10 Tips for Travel to Kauai


If you’re looking for proof of that look no further than this very blog, which quietly celebrated it’s 10th anniversary last year. I’ve also recently realized that this year marks the 10th year I’ve been traveling to Kauai: first with just my wife and I, then with my daughter, and finally with all 4 of us.

While other trips come and go Kauai has become our happy place. Our home away from home. I’ve lost count of how many times we’ve been–but the frequency has increased and for the last few years we’ve been spending 2-3 weeks a year there. I’m a week away from a return trip with my family and I’ve decided to share my happy place with you, or at least the 10 tips I think will help you from the moment you touch down until you leave!

1. The airport is small. VERY small.

No matther which of the other 3 major Hawaiian islands you’ve been to this airport is smaller. Smaller than Maui by far, smaller than Kona, although Lihue airport does have air conditioning in the gate areas.

My favorite tip for landing in Lihue is to skip the rental car shuttle — even if you have status and your car is waiting for you there’s no real reason to sit around and wait for the shuttle. Often times you’ll wait for 2 or more to come around. Instead just walk the 3-5 minutes to your rental car company. When I land we split up–my wife and kids get the luggage and I take off on my trek to the rental counter. By the time I’m back with the car they’ve got the luggage and we’re off! After you see how much luggage and how many people get off the shuttle you’ll start doing the walk too.

Here’s a crude map showing the distances I’m talking about:

The Black line is the path I take, the shuttle picks up and drives the loop, taking longer even if you’re not waiting around for more than one of them. And by walking and coming back for you luggage you don’t need to worry about getting it on/off the shuttle either.

2. Slow Down

This one applies to so much: Driving; you’ll want to keep up with the flow, but don’t drive like you do back home. This is Kauai, so letting people merge, waving thank you (roll down the window) and just taking it easy when driving helps everyone get along better.

Kauai especially struggles with traffic along the ‘Kapaa crush’ so if you’re doing any travel up/down the east coast of the island add in plenty of time if you’re hitting the rush hours in the morning/afternoon. I’ve had it take almost 2 hours to get from Princeville on the north short to Hanapeppe on the west shore. Instead of stressing over the distances build in stops along the way to enjoy the island.

Slowing down is a mindset and is embraced by Kauai as a whole. Wishing Well Shave ice has an entire line of “slow yourself down” clothing, gear and the mindset has become bigger than Hanalei, Wishing well shave ice or even Kauai as a whole.

Wishing Well Shave ice, Hanalei reminds you to Slow Down

Slowing down also means not trying to “Do Kauai.” Don’t try to pack too many things into a day, don’t have too rigid a schedule. The trip will end and you’ll be remembering the things you’d wished you’d spent MORE time on, not the ones you wish you’d spent less time on.

3. Kauai Isn’t Going to WOW You With Hotels, on Purpose

You’ll likely be disappointed with the hotels on the island of Kauai. From everything I know about the island and the people who call it home that’s by design. Kauai has put in place some restrictions to stop the island from turning into another Maui/Oahu. That means hotels are capped at 4 stories, and this leads to sprawling large resort style hotels rather than high-rise hotels like you’ll find in Kaanapali/Waikiki.

Beyond this, there’s a general sentiment that needs to be respected. The beautiful song “Hawaiia ’78” is an example of this sentiment. If you haven’t heard it I think it’s worth listening to:

The lyrics are haunting and help frame the feelings that have existed since the 1970s and have surely grown since as things have trended more in the direction of the theme of the song.

On one of my earliest trips to Kauai and the first time I stayed in Princeville and got to speaking with one of the grounds crew for the home I was staying at. We talked for a while about his family, and how his kids left the island because they had to — for school and for better jobs. He told me that Princeville was all open land years back and he and his friends worked there, tending to animals and enjoying the never ending land. Now it’s full of condominiums that are full for a few weeks and then a new group comes, a city that nearly no one lives in.

I’ve been struggling with the irony–that I love the island because it doesn’t want to be changed and that very point probably draws people there causing it to change.

I’ll come back to this topic later in this post because [I believe] the idea that the hotels won’t wow you is directly tied to how your experience on the island ends up being.

4. ALL the Best Beaches Are Nowhere Near Where You Are

That Kauai has hotel restrictions in place doesn’t just apply to the size and structure of the hotels. It also has to do with their locations. Name the most famous beaches on Oahu, or Maui and fronting those beaches are going to be high rise hotels.

Moloa’a Beach, facing west. There are almost never more than a dozen people at this beach. On most islands a bay this beautiful would host a dozen hotels.

Not so in Kauai. I have no direct proof of this, but I do feel like the permits for hotels have been coordinated so that the best beaches stay public and away from hotels.

