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Kauai is the oldest of the eight major Hawaiian Islands, with volcanic rock dating back more than 5 million years. But the island still displays all the beauty and vigor of youth. From lush rain forests and valleys to majestic mountains and long stretches of white sand, there's no question: Nature takes center stage here.
In fact, Kauai has more beaches per mile of coastline than any of the other islands. Only 3 percent of the island has been developed for commercial and residential use; the rest is agricultural and conservation lands. Two-thirds of Kauai's land area is impenetrable.
Kauai is notable for many other reasons. British Capt. James Cook and his crew first landed in Hawaii at Waimea, on Kauai's west coast, in 1778. When Kamehameha the Great embarked on his campaign to unite all the islands under one rule, Kauai clung to its independence. After Kamehameha failed twice to take the island by force, Kauai's king finally agreed to cede his island to the Hawaiian king. After Kamehameha died in 1819, his son, Liholiho, became king. He lured Kauai's king, Kaumualii, aboard his royal yacht and sailed to Oahu. There, Kaumualii was coerced into marrying Kaahumanu, Kamehameha's widow, further ensuring that Kauai would remain under Hawaiian rule.
Kauai is the only Hawaiian island with navigable rivers; it also has a breathtaking gorge that Mark Twain dubbed the "Grand Canyon of the Pacific" and 15 miles of sheer cliffs rising along an uninhabited coastline. Hollywood has been so taken with Kauai that the island been cast in more than 60 movies and TV productions.
To ensure that concrete will never conceal Kauai's beauty, officials passed a law stipulating that no buildings on the island can stand higher than a palm tree (three or four stories). So no matter when or where you are on Kauai, nature will always reign.
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Other Hawaii Cruise Ports:
Hilo • Honolulu • Kauai • Kona • Maui
It's best to go with classic tropical drinks -- try a Lava Flow (a cross between a strawberry daiquiri and pina colada, made with light and coconut rum plus strawberries, bananas, pineapple juice and coconut cream) or a Blue Hawaii (a concoction of rum, curacao, pineapple juice and sweet and sour mix). Any fruity drink with mango or pineapple or other tropical fruits and flavors will get you in the island spirit.
You can get all the typical Hawaiian souvenirs in Kauai: aloha shirts, chocolate-covered macadamia nuts, etc. For something a bit more local, stock up on Red Dirt Shirts (4350 Waialo Road, Eleele), dyed with real red dirt from Kauai and decorated with Hawaiian-inspired designs, and merchandise from Island Soap and Candle Works (in Kilauea, Princeville and Koloa), including handmade soaps, body lotions, bath gels, aromatic massage oils, beeswax candles and more in tropical scents. If you're looking for consumables, consider items from Kauai Kookie Kompany (factory store in Hanapepe) and Kauai Coffee Co. (tasting room and store at 870 Halewili Road, Kalaheo).
English is the official language, but try your hand at any Hawaiian phrases you pick up. Aloha means hello and goodbye, mahalo means "thank you," and aloha ahiahi means "good night." If you hear Aloha, e komo mai, don't panic. It means "Welcome!"
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
ATMs are located at the Anchor Cove and Harbor Mall shopping complexes near the harbor, but the closest full-service banks are 1.5 miles away in Lihue on Rice Street.
Where You're Docked
Cruise ships dock at Nawiliwili Harbor, on the southeast side of the island, not far from the airport.
There are no services at the port -- just pickup areas for tour buses, rental car shuttles and free shuttles to shopping centers. You can walk or take a free shuttle to the nearby Harbor Mall and Anchor Cove Shopping Center with restaurants, shops, ATMs, bathrooms, Internet access and tour bookings. Kalapaki Beach (with watersports rentals) and the Kauai Marriott Resort are located next to the mall areas.
By Car: The best way to get around on Kauai is by rental car. Major car rental agencies operate free shuttle services from the pier. One great source for discounted rentals and information on pickup service for cruise travelers is Discount Hawaii Car Rental. If you book a two-day rental, you can park overnight at Anchor Cove for $20.
By Shuttle: Kmart, Hilo Hattie, Coconut Marketplace, Anchor Cove, Harbor Mall, Kukui Grove Center and Wal-Mart also offer free shuttle services from the pier. Both the Anchor Cove and Harbor Mall shuttles will get you to Kalapaki Beach, and they run every 10 minutes; the beach is adjacent to Anchor Cove and across the street from Harbor Mall.
By Taxi: Taxi companies include Kauai Taxi (808-246-9554) and Pono Taxi (808-634-4744).
On Foot: It's about a 10-minute walk along a sidewalk to the nearby shopping and beach areas, but if it's hot, you might as well take the free shuttle if isn't too crowded.
