Jaw-dropping Kauai is the northernmost island in the Hawaiian archipelago and the oldest, dating back six million years. It is a study in extremes, where sky-scraping cliffs meet plunging valleys, lush rainforests contrast stunning beaches and resort-laden enclaves speckle long, tourist-free stretches. The diminutive island may measure just 552 square miles, but it packs plentiful offerings in a setting so diverse filmmakers have used it to evoke both fearsome jungles (Outbreak, Jurassic Park) and utopian seascapes (South Pacific, Blue Hawaii).
Even among Hawaiians, Kauai is considered particularly exotic. It was the last island to join the Kingdom of Hawaii (in 1824) and it is a holdout in other ways, too. Whereas comparably sized Oahu is home to nearly a million people, Kauai has a population of about 66,000. Agriculture may have slowed elsewhere in the state, but Kauai’s farmers continue to grow their own coffee, taro and tropical fruit. Thousands of wild chickens roam free as there are few natural predators. (Should a visitor leave a terrace door open in hopes of waking to the sound of waves, she may instead find herself rising to cock-a-doodle-doos.)
But the most impactful throwback is the distinct cultural identity of the people. You may encounter the spirit of the island in a simple roadside plate lunch (a traditional combination platter of, typically, rice, macaroni salad and pork), spa products sourced entirely on the island or a snorkeling instructor who hands you the keys to his truck and asks only that you return it before dark. There is a generous, trusting hospitality here that makes it especially fun to visit. One only hopes it will last.
The South Shore of the island has traditionally attracted the most tourists, given its annual rainfall of 10 to 30 inches (compared to the 60 to 85 inches that fall in the north). But the North Shore better showcases the island’s unique offerings. The St. Regis Princeville Resort, which opened in 2009, gives guests an ideal jumping-off point for many adventures. Find access to the natural beauty of the Na Pali Coast, Hanalei Bay, the Kilauea Point Lighthouse and Limahuli Garden and Preserve; snorkel, hike or take a helicopter tour of the stunning surrounds.
However you choose to enjoy the splendor, let our favorite spots on the island lead the way.