Kauai, or the Garden Isle, is the perfect place and dream destination for any family vacation. The 4th largest of the main Hawaiian islands, Kauai packs a punch with its diverse landscape, beautiful beaches, fun activities, and relaxed vibe. This is my kids’ favorite place of all the vacations we have taken, for good reason!
Most of the popular sights in Kauai are on the outskirts of the north, east, and south coast of the island. In fact, 70% of the island (70%) cannot be navigated due to its mountains, rainforests and rugged terrain. The main highway goes around the island to the main sights and stops at the Napali Coast.
Even though you can drive around the entire island in less than 2 hours, there are many things to see and experience along the way. Make sure to have an itinerary to get everything in and still have time to rest and enjoy island life.
Follow my 7-day Kauai itinerary below so that you get the most out of your trip to Kauai and plan ahead where you need to! This itinerary is based on our experiences (including what NOT to do!) as well as advice from locals.
Before You Go to Kauai
Kauai has become a very popular travel destination for people from all over the world seeking adventure and relaxation in a paradise-like setting.
In Kauai, opportunities abound to hike along sea cliffs, encounter sea lions and other marine life, enjoy the views of majestic canyons, and rejuvenate in lush and beautiful surroundings.
Due to its popularity as a vacation destination and depending on the season, reservations need to be made for the most popular activities.
Reservations are recommended for:
- Entrance to the Haena State Park in the North Shore which includes the world-famous Kalalau Trailhead, Ke’e Beach, and Hanakapiai Falls.
- Na pali Coast. This is a must-do activity for most travelers going to Kauai, so make a reservation for a helicopter ride or boat tour early.
- Rental Cars. Renting a car is a must to go conveniently around the island. Book this as soon as you get your flight as shortages of rental cars during high season can occur.
For general information about Kauai, see FAQs before your first trip to Kauai and Kauai Vacation planning for families.
Tip: If you are planning on renting a car, download a driving app so you can hear stories of Hawaii while driving around the island.
Arriving in Kauai’s Lihue International Airport
Lihue International Airport is a small airport, so getting out was relatively hassle-free. Once you exit the building, walk outside the enclosed area to get to baggage claim. Once you receive your bags, cross the median to board shuttles to the rental car area.
Renting a car
The line at the rental car place can be long. Try to get there as soon as possible after you land. We were very glad to have premier status with the rental car company to bypass the line and get our vehicle right away.
Hungry when you land at Lihue Airport in Kauai?
If you are hungry by the time you land in Kapaa (we were after our 5.5 hour flight midday!), there are options to eat around the airport after you get your rental car. We chose the Greenery Cafe, which had a lovely yard where we ate a healthy lunch of wraps, salads, sandwiches, mung bean soup and juices/smoothies.
If you aren’t as hungry and can drive out a little further, stop in Kapa’a to go to the Lava Lava Beach Club. This place is highly recommended by locals for an introductory taste of Kauai. Enjoy poke nachos and mai tai right on the beach, and soak in the sound of waves crashing and chickens roaming by your feet. This will make a memorable meal to the start of your vacation!
Another option if you are in more of a hurry and craving sushi is to grab some food to go at Konohiki Seafoods. This is small market with counter service that sells fresh fish. It’s a great place to pick up poke bowls, sushi, and a variety of local Hawaiian plates or salads for a quick bite. Eat in the car or park at a nearby beach to have a little picnic before heading to your destination.
Take the 56 to the North Shore of Kauai for 2-3 Days
The north shore, with its world-famous hiking trails and lush surroundings, is worth a couple of days to explore. This area gets the most rain in Kauai which results in a vibrant mountainous rainforest setting. It’s one of the most beautiful parts of Kauai!
After grabbing a bite to eat near the airport, hop into the rental car to make your way up to the north shore. If you need to get supplies, stop first at the Walmart near the airport or Safeway in Kapaa.
