Choosing Hawaii is easy. Choosing the island takes more thought. You may be thinking about which island is best for your favorite outdoor pursuits or where you can eat the best classic Hawaiian food. If you’re looking for endless sun or the pampering of luxury resorts, though, you may miss out on the northernmost island in the Hawaiian archipelago: wet, sleepy Kauai.
Yet the very same qualities that make Kauai less attractive to some are ones that we think make it the perfect location for travelers who want a less polished, less tourist-laden experience. Travelers will find a variety of outdoor options on each island, but Kauai is packed with things to do. It’s also now going to be even easier to fly to. These are the unexpected reasons why Kauai is the most underrated island in Hawaii.
1. It rains a lot.
It rains at least 15 days a month in Kauai towns like Hanalei and Poipu. That’s more rain than Honolulu, Oahu, sees even in its wettest time of year. The only place that gets more rain is Hilo on the island of Hawaii, one of the coolest towns to visit this year.
Of course, rain isn’t normally a desirable thing for people seeking a vacation island. And admittedly, the precipitation up north can occasionally last all day and churn up Hanalei Bay with brown river water. But those days are the exceptions. Most of the time, warm drizzle is interspersed with brilliant sunshine, and you can usually drive around the island to find dryer weather. The rain clouds are often so localized that you feel raindrops and sunshine at the same time — which makes for glorious rainbows.
The reason we love the wet weather — besides all those rainbows — is that it makes Kauai incredibly lush. After all, it is called the “Garden Isle.” The other, snarkier reason we appreciate the rainfall is because other people don’t. As long as Kauai remains the rainy isle, it will keep away a fair amount of sunseekers — leaving its sandy beaches for the rest of us.
2. It’s dangerous.
We don’t mean to be flippant. Enough people have lost their lives in Hawaiian waters that the state ran videos with stark warnings of ocean dangers at airport baggage claims. We agree that the power of the ocean should be respected, but we love that Kauai has a wild edge to it. The need to keep its limited ICU beds available for other emergencies may explain why Kauai has had the toughest entry requirements during the pandemic.
Unlike Oahu and Maui, no highway circumnavigates the island. If Kauai were a clock, time would go from noon to 9 PM and stop there. In the space from 9 PM to midnight, the otherworldly Na Pali cliffs are too steep and treacherous for a roadway. The only way to reach them is to hike in or kayak to their shores. You can gaze at them from behind, at one of the little-known viewpoints in Kauai.
Both ends of Kauai’s coastal highway are also pretty intimidating. On the west end, the dirt road to Polihale State Park gets filled with such large pools of water after a storm that you could get stuck — and there’s no cell service out there. On the north side, the highway past Hanalei was closed for several months following a storm, and the bridge into Hanalei is periodically closed due to excess water.
It’s not just the roads and Na Pali cliffs that are scary but the ocean itself. Kauai is home to some of Hawaii’s most hardcore surfers, and plenty of surf spots there are not for the meek. Waiohai at Poipu is a sea-urchin minefield at low tide while seemingly gentle Pakalas is mud-brown, sharky, and, frankly, not that friendly to newcomers. And while the preteen locals tearing up the surf by the Beach House are making those waves look easy, don’t be fooled. They’re challenging. But these pros-only waves also make for some of the most epic viewing experiences from the beach.
3. The best beaches are hard to get to.
Families weighted down with beach umbrellas, coolers, chairs, and the like are not looking for hard-to-reach shores. And that’s a good thing. It means those stretches of sand will stay blissfully empty for the rest of us. In fact, it’s surprising how many almost-secret beaches you can scout out in Kauai.
At the north end of the island, in Princeville, a nine-car lot is the only place to park your car if you want to access Hideaways Beach. From there, a ridiculously steep and treacherous path down the escarpment — with rusted posts, uneven steps, and haphazard ropes stretched across slippery rocks — brings you to Hideaways, a jungly gem of a beach cove. The foliage is so dense here that you wouldn’t need a beach umbrella anyway.
On the south shore, by McBryde and Allerton Gardens where botanical tours are available, you need to park along the road and scamper along a retaining wall to get past the locked gate. Then you’ll keep walking along an overgrown path, ducking under very low branches. Eventually, you’ll reach Ka Lea O Kaiwa Beach, another lovely, sandy nook. You may feel tempted to bring boogie boards, but be careful. These fast and steep waves are treacherous.
Or you can drive past the Grand Hyatt where the paving gives way to dirt, past the horse stables. At some point, your brain will be rattling from the rutted road, and you’ll become convinced you are lost. Only then will you see a car or two parked next to some trees. This is Gillin’s parking lot. Park, put on your flip-flops (do like Hawaiian locals and call these “slippahs”) and find a trail through the trees. You’ll be rewarded with a white-sand sliver of a beach and very few people.
4. You can snack on Spam.
While poke was once an adventurous food, it’s now very much mainstream.
The fact is that when Hawaiians prepare their own cuisine — an intoxicating meld of many different cultures, like Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese, and others — the results are unforgettable. If you can get off the beaten path and find those foods, you’re in for a treat.
Kauai is also a great place to get off that well-worn path. You could stop at the Salt Pond Country Store on your way back from Waimea Canyon. Get there by early afternoon on a weekend day and they won’t be sold out of the Spam musubi, which is basically like a sushi roll with Spam (a favorite Hawaiian food). Unlike some of the other prepared foods, the Spam musubi isn’t refrigerated. It sits on the counter, and it’s oddly satisfying.
If you’re staying in a condo or house with a grill, go to the Big Save Market in Old Koloa Town and ask the lady at the meat counter for the bright red marinated chicken thighs or spicy short ribs stashed in back. These are normally set aside for locals. She’ll be impressed. In Princeville, hit up the North Shore General Store behind the Chevron station and preorder some grass-fed steaks from nearby ranches.
