurant 20 miles away in the suburbs. You canât go home without trying it. A taxi would cost a fortune. Youâd have to wait a long time to get a return taxi. Download the Zipcar app; search for a nearby Zipcar locale. Memberships cost about $7 a month; rentals are about $8-10 per hour; gas and insurance are included.
Ride-sharing companies, Uber and Lyft, are also ubiquitous in major cities. Through a smart phone app, you can line up rides all over town. Itâs convenient because no money changes hands (payment is made through the app) and itâs usually cheaper than a taxi. Another bonus? After requesting a ride, you can see where the driver is on a map, so you know that they are on their way and how long it will be. Try that with a cab.
Money Saving Tip: Costco, because of its behemoth size and price negotiating power, offers great low prices for most major car rental companies. Yes, you need to purchase an annual Costco membership first, but it more than pays for itself with what you’ll save with a typical week’s car rental (i.e. searches turn up a mid-size car through Costco for $225 and a comparable car through another aggregator for $325.)
Did You Know: Budget Car Rental offers drivers residing at the same address (i.e. unmarried partners or BFFs) complimentary extra driver coverage. Other car rental companies charge upwards of $10/day. By the way, when renting in California, there are no additional driver fees by law.
A word to the Wise: Car rental rates on Kauai start around $25 a day (though expect rates double or triple in high season), not including insurance. During high season, it is highly recommended to reserve your car in advance. Shop around online and when you see a good deal, grab it. Especially since gas prices are consistently higher than on the mainland.Most major rental car agencies have offices at Lihue Airport.
Hopefully, your trip to (or within) the U.S. goes without a glitch. But what if an unexpected situation arises? Will you lose the money you invested in the trip? Will you need quick cash to cover sudden costs?
Travel insurance policies are meant to cover these unexpected costs and assist you when problems arise. The fee is typically based on the cost of the trip and the age of the traveler.
Most travel insurance providers offer comprehensive coverage that usually includes protection for the following common events:
Trip Cancellation â About 40 percent of all claims fall in this category.
Medical â Health services in the U.S. are expensive for the uninsured. This is a major reason to consider purchasing insurance. Whether you break a leg or need a blood transfusion, you will likely incur costs far higher than you might pay in other nations. And what if you have an accident that requires transport to a major medical center? Air ambulances alone could set you back $15,000 to $30,000.
Trip Interruption â For example, if you become ill during your trip or if someone at home gets sick, and you have to get off the cruise ship or abandon a tour. The insurer will often pay up to 150% of the cost of your trip to get you home.
Travel Delay â Insurance usually covers incidentals like meals and overnight lodging while you wait to travel home.
Baggage â Insurance will typically cover lost and mishandled baggage.
Some insurance companies allow you to purchase a policy that allows you to cancel for any reason. This may cost more (often 10% or more), but it is worthwhile for certain travelers.
Do I need travel insurance?
If your trip costs $4,000 to $6,000 (or more), itâs probably a good idea. Your age and health are important factors. So is your destination. If youâre traveling to a hurricane-prone area during hurricane season, for example, youâll probably want some coverage âjust in caseâ â¦ no matter what.
Your English language skills are also an important factor. Insurance policies often include concierge services with 24-hour hotlines that can connect you quickly with someone who speaks your language.
How do I choose an insurance provider?
Do your homework â check around.
The largest insurers in the U.S. include Travel Guard, Allianz and CSA Travel Protection. Smaller reputable companies include Berkley, Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, Travel Insured International and Travelex. You may also find deals through aggregates like Squaremouth and InsureMyTrip.
Many airlines and travel companies also offer travel insurance when you book your flight (often contracted with the above major players).
If you have pre-existing health conditions â Many policies have exclusion policies if you have a pre-existing medical condition. But companies also offer waivers that overwrite the exclusion if you purchase the policy within a certain time frame of paying for your trip (e.g., within 24 hours of buying your cruise package). Again, itâs best to check the fine print.
