Kauai: The Garden Island – Get Your Bearings

Exploring Kauai

Many people have probably seen images of Kauai but did not realize it. In movies, it has represented the faraway jungles of Vietnam in Tropic Thunder,  the prehistoric playground of Jurassic Park, and countless other movies. Very rarely does it depict itself.

Most locals are happy with this fact. If Kauai ever became something like what its neighbor Oahu has become, it would lose a great deal of its character forever. But that won’t happen. The people here are too focused on the good life.  While they are keen to preserve a simple way of life (there is an ordinance saying that no building can be taller than a palm tree), the locals here are very welcoming to outsiders that show the island the respect it deserves.  That is why I’ve decided to spend a bit of time here.

The Lowdown

The island is broken up into 5 distinct regions: North, East, South, and West – and the Na Pali Coast. The 4 cardinal directions all have people but each has their own distinct flair.  The fifth area, the Na Pali Coast, has no roads or development, and is a protected state park.  The land itself is something you’ll have to see on your own to believe. As much as the photos showcase some of the beauty, the reality is that you have to be immersed in the place to truly understand it’s power. But the entire island has amazing mana, and you must fully experience it in person to understand.

The North Shore

Hanalei, Kauai - The large bay is the central focus for the North Shore
Hanalei, Kauai – The large bay is the central focus for the North Shore

Between Ke’e Beach and Moloa’a is considered the North Shore. Here the true sense of the garden island is showcased.  Steep mountains give way to fertile valleys before hitting the beaches – endless swaths of golden sand that only give way to rocky headlands once in a while. The road deviates from the shoreline for a lot of the way, so the best way to see the coast is on foot.

In the winter months this strip is a surfer’s paradise. Out of respect for the locals I wont’ give away any secret spots.  So just start at Hanalei pier and go out from there. if you’re good enough, you’ll find the right spot.

For a good relaxing beach, try Anini beach. The offshore reef creates a peaceful lagoon that is great for snorkelling or just lazy sunbathing.

There are too many things to do on Kauai’s north shore to list here. Here’s a few of the beaches to explore. If you would like something more in depth check out the North Shore section (Coming Soon).

The Eastside

Most people live on the east side, which is generally considered to be the area between Anahola and Lihue. Lihue is the island’s commercial center with the airport, sea port, and most shopping found on this strip.  You will also find many of the more budget-oriented hotels and motels between Lihue and Kapaa.  Backpackers can find dorm-style accommodation in Kapaa at two hostels for about $35 per night.

The Eastside is probably the best part of the island for restaurants and nightlife. Old Town Kapaa and Kalapaki beach are two of the most popular spots.

South Shore

Koloa Fish Market - not to be missed
Koloa Fish Market – not to be missed

The South side is probably the smallest, or at least most concentrated, area on Kauai. There are three main areas: Koloa, Kalaheo, and Poipu. Koloa is more or less one row of commercial shops in old colonial-style buildings. A stop at the Koloa Fish Market is not to be missed.

Poipu is a bit further down the road from Koloa and is mostly filled with tourist hotels and second homeowners from the mainland. Poipu beach is a popular spot to visit with some of the south shore’s best surfing and snorkeling right there. About 100 yards down the road is Brennecke’s beach, a popular bodysurfing spot with the locals.

Kalaheo is mostly a local’s spot, but visitors will appreciate the small town hospitality and charm. If you are in the area at breakfast time make sure to visit Kalaheo Coffee Company which sells much more than just caffeinated beverages. There is a popular yoga studio in town, as well as a community center if you would like to meet some friendly locals.

Happy Bodysurfers at Brennecke's Beach
Happy Bodysurfers at Brennecke’s Beach

Da West Side

The West Side is known for its natural beauty.  3 of the island’s top destinations are found here: Waimea Canyon, Kokee State Park, and Polihale Beach. All three of them are worth seeing, and equally worthwhile are the towns along the way.

When you get back onto the highway and pass Kalaheo you will soon find yourself heading down a large hill.  At the bottom of the hill is Port Allen, a small port home to fishing boats and tourist vessels. When you turn right you head into Hanapepe, a town known for its Friday night art night. It’s also the setting for the Disney animated movie Lilo and Stitch.

Sunset at Waimea Pier

The next town is Waimea, which is historically known as the first landing point of Captain James Cook back in 1778. The town has a charm all it’s own.  The lack of rain has caused the red dirt to stain the buildings, and you feel as though you’ve stepped back in time as the pace here slows right down. There are lots of charming businesses here but one that can’t go unmentioned is Kauai Granola Company. They have the chocolate macaroons that are absolutely to die for!  A sunset from Waimea pier is worth sticking around for – perhaps at the end of your day exploring Waimea Canyon and Kokee.

Na Pali Coast

This area differs from the rest.  There are no “attractions” so to speak, other than the natural beauty, which is not to take anything away from how important it is to see this place. There are three ways to see the Na Pali Coast: Helicopter, Boat, and Foot.

The first two options do not give you quite the same experience as hiking the world-famous Kalalau Trail. I might be a bit biased because it was one of those life-changing hikes-but many people also agree that it’s a place that truly has to be experienced to understand its full power and beauty.

Instead of trying to convince you with words, I’ll go the ol’ “picture is worth a thousand words” route:


[rev_slider Napali]


So that’s the basics on one of the most special places on earth.  No picture or blog post will do it justice. You’ll have to come for yourself.

Got any questions? Fire away in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer or point you in the right direction. If you’ve been here before or live here, let us know what your favorite part of Kauai is. We promise to treat it with respect.

Aloha 🙂


One Reply to “Kauai: The Garden Island – Get Your Bearings”

  1. jennywren says:

    Really enjoyed your article, Steve — vary chatty and descriptive! The photographs are beautiful.