Kauai, the beautiful “garden isle,” is an outdoor adventurer’s dream. Most visitors flock to the northern coast near Princeville for its dramatic waves, sweeping beaches, and luxury resorts or stay on the south coast for its sunshine and family-friendly swimming beaches. But locals and those in the know have discovered the perfect base for exploring the island. Nestled in its own sweet spot between the north and south coast is Kapa’a, a secret gem filled with history, charm and a native vibe. It’s the best place to stay when exploring Kauai.
First, here are some photos to get you inspired. Afterward, we have all the essential details on Kapa’a. Plus more photos!
Canyons from a cliff edge near Waipoo Falls.
Lush green mountains near Na Pali coast.
Majestic canyons and Waipoo Falls.
Lumahai Beach on the north shore.
Surfers at Kealia Beach near Kapaa.
Walking path and beach in Kapaa.
Since there is really only one major road that goes around the island, Kapa’a is a great central location that allows you to explore the beaches of the North coast, and the spectacular natural beauty of Waimea Canyon toward the West coast. It’s relatively close proximity to Lihue and the airport means you won’t be stuck in traffic on the way to catch your flight.
To really enjoy the local island experience your best bet is to rent one of the many great Airbnb properties in Kapa’a. These properties will give you your own space, plenty of privacy and the kitchen is an added bonus if you plan to visit the fabulous Kapa’a farmers market and stock up on fresh organic produce.
If you prefer the amenities of a hotel to having your own place, there are a handful of hotels in Kapa’a. The recommended hotel for its location and pampering services is the Waipouli Beach Resorts & Spa Kauai by Outrigger.
If you still want to stay in Princeville, here are a few recommendations:
The most luxurious hotel on the island. It offers exceptional service and amazing views of the Na Pali Coast.
Another good resort option on the North shore the Westin offers nice rooms, lots of amenities and great sunset views.
If you are looking to stay on the Southern shore near Koloa, the Grand Hyatt is your spot. The largest hotel property on the island with spectacular grounds, an abundance of pools and a glorious location for enjoying the sunset.
WHAT TO DO
Kauai is all about getting outside and enjoying the beauty of the landscape. Here are a few activities that will give you a flavor of the varied beauty of this special island.
Hike Sleeping Giant Trail
Located in the heart of Kapa’a and a favorite hike of the locals, this moderately difficult 2-mile hike is named for the mountain range that looks like the profile of a giant lying down There are two well-marked trailheads that meet up about 1/4 mile from the peak. From the western trailhead, located in a neighborhood, you will meander through a stunning pine forest, pierced by shafts of sunlight. This trail continues on through rocky outcrops with occasional glimpses of the coast. Upon reaching the peak of Giant’s chest, you will find a picnic shelter which is a perfect place to enjoy a quick snack and stunning views. You can continue down the neck of the giant to its forehead for the panoramic views of the eastern coastline.
Sleeping Giant trailhead lined with pine trees near Kapaa.
The lookout atop Sleeping Giant near Kapaa.
Sleeping Giant Peak. The sign says it’s off limits but intrepid hikers ignore it to gain access to the breathtaking views.
Kayak and Hike to the Secret Falls
Not far from Kapa’a, the hike to Secret Falls is a very popular activity that provides a nice combination of water-play and hiking. The stunning waterfall at the end of the hike is a picture-perfect conclusion to your adventure. While you can go with a group, it is possible to reserve your own kayak and make the trek at your own pace. Wailua Kayak Adventures provides a kayak, a hand-drawn map and a few verbal instructions before you start off on your adventure. Reserve early since there is a limit to the number of kayaks that can be on the river each day.
While paddling up the Wailua River, you fail to notice that your shoulders are burning from the exertion because you are distracted by the lush jungle on both sides of the river, the white egrets nesting along the shore and fish jumping beside your kayak. After 40 minute paddle, you will reach the landing point, where you can pull your kayak to shore and start the very easy hike through the rainforest, several river crossing and lots of muddy trails later, you will reach the waterfall. Jump into the frigidly refreshing pool, enjoy the thundering spray and rinse off all the mud that has caked your shoes and splattered your legs. This is a great spot relax and rehydrate before making the return trip back down the river.
Kayaking on the Wailua River toward Secret Falls.
After kayaking, you walk through a lush, tropical forest to reach the falls.
Secret Falls. The water can be a bit chilly but worth the plunge for a photo op!
Visit Waimea Canyon State Park
Located on the western side of the island, Waimea Canyon State Park is accessible to people with all levels of fitness and mobility. There are numerous roadside vantage points that allow the visitor to enjoy rainbow-filled waterfalls and breathtaking views of the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific”. A canyon that is 10 miles long and over 36,000 feet deep, with hues or red, brown and green, this nickname is well deserved. One of the signature trails of the park is the Waimea Canyon Trail. It is a moderately difficult hike that is approximated 1.8 miles through shaded forest commencing with a sweeping view of the canyon from above Waipoo Falls. Be sure to bring water and a snack for an impromptu picnic while to enjoying the view.
Trail to Waipoo Falls, Kauai.
Trail near Waipoo Falls and the impressive Waimea Canyon in the distance.
Looking out at the majestic canyons near Waipoo Falls.
Hike to Hanakapi’ai Falls
This is probably the most popular hike on the island. The first part is an easy-to-moderate 1.7-mile hike on Kalalua Trail which snakes along the coast and ends at Hanakapi’ai Beach, at which point you turn inland for a hike upstream to the falls. It’s a challenging hike and not recommended for small children. Hiking shoes are recommended, because it can be muddy, especially after a recent rain. Be sure to arrive early since the parking lot at Ke’e Beach (where you begin the hike) fills up fast. We didn’t visit Hanakapi-ai Falls on our trip, but it’s a must for real hiking fans.