Credit card insurance â If you buy your airfare or trip with a credit card, you may be partially covered by the credit cardâs issuing bank. Check directly with the company to find out exactly whatâs covered, as many have âstripped downâ coverage and restrictions.
The travel insurance business is expanding and evolving rapidly. As âshared spaceâ lodging options like VRBO, Airbnb and Homeaway become more popular in the travel and leisure market, so does the need for insurance for both property owners and travelers.
For more information, visit the US Travel Insurance Association.
U.S. dollars come in $1, $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 bills. They are all the same size and color, so non-Americans have an understandably tricky time telling them apart. The $2 bill is in circulation but rarely seen.
Coins in wide circulation include pennies (1 cent), nickels (5 cents), dimes (10 cents), quarters (25 cents). The 50 cent and dollar coins are seen occasionally.
Smaller businesses may not accept $50 or $100 bills, so plan to have $20s or smaller bills in hand
If you get money from an ATM machine, you may incur charges (often $2 or $3 per transaction). Check with your bank before you leave home to find out which, if any, U.S. banks will allow you to get cash without an extra charge. Many grocery stores, gas stations and major retail outlets let you get a limited amount of âcash backâ when paying for your goods â this is an easy way to get cash while on the go.
Credit and debit cards are accepted widely throughout the U.S.
Donât forget to call your debit and/or credit card company before you travel to inform them of your planned itinerary. This goes for U.S. residents traveling out of state. If you donât do this in advance, you risk having your card denied/declined when you try to use it in a destination far from home. You should also call your company immediately to report loss or theft. The numbers to call are usually on the back of the card â which doesnât make sense if they are lost or stolen. So make a note of them and store them where youâll have easy access.
Recently, companies have been issuing cards with embedded chips that prevent counterfeit fraud. Banks and merchants that donât offer the chip-and-PIN technology are beginning to be held liable for fraud. Check with your bank and credit card company for details on your specific cards.
Tipping is a cost you must build into the budget for any U.S. travel experience, whether urban or rural. Tipping is most relevant to dining out and hotel stays, but other costs should also be taken in to consideration. General guidelines include:
For excellent service, plan to tip 20% on the total bill, before taxes. For less-than-stellar service, 10-15% is customary, as an imperfect experience is often not solely the responsibility of the server. In many states, servers work for below minimum wage and live mostly on tips, so consider the ramifications of your tipping decisions.
To complicate matters, many restaurants in the major metropolitan areas â New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco â are moving to a no-tipping model in which service is included. The verdict isn’t yet in on whether this new model will stick, so be sure you understand the tipping policy at each restaurant you visit.
Oh, and one more complication: Sometimes a tip is automatically included. But at least it will be itemized in plain sight on the bill.
Most bell staff receive $1-$2 per bag they assist with; if someone carts all of your bags up to your room, expect to tip $5-$10.
Tips for housekeeping are also good form. The rule of thumb is $2-$3 per day and about $5 per day in higher end properties.
At properties with concierge services, consider tipping concierge staff who assist you in planning activities, making reservations or acquiring tickets, or simply orienting you with driving directions or public transportation info. Current etiquette calls for $10-$20 per person, per day for concierge help. Car valet staff expect $1-$2 for delivering you your car. Spa employees (massage therapists, aestheticians, etc.) usually see 20% tips on their services, whether performed at the spa or in your room.
Invariably, there are incidental costs associated with being on the road. Make sure to budget between $10 and $40 per day for batteries, lost phone chargers, bug repellent, headache medicine, sunburn relief and other personal items you might have forgotten. If you’re traveling with kids, consider the snack budget. Local grocery and drug stores will be cheaper than tourist shops for all of the above
Surrounded by Hawai’i’s largest coral reef, guarded by some of the most powerful waves in the Pacific, and being located on the northern-most tip of the Hawaiian archipelago has not stopped visitors from getting to Kaua’i. Since the time of ancient Polynesians, then Captain Cook, and now with over a million tourists arriving each year, people have found ways to get here and travel around the island. Once you are on the island, the best way to get around is by renting a car. If that is out of your budget, the Kaua’i Bus has mediocre island service. Though hitchhiking is quite common, we would not recommend it—as we all know it can be quite dangerous.
