Since moving to the west coast, I have met many coworkers who make it a habit of vacationing in Hawaii. I always thought of the state as exactly the kind of place I did not want to travel to: too easy, familiar and similar to the rest of the US. Given the choice, I would almost always choose an international trip. Imagine my surprise, then, when I found that I thoroughly enjoyed Hawaii. It turns out that the islands are perfect for an active vacation and have a ton to do besides lay on the beach.
We went in August 2018 and I am just getting around to writing this now, so forgive me for any fuzzy details ...
Where We Ate
The food we had in Hawaii was truthfully not that great. However, there were a couple standouts ...
The Fish Express. One of the best places we ate on the entire trip. This poke counter is located just a couple minutes from Lihue Airport, so it makes a great first stop after you've picked up your rental car (a must in Hawaii, by the way). There is no real seating outside, so join the other lunch-goers sitting outside in the parking lot amongst the free-roaming chickens. $23 for two poke bowls with a huge variety of toppings. I had a mix of the Maui Onion and spicy ahi poke - delicious.
Scorpacciata. There are precious few restaurants open past 4pm on Kauai - this is an island that shuts down early. This pizza food truck is open til 8pm (even on Sunday!) and charges between $11-16 per pizza. We sampled the mushroom and the sausage - both were good.
Palate Wine Bar & Restaurant. One of the spendier places we went, this isolated restaurant on the north side of the island serves an amazing beet appetizer as well as a selection of flatbreads and salads.
What We Did
There's a ton to do on Kauai, from hiking to beaches to adventure sports.
Wailua Falls. This is a popular waterfall outlook that we stopped by on our way from the airport to our hotel. Although the outlook spot is impressive, the real fun is hiking down to the pools below the overlook. We had to hunt for the spot a bit and ask some locals for advice, but we were rewarded with a very steep and unstable 15 to 20 minute climb down to the base of the falls. My one regret is that we did not wear our bathing suits! Lots of people were refreshing themselves in the water and the area makes for some great photo ops.
Don't bring anything extra with you that you have to balance as you climb down, and don't wear white! Hiking in Hawaii in general was extremely muddy, but a lot of fun.
Alakai Swamp Trail. One of the most impressive trails I have ever hiked. This is a long walk, about 5 hours round trip leaving from Pu'u Kila Lookout, located at the end of the drive into Waimea Canyon (and beautiful in its own right). Follow the Pihea Trail for about a mile and then take a right at a sign that says "Alakai Crossing." In another 1.75 to 2 miles take a left to the Alakai Swamp Trail. We did almost get lost a few times and had to stop and ask for directions despite having the map on our phone, so try to keep track of which direction you turn!
The last several miles through the swamp are moody and atmospheric when the fog is rolling in, which it often is due to close proximity to Mt. Waialeale (touted as the wettest spot on Earth). Be prepared to walk over poorly-maintained planks through the bog. Absolutely beautiful.
Jack Harter Helicopter Tours. One of the most heavily anticipated activities for any traveler to Hawaii! Be forwarned that any helicopter tour is NOT cheap, in fact, our helicopter tour around Kauai cost more than our tickets to Hawaii themselves. That said, I don't regret spending the money!
Jack Harter came highly recommended and is one of the purveyors of the sought-after "doors-off" helicopter tours. Now I can tell you that when I was initially booking the tour I selected doors-on, as I am terrified of flying, and later changed my mind ... I would definitely opt for doors-off. You're spending a ton of money either way and if you can manage to wedge yourself in between the pilot and the other front seat passenger the fear is mitigated a bit.
We paid $309/pp for a one hour tour. Our pilot was a former military training pilot and she was amazing - very relaxed and qeueing up our playlist as she navigated us around the island. All copter tours follow the same basic path -- into Waimea Canyon, along the famous Na Pali Coast, and around Mt. Wai'ale'ale. We went on a somewhat rainy & overcast day and it was still amazing.
Blue Ocean Adventures. Activities in Hawaii add up... but this boat tour was also a ton of fun, very well worth it, and a great alternative to the helicopter tour as a way to see the Na Pali Coast (that's 90% of the reason you came to Kauai, right?) In fact, I love the water, and I may have even had more fun on this than on the helicopter tour.
The boat tour starts early, around 7am. There is an afternoon tour as well but we opted for the morning for better light and calmer water. We were in Hawaii as Hurricane Lane bore down on the islands and we were actually the last boat to go out on the water pre-Hurricane! The water was quite rough and choppy and the boat was very rocky, so beware if you get seasick.
The tour enters sea caves and gives you the opportunity to get into the water and snorkle (although the snorkeling on Kauai is not the best among the islands). It lasts around 5 hours and cost $170/pp. Our tour guide was great and I highly recommend the company.
When on Kauai, be prepared for things to shut down early. There is almost no nightlife to speak of, and you definitely need a car.
We stayed on the north side of the island which is a bit remote and isolated, not realizing that there is only one road that nearly circumnavigates the island but does not traverse the very northern tip. That meant that when we wanted to go to Waimea Canyon, on the other side of the island, the drive was over an hour. Just be aware that while Kauai is small, it is not well-connected. If I were to visit again I would stay in the more central South Shore.