Where to Eat, Play & Stay in Kauai
We thought for sure Maui would be the first island we would visit twice, in memory of our honeymoon, but we both fell hard for Kauai. The landscape is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Lush, mountainous, tropical, rugged, and simply put: jaw-dropping beautiful. It feels less populated and more protected than Maui, giving it a peaceful serenity that instantly washes over you.
Outside of the insanely gorgeous scenery, our favorite feature had to be the wild chickens. Back in 1992 Hurricane ‘Iniki freed many of them from local farms and they now roam the island. They manage to pop up all over the place, searching for scraps of food and crowing at random times throughout the day.
It was especially charming to watch the baby chicks follow their moms around.
We even spotted this little family drinking from a coconut! I didn’t get too close in fear of disturbing them, but if you look closely you can see the mama has her head inside of it.
To be honest, I almost didn’t want to write this post because a small part of me wishes I could keep Kauai all to myself, but it’s too magical of a place not to share. If you’re looking for a special spot to vacation, I highly recommend visiting here at least once in your lifetime. Although I have a feeling once you do you’ll end up like me and want to go back as soon as possible!
Where to Stay
Koa Kea Hotel & Resort
Choosing which side of the island to stay on can be quite challenging but we ultimately decided on the south due to it’s it’s reliably sunny weather, beautiful beaches and central location between popular activities in the west and the north.
Koa Kea Hotel & Resort is a boutique 121-room oceanfront property that was ranked #1 in all of Kauai by Travel & Leisure and it’s not hard to see why. It’s nestled directly on the tranquil sands of Poipu beach offering a safe place to swim, snorkel, and kayak. With luxurious amenities like a serene saltwater pool, an oceanfront spa, and the renowned onsite restaurant Red Salt, it’s the perfect spot to relax and enjoy the beauty of Kauai.
From the moment we arrived, we knew we were going to love our stay at the Koa Kea. Tasteful beach-themed decor, gorgeous marble bathrooms, and a cold bottle of champagne? Consider me at home.
My personal favorite feature was the double sided candle lighting between the shower and the bedroom. I’ve already got plans to include that in my new tiny house! ;)
One of the first things we did (after finishing our champagne, of course) was head down to the pool for a dip and then to the beach to take in the first of many colorful sunsets.
If only every day could end with that stunning view…
Where to Eat
Our first meal on the island was lunch at Java Kai in Old Kapaa Town. I’d first heard about the Aloha Bars from Traci and since then made it a personal mission to try one during the trip. Because I may be a little obsessed with the chocolate, macadamia, coconut combo.
Besides drool-worthy pastries (with vegan and GF options!) they also offer organic coffee and smoothies along with a good selection of healthy lunch and breakfast options made with locally grown ingredients.
We liked it so much that we went back the next morning. I highly recommend this place!
Whether you have an early flight or are just passing through Lihue, you absolutely have to stop at Rainbeau Jo’s. This adorable food truck is run by a local couple (Beau and Jo…so cute, right?!) that will instantly make you feel like they’re your old-time friends.
It’s located less than 5 minutes from the airport so we grabbed a couple of bagels and smoothies to fill us up before our flight left on the last morning. Everything was awesome and Brandon said their organic coffee was some of the best he’s ever had. That’s quite the statement because he’s had a LOT of coffee. Added bonus: they give you a punch card for free goods for when you come back one day. Because they know you’ll be back!
Coconut Cup Juice Bar & Cafe
Another great recommendation from my dear friend, Traci. The Coconut Cup is a quaint cafe located on the east side in Kapaa. Their breakfast burritos and organic fruit smoothies are delish but it was the Lava Acai Bowl that really blew me away. We ate here on our way to hike in the north and it kept us full for most of the day.
Living Foods Market
Located on the south side, less than 5 minutes from Poipu Beach, Living Foods Market is a great place to stop for a hearty breakfast and healthy snacks before heading out the Waimea Canyon area. The herbed crispy potatoes with sweet onion are to-die-for!
Fresh Bite Kauai
I had read lots of great reviews about this food truck and it definitely lived up to the hype! Fresh Bite Kauai is located in Hanalei (the north side) and offers healthy fare sourced from local and organic farms. We stopped in for lunch in between snorkeling at the nearby beaches and it was the perfect casual spot to enjoy a nice meal. With ingredients that fresh and flavorful, you can’t go wrong.