Upon arrival, traditional musicians serenade guests in the open-air lobbies, pictures of hula dancers line the walls, and the sweet sticky smell of humidity fills the air. Lihue Airport (LIH) is far from a bustling metropolis and it is easy to negotiate—especially because there are only a handful of airlines serving Kaua’i. United, American, Delta and Alaska offer nonstop flights from the west coast. Hawaiian Airlines flies to Kaua’i with connections in Honolulu or Maui.
Another way to experience Kaua’i is by cruise ship. Almost all Hawaii vessels include stops to Kaua’i. Ships dock in Nawiliwili Harbor and usually allow guests a full day to explore each island.
Larger cruise ships that currently serve the island include Holland America Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, and Princess Cruises. Many travel companies offer small vessel cruises through the islands. Adventure Smith, Un-Cruise Adventures, and Sunstone Tours are a few popular choices.
Though most people who come to Kauai rent a car, there are alternate ways of exploring the island. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to get around without a car. If you choose not to rent a vehicle, stay in Kapa’a or Hanalei (where you have everything you need within walking distance), or be prepared to spend a lot of time at your resort.
Though there are no official bike lanes, exploring the island on a bicycle is a treat. With 90 miles of coastline and a mountainous interior to explore, this island is made for cyclists. Just make sure to wear reflective clothing as at night most roads are not lit up and people drive too fast.
The Kaua’i Bus offers extensive island-wide service, Monday-Saturday. Small buses with handicapped access run from approximately 6:30am-7pm. Fares cost $2 per trip and you need exact change. There are no transfers. Bikes and small baggage are permitted, but not surfboards or oversized bags. You can get an up-to-date schedule online.
The most popular and easiest way to see the island is by car. There is essentially one highway that circles the 70 miles of drivable land; however, it has numerous names and can get confusing. In Lihue, heading west, it is called H50 (or Kaumuali’i Highway). This road goes past the Poipu/Koloa turnoff, all the way through Kekaha to the Polihale turnoff. From Lihue, heading north, the highway is called H56 (or Kuhio Highway). It takes you through Wailua/Kapa’a, Kilauea, Princeville, Hanalei, and ends at Ke’e Beach.
In general, even though distances between towns might not be that far, you can bet that it will take you longer than expected to get from place to place. Getting from one end of the island to the other takes about an hour and a half. There are no freeways and the average speed between towns is around 30mph. In town, you can pretty much guarantee on traffic—the biggest local complaint. In Kapa’a, Wailua, and Lihue, you will see stretches of cars creeping along H56 all day long. It is best to stay off the roads in this area between 7am-8am and 3pm-5pm on weekdays.
Mileage Information and Driving Times
From Lihue to:
Poipu 14 miles 30 minutes
Waimea Canyon 36 miles 1.5 hours
Wailua 7 miles 15 minutes
Princeville 30 miles 1 hour
Haena 40 miles 1.25 hours
ROAD RULES AND HAZARDS
Driving in Kaua’i, though it might appear easy, can be quite hazardous. There are numerous deadly crashes each year (especially along H 56 at night) and speeding is the main cause of this. Police officers are out in full force to catch speeders, people who aren’t wearing their seatbelts, or drunk drivers. Pay close attention to posted speed limit signs and no matter how much you like those free luau mai tais, make sure you always have a designated driver.
Here are some basic local driving customs to know.
Don’t honk your horn. In Kaua’i, this is considered rude.
Let faster drivers pass, when safe to do so.
On one-lane bridges (mostly in the north shore) make sure to stop at the white line to check if there is oncoming traffic. If no one is waiting at the line on the other side, you are free to drive. If the car in front of you is crossing (and no one is waiting), follow. However, if cars are waiting on the other side, yield to them. The general rule is if you are the fifth-seventh car, stop and let the people waiting on the other side go.