Watch Out For
Look out for roosters -- and their families. When Hurricane Iniki hit in 1992, coops were blown apart and many chickens were released into the wild. The chickens appear to be thriving on this freedom, and you will see them everywhere -- at the car rental parking lot, the beach, public parks, etc. They don't pose a serious threat, especially because you're unlikely to be overnighting in a hotel, listening to the roosters crow at many times other than sunrise. Watch out for them while driving or when leaving food out on your beach mat, though.
Na Pali Coast: Soaring more than 3,000 feet above the undulating Pacific, the cliffs of Na Pali form an impregnable wall along the northwest coast of Kauai. The gorgeous valleys tucked along these magnificent green ramparts are all uninhabited and accessible only by foot, boat or helicopter. The panorama is accented by graceful lava arches, white sand beaches and caves hidden by waterfalls. Several companies offer boat tours along Na Pali; the best leave from the north shore but only operate during the summer months (winter conditions are too rough for recreational craft). In the winter, you can book trips from the south, but even these don't leave in the roughest conditions. Some cruise ships, like Norwegian's Pride of America, will do scenic sail-bys of the coast when leaving Kauai. (Pride of America sails north around the island from Nawiliwili Harbor, so the best views are on the port side, though the ship does turn around before it sails away.)
Waimea Canyon and Kokee State Park: Fourteen miles long, one mile wide and more than 3,500 feet deep, Waimea Canyon was carved over eons by rivers and floods flowing from the summit of Mount Waialeale, which, with an average of 460 inches of annual rainfall, ranks among the wettest spots on Earth. You can enjoy breathtaking views of the gorge from numerous lookouts along Waimea Canyon Drive or get a bird's-eye view of it from a helicopter. Hikers can choose from many trails, most in Kokee State Park. They range from less than a mile to a 10-mile loop and from easy to strenuous in terms of physical challenge. The park also offers a wonderful natural history museum.
Wailua River State Park: If you're looking for a navigable river, Kauai is the only Hawaiian island with them. A popular stop for cruise visitors is the Wailua River, in a lush, jungle setting with waterfalls and tropical greenery. Here, you'll find activity options for all adventure levels. Active types can rent a kayak (you'll need a car to pick it up from a nearby provider) and paddle themselves; ask about the muddy hike to Secret Falls. Others can take a boat tour, usually stopping at Fern Grotto, a lava cave with ferns growing down from its ceiling. The river's Opaekaa Falls are even accessible by car; you can also stop for a picnic along the riverbanks.
Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge and Lighthouse: More than 200 breathtaking seaside acres at the northernmost spot in the inhabited Hawaiian Islands are managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge. It was established on Feb. 15, 1985, to protect and encourage the propagation of migratory seabirds and native coastal plants. Naupaka, ilima, hala, aheahea, akoko and the rare alula plants flourish here, along with multiple seabird species and Hawaii's state bird, the endangered nene (Hawaiian goose). Spinner dolphins, Hawaiian monk seals and humpback whales also are commonly seen there. You can also visit the 1913 Kilauea Lighthouse, a perfect backdrop for your photos.
Been There, Done That
Hanapepe: Kauai's "Biggest Little Town" invites visitors to take its 1.5-mile self-guided walking tour, which encompasses 69 key historic sites. Forty-three of them meet the criteria to be listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places, including being at least 50 years old; having a tie with significant historical events or people; and possessing high artistic values or displaying the distinctive characteristics of a type, period or method of construction. If you can, do the tour on a Friday afternoon so you can linger in town for Friday Art Night, which is held weekly from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. About fifteen galleries participate, offering pupu (appetizers), demonstrations and special exhibits. Artists are available to discuss their work, techniques and inspirations, and most nights, a strolling musician adds to the ambience.
