Kauai’s nickname, the “Garden Isle,” is well-earned. Hawaii’s oldest and northernmost island is blanketed in lush tropical rainforest, countless waterfalls, soaring sea cliffs, miles of hiking trails, and rugged, colorful canyons. Its beaches are iconic and the opportunities for outdoor recreation are endless, making it an ideal destination for adventure travelers, beach bums, thrill-seekers, and history buffs alike.
Cruise passengers will port into historic Nawiliwili Harbor, in operation since 1930. It’s on the island’s southeastern coast, about 1.5 miles from the capital city of Lihue. Regardless of when your cruise is, be sure to bring some rain gear for when you get off the ship, as Kauai gets frequent — albeit usually brief — rain showers. Fun fact: Mount Waialeale, Kauai’s dormant shield volcano, is the second-wettest place on Earth, getting nearly 450 inches of rain annually. A light jacket, a hat, and waterproof or water-resistant shoes should suffice.
Aloha ‘oe i ko Hawai’i
Kauai’s most popular activities include taking a helicopter tour, exploring the Na Pali Coast, relaxing on the beach, hiking, and snorkeling. Once you’ve disembarked the ship, you’ll need to either get a rental car or a taxi straight away, as most attractions are on the other sides of the island. Don’t worry, Kauai isn’t very big.
You’ll see several waiting taxis and rideshares once you get off the ship, and all the major rental car companies have shuttles that will pick you up. Rental car prices in Hawaii are notoriously expensive and prices fluctuate frequently, so consider shopping for deals and making your reservation well in advance.
How to Spend a Day in Kauai
As soon as you’re in a cab or have the keys to your rental car, your Kauai adventure begins. No matter what activities you choose, there are truly no bad ways to spend your time here.
Tour the Na Pali Coast by Helicopter
At the top of many bucket lists and an absolute must-do in Kauai is seeing the famed Na Pali Coast. The 15-mile stretch of rugged coastline on Kauai’s northwestern shores is accessible only by helicopter, boat, or a strenuous hike. From your bird’s-eye view, you’ll spot stretches of unspoiled beach nestled between soaring sea cliffs, waterfalls, deep chiseled valleys, and sea caves. It’s no surprise that Na Pali literally means “the cliffs” in Hawaiian.
Most of the tour companies in Kauai fly state-of-the-art helicopters with panoramic windows and run one-hour tours. They also will typically pick you up and drop you off at the harbor if you don’t have a rental car. If you don’t have a tour reservation, you can visit the Aloha Center near Nawiliwili Harbor to try to book one there. Because of the limited space available on helicopters, tours do sell out, particularly on port days. It’s strongly recommended you book ahead of time.
Take a Road Trip to Waimea Canyon
People all over the world are familiar with Arizona’s Grand Canyon, but have you ever heard of the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific?” Waimea Canyon is more than 10 miles long, 3,500 feet deep, and one mile wide — and it doesn’t look like it belongs anywhere near a tropical island. While it’s just a fraction of its mainland counterpart, Waimea Canyon is awe-inspiring in its own right, with raging waterfalls and impossibly deep red and green rock canyons.
From the harbor, plan on 1.5-2 hours to reach the Pu’u O Kila Lookout at the “top” of Waimea Canyon Drive. Here, you’ll be at an elevation of 5,148 feet and have spectacular views of the entire canyon, as well as the ocean and other parts of Kauai. Along the 18-mile drive up the mountain, there are several other lookouts to stop at and take photos. Before or after checking out Waimea Canyon, be sure to stop in the historic community of Hanapepe, “Kauai’s Biggest Little Town,” or grab some coffee at the renowned Kauai Coffee Company estate.
Kauai’s Best Beaches
The beaches in Kauai are famous for good reason: They have long, broad stretches of sand, the Pacific is clear turquoise blue and quite warm here, and there are a number of activities to keep you busy, from simply sunbathing to snorkeling right off the shore.
- Kalapaki Beach – Located in front of the Kauai Marriott Resort, this popular beach is an easy walk from the cruise port. A sea break wall shelters the beach, so the water is calm, making it ideal for snorkeling and for families with children. Be sure to stop into Duke’s at the resort for a drink or snack, and to take in the oceanfront views.
- Poipu Beach – Although this beach is a bit further from Nawiliwili Harbor (approximately a 30-minute drive), it’s well worth the trip. Travel Channel named it one of the Top 10 Beaches in America in 2020, citing its calm, clear waters, powdery golden sand, and resident sea turtles and monk seals. Endless options for water activities can be found at Poipu Beach, including some of the best snorkeling in Hawaii.
Before You Go
Even if souvenirs aren’t really your thing, there is something unique to Kauai that you absolutely must get before departing: a Ni’ihau shell lei. These special leis are handcrafted using rare shells found only the small island of Ni’ihau, 18 miles southwest of Kauai. The leis are made by the island’s 200 or so residents and they are truly an authentic piece of Hawaii.
Enjoy your time in Kauai, and don’t forget a rain jacket! Aloha!
Taryn Shorr lives in sunny southern Arizona, drinks copious amounts of iced coffee, and travels as frequently as she can. Her writing tends to focus on adventure travel and how to explore new destinations in a short amount of time. Her motto is, “There’s a lot to see, and we want to see it all!”