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If less is more, expect to get both on Kauai. You’ll find fewer crowds and less costly hotels here than in Oahu or Maui, which means more time to enjoy the spectacular scenery, including someof the world’s finest beaches. Besides the expected ziplining, deep sea fishing, golf, kayaking and picture postcard sunsets, we’ve got nine other great reasons to plan your next Hawaii vacation around the Garden Island:

1. Waimea Canyon

The best way to appreciate the jaw-dropping beauty of this rugged terrain on the western Napali Coast is by a “flightseeing” small plane or helicopter tour.  Steep, narrow canyons switch between barren, rocky orange and sienna slits to lush green ones dotted with pencil-thin waterfalls ending in turquoise pools. Jack Harter Helicopters offers 60-minute trips, a perfect length, since 30 minute tours offered by other operators is not enough to use up all the space on your camera’s memory card.

Kilohana Plantation

Photo courtesy of the Kilohana Plantation

2. Kilohana Plantation

At its peak, this was a 26,000 acre sugar plantation, with its own railroad. These days, Kilohana‘s the antique narrow-gauge tracks and open wooden cars take visitors on a guided tour through fields growing 30 different fruits and nuts, including pineapple, papaya and banana, and sugar cane for local Koloa Rum.  There’s a free tasting every 30 minutes in the antique-filled Victorian English Tudormanor house, and a well regarded restaurant, Gaylord’s. Much of the menu is grown on the plantation.

3. Uncle’s Shave Ice

This beachfront shack in Poipu, on the South Shore, will make you feel like a kid in a candy store. Routinely voted the best shave ice on the island, Uncle’s also has the largest choice of flavors.  Skip Bubblegum or Red Velvet Cake in favor of tropical syrups, especially such local ones as Lilikol (passion fruit) and pineapple. Mix them up, like the kids do, for a multi-colored treat, and slurp away.

4. Limahuli Garden

One of three National Tropical Botanical Garden sites on Kauai, this is an oasis of ancient plants and flowers brought here eons ago by voyaging Polynesians. Some grow on hillside terraces built 700 years ago, still irrigated by the original gravity system. Take the somewhat steep Whale Trail to the ocean overlook.  Between November and May, the payoff is watching Humpback whale moms teach their calves to swim and feed. It’s quite a show.

5. Kalalau Trail

Start no later than mid-morning day to walk about two miles along this cliff-hugging narrow trail on the Napali Coast to Hanakapi’ai Beach.  This pristine  cove with fine white sand often has a strong riptide, and since there are no lifeguards, swimming is not recommended. The exception is the visiting monk seals, who snooze in the mid-day sun, big brown blobs snoring gently. Bring water and a picnic lunch, since there are no services. The full trail length is 22 miles, and only for the super-fit.

RELATED: Experience the Hawaii trails by moped. Yes, moped.

Orbitz-Kauai-sea lion

Photo courtesy Evelyn Kanter

6. Underwater Wonders

The Napali Coast has a resident pod of more than 100 Spinner Dolphins, and watching them jump or surf the wake of a sightseeing boat is a year-round treat. Ditto whale watching.  Kauai also is prime territory for snorkeling and scubadiving.  The island’s signature dive (and a popular snorkel spot) is Sheraton Caverns on the South Shore, a blown-out lava formation with overhangs and archways, with black coral, sea turtles and the occasional manta ray and shark. SeaSport Divers offers free introductory morning lessons in the Poipu Shop pool, and a so-called “resort dive” in shallow water (no more than 40 feet) in the afternoon.

Smith Fern Grotto

Photo courtesy of Smith’s Tropical Paradise

7. Smith Family Garden Luau

No visit to Hawaii is complete without a luau. Family-owned for four generations, the Smith Family version is less hokey than most. Colorful peacocks roam the lush garden grounds and the pit-roasted pig is the star of an endless buffet. It’s a toss-up whether the traditional bare-chested male fire dancers in the after-dinner show are more memorable than the lei-covered female hula dancers whose hips jiggle at warp speed. Or, skip the luau for an air-boat ride on the winding Wailua River and a brief hike to the Fern Grotto, where a garden of ferns and other plants is suspended from the roof of the cave, or grotto.

8. Secret Beach

The most famous beach on Kauai is the crescent-shaped Hanalei Bay, but locals generally head a few miles away to Kauapea Beach, better known as Secret Beach.  Access is via a short unmarked trail, which hotel concierges will share with a bit of prodding.  Families tend to prefer the west end, with shallow tidal pools that double as kiddie pools, and also because the east end is known for fans of clothing optional sunbathing and swimming.

9. Kilauea Point Lighthouse

Built in 1907, its past life includes action as a secret radar installation in WWII. Now, Kilauea Point Lighthouse is a National Wildlife Refuge. A gaggle of Nene (Hawaii goose) roam the grounds and huge frigate birds and albatross, some with seven-foot wingpans, soar overhead. Borrow binoculars to see red-footed booby birds polka dotting the nearby cliffs, and watch dolphin and monk seals in the waters below. Equally entertaining are the streamer birds, named for their long streamer-like tails, whofly in an unusual circular pattern.

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Tagged: Family time, Hawaii

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Evelyn Kanter

Evelyn Kanter

Evelyn is an NYC-based travel writer who would rather ride a chairlift, river raft or zipline than the subway. She's a regular contributor to major publications, including airline inflights, and has written more than a dozen travel guidebooks. Evelyn's website is

2 thoughts on “Your next Hawaii vacation: 9 reasons to visit Kauai”

  1. With any mention of monk seals, please include a note that visitors fortunate enough to see a monk seal must keep their distance by law. Monk seals are among the most endangered mammals on earth and are protected by both the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act. Encroaching on or harassing a Hawaiian monk seal has both safety and legal repercussions. Look, back away, but definitely don’t touch or take selfies. Mahalo for protecting our precious native wildlife.

  2. These all look like amazing places to visit. I am planning a vacation to the island set of Hawaii and was looking for things to do at each. This definitely helps me relax and plan the trip as I was getting overwhelmed. Can’t wait to take this trip!

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