Ten years ago your college buddy sold her house in the big-city suburbs, put her business online and moved with her husband and kids to Kauai. Even the family dog came along. Now she rarely wears shoes, has learned how to surf, and eats things you’ve never heard of like lau lau and lomi lomi (say what what?)
You are eager to visit Kauai with your own family, so you send her an email. She is so pleased to hear from you, she gives you loads of recommendations, and even offers to send you her Kauai “survival guide” — her list of local tips that new visitors might find useful to know.
Here are your friend’s insider tips on Kauai (in no particular order):
#1. Slow it down
The most rewarding way to approach Kauai is slowly. This spectacular island is best when soaked in leisurely, soulfully — not rushed into with itinerary in hand and too much packed into the day. The locals live with an easy, grateful vibe, and if you’re open to it, you’ll find it contagious. Sure snorkeling, hiking, boat excursions and waterfall chasing should not be missed, but you’ll want to give yourself plenty of time to enjoy just lounging on the sand, or lingering over that mug of Kauai-grown dark roast coffee or bobbing lazily in the pool. Any day is a good day to just kick back, order another mai tai and watch the sun set behind swaying palms.
#2 Embrace the tropical weather
It rains. A lot. And the locals not only roll with this but to revel in it. Kauai weather in general is near perfect year round, with the average temperature hovering at 78°. Sunshine abounds but rainfall is absolutely a daily occurrence — often multiple times a day. This precipitation is what gives the Garden Isle those velvety green mountains and cabbage-sized flowers, why the waterfalls are so thunderous and why Kauai has the only navigable river in Hawaii. And whoever heard of too many rainbows?
So skip the umbrella. You will decide it’s just not worth it when you find yourself pulling it out for what is usually just a passing drizzle and then folding it away again. Go ahead and embrace frizzier hair, damper feet and more-hydrated skin!
#3 How to decide when to visit
Peak summer season runs from mid-June to mid-August and is an extremely popular time to visit Kauai. The kids are out of school and there is a big uptick in weddings and honeymoons. The island will naturally be busier and airfares and lodging prices will be higher. Late summer into fall season starts mid-August and ends mid-December. With the exception of Thanksgiving week, this is Kauai’s low season and a great time to find deals. Christmas season is usually the highest spike in travelers and prices. Prices and crowds tend to go down after Christmas day. The good news is, it’s just never all that crowded. Perhaps the best time to visit is the time when you can get away the longest. Which brings us to the next tip . . .
#4 How long to stay
Ideally, you’d have at least seven days here — and preferably ten. Kauai has several distinct regions each with its own personality and unique offerings — all of which you will want to explore. This is of course in addition to the time you’ll spend relaxing on the beach or reading with a paloma on your poolside lounger. Don’t over stuff your days! (See #1.) In fact, if you have less than a week, you might consider spending it all exploring a single coast and then return another time to explore another.
#5 Rent a car
Why? Kauai offers few public transportation options, and hopping a big, belching bus in paradise is kind of a buzzkill. And even if you can find the scarce taxis, Ubers and Lyfts, the more remote adventure spots won’t have sufficient WiFi to connect with them properly. Most roads do not safely accommodate bikes (if at all) and the local resorts have only scattered shuttle service. Book your rental car in advance for the best selection and pricing, and to avoid crowds at the airport, consider renting through your resort. For steep discounts, try DiscountHawaiiCarRental.com (just read the fine print on cancellations).
Bonus tip: Spring for that sexy Jeep because driving becomes an experience in itself! The top goes down, the music goes up and you feel ready to explore more off-the-beaten-track spots. You can even plug into a Kauai guide app on your phone for a narrated self-tour (WiFi permitting!) Just be prepared to do some research on parking when you’re planning to head off to a popular or remote destination.
#6 Most of the island is not driveable.
This may sound like a contradiction to #5, but it’s important to understand.
Kauai is a relatively small island with good highways and roads, but make no mistake: You cannot drive all the way around it. The highway begins at remote Polihale Beach in the west and comes to a screeching halt at beautiful Ke’e Beach in the north. The gorgeous and treacherous Na Pali Coast is completely impassable and prevents the highway from connecting the West Shore to the North shore. This is of course well worth noting when planning your day trips because once you head up the coast, the only way to return is by retracing your tracks back down the coast. A few bypass roads can help during heavier traffic, but you can pretty well count on an hour-and-a-half trek from, say, Hanalei to Waimea Canyon (so about a three hour round trip).
Still, you could drive all day on Kauai and only scratch the surface of the natural beauty it possesses. A full eighty percent of the island is accessible only by helicopter, horseback, ATV or on foot. Miles and miles of hiking trails, valleys, waterfalls, and peaks with lush tropical foliage and multiple microclimates are just waiting to be explored — sans car.
#7 Some secret beaches are still actually a secret
Kauai boasts world-famous beaches like Poipu and Hanalei Bay which offer everything you could want in a day at the beach, but the locals love to get away to the so-called “secret beaches” because they are remarkably spacious and empty — often with nary another person as far as the eye can see. These hidden gems are rarely in guidebooks and often require a steep hike or long trek or are accessible only during certain seasons. The best way to find a secret beach? Ask a local. They will be only too happy to help you.
#8 Eat what the locals eat . . .
Kauai enjoys a vibrant restaurant scene serving myriad cuisines from the truly upscale to smaller chains. Organic, vegan and farm-to-table cooking is readily available, and you can’t swing a catfish without hitting a poke or sushi place. But to get the true Hawaiian culinary experience, be sure to try some of the local delicacies you’re not likely to find anywhere else. Hit the farmers markets, the mom-and-pop holes in the wall, the small grocery stores (or even the delis within the larger supermarkets), the fish markets and the fantastic food trucks that blessedly proliferate. Here you’ll find Kauain favorites — that just might become yours.
Examples to sample: Saimin are comfort-food noodles inspired by asian predecessors like Japanese ramen, Filipino pancit and Chinese lo mein. Served in a clear broth as a soul-soothing hot soup, the saimin are usually adorned with spring onions, fish cake, char siu pork, boiled egg and sometimes a little slice of Spam. Spam is another local favorite, in fact — and is even served sushi style! Lau lau is a surf-and-turf snack: Small amounts of pork and salted fish are wrapped together in taro leaves and roasted in an underground oven (or imu) to create these tender, juicy flavor bombs! Kauai’s vast green taro fields bring crispy taro chips, taro hummus, taro mochi and something called kulolo — a fudgy coconut-milk dessert. And to earn your food merit badge, try the traditional taro root mash called poi. Definitely an acquired taste. . . Easier to fall in love with are malasadas: Portuguese-inspired beignets dusted in sugar and often filled with chocolate, black bean or sweet cream. Loco moco is a rib-sticking treat featuring a hamburger patty topped with over-easy eggs and a ladle-full of rich brown gravy. Little steamed buns filled with pork are called manapua, which is short for “delicious pork thing” which pretty well sums them up. Lomi lomi means “massage” in Hawaiian and lomi lomi salmon is just that: fresh fish that has been massaged with salt and mixed with tomato, green onion, and chopped sweet onion. Talk about spa cuisine! What’s next, giving the fish a facial?
You can learn plenty of tips, too, from the friendly team at Koloa Landing Resort on Kauai’s sunny South Shore. The staff love to share their insider knowledge. You’ll soon have tips of your own to share with new visitors. It’s nice how that works. Aloha!
by Erica Karlin — Koloa Landing Resort