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Kauai, Hawaii Itinerary (& Travel Tips For The Big Island)

(Last Updated On: February 10, 2024)

This blog post is a very big deal… it’s my 50th US state guide! After hitting publish on this one, I would’ve covered all 50 states in one way or another on this website. After visiting all 50 states and documenting the experiences on my Instagram, it was also my goal to have my recommendations and experiences documented here. We’re ending this series with Hawaii! I’ve only been to Hawaii once with my family a few years ago. We visited Kauai and the Big Island. This guide is going to mostly focus on a Kauai, Hawaii itinerary, and also provide some travel tips for the Big Island at the end. I hope to visit Maui and Oahu one day and will write separate guides for those islands when the time comes! For now, here’s everything you need to know about a key information for Hawaii and a Kauai, Hawaii itinerary.

What Are The Hawaiian Islands?

Hawaii is an island state in the (far) west of the United States, about 2,000 miles from the US mainland in the Pacific Ocean. It’s the only US state outside of North America, and is the only archipelago and also the only one in the tropics. It is very different from the other US states, including Alaska, which is probably why it is the newest state.

On August 21, 1959, Hawaii became America’s 50th state. Hawaii was a US territory since 1898 and officially became a state in 1959, following a referendum in Hawaii in which more than 93% of voters approved the proposition that the territory should be admitted as a state. 

Of the 50 US states, Hawaii is the eighth smallest in land area and the 11th least populous. With 1.4 million residents, Hawaii is one of highest in terms of population density. Especially since ⅔ of Hawaiians live on Oahu, which is home to the state’s capital and largest city: Honolulu.

Fun fact: The smallest US state is Rhode Island and the least populated is Wyoming

Hawaii is made up of over 100+ volcanic islands, but there are six major islands that make up the archipelago state of Hawaii: Kauai, Oahu, Molokai, Lanai, Maui, and the island of Hawaii. Each has its own distinct personality, adventures, activities, and sights. 

Kauai, Hawaii itinerary

How Do You Get To Hawaii?

The Aloha State is a bucket list destination for many travelers around the world. Due to Hawaii’s remote location in the Pacific Ocean, you must fly to Hawaii. Aside from the obvious choice of Hawaiian Airlines, there are a few major airlines that fly directly into Hawaii. Once you’re in Hawaii, I would stick with Hawaiian Airlines to fly intrastate. With more than 170 flights per day, this is by far the best option for flying island to island. Plus, it operates the most non-stop routes to mainland US from Hawaii.

Additional airlines include Alaska Airlines (which flies non-stop from major west coast hubs like Anchorage, Los Angeles, Portland, and Seattle). American Airlines, Delta, United, and Southwest are also options for flying into Honolulu.

Even if your local airport doesn’t have a non-stop option to one of the Hawaiian islands, there are plenty of connecting flights available. The major Hawaiian airports that you can fly to are:

  • Honolulu’s Daniel K. Inouye International Airport on Oahu
  • Maui’s Kahului Airport
  • Kauai’s Lihue Airport
  • Kona International Airport on Hawaii’s Big Island

To Know Before You Go: Hawaii Edition

Hawaii is a US state so the US dollar is used here, and credit cards are widely accepted. Major US phone carriers also provide service here, but note that AT&T has the widest 4G LTE network reach in Hawaii.

Hawaiʻi follows Hawaiʻi Standard Time (GMT-10 hours), which is five hours behind Eastern Standard Time and two hours behind Pacific Standard Time. Hawaiʻi does not observe Daylight Savings Time, so add one extra hour to the time difference during this period (March–November).

Weather

In terms of weather, Hawaii’s climate is tropical. This means the state does experience a rainy season each November through March. Temperatures are pretty consistent year-round. At sea level, I would expect 76-85°F (24-29°C) during the day and maybe 

12-18°F (7-8°C) cooler at nighttime. This can change dramatically depending on your altitude, so when you pack for Hawaii, pack some layers and lots of beach apparel + activewear. 