Take a Helicopter Tour
Since 80% of the island is inaccessible by road or privately owned, the only way to experience and understand the splendor of the island is by air. This is a one-time splurge that won’t lead to regret. There are several helicopter tour services on the island. They are a little more pricey, but you won’t be frustrated with glare from the windows. If you are simply wanting to enjoy the amazing scenery, dramatic coastline, and colossal waves, a standard helicopter tour will suffice. Safari Helicopters is a family run business with humorous and friendly employees. The tours last about 50 minutes and provide a geology lesson of the island. The flight takes you over stunning Waimea Canyon, red against the bright green foliage, a multitude of famous waterfalls, along the dramatic Na Pali coast with its razor-sharp ridges, and skims the famous north coast big waves. If you visit during the winter, you may be lucky enough to see whales breaching off the coast or surfers being towed out to surf the 30-foot waves.
TIP: If you are obsessed with taking photos, an open-door helicopter is a must.
A helicopter tour of the Na Pali coast is essential when visiting Kauai. (Pictured: Helicopter for Safari Helicopter Tours.)
Views during the helicopter tour of the Na Pali Coast.
Looking down at the Na Pali coast, high above the massive waves, where big wave surfers get their fix.
WHERE TO EAT
4-369 Kuhio Highway, Kapa’a
A great place for lunch. They offer huge burgers made from local, grass-fed beef with a side of crispy fries. The service is friendly and they have an exceptional selection of microbrews to sample.
4-1384 Kuhio Hwy, Kapaa
With its own coffee roaster on premises, this is THE place to go for an amazing cup of coffee. There is bound to be a line filled with locals and visitors alike, waiting to sample the coffee, fresh pastries, sandwiches, and breakfasts. They even make their own ice-creams in unique flavors. The staff is great and will remember your name from day to day. Be sure to get a punch card if you plan to stay in Kapa’a for a few days. You’ll be sure to fill it up.
Kauai Juice Company
4-1384 Kuhio Hwy, Kapaa
These juices are amazing! This juice company has a nut milk that has a touch of coffee which made for a perfect morning “smoothie” on the go. The staff is well-versed in the healing properties of each of their blends. Whether you need something to combat a cold or your sore muscles, or just want something fruity and hydrating, Kauai Juice Company has the cure. Don’t forget to return the bottle for a $0.50 refund.
1354 Kuhio Hwy, Kapaa
Be sure to grab a table overlooking the main street of Kapa’a, you can watch the traffic and chickens waiting at the stoplight of the intersection. The food is affordable and typical for what you would find in a beach bar. It is a casual atmosphere that perfect for enjoying a beer and a few caloric snacks before heading back out to the beach.
4-1384 Kuhio Hwy B1, Kapaa
A quirky and colorful sidewalk cafe specializing in island flavors, local fish, vegetarian and other fresh and friendly fare. Walk up and order at the window and then sit on the picnic tables out front to enjoy the delicious and hearty portions.
Art Cafe Hemingway
4-1495 Kuhio Hwy, Kapaa
A lovely shabby chic building offers a comfortable place to enjoy artfully prepared dishes. Brunch is a must with fresh squeezed orange juice, flaking croissants and fluffy scrambled eggs. Also, open for lunch and dinner.
1485 Kuhio Hwy, Kapaa
Huge portions are the claim to fame at this local diner. Packed with locals who are enjoying the corned beef and hash, Denver omelets or fluffy pancakes that spill over the side of the plate, topped with coconut syrup. A good and affordable option if you need to fuel up before a big hike.
Kilauea Fish Market
4270 Kilauea Rd, Kilauea, HI 96754
While not located in Kapa’a, just north in Kilauea you will find this fantastic spot for tuna poke. Order at the counter and sit outside on plastic chairs enjoying the freshest and most delicious poke you have ever had.
Hoku Foods Natural Market
4585 Lehua Street, Kapaa
Offering a great selection of fresh produce, dried fruits and nuts and organic packaged foods. This market is a perfect spot for grabbing snacks to throw into your daypack for enjoying a picnic at the beach of for fueling up while on one of Kauai’s stellar hikes.
Lunch at the Mermaid Cafe.
WHAT TO BRING
Here are a few items, beyond the standard island fare that will come in handy while visiting the beautiful garden island.
If you plan to do any of the spectacular river and waterfall hikes, a pair of grippy water socks or waterproof hiking sandals is a must. While you won’t be winning any fashion show wearing these, they will keep your feet comfortable as you clamor over rocks, through rushing streams and squishy mud.
Whether hiking to a waterfall, stopping at a hidden beach or just needing a cover from the sun, or little blanket to ward off a chill, a Turkish Towel is a must. They are lightweight, take up very little room in your bag and dry almost instantly.
Kauai is the wettest of the Hawaiian Islands, which provide the lush and verdant landscape for which it is so famous. However, with the water and green foliage come mosquitos. Be sure to bring along a good mosquito repellent if you don’t want to be eaten alive by these little predators. These little packets are handy for traveling and easy to throw into your daypack.
Kauai provides such a diversity of adventure, beauty, and relaxation and makes it accessible for all. Kapa’a provides a great central base that allows you to explore and enjoy the bounty of activities this natural treasure has to offer!