Kauai is the northernmost and westernmost of the main populated Hawaiian Islands, set apart in both geography and history. Having risen out of the Pacific six million years ago, it is one of the oldest islands, and has the deep valleys and miles-long white-sand beaches to prove it. Kauai was one of the few islands to fight off the conquering armies of Kamehameha the Great, and to this day, island residents often take pride in being just a little different.
Kauai is home to nearly every variety of community, from sleepy rural towns to glimmering five-star resorts. But a deep-seated resistance to overdevelopment has kept building heights low and traffic lights to a minimum. Fewer than 70,000 people live on Kauai’s 560 square miles of precious land, much of which stands as undeveloped and protected natural reserves.
All of this makes Kauai a fantastic place to live, whether you’re getting away from the hustle and bustle of modern life, or finding a beautiful and peaceful place to retire. But even on this small, lush and green island, there are many different neighborhoods to consider.
The North Shore
High end resorts and pristine beaches are the hallmarks of the Hanalei District, approaching the ‘end of the road’ at the northern edge of Kauai. Hanalei Bay is the largest bay on the north shore, its two-mile length drawing ocean lovers for swimming, stand-up paddle boarding, surfing, and even sailing. Frequently clear blue skies afford great views of Kauai’s famous mountains. There is some agriculture here, with small residential farms forming patchwork quilts of taro and other crops. The Hanalei Poi Company is known throughout the state. For many, the Kilauea Lighthouse here stands as an icon for the whole island, and the Hanalei Pier — built in the 1890s — was made famous in the classic film “South Pacific.”
East Side Living
The east side of Kauai is anchored by the sleepy town of Kapa’a, where many of the island’s long-time local residents live. This neighborhood offers a great variety of shopping and dining options, including several colorful small businesses offering one-of-a-kind island art and other treasures. Many of the island’s hotels can be found here, surrounded by many of the services and amenities that go with them, from golf to guided tours to kayak and scuba rentals. The southern end of Kapaa is bound by the 20-mile long Wailua River, one of the few navigable rivers in the state. Head upstream to visit beautiful waterfalls (like Opaekaa and Wailua falls), take a kayak or boat ride, and visit the picturesque Fern Grotto.
The cultural and political hub of the island is Lihue, where the island’s largest airport and harbor, government offices, a community college, and a cluster of business help make up Kauai’s “downtown.” Lihue thrived in the golden era of Hawaii’s sugar industry, and is today where you’ll find Kauai’s few big-name department stores and first-run movie theaters, and three golf courses. The Kauai Museum, established in 1960, showcases the long cultural legacy of both Kauai and neighboring Lanai island with regular activities and historic tours. But mother nature still shines, with lush lagoons and wildlife sanctuaries, parks, and beautiful Kalapaki Beach.
A mix of resorts, hotels, and residential developments can be found in Koloa on the south side of Kauai. It was here where the state’s first sugar mill was built, and the island’s plantation past can still be glimpsed here and there. Old Koloa Town is anchored by former plantation buildings that now house old-fashioned mom-and-pop shops, and the Koloa History Center and the Koloa Heritage Trail keep the past alive. But Poipu is also well known for its white-sand beaches, many hotels (ranging from bed-and-breakfasts to luxury resorts), golf, and great dining options.
The West Side
Captain Cook first landed in Hawaii at Waimea Bay, and the west side of Kauai remains one of the most historic and naturally beautiful areas in the state. At this end of the island, the westernmost town in the U.S., you’ll be able to catch a glimpse of the majestic and imposing cliffs of the Na Pali Coast, but you’ll need a helicopter or boat to see much more. Waimea Beach is a rare black sand beach, the western shore offering especially breathtaking sunsets. And it’s from here you can make your way up Waimea Canyon, described as “The Grand Canyon of the Pacific.”