Most people arrive to Kaua’i with images of exquisite Polynesian women placing leis around their necks while muscled men wearing grass wraps serenade them with ukuleles. Though this still happens at luaus and resorts, this is not modern Kaua’i.
For people deeply engrossed with their natural beauty, it can often be difficult to find the actual culture of the isle. This is not the place for happening nightlife or huge music festivals. Most traditional architecture has disappeared, and now Kaua’i is home to mini-malls and big box stores. Locals dress similar to people in southern California or Florida and drive in the same cars, listening to similar music. However when you look close enough, you find a unique potpourri culture unlike anywhere else in the world where aloha is a way of life, not just a word.
It is believed among ancients that when Pele, the goddess of fire, gets angry, she spews lava, creating new land. So when, approximately six million years ago, a volcano deep in the Pacific erupted and created Kaua’i, the eldest of the Hawaiian chain, Pele must have had something serious to moan about. Scientists believe that the island was created by one volcano, with layers of lava packing together on the ocean floor to create this body of land. This might explain the essentially circular shape of Kaua‘i and the deep valleys that stretch down from the central mountains of Mount Kawaikini (5243 ft) and Mount Waialeale (5148 ft).
Fast forward into the more recent past—say a few thousand years ago—when because of the isolated nature of the islands (did you know the Hawaiian archipelago is the most remote chain in the world?), this once barren isle acquired only two animal inhabitants—the monk seal and bats—and a handful of plants brought by wind, water, and wings. Strangely these aren’t the typical plants you would associate with Hawai’i. Instead these roughly 400 native species offered only a few seeds, berries, and nuts, and rarely flowered. These durable plants evolved into over the 6000 endemic species you’ll see now—90% of them to be found nowhere else on the planet! To this day, most of the species growing on Kaua’i are like its people—tough against the elements, yet gentle, without much means of protecting themselves from predators.
And so when the Polynesians arrived somewhere between 500-800 AD, Kaua’i’s peaceful environment was rocked. Sailing across the ocean for thousands of miles meant that these explorers had to bring some food. Packed in double-hulled canoes were breadfruit (to make surfboards, sandpaper, and instruments), coconut, bananas, taro, ti, sweet potatoes, sugarcane, plus chickens, pigs, and rats. These plants and animals thrived on Kaua’i and quickly became synonymous with the environment.
These new Hawaiians lived in isolation for 500 years. Worshipping nature, the people set up sustainable communities called ahupua‘a to ensure survival. Land was sliced into triangles, extending from the top of a mountain down to the ocean. Centered on a water source—a waterfall that turned into a stream and drained into the ocean—the people could sustain a healthy population. By irrigating the plants with water that drained back into the main water source, the people could feed, clothe, and shelter themselves from their slice of land. Plus these bright folks ensured that they would never run out of water.
When they weren’t farming, the Kaua’i people also became adept hula dancers, starting the biggest hula school in all of Hawai’i. Though this type of hula is not what you see at a local luau. Only men danced. And the hula was accompanied by a sacred chant, instead of singing or instruments.
On January 19, 1778, Captain James Cook and his crew docked in the waters off Waimea Town. Believing he was the god Lono returning on a floating island, the Hawaiians canoed out to the ships with an abundance of fresh food (and an array of excitable women) to offer the explorers. This proved a fateful turning point in Hawaiian history. Not only did Cook and his crew trade iron, weaponry and nails for sweet potatoes and fish, but they also left a scar on the pure Hawaiian population: a nasty bout of syphilis.
Besides a legacy of venereal disease, Cook and his crew left a taste for violence, with weapons to boot, in the Hawaiians. From 1786-1795 war and chaos ravaged the islands. Mostly this was because of a young warrior, King Kamehameha who ruled the Windward Islands and desired the Leeward Islands of Kauai and Ni‘ihau for his empire. Prophets and high priests warned him to be content with what he already had, but the greed got the best of him and he set out to conquer the leeward duo.