Kauai Museum: The island's fascinating history is showcased at the Kauai Museum through a variety of permanent and changing exhibits of ancient tools, implements, tapa cloth, featherwork, furniture, china, clothing, shells, bird specimens, scrimshaw, photographs and original paintings by esteemed island artists, and much more. Interestingly, all the museum's acquisitions have been through generous donations and bequests from individuals, businesses and organizations in the community. (4428 Rice Street, Lihue; 808-245-6931; open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Saturday)
Botanical Gardens: Founded in 1964, the nonprofit National Tropical Botanical Garden comprises five gardens -- Allerton, McBryde and Limahuli on Kauai; Kahanu on Maui; and the Kampong in Florida -- and two preserves on the Big Island. It is the only institution chartered by an act of Congress to protect and study rare and endangered tropical plant species. Visitors are welcome on guided or self-guided tours of the organization's Kauai gardens, which display their own distinct beauty. For example, in McBryde Garden's Canoe Plants of Ancient Polynesia collection are plants that voyagers of long ago carried across the Pacific to provide food, medicine, building materials, clothing and shelter. (McBryde and Allerton Gardens: 4425 Lawai Road, Poipu; open daily. Limahuli Garden: 5-8291 Kuhio Highway, Haena; open Tuesday to Saturday)
A botanical masterpiece, the 240-acre Na Aina Kai Botanical Gardens showcases diverse gardens; a hardwood plantation featuring teak, rosewood, mahogany; a verdant canyon; and a white-sand beach. Winding paths meander past gazebos, arched bridges, a koi-filled lagoon, waterfalls, a Japanese teahouse, children's garden and more than 90 life-size bronze sculptures of people and animals. Visit by tour only, Tuesday through Friday. (4101 Wailapa Road, Kilauea; for tour reservations, call 808-828-0525 or email firstname.lastname@example.org)
Sugar Plantations: The Wilcox family made significant contributions to Kauai in business, politics and community service. You can get a glimpse into the lives of generations of Wilcoxes on tours of their gracious 10th-century sugar plantation manor, Grove Farm, and their 20th-century family homestead at Kilohana Plantation. Two-hour tours of Grove Farm take you through the buildings and grounds of the plantation and are led by local residents; advance reservations are required. There are stories behind every item in the home, from the handsome koa furniture to the bookcases filled with hymnals, Bibles and other works in the Hawaiian language. They even have a steam locomotive collection and offer free train rides every second Thursday. (4050 Nawiliwili Road, Lihue; for tour reservations call 808-245-3202 or email email@example.com; tours 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Thursday) At Kilohana, you can opt for a mansion tour, train ride through the farm (great for kids), shopping for local arts and crafts, evening luau or drinks or dinner at the bar and fine dining restaurant on the grounds. (3-2087 Kaumualii Highway, Lihue; 808-245-5608)
Golf: Kauai boasts 10 golf courses at seven venues. The closest are in Lihue: Kauai Lagoons Golf Club, a Golf Magazine Gold Medal winner designed by Jack Nicklaus that boasts a cliffside location with ocean views, and Puakea Golf Course, with a mountainside backdrop. Princeville is also a prime destination for golf. The Makai Golf Club was the first course on Kauai designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr.; it was refurbished in 2010. The Prince Golf Course is an island paradise, featuring jungles, ravines and a waterfall.
Kauai offers a range of popular and more secluded beaches, but waters can be rough, especially on the north shore during the winter. Be sure to look into surf conditions before heading into the water.
Best for a Day at the Beach: A popular and safe beach destination, Poipu Beach Park is a hit with snorkelers, families and wildlife enthusiasts. It's located on Kauai's south shore, about 25 minutes west of Lihue. Calm waters reveal colorful fish, and a wading pool entertains young kids. From the shores, you might spot humpback whales, green sea turtles or even monk seals. Located near several resorts, the beach has easy access to bathrooms, showers, picnic tables, water sports rentals, restaurants and shops. Lifeguards are on duty.
Best for Families: Lydgate Beach Park is made up of two "ponds" cut off from the pounding surf by lava rock walls. Its warm, shallow waters and sandy beach with scattered shade trees are perfect for families. Beginning snorkelers and those too young to try will appreciate the clear water; you can spot fish and crabs even without a mask. Bathrooms, showers and picnic tables are available. There's also a park with an elaborate play area on the other side of the parking lot. It's about a 15-minute drive north from the cruise port.
Closest to the Cruise Port: Fronting the Marriott Kauai, Kalapaki Beach might not be the best beach in Kauai, but it is the most convenient for a quick dip right by the ship. Cruise passengers cannot access the resort's pools, but they can take advantage of beachside dining and water sports rentals. It's about a 10-minute walk from the port or just a few minutes by one of the free shuttles to the adjacent Anchor Cove or Harbor Mall shopping centers.
Dine out in Kauai, and you won't be surprised to find fish and seafood in abundance on most menus. Various meat dishes from kalua pork to Korean barbecue-style kalbi short ribs are also popular, and fresh fruit (including pineapples and coconuts) are always a good bet.
The plate lunch is a typical Hawaiian meal. It consists of two scoops of rice, a scoop of macaroni salad and one protein: choose from options such as barbecue chicken, kalbi ribs, hamburger steak, beef stew or the fish of the day. A mixed plate lets you choose two meats. For a perfect dessert on a hot day, stop in a shave ice shop. Hawaii's version of the snow cone consists of ice shaved off a large block then topped with flavored syrups. You can even order them with a scoop of ice cream in the center.
