I was in Kauai for 10 days on my first ever trip to Hawaii and I already want to go back. From California, Hawaii is only a 5 hour plane ride away and it truly is as beautiful and amazing as folks say. Some things I particularly enjoyed:
- Kauai was a great fit for me. I was looking to do some hiking and swimming in the ocean and the Garden Island has both in abundance. As the 'back country' of the Hawaiian islands it also had much less of what I'd always feared about Hawaii; gross American tourism. Don't get me wrong, that stuff is there, but it's pretty well contained. The entire west side is rugged and sparsely populated. And the north, with the exception of the planned resort community of Princeville (see below), also feels very downbeat and relaxed.
- In terms of hiking, I can definitely recommend the Canyon Trail in Waimea Canyon which offers breathtaking views of the northern edge. In Poipu, the hike from Shipwreck Beach to Mahaulepu Beach was a great recommendation by Lonely Planet. The big stunner is the 11-mile Kalalau Trail on the North Shore. We had neither the permits nor the equipment for a multi-day hike but doing the full stretch is the main reason I want to return to Kauai. We did hike the first couple miles and took a 4 mile detour to Hanakapiai Falls. This was one of the most rewarding and difficult hikes I've done. The path to the falls is continually washed out and thus extremely slippery (I fell a bunch) but the 100+ foot waterfall that you can swim beneath is definitely worth the effort.
- Surf conditions change all the time and the perfect beach depends on what you want to do. But I particularly liked Kekaha and Kalihiwai for body surfing and Queen's Bath for snorkling. Queen's Bath was a recommendation from Sara and is a tidepool surrounded by lava rocks; very cool.
- In terms of where to stay, I feel that unless you are on your honeymoon the big resorts are probably not a good value. By staying in a condo or house, you can get a bigger place right on the beach. Unfortuantely, vrbo.com is the default resource for finding a place and they haven't even gotten around to offering search let alone stuff like "show me places like this in that area" so it's a bit of pain. Geographically, I'd like to stay in Hanalei on the North Shore when I go back. You're far from Waimea Canyon, which sucks, but it's a great surf town with a lot of good food and friendly folks. It's easier to find a place in Princeville but then you're staying in this giant planned community which feels a little gross to me. If you end up resorting it, I think the Grand Hyatt on the South Shore is much nicer than the over-lauded Princeville Hotel.
- If you don't like fish, and particularly ahi tuna, then the food may be a bit disappointing. For a fish lover, it's great to be somewhere where you can eat fresh, sashimi grade tuna every day. I also loved the smoked marlin which I'd love to find here in SF. In terms of fancy, Tidepools at the Grand Hyatt is worth the price and a visit because of its amazing koi pond setting. The Polynesian Cafe in Hanalei was my favorite restaurant overall; the underground-cooked pork sandwich was the perfect thing at the end of day of hiking.
- We took a helicopter trip which is recommended for seeing the otherwise inaccessible crater of Mt. Waialeale. It's pretty cool to fly right up to a 2000-foot high sheer wall with waterfalls pouring out of it. And by cool I mean mildly terrifying. Were I to go again, I'd try to book on Inter-island Helicopter which lets you fly without doors and offers a package where you land at a waterfall. We also did a 5 hour sailing trip but I can't recommend our charter. Nothing bad happened, but it would be better to find a trip where it was 8 people or fewer and less geared to families.
Kauai is the first place I've been to in a while where, at the end of my trip, I felt it would be pretty easy to just stay and keep hanging out. I feel Hawaii is the sort of place I'll go back to a number of times and I'm looking forward to the next visit.