I did something big for the first time in 9 ½ years… And in hindsight, I can’t believe I waited that long.
I took a 10-day vacation.
And not just anywhere…
My family and I took our first trip to that island way back in 1996. We regularly vacationed there many summers throughout the decades that followed, often at the same time as my grandparents (they went every year!), but somehow, nearly 10 years had passed by since our last trip. In the blink of an eye. (Does life feel like it’s flying by much too quickly to you too??)
For me, this vacation was an almost last-minute decision, and I questioned myself on the way to the airport.
Was that the right choice? Hopping on a plane, flying 3000 miles away, ignoring my responsibilities and my job for that many days in a row? Was it actually okay to neglect emails, phone calls, social media, and everything else that my rational side told me I needed to take care of and do?
Did I actually deserve a vacation that long… And that extravagant?
Sure, a few days for a vacation seemed reasonable — but almost two weeks?
Could I actually do that?
Just a few hours later, after landing in Lihue, a late lunch at one of our favorite restaurants, and opening the front door of a cute little condo merely five minutes from the beach, the smell of palm trees and sea breezes filled the air as a smile crept onto my face.
Yes. It most definitely was the right choice.
And my trip only got better from there.
By the time I sat on my return flight 10 days later, slightly sunburned yet blissfully happy, staring out the window as the plane took off and the Kauai shoreline shrank beneath us, I already knew my vacation was going to be something I cherished for the rest of my life, even before the lens of crystal clear hindsight kicked in. It was special in so many ways — yes, partially because of the inherent magic of the island — but, even more importantly, because of how much time I was able to spend with my parents and everything that we did together.
I thought it’d be fun to share more about our vacation with you! Just pour yourself your favorite drink — coffee, tea, hot, iced, sparkling water, or even a tropical pineapple-guava-orange-juice concoction (I won’t judge your choice one bit!) — and pretend like we’re sitting across from each other at a local coffee shop….
Because I’m about to spill about all of the details — and plenty of photos and secret insider tips about Kauai too!
There’s SO much that I want to tell you, so I’ve split up this blog post into sections. I’ll start with where we stayed, then what we ate (since this is a food blog, I figured that might be a topic you’d enjoy! 😉 ), followed by our favorite sightseeing, activities, and beaches.
Also, if you’re considering going to Kauai, I highly recommend The Ultimate Kauai Guidebook. We have multiple editions (from the late 1990s all the way through 2022!), and they’re worth every penny. The book contains literally everything there is to do on the island, from the mainstream tourist activities to things mainly the locals know about (with detailed descriptions and maps!), and it’s incredibly helpful. (The author has a great sense of humor too!)
Tip: The same company also puts out guidebooks for the three other large islands — Maui, Oahu, and the Big Island!
And now… Let’s dive in!
WHERE TO STAY ON KAUAI
We’ve spent time on the South, East, and North Shores. When we first started going to Kauai back in 1996 (gosh, time flies!), we stayed exclusively on the South Shore. Over time, the South Shore grew a lot more touristy and crowded, so we began splitting our time by staying on the South Shore for the first half of our vacation and the North Shore for the second half. With more locals living there and fewer resorts, the North Shore feels more peaceful and makes for a really relaxing vacation — but it still has plenty of fun things to do!
From 2008 through 2013, we tried staying exclusively on the North Shore and, as a compromise, took a couple of day trips to squeeze in a few of our favorite South Shore activities. (Depending on traffic — and any scenic detours you might take — it only takes between 1 to 1 ½ hours to drive from Princeville to Poipu!)
But then… We started missing Poipu a little too much, so we’re back to splitting our time between the North and South Shores!
Quick Side Note: The few times we stayed on the East Shore (it’s basically the most touristy side of the island!), it was just for one night because we either had a really early flight back to California or landed in Lihue fairly late and didn’t want to drive too far in the dark.
In both the North and South Shores, we prefer to stay in condos. We’ve tried hotels before, and although they’ve been lovely, my family really appreciates the extra space to spread out (instead of constantly bumping into one another or being in each others’ hair!). The two-bedroom condos we rent are about the same price as a hotel room, depending on the hotel or resort, if not cheaper. But we always stay at condos with a pool — my mom refuses to give that up! 😉
So with that background out of the way, here are our favorite places to stay!
Manualoha at Poipu Kai (Suite Paradise). Poipu, South Shore We started staying in the Manualoha condos when we first visited in 1996, and we still love them! They offer both one-bedroom and two-bedroom models. The one-bedroom condos are all on the ground floor, but the two-bedroom condos are split. Some are on the ground floor; others occupy the second and third floors of the buildings.
Regardless, each condo has a full kitchen, washer, and dryer, along with beach towels for the ocean and pool. Those get a lot of use from us because…
The Manualoha condos are less than a 5-minute walk from Poipu Beach! Just pull on a swimsuit, slip into your flip flops, and follow the sidewalk past the pool and down to the sand. It almost feels too good to be true — or maybe it just feels like paradise! 😉
We also love the Manualoha pool! You can even see the ocean while you’re splashing in the water or laying on the lounge chairs. It’s so beautiful and picturesque! The pool is really family friendly, and we’ve played countless games of Marco Polo and Dibble Dabble over the years. (Has anyone else ever played Dibble Dabble? Or even heard of it??)
