The Right Way to Visit Kauai (When the Time is Right)
With all due respect to aloha—that time-honored verbal stand-in for the Hawaiian spirit—there’s a lesser known Hawaiian term you’ll gain an even deeper appreciation for on your next visit: mālama. One of those nuanced local words that doesn’t translate so neatly, it conveys a combination of protecting, preserving and honoring the world around us. And when that world happens to be Kaua'i—Hawaii’s primordially gorgeous Garden Island—the impulse to treasure and care for it comes, well… naturally.
Double-waterfalls, primeval rain forests, multicolored canyons, jagged emerald cliffs that plunge straight into the ocean... that’s just the short list of items that will awe and inspire you into a place of mindful stewardship.
Of course, that same spirit of protectiveness extends to the well-being of everyone on the island, so visiting at this exact moment would involve a 14-day quarantine—and hey, hats off if you can swing a couple of weeks at one of the island's newly-dubbed "bubble resorts" (generally large and amenity-laden properties where you have the run of the resort, so long as you consent to tracking devices and Covid testing, among other particulars).
Another way to look at these recently enacted protocols? They’ll help you appreciate a second local concept: kuleana. Again, it’s a nuanced idea, like mālama, but translated loosely, the word means responsibility, with an emphasis on taking ownership of our actions and their effects on our communities and surroundings.
Even if you can't visit right now, you'll want to eventually. With that in mind, read on for eight of our favorite places that inspire both mālama and kuleana, though we have no doubt that when the time comes, you’ll discover a few of your own.
Nāpali Coast State Wilderness Park
The deep valleys in this 6,000-acre wilderness house majestic waterfalls, terraced stone fields and ancient temples—and open onto one of the planet’s most ravishing and recognizable coastlines (you’ve likely seen those rugged emerald sea cliffs in anything from Jurassic Park to The Descendants).
Keep in mind that this isn't a park you can drive into. But exploring its magnificence on foot is well worth the effort. In good weather, expert hikers should consider the 11-mile Kalalau Trail, where essentials include walking sticks, sturdy boots, plenty of drinking water and the right permits. An easier but equally amazing alternative: Hike the first two miles from Hā‘ena State Park and then two miles ma uka (toward the mountains) to Hanakāpī‘ai Falls. Be sure to secure your parking/entrance pass well in advance, and on the way back, stop at Kē‘ē Beach for a dip. Whichever hike you do, note that Hanalei Town is a great place to pre-caffeinate, and the Napali Art Gallery & Coffee House at Hanalei Colony Resort is a particular favorite for espresso drinks and Kaua'i-made products.
For jaw-dropping perspectives on the coastal portion of the wilderness park, take a boat, helicopter—or both. Seeing those Technicolor cliffs plunge into the Pacific is the kind of thing one never tires of, and may well come with bonus whale and dolphin encounters.
Waimea Canyon State Park
The so-called Grand Canyon of the Pacific is 14 miles long and more than 3,600 feet deep with surreal vistas to spare. For the clearest conditions and best photo ops of the prismatic walls and buttes, visit in the morning, as cloud cover can set in by the afternoon.
If you’re going to descend into the depths on a day hike, fuel up (or reward yourself afterward) with sugarcane or pineapple from the vendors at the Waimea Canyon lookout. And look out for the ridge-loving mountain goats; the red dirt on their white coats makes them blend in easily.
Kōke‘e State Park
A choose-your-own-adventure collection of seven trails, Kōke‘e lets you wander through koa hardwoods and norfolk pines, check endemic birds off your list (try to spot the bright-red apapane), stop and smell the wildflowers—and much more.
But before you hit the trails, stop by the Kōke‘e Natural History Museum for an insightful overview of the park and current walking conditions. And word to the wise: If you reach the Kalalau or Pu‘u O Kila lookout and encounter mists, don’t walk away. Give it at least 20 minutes, and your patience may be rewarded by glorious breaks in the clouds that reveal unreal views of Kalalau Valley. Another must: the sweet-tart liliko‘i (passionfruit) pie at Kōke‘e Lodge, where Nick Castillo sings sweet old-time Hawaiian music on Sunday afternoons.
This lava cave cloaked in ferns and mists—and paired with a waterfall—is so magical, you won’t be surprised to learn the grotto was once reserved only for Hawaiian royalty. To get there, you’ll travel by boat along the Wailua River with Smith’s Kaua'i’s Fern Grotto Boat Tour—adding traditional local songs and stories to the trip.
This roadside spectacle is the rare waterfall that’s as accessible as it is stunning—nature’s answer to a drive-in movie. (Or TV show as the case may be: You may recognize the double-cascade from the opening credits of Fantasy Island). Plunging from a height of about 80 feet, these side-by-side streams grant early birds a bonus treat: If the sun hits the mist at the right angle, the resulting rainbow is epic. Note that parking can be tight, but people don’t stay long after scoring their Insta-prize. Be sure to check out another waterfall on a Wailua tributary, too: the lacy ‘Ōpaeka‘a Falls and—across Kuamo‘o Road—a sweeping view of the Wailua River valley.
Housed in a lava rock building(!), the exhibits here will school you on everything from the island’s geology to Hawaiian monarchy. Don’t miss the arts and crafts from Kaua'i and Ni‘ihau (a small, mysterious isle dubbed the “Forbidden Island”) nor the exquisite Ni‘ihau shell jewelry at the gift shop. Just know that the tiny, delicate, multi-hued creations can be pricy, reflecting the rarity of the shells and the painstaking artistry of the makers.
A Foodie's Delight
Immerse yourself in the local chocolate scene at Lydgate Farms, a 46-acre outpost in the foothills of the island’s east side. During a guided tour, you’ll get insights into the harvesting, fermenting and drying of cacao beans as you wander the fragrant and lush grounds. Of course, you’ll taste some of the exquisite house chocolate, but the farm’s palm blossom honey is amazing, too—as is whatever tropical fruit may be in season during your visit. To taste more local treasures, hit the food stand at Hanalei Taro & Juice Co. for taro burgers, taro hummus or taro mochi cake, Midnight Bear Breads for the macadamia pesto—and the Kaua'i Coffee Company’s local outpost for estate reserve varieties that haven’t hit the mainland market yet.
Of course, you can’t visit a Hawaiian island without hitting the beach, and Kaua'i has an embarrassment of riches. One you shouldn’t miss is Po‘ipū Beach on the island’s southern shore, where you’ll find golden sands and a unique sandbar that’s split in two, with calm, kid-friendly waters on the left and an open bay on the right (great for experienced swimmers and snorkelers). And if you spot rare Hawaiian monk seals there, mālama dictates that you stay at least 100 feet away (150 feet if a mother seal is with a pup). From December through April, you might even spot migrating humpbacks.
Families with small children will love the lifeguard-staffed Lydgate Beach Park, home to a rock wall that provides two sheltered swimming areas. And if you're looking to give back, the weekly Friends of Kamalani & Lydgate Park Saturday beach cleanup is a great way to score bonus mālama Kaua‘i points.
But for the most iconic local beach experience, head to the North Shore's Hanalei Bay—where the two-mile golden crescent comes with lifeguarded shores, an emerald-green mountainous backdrop and enough magic to sustain you until your next trip to Kaua‘i.
Time to stop dreaming and start planning? Visit this special offers page to book your trip to Kaua'i when the time is right. In the meantime, you can keep track of the latest updates on Kaua'i travel here.