Kauai, the Garden Isle of Hawaii, beckons with its lush mountains, soft pearly sand, and plenty of rainbows. Once you get there, admiring those vistas comes free of charge. But there are plenty of other low-cost things to do on the island, including some you would not expect to be so cheap — like live music, good food, and even golf. Yes, notoriously pricey golf. These are the best low-cost and free things to do in Kauai.
1. Take in the view
Kauai’s views are free to savor and likely a big reason you came to the island in the first place. Whether you want to sit on a stretch of sand and gaze out at the sea, hike the Garden Isle’s famous trails, or drive to places like the Waimea Overlook, all of these activities — save the Kalalau Trail, which requires a $20 permit — cost nothing.
If you’re up on your interesting Hawaii facts, you also know that all the beaches in the state are open to the public. More than that, there are plenty of nearly secret beaches in Kauai that most of the public doesn’t know about. The same goes for those precious views overall. Not only can you see them for free; you can find ones that most tourists never visit.
2. Hike the Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail
Hiking is a super activity on Kauai that will cost you nothing, or nearly nothing. And while Kauai is packed with amazing places to hike, one trail that’s easy to do also includes some bonuses that will make the entire hike more than worth it. The Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail, starting at Poipu’s Shipwreck Beach, is mostly flat with a few short up and down sections, running less than two miles (3.7 round-trip) along low cliffs on Kauai’s south shore, offering excellent ocean views the whole way.
But you’ll get more than a spectacular ocean vista for the zero money you spent. You’ll also get a cave, history, and incredible land turtles. This trail takes you to the Makauwahi Cave, the largest limestone cave in Hawaii and the site of fossil preserves. Volunteers are there to explain its significance in historical and geologic terms. While the cave is free to visit, feel free to leave a small donation.
If you keep walking past the Makauwahi Cave at the end of the trail, you’ll reach a tortoise sanctuary that is part of the Makauwahi Cave Reserve. There are up and down steps to get in to make sure none of the giant land turtles there escape their sanctuary, where they are fed and cared for. For a lot of people, seeing these gentle creatures is a highlight of the hike and even their Kauai visit.
3. Check out Island Art Nights
Every Friday evening, locals and visitors drive to the west side of the island for Hanapepe Art Night. Hanapepe is home to a community of artists, and on Friday nights galleries fling open their doors, food trucks park along Hanapepe’s main road, and artisans showcase their wares at outdoor kiosks. It isn’t entirely free as you’re sure to be tempted by some of the culinary offerings, but it’s definitely a fun, low-cost thing to do.
If you happen to be on the opposite end of the island on the first Saturday of the month, then check out the Kapaa Art Walk, where you’ll find plenty of food trucks, open galleries, and live music.
4. Dig into the iconic plate lunch
Eating out in Hawaii can add up since food is either grown on small ranches and farms on the islands or has to come by ship. The solution is the plate lunch, an extremely hearty lunch option that you will find all over the Hawaiian islands. Classically, it consists of white rice, macaroni salad, and a protein like teriyaki chicken or pulled pork. If you get more than one protein it’s more likely to be called a mixed plate. If you’re not a vegetarian, this is a low-cost way to get a satisfying meal.
Plate lunches have often been served straight off of food trucks, the other way to save on a tasty meal. Food trucks have been part of the Hawaii scene since before they were a thing anywhere else. Now on Kauai, you can go to places like Kalaheo and find a few food trucks to choose from, like Kauai Poke Co or Kickshaws, which makes a mean grilled cheese.
5. Attend an affordable hula show
For many native Hawaiians, hula is an important part of their cultural heritage. There are ways to enjoy hula that don’t involve shelling out a bunch of money for a tourist-oriented luau. Instead, you can see free hula shows — often with young students from local schools — on Thursdays at 2 PM across from Spouting Horn near Poipu, or at the Coconut Marketplace in Kapaa on Wednesdays at 5 PM and Saturdays at 1 PM.