Suddenly everyone wanted a piece of Kaua’i. Russians, Americans, Chinese started arriving in droves and so by 1819, the combination of missionaries sailing in and the death of Kamehameha led to a new era. Suddenly, the kapu system went kaput, chiefs lost power, and local people turned to religion and their bosses at new sugar companies in Koloa to guide them. By the mid-1800s, Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, Filipino, German, and Gilbert Islander workers heard about the new mills, and doubled the population on the isle.
Though the plantation owners essentially acted as the leaders of the small societies, Hawaii was still a monarchy—albeit a dying one. In 1887, Queen Lili‘uokalani (the last monarch of the islands), believing that the United States had too much control over the islands, created a constitutional monarchy. Unfortunately for her, a coup inspired by US planters, overtook the Queen. U.S. soldiers then arrived for “peacekeeping” measures, and made Sanford Dole the provisional president of the Hawaiian Republic.
The provisional government set up voting rights, but only for people who had a certain amount of income and property value. Most commoners still wanted Hawaii to stay a monarchy. But they were not permitted to vote. So the islanders had to abide by U.S. laws, whether they liked it or not. One wealthy native, Prince Kuhio, the Koloa-born great grandson of Kaumuali‘i, tried to restore the monarchy, but was imprisoned (later he was elected to Congress and his birthday is still celebrated today). Other than that little wave, it was smooth sailing in 1898, when President McKinley was able to secure the annexation of Hawaii for the United States.
Strangely, it was the Pearl Harbor attack that led Hawaiians into a movement to become more than a territory. They had suddenly become American, wanting the voting power and rights that came with being a state. Thus a movement was born, one that would take 18 years to accomplish: statehood. The common people, the elites, and the American-Japanese studying on the GI bill all agreed, voting by an overwhelming majority to become a state. On August 21, 1959, President Eisenhower granted the small but desired chain of islands entrance into the club, as the 50th state.
While ancient Kaua’i was a rich society–amass with mythical (and entertaining) legends, innovative agricultural and sewage technology, and organized (though quite barbaric) leadership–modern Hawai’i finds identity in its potpourri of culture.
The Polynesian islanders believed that the land was rich with gods and goddess, and created sacred spaces to honor them. Forests, rocks, trees, waterfalls, caves, and the sea were manifestations of these gods. The ancients built temples to worship them and you’ll find evidence embedded within the landscape throughout the island. Today, there are a variety of sacred spaces you can visit in Kaua’i, namely the heiau and natural wonders. All carry religious and spiritual power for the Kaua’i people and should be treated with the greatest respect.
The majority of the heiau sites on Kaua’i are found along the Wailuanuiaho‘ano, the great Wailua River basin, in the ancient kingdom, Puna. Religious, social, and political events took place in the stretch between Wailua Bay and Mt. Wai‘ale‘ale, with mountains and waterfalls hugging the kingdom to the north and south. Along this stretch are seven heiaus that were reserved exclusively for the use of ali‘i and high priests. Most of these are visible from the roadside (or a short walk) off H 580. Other collections of sacred sites can be found strewn along the north and south shores.
If you’re interested in the architecture of the island, know that you’ll not find palm-thatched huts with lava rock walls anymore unless you go to the Kamokila Hawaiian Village. Now when people discuss historic buildings, they mean from the plantation era. Most of the buildings from this era are located in the town of Waimea, where the first settlers were known to have lived, the earliest of which dates back to 1829.
There are plenty of luaus created to connect you with “Hawaiian culture” and while these feasts might introduce you to Hawaiian food, music and dance, they are not true representations of current culture.
The best place to learn about Kaua’i ancient and modern culture is at the Kaua’i Museum in Lihue.
Though most visitors to Kaua’i become enamored with the isle as well, lately locals have grown frustrated with tourism. They claim that visitors are disrespectful to the land, their privacy, and frankly, their intelligence. Since I am sure that you want to be a gracious guest in Kaua’i, here are some ways you can assure to do your part to understand the impact, both positive and negative of your footprint on the fragile and most beautiful environment in the United States.