This isn’t a place I would typically eat at but it’s unique to Kauai so I figured, why not give it a try? Puka Dog is known for serving up Hawaiian-style hot dogs (and veggie dogs!) topped with a secret garlic lemon sauce and Hawaiian fruit relish in a sweet bread bun.
It was good but I wasn’t blown away by mine, mostly because I’m a dill relish and ketchup kind-of-girl. Brandon, however, loved his. He ordered it with their special Hawaiian-style mustard (he hates ketchup) which I think made a big difference. Either way, it’s a good spot to indulge for a casual lunch or dinner.
Captain’s Bar at the Grand Hyatt
Another good spot to visit in your bathing suit. We decided to walk to the Hyatt pool bar from Poipu beach for lunch one day and it’s definitely worth the extra steps. The view of the Hyatt’s massive pools is impressive as is the homemade veggie burger.
If you’re planning on a long hike in the north, this is the perfect place to pick up a few sandwiches and snacks to take with you. The tempeh sandwiches are tasty and hold up surprisingly well when smashed into a backpack.
Waimea Canyon Lookout Fruit Stand
The west side of the island is pretty barren so we were thankful to find this little gem at the Waimea Canyon Lookout. The woman who runs the stand offers a variety of homemade Hawaiian treats including coconut tapioca pudding. It’s the perfect refreshment after a long hike!
Brick Oven Pizza
Want to enjoy dinner and the sunset on the beach without getting out of your swimsuit? I feel ya.
The good news is that Brick Oven Pizza delivers to pretty much anywhere on the island. And they also offer huge salads and an option for whole grain crust. That way you can balance out all of the tropical drinks.
This fabulous restaurant is located in Poipu Beach at the Koa Kea Hotel & Resort. We were blown away by their vegan option for dinner (a pickled tofu dish that was too dark to photograph) but they’re especially known for their seafood dishes. For breakfast they offer things like avocado sourdough toast and lemon pineapple souffle pancakes. My personal favorite is the mini banana muffins that they deliver when you first sit down. My kinda place.
This was our favorite dinner restaurant on the island. Cafe Coco is located on the east side and specializes in healthy organic cuisine with vegan and GF options for every dish on the menu. The outdoor patio is a unique romantic setting to enjoy the fresh air and gentle Hawaiian breeze. If you want alcohol you’ll have to bring your own otherwise they offer delicious drinks like Hibiscus Tea and Tahitian Lemonade. For food, you can’t go wrong but the purple potato samosas with banana chutney are pretty amazing.
This is another place with great ambiance that’s located in Hanalei on the north side. They specialize in vegetarian and seafood cuisine made with organic and locally grown produce. Be sure to request a table on the patio to enjoy the garden setting!
Okay, so I know Jojo’s gets all the attention but Loco Coco is new and town and I think it’s only a matter of time until he outshines his competition. You can tell he’s using real fruit because it tastes super fresh and flavorful. It’s also just a short drive from Poipu Beach so it makes the perfect afternoon snack after a long day snorkeling at the beach.
I never would have found Tropical Dreams had I not done my research ahead of time because it’s tucked away in a small shopping plaza in Kapaa. It’s rated the best ice cream on the island and they have vegan soft serve which makes it an automatic win in my book.
What We Missed/Other Restaurants of Interest:
- Kalalea Juice Hale (voted best acai bowl on the island, I didn’t get a chance to compare it to the Coconut Cup’s)
- Al Pastor Taco Truck (voted best tacos on the island)
- Tahiti Nui (George Clooney, music, drinks, pizza)
- Kilauea Bakery (NOT healthy but highly rated pastries)
- Tidepools (upscale dining at the Grand Hyatt)
- Beach House Restaurant (best place to have dinner with a sunset view)
- Kauai Nut Roasters (nuts…)
- Merriman’s (upscale dining, known for their seafood)
Where to Play
Said to be the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, Waimea Canyon is a must-see when visiting Kauai. Spanning 10-miles long, 1-mile wide and more than 3,500-feet deep, this massive canyon is a sight to behold.
Pu’u o Kila Lookout
As you drive north from Waimea Canyon, you have the option to stop off at several different lookouts. Make sure you go all the way to end, past mile marker 18 to the Pu’u o Kila Lookout to be treated to the best view of the stunning Kalalau Valley, which is the largest on the Na Pali coast.