Tip: I highly recommend Buildings 4, 5, 8, and 9 — especially if you’re booking a two-bedroom condo. They have a better view of the beach from their balconies! Building 5 houses the very first condo we ever stayed in, back in 1996… And we actually ended up in the same exact unit this trip! It brought back so many fond memories. ♡
Around 2009, they began offering access to the Poipu Beach Athletic Club. Although we haven’t been since that opened, it looks like the club has a great pool and fitness equipment!
Ali’i Kai I. Princeville, North Shore These are the North Shore condos that we simply adore! The Ali’i Kai I condos are all single-story units, and most are two-bedroom, two-bathroom models. They also have a full kitchen, washer, and dryer, just like the Manualoha condos in Poipu, as well as a swimming pool just across the parking lot.
But the best part? All of the Ali’i Kai I condos overlook the ocean! If you open the windows at any time of day, you can hear the waves. It’s so relaxing and peaceful!
Tip: Our favorite units have been in Buildings 4 and 5. Building 3 would be our third choice. But really… It’s hard to go wrong with any condo in any building!
However, do NOT confuse them with Ali’i Kai II! Although very similarly named, these condos are behind the Ali’i Kai I buildings, so they don’t have that beautiful ocean view. Instead, they have a view of… The parking lot. (And Mauna Kea on the other side, if it isn’t shrouded in clouds!)
Grand Hyatt. Poipu, South Shore Although we almost exclusively stay in condos, the Grand Hyatt is still our favorite hotel on Kauai. We go there every trip, almost always multiple times… Just to walk around the grounds!
It’s something that my grandparents did every single morning on their annual summer vacations to Kauai, so we still continue that tradition. We stroll along the paths leading past Shipwreck Beach, around the stunning lagoon-style pool, meander by the other natural-looking pools and waterslide crisscrossing the hillside, and amble through the spacious open-air lobby. We love strolling down the center bit and watching the colorful parrots ruffling their feathers on their perches too! (While they entertained my brother and me as young kids, my dad often slipped away to the Reyn Spooner shop [now a Tori Richard shop instead — Reyn Spooner moved to a new location in the Shops at Kukui’ula!] to purchase another Hawaiian shirt!)
Tip: The Manualoha condos are less than a 1-mile walk away from the Grand Hyatt, so we often traipsed over on the flat concrete sidewalk in the mornings (before it got too hot!) and some evenings to watch the free hula shows. (More on that in the “Beaches To Visit On Kauai” section below!)
On a few very special occasions, my parents treated us to either one night or a “day rate” at the Grand Hyatt so we could swim in those incredible pools. My brother and I basically thought we had died and gone to heaven! We spent all day laughing and splashing in the water, racing down the waterslide, following the river-like pool around the grounds, and bobbing in the lagoon. It felt like the experience of a lifetime — and I’ll bet neither of us will ever forget it!
Marriott’s Kauai Beach Club. Nawiliwili, East Shore We’ve only stayed at this Marriott once or twice, mainly because of its close proximity to the airport… And because of the pool! As little kids, my brother and I dreamed of swimming underneath the bridges that crisscross the water and through the fountains bursting forth from stone statues lining its edge. Eventually, when our parents treated us to a one-night reservation, that dream became a reality… And swimming in that pool in person was even better than in our imaginations!
However, even though we rarely stay at this Marriott, we still stop by at least once during every vacation… Because of Duke’s! It’s a restaurant located on the ground floor, just steps away from the sand. (See the “Where To Eat On Kauai” section below for why we love Duke’s so much!)
WHERE TO EAT ON KAUAI
These are some of our favorite restaurants! We don’t eat out for too many meals (thanks to the full-sized kitchen and refrigerators in the condos!), but these are the places we always try to go to at least once while on the island… If not more!
Lappert’s. Poipu, South Shore + Princeville, North Shore We’re obsessed with their ice cream! We’ve been going to Lappert’s for as long as I can remember. One of the best things is that they offer “half scoops,” where you can order a half scoop of two flavors for the price of one full scoop. It’s great for indecisive people like me!
Mauna Kea’s Secrets and Big Island Inspiration are my top two favorites, and my brother enjoys Tutu’s Anniversary. Heavenly Hana and Kauai Pie are fantastic choices for coffee lovers, and my mom recently discovered Ube Haupia. She immediately proclaimed that she’d definitely order it again — and it was such a pretty shade of purple! I was also completely surprised by how much I enjoyed two new-to-me flavors: Maui Mango Madness (I’m not normally a big mango fan!) and Tiki Toffee.
Basically… It’s hard to go wrong with any flavor!
We also love their waffle cones — especially the chocolate-dipped ones! As kids, my brother and I begged for the waffle cones adorned with melted chocolate and rolled in rainbow sprinkles… And every so often, our parents caved. That made us so happy!!
Their South Shore location in Koloa also offers a wide variety of coffee, tea, and espresso drinks in the morning, plus a selection of baked treats all day long. We ran out of time to try any, but the butter crumb cake and blondie bars looked incredible. Hopefully next time!