Pro-tip: Tsunamis don’t have seasons like hurricanes do and can happen at any time of year. It’s important to be aware of your surroundings in Hawaii. This is also true when exploring places like Volcano National Park.

Packing

Another thing to pack for Hawaii is a reusable bag. Carry your own bags when you shop or you’ll be charged 15 cents for each reusable one that the store provides for your purchases. Also, prices for just about everything are higher than the mainland U.S. because goods have to be shipped here.

Cultural Tips

  • “Hawaiians” claim native ancestry, while “locals” are Hawaii residents who may not have Hawaiian blood. More and more people are relocated to Hawaii each year.
  • When you arrive and/or leave a place, you may be given a lei (necklace of flowers). This is a gesture of aloha (love and affection), and therefore, you should graciously accept it and wear it!
  • Hawaiians speak English, but have their own Hawaiian language. It’s important you learn a few words, such as “luau” = feast, “mahalo” = thank you, and “moana” = ocean. I’ll cover this more below, but you MUST attend a luau in Kauai, Hawaii!

These tips apply to all the Hawaiian Islands, but as I mentioned in the intro, I’ve only been to Kauai and the Big Island… so let’s dive in!

Kauai, Hawaii itinerary

Why Kauai?

All of the Hawaiian Islands are remarkably beautiful, and each are unique for their own reasons. So you may be thinking… how do I choose which to visit? It would be insanely ambitious to try and visit all of them in one trip, so I would say most tourists choose 2-3. Oahu is the most visited island because of the capital Honolulu, Pearl Harbor, and the famous Waikiki beach. This is followed by Maui, which is famous for its breathtaking beaches and tropical landscapes. 

Kauai is one of the less visited islands but is often referred to as a “hidden gem”. If you’re looking for the landscapes of Maui, with the adventurous spirit of the main island, without the crowds of Oahu, Kauai is for you. Keep reading to uncover must-do’s for your Kauai, Hawaii itinerary.

Kauai, Hawaii itinerary

Basic Info About Kauai

Kauai is Hawaii’s fourth largest island and is sometimes called the “Garden Island”, which you’ll see— is an entirely accurate description.

Kauai and the oldest and most northern Hawaiian island, and is covered in emerald valleys and jagged cliffs thanks to the volcanic activity that occurred here millions of years ago. Just like the other Hawaiian islands, Kauai formed from a volcano that built up from the seafloor by thousands of lava flows. It is believed that the volcano that created Kauai started erupting approximately 10 million years ago, and the actual island of Kauai is estimated to be about 5 million years old. 

Centuries of growth across the island from time and the elements has formed tropical rainforest, rivers, and cascading waterfalls.

Some parts of Kauai, such as the NaPali coast, are only accessible by sea or air, so you’ll have to plan accordingly. To make the most of your Kauai, Hawaii itinerary, renting a car is highly encouraged!

Arriving In Kauai

Lihue is the capital of Kauai and is the first town you’ll encounter when leaving the Lihue Airport (LIH) in southeastern Lihue. Many airlines now offer direct services to Kauai.

Before leaving the Lihue area, I recommend renting a car here and grabbing anything you need upon landing— such as groceries and cash… it’s the perfect place to find what you need!

There are five major resort destinations on Kauai that tourists tend to visit: the North Shore (Princeville: 1 hour from the airport), East Side (Coconut Coast), the capital Lihue, South Shore (Poipu: 30 minutes from the airport), and the West Side (Waimea: 1.5 hours from the airport). At just 25 miles long and 33 miles wide, Kauaʻi is relatively easy to explore.With your rental car, you should have no problem visiting more than one area of the island.

Staying In Kauai

This recommendation may be a bit biased since we only stayed in one place during our time in Kauai, but I truly could not recommend this hotel more. I think it’s one of the best resorts I’ve ever stayed at.

