Also known as "The Garden Island" or "Kaua'i", Kauai is the fourth largest of the Hawaiian islands and is, for all intents and purposes, the westernmost. Niihau is actually a little further to the west, but it is unvisitable (as in, "Don't even try to go there"). The writeup above notes that only native Hawaiians are allowed to go there, but this is in fact not true. The land is owned by a family of Scottish descent, who rent it out to the inhabitants, and forbid anyone else to visit. Any haole who goes there will be known as an outside and will get booted off, not because of race, but because they're trepassing on privately-held property. Non-Niihauan native Hawaiians are equally unwelcome.
But enough about that, even though Niihau is part of Kauai County, I'll limit the scope of this writeup to the island itself.
Kauai is one of the most beautiful places on the planet, and among the most colorful. Between the shining blue of the sky, the vibrant green of the vegetation, and the striking red of the earth, you'd think that someone just upped the contrast on your ophthalmic TV set.
So, we'll start with geography. Kauai is located at 22oN, 159o30'W, 105 miles northwest of Oahu. The Hawaiian island chain is smack in the middle of the Pacific Ocean - a six hour flight from LAX given favorable weather. It is 553 square miles-making it bigger than Los Angeles but smaller than London in terms of land area. Kauai is volcanic in origin, like the rest of Hawaii, and is the oldest of the islands. The volcano that spawned it has long since passed, and now the mighty waves of the Pacific are slowly whittling away at it over the millennia.
Near the middle lies Mt. Wai'ale'ale, which is both the highest point on the island, at 5148 ft, and also the wettest spot on the planet, receiving on average 460" of rainfall a year on its east face. The terrain of the island is rugged, especially towards the center and to the west, with lowlands on the northern, eastern, and southern shorelines. Rivers run down from Wai'ale'ale, in particular the Wailua River, which empties out into the eastern shore after passing over the spectacular Wailua Falls. While the populated areas have coconut and palm trees, as well as taro fields (especially at Hanalei), the interior of the island is mainly forested.
The climate of the island is variable. Typically the shore areas receive little rain (especially when compared to Wai'ale'ale), but typically the northeastern side of Kauai receives more rain than the southwestern. In general. The tradewinds are heavy here, as in most of Hawaii, and the waves on the northern shore are much larger than the south.
Places on the Island
Typically, Kauai is divided up into regional pie-shaped slices, with Wai'ale'ale at the center. Here are the major divisions:
- The Lihue Area, also known as Lihue/Kalapaki, is in the southeast, and extends from the mouth of the Wailua River south of Kapaa to the Kipu area. It contains Lihue, the largest town on the island, which serves as the county seat, as well as hosting the Lihue Airport on Nawiliwili Bay, which is the main entrance and point of egress from the island. Lihue is more functional than tourist-oriented, with local shops and a strip mall area. It is not directly on the beach. Other towns and villages in the Lihue area include Puhi, Nawiliwili, Kapaia, Hanama'ulu, all of which are located around Lihue. Of these, Nawiliwili is located on the beach, sandwiched between the airport and Lihue, and has several resorts, including the sprawling Marriott complex, which houses the island's Duke's Canoe Club restaurant. As far as tourism goes, this area isn't the best place to stay, but you'll find yourself either passing through it or visiting a restaruant at least once. The Radisson north of the Wailua Golf Course is a nice place to stay, however.
- North of the Wailua is the Coconut Coast, so named for the grove of trees at Waipouli. The area extends briefly to the north of Kapaa, which serves as the chief town of the area and the second-largest town on Kauai, which, in conjunction with Lihue, accounts for a sizeable percentage of the entire population. Kapaa is much more tourist-oriented, with many places to stay along the beach and many good restaurants. The traffic on HI 56 can be tough, but we'll discuss that in a little bit. Aside from resort-area beaches, there's also Kuhio Beach, just north of town, which is quite popular.
- From Anahola, just north of Kapaa, to Haena, on the northwest corner of the island, stretches the North Coast. This area is considerably more exclusive and contains many secluded and hard-to-get-to-beaches. There are several little towns and villages, with Kilauea and Princeville being the more important and more exclusive. The former is more of a cohesive village, the latter an extensive resort complex. Other towns include Hanalei in the northwest, which has several little stores and is surrounded by great beaches and a magnificent view of the island's taro fields from HI 560; as well as Anahola and Ha'ena out at the furthest navigable point of HI 560, near the Na Pail coast. The best-and most dangerous-surfing on the island is to be found on the North Coast, which huge waves washing ashore. Several millionaires and luminaries have their houses buried away from HI 56. There are many little beaches, from Ke'e on the borders of Na Pali to the Queens Bath and Tunnels Beach. All are certainly worth visiting.