Tip: You can also order individual scoops or pints to go — along with the waffle cones! (We ended up doing that on multiple occasions. Highly recommend it!)
Duke’s + Keoki’s. Nawiliwili, East Shore + Poipu, South Shore These fun restaurants have similar menus, and we always sit in the “Barefoot Bar” area (aka the open-air patio!) instead of the regular dining room. The Duke’s and Keoki’s appetizers and entrées taste great (my family likes their nachos with added kalua pork, fresh sashimi, and kalua pork sandwiches), but their Hula Pie is the main reason we go… It’s one of our favorite desserts on the entire island — and I even recreated my own version of it at home!
Hula Pie is a towering triangular slab of vanilla macadamia nut ice cream with a thick Oreo cookie crust underneath that’s topped whipped cream, more macadamia nuts, and hot fudge sauce. (We always ask for extra hot fudge!) It’s enough to feed four people… If not more. Completely worth every bite!
Merriman’s. Poipu, South Shore This was a huge highlight of the trip for me… And I didn’t even go!
My mom first told me about Merriman’s after she dined at the original location on the Big Island during a business trip. It’s an upscale, really fancy farm-to-table (and ocean-to-table!) restaurant run by Chef Peter Merriman. Shortly after he arrived on the islands in the 1980s, he became one of the very first chefs to solely focus on promoting and preparing regional Hawaiian cuisine.
His restaurants source ingredients entirely from the local farmers, butchers, and fishermen, so everything tastes incredibly fresh — and also helps sustain the local economy. Although not a huge “foodie,” my mom was very impressed with her meal there many years ago, and I remembered her raving about it to my dad and me after she returned.
As a thank you for organizing the entire vacation (the week before we left almost turned into a logistical nightmare, for too many reasons to count, and things nearly fell through multiple occasions — but my parents miraculously managed to save the day each time!), I surprised my parents with dinner at Merriman’s. I told them as we were walking around the Koloa shopping center on our first night, and they stared at me with disbelief. My mom had wanted to go there again for years — yet never got the chance — so I think being able to return and bring my dad made it extra special for her.
The following evening, I sent them off, telling them to order drinks, appetizers, entrées, desserts — whatever their hearts desired. They selected the butcher’s cut of lamb and the Makai special of fresh-caught fish and prawns as their main courses, along with sautéed local vegetables to share as a side, and paired that with champagne and a zero-proof mai tai. They ended with the lilikoi mousse as dessert, served with whipped cream, fresh fruit, and a macadamia nut shortbread cookie.
On the final night of our trip, as we packed and reflected on the highlights of our vacation, my parents shared that dinner at Merriman’s was at the very top of their list… And it was an experience of a lifetime, something that they’d cherish forever. It was that memorable and that special to them.
So if you’re ever presented with the opportunity to dine at Merriman’s… I highly encourage you to do so!
Tip: Merriman’s also has locations on Maui and Oahu, in addition to Kauai and the Big Island of Hawaii!
The Dolphin. Hanalei, North Shore My high school band director actually introduced us to this place! He told me that the Dolphin was his favorite restaurant on the entire island. He owned a timeshare and spent weeks in Princeville every year, so I figured we could probably trust his dinner recommendations.
And boy… We’re so glad we did. After our very first meal there, the Dolphin instantly became one of our favorite restaurants too. We’ve gone at least once on every vacation we’ve taken since then — sometimes multiple times!
We’ve truly enjoyed just about everything that we’ve eaten from their menu. I love their signature ahi (medium rare and simply grilled with salt and pepper — no teriyaki sauce!); it tastes so fresh, buttery, and smooth. They offer lots of other fish too, and this past trip, my parents and brother liked the ono and monchong that they ordered, along with the calamari appetizer and organic greens salad.
Tip: The Dolphin doesn’t take reservations, so get there super early! We arrived at 4:15 pm, and there was already a short line. By 5 or 5:30 pm, the wait can be anywhere from 1-2 hours!
Bubba’s. Kapaa, East Shore + Poipu, South Shore We discovered Bubba’s a few trips ago, back when it was still in Hanalei. If you enjoy hot juicy burgers (like everyone else in my family does!) and start craving them while on your vacation, it’s relatively quick and easy to stop by. You just might bump into somebody famous while you’re there… Although we never did, the walls of their old Hanalei location were plastered with photos of all of the A-list celebrities that had visited!
Since then, they’ve closed their Hanalei shop (the place below moved in when they vacated!), but they’ve opened ones in Kapaa and Koloa.
Federico’s. Hanalei, North Shore This Mexican restaurant moved into the old Bubba’s shack in Hanalei. My parents stood in line to order a quick dinner from Federico’s while we were returning from sightseeing, and they enjoyed their meal of a cheese quesadilla and a chicken burrito. It wasn’t anything fancy or extravagant (and we’re spoiled by the sheer amount of amazing authentic Mexican food we can find where we live in California!)… But the portions were decent, and the entrées tasted good. My parents agreed that they’d go back on future trips!
WHAT TO EAT ON KAUAI
Along with our restaurant meals, there were plenty of other foods that we enjoyed! We sampled lots of locally grown organic produce and treats made directly on the islands. (Some stores sell sweets and other goodies with Hawaiian-sounding names — but they’re actually made elsewhere and imported from outside of the US!)
