This post was originally published on November 29, 2015 and was most recently updated on December 26, 2023.
The stereotypical image of Hawaii is a sandy beach with palm trees. The islands do have plenty of palm trees and beaches, but Hawaii offers so much more: rugged coastlines, plunging waterfalls, lush rainforest, and historic small towns. Likewise, there's a lot more to Hawaiian food than pineapples and tropical drinks with paper umbrellas. Hawaii's unique cuisine combines traditional foods from the original Polynesian settlers and the influence of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, and Portuguese immigrants, often on the same plate.
Kaua'i is geologically the oldest of the Hawaiian islands, and thanks to its lush landscape it's nicknamed the "Garden Island." With a population of about 73,000, Kaua'i has a more rural, small town feel than Oahu or Mauai, although there are plenty of businesses catering to tourists. We've visited Kaua'i twice: in 2015 we stayed in Kalaheo and Līhuʻe, and in 2023 we stayed in Koloa and Princeville. This post is a roundup of my favorite Kaua'i places to to eat, things to do, and areas to stay—it's not meant to be a comprehensive resource, but rather a jumping off point. For additional information about Kaua'i, check out the Hawai'i Tourism Authority.
Favorite places to eat on Kaua'i
Businesses are listed in alphabetical order within each category.
Restaurants & takeout
Da Fazenda (Hanalei) is food truck serving up Brazilian combo plates with meat, seafood, and vegetable dishes. My vegetarian plate was fresh and delicious: corn salad and green salad served with garlic rice, beans, Brazilian salsa, and farofa, a side dish made from toasted yuca flour. Da Fazenda is located in the Hanalei Food Truck Court, which has plenty of outdoor seating.
Kilauea Fish Market (Kilauea) is a counter-service café with a menu of salads, plate lunches, ahi wraps, burritos, fish tacos, and poke bowls. Although most items are fish-based, there are some meat and vegetarian items. I loved the massive ahi wrap loaded with seared ahi, lots of brown rice, carrots, cabbage, bean sprouts, and homemade dressing. It's a lot of food, but the combination of crisp vegetables and fresh fish kept me eating through to the last bite. The fish tacos were similarly delicious.
Kōkeʻe Lodge (Waimea) is housed in a charming historic building inside Kōkeʻe State Park. Instead of taking advantage of a captive audience, the counter-service restaurant serves genuinely delicious, made-from-scratch fare featuring locally-sourced ingredients. Although they have a full menu with breakfast items, salads, and meat and vegetarian entrees, we stopped by between meals and enjoyed a tasty java white chocolate cookie, lilikoi (passion fruit) lemonade with fresh fruit juice, and locally-made lilikoi kombucha.
Koloa Fish Market (Koloa) is a takeout lunch spot specializing in poke bowls and plate lunches. My poke bowl was top-notch: silky chunks of raw marinated fish over rice, seasoned with a bit of wasabi mayo. There are also cooked seafood and meat-based plate lunch specials like laulau, a traditional Hawaiian specialty of pork, butterfish, and taro leaves steamed together in a leaf-wrapped packet.
Mark's Place (Līhuʻe) is located in an industrial park well off the tourist track, but it's worth visiting for the huge plate lunches, ahi burger, and noodle salads. There isn't any indoor seating but there are several covered picnic tables outside. Plate lunches are big enough to split and can be ordered with brown rice and tossed salad in lieu of the standard white rice and macaroni salad, with protein options including chicken katsu, teriyaki beef, and loco moco. I really enjoyed the ahi quinoa tofu burger and they also have some tasty-looking housemade cakes, cookies, and other desserts.
Wong's Chinese Restaurant & Bakery (Hanapepe) serves Chinese and Hawaii cuisine including saimin (a Hawaiian noodle soup influenced by Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, Korean, and Portuguese cuisine), plate lunches, and marvelous lilikoi chiffon pie. The surroundings are basic, but the food is delicious.
Ice cream & shave ice
Lappert's Ice Cream (multiple locations) serves super premium ice cream made with quality ingredients like Kona coffee, as well as wonderful sorbets made with real fruit purees. Some of my favorite flavors are Luau Delight (coconut sorbet with passion fruit), Tutu's Anniversary (coconut ice cream with passion fruit and strawberry sorbet), and the coconut macadamia nut fudge ice cream. Get your scoop in a waffle cone—they're freshly made.
Koloa Mill Ice Cream & Coffee (Koloa) serves Roselani Ice Cream, a local favorite that has been made on Maui since 1932, as well as shave ice and Dole whip. It's located in one of Old Town Koloa's historic clapboard buildings and has a nice covered porch at the back.
