I've got Hawaii on the brain. I recently wrote about the best places to see on the island of Oahu, the can't miss attractions of Maui, and recommendations for visiting the Big Island. Now here are my tips for things you shouldn't miss on the island of Kauai.
Visit Waimea Canyon, "The Grand Canyon of the Pacific"
The western side of Kauai is home to Waimea Canyon, about an hour's drive on scenic curvy roads that offer views of the nearby island of Ni'ihau (only accessible to native Hawaiians) and gorgeous views of the mountains, valleys, and the bluest ocean you've ever seen. "The Grand Canyon of the Pacific" features many of the same geological traits as its namesake—think crested buttes, deep gorges, and colorful rock formations—and is more than 3,600 feet deep, measuring 14 miles long by one mile wide. Stay on Waimea Canyon Drive and keep driving until you reach the Waimea Canyon Overlook.
Honeymooners—Elvis fans—shouldn't miss a trip to the Fern Grotto
If thoughts of Kauai have you picturing scenes of The King in Blue Hawaii, the Fern Grotto is a spot you shouldn't miss. Entry to the grotto used to be forbidden to all except Hawaiian royalty, but nowaways anyone can catch a 40-minute cruise down the Wailua River to the site for about $20 per person ($10 for children ages 3-12) and take in views of one of Kauai's greatest natural wonders. Folks have been known to get married or renew their vows here, and if you're engaged, newlyweds, or celebrating a wedding anniversary, be prepared to come forward for a slow dance to Elvis Presley's Hawaiian Wedding Song—the Hawaiian lyrics in it were sung here long before the film.
Hike, kayak, camp, and explore Kauai's secluded Na Pali Coast
If you're an outdoorsy person, nature lover, or just want to see some of the best views on the island without dealing with the tourist crowds, make sure you visit Kauai's beautiful Na Pali Coast. There are no roads on the westernmost side of the island, making it one of the last isolated, untouched, natural places in the Hawaiian Islands. Determined travelers can view the rocky terrain from the air with any number of helicoptor tours, or view the coastline from a boat tour or guided kayak trip, while more adventurous types can try hiking the 11-mile Kalalau Trail from Kee Beach to Kalalau Beach—the full hike is best broken up into a two-day trip, and camping permits are available for $20 per person per night (with a five night maximim stay) thorugh the Hawaii State Parks Department. Kokee State Park offers more challenging hiking trails, like Awaawapuhi Trail, that lead to scenic overlooks while other hikes like Cliff Canyon and Black Pipe Trail are better suited for family hiking trips.
Drive up to a beautiful waterfall
Kauai is home to a number of impressive waterfalls, two of which are accessible by car alone. Wailua Falls is located just a few miles from downtown Lihue and can be viewed from the road, so there's no need to hike for a great view. Just drive north from Lihue to Ma'alo Road in Halamaulu, and follow the road uphill for another three miles. Another beautiful waterfall, Opaeka'a Falls, is viewable from Kuamo'o Road, but those wanting a closer look can brave the tough half-hour hike from the two-mile marker past the lookout point on Highway 580.
Get a slice of Hawaiian history
Hanapepe Town on Kauai's southwest coast is home to a bustling Hawaiian art scene, with an art celebration every Friday night from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. when the town's painters, sculptors, and other artists open their gallery and studio doors to showcase their work. Those seeking an authentic trip into Hawaii's past should visit the museums and historic sites along the Koloa Heritage Trail—visit the Kihaha'ouna Heiau (an ancient Hawaiian temple), Poipu Beach Park (home to the island's endangered Hawaiian monk seals), and other sites dating back to Kauai's former days as a sugar plantation hotspot. The Kilohana Plantation in Lihue is a 16,000 square-foot restored plantation estate that offers a chance to see what life was like in Kauai during the 1930s—also on-site is the Koloa Rum Company, where you can sample the island's best rum every half hour on the half hour beginning at 10 a.m. daily. Located on Kauai's North Shore about a 45 minute drive north of Lihue is the historic Kilauea Lighthouse, great for stunning views of the Pacific and access to the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge, a safehaven for a number of native bird species found on the island including the endangered state bird, the nene goose.