Why is Kauai such a favorite of filmmakers? They love beauty and adventure, and Kauai is brimming with both. Kauai is the only island in Hawaii with navigable rivers, and waterways mean adventure. Its 50 miles of white-sand shoreline offer more beaches per mile than any other island in Hawaii, and that means ocean adventure.
A mere one-third of the island contains the volcanic crater of Waialeale, the rarefied bog of the Alakai Swamp, the desert like terrain of the Waimea Canyon, and the valleys, sea caves and hiking trails of the Näpali Coast—you can’t get more adventurous than that. Whether you’re in the air, in the water, or on terra firma, you’ll find yourself immersed in intense visual drama and mega-doses of adventure.
Filmmakers have captured these alluring qualities of Kauai in South Pacific, Blue Hawaii, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, The Thorn Birds, Fantasy Island, Outbreak, Tropic Thunder, and numerous other movie and TV productions through the decades.
But more than a scenic backdrop, Kaua‘i is a leading player—alive, energetic, and bursting with opportunities for active, life-changing pursuits. Here are some of them.
FROM THE AIR
Only one main road joins the north, south, east and west shores of the island, leaving the interior inaccessible by car. But what you can’t see on land is magical from the air. Kauai’s geology is tailor-made for air tours, making airplane and helicopter tours a Kaua‘i signature and a heart-stopping way to sightsee. Within 90 minutes, you can view the entire island from the air.
See why the ancients trekked up the river for days to honor their gods at their most sacred mountaintop altars. Lush rainforest clears suddenly, the clouds part, and the crater of Wai‘ale‘ale comes into view, yawning and streaked with waterfalls. A single shield volcano, Waialeale, lies at the center of the island it created and is spectacularly visible from the air.
A plateau here, a ridgeline there, waterfalls and mountain pools scoring the precipices—take it all in with expert narration and state-of-the-art headphones. Peer at the Alaka‘i Swamp, the great watershed of bogs, birds and rare dwarfed plants in a unique upland ecosystem. Behold the rivers, streams, canyons, rises, gullies, and the remote valleys of the Näpali Coast, where ancient Hawaiians worshipped their gods, grew taro and thrived.
To the west, flanked by the highland forests of Kōke‘e, Waimea Canyon is starkly red, purple, and ochre, “the Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” incised with 2,000-foot-high cliffs and streams that lead to the Waimea River. From the air, where the island’s fullest glory emerges, you’ll see why the white-tailed tropicbirds, wedge-tailed shearwaters and Laysan albatrosses have the finest views on the island.
THRILLS AND HILLS ON THE ZIPLINE
There’s another way of seeing Kaua‘i from the air: ziplines.
Zipline safaris combine multiple adventures and give you access to remote, hard-to-find areas and private ranch lands that are otherwise off-limits to the public. Hike, zip, have a waterfall picnic, and float in a mountain pool. Smell the flowers and feel the fresh mountain air in your hair as you zip over trees, ravines and bamboo forests.
Just north of Lihue is the Hūleia River, made famous in Raiders of the Lost Ark, where kayak and zipline safaris carry you past native sanctuaries that are home to rare and endangered birds.
On the north shore, zip and dip in the far reaches of a private ranch, on nine ziplines and a suspension bridge spanning a waterfall. Take a leap off the 1,200-foot King Kong zipline before cooling off in an inner tube at a remote mountain swimming hole. Paddle up the Kalihi Wai Stream, climb ashore for a hike and zip near a mountain pool. Look for waterfalls while in mid-air; if you’re not zipping over one of them, you’ll see them curling down the cliffs above the Hanalei Valley.
IN AND ON THE WATER
Passionate Paddling – The navigable rivers of Kaua‘i—the Wailua, Hanalei, and Hūle‘ia rivers—are smooth, scenic portals to new worlds of exploration. Kayak rentals and guided tours for all skill levels are offered by outfitters who have thought of it all. The silky water. The idyllic, tree-lined stretches where the only sound is birdsong. The views of sacred valleys and mountains. And the glimpses of sites that look familiar because you’ve seen them before, on the big screen.
Hike, kayak, swim and zipline combinations are offered by some outfitters, but you can also tailor your adventure to paddling only, on fresh water or in the open ocean. Freshwater kayaking—river kayaking—will take you on any of the three rivers mentioned, to waterfalls and streams toward the jungle interior of the island—a bonanza for bird-watchers too. Kayakers on the Wailua River have a special treat in store: the Fern Grotto, a natural amphitheater covered in ferns, surrounded by an exotic jungle of tropical flowers. Single or multiple-person kayaks are available for rent.
Open-ocean kayaking is best done with a guide who knows the ocean and current conditions. Don’t be surprised if you have company—dolphins, sea turtles, schools of fish, or even whales during winter. Motorized Zodiac rafts are available for the more challenging visit of the Näpali Coast.
