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The oldest and fourth largest of the Hawaiian Islands, Kauai is lush, rugged and not as heavily developed as the other major islands of Hawaii. Visitors come to explore the island's beaches and natural wonders, and maybe do a little canoeing or snorkeling, but the multitude of resorts on white sand beaches provide ample opportunity to just sit and do nothing if you're so inclined.
The Garden Island has that isolation and climate to thank for its lush and verdant landscapes, significantly less-populated attractions, and the truly peaceful spirit you sought in your Hawaii trip in the first place.
Cruise ships call at Nawiliwili Harbor, near the county seat and main town of Lihue on the island’s eastern shore. The main resort area, Poipu, is on Kauai’s sunny southern tip, while the towns and beaches of Haena and Hanalei, on the voluptuous north shore, hold dreamy scenery familiar from the classic 1958 film “South Pacific” starring Mitzi Gaynor, as well as many other films over the years.
In the center of the island you can find a vista point at 4,000 feet elevation, Koke'e State Park. It offers commanding views of the coastal Kalalau Valley, a dramatic natural amphitheater at the base of the palis, or fluted cliffs, that define the legendary Na Pali Coast. In summer, shore excursions in inflatable Zodiac boats provide memorable views of the ramparts. (In addition, Pride of America and other cruise ships do scenic drive-bys).
Also in the interior, Waimea Canyon State Park, centered around the deep and colorful “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” is a popular destination for shore excursions and for independent travelers who want to get a few miles of trail under their boots. With emerald mountains, red soil, deep valleys and jagged cliffs, Waimea Canyon — known as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific — has grandeur in spades.
Just be forewarned that Koke´e and Waimea are among the wettest spots on Earth, receiving more than 450 inches of annual rainfall.
About a half mile from the ship dock you'll find Kalapaki Beach, where you can do a little shopping in two small shopping centers.
Popular Poipu Beach has a reputation as one of the nicest and sunniest beaches in Hawaii.
Tunnels is known as a snorkeling and diving beach, and it doesn’t disappoint. The waters are full of sea turtles and bright-colored fish. Divers can explore underwater caves formed by lava tubes. Beware of high surf in the winter months and a sneaky rip tide — the beach has lifeguards, so check with the guards for any swimming precautions.
Not into hiking or beaching? A kayak float on the beautiful Wailua River, a visit to the historic village of Hanapepe or a look into the Kauai Museum might be just the ticket.
They don’t call Kauai the “Garden Isle” for nothing. Visitors with an interest in botany will swoon over the 240-acre Na Aina Kai Botanical Gardens, open Tuesdays-Fridays for guided tours lasting anywhere from 90 minutes to five hours. Kauai also has three National Tropical Botanical Garden sites chartered by Congress to study rare and endangered species. On a self-guided tour of the McBryde Garden, you’ll see species that are extinct in the wild and learn about food plants Polynesian voyagers brought with them for sustenance in a new land. At the Allerton Garden, you’ll sample the flavor of Europe blended with the spirit of Hawaii. A third site, Limahuli Garden and Preserve, is set in a verdant tropical valley overlooking the ocean on the north shore.
In Lihue, visit the legendary Alekoko Menehune Fishpond and capture the beauty of the Wailua Falls as the water tumbles 80 feet into the Wailua River.
You'll notice multicultural influences in almost any restaurant in Kauai. Throughout the island, aromas from elegantly created foods like seafood, pork teriyaki chicken and beef, mango cilantro, fill the local dining spots. With the backdrops of gorgeous sceneries and smooth sounds of live entertainment in the background, the vibes at the restaurants are irresistible.
Kauai offers up unique family festivals in the summer that give you numerous opportunities to bond with the kids. Koloa Plantation Days is a week-long festival that takes place in July and offers everything from free hikes, to historical and cultural activities, to cooking demonstrations, parades, water slides, jump houses and live entertainment, and most of the events are free. Summer time is also Bon Dance season.
If you've never been to a Bon Dance, now is your chance to immerse yourself in a little Japanese culture on Kauai. Other exciting festivals and events this summer include the Fourth of July Concert in the Sky, Hiccup Circus, Kauai Music Festival and the Kauai Sand Festival.
Cruise ships dock at the port of Nawiliwili by the town of Lihue. To Lihue it’s 1.9 miles.
Tipping: A 10% to 15% tip on the restaurant/taxi bill is customary. Sometimes a tip is automatically added to your bill; check your credit card slip before adding additional tip.
What to wear: You’ll be fine with casual wear all over Hawaii. A few finer restaurants might require jackets for dinner. Men will love this: An aloha or “Hawaiian” shirt is the perfect outfit (casual button down or collared shirt) and can be worn at almost any event or occasion.
Safety: Nawiliwili Harbor and Lihue is a safe place. But as always don’t flash cash around and stay in well-lit areas at night.
ShoreFox contributed to this guide.
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“One lady who grew up on Kauai pays $239 once a year to fly over the Na Pali Coast on a Jack Harter helicopter tour. ‘The view makes me cry every time,’ she says.”
“Approaching the Wailua River, the difference between the north and south takes shape. Here it's mountains, cliffs and folds of green — no resorts or crowded beaches. Past Wailua, stop at Pono Market in Kapaa for a container of fresh poke (chunks of marinated tuna). It travels well, so snack on it as the road winds toward Hanalei, where the mental picture of roadside stands and grills and blenders that encompass Kauai emerges.”