Why You Need to Visit the Garden Isle - Your Complete Kauai Itinerary
My time in Hawaii allowed me to visit a second island after spending 4 days in Maui. But choosing which one was a challenge. I'd heard about Oahu and The Big Island, but Kauai, or the Garden Isle, was new to me.
My friend suggested we visit because it felt untapped by the modern world. I'm so glad we went because being a lover of all things green mean't that it had great opportunities for hiking and photography.
GO IF YOU LIKE:
HIKING | KAYAKING | SCENIC COASTLINES | GREENERY | CANYONS | RAINBOWS
MY Kauai ITINERARY
The island of Kauai can be broken up into the North and South. Though it’s easy to sleep on one side and explore the other, I suggest spending a few days on each side. This itinerary has a great mix of land activities and beach visits.
ITINERARY AT A GLANCE
Day 1: North Shore
Day 2: North Shore (drive South)
Day 3: South Shore
Day 4: Waimea Canyon
Expand the legend for a detailed itinerary.
My Favorite Things to do in Kauai
Take a helicopter ride… with the doors off
Now let's get one thing straight, I love to travel but I hate flying. Sometimes though, my love for photography pushes me to do crazy things so I booked a doors-off helicopter tour.
The morning of our flight the skies were grey, and I started to panic, we were surely going to get struck by lightning and go down. So I made peace with my life, took a handful of ginger chews and got on the chopper.
As soon as we were in the air and I saw the beautiful views I started shooting. I suddenly felt much calmer. Photography really is is the best medication.
We flew with Mauna Loa Helicopter Tours and had a great experience. Our pilot was confident and comforting, giving me options on where to go based on my tolerance to turbulence.
I also loved that they played music over the headsets. Coldplay added a nice soundtrack as I took in the views.
Get your shoes Dirty in Waimea Canyon
Another great day was spent driving to Waimea Canyon and doing some hiking. All the viewpoints and hiking trails we did are noted in the above map.
The earlier you get there the better because bus loads of tourists come up to the viewpoints in the early afternoon. Luckily the buses tend to only go to the first few viewpoints so the further ones are less crowded.
Note, cell phone reception is dicey so you may want to download the map before going.
Relax on the North And South shore Beaches
As expected, the North and South shores of Kauai have some beautiful beaches. The summertime offers calmer water but you need to be careful especially on the North shore in the winter. Those beaches can have rough waters and high swells so make sure to do your research before heading into the water.
Poipu Beach (above) is popular for sunset and located on the south of the island.
Tunnels Beach (below) gives you a glimpse of the famous Napali ridges and is on the North Shore.
Hanakapiai Beach is also on the North Shore and more secluded. You can only access it through hiking the Kalalau Trail. I personally didn’t visit that beach but apparently the hike is quite advanced. So you adventurous folk may like it.
The Kalalau Trail hike is also a highlight but unfortunately for me the trail was very wet and this little traveller forgot her hiking boots. So I only made it 1/4 of the way before it became too slippery and dangerous to continue in my Nike’s. And for those who care to know, yes they were completely muddy, and yes I was able to salvage them. Go me!
Getting Around Kauai
Flying to Kauai
Flights between Hawaiian islands are regular and cheap. The flight between Maui and Kauai was only 30 minutes and we flew over Oahu which made for some beautiful arial views. I suggest if you’re visiting Hawaii and have the time then check out a few islands, they’re all unique in their own way.
If you plan on visiting Maui check out my Maui guide for an itinerary, tips and some awesome pictures of sea turtles.
Renting a Car
On the island we rented a car and this got us everywhere we needed to go. If you plan on doing a bit of off-roading then get a 4-wheel drive. There was only one hike in Waimea Canyon which would have been beneficial to off-road but otherwise our Mustang convertible worked nicely.
Fill that Belly
The island offers everything from 5-star meals to the greatest little food trucks. The majority of the restaurants are either in Princeville (The North Shore) or Poipu (South Shore). Check out the restaurant icons in my map to see some favourites and recommendations.
Best Restaurants in Maui
The Nom Kauai Food Truck
The Nom Kauai Food Truck. A food truck in a park by the beach, near the airport. Try their tater tot special (picture above).
Ama Restaurant which is on the North side of the island. It was perfect for sunset a dinner. It has a little patio that overlooks the taro fields and mountains, plus excellent food and drinks.
While we never had any incidents, we were told to be cautious of car break-ins. Solo female travellers should feel safe here.
If you're a swimmer be cautious of the beaches on the North Shore in the winter, there can be some pretty rough waters and dangerous rip tides.
Where to Stay in Kauai
Some of the links below are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a booking. As always, I only recommend products and services I trust.
The North Shore
We spent a few nights on each side of the island to minimize driving. For the North shore, if you've got the cash and want to splurge you can always stay at the St. Regis. We stayed at the Westin Princeville Oceanfront and it was great though the larger pool had lots of kids so it wasn't exactly quiet. The smaller pool only had a few people so we spent more time there.
The South Shore
For the South side of the island there is no question - stay at Marjorie's Inn Kauai. This is hands down one of the best b&b’s we’ve experienced. The owners were so helpful and make sure you’re equipped to take on whatever the day brings you. Every morning they made a delicious and filling breakfast. And the best part were the views from your balcony. You’re almost guaranteed to get a rainbow over a lush green valley.
Photography Tips for Kauai
Helicopter Photography Tips
If you do the helicopter tour there's a lot to think about for photography. Most important note - fly doors-off. This way you avoid the window glare.
Know that in doing this you cannot change lenses in the helicopter, so fly with a second body if you need a second lens. Make sure all cameras have body straps or they won't be allowed.
If you're shooting with an iPhone buy a pouch to secure it around your neck, they should sell them at the tour office as well.
In terms of focal lengths a good zoom lens that covers a wide angle to mid range would be perfect. If you shoot with a FujiFilm then the Fujifilm XF 16-55mm f/2.8 R LM WR (below link) will be great for this.
The link below is an affiliate link, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. As always, I only recommend products and services I trust.
My Camera Settings
All my shots in this post were with my 23mm Fujinon (35mm full frame). If you can only shoot with one prime lens then I would opt for that. It was wide enough to capture the landscapes and tight enough to avoid the blades and base of the helicopter.
Remember there's lots of vibrations and shake in the helicopter so increase your shutter speed (ideally over 1/1600 if possible) and shoot away.
In terms of lighting, we flew from 10-11am and while the light was good, mid-day would have likely been better. This goes against our normal approach for lighting but having the sun high up would help brighten up things like the canyon. And considering you'll be shooting with a high shutter speed, the extra light isn't so bad.
My biggest piece of advice though. Remember to sometimes put the camera away and just enjoy the ride.