Hang Ten – It’s no accident that some of surfing’s most popular champions cut their teeth on the surf breaks of Kauai. Hanalei Bay on the north shore, Kalapaki Bay on the southeastern shore, Po‘ipü on the south shore, and Kekaha on the west side are some of the popular surf breaks in this Hawaiian sport of kings.
Surfing’s cousins, stand-up paddling and kite-surfing, are also popular at various surf breaks on the island, and sailboards, along with surfboard rentals and instruction, are available at many beach activity stands.
Tube Together – In the earliest days of the sugar plantations, workers built irrigation flumes to transport water from the island’s moist interior to the sprawling sugar cane fields in and around Lihue. Most of the flumes were dug and designed before 1870 and are now being used in recreation. With the Lïhu‘e Sugar Plantation now closed, you can ride an inner tube down hand-built canals and tunnels, on the historic waterways of the Hanamaulu ditch system.
Swimming, Snorkeling, and Underwater Cathedrals – Kaua‘i is replete with sights and discoveries at the shore and in the water. There are at least 35 dive sites ringing the island, many of them world-renowned. You can even dive off Ni‘ihau, the “Forbidden Isle” 17 miles from Kaua‘i and visible from the west shore. One of the best ways to get their is via a boat tour from our trusted travel partner, Holo Holo Charters!
On the north shore, Keee Beach, at the end of the road in Haena, is a protected lagoon teeming with tropical fish for great summer snorkeling. Tunnels, or Makua Beach, also in Hā‘ena, is a living aquarium renowned for its inner and outer reefs and dramatic underwater caverns and canyons. When the ocean is calm, Tunnels has something for everyone: caverns for divers, a reef-protected lagoon for snorkelers, tunnel-shaped waves for surfers, and a beach enjoyed by swimmers and body boarders.
In east Kauai, Lydgate Beach Park, near the Wailua River, is a favorite of families and children, who feel protected by the reef and buoyed by the clear, calm waters. This is a great beach park for picnics and family gatherings, with a pavilion and all the amenities.
Po‘ipü Beach Park is the south shore spot for swimming, a sunny, easily accessible strand with a reef-protected area and frequent sea turtle sightings. There are all the amenities—pavilion, parking, restrooms—and restaurants nearby.
Sailing Along – Some of the most extraordinary views of Kaua‘i are from the ocean, from the catamarans, zodiacs, fishing vessels, and oceangoing charters available from longtime operators.
Angling to angle? Deep-sea fishing charters will take you to where the tuna and marlin are running. A sunset cruise? Catamarans and sailing vessels will sail you into the sunset. Seabirds, dolphins, and whales during winter may appear without warning, and the cliffs—of Kipu Kai, Haupu, Mount Makana (known as “Bali Hai” in the movie South Pacific), and the Näpali Coast—are even more spectacular when seen from offshore.
To feed your soul and venture off the beaten track, think wheels. There’s nothing like seeing the island from a two-wheeler or all-terrain vehicle (ATV), whether on a downhill bicycle tour from Waimea Canyon or an ATV expedition through the island’s rugged interior. Half- and full-day bicycle tours take you from the rim of Waimea Canyon, 3,600 feet high, all the way to sea level. The 12-mile downhill cruise is all the more comfortable with wide saddles and hi-rise handlebars, on smooth blacktop all the way, and at sunrise or sunset.
The County of Kauai’s Ke Ala Hele Makalae project is helping bicyclists experience the joy of Kauai on two wheels. Translated as “The Path that Goes by the Coast,” Ke Ala Hele Makalae is the name given to the shared-use path that, when completed, will follow the scenic coastline from Nawiliwili to Anahola.
On private trails and dirt roads, ATV adventures take you to waterfalls, jungle idylls, and remote, unspoiled areas that are usually inaccessible to the public.
Ranches and stables dotted throughout the island offer horseback riding in paradise: coastline, ranchland, waterfall jungle, and everything in between. Saddle up for a relaxing, loping ride across vast ranchlands in the lee of waterfall-lined cliffs, or head to a secluded waterfall for a picnic and jungle adventure.
TEE OFF IN PARADISE
Kauai is home to many acclaimed resorts and courses, which are regularly rated among the best in Hawaii and in some cases the world. Designed by legends such as Jack Nicklaus and Robert Trent Jones, Jr., these renowned courses help account for the high number of professional golfers who have hailed from this island. Eight scintillating, diverse courses traverse spectacular landscapes across the north, east and south shores. Streams, waterfalls, rock gardens, farmland, the well-preserved remnants of an old Hawaiian village, as well as glimpses of whales, sea turtles and monk seals are among the natural glories which can be experienced playing golf on the Garden Isle.