Best things to do in Kauai, Hawaii: Twenty reasons to visit Hawaii's enchanting island paradise

1 THE NAPALI COAST

Even seasoned travellers reach for their superlatives when describing the majestic beauty of this 27-kilometre stretch of mountains and sea on Kauai's north-west flank. Emerald-hued pinnacles and ramparts soar up – often almost vertically – to 1200 metres above the turquoise ocean. This 5 million-year-old paradise, kept pristine thanks to accessibility only on foot, by air or by boat, helps earn Kauai its reputation as one of the world's most stunning islands. While adventurers prefer to hike and kayak their way to the views, the coast's magnificence is also easily experienced from a boat cruise.

See napali.com and hawaiistateparks.org

2 SCENIC HIKES

With only 10 per cent of Kauai's dramatic landscape accessible by road, on foot is the best way to unearth its full range of treasures. The most famous hike is the Napali Coast's 17-kilometre Kalalau Trail; it's strenuous, but even a short stretch rewards you with panoramas from those towering peaks. Hundreds more trails for hikers of all abilities take you among flora and fauna unique to Kauai and reveal the ancient geology of Hawaii's oldest island.

3 WAIMEA CANYON

Another one of Kauai's geographical marvels, on the west side, is known as "The Grand Canyon of the Pacific", by virtue of its epic dimensions: 22 kilometres long, 1.7 kilometres wide and about 1 kilometre deep. Three major lookouts and a number of smaller vantage points along a climbing road provide vistas of crimson lava rock, lush foliage and volcanic formations as well as rare native birds. 

See hawaiistateparks.org

* 4 THE VIEW FROM ABOVE

While joy flights are a luxury novelty in other destinations, in Kauai it should be compulsory to soar above the island by chopper or plane. It's the only way to glimpse some of its otherwise impenetrable beauty spots, and to grasp a full sense of the scale of all those cliffs, peaks and valleys. You won't want to put your camera down, but try to at least for a moment, just to soak up the grandeur.

For tours, see bluehawaiian.com sunshinehelicopters.com and wingsoverkauai.com

5 ZIPLINING

Swap the aircraft for a harness, dial up the adrenalin and you have ziplining – Kauai's other mode of airborne exploration. While zooming over the views on a rope doesn't allow as much reflection time as a joy ride, it's a massive thrill and another way to experience some of those secluded sweet spots. You can zip as high as 550 metres, along lines of almost a kilometre long, over rivers, waterfalls and clifftops. 

See outfitterskauai.com koloazipline.com and ziplinetourskauai.com

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 * 6 GLORIOUS GARDENS

Hawaii's "Garden Isle" takes its title very seriously. As well as its untouched landscape, Kauai also has magnificent cultivated spaces filled with protected plant life. The National Tropical Botanical Gardens' two flagships, McBryde and Allerton Gardens, stretch over 140 coastal hectares on the south shore. Not just a pretty face, McBryde is the centre of groundbreaking agricultural research and conservation initiatives, while Allerton is famous for its exquisite landscaping and various "rooms", water features and installations created by talented designer Robert Allerton on an estate once owned by Hawaiian royalty. You can disappear into these Edens for a day and even do a volunteer stint.

See ntbg.org

7 HANALEI

From locations for the movie South Pacific to inspiration for '70s trippy ditty Puff the Magic Dragon, Hanalei's popular culture credentials are formidable for such a small and sleepy town. The magic in this north shore spot can't be denied, though. The white sands, pier and crescent-shaped bay are a magnet for sunset watchers and painters and notorious for inducing marriage proposals, while the Hanalei Valley Lookout delivers more of those photo-perfect Kauai vistas. It's also worth a wander round the 1912 Waioli Mission Church and the 1837 white clapboard Mission House, the island's oldest church building.

8 LOCATION SCOUTING

Kauai is a bigger Hollywood star than George Clooney – who filmed The Descendants here, putting him on a long, glittering roll call of famous names who've shared top billing with Kauai in more than 60 flicks. Jurassic Park, Pirates of the Caribbean, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Blue Hawaii, South Pacific, King Kong and The Thorn Birds all made use of the island's natural splendour, and a guided tour of the locations is a fun way to see the island's prettiest parts through a director's lens.

See robertshawaii.com

* 9 FARMERS' MARKETS

Fertile soil and a lush growing climate make the Garden Isle a fresh produce paradise, and there are farmers' markets – known locally as Sunshine Markets – happening somewhere on the island almost every day. It's possible to go supermarket-free and subsist entirely on Kauai's markets, while enjoying a lively insight into island life. Be there at the opening and you'll see eager buyers rush in when the rope's dropped or horn sounded to signal trading can begin. 

See kauaigrown.org and kauai.com/kauai-farmers-markets or find a market tour at tastingkauai.com

10 KAUAI SHRIMP

Locals declare that Kauai shrimp is the best on the planet, and once you've tasted it, you'll be inclined to agree. Succulent, sweet and raised in pristine water, the juicy delicacy comes seasoned in various ways, but the go-to dish is the coconut shrimp prepared with a secret recipe at the island's two Shrimp Station restaurants in Waimea and Kapaa.