- Radiating from the other side of Lihue, now, from Kipu to Hanapepe, is the South Coast which contains many different resort areas. There are several towns in the area, including Kaumakani, Hanapepe, Eleele in the west, Kalaheo and Lawaii inland along HI 50, and Koloa Town to the southeast. The latter is a gateway to Poipu Beach, arguably the most popular beach on the island (certainly for tourists). There are many resorts in Poipu, with the Hyatt Regency reigning supreme as the best and most expensive place to go on the island. To the south also lies the National Tropical Botanical Garden, which, despite charging an unreasonably high entrance fee, boasts some truly amazing plant life, particularly the tree filmed in Jurassic Park where Dr. Grant and the kids find dinosaur eggs. Other places to visit include Spouting Horn and Old Koloa Town.
- The least accessable part of the island is the West Coast, which stretches from Hanapepe up to Ha'ena. This area contains two breathtaking areas, the Na Pali Cliffs on the northwest coast and the Waimea Canyon, the "Grand Canyon of the Pacific". Both are impossible to drive to-it's best to get a helicopter ride. The human presence in the area is clustered around the southwestern corner, with the villages of Kehaka, Waimea, and Pakala. Midway up the western shore lies the Barking Sands Pacific Missle Range Facility, part of the U.S. military's ubiquitous presence on all the Hawaii islands. The small area of Mana is in this region, and marks the end of HI 50.
Things to Do
Kauai is very tourist-friendly, with plenty of great restaurants and hotels, as well as great beaches. You can lay out in the sun, swim in the water, or try scuba-diving, snorkeling, or surfing. Alternatively, there's kayaking, hiking, and taking helicopter tours inland or of the Na Pali coast (definitely recommended). As far as restaurants there's no much in the way of chains (except for Mickie D's, Burger King, and KFC), but the best thing to do is sample the local eateries. La Playita Azul in Wailua is a great little Mexican restaurant, and the Japanese food at Kintaro is excellent. In Kailauea there's a tasty bakery/pizza place, Pau Hana. And don't forget to try shave ice-a key Kauaian dessert.
So, there are all these sights to see and things to do on the island
, but how do you get there? Well, unless you're going to the Na Pail cliffs or Waimea Canyon, or the top of Wai'ale'ale, you basically have to get a car. Rentals are cheap on Kauai, and there are shuttles to and from the terminal at Lihue Airport. The main road on Kauai runs along the coast in a giant crescent from Ha'ena to Mana, gaining and losing several different highway numbers. From Ha'ena to Hanalei it's known as HI 560 and is a small, winding road, riddled with one-lane bridges (as a rule, on Kauai, roads numbered "5XX" are much more difficult to navigate than "5X"). From Hanalei to Lihue it's HI 56, aka the Kuhio Highway. Most of the traffic from the island is along this road, esepcially through Kapaa and the three-lane section from Kapaa to Lihue. The latter features contra-flow traffic on weekdays, so watch out. From Lihue to Mana it's the HI 50, also known as the Kaumuali Highway. Watch out for traffic through Puhi. There are several bypasses, particuarly around Kapaa and Puhi, which are key. Most everything is off this highway, with Poipu and Koloa being off to the south via HI 520 or HI 530. Wailua falls is up HI 580.
- Wild chickens are all over the place, particularly at Poipu Beach. Chickens on the beach is certainly a strange sight. Roosters have a very annoying habit of crowing all the time. Sun up or sun down, they love to crow.
- As mentioned before, Jurassic Park was filmed here.
- Wailua Falls is the waterfall featured in Dragonfly.
- Matt LeBlanc of Friends and the comedically bankrupt Joey was married on Kauai.
- Kauai boasts the largest population of the nene, the Hawaii state bird, a relative of the Canada goose, of any island.
There are several books that I highly recommend. One is the obvious Hawaii For Dummies, but not to be missed is The Ultimate Kauai Guidebook: Kauai Revealed by Andrew Doughty and Harriett Friedman. That book is a lifesaver, and they have one for every island, so no matter where you go, get it. Other sources include the Kauai Tourist Board and Wikipedia.