Be prepared to hit stop-and-go traffic going through Kapaa, as there is a lot of pedestrian traffic here. This area is probably the most congested on the island.
Stop at the Kilauea Lighthouse and have shaved ice on the way out.
Kilauea Point Lighthouse and Wildlife Preserve on the northern tip of the island is worth a brief stop. The entrance to the lighthouse itself requires a timed reservation. However, the views from outside the entrance include the lighthouse and birds in the wildlife preserve area. It’s a good stop to enjoy the scenic view and ocean breeze.
Stop for Shaved Ice at the Historic Kong Lung Market Center
On the way out of Kilauea Point, stop by the small shopping area called Kong Lung Market Center. Here they have restaurants and bars, a bakery, shaved ice, bookstore, and gift shops.
Hapa’s Hawaiian Style Shave Ice is offered in a food truck on the corner of the premises. With its finely shaved ice, chunks of fruit, and unique flavors, this was the best shaved ice my family had on the island. It was way better than the popular and touristy shaved ice shop JoJo’s!
This shopping area also has displays documenting the history of the migration of Asian populations who have settled on the islands.
Continue driving up to Princeville and stop at Foodland
If you want to save some money on food during your stay in Kauai, stop at the Foodland to grab some meals for the next day or two. You may have sticker shock when you see the prices at a Hawaiian grocery store, but it’ll still be cheaper than what you would pay if you ate out at restaurants 3 meals per day!
Some items to pick up at Foodland include: Poi English muffins, ube billet (bread made from Japanese sweet potato), exotic fruit, poke and sushi, ramen cups, and snacks for hiking.
Plan for rest of the week – book reservations, check weather
Once you check into your hotel or Airbnb, check the weather and make a plan for the rest of the week. You may have to come up with alternative plans if rain prevents you from doing certain activities outside.
This is especially true if you want to go to Haena State Park. The park service sets daily limits to the amount of cars and people they will allow in.
Don’t make the same mistakes we did! We rolled in to the Haena State Park entrance around 9am thinking that we were early enough to get a space in the parking lot and stroll in for the hike. Little did we know that people all around the world wait at their computers exactly 30 days before to get a spot to be able to get a reservation into Haena State Park.
Day 1: Hiking at Haena State Park
Your first day should be spent at one of the best places in Kauai and the North Shore, if you are ahead of the game! Plan your Kauai trip before you get there to secure a reservation at Haena State Park:
- Make online reservations 30 days in advance at https://dlnr.hawaii.gov/dsp/parks/kauai/haena-state-park/.
- Take a shuttle in. Also need to make reservations in advance.
- Find a local who can get you into the park without reservations (residents of Hawaii can access the park).
- Park outside the park (between Haena Beach and the hiking trail) early in the morning and walk in by foot.
Once you get into Haena State Park, hike along the Kalalau Trail from Ke’e Beach to Hanakapi’ai valley. This is a popular 2-mile hike that older kids can do. The first half mile has excellent views of the coast, and then at the end of 2-miles will land you at Hanakapi’ai Beach (not advised to swim here, though). Allow 3 to 4 hours to complete the round-trip hike to Hanakapi’ai Beach.
The hike to Hanakapi’ai Falls is 8 miles roundtrip and would take the full day. Some parts are dangerous and it is advised to hike this only in good weather.
Head to Ching Young Village Shopping Center in Hanalei for poke and Dole whip
After hiking, head to the Ching Young Village Shopping Center for a bite to eat. It’s a cute shopping center that has a market, restaurants, and stores that sell souvenirs, hats, t-shirts, and shoes.
Hanalei Center across the street also has some cute shops, the Hanalei Bread Company and the Hanalei Gourmet, a family-run eatery located in an old schoolhouse that’s been in business for over 30 years.
Hanalei Poke restaurant came highly recommended by a local. Other options at the Ching Young Village Shopping Center include Tiki Tzatziki, Chicken in a Barrel BBQ, Kalypso Island Bar & Grill, and L&L Hawaiian barbecue (huge portions).
