Postcards from Kauai

kauai travel guide

Hi, friends! I’m finally back in the blogging saddle after a truly fantastic vacation in Kauai. I have so many pictures that I could blow up my Instagram feed for weeks, so instead, I thought I’d share a bunch here as a little photo diary, which also gives me the chance to share some of my favorite things we experienced on the island. If anyone is planning a trip to Kauai — or even debating between it and other Hawaiian islands — let this serve as your official notice: you will have an amazing time!

kilauea-lighthouse-kauai

view-from-st-regis-makana-terrace

Where we stayed

Joe and I stayed at the St. Regis resort in Princeville, which is a small community on the north shore of the island. When reading up on Kauai, we always heard it referred to in this way: north or south. On this trip, we opted not to spend time on the south side, preferring instead to explore the northern and northeastern shores.

We chose the St. Regis not only because of its location, but because we were able to get a pretty good package deal via AmEx (regardless of which credit card you use, check to see if you can get any benefits — from reading reviews online, it seems like several companies have deals with the hotel!). To be honest, going into the trip, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the property. Recent TripAdvisor reviews, while generally very good, had some meh ones mixed in, with many talking about the wear and tear on the exterior of the hotel, and the blah food there.

My take? All in all, it was a pretty great experience, and I think the hotel is easily the nicest on the island. The rooms themselves were lovely, warm and really spacious, with incredibly comfortable beds and huge windows (that open completely!). And the views over Hanalei Bay — especially in the northern wing of the hotel — are stunning. All the common areas (like the lobby, main bar, lobby terrace, and pool/beach area) were beautifully done, and everyone was incredibly friendly and helpful. I do agree with many reviewers that the hotel could use a good power washing on the exterior, but I also suspect given the humidity and how much it rains there that it’s kind of a lost cause. So it wasn’t a huge deal. Food and drinks were pricey, but through our package, we had complimentary breakfast daily (see what I mean about asking your credit cards for deals?), and even better, we found that if you take your own food and drinks to the pool, the staff didn’t care at all and there was no corkage. That being said, from the few items I ate at the hotel, some were better than others (ahi poke bowl: extremely good; guacamole: meh). But I can’t overstate how kind and helpful the entire staff was, too.

So let’s put it this way: I would absolutely stay here again were I going to Kauai with just Joe, because it’s perfect for a romantic getaway. Were we to go to Kauai with a group, I think I’d look at renting a house somewhere.

In any case, I really couldn’t argue with the view from breakfast everyday, which you can see in the picture above. On our very first morning, there was a light rain shower followed by a double rainbow! Yes, I started singing the Double Rainbow song like an idiot, and no, I didn’t get pictures because being Day One of vacation, I was all, “I’m not taking my phone anywhere with me today!” Ugh. Lesson learned: there is always a photo op around the corner in Kauai.

at-hideaways-beach-kauai

Beach Trip: Hideaways

One morning, we walked over to Hideaways Beach, which is a small beach near the hotel. Blink, and you’ll miss the entrance. As you exit the St. Regis, there is a tennis court on the left side of the road, just past the valet parking lot. A tiny, unmarked trail runs alongside the court; walk down it and you reach a narrow staircase, which turns into a very steep path down to the beach. Do NOT attempt to go to this beach if you’re not in decent physical condition. The day we went, the path was extremely muddy and slippery, which requires you to hold on to a system of ropes to ease your way down the steep path. Once you make it down the most treacherous part though, the view is incredible:

hideaways-beach-kauai

Walk down a bit further down a more level path, and you arrive on a beautifully shaded beach, with great views of the western side of Hanalei Bay:

view-from-hideaways-beach

how-to-find-hideaways-beach-kauai

On the right side of the beach is this rocky point. You can actually continue along the trail and hike over to another part of the beach that’s just beyond this point. The day we visited the beach, there was a Monk Seal washed up in the sands. At first, I thought it was dead, until I saw it scratch an itch! It turns out Monk Seals are one of the few seal species that will beach themselves by their lonesome, to take a snooze and relax. We felt lucky to see one — Monk Seals are endangered, and if you happen to come across one, you’re not supposed to go near it (there are actually fines if you’re caught too close to one!).

tide-pool-at-secret-beach

Beach Trip: Secret Beach

Another day, we drove down to Secret Beach. It’s not much of a secret anymore, but the beach is so large that even with a semi-full parking lot, it felt empty. To find it on Google Maps, search “Secret Beach Parking” and you should see a pin drop at the end of Secret Beach Road. The descent down to this beach was even MORE exerting than Hideaways! Yesterday, I happened to be looking at the Health app on my iPhone (which I’d never opened) and realized it logs your activity. Since I had my phone with me the day we went to Secret Beach, it had tracked the journey: it recorded 17 flights of stairs to get down and back to the beach! I’ll tell you though, it’s worth it.

