The Garden Isle's top attractions include secluded beaches, staggering canyons, waterfalls and historic sites. With so much to see, the order you choose is entirely up to you—and there are no wrong answers.
A single photo in a 1960 National Geographic article on Hawai‘i unveiled a lush valley shielded by 3,000-foot cliffs to a generation hungry for just such a place. The caption read: “Nāpali’s towering cliffs wall a Shangri-la valley accessible only by sea ... jungle-like glens tucked amid the ridges offer an unspoiled world for the adventurous.” Indeed, the haunting, spiked peaks snake down Kaua‘i’s north coast for 16 colorful miles. The razor-sharp sea cliffs scale to heights of up to 4,000 feet, and fluted valleys descend abruptly into the ocean below. It’s one of the most isolated areas in Hawai‘i, with sea caves, a zigzag shoreline, waterfalls and hidden valleys. Inaccessible by vehicle, Nāpali is seen by ocean craft, air or on foot. Experienced backpackers can attempt the challenging, two-day, 11-mile Kalalau Trail, while others can visit by boat or kayak, or on any of the island’s helicopter tours.
Blink and you could miss the sign on Highway 50 that marks the turnoff for Hanapēpē, dubbed the “Biggest Little Town on Kaua‘i.” “Big” is a relative term: The part of Hanapēpē Road that goes through the heart of town is just two blocks long, and none of the buildings there stands more than two stories high. Most are of single-wall wood construction and have paned windows, board-and-batten siding, and pent roofs or awnings over their entrance. Hanapēpē means “crushed bay” in Hawaiian, probably in reference to the piles of rocks bordering nearby Hanapēpē Bay.
Dating back to 1896, this plantation estate has been painstakingly restored and its legacy as one of Kaua‘i’s distinguished historic houses is unquestioned. Sugar baron Gaylord Parke Wilcox, once the head of Grove Farm, built the 16,000-square-foot, Tudor-style mansion in 1935. The antique-filled rooms and Oriental carpets laid over hardwood floors lead you past cases of poi pounders, koa bowls and other Hawaiiana. Once the center of a 27,000-acre sugar plantation and the hub of Kaua‘i business, cultural and social life, the 35-acre estate now features tropical gardens and an old plantation village, as well as the classic Kaua‘i Plantation Railway. Call 808.245.5608 for more information.
Like its mountains, Kaua‘i’s beaches are dramatic and diverse. Perhaps the most notable is Hanalei Bay with its sweeping curve of white sand enveloped by mountains. At the end of Highway 56, where the Nāpali Coast begins, the waters off Kē‘ē Beach teem with fish and corals that dazzle snorkelers and beachgoers. Po‘ipū Beach is known for its idyllic swimming and snorkeling, and in Hanapēpē, Salt Pond Beach Park is calm and popular year-round. In Wailua, Lydgate Beach Park has a protective surrounding reef that makes it a favorite among families. While Kaua‘i’s beaches are beautiful, they can also be dangerous, especially in the winter. The Hawai‘i Lifeguard Association advises visitors to log onto their website (OceanSafety.Soest.Hawaii.Edu) for daily forecasts, or call the Kaua‘i Marine Forecast at 808.245.3564 for pre-recorded information.
Kīlauea Point National Wildlife Refuge
Perched upon Kaua‘i’s northernmost point, the lighthouse at Kīlauea Point National Wildlife Refuge once guided merchant ships crossing the ocean from Asia. Built in 1913, it was fitted with the biggest lens of its time. Now the lighthouse and its surroundings are one of Kaua‘i’s most scenic attractions. The steep bluffs surrounding the lighthouse are a haven for albatross and nesting nēnē (Hawai‘i’s state bird), and in the winter months, humpback whales can often be spotted. The grandeur of this place is breathtaking. At the end of Kīlauea Road, 808.828.1413.
Spouting Horn Park
Early Hawaiians once aptly called this attraction puhi or blowhole. Located near Po‘ipū Beach on the island’s south coast, water rushes into the hole and is forced through the narrow opening, shooting water skyward up to 50 feet. Legends tell of a large mo‘o, or lizard, caught in this puhi, which was formed when waves eroded softer, underlying rock and wore through the harder top rock. The best times to see this natural phenomenon are during high tide and high surf.
Hailed as “The Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” this geological wonder stretches 14 miles long, one mile wide and more than 3,600-feet deep. The main road, Waimea Canyon Drive, leads to a lower lookout point and the main Waimea Canyon Overlook, which offers unobstructed views of Kaua‘i’s dramatic interior. The road continues into the mountains and ends at Kōke‘e State Park, the launching point of numerous trails to traverse for beginners and seasoned hikers alike. The Waimea Canyon Lookout provides panoramic views of crested buttes, rugged crags, deep valley gorges and the cascading 800-foot Waipo‘o Falls. Call 808.245.6001 for weather information.
Waialua River and Fern Grotto
Flowing from the crater of Mount Wai‘ale‘ale, the Wailua River is sacred to Native Hawaiians and it was once kapu (taboo) for anyone except for royalty to enter. Nowadays, the river can be explored by kayak or via a cruise aboard an open-air boat. Most boat excursions end at Fern Grotto, which is known primarily as the most romantic spot on the island. This natural lava-rock grotto is lush with hanging ferns and tropical foliage, cooled by the mists of a waterfall. In this serene setting, the grotto acts like a natural amphitheater. Taking advantage of the incredible natural acoustics, visitors are often treated to musicians playing beautiful Hawaiian music.