Located just one mile from the Lihue Airport, Marriott’s Kauai Beach Club is the perfect place to stay during your time in Kauai. Within steps of Kalapaki Beach, this beautiful vacation resort offers unforgettable experiences. There are premium guest rooms, condo-style villas, parlors, and vacation rentals— all with ocean and garden views.

Where to stay in Kauai

Resort amenities include a 26,000-square-foot outdoor pool, children’s pool, and hot tubs. There is a spa, fitness center, and excursions deak that offers scuba outings, surfing lessons, and snorkeling. I actually learned how to surf at this resort… there are lessons offered right at Kalapaki Beach!

There are several dining options on-site including a sushi bar and casual terrace restaurant. Since Lihue is such a popular place to stay, there are also numerous options nearby including Daddy O’s Restaurant.

Pro-tip: The Marriott is a 4-star property and therefore is not the most affordable option, although Marriott Bonvoy members can score some fantastic deals. I don’t want to recommend other hotels that I haven’t personally stayed at, BUT I do recommend this area. Check out other hotels along this beach in Lihue as you put together your own Kauai, Hawaii itinerary.

Kauai, Hawaii Itinerary: What To See & Do

Now that you know some basic information for visiting Hawaii, how to get to Kauai, and where to stay in Kauai, let’s go over the must-see and must-do activities for Kauai! The Garden Isle is an adventurer’s playground. Whether you want to zip through the jungle or relax on the beach, there’s something to do for everyone.

For those seeking a slower pace, the island is full of local culture and history, including museums and farmers markets. You can even tour the filming locations of more than 60 movies and TV shows. Either way, attending a luau in Kauai, Hawaii is a must!

My family and I visited Hawaii for 10 days total. I think we did about 5-6 days in Kauai and 4-5 on the Big Island. This is enough time to see the highlights, so you can easily pair your visit to Kauai with another island. Here are the highlights:

Try Surfing

If you stay at a beach-front resort, this is something you should be able to do right at your hotel. Hawaii is the perfect place to learn how to surf! My sister and I took a lesson right at Kalapaki Beach in Lihue, which I loved because it was calm enough for beginners.

Swim at Poipu Beach Park

Poʻipū Beach Park is one of Kauai’s most popular beaches because of its crystal-clear waters. Plus, it’s located just 25 minutes by car from Lihue and is a good way to see the south part of Kauai.

Poipu is a fun place for families too since it has a natural wading pool for young swimmers. There are lifeguards here, picnic facilities, showers, and pavilions, making this South Shore beach a great day trip for anyone.

Kauai, Hawaii beaches

Visit Waimea Canyon State Park

Waimea Canyon is often referred to as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific”, and if you’ve ever seen photos of it, you would know this is an accurate description. This canyon is HUGE— 10 miles long and up to 3,000 feet deep in certain areas. It’s located on the western side of the island.

Waimea is Hawaiian for “reddish water”, which refers to the canyon’s deep red soil. The gorge is truly one of the state’s scenic treasures, and can be best enjoyed from Waimea Canyon State Park. The park consists of a scenic drive, lookouts of the canyon, and trails. The hikes into the canyon are quite strenuous, so we just enjoyed the views from the top! If you’re looking to visit the state park yourself (you should!), here are a few things to note:

  • Entrance Fees: Free for Hawaii Residents and $5 per person for non-residents
  • Non-Commerical Vehicles: No charge with Hawaii ID, and $10 per vehicle for non-residents

What to do in Kauai

See Opaeka’a Falls

Another must-see in Kauai is the Ōpaekaʻa Falls— a waterfall located on the ʻŌpaekaʻa Stream in Wailua River State Park on the eastern side of Kauai. It is a 151-foot waterfall that flows over volcanic rock from volcanic eruptions millions of years ago.

This waterfall is not only famous for its beauty, but for being one of Kauai’s most accessible waterfalls. It’s located in Wailua, two miles up Route 580 from Highway 56.

