Off the beaten path Kauai: 18 secret(ish) activities and tips
Being less common to visit on a trip to Hawaii than Oahu or Maui, off the beaten path Kauai is still quiet and beautiful; nearly untouched. These secret(ish) activities will ensure a wonderful trip to Kauai with kids or without. It’s the perfect island for a relaxing Hawaiian vacation.
Nicknamed the “Garden Island” because of its lush landscape, plentiful waterfalls, and beautiful mountainous terrain, from the moment we landed, Kauai did not disappoint. While not on the beach, our hotel was very close to the water and had great views at sunset from the wall of the cliffs across the street.
What you'll find...
- Off the beaten path Kauai: 18 secret(ish) activities
- Top Beach picks for Kauai without crowds
- Overlooked hiking spots on Kauai
- More Unique things to do on Kauai
- Where to stay on Kauai
- Dining around Kauai
Off the beaten path Kauai: 18 secret(ish) activities
If you’ve done all the usual attractions on Kauai, there is still much more to discover, and all parts of the island are definitely worth visiting. There are many more gorgeous places will provide endless family fun and zillions of postcard-perfect photo layouts on the Garden Island. These are some other parts of off the beaten path Kauai to explore that offer the more relaxed beauty that a local might experience.
Top Beach picks for Kauai without crowds
Already you’ll find that Kauai doesn’t have the same size of crowds as Oahu or Maui do, but these beach picks should help make sure you’re relaxation is just that: relaxing and free of large crowds.
Tip: if you’re heading to Oahu, we have a great guide to Oahu’s North Shore with some awesome beach recommendations.
Epic Hawaii at Shipwreck Beach, Poipu State Park
In case you still needed another beach recommendation without many people, Shipwreck Beach is another winner. Beautiful sands and rugged cliffs behind make it the backdrop of your own relaxing Hawaiian vacation to Kauai. This is a public beach and there are vacation rentals nearby, so the number of beach visitors may vary, but in general it’s still going to be much less crowded than the beaches of Oahu.
Afternoon at the beautiful Hanalei Bay
Another one of the top beaches on Kauai that is big enough to enjoy even on a perfect beach day (because most are) is the beach at Hanalei Bay. With a long curved stretch of sand and a small pier, it’s picture perfect. And if you want to go nowhere further, there are plenty of vacation rentals or even the Hanalei Bay Resort. Perfect.
The Kilauea Lighthouse and Wildlife Refuge
Located on the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge, the Kilauea Lighthouse is a bit off the beaten path. It’s open most days to visitors and offers some of the most dramatic views of the jagged Kauai coastline. Since it’s a monitored wildlife refuge, there is a visitors center and naturalists available on busy days to share knowledge.
This is both a great spot for lighthouse appreciation and to watch for wildlife! Between passing whales and the red-footed booby it’s a very special off the beaten path Kauai destination.
Best Kid-friendly beach: Poipu Beach
For doing Kauai with kids, the South shore beaches are great for families because many of them are protected by reefs and do not get the high surf that the north shore has this time of year (winter). The beach was fairly empty whenever we visited and the water was calm, which was great for our little water babies.
There are also lots snorkeling locations on the south side of the island. We took full advantage when the kids napped (Thanks Grandma!) and were able to see several sea turtles (honu) and tons of colorful fish while snorkeling in Hanakaape Bay. Apparently the sea turtles like to hang out in the Waikomo Stream where it enters the Bay. We saw six of them sunning themselves on the shore and many others swimming up and down the stream. You can also get a view of the stream from above on the other side near Whaler’s Cove. There are stairs down to the water and a viewing area to watch these great creatures.
Tip: for more beaches to check out when you’re doing Kauai with kids, explore the eastern shore and north to the Nāpali Coast.
Relax at Barking Sands Beach (Polihale State Beach)
This beach is at the very end of a dirt road, through the sugar cane fields and past a gigantic monkey pod tree, and it’s worth every bump to get there. Called Barking Sands because the wind sometimes blows the sand across the dunes and makes a sound not unlike a bark, the best thing about this beach is that it’s about 12 miles long with hardly anyone on it. Definitely off the beaten path Kauai.
On the north end of the beach, the famous Na Pali Coast rises from the ocean with sheer green cliffs towering up. Bring a picnic and drinking water, because spending the day swimming in the calm, warm waters here is like heaven on earth. And watch for honu (hawaiian green sea turtles)!
Overlooked hiking spots on Kauai
Because there are so many beautiful lowland activities and beaches, depending on the day you may get hiking trails on Kauai all to yourself. Here are several great options to capture the beauty of Kauai off the beaten path.
