Lay of the Land
Kauai is the northernmost of Hawaii’s major islands, the fourth largest in the Hawaiian chain. Because of its age—more than five million years—Kauai is too old to have the volcanic black sand beaches of some of the other islands. Instead, it comes with 113 miles of golden shoreline, more than twice that of Oahu, which has the next most. A little-known fact is that when government officials decided to expand Oahu’s Waikiki Beach, they took much of the sand from Kauai, which has plenty to spare. The main thing to know about Kauai is that it gets more rainfall than any other Hawaiian island. Mount Waialeale, in the island’s center, is the rainiest spot on earth, getting an average of 432 inches per year. The coastal areas, where most of the resorts are located, don’t get anywhere near that much rain, but if you can’t abide a little precipitation in your vacation, you should choose another island.
The island’s 555 square miles are heart-shaped, with the sleepy town of Hanalei and the Princeville development in the north and the more heavily populated community of Poipu to the south. There is one main highway skirting the island, with the exception of one impassable twenty-two-mile section of coastline, Na Pali, which begins in the northwest and runs to the west coast. Depending on traffic, which grows very heavy during rush hours, it takes at least two hours to drive around the entire island, The stuck-in-time, more laid-back north shore is favored in the summer, when temperatures are warmer; the south shore is popular in winter thanks to its sunnier and drier climate. Tip: Since there is only one main highway encircling the island, it is quite easy to find your way around Kauai. If you are going north to south, or vice versa, try to avoid traveling between 8 and 10 A.M. and 4 and 6 P.M., peak hour for traffic jams around the capital of Lihue in the east.
Kauai’s interior is mountainous with huge canyons and jagged peaks and is so lush that it makes the ideal setting for movies like Jurassic Park, which was filmed here. The east shore of Kauai is more industrial, home to the airport and the island’s larger shopping malls. To the west, where Captain Cook first laid foot on Hawaii, are towns such as Waimea, where most of the island’s workers live. Just over seventeen miles across the Kaulakahi Channel from Waimea lies Niihau—the “Forbidden Island”—where only native Hawaiians live and work.
Because of the ruggedness of the interior, all of Kauai’s resorts are located along the shore or slightly inland. While you can find hotels, condos and houses for rent all over the island, Kauai has two main luxury resort areas, one in the north and one in the south. Due to the weather patterns, many visitors choose to stay in the south, where it’s drier. The most development is taking place here, and there are numerous condos and villas for rent. Affluent locals prefer the north, where they have built gorgeous mansions along the waterfront or on the cliffs above. Those who want to rent ultra-luxe homes will most likely discover them on the north coast, from Kilauea to Hanalei.
Like the other Hawaiian Islands, Kauai draws visitors year-round. January and February are typically the coolest and wettest months, with average temperatures around 70 to 75 degrees; summer through fall is a bit warmer, with temperatures reaching as high as 85 degrees. As for crowds, Kauai has fewer visitors than the other major islands. That said, Christmas and the summer months tend to attract larger numbers of tourists, particularly families. Prime whale-watching months are late December through April, when two thirds of the world’s humpback-whale population visits Hawaiian shores.
When to Go
Kauai is generally considered a year-round destination like the other Hawaiian islands, but the best times to go are in late spring, summer and fall. Whale watching is best between late December and April but boat trips along the Na Pali coast are only possible in summer months.