TIP: Be prepared for unexpected closures and don’t have your mind set on any one place. Hanalei Poke came highly recommended by a local, but it was closed when we went.
If you have room, get a Dole whip for dessert at the stand near the market. Another option for dessert is Lappert’s ice cream in the Princeville Shopping Area.
Everyone seems to recommend Jojo’s Shaved Ice, but in our experience, it was not as good as the other shaved ice places. There were big chunks of plain ice and overall did not have very good flavoring.
Day 2 – More Hiking and then Hit the Beach
Eat more poi muffins or ube billet for breakfast and get some more hiking and/or exploring in early before the heat and humidity set in later in the day.
Okulai trail head in the Hanalei Wildlife Preserve. Quiet area with an uphill hike resulting in 2 fabulous views. It took our family a total of 2.5 hours to get to the top and back down (2 miles round trip). Some sections are very steep and at the very top, there is a section with a rope to climb up. Not recommended for the very young or very old. Look out for the strawberry guava fruit trees.
Check out the Hanalei Farmers’ Market for locally grown fruit and handmade goods.
Have a picnic with sushi bought at Foodland (cost about $36 for 3 trays of sushi) or Dolphin fish market in Hanalei.
Hike down near Queen’s Bath, a sinkhole that can get rocky and slippery the closer you get to the water. Don’t attempt to swim as the ocean has swept away unsuspecting waders in the past!
In the afternoon, relax on the beach, swim and snorkel in the ocean
Most of the beaches on the north shore have a narrow strip of beach. Currents can get strong here so it’s best to wade in the shallow areas.
Tunnels Beach – This is probably the best beach on the North Shore, with clear water, a verdant backdrop, and decent snorkeling.
Ahini Beach. The current is strong here but it’s one of the better beaches on the North Shore where you’re able to swim and snorkel. Around some of the reefs, I saw dotted puffer fish, flounder, humu humu Nuku, and a big sea cucumber.
Haena Beach – not crowded, volcanic rocks, beautiful backdrop
Go to the Princeville Night Market on Sunday Night
On Sunday nights, the Princeville shopping center has its weekly Princeville Night Market from 4-8pm. Artists set up tables and tents to display their photos, bags, jewelry, and other crafts.
A few food vendors also set up at the Princeville Night Market and sell burgers, Indian food, and Hawaiian/Philippine food. Some of the food we sampled included pork adobo, pancit (thin rice noodles with vegetables), vegetable curry, and spam musubi.
Day 3: Leave the North Shore and head toward south. Do the kayak/hike tour to the Secret Falls. Explore Kapaa.
It’s time to leave the Princeville area and head back down toward the south. Stop at the Shell gas station to fill up on gas and water.
Choose how to spend this day while traveling from the North Shore to the South Shore. I highly recommend a kayak/hike to the Secret Falls. Other options include:
- mountain tubing
- botanical gardens
- more hiking, or Hiking at Sleeping Giant (east side of island)
- visiting waterfalls
- Ho’opi’i Falls Trail Head near Kapa’a – 15 mi mostly flat hike with a waterfall halfway that you can jump off of into a cool river.
- Wailua Falls. Two falls that can be seen from above but the gates were closed to hike down.
- Ho’opi’i Falls Trail Head near Kapa’a – 15 mi mostly flat hike with a waterfall halfway that you can jump off of into a cool river.
Kayaking and hiking tour to Secret Falls
Kayak/hike guided tours to Secret Falls is a popular activity in Kauai and one of the highlights of our trip.
My family booked our kayaking trip with a local, native Hawaiian-owned company called All’i Kayaks. During our hike the local guide gave us the history of Hawaii, origin of Hawaiian words, and information about the flora (including the amazing color-changing flowers) as we kayaked down the river.
Tip: Go with locally owned tour operators to put money back into the native inhabitants of the island.