Hemo da slippahs. Whenever you are invited into a home (or enter your lodging), take off your shoes. The red dirt on Kaua’i stains and is a pain to clean.
Even though it feels like you have exited the United States, be aware that Kaua’i is a valuable part of the country. So when talking about home, try not to say, “In America…” Instead try, “On the Mainland…”
I have to take a moment to encourage you to be green. Kaua’i’s landfills are filling quickly. Though it might be a small annoyance to drive your paper, bottles and cans to one of the recycling centers, it is a great gift you can offer the people of Kaua’i. Try bringing your own reusable water bottle, buying in bulk, unwrapping your toiletries at home, etc.
Respect nature. Pay attention to the weather report. If it says rain, you probably shouldn’t go on the Kalalau Trail. If the waves or currents are too strong, even if you are an experienced swimmer, don’t swim. There is a catch phrase in Hawai’i: When it doubt, don’t go out. Follow this phrase like your life depends on it. Locals do.
Wear sunscreen and mosquito repellent. We can always spot the tourists. Aside from being armed with a map and a camera, they always have this lobster hue to their shoulders. The Kaua’i sun is dangerous, even when it is cloudy. Always wear sunscreen of more than SPF15. And as you might guess, with rain comes mosquitoes, a lot of the nasty buggers. Wear repellent, especially in gardens and around Koke’e.
Leave the pidgin dialect to the locals. It is ok to practice pronouncing Hawaiian words (and even appreciated) but when haoles start chatting away in pidgin, it is like traveling to Britain and taking on a cockney accent.
When the Polynesians arrived on ships, carting taro, coconut, breadfruit, sweet potato, banana, sugarcane, chickens, pigs, and dogs, the Hawaiian dining options took a considerable turn for the better. Prior to their arrival, the only edible objects were fish and berries.
Today, these Polynesian goods are the main staples of the Hawaiian diet. Of course you can find all types of food on the island, but there are some local specialties you might want to taste. If you go to a luau, generally you can assume you will eat kalua pig, the most traditional Hawaiian food. To make this dish correctly, you need time and an imu pit. In the pit, ti and banana leaves are placed over hot stones, and then the pig (stuffed with more of these hot stones) is placed on top of the leaves. Often other food like seafood, haupia, or vegetables are wrapped in ti leaves and placed near the pig. Everything is then covered with more leaves, some mats and dirt, then the whole sha-bang is left to bake for up to eight hours. What you get is a smoky, tender meat, unlike anything you’ve ever experienced.
In addition to kalua pig, other Hawaiian staples to try include poi (a pounded paste of cooked taro and water), loco moco (a beef patty covered in a fried egg, over two scoops of rice and then smothered in gravy), laulau (seafood, pork, or chicken wrapped in a ti leaf), lomilomi salmon (salted salmon with onions and tomatoes), saimin (a Hawaiian-style noodle soup), and haupia (a very sweet coconut pudding).
With the rise of tourism, plus an influx of hippies migrating to Kaua’i during the sixties and seventies to live off the grid, foodies, vegetarians, and organic food lovers will not be wanting. There is an abundance of Pacific Rim fusion and high-end restaurants, and organic takeout joints. The trick is to find eating establishments that are actually good enough to warrant the cost of the food. Yes, the talk is true: food on Kaua’i is expensive. Sometimes it is worth it; other times it’s not. Remember that most of the food on the island is imported (which often makes for bland tasting vegetables).
Here is a list of books related to Kauai and the Hawaiian Islands.
Backroads and Byways of Hawaii (Countryman Press)
An Explorer’s Guide Kauai: A Great Destination (Countryman Press)
Voices of Wisdom: Hawaiian Elders Speak, M. J. Harden (Aka Press, 1999).
Mark Twain in Hawaii , Mark Twain (Mutual Publishing)
Stories of Hawaii, Jack London (Mutual Publishing)
Captive Paradise, James Haley (St Martins Press)
Hawaiian Mythology, Martha Beckwith (University of Hawaii Press)
Kauai Stories, Pamela Varma Brown
Though Kaua’i is not known for its world-class art exhibits, there is plenty of creativity flourishing on the Garden Isle.