Waikomo Shave Ice (Koloa) is a food truck serving all-natural shave ice, with syrups made from fruit puree. Instead of picking your own toppings, their shave ice comes topped with fresh fruit, coconut cream, and honey—I love how the honey complements the fruit syrups.
Wishing Well Shave Ice (Hanalei) has been serving organic and traditional shave ice from a vintage bus in Hanalei, Kauai since 1983. They truly have something for everyone, from cotton candy shave ice garnished with sprinkles to organic hibiscus lime shave ice topped with coconut cream. Mike enjoyed "Da Bomb" traditional shave ice with root beer and cherry syrups, vanilla ice cream, and sweetened condensed milk.
Aloha Roastery (Līhuʻe) is a third-wave coffee shop with excellent coffee and amazing housemade pastries—their chocolate croissant is among the best I've ever eaten. You can even watch the pastries being made through a window on the outside of the building.
Dark Horse Coffee Roasters (Koloa) is a San Diego-based chain with a Hawaii location housed in a former Buddhist mission. The historic building is really neat, and the menu includes Hawaii-specific items like macadamia nut brownies and haupia foam cold brew (haupia is a Polynesian coconut pudding). I enjoyed the haupia foam cold brew so much that we returned the next day so I could get another one.
Kind Koffee Co. (Kalaheo) serves organic coffee from a trailer inside Warehouse 3540, an industrial building that's been converted into a marketplace with boutiques, galleries, and food vendors. Many of the coffee drinks include local ingredients, and they also have non-coffee options like hibiscus lilikoi lemonade and housemade chai. The Kaua'i cold brew with locally-made salted macadamia nut syrup and cold foam was a delicious pick-me-up when I was dealing with jet lag.
Wishing Well Coffee (Hanalei) has the same hippy vibes as its sister shave ice stand and offers a menu of espresso drinks and smoothie bowls. We enjoyed both, but the signs warning about feral chickens in the outdoor seating area are no joke—a chicken actually grabbed a piece of banana from my smoothie bowl while I was eating it.
Favorite things to do on Kaua'i
Waimea Canyon State Park has striking red rock formations that seem more like the American Southwest than the tropics. The scenic drive through the park offers several overlooks to admire sweeping panoramic views of Waimea Canyon, and there are hiking trails for a range of ability levels.
We hiked the Canyon Trail, a 3.6-mile out-and-back moderate hike that takes you along the canyon rim. The trail is steep and muddy in many places, and I was grateful for my sturdy hiking boots. The view towards the end is awe-inspiring, even though my vertigo kept me from getting too close to the edge.
Kōke'e State Park is adjacent to Waimea Canyon State Park, and your parking and entrance fees include both parks. In addition to hiking trails, there's a lookout with an amazing view of Kalalau Valley and a small natural history museum. Kōkeʻe Lodge (mentioned above) is a nice place to relax with a cold beverage, snack, or meal.
Hanapepe bills itself as "Kaua'i's Biggest Little Town", with a historic Old Town filled with locally-owned shops and galleries. If possible, visit on a Friday evening from 5:00pm-8:00pm for Art Night, when the shops, galleries, and restaurants are open late and the street is lined with additional vendors and live music. My favorite shops in Hanapepe are Talk Story Bookstore, the Western-most independent bookstore of the United States; Banana Patch Studio, which makes hand-painted ceramic tiles and pottery; and Aloha Spice Company, which sells locally-made food products. Another fun Hanapepe activity is walking across the swinging bridge, a swaying pedestrian bridge across the Hanapepe River.
Maha'ulepu Heritage Trail (Poipu) is a 4-mile out-and-back coastal hike with incredible coastal views. It starts at Shipwreck Beach and takes you past rock formations and a golf course, ending with a view of Maha’ulepu Beach. The scenery is great, but portions of the trail feel quite developed, which somewhat detracts from the experience. Definitely start the hike early in the day, and bring plenty of water—there isn't much shade and there isn't any fresh water available.
Poipu Beach Park (Poipu) is a gorgeous sandy beach popular with both people and wildlife—we were delighted to see sea turtles and Hawaiian monk seals. In addition, it's a good spot to watch the sunset and there's shallow, natural wading pool.
Lawai Beach (Koloa) is underwhelming at first glance: a narrow strip of sand next to the road. However, it's an easy to access, beginner-friendly snorkeling spot, frequented by many species of tropical fish and sea turtles. If you need to rent snorkel gear, there are Boss Frog's and Snorkel Bob's locations nearby. It's also a lovely spot for sunset watching.