Visit the Maniniholo Dry Cave
Located right next to the road across from Haena Beach on the island’s North Side, this cave is really fun for the kids to explore. The cave is about 300 yards deep with a high ceiling, so it’s easy to walk all the way to the very back. It was not dark or scary, but we used our phones as flashlights in case the ground was uneven. When you are done exploring, walk across the street and grab some fresh coconut or pineapple from the fruit vendor in the parking lot. The beach is also very fun, with a lifeguard to watch over the littles (and bigs).
Fun fact: part of Pirates of the Caribbean 4: On Stranger Tides was filmed at the Waikapalae cave, another dry cave that could be on our off the beaten path Kauai list. Cuz pirates = awesome.
Cliff hiking to Waipoo Falls
A hike through the Waimea Canyon, Waipoo Falls is quite the site from start to finish. The lush cliffs of the gorge are remarkable and just what you’d expect to find off the beaten path on Kauai. Waipoo Falls itself is 800 feet tall, so hiking through the canyon is going to provide all sorts of views.
Hike to Red Dirt Falls in Waimea Canyon
Hiking in Waimea Canyon State Park is amazing. There’s a reason why they call it The Grand Canyon of the Pacific, and the colors of the dirt and rocks are a very bright red color. Driving up to the top for a hike is amazing, and on the way down keep to the left at the Y in the road. Soon you’ll come upon what looks like the surface of Mars, with a cool waterfall thrown in. The kids lost their minds.
Idea: if you don’t have a rental car, you can do a tour through Waimea Canyon. No reason to miss out!
Hiking the Maha’uleupu Heritage Trail on Kauai
The south side of Kauai is also home to some beautiful scenery. Never content just hanging out, we took the kids on a hike most days. Our favorites were the Maha’uleupu Heritage Trail near Shipwreck Beach and the Makauwahi Cave Trail.
It is fairly common to see humpback whales off the coast here as well as the nene, Hawaii’s state bird; no such luck for us though. We did, however, catch a double rainbow.
Tip: the Maha’uleupu Trail is probably better suited to hike with older kids, as with younger ones you may need to carry them on your shoulders at times.
The Beautiful Makauwahi Cave Trail Hike
The second of the trails was about a twenty minute drive from where we were staying in Poipu / Koloa. The Makauwahi Cave Trail takes you through part of a seventeen acre park and has brochures available with marked guide posts for a self tour of the property belonging to the Grove Farm Company. The Maha’uleupu Trail had amazing views of the southern coast’s cliffs that overlook the ocean.
Following the trail to the cave took us about 25 minutes. The terrain is rocky in some places but we discovered on the way back that there is an alternate path closer to the beach that was much easier to navigate. You enter the sinkhole that contains the cave through a three foot (3′) door, which was quite fun, particularly with kids.
Tip: before doing the Makauwahi Cave Trail, be sure to confirm that it’s accessible. The cave is typically open from 10:00 am – 2:00 pm daily and tends to be staffed with helpful volunteers who can tell you all you want to know about the cave and area.
The best of Kauai: any hike into the Waimea Canyon
The red dirt falls is gorgeous but there are more epic view and waterfalls than you might expect. Whether you’re hiking a whole day or just going out for an afternoon, be sure that the Waimea Canyon is on your Kauai hiking list.
More Unique things to do on Kauai
Beyond hiking and beaches, you’ll find there are many more things to do on Kauai. Here are a few extra ideas to have an off the beaten path experience on the Garden Island.
Visiting the Tortoise Sanctuary
After leaving the cave we learned, to our surprise, that right across the bridge from the cave was a tortoise sanctuary. You simply climb over the fence on the provided stairs and enter “Lida’s Field of Dreams” which is home to several to Giant Tortoises as part of a project to help control weeds in a native plant restoration area. We all loved this part of our hike the best! Quite the gem to find when doing Kauai with kids.
Other interesting and fun activities to do on Kauai with kids include the botanical gardens, beaches of the eastern shores, waterfall hiking at Wailua Falls, and taking the Scenic Route along the Nāpali Coast.
Stroll Old Koloa Town
Most people drive through Old Koloa Town on the way to or from Poipu Beach, but it’s really sweet and worth the stop. Only about two blocks long, the charming clapboard buildings are well-preserved from the early sugar plantation days. Lots of fun little shops, restaurants and galleries are now located in the historic storefronts. Our kids have always loved getting an ice cream cone here and then taking a picture with the “old man statue”.
Fierce Nature at Spouting Horn
Not really secret, but the Spouting Horn in Poipu is really a sight to behold as it shoots seawater high into the air. This phenomenon is caused by the ocean waves rushing into a lava tube. positioned at sea-level with a blow hole amid the rocky shore. When the wave is large, the spout is impressive and loud! This is a great place for sunset photos and family poses for the year’s holiday card. There is also an interesting crafts fair onsite on most nights, where the kids can pick out some inexpensive sharks tooth necklaces or shell jewelry.