“ʻŌpaekaʻa” means “rolling shrimp,” which were once abundant in the stream. Similar to the canyon, I recommend just enjoyed the views from the lookout here, or picnicking! Viewing the falls is free, although there are tour options, such as kayaking, to get up close and personal. 

Do a Nāpali Coast cruise

Another must-do during your time in Kauai is a Nāpali Coast cruise. The Nāpali Coast State Wilderness Park lies in the northwest of Kauai Island. It’s known for its towering emerald “pali”, or sea cliffs and cascading waterfalls. The 17 mile coast is best explored by boat, as the trails here are quite steep.

Another perk of taking a cruise is the wildlife you can see! Aside from enjoying the sweeping views of the “pali”, you can also snorkel with turtles and spinner dolphins in this area. We saw several during our few hours on the boat!

Napali coast in Kauai, Hawaii

Boat tours depart from Port Allen on the West Side, and during the summer months, guided kayaking trips bring you close to the cliffs. When the conditions are right, raft tours are also available to guide you to hidden sea caves and remote beaches.

Pro-tip: As a major disclaimer, I need to mention this boat ride is ROUGH! It’s not a relaxing catamaran ride in a little cove — it’s a major fishing / charter boat along the coastline in the open ocean so it was very rocky. I remember A LOT of people being sea sick around me, which definitely took away from the experience a bit. Plus, the excursion was a few hours long. I usually like to spend 2-3 hours at sea… this tour was closer to 5.

In the future, I’d love to revisit via an aerial tour! Helicopters depart from the Lihue Airport, and provide front row seats to the scenic areas inaccessible by land or water.

Go ATVing at Jurassic Kahili Ranch

Jurassic Kahili Ranch is a private, historic property covering 2,800 beautiful acres on the North Shore of Kauai. The diverse terrain encompasses breathtaking waterfalls, ponds and streams, and lush forests. This ranch was used as a filming location for Jurassic Park, and is also a popular spot for hiking and horseback riding.

In my opinion, the best way for you to explore this area is on an ATV tour! Kipu Ranch also offers a popular ATV tour on the island of Kauai, showcasing scenery from Jurassic Park and other Hollywood films!

Attend a luau in Kauai, Hawaii

Attending a luau in Kauai, Hawaii is a must on your Kauai, Hawaii itinerary! It’s one of the most festive experiences you can have during a visit to the Hawaiian islands. A luau is a Hawaiian feast featuring lively music and vibrant cultural performances. Traditional food is served like kālua puaʻa, a whole pig that is slow-cooked in an imu (earth oven). There are also local dances to learn, all of which stem from Hawaiian and greater Polynesian culture.

Luau in Kauai, Hawaii

Basic Info About The Big Island

Even though the majority of this blog post focuses on a Kauai, Hawaii itinerary, we did visit the Big Island as well, so I want to provide some tips for this destination. The Big Island of Hawaii, also known as the island of Hawaii, is the third most popular Hawaiian island among visitors, hosting over 1.5 million travelers annually.

Sitting in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the landmass of the Big Island is approximately the size of Connecticut, and is still growing daily thanks to the Kilauea Volcano on the eastern coast of the island. Speaking of volcanoes — the Big Island is composed of five major volcanoes, and is home to the famous Hawaii Volcanoes National Park — a MUST SEE!

Volcanoes National Park in the Big Island, Hawaii

When it comes to visiting the Big Island, which we did for 4-5 days (I recommend this timeframe!). Most visitors stay in the Kailua-Kona area because of its fantastic weather, abundant shopping, and array of dining options. On the other side of the island are the Hilo and Puna regions. These are the best bases for visiting the national park, which will require at least one full day.

To arrive on the Big Island, you’ll want to fly into the Kona International Airport in Kona on the west, or Hilo International Airport in the east. Most visitors arrive in Kona.

Volcanoes National Park in the Big Island, Hawaii

That brings us to the end of this Hawaii travel guide! I hope this post inspires you to create your own Kauai, Hawaii itinerary and to explore this beautiful state in the near future.

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