For Fine Dining: Gaylord's Restaurant is named after Gaylord Wilcox, the second president of Grove Farm, his family's sugar plantation. Lunch items include ahi poke, beer-battered fish tacos, roasted chicken crepes and a red wine braised beef short rib "dip" sandwich. (3-2087 Kaumualii Highway, Lihue; 808-245-9593; open 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday and 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday)
For Fun Dining: Brick Oven Pizza is pure fun, with red-and-white vinyl checkered tablecloths and a ceiling covered with old license plates from all over the world. Pizzas are cooked on a brick hearth, and you can choose from a long list of toppings. Servers pass out a mound of dough for children to play with while they're waiting for their pizza to bake. (2-2555 Kaumualii Highway, Kalaheo, or 4-4361 Kuhio Highway, Kapaa; open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, buffet nights 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Monday and Thursday)
For Island Ambience: The decor at Keoki's Paradise includes cascading waterfalls, lush foliage, thatched booths and surfboards and framed old Hawaii posters on the koa-paneled walls. Fresh island fish and pork are highlighted on the menu. For lunch, you might try a trio of sliders (cheeseburger, barbecue pork and crab cake) or sashimi grade ahi tuna; for dinner, try fresh fish dusted with macadamia nuts, steamed with ginger and cilantro, or baked in a garlic, lemon and sweet basil glaze. (2360 Kiahuna Plantation Drive, Koloa; 808-742-7534; the Bamboo Bar and Cafe is open from 11 a.m. daily, the dining room opens for dinner at 4:45 p.m.)
For Beachside Dining: Duke's Kauai, named for the Olympic swimming medalist who is credited with being the father of international surfing, is located right on Kalapaki Beach at the Kauai Marriott. Its outdoor dining area, called the Barefoot Bar, serves appetizers, salads, sandwiches, burgers and "island favorites" like an ahi poke wrap and mango barbecue baby back ribs. The dining room focuses on steaks and seafood for dinner. (3610 Rice Street, Lihue; 808-246-9599; "barefoot bar" from 11 a.m., dinner from 5 p.m.)
For a Taste of "Old" Hawaii: Go early to snag a stool at the U-shaped formica counters of Hamura's Saimin Stand, which date back at least a few decades. This down-home place usually is packed with folks yearning for island-style comfort food: a steaming bowl of saimin (noodles cooked in a meat or fish broth) topped with char siu pork, sliced egg, vegetables and wontons, and accompanied by a few teriyaki beef sticks. The recipes for the noodles and broth have been in the Hamura family for more than 50 years. Save room for a slice of homemade lilikoi (passion fruit) pie. (2956 Kress Street, Lihue; 808-245-3271; open from 10 a.m. daily)
Staying in Touch
You'll find free Wi-Fi at the Harbor Mall; you can get the password at the Trolley Stop Tours office, which also has a computer terminal if you haven't brought your own laptop or mobile device.
Best Overall: Waimea Canyon, Wailua River & Fern Grotto Adventure is a great introductory tour for first-timers and nature lovers alike, featuring visits to two of the area's most dramatic natural attractions (the canyon and river). Guests are serenaded at Fern Grotto, a lava cavern, by a choir -- an island custom. Lunch is included on the all-day tour.
Best for Active Travelers: Get "down and dirty" with a five-hour Mud Bug ATV tour. You'll be outfitted with protective helmets, goggles, boots and pants before you drive through fields, streams and back roads, where you'll be splashed with mud. Weather permitting, you can clean off with a swim in a natural pool.
Best for a Splurge: Kauai is one of the top destinations for a helicopter ride; you can fly above the Na Pali Coast and by the stunning cliffs of the Waimea Canyon. The Mokihana Helicopter tour is pricey, but you'll enjoy a breathtaking 50-minute flight over secluded valleys, the mist-shrouded Mount Waialeale and the cascading Wailua Falls.
Best Evening Attraction: Kauai is the place to experience a luau on a Hawaii cruise, and the Luau Kalamaku features hula dancers, fire dancers and storytelling. The dinner buffet includes a pig roast, chicken and plenty of vegetarian options (dietary restrictions like gluten-free can also be accommodated), as well as other local specialties, and the alcohol flows freely. The four-hour event takes place on a historic sugar plantation; additional tour options add on a plantation train tour and manor house tour.
For More Information
On the Web: Kauai Visitors Bureau
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Hawaii
IndependentTraveler.com: Hawaii Travel Guide
--by Cheryl Tsutsumi, Cruise Critic contributor; updated by Erica Silverstein, Features Editor
Photos of Wailua River and Kilauea Point Lighthouse are copyright Robert Coello. Photos of Hawaiian monk seal, Hanalei church and Anini Beach Park are copyright HTJ.