If you’re thinking sandy beaches and sunshine with a side of cultural sites as central to your Hawaiian vacation, the south shore is right up your alley. Winter days with overcast skies in the east or rougher seas in the north are often still sunny and calm in the south.
Kauai is easy to navigate and directions mostly consist of knowing when you need to turn off the main highways which connect the island. The exit into Koloa, Maluhia Road, is pretty tree-lined stretch surrounded by eucalyptus planed over a century ago. The heart of Old Town Koloa is a charming stretch of shops and restaurants, with a number of foot truck options as well.
We struck out to the southern side of the island, with fueling up for the day as our first priority. Anuenue Cafe, known for local favorites like loco moco, was our brunch go-to, since people rave about their benedicts and macadamia nut pancakes. Everyone else had the same idea, however, and so in the interest of time, we opted to go the beach picnic route instead with some yummy looking ready-made handrolls, fresh fruit and other snacks from a local store in the same shopping center.
Pro-tip on upping your beach lunch game: pretty much every grocery store has poke, and so if you’re like us and this is a “must-eat as much as possible” on your trip, pick up a few plastic tubs of spicy ahi, tako poke or seaweed salad while also stocking up on other picnic essentials. Stow the tubs in ice and you’re good to go!
We stopped at Spouting Horn before finding a beach to park ourselves for the day. Hawaiian legend is that the spout is the breath and angry hiss of Kaikapu, a moo (lizard), that is stuck in the lava tubes after a clever boy, Liko, outwitted her to be able to swim in and fish the nearby waters. I ended up thinking the lava shoreline was cooler to photograph than the spout (not pictured lol) which is apparently more impressive at high tide, when water can spray up to 50 feet under the right conditions through the lava rock. There’s also a little marketplace set up next to it with Hawaii tchotchkes, jewelry and other souvenirs. With bathrooms and a water fountain on-site, it’s an easy stop if you are in the area and want to pull in to check it out.
We considered visiting McBryde Garden and Allerton Garden, which are two adjacent National Tropical Botanical Gardens of rare and endangered tropical plants just across the road. Visitors can take in the giant Moreton Bay Fig trees, seen in Jurassic Park and countless Instagrams, as well as novelties like allspice and vanilla. At $30 dollars a person for the self-guided experience, we decided against it but countless TripAdvisor reviews strongly recommend it.
Po’ipu Beach Park is one of the more popular beaches in the south. It has it all: snorkeling, swimming, surfing and bodyboarding but it can also get crowded since the main beach is not very large. There was a surf shop right next to the beach where we rented our snorkels and fins ($6/set) and a bodyboard ($6). There were also umbrellas, chairs, surfboards and other beachy accessories available to rent by the day or week.
Po’ipu has golden sand, an abundance of sun and fun for the whole family. The water right in front of the lifeguard tower is protected by rocky outcroppings and there’s a cove area for little kids with calm, shallow water. We mostly explored the area on the far side of the beach where the snorkeling is better and there’s also a surf area with bigger waves. The deeper water contained everything from the reef triggerfish Humuhumunukunukuapua’a (the Hawaiian state fish) to parrotfish, sea urchins and even an eel! There is a rip current (but luckily no undertow) so stay aware of the conditions, stay calm and swim parallel to the shore and before swimming in if you get caught.
We were lucky enough to have a Hawaiian monk seal (one of only about 1,200 of these type of seals endemic to the Hawaiian islands) and a honu, or giant green sea turtle sunning themselves right on the beach. The south is known for its monk seal sightings and they can be found basking on the sand and swimming around Kauai’s beaches year-round.
The bodysurfing cove has more waves and is a short walk from the main beach. Alex had a blast but wished he had used water shoes or the smaller bodysurfing fins since the rocky area bashed up his bare feet a bit.
While Alex was boarding, I hung out in the shade of the Casuarina trees (also known as Ironwood pines), which are plentiful on the divide between the coves at Po’ipu, reading my book in the shade atop some lava rocks. These trees were introduced to Hawaii, but unlike most introduced species, are a benefit to the islands because of the excellent tsunami buffer they provide. Their shade is a nice break from afternoon sun but the prickly cones they drop make some stretches of sand less pleasant for barefoot beach walking. Poipu also has picnic shelters and bathrooms. Come early in the day if you want to find parking right next to the beach.
Looking for more to do in the south? There other great beaches, like Salt Pond Beach Park, and the area’s rich history can be explored on the Koloa Heritage Trail, 14 stops along ten miles which are marked with plaques exploring the culture and history of the area. We stopped at a few and it’s an easy way to learn more about the island, from some of Kauai’s oldest occupied sites to the plantation sugar mill history.