Top Things to Know Before Visiting Kauai

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Girl sitting on mountain NaPali Coast Kauai

Four short years ago, my husband and I adventured across Hawaii for the first time during our honeymoon. At the time, many of our friends were also getting married and heading to Maui. However, we knew we wanted more adventure than a beach could offer, so we chose to vacation on Kauai. Our honeymoon was everything we dreamed it would be and more, but there were still things we didn’t know until we arrived. In this blog, we are breaking down the top things to know before visiting Kauai so that you can have the vacation of a lifetime!

How the Seasons Change the Island

Just like anywhere else, Kauai has its seasons. What we didn’t know was how the seasons affected each side of the island. The seasons don’t bring dramatic temperature changes, but instead affect the surf across the island. 

We went to Kauai in November, which is almost winter season. During the winter season, you’ll find huge, powerful waves across the north shore and wrapping around the west side. The east surf is also known to be rough during the winter season. Be aware that the ocean is very unpredictable and rogue waves can form at any time. Pay attention to any signage, and if in doubt, don’t go out!

During the summer months, the surf changes. The north shore typically has small waves during summer, which makes it a great time to visit the NaPali Coast. Instead, you’ll find large waves on the south-facing coastline. The east side may have rough waves due to trade winds, and the west side will have high surf wrapping along the coast.

Where to Stay on Kauai

Kapa’a is the perfect location for travelers to stay on Kauai. Kapa’a is located just north of Wailua on the east side of Kauai. If you plan to adventure across the entire island every day like us, Kapa’a is the place to be. The driving distance to the north shore and south shore is about the same. The farthest point you may drive from Kapa’a is Waimea Canyon, which is only about 50 minutes.

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    What to Wear in Kauai

    As a person that loves clothes and fashion, I’m notorious for overpacking. Living in the midwest, I have several summer outfits I can’t always wear in Michigan, so I pack them ALL for Hawaii. However, we always end up wearing casual and athletic clothes. If you plan to adventure across the beautiful Kauai outdoors, pack a couple of bathing suits and plenty of athletic and casual outfits. You shouldn’t need more than a couple of dressier options for dinners out. 

    Best Kauai Beaches to Snorkel

    One of the top things to know before visiting Kauai is the best beaches for snorkeling. We traveled along the coast in search of the best snorkeling spots. Poipu Beach was our top choice during vacation. We also really love snorkeling at the protected swimming areas at Lindgate Park and Salt Pond Beach. Keep in mind that we visited during winter, and appreciated the protected swimming bays. If you go during summer, you can also check out Haena Beach Park, Anini Beach, and Ke’e Beach.

    Not Every Kauai Beach is Swimmable

    For those who like to swim, relax, or snorkel, Kauai is paradise! However, refer back to the section about the seasons before you plan which beaches to visit. The island’s seasons change the conditions of the surf. Many are surprised to learn that not every beach in Kauai is swimmable because the swells are large and unpredictable.

    Related:

    Whale Season on Kauai

    When we went to Kauai in November, we didn’t know it was the beginning of the whale season. It was a happy surprise for us and were lucky enough to spot whales during our sunset sail on the south shore. Had we known when peak whale watching season was, we may have waited a few weeks for our trip. Whale watching season on Kauai is November-March, with the peak months being January-February.

    The Beauty of a Waterfall Tour

    When we arrived, we were still undecided if we wanted to go on a tubing adventure or see a waterfall up close. We had time in our schedule for one additional activity. In the end, we chose a kayak, hike, and waterfall tour because we wanted great pictures of the island’s landscape. We 10/10 recommend a kayak and waterfall tour! It’s a leisurely adventure that leads to a big payoff. The forests of Kauai are stunning, and swimming in a waterfall basin is something you’ll never forget. Here are some tours we recommend:

    Stunning Sunset Sails

    A sunset sail was the first Kauai activity we booked, and we had no idea how incredible it would be. Since it was the winter season, we chose to sail the calm waters on the south side of the island near Poipu Beach. We’ve also sailed Maui’s coast, and can confidently say Kauai was a better experience. The coastline along the south shore is beautiful, lush, and seemingly untouched. An even more fantastic sail on Kauai would be along the NaPali Coast on the north shore. Here are a few Kauai sails we recommend:

    The North Shore is the Lushest on the Island

    Visiting the north shore of Kauai was something out of a picture book. The lush landscape was BREATHTAKING. Driving along the cliffs of the ocean and through the green mountains was incredible. We spend most of our time at Hanalei Bay, which was relatively calm for the winter waters. The bay is protected from the open ocean, which breaks the winter waves. We loved swimming and surfing at the beach with the mountainous landscape behind us. We enjoyed Hanalei so much that we chose to go back on our last free day.

    Views at Kilauea Lighthouse

    The Kilauea Lighthouse wasn’t on our radar before visiting Kauai. We only found out about it because we saw it on the map as we drove north to Princeville. When we arrived, we found out the lighthouse was closed, which was a shame because the views from the cliffs overlooking the ocean are stunning. The lighthouse is a wildlife refuge, and a must if you’d like to encounter some of Kauai’s wildlife and marine life. If you are visiting during whale season, we heard it’s a great place to whale watch, as well. To check hours of operation, you can visit their website here.

