Despite its small size—about 550 square miles—Kauai has four distinct regions, each with its own unique characteristics. The windward coast, which catches the prevailing trade winds, consists of the North Shore and East Side, while the drier leeward coast encompasses the South Shore and West Side. One main road nearly encircles the island, except for a 15-mi stretch of sheer cliffs called Napali Coast.
The center of the island—Mt. Waialeale, completely inaccessible by car and viewable only from above due to nearly year-round cloud cover—is the wettest spot on earth, getting about 450 inches of rain per year. On Kauai, the directions mauka (toward the mountains) and makai (toward the ocean) are often used. Locals tend to refer to highways by name rather than by number.
Even a nickname like “the Garden Island” fails to do justice to Kauai’s beauty. Verdant trees grow canopies over the few roads, and brooding mountains are framed by long, sandy beaches, coral reefs, and sheer sea cliffs.
The main road tracing Kauai’s perimeter takes you past much more scenery than would seem possible on one small island. Chiseled mountains, thundering waterfalls, misty hillsides, dreamy beaches, lush vegetation, and small towns make up the physical landscape. Perhaps the most stunning piece of scenery is a place no road will take you—the breathtakingly beautiful Napali Coast, which runs along the northwest side of the island.
For adventure seekers, Kauai offers everything from difficult hikes to helicopter tours. The island has top-notch spas and golf courses, and its beaches are known to be some of the most beautiful in the world. Even after you’ve spent days lazing around drinking mai tais or kayaking your way down a river, there’s still plenty to do, as well as see: plantation villages, a historic lighthouse, wildlife refuges, a fern grotto, a colorful canyon, and deep rivers are all easily explored.
While exploring the island, try to take advantage of the many roadside scenic overlooks and pull over to take in the constantly changing view. Don’t try to pack too much into one day. Kauai is small, but travel is slow. The island’s sights are divided into four geographic areas, in clockwise order: the North Shore, the East Side, the South Shore, and the West Side.
Kauai is the oldest and northernmost of the main Hawaiian Islands. Five million years of wind and rain have worked their magic, sculpting fluted sea cliffs and whittling away at the cinder cones and caldera that prove its volcanic origin. Foremost among these is Waialeale, one of the wettest spots on Earth. Its approximate 450-inch annual rainfall feeds the mighty Wailua River, the only navigable waterway in Hawaii. The vast Alakai Swamp soaks up rain like a sponge, releasing it slowly into the watershed that gives Kauai its emerald sheen.
Flora & Fauna
Kauai offers some of the best birding in the state, due in part to the absence of the mongoose. Many nene (the endangered Hawaiian state bird) reared in captivity have been successfully released here, along with an endangered forest bird called the puaiohi. The island is also home to a large colony of migratory nesting seabirds, and has two refuges protecting endangered Hawaiian water birds. Kauai’s most noticeable fowl, however, is the wild chicken. A cross between jungle fowl (moa) brought by the Polynesians, and domestic chickens and fighting cocks that escaped during the last two hurricanes, they are everywhere, and the roosters crow when they feel like it, not just at dawn. Consider yourself warned.
Kauai’s residents have had a reputation for independence since ancient times. Called “the separate kingdom,” Kauai alone resisted King Kamehameha’s charge to unite the Hawaiian Islands. In fact, it was only by kidnapping Kauai’s king, Kaumualii, and forcing him to marry Kamehameha’s widow that the Garden Isle was joined to the rest of Hawaii. That spirit lives on today as Kauai residents try to resist the lure of tourism dollars captivating the rest of the islands. Local building rules maintain that no structure may be taller than a coconut tree, and Kauai’s capital city Lihue is still more small town than city.