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Kauai is the perfect destination in Hawaii for families, couples, singles, those who want to relax, or those who are more adventurous -- the point being, there’s something for everyone. Traveling as a part of a couple who loves to see the highlights, but also wants to have plenty of time just for relaxing, we found that eight days on the island was the perfect amount to do it all, and do nothing.
We did two hikes, including the popular hike to Hanakapi'ai Falls, which was absolutely stunning. It should be noted that beyond the normal strenuous ascents, we found the trails to be very rocky and muddy, which translates to slippery. There were also multiple river crossings to make on the hike back to the waterfall. So for us, while it was worth the trek (and swimming under a waterfall is unforgettable), others who may not be as sure-footed or confident jumping from rock to rock over a river, may want to reconsider. Making it back to Haena Beach for a refreshing swim and some great snorkeling was a great way to end that day. The parking lot for the beach/hike trailhead fills up early, but there’s another parking lot just before this one that you can return to if you can’t find a spot. We found tasty fresh burritos at Red Hot Mama’s next to Wainiha General Store which is south of Haena Beach, north of Hanelei town. Look for the "Last Chance" surfboard.
We snorkeled several different days -- our other best snorkeling was at Poipu Beach Park where there were four huge sea turtles that you could see without even getting in the water. I also highly recommend taking a helicopter ride over the island, and you may want to do it near the start of your trip. You literally see it all -- Waimea Canyon, the Napali Coast, the Hanakapi’ai Falls on the North Shore and much more. It’s a great way to determine what you want to go see from a different perspective.
We decided we still wanted to drive to Waimea Canyon and we’re glad we did. Our photos from the helicopter didn’t turn out great, but we have some fantastic ones that we took when we drove out there. Definitely stop for what’s called "the best shaved ice on the island," at JoJo’s, on the road back from the canyon. They put vanilla ice cream on the bottom and then top it with shaved ice and the flavoring of your choice. So delicious!
My recommendation would be to split your time between the north and south shores at different hotels, or plan for some serious driving and combine activities over a couple of days. While the island isn’t very big, most of the roads are one-lane and there’s a lot of construction going on, so drive times are much longer than you’d expect. We did this, but I think because many of the activities (boats to the Napali Coast, helicopter rides, scuba diving) departed from the south (or at least there were a lot more options, and cheaper options as well), I think we’d spend three nights instead of two in the south so we’d have more time to spread out these activities and avoid the long drive from the North.
Also keep in mind that many beaches on the North Shore, they’re only swimmable during the summer months. When we visited at the end of September, the North Shore had its first big swell of the season and already there were a lot of red warning flags at the beaches. It’s best to head east or south September-May for calmer waters. The east gets very windy as well, so the south is generally known as being the safer bet weather-wise.
My pre-trip research paid off as we found a lot of great location hole-in-the-wall spots with tasty food. Kauai isn’t known for its food, and though there are some nicer dining establishments, you’re going to pay a lot more than your food at home, and it probably won’t come close to your experience at some of your favorite upscale restaurants in your city. That’s why we steered clear of these nicer dinners and instead ate at a lot of the local fish markets -- it seems that every town has one, and it’s where you’ll find locals lining up for a big plate of rice with pork, ahi poke, ahi wraps, fish tacos, etc. We ate at several of these places and the food was always great, and very affordable. There are also a lot of cheap eats near the Lihue airport, including Hamura's Saimin Stand which serves delicious noodle soups. There’s also a Walmart just a few minutes from the Lihue airport which makes a great first stop to stock up on sunscreen, bug spray, snacks and drinks before heading to the hotel. Both of our hotels had empty mini-fridges for you to store your own food and drinks, so even the basics like water, some juice for the morning and a six-pack of beer probably saved us $100 at the hotel.
Kauai is a great destination with so much to do if you want to, but also beautiful beaches and resorts to just relax at. This is such a great spot, and seems more authentic than Maui and Waikiki, that I’m sure we’ll visit many times in the future.