You just had the rare fun of telling your college-age sons that you’re treating them to a vacation in Kauai. You’ve all been working hard and are looking forward to getting off the grid together for a bit. You envision yourself on the sun-drenched South Shore, lounging on the white sand, ocean waves in view, a fruity cocktail in hand. Meanwhile, your sons are raving about all the extreme hikes they plan to conquer deep in Kauai’s rainforests — and how they fully expect you to hike with them.
“You’ll love it, mom!” your oldest says. “We’ll cliff jump and swim under waterfalls and stuff!”
“Ugh,” you say.
“Yeah, you gotta hike, too, mom,” your younger son chimes in. “We’re gonna need our favorite cook with us when we get lost in the wild for days!”
“Ha ha,” you deadpan, secretly enjoying the teasing. Sure, they’re half joking, but you are well aware that in addition to your serene pool swims, tropical happy hours and shopping excursions, you will likely be partaking in some pretty rigorous, down-and-dirty adventures, too.
So the questions now become: What exactly do you pack? What sort of things will you have to reserve in advance? Where is the most sunshine bang-for-your-buck? And which season offers the smallest chance of getting lost in the jungle with three sons and one small cookstove?
You know it’s time to start planning smart and packing smart, so you do your research and familiarize yourself with some common-sense do’s and don’ts of traveling to kauai. You know that by arming yourself with a little knowledge you can start to relax. And it works!
You can already taste that mai tai . . .
Some Handy Do’s and Don’ts:
Before You Go
Chat up your companions to determine what sort of vacation you’re envisioning on Kauai. Does everyone want to stay on the more tropical (read: rainy) North Shore because it has the best surfing, while others were hoping for the endless sunshine of the South Shore? Do some of you dream of being right on the beach in a hotel room, while others are hoping for the upscale amenities found in an all-inclusive resort? Discuss expectations and arrive at something that works for all.
Fully understand that this will be expensive. You will become aware of this as you book your airfare and accommodations. Once on the island there are numerous ways to spend less money (cook in your own kitchen, enjoy all the natural wonders, skip the big tours) and ways to spend more money (dine at restaurants for every meal, book the helicopter, shop ‘til you drop) but if you’ve chosen a trip that falls within your own budget, and you’ve made your peace with the costs, you will be more relaxed — and have much more fun! And remember: some adventures in life are truly priceless.
Book your resort, hotel or condo as far in advance as possible. This is especially true for a visit during the high season or if you would like something specific like an ocean view or adjoining rooms. And this is even more important, of course, if you have an event to attend — or throw.
Consider a resort with suites for an extended stay OR for larger groups to share. For families on a budget, booking a multi-bedroom suite is a great way to save money versus paying the premium of individual rooms. Even better is a suite with its own kitchen. Having a big fridge to keep daily essentials and the ability to cook up breakfast or pack to-go lunches is a boon. Plus you get the fun of feeling like a local at the grocery store and farmers markets. Fresh-sliced Sugarloaf pineapple, anyone?
Plan a trip to Kauai during the best season for YOU.
Peak summer season runs from mid-June to mid-August and is an extremely popular time. School’s out and there is a big uptick in weddings and honeymoons. The island will naturally be busier and airfares and lodging prices will be higher.
Low season starts in mid-August and ends mid-December. With the exception of Thanksgiving week, this is a great time to find deals — and smaller crowds. Christmas season is usually the highest spike in travelers and prices. The good news is, it’s just never all that crowded.
Bonus: The winter months provide a better chance to see humpback whales. January through March may be a bit rainier and cooler but the weather is still mostly gorgeous and you may be more likely to witness these majestic creatures do their thing. The South Shore is an ideal location for the winter months as it has more sunny days.
Rent a car. Why? Kauai offers few public transportation options, and even if you can find the scarce taxis, Ubers and Lyfts, they are slow to arrive, and the more remote adventure spots won’t have sufficient WiFi to connect with them. (Tip: The best way to rideshare on Kauai is by using the new Holoholo app — Hawaii’s local Uber competitor.) 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.