Sugarloaf pineapple. This is a special type of pineapple! Its interior is almost pale white, unlike the bright yellow of classic ones, and it has a smoother, brighter, and sweeter flavor. It also has a softer core that’s entirely edible, compared to the tough centers of regular yellow pineapple. As a result, sugarloaf pineapples take more effort to grow and harvest, and it’s nearly impossible to find them outside of the islands… But oh my goodness. They’re a true treat — and worth every penny!
Tip: You can often find them at farmers markets. My mom and brother first ate sugarloaf pineapple on their Lydgate Farms chocolate tour, so they kept an eye out for it during the rest of our trip!
Guava + other tropical fruits. This pink fruit deserves its own section, in honor of my mom. 😉 Just about every time we’ve visited Kauai, the first two things my mom puts in her shopping basket at the grocery store are guava nectar and guava jam. She’s obsessed!
Guava nectar is sweet with a really bright tropical flavor. It’s also thicker than most fruit juices because it’s often made by simply crushing the guava fruit, without straining any of the pulp, so we sometimes add a bit of water to thin it out.
As for the guava jam, my mom really enjoys spreading it on bagels, English muffins, and toast. She usually buys a jar or two to bring home too!
One year, we actually toured a guava plantation on the North Shore in Kilauea. The plantation has stopped giving tours since then, but our visit was so memorable and fun. We even saw some guavas that were bigger than my face!
Of course, we’ve enjoyed lots of other fresh fruits too! Regular pineapple (that probably goes without saying… my grandma used to buy them to bring home to her friends!), star fruit, lilikoi (passion fruit), dragon fruit, papaya, longan… The list goes on and on. My mom and brother got to sample many of these on their Lydgate Farms chocolate tour, including some picked straight from the trees!
So in a (coco)nut shell? If you can spot it at a farmers market or know it’s locally grown, that tropical fruit will probably taste sweet, juicy, and absolutely amazing!
Dark chocolate covered macadamia nuts. I bought a bag from the very first store we stopped at after landing at the airport. I didn’t realize it until a few days later… But I randomly selected Mauna Loa, the brand of macadamia nuts actually grown and made right in Hawaii! The dark chocolate tasted very rich and melted on my tongue, and the macadamia nuts inside were incredibly crisp, light, and brightly crunchy. I was really surprised by that! I’m used to macadamia nuts tasting soft and waxy… And I regularly avoided them as a result. The Mauna Loa ones were the exact opposite — and I polished off the bag in record time!
Don’t worry… I bought more to bring home with me. 😉
MacFarms is another brand of macadamia nuts grown in Hawaii. They also taste really good! However, Hawaiian Host products are made in Australia and imported, and they have a blander flavor and more waxy texture. Even though they cost a bit more, I highly recommend sticking with Mauna Loa and MacFarms — they’re completely worth it!
You can find both brands at most grocery stores, as well as Walmart and Target. You shouldn’t need to go to any specialty shops — although I’m sure you could find them there too!
And if a dark chocolate coating isn’t your thing? Between those two brands, you can also find plenty of other flavors: milk chocolate, milk chocolate coconut, milk chocolate caramel, milk chocolate toffee, coconut macaroon, caramel with sea salt, regular salted, plain unsalted… Plus more interesting savory flavors like Maui onion & garlic and Kiawe smoked BBQ!
Honey roasted macadamia nuts. These aren’t nearly as easy to find as regular macadamia nuts… Or even dark chocolate covered ones. I didn’t see them in any of the grocery stores we visited (although they do sell bags of them, according to Mauna Loa’s website!), and I didn’t even find out about them or realize they were a “thing” until my mom brought home a tube of them from her Lydgate Farms chocolate tour (see the “Sightseeing + Activities To Do On Kauai” section below!).
Imagine honey roasted peanuts… But made with really crisp and crunchy fresh macadamia nuts instead — and sweet, locally harvested Hawaiian honey. They’re a true treat!
I only wish we bought more to bring home… The ones my mom bought disappeared much too quickly!
Fish. During the second half of our vacation, I think I ate fish almost every day… It was so fresh and delicious! I ate lots of ahi, both grilled (medium rare, please!) and raw as sashimi (my dad is also a big sushi and sashimi fan!). It was surprisingly easy and affordable to find a wide variety of sushi at regular grocery stores, and it tasted really good too!
We also thoroughly enjoyed mahi mahi, ono, and monchong (all of which are white meat fish!). Most were simply grilled, but my parents had fish & chips made with fried ono one night too.
Basically… You can’t go wrong with anything — especially when the seafood is locally caught and that fresh!
Mochi. As a little treat to have around the condo, my mom occasionally bought a tray of mochi at the grocery store or farmers market. It’s traditionally a Japanese treat, but Hawaiian butter mochi is often made a little differently. It’s still soft, sweet, and gelatinous (its texture almost reminds me of thick gumdrops, in a way!), but instead of being circular, it’s shaped into rectangular strips. Hawaiian mochi sometimes includes two flavors in the slice too, like coconut and passion fruit, guava, or ube (sweet purple yam!).