6. Ride a bike
Spend a few hours or a whole day riding a beach cruiser along Kauai’s eastern shores. You can rent a bike for the whole day for $17.50 or for 24 hours for $25. In Kapaa, head over to the Mermaid Cafe and buy a Mermaids Sandwich or one of their huge wraps (like a peanut satay or black bean burrito) to go, pick up some water or juice at Kauai Juice Co., pop it into your bicycle tote bag, and then start cycling up the beachfront bike path. Head all the way to Paliku (aka Donkey Beach) and enjoy your picnic in one of Kauai’s many quiet, uncrowded stretches of sand.
Okay, it’s not really spelunking, in the sense that you won’t be donning a hard hat and headlamps and descending into deep underground caverns. Kauai’s caves are above-ground and don’t really require extra gear to explore. But there are a few of them and all are free to check out. Beyond Makauwahi Cave, noted above, you can visit Maniniholo Dry Cave just off the road on the north shore by Haena Beach. Near that cave are Waikanaloa and Waikapalae, and though they may be so-called “wet caves,” we urge you not to take a dip in their still-water pools.
Snorkeling is some of the most low-cost entertainment you can find in Hawaii. And entertainment it is since — when you know the spots — you’ll be rewarded with sights of sea turtles and every type of colorful fish. Rent your gear for a mere $12 a day (and two sets for the price of one on weekdays) from Boss Frogs. With your snorkeling gear, you’ll also get a sheet with drawings of all the fish you may spot. While some of the locations are closed during COVID, the Koloa town location is still open. From there, you’re a short drive to the beach in front of the Beach House Restaurant, where you’ll have a chance to search out several of the species on the fish sheet.
9. Stroll the farmers markets
On any day from Monday to Saturday, you will find a farmers market in Kauai, and every one of them makes a fun excursion. Not only will you find purple sweet potatoes and hot-pink dragon fruits, but you can also chat with the farmers about how best to prepare these unusual delights. Learn how to tell when a papaya is perfectly ready to eat, or admire a local artisan’s wood carvings. Kauai farmers markets are more than an ultra-fresh grocery store or a really cool craft fair — they’re a chance to see how locals eat and live on the Garden Isle.
10. Listen to daytime live music
Besides listening to live music over drinks at a bar, you can get your choice of several local acts at the Wednesday afternoon farmers market at The Shops at Kukui-ula, a newish outdoor collection of shops in Poipu. So between choosing the ripest papaya and freshly picked lettuce from the farmers themselves, wander to different parts of the shopping area to listen to young surfer dudes in a rock band, a local guy strumming island classics on his ukulele, or some plenty of other fun and free tunes.
11. Golf at the Kukuiolono Park & Golf Course
Usually, golfing doesn’t fall into the low-cost things to do in Kauai (or anywhere) category. After all, tee times cost well over $200 at places like the Makai Princeville course. But Kukuiolono is a bargain. Sure, the meager $10 price is per person for nine holes, but even if you do the course twice — for 18 holes total — and pay for four people, you’re still at $80. And if you are on a budget, you aren’t going to pay airline baggage fees to bring clubs to play nine holes. So just rent clubs, a bag, and balls; all in, they’re just $14 for those nine holes.
12. Admire flora and fauna
Kauai is full of lovely gardens, but most are pricey to visit. A tour and chocolate tasting at Princeville Botanical Gardens would set you back $85, and both the McBride Garden and the Na ‘Aina kai Gardens and Sculpture Park charge $20 for entrance. While the $20 fee does fund the upkeep of these lovely gardens, that’s a lot if you’re on a budget.
Check out the island’s animal life instead. In addition to the free-to-visit tortoise reserve noted above and the snorkeling opportunities, the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge costs just $11 per adult ($10 plus a $1 reservation fee) and is free for kids 16 and under. There, not only will you look upon the Kilauea Lighthouse against a backdrop of Pacific Ocean, but you’ll encounter nesting seabirds and the rare Nene, Hawaii’s state bird. And if you are into botany, you’ll find plenty of native coastal plants there, too.