Hanapepe Art Night is the most happening weekly art event. Each Friday from 6-9pm, galleries stay open late, and food trucks descend on the small community of Hanapepe. People from all over the island come out to sell their crafts on the sidewalk, drink coffee (or beer and wine), and hear live musical performances. Often the little street becomes a block party, though I have been here a couple times when hardly anyone showed up. Be sure to check out Amy Lauren’s gallery for one-of-a-kind oil paintings and Joanna Carolan’s Banana Patch Studio in the restored Chang Building (1926).
The Kaua’i Museum showcases ancient art from Kauai, as well as Hawaiian quilts, a popular 19th century craft still popular with locals.
Driving around Kaua’i, you might have a sense of déjà vu. That mountain might seem familiar, or that beach, seascape, or rope swing gives you that nagging feeling like you’ve seen it before. Well, that is probably because you have seen it in a movie. Kaua’i has been (and still is) the set for the many films. Often acting as South America, Vietnam, and in some cases even fictional lands. More recent films shot here include The Descendants and Pirates of the Caribbean. If you are interested in a comprehensive history of films on Kaua’i, pick up Chris Cook’s Kauai Movie Book. Here are some films and their set locations that are easy to recognize or visit.
Raiders of the Lost Ark—Kong Mountain and the Wailua River act as South America.
Honeymoon in Vegas—Lihue Airport and ‘Anini Beach
Fantasy Island—You’ll recognize Wailua Falls as the opening credits.
Hook—Kaua’i plays the fictional Never Land.
South Pacific—Lumahai Beach is where Mitzi Gaynor washed that man out of her hair; and Hanalei Bay was the backdrop of the fictional Bali Hai—you might recognize Makana Mountain.
Blue Hawaii—Coco Palms.
Jurassic Park—Manawaiopuna Falls was the entrance to the park.
Outbreak—Kamokila Hawaiian Village plays Africa.
Gilligan’s Island—Moloa‘a Bay is where the pilot was filmed.
King Kong—He lived on the Na Pali Coast.
Flight of the Intruder—Kaua’i played Vietnam.
Lilo and Stitch—Ok, I know it is a cartoon, but Hanapepe plays a large role in the film.
Roberts Hawaii offers a fun tour of the film locations throughout the island.
Hawaiian music generally has served as a means to both talk story and mimic the relaxing sounds of island living. Expect slow melodies, mixed with ukulele and a pleasant singer’s voice, best paired with an alfresco dinner.
The newer generation of Hawaiian music blends reggae with island sounds, giving the style the fun name of Jawaiian music, which you can find at many hotel bars and restaurants.
Check out this Hawaiian road trip playlist on Spotify.
Here are some helpful website links:
What’s a visit to Hawai’i without a luau? Once a spiritual event, surrounding the sacrifice of a pig, cooked in an imu pit overnight while tribe members chanted and danced hula to communicate with the gods.
Now luaus are a tourist affair. But a fun experience, nonetheless.
The Kaua’i-style luau has turned into a big business (with quite the hefty price tag). You can generally expect an all-you-can drink beer, wine, mai tai, and Blue Hawaiian bar, a hula lesson for the keikis, a trio of musicians singing Don Ho’s and Elvis’ “Hawaiian” songs, an all-you-can eat buffet including kalua pig, teriyaki chicken or beef, fish, taro, rice, macaroni salad, lomi lomi salad, poi, fresh fruit, haupia, and a variety of cakes.
Each luau offers a version of the same show, which takes guests on a musical journey through the history of hula and the colonization of Kaua’i. The main draw when selecting your luau is, first and foremost, if you plan to drink, how close the event is to your hotel. Favorites on Kaua’i include Smith’s Garden Luau, Grand Hyatt Kauai’s Luau, and the Sheraton’s beachfront Auli’i Luau.