The island of Kauai, also known as the 'Garden Island', is the fourth largest island in Hawaii. It is also the oldest and the northernmost. It is divided into four parts: North Shore, South Shore, West Shore and East Shore. It is famous for the Na Pali Coast, one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world and the Waimea Canyon, also known as the 'Grand Canyon of the Pacific'. Mt. Waialeale, the wettest spot on earth, with an average annual rainfall of about 450 inches per year, is located in the center of the island. Unlike the other islands in Hawaii, Kauai, due to its geographical nature, does not have a road that goes all the way around the island or through the center.
Driving around Kauai, you will not see any highway signs telling you where to go. The road that goes three quarters of the way around the island from the airport along the east side heading north is Highway 56. Back around the airport, the same road heading south and out west becomes Highway 50. It looks like the same road coming and going and there is no sign anywhere on the road that tells you when Highway 56 has become Highway 50. If you are heading somewhere for a scheduled activity, allow plenty of time to get there. If you are going sightseeing and the traffic seems slow, just relax and know that you will eventually get to where you are going!
Also, read my post on The 20 Most Amazing Things To Do In Kauai.
Almost 80% of Kauai comprises of inaccessible terrain and private property making helicopter tours one of the top activities on the island. The tours take you to the interior of the island and you can see so much of Kauai that you cannot see any other way.
Hollywood and Kauai
Thanks to so much private property and inaccessible areas in Kauai, Hollywood has loved the island for years. Starting way back in the 1950's, movies like South Pacific, Indiana Jones, Pirates of the Caribbean, Outbreak, Might Joe Young and Jurassic Park, have all been filmed here. Famous TV shows that have been shot here are Gilligan's Island and Fantasy Island.
Wailua Falls and Opaeka'a Falls, the drive-up waterfalls
Wailua River and Secret Falls
Wailua river in Kauai, is the only navigable river (by boats larger than kayaks) in the Hawaiian Islands. It is also Kauai's longest and largest river as well as Hawaii's second longest river. Smith’s Family (www.smithskauai.com) offers boat tours to the Fern Grotto, an unusual fern-covered cave set in a tropical garden, on the Wailua river. There are companies that also do kayak tours. Kayaking takes you to Secret Falls, a 120 feet waterfall in the lush Wailua River Basin. However, the Secret Falls being the best known secret in Kauai, are also very crowded!
East & North Shore, Highway 56 (Kuhio Highway)
The main highway on the East and North shore of Kauai is the Highway 56, also known as the Kuhio Highway. Traffic is really slow on this highway. Contra flow alleviates rush hour traffic in the morning between Kapaa and Lihue Airport. You will experience it if you are going to catch a helicopter ride or a boat tour of the Na Pali Coast in the morning hours.
Once you get out of the congested area of Kapaa, you come to Kailua Beach, a beautiful lifeguard beach, but not always the best for swimming, as the water can be a little rough. Further on Highway 56, is the the Kilauea Lighthouse, located at Kilauea Point, which is also the northernmost part of the island. The lighthouse is 52 feet tall and built on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It is also a bird sanctuary. It is closed on Sundays and Mondays, but even on closed days, you can have a good view of the lighthouse from the parking lot.
Past Kilauea on Highway 56 is Princeville - the Beverly Hills of Kauai. It is a community of upscale condos and vacation homes with a couple of golf courses and some of the most expensive resorts on the island.
Continuing on Highway 56 after Princeville, you will come to the Hanalei Bay - the largest bay on the North Shore. It consists of long stretches of sandy beaches (almost two miles) and the bay itself is surrounded by mountains. Hanalei Pier is a pier built into the Hanalei Bay. It is a must-see on the island.
One lane bridges
As you enter Hanalei, you are going to come across first of the several one-lane bridges. The first one is called the Hanalei Bridge. Sometimes you can see signs before the bridge saying 5-7 cars. This means that it is the local custom to allow 5-7 cars going in one direction to cross the bridge first. So if you are the 7th or 8th car in the line and you see some cars across the bridge, it is your turn to stop and let the other 5-7 cars pass before crossing the bridge. It doesn't do you any good to be in a hurry because you are going to do it at least 9 more times till the end of the road! A series of one lane bridges keeps the North Shore just like it is - quiet, casual and laid back.
Drive with an Aloha of love
In Kauai, you are almost forced to get into 'Kauain time', which is even more laid back than 'Hawaii time'! People here drive with an aloha. 'Aloha' in Hawaii means 'hello', 'goodbye' or 'love'. When you drive, you drive with an aloha of love! You will meet some of the friendliest drivers in Kauai!