Bonus: 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.
Plan to give yourself plenty of time to enjoy the trip! Ideally, you’d have at least seven days on the island — 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! 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.
FOR EXTENDED STAYS: Consider splitting your stay between two locations – maybe the South Shore and the North Shore. This will save you a lot of drive time if there are many places you’d like to see on both coasts — and beyond.
Make camping and hiking reservations well in advance for some of the more popular sites like Haena State Park and the Kalalau trail. Permit wait times are ever changing so look into this sooner rather than later. Non-Hawaii residents must book and pay in advance for some parks and parking fees. Get the latest-greatest info at Hawaii’s Division of State Parks.
Plan to visit more than one island per week – You’ll spend too much of your precious vacation time traveling and there is so much to do on each island you may find yourself frustrated.
Visit during major holidays. If you can, try to avoid the busiest times of year, especially Thanksgiving week, Christmas and New Year when crowds and prices soar. If you must visit then, book far in advance. You will still have plenty to love about your vacation in Kauai — but the swarms of people, the price surges and the “special menus” might not be giving you the most authentic Kauain experience.
Don’t forget to read! There are so many great history books, blogs, travel guides and even novels either about Kauai or set there. The Descendants is a 2007 novel written by Kaui Hart Hemmings and set on the North Shore. When the film version was shot in 2011 with George Clooney, he became a local fixture with several Kauai locales visible in the movie.
A few other novels set in Kauai include, Freefall by Kristen Heitzman, a nail-biting thriller called Fatal Paradise by TC Lawrence, historical novel Her Last Flight by Beatriz Williams, Kauai Tales by Frederick B. Wichman, and The Tiki Goddess Mystery Series by Jill Marie Landis, with such fun titles as Mai Tai One On, Two to Mango and Hawaii Five Uh-Oh! Non-fiction selections include the much-lauded Soul Surfer: A True Story of Faith, Family, and Fighting to Get Back on the Board by Bethany Hamilton, Waking Up in Eden: In Pursuit of an Impassioned Life on an Imperiled Island by Lucinda Fleeson, Freckled by TW Neal, among many more.
Once you Arrive on the Island
Live on “island time.” 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 many activities 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 relax and enjoy. Any day is a good day on Kauai to linger lazily over that mug of West Shore dark roast or kick back, pour another mai tai and watch the sun set behind swaying palms.
Learn to say a few words in Hawaiian. Aloha is particularly handy as it means “hello” and “goodbye” and is also an expression of love. Mahalo means “thank you”, and try greeting folks with Howzit? which is the way the locals ask, “How are you?” Don’t be shy. Kauains love it when you embrace their lingo.
Eat what the locals eat! Kauai has a vibrant restaurant scene serving myriad cuisines from all over the world. But to get the true Hawaiian culinary experience, be sure to try some of the regional 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, the fish markets and the fantastic food trucks that blessedly proliferate the Garden Isle. Here you’ll find favorites like lomi lomi salmon, saimin noodle soup, malasadas (Kauai’s answer to doughnuts), rich loco moco, and many other yummy dishes that just might become your new faves.
No one needs to be reminded to eat local goodies like shave ice, tuna poke, Lappert’s Ice Cream and all that gorgeous fruit so readily available on the island! Locally grown coffee and tropical cocktails are in the no-brainer category, too, and beer aficionados will be delighted by a frosty glass of the local brew.
Check the “Kauai” tab on HawaiiBeachSafety.com often to seek out the day’s safest swim spots or the best places to surf. The site calculates hazard levels at ten of the most popular beaches on the island using current weather, surf, and beach conditions.
For surfers: Use KauaiExplorer.com for ocean conditions and surf reports. Find out about wind direction, tides and currents to determine the most appropriate surf spot for your skill level.