Where to stay on Kauai
Seriously, drop me on a beach and I’m good, but the reality is that you want to find the most relaxing or best hotels on Kauai for a trip. Or you just need a good recommendation for the perfect family resort for your Kauai vacation, and we’ve got both!
Waimea Plantation Cottages
This sweet little hotel is located waaaaaay on the West Side of Kauai where people seldom venture, near the road where cars drive up the hill to reach Waimea Canyon State Park. Because it is away from most of the tourists sites, guess what… There are very few tourists at Waimea Plantation Cottages! It’s a collection of historic sugar plantation cottages, moved from other locations to this tranquil spot on beachside of the island, making it very much an off the beaten path Kauai destination.
Although not a swimmable beach, the long walks and sunsets are epic. And did I mention there are few tourists here? The sign of a good place is when Hawaiians come from other islands to vacation at this place, which is just what we’ve discovered about Kauai and the Waimea Plantation Cottages. At the Cottages, BBQs are included, along with working kitchens and lots of kitch, so it’s perfect Hawaii.
Tip: if you want to go on a snorkeling adventure there are some wonderful spots, particularly with such a rocky coastline.
Koloa Landing Resort with kids
Traveling with small kids finds us looking for places that help us with their schedule. This often includes pools for some fun, a kitchen so we can cook meals, and laundry when available. We were able to find all of this at Koloa Landing Resort in Poipu/Koloa. Just a 25 minute drive from the airport, Poipu/Koloa is on the southern side of Kauai.
In addition to the amazing pools on property, there is also a spa, dining options, and a luau that can be booked (these aren’t included in standard bookings). Overall, it’s a very family friendly resort and does offer the best of what you’d expect of a Hawaiian retreat.
Tip: if you’re looking to stay in a different style of resort or in a different part of Kauai, check out more options below (search box) but remember, always take a few minutes to read reviews and look at guests’ pictures, as that can really help you determine if a property is right for your vacation.
Condos and Vacation Rentals on Kauai
One of the great travel advances of the 21st century is the availability of vacation rentals. We recommend HomeAway for looking for vacation rentals on Kauai. There is actually quite the inventory and when you’re booking a vacation rental vs an AirBNB you’re guaranteed to not have shared quarters… which sometime happens with AirBNBs.
There are many more fun discoveries on Kauai, and part of the adventure of any vacation is finding your own favorites. We hope you share your finds with us here so we can add to the list!
Dining around Kauai
And food. We would be remiss if we didn’t mention food. While we did cook in often, we also ate out several times. Close to hotels, in the Kukui’ula Village Shopping Center we found Living Foods, which had all of our grocery necessities, as well as a kitchen and coffee bar. The shopping village also had several other places to eat and shop, including a pharmacy which is helpful when your child spikes a fever.
Eat Loco Coco Shave Ice
There are many great Hawaiian shave ice places on the Garden Island, but Loco Coco is really special and is absolutely off the beaten path Kauai. Located inside a little portable trailer in a random parking lot in Poipu, they serve their hand-shaved ice with all organic ingredients, including fruit juices, crushed fruit on top, and ice cream on the bottom. De-lish! Poipu has a lot to offer for being a small town.
Kauai hot dogs: Puka Dogs
Another favorite find for dining around Kauai with kids was Puka Dog in the Poipu Village Center. Puka Dog had some amazing Dogs (Polish sausage or veggie) with tropical toppings, the dog being secured in a hole in the center of the buns. Great find for easy dining with kids!
Tip: for more ideas of how to find great food on Kauai, check out our article about dining around Oahu, which includes ways to find authentic local cuisine and off-the-beaten-path dining options.
Get local at Kalaheo Coffee Company
Hands down, this is the best breakfast on the island. The baked goods at Kalaheo Coffee Company are crazy good – our kids scramble out of bed early if we dangle the offer of a “knuckle” from here (sort of a free-form cinnamon roll with icing). The omelettes and scrambles are delicious, and the pineapple French toast with coconut syrup is a favorite. Open for breakfast and lunch every day, and dinner Tuesday through Saturday. Sooooo good.
This is up away from the beach so perfect to add to a day when you’re driving between the many things to do on the south shore of Kauai.
Thanks to our friends Andy (a buddy) and Jon from 2dadswithbaggage.com for sharing his families favorite semi-secret aka off the beaten path Kauai activities with kids. We love hearing from other dads, especially when it’s about an awesome place that should be on everyone’s bucket list. Thanks for these great tips!
And want to pin this for planning your own family trip and seeking out off the beaten path Kauai? Go for it!!