Ke'e Beach & Kalalau Trail
As you go past Hanalei, you will come to the Haena Beach Park, home to wet and dry caves. Just ahead of this beach, is the Ke'e Beach, one of the most popular beaches in Kauai. It is also the last stop on Highway 56 and the last beach you can drive up to on the North Shore of the island as the road ends here. The Na Pali Coast also begins here. You can access the famous Kalalau Trail from this beach and hike along the Na Pali Coast. Even though Ke'e Beach is one of the prettiest places to go snorkeling on the island, it is not a safe beach for swimming due to strong currents and dangerous shore breaks. If you are a beginner in snorkeling, the best place to start is the Lydgate Beach Park in Kapaa.
Na Pali Coast
From Ke'e Beach to Polihale, is the Na Pali Coast, a 19 mile stretch of rugged coastline on the northwest shore of Kauai. Na Pali in Hawaiin means many cliffs, so the Na Pali coast is the coast of many cliffs. It is one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world and a must-see on the island. You cannot leave Kauai without having seen the Na Pali Coast.
West & South Shore, Highway 50
Highway 50 leads you to the South Shore and West Shore of the island. Just a few miles down the road, there is a Macy's. It is located at the only mall on the island called Kukui Grove and is a huge landmark. After crossing Macy's, just 2 miles down the road, on the opposite right hand side, is a long white fence called Kilohana, literally meaning not to be surpassed. It is the estate of Gaylord Wilcox. Gaylord Wilcox was one of the original missionary families that came to Kauai in the 1800s and started a sugarcane plantation. The plantation has been transformed into a 104-acre visitor destination, including an agricultural park, Plantation Railway and one of the best restaurant's in Kauai called the Gaylord’s Restaurant. It is also the home of Koloa Rum Company and they offer free rum tasting.
Further on just off Highway 50 on Maliuhi Road, is the Tree Tunnel. It is also the way to go to the Old Koloa Town and Poipu.
Poipu, Koloa & Spouting Horn
As you come through the Tree Tunnel, just before Poipu on your left, you will see a sign that says Poipu and Resorts. This is a bypass and you don't want to take it because then you will miss seeing the beautiful town of Koloa. Continuing down Poipu road, you will reach Poipu. When you come to a roundabout, and take the second exit out, you will come to the Spouting Horn. It is a lava tube that causes beautiful geyser-like effects.
National Tropical Botanical Gardens
Two of the the three Kauai's National Tropical Botanical Gardens, namely the Allerton Garden and McBryde Garden, are located near the Spouting Horn. The third one called the Limahuli Garden, is located on the North Shore in Hanalei.
Kalaheo & Kauai Coffee Company
When you hit back old Koloa Town, take Highway 50 through a town called Kalaheo. Kalaheo is famous for restaurants, the Kalaheo Cafe and the original brick oven pizza. As you come through Kalaheo, you will find the Kauai Coffee Company, the largest coffee plantation in the US. Coffee tasting is free and you can also buy exotic coffee at the gift shop.
Eleele, Port Allen & Hanapepe
Just past the Kauai Coffee Company, you will come into the town of Eleele. There is a McDonalds there which is a good landmark of Eleele. Once you leave Lihue, this is the only other McDonalds and the only one on the west side of the island. Port Allen is located only a couple of hundred yards from McDonalds. Further on is Hanapepe, home to many art galleries. Friday night is famous for their Friday Art Night which is like a street fair.
Waimea is the next little town on Highway 50. It has several lookout points where you can see the Waimea Canyon - a must-do on the island. The canyon has some of the best hiking trails and you can get a lot of information from the Kokee Museum regarding the best hiking trails in the canyon. The Kalalau Lookout is located at the 18 mile marker on the Kokee Road and offers amazing views of the Na Pali Coast, Kalalau Valley and the ocean.
Kekaha & Polihale State Park
The last town on the West Shore is Kekaha. Barking Sands which is a navy base, is located 5 miles northwest of Kekaha. From Kekaha, you can go to the Polihale State Park, however there is only a dirt road leading to the beach park. In Kauai, no matter what insurance you have on your rental car, as soon as you leave pavement, all insurance bids are off. If you are not on a paved road and you get stuck, your car rental company will come and help you but you will have to pay for it.
Polihale is the beginning of the Na Pali Coast from the south side. From Polihale to Ke'e Beach, the 19 mile stretch of the stunning Na Pali Coast, is accessible only with a boat or a helicopter. This part of the Na Pali cannot be hiked.