Use the services of your resort’s concierge whenever possible. Dinner reservations, activity bookings, shopping area suggestions. As locals who deal with this stuff all day long, they will know the best adventures for your budget, for the season and for the people in your group. You can absolutely call them in advance of your arrival and get things booked well before you land on the island.
Embrace the tropical weather. It rains. A lot. And the locals not only roll with this but revel in it. Kauai weather in general is near perfect year round, with the average temperature hovering at 78°. Sunshine abounds but rainfall occurs 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!
Let local drivers pass you on the roads. Just accept that they know these often winding, remote passageways better than you do. Again, you’re on island time, so turn up the Bob Marley, take it slow and enjoy the ride.
Treat yourself to a view of Kauai from above! A helicopter trip with a seasoned pilot is a once-in-a-lifetime jaw-dropper that you will never forget. This is also the only way to see large swaths of the island — including some ridiculously towering waterfalls.
Eat in restaurants for every meal. Dining out is especially expensive on Kauai, so cook for yourself with local ingredients in a guest suite with a full kitchen like the ones found at Koloa Landing Resort. It’s a huge money-saver. Seek out the farmers markets, grocery store delis, and the beloved Koloa Fish Market — an institution on the South Shore.
Bonus: If you’re lucky enough to be staying at a resort with outdoor grills, be sure to utilize them! What could be better than cheffing up a fun meal with your family as you watch the sunset over the epic pool you just spent all day lounging by? Meals cooked and enjoyed outside just taste better.
Underestimate the power of mother nature, in particular: the ocean. Don’t turn your back on the waves. Conditions can change in the blink of an eye and drownings are more common than you’d think. Many tourists have learned the hard way that that jump or that rocky swim or that Instagram photo just weren’t worth the risk.
Fight it if you find yourself in a rip current. Just stay calm, float with the current to conserve your energy, wave your arms for help, and always swim parallel to the shore.
Miss witnessing a sea turtle! But do so respectfully. Known as “honu” in Hawaiian, these loveable creatures top most people’s lists of wildlife to encounter while on Kauai, but they are endangered and voraciously protected. Always stay at least 10 to 15 feet away. Do not approach, chase, pour water on, touch, dance with, feed, high five or ride a turtle. Fines can set you back $100,000. Not worth it — not to mention cruel. (You’d be surprised what people attempt!)
NOTE: If you encounter a sea turtle that is stranded, injured or in distress, report it immediately to a lifeguard or to the Department of Fisheries.
Trespass, litter, park illegally, or leave valuables in your car. This is just common sense stuff that you’d do anywhere. Also, respect private property. ALL of Kauai’s beaches are open to the public (even those in front of hotels and homes) but they do not all have easy-access routes. Don’t be that person willing to trample a resident’s garden just to get to a particular patch of sand. There is plenty to go around!
What to Pack for Kauai
Packing for your trip to Kauai can prove a little tricky as the island offers such a variety of adventures to embark upon. This list has you covered from flip flops to . . .olive oil? And just as important: what not to pack.
Pack the right clothes! This means plenty of swimwear and sunwear. Depending on the length of your stay, you may want to pack multiple swimsuits as you will likely be spending loads of time exploring the beautiful beaches or lounging by the pool — sometimes both in the same day. Pack a sportier swimwear option, too, if you plan to do water sports like jet skiing or kayaking.
Bring sunwear that is easy to throw on or throw in your bag as you head off to the beach or pool. Kauai’s abundant sunshine calls for lightweight and comfortable options ranging from dresses to shorts and T-shirts and the always-handy cover-up.
Workout gear is a must as most resorts and hotels have gyms or yoga programs. Too much coconut cream pie last night? Hit Koloa Landing Resort’s HIIT class!
Pack the right shoes! On a tropical island you’ll naturally want comfortable shoes you can wear to and from the beach and around your resort. Flip flops, sandals and lightweight sneakers are perfect for this. For evenings, a pair of ballet flats or wedge heels or loafers work well. After happy hour cocktails and a romantic dinner together, you may find yourselves strolling the moonlit beach.