    Danger at Hanakapiai Beach

    On the north shore you’ll find the famous Kalalau Trail. The trail is 11 miles long, and you need a permit to complete the whole thing because of how advanced it is. However, many people take the hike to Hanakapiai Beach, which is only two miles each way. My husband and I only made it a portion of the way through the trail and didn’t make it to Hanakapiai Beach. A day later, a woman was unfortunately swept out to the ocean from the beach, so we were glad we didn’t attempt the hike.

    The swells are incredibly large and dangerous at Hanakapiai Beach during the winter season. It’s well-known that massive rogue waves hit the area during winter, and hikers need to stay offshore and watch from a distance. There were signs at Ke’e Beach at the Kalalau trailhead warning people not to enter the water. The dangers of Hanakapiai Beach is definitely one of the top things to know before visiting Kauai.

    You can read about a dangerous rogue wave that recently fell upon hikers on the trail here.

    Turtle Cove

    We stumbled across Turtle Cove in Poipu on the last day of our vacation. We were searching for places to eat and saw Turtle Cove on the map. There wasn’t any explanation of what it was, but we wanted to stop by to explore. It turns out Turtle Cove is exactly what it sounds like! A cove with tons of turtles swimming and resting on the rocks. When we arrived, many people were snorkeling the area for a chance at encountering a turtle underwater. However, you can see plenty of turtles from the rocks! If you want an easy opportunity to spot Hawaiian honu, take the trip to Turtle Cove.

    Incredible Food at Koloa

    My husband and I are huge foodies, so we had a running list of restaurants and food we wanted to try. We didn’t know about Da Crack until a local mentioned it to us in Poipu, and we’re so glad they did! Da Crack is at the top of my list for the best food on Kauai. We recommend their shrimp bowl, preferably eaten at Poipu Beach during sunset.

    Winding Drive of Waimea Canyon

    The Grand Canyon of the Pacific is a must if you are visiting Kauai! Admittedly, I hate winding car drives and tall heights, which Waimea Canyon has both. However, the ride is safe, and the speed limit is slow up the mountain. There are a few places to park and lookout along the way, but the ultimate view of the canyon is about 3,000 feet up. The canyon is vast, deep, and colorful. You may even come across some fun mountain goats at your stop.

    Smaller Cars are Better in Kauai

    Unlike Maui, we didn’t see many Jeep Wranglers on Kauai. Most rentals and local cars on Kauai were sedans, aside from the compact pickup trucks carrying surfboards. We drove across most of Kauai during our trip, and a small vehicle proved to be best. Between the one-lane bridges, the narrow roads along the cliffs of the north shore, and the winding trip up to Waimea Canyon, a compact car was the way to go.

    One Lane Bridge Rule

    Depending on where you travel, you will come across a couple of one-lane bridges. Here in Michigan, we have stumbled across a few, but the rules are a bit different on the island. In Kauai, they allow about five cars at a time to travel the bridge before the other side goes. This rule was surprising to learn because we are used to an every-other system in the midwest.

    Bring Water Shoes for Hiking

    There are many trails to hike on Kauai if you want to opt for exploring the jungle-like landscape. Many people recommend bringing hiking shoes, but we brought good-quality water shoes with sturdy soles. Many of the trails require you to cross streams. Rather than have soaked hiking shoes and socks, water shoes dried faster for us and were perfect for our adventures.

    Girl sitting on mountain NaPali Coast Kauai

    Despite wishing we’d known more before going to Kauai, it was still an incredible experience. We were very well prepared for our Hawaiian vacation, but Kauai was full of secrets we didn’t uncover until we arrived! The mystery of Hawaii makes every trip fun because you’ll always experience something new. Now that you are aware of the top things to know before visiting Kauai, embrace the magic of the island! After all, it’s not every day you travel to Kauai. Exploring and adventuring is part of the fun.

    Have you been to Kauai before? What did you wish you had known before arriving on the island?

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    1. I’m getting ready to go for the 3rd time. We leave next week. I have always been there in February. Whale season is great and you are so right about many beaches not being swim friendly, but there are definitely some that are. I love that Kauai is more family friendly and laid back. I was able to see two free luau’s while i was there. The ticket is to look for children that are practicing. They often put on free shows at coconut market place and in front of some of the local shops. They are so cute and it’s great to see them embracing their culture. I let my kids eat shave ice for breakfast two of the days we went!

      • Oh, this is SO exciting Deanna!! Yes, for instance the north shore isn’t best during winter, but we had an incredible time at Hanalei Bay body boarding. The green mountainous views are magical near Princeville! Agree about it being quite laid-back compared to other islands, too. Great tips about free luaus- THANK YOU! We opted to skip out on dinner once at the Smith Garden Luau, and instead only go for the show. For only $20 an adult, it was a bargain! You sound like a fun mom 😉 Hope that many more family memories are made and that an abundance of shave ice is in your future!

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