We love adventure and the Garden Isle has it all- snorkeling, waterfalls, swimming, hiking, surfing and scenery fit for the movies (hello Jurassic Park!).
We went the 18th to the 25th of February, about a week on the island. The weather was pretty nice- highs in the mid to high 70’s and lows in the 60’s- but this time of year can be rainy. We were lucky to not have any real precipitation, which can affect water visibility, trail conditions and overall outdoor enjoyment if you’re not prepared. Even still, some days and some zones of the island were definitely a little misty or cool at times. Winter can also mean intense surf and higher winds on the north and west shores of the island. One plus of this time of year is that January and February are peak Humpback whale season; there are many boats and tours around the island that will take you out to see them in action.
When picking a home base, the east side of the island was attractive for its easy proximity to all the different regions. We settled in Lihue, the capital of the island and location of one of Kauai’s two airports. We chose the Aqua Kauai Beach Resort because it had fun amenities (saltwater pools with waterfalls) but was actually pretty frugal by island standards.
There were four saltwater pools and two hot tubs, plus a stretch of beach, so it was an ideal place to get into the island mood and relax for a day before we picked up a rental car. The pools and hot tubs are open 8 am – 10 pm, leaving our options open for soothing sore muscles at the end of the day or taking an afternoon break in one of the lounge chairs with a book.
The hotel beach was lovely. The wind blew through the nearby palms, we could feel the sand between our toes and we spent time just watching the waves. This beach was not safe for swimming but it was a place we visited most days during our stay.
We love exploring and so ambitiously planned trips to check out all the major regions on Kauai. With only a week, there was a lot we knew we wouldn’t get to but wanted to get a flavor for all the different microclimates and zones as much as possible. Another advantage was that each area has slightly different weather patterns- if it was cooler or rainy in one area, sunshine could likely be found in another.
Our first venture to go way out west as far as you can go. We struck out from Lihue and went down the 50 to all the way out to Polihale State Park. Immediately, I was glad the we rented a Jeep, as the road was not one I would want to brave without four-wheel drive, especially if it was wet at all. Our Jeep was fun (“like a go-cart” according to Alex), but also somewhat of a joke by the end because of how many of the exact same grey Jeep rentals there were on the road.
Access to the park is down a wildly dipping and bumpy five mile red dirt road which will probably go on longer than you want it to. I would not try this trip in the rain as the area is prone to flooding and it would be crazy muddy.
Polihale State Park is backed by the high sea cliffs of Nāpali Coastline and sets up next to the ocean with 15 miles white sandy beaches. It would be a killer place to camp ($12 a night with a permit) and is the perfect place to catch a sunset.
A few people were in the water, though strong currents and generally rougher conditions in the winter meant we just waded in the surf. Swimming is not recommended off the beach here generally, but we hear that Queen’s Pond, a shallow sandy bottom pond protected by reefs within the park, is a good place for to be in the water.
It’s a super chill area and we could have spent longer soaking up the vibes.
Lacking more than a few snacks in our vehicle and short on water, we decided to head back towards town. We drove to Waimea to re-hydrate and plan our next move.
We shared a shave ice from JoJo’s, where they make their own syrups. Shave ice can be found all over the island and is a nice treat to cool off with. Next time, I would try the same tropical flavors (coconut, pineapple, guava) but add coconut cream on top for extra decadence. Waimea was a cute small town and apparently there is a cool farmer’s market there on Saturdays. We paid an outrageous amount for a ripe and very delicious mango at a local fruit stand and browsed some of the souvenir shops on the main drag.
We were originally trying to stay in Waimea for part of our trip and I still think these Plantation Cottages look cute. I enjoyed our time in west Kauai, but it definitely would be a trek to get up north if you were staying down this far.
By the afternoon we just wanted to get into some water! It was in the high 70’s and we were looking to swim. We went to Kekaha beach, which seemed popular from the amount of locals who had driven trucks out onto the beachfront. It also had bathrooms, picnic areas, a lifeguard station and showers.
We enjoyed playing out in the water, though there is a pretty strong current. I only almost lost part of my swimsuit to the ocean when I misjudged some waves. Be smarter than us and go talk to the lifeguard about conditions and best places to swim on the beach or bring a boogie board like some of the local kids.
If you want to drive out onto the beach, look into it before you try it- locals were in the process of towing some other people out when we arrived. There’s definitely a method to driving on sand and it’s easy to get stuck if you wing it.
We caught the sunset out at the Russian Fort Elizabeth State Historical Park on our way back east. The fort was started by the Russian in 1815 but interestingly only held by them for two years. It was finished and occupied by troops for the Kingdom of Hawaii from 1817 until it was abandoned in 1853.
The area had the remains of the fort (a stacked outline of lava rocks) and some remnants of that time, such as a flag pole. The park has historical plaques and small beachfront, with some nice trees and fields to walk around. There are also a lot of feral cats in this particular place, which was kind of surreal and not something we experienced elsewhere.
Also of historical interest, the fort is right next to the beach where Captain Cook first landed (Alex is pointing the way). Overall, not a ton to see but was pretty to walk around.
My biggest regret of the west side is failing to make it to Wong’s in Hanapepe. I got a pro tip that their lilikoi (passionfruit) pie is the best ever and their plate lunches looked good too but they were closed the day we were there. Definitely a disappointment (sorry Gabe!) but go Tuesday-Saturday and let me know what we missed out on.
What’s missing? Kokee State Park (with the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific”) is a must-see for most people on the west shore. We chose to check it out in a different way- more on that to come!