Kayaking down the Wailua River (very calm) was 1.5 miles and took approximately 1 hour. We parked our kayaks along the river bank and hiked 1 mile to waterfalls. We spent about 30-45 minutes at the waterfalls, then hike and kayak back. The trip was from 9am – 2pm and good for families with children 8 and up. You will cross rivers so make sure you have water shoes like tevas.
Grab a bite to eat in Kapa’a
After your tour, grab something to eat and spend a bit of time in Kapaa before checking into your hotel on the south shore.
If you didn’t go to the Lava Lava Beach Club when you first landed, head here for a relaxing meal on the beach. This restaurant and bar was recommended by several locals for their amazing location and poke nachos.
Other options include:
Food trucks are a great way to get a good meal without spending as much money as a sit-down restaurant. Some options include:
Da Melting Pot (in a food truck area with several different options) – sandwiches and burgers, including teriyaki burger, fish or soft-shell crab sandwich, and taro sandwich (for my vegan husband).
El Rey Del Mar – Mexican seafood
The Musubi Truck – all types of musubi (including vegan options) and poke bowls
Leilani’s Burgers – burgers and hot dogs with crispy French fries
A restaurant with a cool patio:
Russell’s Eat Healthy vegan restaurant -$16 açaí bowls and freshly squeezed juices and smoothies.
Shopping in Kapaa
While you are in Kapa’a, shop at Safeway or other stores to grab food and other amenities for the next few days in the South Shore. Here you can pick up sunscreen, breakfast items, snorkeling gear, or beach towels.
Go to Wailua Shave Ice
It’s time for some more shave ice! In the shopping complex with Safeway, there’s a Wailua Shave Ice.
Free luau show at the Coconut Marketplace
The Coconut Marketplace is a shopping center with a lot of cute shops and restaurants. On Thursday nights, they have a free luau show. It’s worth a stop here for souvenir shopping or grabbing a bite to eat. They also have an ABC store!
Make your way to the South Shore and drive through the Tree Tunnel
Once you are finished eating and shopping in Kapa’a, get back into the car and head toward the South Shore.
Make sure you go through the tree tunnel while it’s light out.
Day 4: Napali Coast Boat Tour or Helicopter Tour
The Napali Coast is a must-do while you are in Kauai! Whether you go by helicopter or by boat, you will be impressed by the natural, untouched beauty of the west side of the island.
Experiencing the Napali Coast is the highlight of most people’s vacation in Kauai. It definitely was ours!
- Make advanced reservations if possible. Trips fill up fast during high season and even shoulder season.
- Put this on the schedule earlier in the week in case of rain and cancellations.
- If you are prone to motion sickness, non-drowsy Dramamine or bracelets would be helpful.
Although I have heard that riding on a helicopter to see the Jurassic Park falls is a can’t-miss activity, our family skipped this because:
a) it was exorbitantly expensive, and
b) we are wimps.
It definitely would have been a cool experience but this was not the right activity for our risk-averse and motion-sick-inclined family!
Napali Coast Boat tour – Makana Charters
Another way to experience the Napali Coast is from the water. Riding on a boat was my family’s preferred choice to see the Napali Coast (rather than a helicopter ride or hiking through rugged terrain!). Plus you get more bang for your buck with 5 hours on the boat vs. 1 hour on a helicopter.
On a Napali Coast Boat Tour, you can see the dramatic and breathtaking cliffs, hear stories about the Napali Coast from the captain, go inside sea caves, see wildlife, snorkel, all while riding on a boat!
Choosing a Napali Coast Boat Operator
Numerous boat operators provide tours along the Napali Coast. We spent a few hours researching boat tour operators! Here are some factors to consider when choosing a Napali Coast boat tour:
North or South departure:
- Depart from the South Shore for:
- Less time on the boat tour (better if you’re prone to seasickness)
- More favorable weather conditions.
- Less time on the boat tour (better if you’re prone to seasickness)
Best time to go/Weather.
- Best time to go is in the morning before the chance of inclement weather moving in during the afternoon.