Secret Beach

Secret Beach

Secret Beach isn’t swimmable in the winter; the day we went, the waves were HUGE and incredibly powerful. We walked along the left side of the beach, hoping to check out some of the lava tide pools, but on this day, the surf was unfortunately too strong and crashing over the pools. In the summer, these pools are supposedly swimmable, so if you’re going then, don’t miss it! One interesting thing about Secret Beach was there was a large tide pool right at the bottom of the access path. The water in it was really clear and warm, and it felt good to wade through it. There are similar types of tide pools along the beach; just watch the conditions as we found some of their sandy bottoms can feel like quicksand.

This is a gorgeous beach to visit, worth the hike and the views; to the right of the beach is the Kilauea lighthouse.

kauai-travel-tips

Where to Eat: Kilauea Fish Market & Kauai Juice Co.

After we visited Secret Beach, we drove into Kilauea to check out Kilauea Fish Market. It’s a tiny little spot, where you order from a counter, then take your grub to go, or eat it outside on picnic tables. Some friends of ours had gone to Kauai a few weeks before us and were raving about this place. I’ll vouch for ’em: the ahi fajita burrito was absolutely phenomenal! If you are looking for fresh fish prepared in a variety of picnic ready ways (think poke bowls, burritos, salads), this is the place to go.

While we were waiting for our food, we swing by Kauai Juice Co. next door. This is a local company serving an incredible blend of fresh juices, health shots and even kombuchas. Joe actually brews his own kombucha at home, so we were curious to try theirs — it was fizzy, refreshing, and really delicious. I also highly recommend the hot sauces they sell. The variety was amazing, and we had fun taste testing different ones (we ultimately went home with the Original, even opening it immediately to put on our Fish Market burritos!).

Hunter Gatherer Kauai

Hunter Gatherer Kauai

hunter-gatherer-kauai

Where to Shop: Hunter Gatherer

Next door to both these places is a little shop called Hunter Gatherer. You won’t miss it, because just outside the door were beautiful baskets, linens, and other textiles. To me, it’s a perfect gift shop — nothing too touristy or kitschy, but instead, beautiful goods you could use in your everyday life to remind you of your trip. They had a gorgeous assortment of blankets, turkish towels, and tea towels; I also really liked the little selection of polished rocks, shells, and gemstones (these are my kind of tchotchkes!). The shop had some unique coffee table books, all focused on island life and photography. Given the narrow subject focus, many were ones I’d never come across, and were interesting to look through. Highly recommend browsing in here!

Waipoo Falls

Splurge On: A Helicopter Tour

I heard over and over again that helicopter tours were well worth doing while visiting Kauai, primarily because (by some estimates) up to a third of the island can only be accessed by air. Joe and I had never been in a helicopter before, so vacation in Kauai seemed like a perfect first time!

Let me tell you: completely worth it! The views from the air were absolutely incredible, and you really get a feel for how diverse the island is geologically and meteorologically too. The trip started off with flight over some of the lush, green valleys in the northern central part of the island, where it rains a lot. Because of this, there are waterfalls for daysssss.

flying-over-kauai

You really can’t even try to photograph all of them, there are so many. This part of the trip took us into the original volcanic crater on the island, which has you nearly surrounded with waterfalls and makes you feel so insignificant (like, in a good way). You think about how old these islands are and that some day they won’t be there — it’s pretty humbling!

Waimea Canyon

The flight took us over Waimea Canyon, above, with a gorgeous view of Waipoo Falls (two photos above). It’s pretty incredible that this canyon is just “over the hill” from the lush, tropical valleys to the east, isn’t it?

aerial-view-of-the-na-pali-coast

The last part of the flight was easily the best — the Nā Pali Coast. These cliffs can be as high as 4000 feet, with sheer drops into the ocean. Photos don’t even do it justice. With the sun shining on the ocean, it’s really a sight to behold.

na-pali-coast

na-pali-coast-by-air

Kalihiwai Beach

Spend the Day: Getting Lost

One day, we hopped in the Jeep we rented and simply drove around the northern part of the island, turning down random streets and dirt roads. We ended up at this lookout point over Kalihiwai Beach, where we were joined by a bunch of locals who apparently drive to this spot to check out the surf. On this day, it was already a pretty crowded lineup in the water, and we heard someone say the waves “weren’t that good.” Apparently in winter, they can get much bigger than this!