Old Koloa Town (Koloa) was established in 1835 during Hawaii's plantation era, and many of the one-story clapboard buildings date back to the 1920s. Today, the buildings house galleries, boutiques, restaurants, and souvenir shops, with interpretive signs on each building detailing its history. Koloa Mill Ice Cream & Coffee and Dark Horse Coffee Roasters mentioned above are located in Old Koloa Town. I also recommend Kauai Gourmet Nuts, which sells macadamias and mixed nuts in a variety of sweet and savory flavors, many featuring local ingredients like ginger, honey, coconut, and coffee.
Grove Farm Market (Līhuʻe) is held on Saturday starting at 9:30am until supplies last and is a great way to purchase fresh, locally grown produce and prepared foods. There are about 50 vendors, many selling local specialties like fresh coconut, sugarcane juice, tropical fruit, and plate lunches.
Kauai Museum (Līhuʻe) has a large collection of artifacts representing several centuries of Hawaiian history, with galleries dedicated to the royal family, Hawaiian culture, and the plantation era. Although you can explore the museum on your own, I recommend taking a guided tour (included with admission) for additional context. Tours are offered Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 10:00am. The museum has a nice gift shop stocked with handcrafted textiles, apparel, jewelry, decor, and other items reflecting Polynesian arts and crafts traditions.
Island Helicopter Tours (Līhuʻe) lets you see Kaua'i from the air via a 50-minute Grand Skies Island Tour that includes views of Manawaiopuna Falls (famous from Jurassic Park), Waimea Canyon, and the Na Pali Coast. It's definitely a splurge ($250 per person as of December 2023) but it was truly one of the most memorable experiences of my life—the scenery was so beautiful I actually started crying. If you're at all susceptible to motion sickness, take medication before your tour, since it can be quite choppy.
Wailua Falls (north of Līhuʻe) is worth a quick detour. The 80-foot double waterfall was used in the opening credits of the television show "Fantasy Island" and can be easily seen from the roadside.
Kuilau Ridge Trail (Kapa'a) is a 3.6 mile out-and-back hike through lush greenery. It ascends about 700 feet, and by the end of the trail you're gazing down at the rainforest canopy, with vegetation so thick that it looks like someone draped a blanket of leaves over the trees. The trail is wide and well-maintained, but can be muddy.
Kīlauea Point National Wildlife Refuge (Kīlauea) has a historic lighthouse, lots and lots of birds, and impressive views of the rocky coastline. You'll likely spot nēnē, Hawaii's state bird—if they look a little familiar it's because they're descended from Canadian geese. You might see humpback whales from November through March. Reservations are required and can be made online; I'd allocate about 45 minutes for bird watching and admiring the views.
Hanalei Valley Lookout (Princeville) is highway pullout with a panoramic view of taro fields in the valley below and the surrounding mountains. It's definitely worth a quick stop, although the view is much more impressive on a clear day.
Hanalei is a small town with a low-key surfer/hippie feel, with lots of restaurants, shops, and the jaw-droppingly beautiful Hanalei Bay Beach. Most restaurants were vegan and vegetarian-friendly, and I ate my favorite Kaua'i meals at Wishing Well Coffee and Da Fazenda (mentioned above).
Makua (Tunnels) Beach (west of Wainiha) has a mountain backdrop that may look familiar thanks to the movie adaptation of South Pacific. It's great for snorkeling in the summer, and although conditions aren't safe for swimming in the winter months, the views are still wonderful and you might see skilled surfers riding the impressive waves.
Favorite places to stay on Kaua'i
Kaua'i is a relatively small island (about 25 miles long by 33 miles wide), but since you can't drive across the center or circumnavigate the island due to its mountainous terrain, it takes longer to get from point A to point B than you might expect. To minimize driving, I recommend splitting your time between the South Shore and the North Shore, as we did on our 2023 trip. In 2015, we split our time between the West Side town of Kalaheo and Līhuʻe, which was more budget-friendly but not as convenient for sightseeing (both properties we stayed at on that trip have since closed).
During our time on the South Shore in 2023, we stayed at Prince Kuhio Oceanview Condominiums in Koloa. The location is great—right across the street from Lawai Beach and a 5 minute drive from Old Koloa Town. The common areas are well-maintained and there's a beautifully landscaped courtyard and pool area. Our particular condo was a little worn around the edges, but I would definitely stay at the property again in a nicer unit. Opt for an ocean view; those units overlook an adjacent park and have a more serene feel, plus you can watch the sunrise from your lanai.
On the North Shore in 2023, we spent the night at the Zen Tropical Retreat Studio in Princeville. We appreciated the soothing, minimal decor and that it was conveniently located to Hanalei.
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