- Book early in your vacation in case of cancellations due to weather.
Type of boat.
-Bigger boats cost less, less likelihood of seasickness. Downside is that you don’t get to go inside sea caves
-Choose a catamaran
- Choose a locally owned company. We went with Makana Charters.
Our Experience with Makana Boat Charters – Highly Recommend!
We went with Makana Boat Charters because the company was locally owned. It ended up being a fantastic experience that our entire family loved. This was the highlight of our trip to Kauai!
The entire tour was from 8:30am – 1:00pm. We met at Kekaha Point at 8am, boarded the catamarans around 8:20am and departed 8:30am. First 3 hours was coasting along the shoreline. The captain and deckhand explained some of the background of the different locations and sights.
We saw monk seals on the beach and spinner dolphins in the water!
The captain expertly maneuvered the boat into sea caves which was a cool experience!
At 12pm, they anchored the boat for snorkeling and lunch. The snorkeling wasn’t great compared to other boat tours I’ve been on, but I did see giant sea turtles, black triggerfish, Achilles tang, and a lot of fish swimming with me at the surface.
At 12:40pm, we headed back to the harbor.
The crew recommended checking out the non-profit organization Napali Coast O’Hana to support the preservation of this precious natural resource.
Check out the small town of Hanapepe, where the Disney movie LILO and Stitch takes place
The cute town of Hanapepe is worth a stop, especially if you are a fan of the movie LILO and Stitch. Take a picture in front of the LILO and Stitch mural. Grab a drink, snacks, and souvenirs from one of the shops (much cheaper than the more touristy areas of Kauai). Not surprisingly, many LILO and Stitch gifts are available here.
Other things to do in Hanapepe:
- Cross the swinging bridge
- Check out the Aloha Spice Company
Heading out of Hanapepe, you can also go shopping for some gourmet salts at the salt company and cookies from Kauai Kookie
Check out the Glass Beach
After Hanapepe, check out the Glass Beach close by. This unique beach is made up of black volcanic sand and tiny pieces of sea glass. A historic Japanese cemetery, tide pools, and a mini blowhole can also be found here.
Day 5: Explore the South Shore with a cliff hike in Poipu; beach time and snorkeling in the afternoon
Start your day with a calming stroll along Shipwreck Beach (you can also do this later in the day, when dawn colors are beautiful. But you’ll have to conserve your energy because the walk can be up to an hour or more). Park at the Hilton, Grand Hyatt, or Poipu Sands if you aren’t staying within walking distance.
Walk along the path and you might be able to spot turtles, monk seals, and even sharks! A woman I spoke to on the path told me that turtles come in the morning and late afternoon. One morning, she saw a tiger shark grab one of the turtles!
If you have more energy and want to keep going, do the cliff hikes. Walk to the top of the rocks (where people jump off) where the Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail starts. Some of it is rugged and difficult for younger kids and older adults with mobility issues. We made it as far as the historical landmark before the kids really started to complain, but you can go further to visit Waiopili Heiau (burial site) or further to the Makauwahi Cave Trail.
On the way back, stop at a tide pool where you can spot goby fish, sea cucumber, angel fish, crabs, and snails.
Relax at Poipu Beach Park and go snorkeling
In the afternoon, head to Poipu Beach Park. This is one of the best beaches for families because the water is shallow. Not only that, it’s a wildlife refuge where sea turtles rest on the beach and tropical fish are plentiful in the water. As soon as we walked to the beach, we saw a turtle sleeping on the sand.
I recommend sturdy water shoes for the kids or fins while snorkeling because the bottom can be rocky. You can swim to the little island where we saw a mama turtle and baby turtle resting.
Snorkeling in the Poipu area is the best that I’ve experienced on the island. There were a variety of fish including goatfish, parrotfish, unicorn fish, Hawaiian spotted goby. At one point while I was snorkeling, a turtle swam right by me!