Anini Beach

We also ended up at Anini Beach, which was probably my personal favorite beach of the trip. It’s swimmable and calm, protected by a huge coral reef, so that sent it to the top of the list for me! But what was really special about the beach were large trees with branches growing out over the water. You can climb on them and sit and watch the waves in the distance. Bliss! There are also swings attached to some of the trees, so hike along the beach and see what you can discover. I found the sand at this beach to be very soft and fine — it felt like velvet on the feet!

Hanalei Bay sunset

Hanalei Bay sunset

And never miss: a sunset

We were lucky that the views over Hanalei Bay were incredible every single night. This time of year, sunset was around 6pm, so we always made sure to stop for a bit (often cocktail in hand!) to watch the sun dip beneath the incredible Nā Pali cliffs. It’s truly Hawaiian paradise, no?

Kauai: A Mini Travel Guide

Where to stay (North Shore)
St. Regis Princeville
Westin
The Palmwood

Where to eat
The Dolphin (Hanalei)
An apparent Hanalei classic, set right on the Hanalei River with tiki torches to top it all off. Can get busy, so go early (they don’t take reservations). We found the fish plates to be good; the rainbow poke to be stellar.

Bar Acuda (Hanalei)
Tapas restaurant from former SF chefs (we popped in one day and learned the head chef used to helm one of our former favorites, Slow Club). The food and ambiance here feels updated and modern; we liked it so much we went twice.

Hanalei Bread Co. and Coffee House (Hanalei)
A new project from the Bar Acuda folks, this spot serves great coffee and a wonderful assortment of breads and pastries. It’s a perfect place to stop in the morning for a hit of caffeine and breakfast on the go. The staff is so friendly!

Kilauea Fish Market (Kilauea)
Amazing burritos (including vegetarian friendly options!), cold prepared salads, and poke. Cannot recommend enough.

Kauai Juice Co (Kilaeau, Ka’paa)
Super fresh organic juices, smoothies, and kombuchas. If you’re not into that kind of thing, at least swing by to check out their locally made hot sauce selection. Killer!

Kauai Ono (Princeville)
This is a pop up dinner party just outside Princeville, located at Princeville Ranch. It was recommended to me by no less than 4 different people, so I knew it had to be good. Promised as “the best food on the island” by friends, it did not disappoint. Basically, Kauai Ono hosts a dinner twice per week, for around 40 to 50 people, set at long tables. Yes, you will sit next to strangers, but that’s half the fun. They prep the menu based on what’s good or what’s fresh that day, and it’s BYOB (more on that below). The food here was INCREDIBLE. Like, the freshest tasting fish and vegetables you will ever have. Our dinner was 4 courses, and we had a great time chatting with the people around us (we sat across from a neurosurgeon and a guy who flies fueling jets for the U.S. Air Force…um, awesome?). You need reservations, and they prefer cash.

Piazza (Princeville)
Great wood-fired pizzas, seafood, steaks, all with an Italian or Mediterranean twist and with lots of local, fresh vegetables gracing places as well. The bar feels more metropolitan than one would expect in Princeville, and as a new kid on the block, it’s packed most nights with a lively, energetic feel. Don’t miss the octopus, or the lamb chops! (Added 2017)

Trilogy Coffee (Kilauea)
Probably the best coffee on the whole island! An adorable little coffee shop in the heart of Kilauea. Wonderful espresso drinks, coffees, a huge selection of loose leaf teas, pastries, chocolates, and daily breakfast items. The staff is friendly, and since it’s new, this place has a lot of locals coming through. It’s in the same center as Kilauea Fish Market, Kauai Juice Co., and Hunter Gatherer. Basically, if I were moving to Kauai, I’d end up in Kilauea. It has the best energy! (Added 2017)

Hideaways Pizza Pub (Princeville)
A short walk from the St. Regis, this place is great if you need a pizza and beer fix. They’re not the best pies you’ll ever eat, but there are a ton of options and everything is more than satisfying. If you’ve been overindulging, they have a huge menu of salads as well. Pro tip: you can swap out the greens on any of the salads, so if you need to get a kale fix like we did one day, have them use that as a base. (Added 2017)