SIGHTSEEING + ACTIVITIES TO DO ON KAUAI
We usually go to Kauai to relax (and therefore spend lots of time at the beach and pool!), but we still love squeezing in some fun “non-swimming” activities in between napping on lounge chairs and splashing in the ocean waves. These are some of our favorites — including a few that we’ve been doing since our very first trip in 1996!
Wai Koa Loop Trail. Kilauea, North Shore This was a new hike for us! Although “hike” may be a bit generous… It was almost entirely flat for all 3+ miles, other than a brief descent to the Stone Dam and some steps up the right side of it to a small, serene, picturesque bluff with a Buddha statue overlooking the water. (My mom and I didn’t feel like doing anything steep or strenuous, so we nixed our usual Kalalau Trail hike out of Ke’e!)
The path started in Kilauea, out of the same parking lot as a dog park, and it wandered through a mahogany tree forest (the largest one in the US!), around a few pastures where horses lazily grazed, and through a private plantation. We arrived at the Stone Dam and Buddha’s bluff, the final destination, sooner than I anticipated… The trees’ shade made the trek go by much faster!
My mom and I thoroughly enjoyed the Wai Koa Loop Trail, and even though he generally prefers much harder hikes (more akin to his backpacking trails through the Sierra Nevadas!), so did my dad. We all agreed that we’d do it again on our next trip!
Kilauea Lighthouse. Kilauea, North Shore We drove out to this landmark on the coast after a massive afternoon downpour. It lasted for nearly three hours (my mom eventually raced back through the rain after trying to wait it out for an hour underneath a small overhang at the condo pool!), and it continued to lightly drizzle when we parked the car. We arrived after the Kilauea lighthouse closed, so we couldn’t tour it and only saw it from afar… But it was still a stunning view and absolutely worth the stop!
Kalalau Trail Hike. North Shore This is the best way to see the Na Pali coast by foot! The only other options are by helicopter or ship… There are no roads leading around the western side of the island.
After the hurricane in 2018, the island changed how to access the Kalalau Trail Hike and Ke’e Beach at its base. Parking is extremely limited, so you need to go online at 12 am Hawaii time exactly one month ahead of the day you’d like to hike to snag a spot. If you can’t get one, then you can also make a reservation to use their shuttle service instead.
Although we didn’t do the hike this trip, we’ve completed it a number of other times on previous vacations. A 4-mile round trip will get you to a gorgeous beach, and if you go further for an 8-mile round trip, you can see the waterfalls included in one of the opening scenes in “Jurassic Park!” Make sure you have good sneakers and lots of water. (No flip flops!) And of course… Don’t forget a camera or your phone. The scenery and views are breathtaking!
Queen’s Bath. Princeville, North Shore We didn’t go on this trip, but w’ve loved visiting this fun spot on many previous vacations! To get there, follow the very short hike down from the tiny parking lot on Kapiolani Loop in Princeville and across the black lava rocks. (Be careful — they’re often slick from the ocean mist!) You’ll end up at Queen’s Bath, a natural salt water “swimming pool” situated directly inside of the black lava rocks. It’s really pretty and unique, along with a fairly substantial size, and you can easily swim and splash around during low tide. Because the sea water comes in and fills the pool from the ocean’s tides, you can usually spot little fish, sea urchins, and other small sea life right there in the pool. As a result, some kids learn how to snorkel here because the water is so calm and peaceful. (See the “Beaches To Visit On Kauai” section below for our favorite snorkeling spots!)
Kayaking. Hanalei, North Shore My brother did this one afternoon, and he had a blast! He went out of Kayak Hanalei, just a 15-minute drive from our Princeville condo. The seasoned workers at the rental shop helped him get the kayak in and out of the Hanalei River, but otherwise, my brother was free to paddle wherever he wanted. He grabbed a map before hopping in the kayak for a self-guided tour up the river towards the Wildlife Refuge. (You can also go downstream to Hanalei Bay, if you’d prefer!) After returning, he shared plenty of photos of the lush green scenery he saw during his two-hour adventure with us. It looked so picturesque and fun! He emphatically proclaimed that he’d do it all over again in a heartbeat, so… My parents and I already put it on our list for our next vacation!
Tip: Kayak Hanalei offers both single and two-person kayaks, along with stand up paddle board rentals and other gear. You can also book kayak tours with a guide, if you’d like to learn more during your ride than you can get from just a small map!
Ching Young Village. Hanalei, North Shore We’ve bought lots of souvenirs from the places in this shopping center over the years. Clothes, jewelry, keychains, knickknacks, Christmas ornaments… Even wooden serving trays and silverware. (If you look closely at some of my recipe photos here on AHB, you might even spot those! 😉 )
This year, I kept my souvenir shopping to a minimum and mainly stuck with Hawaiian-made foods and sweets… But I did end up buying a spare bag to bring them all home. (My suitcase was already stuffed to the gills!) I found an adorable hibiscus- and pineapple-covered tote bag in Sunrise Emporium, located towards the back right corner of the shopping center. It only cost $20, and it was really large and sturdy. I loved that it zippered all the way shut, so I could safely slip my laptop inside for the plane ride back to California too!