Kauai is known for its breathtaking hikes, zip-lining and boating, so depending on your list of adventures, consider a sturdy pair of hiking boots, water shoes or deck shoes.
Pack the right accessories! A seriously good hat (or two) and a pair of UV sunglasses (or two) are vital. Spending all day in the sun calls for proper protection so whether it’s the biggest floppy hat you can find or your trusty baseball cap, throw it in your suitcase along with some sunglasses to protect your eyes.
Consider embracing styles that reflect Kauai’s laid-back beach vibe. Casualwear is not only acceptable but encouraged and anything too serious might feel out of place. In fact, your beachwear ideally makes an easy transition to other activities. This being said, Kauai has lovely restaurants — some of which are upscale and “honeymoon grade” so a couple of dressier options could make their way into your suitcase, as well.
Be ready for the rain! Kauai’s tropical climate means there is a good chance it will rain every day. A lightweight rain jacket is essential — especially for those hikes and boating excursions. A warmer jacket could be in order, too, if you are hiking to higher elevations during certain seasons and/or if you do any morning or evening boating.
Pack suits or stilettos. Though there are nice restaurants and fun clubs to discover on Kauai, they do not require any sort of black tie dress code. Men can stick to a button-down or polo and skip the heavy dress shoes, and no one enjoys wearing spike heels in such close proximity to the sand. It gives one a sinking feeling . . .
Leaving bulky items behind will not only save you from lugging stuff that will just sit in your hotel closet, it could also save you that overweight-luggage fee.
However you plan to fill your days on the island will greatly inform the “other stuff” you should bring. Avid scuba divers will obviously pack differently than, say, golfers, bird watchers or lounge lizards. Still, there are a few tried-and-true universal items that visitors will be happy to have on hand.
Bring reef-safe sunscreen. Lots of time in the sun requires protection but so do the reefs and sea creatures of Kauai! Reef-safe sunscreen not only accomplishes both, it is actually illegal to use anything else in Hawaii.
Bring a day pack or beach bag — preferably one that packs flat and will fit all your necessities like a towel, sunscreen, hat, sunglasses, water bottle, snacks and your favorite book.
Bring some sort of sun relief. A deeply emollient lotion or an aloe gel will soothe your skin after a long day in the sun. (Most hotels/resorts offer sub-par in-room choices — especially for a sunburn.)
Pack a hair mask or leave-in conditioner to combat the dryness brought on by saltwater and chlorine.
If your accommodations have a kitchen, bring little baggies of spices, salt, pepper and a travel bottle of olive oil. These items are expensive on Kauai and even buying the smallest sizes will end up being way more than you’ll need.
Bring a refillable water bottle. Pre-bottled water is expensive on the island and you’ll avoid creating plastic waste, too.
Also worth considering:
Setting up a Virtual Private Network before you travel to Kauai. Alas, trollers exist — even in paradise. A VPN protects your internet connection when using public networks, say, at a resort pool. VPNs encrypt your data and disguise your online identity.
Compact binoculars are a great way to focus on a little more detail when scouting whales, dolphins, birds or terrain. AND an inexpensive underwater camera is so much fun to have on that snorkel excursion when you come nose-to-nose with an eel or your loved one gets surrounded by a school of golden humuhumunukunukuapuaa. Cameras and binoculars can also be rented in various spots on the island.
Pack bulky beach items like towels, beach chairs, sand toys, or snorkel gear. Luckily most resorts, and even rental houses, will have these items for you to use and/or rent upon arrival. The same can be said for surfboards and wetsuits. Kauai has some of the best surfing in the world and people come from all over to get on these waves. Bringing a surfboard on your flight is a huge hassle and unless you are such a serious surfer that you need your own board, there are plenty of places to rent them on the island.
Ready for an unforgettable Kauai adventure? Get packing and get out here! Koloa Landing Resort is ready to help make your daydreams come true.
— Erica Karlin / Natasha Karlin