La Spezia (Koloa)
Ok full disclosure: I have not dined here yet, but while in Kauai in 2017, I heard about this spot from 2 people, and shortly after our return it was discussed in a New York Times article about Kauai. It sounds fantastic! If you need a special night out and don’t mind the drive, sounds like it could be worth it. (Added 2017)

 

What to Do
Princeville Botanical Gardens
We stumbled upon this place one day, when we were lost. Intrigued, we actually went back another day, to see if we could walk around the gardens. It’s not open to the public; you need to make reservations, but they seem to be well worth it. The 3-hour tour includes a chocolate and honey tasting (both from the garden!), and a guided walk around the nearly 10 acre property. The gardens are fairly new and were a painstaking project completed by a couple who live on the grounds. The day we went back, we’d missed the tour, but ended up talking to one of the guides for about half an hour. As best I can tell, the guided tour is not just about plants, but would also serve as a wonderful history lesson on the island — talking to the guide, we learned so much about where Kauai’s been, and where it’s going. The welcome area sells locally made soaps and honey; you can bet we scooped up both.

Update, Nov 2017: We finally made it to the gardens for an official tour! It was well worth it and I can’t recommend it enough. Read a little more in this post.

Kauai Farmers Markets
We saw lots of farmers markets around the island, which not only sell wonderful produce, but lots of locally made goods too (the soaps I mentioned above, from Kopa Kauai, sell at local markets and on Etsy!). Check here for a full list of markets, days, and times.

Helicopter Tour
I definitely recommend a helicopter tour! It was well worth the money and truly a once in a lifetime experience. We opted to go with Sunshine Helicopters, which is near Princeville, since it would be closest to our hotel. All other operators fly out of Lihue, near the southern part of the island, which is about a 45 minute drive from Princeville. Sunshine was good; we liked that you could pay a little more to guarantee seats up front with the pilot, which offers better, unobstructed views as you fly. Other companies don’t always guarantee front row seats, so this was important to me. However, were I to do this again, I think I might bite the bullet and fly out of Lihue, because Sunshine is one of the few tour companies who does not offer two way headsets. So in other words, you can’t speak to the pilot when you fly. Being the type of person who always has a million follow up questions, there was so much more I wanted to know!

Stand Up Paddle Boarding
We rented paddle boards directly from the St. Regis, then paddled up the Hanalei River into Hanalei. I personally liked doing it this way, versus renting boards in Hanalei and going down river, because on the journey back, the currents worked in our favor when we were tired out. Regardless though, I highly recommend paddle boarding the Hanalei River if you are on the north shore! Joe and I agreed it was probably our favorite activity. The river is lined with huge bushes bursting with pink and yellow flowers, which are also floating everywhere. It was like paddling through this magical, petal strewn forest. Depending on recent rainfall, currents going upstream can be strong, so eat a good meal beforehand and sweat it out. If renting from Hanalei, check out Kayak Hanalei. (And a personal pride/bragging moment because who else will I tell: first time stand up paddle boarding, and I didn’t fall a single time!)

Hiking
There’s SO much hiking to do on Kauai, and I’ll cop to it: we did none of it. But if you’re going to do one hike, the most popular is easily the hike to Hanakapi’ai Falls. Drive all the way out of Hanalei, to the end of the road on the northern part of the island, and you hit Ke’e Beach and the start of the trailhead. It’s an 8 mile hike round trip, and if it’s rained (which it probably has), it’s extremely muddy. We’re saving this for next time.

Where to shop
Hunter Gatherer (Kilauea)
My perfect gift shop, filled with beautiful textiles, books and lovely little handmade goods to take home.

Princeville Wine Market (Princeville)
There’s this fantastic little wine shop right in the Princeville Market Center, selling an impressive mix of wines from old world and new. I couldn’t believe some of the smaller producers they had, and at very reasonable price points, too! If you need wine for Kauai Ono, or simply to stock up for the week (we bought a few bottles to drink in our room and at the pool), this is absolutely the place to go.

For Further Research
I’m normally not a guidebook type of person, but on this trip, I used this book. I cannot recommend it more! Funnily enough, a friend of mine received it as a gift for her honeymoon about 3 years ago, and she’s passed it from person to person as each visited Kauai. Written by a local, it was indispensable, comprehensive, and actually fun to read. The book is chock full of unique suggestions, some of which seem to be unknown to locals. With so much to do and see on Kauai, having this as a guide was essential. A must buy!