5. You can drink your breakfast — or lunch.
If you’re driving along the Kuhio Highway by Anahola, an area where locals with Hawaiian ancestry can find housing at more reasonable prices, don’t just admire that cute orange shack nestled in the trees. Slow down and turn into the parking area of the Kalalea Juice Hale. The One Speed — a luscious whirl of coffee, bananas, house-made coconut milk, dates, and cocoa nibs — is better than a venti latte any day.
You’ll find amazing juice shops all over the island. The Kauai Juice Co. has three stores and, among its uber-healthy juices, cold-pressed coffee blends and energy shots like the Selfie, with so many veggies and herbs it’s more like a liquid salad. You can also get smoothies at Hanalei’s Aloha Juice Bar, the all-natural Harvest Market, and the Little Fish coffee kiosk in Poipu. With fruit as good as you can get in Kauai, why wouldn’t you drink your meal?
6. You don’t actually need to be a surfer.
You don’t need to be a surfer to enjoy Hawaii’s waters. At Ka Lea O Kaiwa beach, you might see some heart-stopping boogie boarders. Local teens seek out the tightest barrels, getting in deep and letting the barrels spin them upside down like they’re in a rinse cycle as they zip down the line — before getting crushed by the close-out. Then they go back for more.
Those guys have grown up doing this. Don’t try it. You can, however, boogie board in calmer seas at Poipu or hit up the sand-bottom swells at Hanalei Bay. You can also snorkel in a few locations — the best spot is by the Beach House Restaurant. You can rent snorkel gear for $5 an hour right from Boss Frog’s, steps away from the snorkel spot.
You can also sea kayak to check out the Na Pali cliffs or kayak down the Hanalei River towards the bay. There’s some incredibly fun zip lining to be had, as well. Golf clubs abound in Kauai, including the Princeville Makai Golf Club, one of the top public courses in the country. And, of course, the hiking is fantastic. Besides the Na Pali coast, a great trail on the south side starts at Shipwreck Beach.
7. You can ride a bike.
Hiking and biking are just some of the many low-cost ways to enjoy Kauai. You can mountain bike, and Kauai does have a few mountainside single-track options. But what we love is riding those uncomplicated, single-speed beach cruisers along Kauai’s eastern shore. You can rent bikes for just $17.50 all day. They come with either baskets or cute little bags for your goodies tied onto the handlebars.
Then, pedal out towards the beach where you’ll find a paved road alongside it. Head due north. You’ll have the ocean on your right the whole way north, and you’ll pass a few ideal spots to take pictures or grab a covered picnic table to have a snack. You may see locals jogging or walking, as well. The six-mile round-trip journey will take you to Donkey Beach where you can jump in for a dip. It’s an easygoing excursion in a very Kauai sort of way.
8. There aren’t a lot of big resorts.
This isn’t wholly accurate; there is in fact a Sheraton, a Marriott, and a few other big chain hotels. It’s just that you don’t feel their presence as much as you would in, say, the Big Island’s Kona-Kailua coast or Maui’s Wailea area. And on the north shore of Hawaii, you’ve only got the St. Regis at Princeville.
This means you won’t find yourself fighting resort-goers for a spot on the sand as there are miles of other shoreline stretches to choose from. Instead of staying at a hotel, you can rent a condo or splurge with a bigger group and rent a house in Hanalei.
Also, the resorts that do exist in Kauai are, for the most part, more low-key than you might find elsewhere, making it the best Hawaiian island for those who prefer small, more personal accommodations. Sure, the Grand Hyatt Kauai has an opulent lobby, and its Tide Pool restaurant — which sits atop the water and with a cheesy thatched roof — is too much. But the evening Hawaiian performance has a homey quality to it and has been performed by some of the same musicians and dancers for years.
9. It has a quirky cultural scene.
It’s no surprise that artists would seek to hide themselves away in a less-visited nook of a less-visited island. Hanapepe, on Kauai’s west side, is a community of artists and home to several galleries. Some are pretty kitschy, with items such as a starry Hawaiian night painted on a surfboard, but others do feature the work of promising locals who draw inspiration from the island’s natural beauty. Each Friday, you can walk the town’s main street during its Hanapepe Art Walk, grabbing dinner from food trucks and listening to live music.
The cultural offerings aren’t relegated to Hanapepe, as the much larger town of Kapaa has a once-a-month Saturday art walk. Moreover, there are plenty of ways to explore Hawaiian Indigenous culture on Kauai — including attending free hula dancing shows that often feature students of the ancient dance form.
10. It has a few superlatives of its own.
We love Kauai’s low-key vibe. You won’t find fancy shopping here. The shops in Hanalei Bay are inexpensive and have a Bohemian, surfer flair. Restaurants like the Mermaids Cafe, which serves hearty wraps to be eaten at picnic benches next to a brightly hued mural, exemplify Kauai’s chill style. The few exceptions serving tasty, fancier fare include Hanalei’s small-plates specialist Bar Acuda.
But Kauai has a few areas in which it tops the other isles that make it the best Hawaiian island in many respects. Kauai is the oldest island in the Hawaiian chain, located north of its cousins. If you look at a map, you’ll see that Kauai is actually farther from the other islands than they are from each other. Kauai, in a way, is set apart.
It’s also the greenest of all the Hawaiian islands, and 97 percent of it is covered by forests or mountain ranges. It has the most dramatic landscape in its 4,000-foot-high Na Pali cliffs. And it has the biggest gorge in the Pacific, the ten-mile-long and 3,000-foot-deep Waimea Canyon.
And with all that rainfall, we venture to guess Kauai has the most rainbows, too.