Go to a luau in the evening
At night, check out an authentic Hawaiian luau for a cultural experience, complete with pork roast, hula dancing, and stories. Some options include the Auli’i Lu’au and Grand Hyatt Luau near Poipu, Smith Family Garden Luau near Kapa’a, or the Luau Kalamaku and Kauai Plantation Railway near Puhi.
Day 6: Drive to see the Waimea Canyon State Park, also known as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific
Get an early start to guarantee more views before the fog sets in on Waimea Canyon. Stop at Aloha Sweet Delights bakery on the way the Kaumualii Highway for malasadas and ensaymada and butter mochi.
Drive up to the Waimea Canyon and go straight to the main lookout point for fabulous views of the colorful and majestic canyons. The next two viewpoints are optional but not as impressive as the main viewpoint.
Hiking trail options can be seen at the viewpoint. Pick one with the desired length, time, and views that suit your family.
Head up to the Kokee Lodge, Museum, and Pavilion and have lunch at the Lodge
Save your appetite and money for lunch at the lodge for one of the best meals our family had in Kauai! Driving up to the lodge, you’ll see tons of chickens and birds around.
The dishes offered at the Kokee lodge includes traditional Hawaiian cuisine and other staples such as burgers, Kahlua pork sandwich, loco moco and Portuguese bean soup with cornbread. Try the Hawaiian gingerade for a refreshing beverage to wash down your hearty meal.
The Koke’e museum is very small and offers facts and displays of the geography and wildlife in the park. There is also a small gift shop in the museum and also inside the lodge before getting to the restaurant.
Check out more beautiful views at Kokee State Park
If you’d like to see more of the park, head back up the road into Kokee State Park. Head straight for the 2nd viewpoint for some more stunning views.
Waimea plantation house on way back from Grand Canyon
This is an alternative place to stay if not staying in Poipu, recommended by a local. The resort is made up of plantation-style cottages from the early 1900s. It’s 10-minutes walk from the Waimea State Recreation pier and 3.6 miles from Kekaha Beach Park, where you will depart for the Napali boat tour.
Head to the Spouting Horn blowhole
This well-visited geyser is located a few miles west of Poipu. The blowhole frequently spouts water up to 50 feet and makes cool hissing noises.
This is a good place to stop on the way back to Poipu because there are clean restrooms and a gorgeous view of the ocean. Kids have fun watching the water crash on the rocks, up through the blowhole, and recede back into the ocean. We spent about a half an hour here.
Relax over dinner and watch the sunset for your last night in Kauai.
Poipu has many choices for restaurants, so pick a place to have your last dinner in Kauai. I recommend getting native Hawaiian food, poke, or something else that you cannot find in your hometown. If the restaurant doesn’t have a view, then eat early and take a stroll to the beach to catch the sunset over the water.
Day 7: Shop for Souvenirs in Kapa’a and head home.
Catch the sunrise on your last day on paradise.
Drive closer to the airport and have your last breakfast at Country Breakfast in Kapa’a. A souvenir shop is next door to get some last-minute gifts before your flight out. Or if you have more time, you can visit the ABC Store and other places to pick up gifts.
Recommendations for gifts and souvenirs to pick up in Kauai:
- Hawaiian spice Li Hing Mui. This orange spice is sweet and salty and addictive! It’s made from dried plums, sugar and licorice. Sprinkle some on tropical fruits, hard-boiled eggs, or on a baked sweet potato!
- ABC Stores have all sorts of cute souvenirs! You can pick up anything from keychains to tote bags to calendars.
- Christmas tree ornaments.
Kauai Itinerary Overview and Conclusion:
The days for your vacation are interchangeable depending on the weather. Your best bet is to get things done in the morning when the chances of rain are less, but there are also days when it will rain all day. It’s always good to have a back-up plan and find things to do indoors (although we don’t mind being out in the rain).
I hope that this itinerary helps you and your family get the most out of your vacation in Kauai! Have a magical time in one of our favorite places of all time!