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Have you ever been to Kauai? What should we see next time? We can’t wait to go back!

 

Read about our second trip to Kauai here.

 

Images:

All images by Victoria McGinley Studio, and taken on an iPhone!

Leave a Comment

8 Comments

  1. 11.8.16
    Catherine said:

    So glad you had an amazing time! These pictures are absolutely stunning. My fiancé and I are considering staying here for our honeymoon. Would you recommend it for that?

    • 11.8.16

      Absolutely, especially if you like a vacation that has a mix of relaxation, plus plenty to do and see in terms of activities. I think it is a super popular honeymoon/anniversary/babymoon spot…to be honest, nearly all of the people we saw at the hotel were couples, not groups or families! Heads up that from what staff told us, October, November, and early December are the quietest times at the hotel (with about 70% capacity), and for the rest of the year, they tend to be really full. I could see there being way more families there in the summer — JFYI in case you want something more, shall we say, quiet.

    • 11.8.16

      Follow up to say I just stalked your blog and read you’re getting married next October. Sooo many people told us October and early November is the absolute best time of year to visit Kauai! Slower, quieter, gorgeous weather that’s not too hot…and that’s exactly what we experienced! We met a bunch of honeymooners who actually decided to split their trip into 2 parts, with a stay in SF/Napa on the way out or on the way back. This helped them break up the travel out to Kauai, since if you’re flying from anywhere except the west coast, you’re definitely going to have a layover!

      • 11.9.16
        Catherine said:

        Thank you! I’ve been hearing that October is the perfect month to go, so that worked out well for us :) yeah we were hoping for something less family oriented, but didn’t really want to do a Sandals-style resort either. So I’m happy to hear that you saw mostly other adults when you were there. Definitely going to bookmark this post for when we’re finalizing plans!

        Catherine

  2. 11.8.16
    Shannon said:

    You hit up all the best spots! I’ve never stayed at the St. Regis, but we usually stay in Princeville and hit up the St. Regis for at least one champagne sunset. Did you drive to the end of the road at Ke’e beach? The hiking from there is amazing. Not visiting the south side means you have to go back! xo

  3. 11.9.16
    Erica said:

    I’m so glad you had a great trip! I was in Kauai several years ago and stayed at the St. Regis Princeville too. It’s a beautiful part of the island!

  4. 11.15.17
    Liz said:

    I am going to Kauai on my honeymoon next summer and staying at the St. Regis! I am so glad you enjoyed it. How was the daily breakfast? We have it included as well. Any other hotel-specific info you can share? Thank you!!!!

    • 11.16.17
      Victoria said:

      Hi Liz! Oh, I’m so excited for you — you will have a fab time! It’s funny you left this comment because we *just* returned from another trip to Kauai and I wrote a post about it today: https://victoriamcginley.com/2017/11/16/postcards-kauai-vol-ii/ I’ve added a couple new recommendations that I think you’d enjoy.

      To answer your question: we had the same package as I suspect you guys do, and also got the breakfast buffet each day. Honestly, it’s one of the best parts of that package! The buffet is decadent, to say the least. This is kind of random, but my pro tip for the buffet (especially if you have a long stay, like a week or more) is to use the omelette station as an “eggs” station. Meaning, they can totally make you scrambled eggs, fried eggs, scrambles with omelette ingredients, etc. I have a culinary background so I’d also get creative with buffet items and make myself things like avocado toast with fried eggs when I got sick of the other offerings. Basically, just know there are so many things to eat there that it’s fabulous and you won’t be bored :) There’s nothing like eating all this gorgeous fresh fruit and sipping a Bloody Mary or Mimosa and watching the sun come up over Hanalei Bay and the mountains! Watch out for the small birds though. ;) You’ll see what I mean.

      Other hotel specific things: the spa is great; if you go, do not miss the largest, round shower in the women’s area. Turn on all the jets and the waterfall (yes, waterfall). Trust. There are some small cabanas far off the right side of the pool, under trees (you’ll see them as you exit the hotel to head to the pool area). If there is no one there in the early evening, grab a glass of wine and go sit there and watch the sunset. It’s magical.

      Summer will be a great time to go as the seas are usually pretty calm. Take advantage and book a sunset cruise right out of Hanalei Bay, along the Napali Coast! There are actually way more activities and hikes you can do in summer than in fall/winter, so don’t miss out! I also can’t recommend that guide book I mentioned in the post above enough. It’s a savior.

      I hope you have a fab time and congrats on your upcoming wedding!

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