Ching Young Village also has lots of food stalls, a grocery store, and a few restaurants, in addition to the souvenir shops. Hawaiian BBQ, pizza, shave ice, sushi… And even a bakery where my mom located malasadas, a special type of Portuguese doughnut that’s also really popular in Hawaii. (My mom looks for them whenever she’s visiting any of the islands!) My brother also bought a new baritone ukulele during our trip from Hanalei Strings!
Hanalei Center. Hanalei, North Shore Directly across from Ching Young Village and partially housed in old school buildings, some of these shops and restaurants are a bit more upscale than their neighbors across the road. My dad and brother often purchase nice Hawaiian shirts from Tropical Tantrum, ones made with hand-dyed, extra soft fabric splashed with bold and beautiful designs. According to my dad and brother, they’re really comfortable and high quality. The shirts my dad has bought have lasted for 20+ years with virtually no signs of wear or tear!
We’ve also eaten at a couple of the restaurants here as well. (See Bubba’s and Federico’s above!) Although closed by the time we drove through in the afternoons, the Hanalei Bread Company is on our list of places to stop by during our next vacation!
Farmers Markets. With our bad luck, we narrowly missed almost all of them in Princeville… But the one my parents wandered around was worth it! Lots of vendors, local artists, and organic farmers set up booths on the expansive lawn at the Princeville Community Center, just behind the main shopping center. After learning about them on the chocolate tour, my mom splurged on a white sugarloaf pineapple (see the “What To Eat On Kauai” section above for what we thought of it!), and they also picked out a package of turnovers. There was lots of other fun produce (especially the fresh fruit!) and baked treats, along with juices, honey, flowers, clothes, candles, soaps, stickers, paintings, prints… And even more! Another farmers market we didn’t quite make it to also promised a hula show, which would’ve been really fun to see. Next time!
Lydgate Farms Chocolate Tour. Kapa’a, East Shore Although I didn’t go, this is at the very tippy top of my list for our next trip! My mom and brother drove to Kapa’a to visit Lydgate Farms. Their “branch-to-bar” tour lasted three hours and included lots of tastings — but not just chocolate! Their guide led them through the 46-acre farm and shared tons of interesting information about the cacao growing, harvesting, and product-making process. She also offered them samples of lychee, star fruit, longan, white sugarloaf pineapple, and honey roasted macadamia nuts, all of which they grew right there on their farm.
During the second half of the tour, they saw her open a cacao pod (it’s bright yellow on the outside — and a LOT larger than you might expect!), reveal the white pulp inside (it almost looked like a head of garlic, just oblong like an ear of corn instead!), and taste the purple beans enveloped within the segments of white pulp. The tour ended with a chocolate tasting of ten different products, including some well-known brands, and everyone unanimously agreed…
The Lydgate Farms chocolates were the best. (Kind of makes sense — they were recognized as the best in the world twice at the Cocoa of Excellence Awards in Paris!)
My mom bought a few bars of chocolate to take home — plain 70%, salted 70%, and Koloa Hawaiian rum-infused 75% — along with the honey roasted macadamia nuts. We loved them all! (And… We kind of wished she had bought at least three more of everything!)
Tip: The guide was really friendly and welcoming, and the farm offered umbrellas (in case of rain, shade from the sun, or to use as a walking stick!) and various bug sprays to anyone who wanted to use them. They thought of everything and took very good care of all their guests!
Tree Tunnel. Koloa, South Shore Although more of a sentimental experience than an incredibly impressive landmark destination, my family and I always enjoy driving this brief three-mile stretch of the highway. It’s on the way from Lihue to Poipu, and massive eucalyptus trees line both sides of the road. Their tall branches almost seem to connect overhead… Hence the “tunnel” part of “Tree Tunnel!” Even though it only lasts for a minute or two, it still feels enchanting and a little magical to drive right in between those beautiful trees. We try to do it at least once every time we visit Kauai — if not more!
Spouting Horn. Koloa, South Shore It’s a fun little landmark! Water from the ocean waves comes rolling in toward the shore and is forced up into the air through an old lava tube in the black rock. We have a blast (no pun intended!) trying to take pictures of the biggest water eruptions, and we’ve seen turtles in the ocean just beyond it a few times too!
The Spouting Horn also used to be a great place for souvenir shopping. Previously, vendor stalls lined the walkway behind the lookout point, but they’re currently closed. We bought things here every other time we’ve visited Kauai: necklaces, rings, purses, bags, keychains, potholders, and lots of other knickknacks and trinkets. I hope the vendors are able to reopen again in the near future!
ATV Tour. Koloa, South Shore My mom and I skipped this for some relaxing mother-daughter time by the condo pool, but my dad and brother raved about their Kauai ATV tour when they returned. They left out of Old Koloa Town (from the parking lot in the photo above!) and drove their vehicle around southern Kauai along with the rest of the tour group. The guides pointed out and stopped at various sights — like the Old Koloa Sugar Mill, Wilcox Tunnel, Waita Reservoir, and Hollywood’s “tropical back lot” where some scenes from “Pirates of the Caribbean” were filmed (I’d like to see that sometime, given how much I love those movies!) — and the guides also had great senses of humor with lots of jokes that left the tourists laughing throughout the three hours.
