Explore Kaua’i By Region
Can you name the five boroughs of New York City? The arrondissements of Paris? Maybe a few Canadian or Australian provinces? If you can, kudos to you. For those who know, these aren’t simply labeled to differentiate one area from another. A resident from Ontario knows that his province is quite different from Saskatchewan. And a Brooklynite will tell you that the short drive on the BQE from his neighborhood to Queens doesn’t begin to suggest the contrast between the two.
But you needn’t worry on Kaua`i. If you’re speaking to a local and you don’t know the difference between Līhu`e and Nāpali, you’ll still get a sincere and friendly aloha smile. Nevertheless, it’s helpful — even for tourists — to understand the basic lay of the land. Time spent in a new place — even if it’s just a few days — is immeasurably enriched if you know a little about the area’s history, geography and topography.
With that said, we’re about to divide up the island of Kaua`i. But how? The most important unit in the ancient Hawaiian system of land division was the ahupua‘a. Shaped by island geography, each ahupua‘a was a pie-shaped area of land running from the uplands to the sea, following the natural boundaries of the watershed.
For the sake of this discussion, we’ll divide Kaua`i into six geographic areas commonly referred to by residents as: North Shore, East Side, Līhu`e, South Shore, West Side and Nāpali. Let’s briefly explore each of these regions.
The North Shore
Rugged mountains, taro fields, soaring cliffs and sparkling beaches comprise Kaua`i’s North Shore. The average temperature is in the mid-70s, but some places can receive as much as 120 inches of rain annually. It’s considered one of the wettest places on earth — which, of course, makes the area quite lush and green. Hanalei Bay Beach — Kaua`i’s most popular beach — is in this region. Famous for its beauty, Hanalei Bay has been the subject of many songs and paintings. Also, on the North Shore is Hā’ena Beach, with impressive views of Mount Makana — “Bali Hai” in the film South Pacific.
Kaua`i is noteworthy because it is the northernmost of the Hawaiian Islands, which means in the winter months, large swells and high surf are the norm on some parts of the island. Surfers from around the world converge on the Hawaiian Islands in winter because of the legendary waves. But if you’re not a surfer, there is no need to avoid this area in the cooler months. Many North Shore beaches stay calm all year, and lifeguards are on duty year-round.
Visit the charming towns in the North Shore region, including Princeville, Kīlauea, Hā’ena and Hanalei.
It’s easy to group Nāpali in with the North Shore, but this region just to the west deserves its own mention. Because it is, quite simply, one of the most beautiful spots on earth. Miles of rugged coastline and plunging cliffs create one of the most dramatic vistas in the Pacific. Cliffs that rise 1,000 feet from the shore undulate into and out of valleys, and the panorama is one that you’ll remember for years to come. Spectacular beaches such as Lumaha`i Beach, Tunnels Beach and Ke`e Beach are found in Nāpali as well. And what many consider the island’s best and most scenic hiking trail — the Kalalau Trail — follows the coast of Nāpali. It’s a rigorous trail for experienced hikers, but the first two miles are a bit easier and offer breathtaking vistas of the sea and coast.
The West Side
This side of the island is a bit more — out of the way, shall we say — than some of the other regions. Nevertheless, it’s home to Waimea Canyon, described by Mark Twain as “the Grand Canyon of the Pacific.” At 10 miles long and more than 3,500 feet deep in some spots, the canyon is as dramatic as anything you’ll see on Kaua`i. It’s possible to hike or drive to a few lookout spots for great views of the jagged peaks and multicolored canyon walls. The west side of the island is much hotter and drier than the North Shore. You’ll find the towns of Waimea, Hanapepe and Polihale Beach State Park. One of the longest beaches in Hawai`i, it’s remote and not easy to get to, so if you decide you need be at one with nature, this is the place to do it.
The South Shore
Warmer, drier and less populated than the North Shore, this area of Kaua`i still has its merits. Poipu Beach — rated as one of the top beaches in the world — is located on the South Shore. It’s a family-friendly beach that is split by a sandbar — on one side, the water is calm and safe enough for small children, while the other is popular for swimming, snorkeling, surfing and boogie boarding. The town of Poipu is a well-known tourist destination filled with condos, resorts, hotels, vacation rentals and lots of shopping. Other towns on the south side include Kalāheo, Kōloa, Lawa`i and `Ōma`o.
Līhu`e is the “capital” of Kaua`i and home to the island’s only airport. As might be expected, it’s laid-back, although it’s possible to get a decent meal at a restaurant or do some shopping at stores whose names you’ll recognize. Despite the influence from the continent, however, Līhu`e maintains its small-town island charm. Spend some time working on your tan at Kalapaki Beach or walk over to Wailua Falls to see the water cascading down 80 feet over tiered stone. When the sun hits the falls just right, you’ll get one of those rainbows that Hawaii is so famous for.
The East Side
Sometimes referred to as the Coconut Coast, one trip to Kaua`i’s east side will tell you why: hundreds of lovely coconut trees line the coast. The trade winds blowing in from the Pacific bring a little more rain to this region, and average temps are noticeably cooler than in the south and west. It’s second in popularity only to the north, and some hotels and resorts can be found along the shoreline. Check out the quaint towns of Kapa’a, Wailua, Hanamā`ulu and Anahola. Popular beaches include Lydgate Beach and Keālia Beach. Lydgate is a guarded beach with calm water that is safe for small children, while Keālia — although guarded — can have strong currents and swells. Both beaches have restrooms and showers.