There are a few effects of this policy. The first, and most notable, is that your Kauai vacation is NOT going to be that stereotypical Hawaiian vacation you might have in mind: Waking up, walking down to a long stretch of sand with a beach chair waiting for you (or being saved by a towel) and enjoying time in and out of the water.

You might have beach chairs fronting your hotel but you’ll find the surf extremely rough and/or rocky. The norm is for hotels in Kauai to have unswimmable beaches. The Grand Hyatt is a good example of this, their beach is ROUGH and not what you’d expect when you hear “Beach in Hawaii.”

You can choose to pivot to the pool at your resort, or you can get out and explore the amazing beaches Kauai has to offer. The island has more white sand beaches (the local term for a beach with sand, not necessarily white) than any other Hawaiian Island. But if you never leave your hotel you’d think the island is full of rough and rocky beaches.

5 Food, Glorious Food.

Kauai does Hawaiian food REALLY well. You’ll either love that or hate that. Plate lunches, seafood poke, pickled veggies and savory meat are all part of the menu. Saimin (Hawaiian Ramen) is another dish that I think of when I think Kauai.

Asian influence abounds, Above Chicken Katsu Curry plate lunch from Kauai Diner in Lihue.

What that unfortunately also means is that you’re unlikely to find lots of great OPTIONS outside of Hawaiian food. Or at least you won’t hear me talking about non-Hawaiian Options in my “must visit” food list. Is food in Kauai expensive? It really depends on what you eat! I don’t think it is because the things I eat in Kauai are either impossible to find at home or expensive here because they’re hard to ship here!

In general finding food can become a chore if you’re in a tourist heavy location and looking to eat when everyone else is. That can lead to long lines, long waits and when people are hungry, short fuses. A great reminder to practice #2 (Slow down!), but also to leave yourself extra time and try to eat outside of the rush hours. Sometimes we’ll eat a big breakfast, skip lunch and have an early 3pm dinner. That helps, but in general having snacks for the kids and being ready for a potential long wait are also good rules to follow.

6. Try to plan a day around a section of the island.

To help with slowing down, and limit the amount of back and forth I’d suggest planning a day around a small section of the island. Sure you could visit Poipu in the morning, Have lunch in Hanapeppe and then go to Haneli in the early afternoon. But doing that is a LOT of time in a car and really means you’re not 1) Slowing down, and 2) seeing all an area has to offer.

These are the areas I’ve taken photos, proof there’s ALWAYS something worth doing regardless of where you are on the island!

I’ve ringed the island many times, and have my favorite places–you’ll find yours too! When you slow down and pick an area and stick with it you’ll realize you need to come back! And that’s a good thing since the island is alive and ever-changing.

7. Don’t buy Hawaiian Grocery Store Coffee

It’s terrible stuff. Visit one of the real coffee shops on the island and buy their beans. This isn’t like when you take a bottle of wine home from a winery and it never quite lives up to what you remember. It won’t taste good in Kauai either. The coffee sold in stores is just bad. Disappointingly bad. I think people bring it home to give to friends and family–make sure you don’t do that either!

Kalaheo sells beans! So do a half dozen other great coffee shops.

I’ve started packing coffee and stopping by the local coffee shops I love and buying beans there. There ARE great coffee beans on the island of Kauai–they’re just NOT in grocery stores and preground and in bags.

8. Pack a water bottle and Refill it regularly.

The Hawaiian phrase is “mālama i ka ‘āina,” or respect the land.

There’s a thinking I have when I get to the island–that the trash I generate while here is going to be left on Kauai forever. The easy ways to limit your footprints are things like refillable water bottles and avoiding single use plastics whenever possible. The water is already great, so bottle and take it with you.

9. Activities abound on Kauai.

Boat trips, planes, helicopters, ATV, snorkeling and scuba, horseback riding, hiking, kayaking, luau, the opportunities for activities are endless on an island as diverse as this one.

You’ll want to book ahead of time as things fill up. Be sure to check the cancellation policy on the activities and when possible book first and cancel later. I’ve been booking things and have found cancellations to still be semi-flexibile, which makes it easy to book and then figure if you want to keep the tour.

Prices are in line with the other Hawaiian islands for most things, and some opportunities, like a boat trip to the Napali Coast are a must do!

10. Plan your return trip!

This sounds silly to put on the list–but flights fill up and get expensive fast–and hotels and vacation rentals do too. I can’t tell if the recent record numbers of Kauai visitors is directly related to the Maui fires and people pivoting to another island or not. It is possible that more and more people are just starting to realize Kauai is a special place.

When you’ve got a return trip booked you’ll also feel less pressure to ‘complete’ your current trip, so you’ll be more likely to: Slow down!

About the author

- Written by Sam Simon. All ideas are my own, but I encourage you to see my point of view and I promise I'll try to do the same. Connect with me on Twitter @Milenomics.

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