The vehicles were easy to drive, according to my brother, and he and my dad returned with plenty of great stories and pictures… Plus a LOT of red dirt clinging to their clothes. It even made its way into their ears! So if you go… Just remember to bring an outfit that can get dirty. (On their website, Kauai ATV even promises a complementary red dirt mud bath if it’s been rainy recently!)
Hawaiian Trading Post. Koloa, South Shore This shop used to be another one of our favorite stops for souvenirs! It’s family owned and operated, and it has an oversized pineapple and a cute little wave-and-surfboard set-up at the edge of the parking lot that’s perfect for cheesy souvenir photos. (Yes, we take one every time!)
Although the store downsized by half since we last visited, the Hawaiian Trading Post still offers the largest collection of Niʻihau shell leis. These are incredibly special. They’re made entirely by hand by native Hawaiians residing on the island of Niʻihau. Each tiny shell is carefully selected, sorted, and pricked with a tiny hole through which the thread is strung. Because they’re so exquisite and painstakingly crafted, the shell leis can cost anywhere from $500 to $20,000, depending on the design — but they’re gorgeous and truly impressive to see!
Old Koloa Town + The Shops at Kukui‘ula. Koloa, South Shore More souvenir shopping! We didn’t purchase as much at Old Koloa Town or the Shops at Kukui’ula (we mainly stopped by for ice cream; the former is where the Poipu Lappert’s location used to be, while the latter is where it is now!), but it’s still fun to wander around the various shops. Both of these spots offer a wide variety — everything from postcards and little trinkets to fancy, one-of-a-kind artwork, jewelry, and clothing. Regardless of what mementos you’re searching for, there’s a very good chance that you’ll find them here!
Tip: Both of these areas have decent restaurants too, including lots of seafood, some healthier spots, burgers, pizza, shave ice, ice cream, and more!
Grand Hyatt Hula Shows. Poipu, South Shore This is something we’re fond of because we’ve been watching them since I was 5 years old. Twice a week at the Seaview Terrace in the hotel lobby, little girls used to put on an hour-long hula show in the evening while Leilani, their teacher, sang and played the guitar. This trip, two adult women performed instead, but it was still lovely to watch their graceful dances while a gentleman provided the live music.
The hula show is still free to watch, but if you’d like to sit at any of the tables or chairs scattered around the terrace, the hotel requests that you order some type of refreshment, even if it’s just a drink or two. We usually opt for the smoothies (and my brother ordered a passion fruit one this trip for old times’ sake!), and the food we’ve sampled also tasted wonderful. Just remember to show up early — the seats fill up very quickly!
Watching the Sunsets. Regardless of where you are on the island, people flock to beaches, balconies, and anywhere else with a decent view of the sky. We looked forward to them every night, and they were true highlights of our days (…no pun intended 😉 ). Watching the sky light up in such vibrant, stunning colors was truly magical!
During our stay in Princeville, an older gentleman in the condo adjacent to ours wandered down the hill every evening with his DSLR and ginormous telephoto lens, just to capture the sunset. He owned a timeshare and had been coming to Kauai for decades, and even still… The sunsets never got old, and he continued to photograph them as often as he could. According to him, nearly every one was different, special, and breathtaking!
BEACHES TO VISIT ON KAUAI
The beaches are my favorite part of Kauai! The sand is soft, the water is warm, and palm trees usually sway overhead. That’s basically my definition of bliss! Some beaches are great for swimming and snorkeling, while others are better for wading and watching locals surf, but just about every single one is absolutely gorgeous and relaxing.
Kahili Beach. Kilauea, North Shore This is my favorite beach on the entire island! It’s the perfect place for a quiet morning, afternoon, or full day of relaxation in paradise. Few tourists come here, so it truly feels like you’re on your own private beach and getting away from humanity. We rarely go into the ocean past our waists because of the strong waves and current, but there’s a large and calm lagoon directly behind the beach that’s perfect for swimming. (There’s even a rope swing hanging from a tree, if you’d like to adventurously jump into the water that way!)
Because of the fantastic waves, you’ll almost always spot locals surfing here every day of the week. I’m completely amazed by their skills — and their balance! I took a surfing lesson on Kauai as my 14th birthday present… And I quickly learned that the internet is probably the only thing I’ll ever successfully surf. 😉
Tip: Google Maps often tries to take you to another similarly named beach called “Kahili Quarry Beach…” But it’s not the right one! To get to my favorite Kahili Beach, type “Rock Quarry Beach” into Google Maps — or just take North Wailapa Road (between the Kuhio Highway 21 and 22 mile markers). Drive past the sign on the left for the Fehring Family Farm and then take Kahili Beach Road. If it looks and feels like you’re on the Indiana Jones Adventure ride at Disneyland, following a really bumpy red dirt road down a steep hill, then you’re in the right place!
Tunnels Beach. North Shore After Kahili, Tunnels is our other favorite beach on the North Shore! Because of its extensive reefs, it has some of the best snorkeling that you’ll find on the island. We’ve spent most of the day here on many occasions, periodically snorkeling, napping, snacking, sunbathing, and repeating for hours on end. It has some shady trees, plenty of soft white sand, and gorgeous scenery.
Tunnels also has a stunning view of Makana Mountain. You may recognize it from an older film… It was featured as Bali Hai in the movie “South Pacific!”