Honopu Ridge Hike
If you’re up for some hiking, the west side offers some of the best on the island. We opted for the less traveled hike to Honopu Ridge which is 4.1 miles out-and-back on an unmaintained trail. I feel the need to warn you that this is a brutal hike with many opportunities to injure yourself. I had to wear long pants and a rain jacket to keep from getting scratched to death by overgrown ferns. It’s also easy to get lost and the 1400-feet elevation gain on the way back can be exhausting. However, if you’re willing to tough it out, you are rewarded to a spectacular view of Honopu Valley that you’re likely to have all to yourself. This is also the only spot you can see Honopu Beach (which can only be accessed by swimming) from land.
We sat here for about 30 minutes before hiking back and in that time we saw at least four helicopters flying in the 3,000-foot deep valley. They looked like tiny specs of lint floating in the air.
Other west side hikes of possible interest:
- Awa’awapuhi Trail (3.25 miles)
- Pihea Trail to Alkali Swamp (8 miles)
- Canyon Trail to Waipo’o Falls (4 miles)
- Nu’alolo Trail/ Nu’aolo Cliffs/Awa’awapuhi Grand Loop (11 miles) <wish we had time for this one
Wailua Falls is probably one of the most beautiful and easiest waterfalls to see on the island. All you have to do is drive up and park.
When you’re done at Wailua Fllas, you can make the 20-minute drive to see the lacy 151-foot ‘Opaeka’a Falls. Don’t forget to check out the awesome view of the Wailua River across the street when you’re done!
Kalalau Trail to Hanakapi’ai Falls
This hike is not for sissies but it sure is worth it. Getting to Hanakapi’ai Beach without slipping on the steep muddy terrain is a feat in itself. Many people decide to stop at that point and for good reason. The 2-mile trail to the falls feels like it takes a lifetime and there are some moments where you question why you are putting yourself through it. Then you get to Hanakapi’ai falls, take a swim in the refreshing pool and it comes back to you. This is what Hawaii is all about.
Side note: you’ll want to wear waterproof hiking shoes for this hike. I was very thankful for my KEEN’s that day.
Ke’e Beach is where the Kalalau Trail begins and it makes a fabulous spot to rinse off and snorkel after a long hike.
Ha’ena Beach Park
This beach is just a few minutes from Ke’e and also offers some great snorkeling. We saw our first sea turtle of the trip here!
This beach is located right next to the St. Regis and requires a 10-minute, mildly strenuous hike to access. Parking is very limited (which means there’s usually not a lot of people at the beach) but you can park at the St. Regis as long as you tip the valet. If you choose the latter, be sure to take a stroll inside and marvel of the view from the hotel. You won’t believe your eyes!
The lush mountainous backdrop and enormous reef with excellent snorkeling make this my favorite beach in all of Kauai. Pictures don’t do it justice. The pull off (past mile marker 8) is easy to miss and parking is limited so you either have to come early or luck out and get there when someone is leaving. Don’t be tempted to park on the street because they will give you a ticket. We saw a police officer writing one as we left.
Not as great for swimming but it’s good for a relaxing stroll to take in the awe-inspiring view.
Hanalei Night Market
Every Sunday from 4-8pm is the Hanalei Night Market at the Princeville Shopping Center. With live music and over 40 local artisans, it makes for a nice spot to do a little shopping. The sea salt soaps are divine!
We randomly discovered this pasture while driving from the north to the south one evening and seeing a couple of cars pulled off to the side. Apparently locals (and tourists) like to bring their kids to feed the horses and the feral pigs that occupy the pasture which is owned by a couple that runs a wildlife sanctuary. After reading this article I’m not sure how much longer the pigs will be there but I have to admit, they are pretty entertaining to watch. If you decide to stop, be sure to do so carefully and look out for oncoming traffic.
What We Missed:
- Queen’s Bath
- ‘Anini Beach Park
- Secret Beach
- Moloa’a Beach
- Kayaking the Wailua River
- Helicopter Ride (looks epic but we decided not to do this due to cost and the large number of reported crashes)
- Living on Kauai ;)
Hiking Honopu Ridge Trail (West Side)
Snorkeling Kauai’s Northern Beaches
Hiking the Kalalau Trail to Hanakapi’ai Falls
Snorkeling Poipu Beach and Dinner with a Sunset
What are your Kauai favorites? Please share in the comments below!