See theshrimpstation.com

11 HO'OPULAPULA HARAGUCHI RICE MILL

Hawaii's only remaining rice mill, dating back to the 1800s, is now an agrarian museum on a working taro farm and within a National Wildlife refuge. A tour provides the only available access to the refuge, so glimpses of the island's rare and endangered water birds are an added bonus to the history lesson. Once you're clued up on the cultivation of Polynesian staple taro, you can sample it in juices and a picnic provided by the sixth generation farm owners.

See hanaleitaro.com and haraguchiricemill.org

12 KOLOA RUM

Another tasty way to experience Kauai's bounty is Koloa Rum, distilled on the island from local sugar and water naturally filtered through lava rock as it flows down from Mount Waialeale. Further local ingredients including pineapple, coconut and coffee are added to make blends, which you can try at the Tasting Room in Lihue along with the signature Hawaiian drink, the mai tai.

See koloarum.com

13 KILOHANA 

Koloa Rum's tasting room resides on this historic plantation estate built by flamboyantly named sugar baron Gaylord Wilcox. Kilohana, near Lihue, boasts Hawaii's only train – a steam engine that trundles through the 42-hectare grounds where you can see all manner of crops growing as well as pigs, donkeys, goats, sheep and horses. Hop off and feed the friendly livestock before feasting yourself at Gaylord's Restaurant on delicious fare grown, raised and caught on site. The restaurant is inside the original 1935 homestead and you can roam through its 16,000 square feet of meticulously restored plantation era architecture filled with Hawaiian artifacts and artworks.

See kilohanakauai.com

14 RIVERS 

Kauai has Hawaii's only navigable rivers, which wind through the interior to rock pools, hidden grottos and the island's famous waterfalls. With minimal currents and gentle trade winds to help you along, they're a delight to kayak. River tours often combine kayaking, swimming and strolling while serving up endless photo opps such as the rope swing used by Indie himself in Raiders of the Lost Ark, in the vine-draped jungle surrounds of Hulei'a River.

See wailuariverguides.com and kayakkauai.com

15 BALI HAI

Hollywood is entwined so closely with Kauai's recent past that one of the isle's most recognisable landmarks, Mount Makana, is more commonly known as Bali Hai, its name from the movie South Pacific. The pyramid-shaped twin peak has a colourful real-life story of its own; it was used by ancient Hawaiians for "fire throwing" ceremonies in which light, dry logs were lit and launched into the night sky high above the ocean – possibly the world's first fireworks displays.

16 OLD KOLOA TOWN

This little time capsule housed Hawaii's first sugar mill and was the centre of the islands' sugar plantation past. The original buildings have been restored and the clapboard storefronts now house boutiques, gift shops and restaurants. Quaint and pretty without veering into twee territory, the sensitive re-purposing keeps the old town's soul alive with a decent history centre and plaques on each building detailing its original use, as well as an emphasis on small local businesses in the old spaces.

See oldkoloa.com

17 KOLOA HERITAGE TRAIL 

This 26-kilometre coastal walk (or cycle or drive) forms an easily enjoyable outdoor museum of all Kauai's key historical elements – from its most ancient beginnings to its recent industrial past, with a hefty hit of nature along the way. Fourteen diverse stops take in the lovely old Missionary Church, the Sugar Monument, remains of ancient temples and geological formations, possible glimpses of the endangered Hawaiian Monk Seal and green sea turtles and the Spouting Horn blowhole. 

See poipubeach.org

18 HANAPEPE'S ART WALK

Every Friday night, the 15-plus art galleries in west Kauai's pretty little Hanapepe town fill with music, entertainment and the artists themselves, in a tradition that's been embraced for years. It's a delightful way to do your souvenir shopping and experience the spontaneous, sincere hospitality Hawaiians are renowned for. Prepare to linger and meander while locals "talk story" with you. 

See hanapepe.org

19 BEACHES

Beaches are a no-brainer in Hawaii, but Kauai's 80 kilometres of platinum blonde sands are among the most hypnotically beautiful in the isles. Beyond all the surfing and sporting action you'd expect, the surrounding topography lends an ethereal tranquility to the more secluded stretches that's best enjoyed simply by basking. Stunners include the north shore's Lumahai Beach, where Mitzi Gaynor washed that man right out of her hair in South Pacific, and the south shore's spacious, family-friendly Poipu Beach Park. 

See poipubeach.org

20 FERN GROTTO

This natural lava-rock grotto accessible only via the Wailua River, with its lush tapestries of hanging ferns and misty waterfall, was once the exclusive playground of Hawaii's royal family – then the haunt of a latter day king. Elvis Presley filmed two of Blue Hawaii's big numbers on the waterways close by, and came here to relax off-duty. He almost certainly would have hummed a tune or two, considering the perfect acoustics created by the grotto's natural amphitheatre. Musicians love this spot and today the King lives on in singers who perform Blue Hawaii's famous Wedding Song for riverboat tour visitors. It's part of every Elvis fan's worldwide pilgrimage, but beguiling simply as yet another of Kauai's embarrassment of environmental blessings.

See ferngrottokauai.com

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Amy Cooper travelled with assistance from Kauai Visitors' Bureau

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