Tip: Parking is limited, so we go early in the morning. If you can’t find a legal parking spot on one of the streets nearby, check the Haena Beach Park lot a little further up the road!
Pu’u Poa Beach. Princeville, North Shore Although it almost looks private because of its proximity to the Princeville Hotel (soon to be 1 Hotel Hanalei Bay!), this is actually a public beach. Anyone can access it by walking down the paved path to the left of the hotel! (There used to be a guard station in the middle of the road that somewhat marked where the public path began, but the hotel was completely under construction when we went… So I’m not sure whether that guard station will still be there when the hotel reopens!)
The water here is warm, clear, and perfect for wading. It’s pretty shallow, so we don’t usually swim or snorkel… But it has lots of magnificent banyan trees (I think that’s what they are!) that offer plenty of shade, if you’d like to stay a while. My dad and I discovered a wooden swing hanging from one, which we thoroughly enjoyed while my mom sat looking out at the waves nearby. Very relaxing — and we had a wonderful time!
Hanalei Beach. Hanalei, North Shore This is one of the more popular beaches on the North Shore. It’s expansive with plenty of soft white sand and open space, and it also has incredible views of the bay and lush green mountains surrounding it.
It’s also a fantastic place to watch the sunset! On many vacations, we’ve stopped by the Dolphin for an early dinner (see the “Where To Eat On Kauai” section above for more info about this restaurant!), then headed to Hanalei Beach right after paying the bill. Parking is fairly easy in the evenings; we haven’t had any issues finding a spot.
We haven’t gone to Hanalei Beach during the day on our last few vacations, so I can’t vouch for too much more than the sunset… But according to guidebooks and other people, it’s a great place for swimming, kayaking, paddle boarding, and more!
Ke’e Beach. North Shore If you follow the Kuhio Highway north, as far as it goes, the road dead ends at this beach. It’s a moderate size with soft sand and large trees at the back, which provide lots of shade (and relief from the sun!). It’s also the starting point for the Kalalau Trail and hike along the Na Pali coast to the Hanakai’ai Falls, which may look familiar… They were featured in the opening scenes of “Jurassic Park!”
Lots of people swim at Ke’e Beach. Some also snorkel, but we mainly stopped by for wading and a quick dip after finishing the hike and peeling off our dirt-covered socks and shoes to enjoy the refreshing ocean water.
Tip: After the hurricane in 2018, the island limits the number of cars allowed to drive past the Haena Beach Park (see “Kalalau Trail Hike” in the “Sightseeing + Activities To Do On Kauai” section above!). You now need either a parking permit or a shuttle reservation to visit Ke’e Beach, so remember to plan ahead!
Poipu Beach. Poipu, South Shore This beach will always hold a special place in my heart… It was the first one we ever visited on the island! It’s a 5-minute walk from our favorite Manualoha condos, so we went countless times during each of our previous vacations.
Poipu Beach has changed some over the years and looks a little different, but it’s still beautiful, expansive, and a great place for swimming. It has a protected cove that’s perfect for little kids, and less than 200 yards to the east, Brennecke’s Beach is a fun spot to watch locals surfing and boogie boarding!
Tip: A few different days, my mom and brother walked over first thing in the morning, right as the sun was rising, and they saw sea turtles resting on the shore! Volunteers said that was common in early August. We had no idea! (Our condo even had a helpful book all about sea turtles and how to identify them!)
Lawai Beach. Poipu, South Shore This tiny, almost postage stamp-sized beach is a great snorkeling spot on the South Shore! Getting into and out of the water can be a bit tricky, but the fish and other sea creatures you’ll see are well worth it. We’ve also spotted turtles here!
Tip: It has a small parking lot located behind it that fills up fast, so we like to go early in the morning to snag a spot!
Snorkeling. We bought our own snorkeling gear a long time ago because we went so often. It was well worth the investment — and the extra checked bag at the airport! However, there are plenty of places that you can rent masks, snorkels, fins, and more if you’d just like to test it out once or twice. (We rented gear from Snorkel Bob’s before we bought our own!)
Many of our favorite beaches for snorkeling are on the North Shore, but there are a few on the South Shore too. Tunnels and Lawai are at the top of our list! We’ve also had decent luck at Hideaways and Ke’e.
Surfing Lessons. Hanalei, North Shore Although not on this particular trip, we’ve tried surfing lessons on two previous occasions — once on the South Shore, once on the North Shore. The latter was a much better experience! The North Shore has better waves and beaches for giving surfing lessons (at least according to many locals!).
We chose the Hanalei Surf School and had an amazing experience. The instructors were very knowledgeable — and patient too! Ironically enough, they picked Kahili Beach as the site for our lessons since it had the best waves on that particular day… So I even got to squeeze in a surprise extra trip to my favorite beach!
If you’re anything like me, wondering if you should take a break or questioning whether you actually deserve that vacation… I hope you treat yourself with compassion, kindness, and grace.
Take a break. Plan the trip. Get on that airplane.
Sleep in. Unplug. Relax. Recharge. Leave your phone behind.
Stop tracking. Start savoring. Eat all of the desserts.
And enjoy every single minute of it.
Because you deserve it. You really, truly do. ♡