Of the four most popular Hawaiian islands, Kauai is the smallest and least developed, and, some would argue, the most beautiful. Though it doesn't offer the urban comforts of Oahu, the sheer ecological diversity of Maui and the Big Island, or the more remote feel of the less-visited islands of Molokai and Lanai, Kauai draws visitors with the wild grandeur of its lush, mountainous terrain. Its craggy shores provide the backdrop for numerous Hollywood visions of untamed, other-worldly paradises. Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Jurassic Park films, and the 2005 version of King Kong were all filmed here. The 10-mile-long Waimea Canyon, the lava-rock seawater pool at Queen's Bath, and the remote, towering cliffs of the Na Pali Coast are among the world's most unique natural attractions. Although there's ongoing development in Poipu, on the southern shore where most hotels are located, Kauai is still relatively sleepy. Its airport services only six destinations in the mainland U.S.; and, by law, no building can be taller than a coconut palm tree (four stories). As a result, there's hardly a spot on Kauai where human settlement obscures the island's tropical, rustic beauty.
Still, Kauai's not completely isolated. All that untamed beauty draws about a million visitors every year, and while the island lacks the sky-scraping hotels found on Oahu, it certainly has its share of over-the-top mega-resorts, golf courses, and tourist excursions. Although even the best beaches on Kauai are rocky and narrow (both Maui and Oahu have better spots to swim and surf), many of Kauai's beaches are uncrowded or isolated -- ideal for quiet walks, picnics, and picture-perfect views.
Kauai can be divided into three major vacation areas: the east shore, the south shore, and the north shore. The east shore has the greatest density of mainland-style conveniences -- the airport, the island's only Wal-Mart, multiple grocery stores, and modest cultural institutions like the Kauai Museum. Lihue hotels can be as close as a five-minute drive from the airport, and Kapaa, Kauai's largest city, is about 20 minutes farther. The relative abundance of urban comfort comes with a trade-off: Natural beauty runs relatively scarce here -- the ho-hum drive up Wailua Falls and Opaekaa Falls are the two most popular landmarks. It takes more than an hour and a half to get to either Waimea Canyon or the breathtaking north shore. East shore hotels range from among the island's most basic (Aston Islander on the Beach, Castle Kaha Lani) to gigantic mega-resorts (Kauai Marriott).
A string of more than 20 resorts dominate the shoreline in Poipu, the south shore's main vacation destination. With stellar Kiahuna Beach, as well as two of the island's best golf courses, Poipu Bay and Kiahuna Golf Club, this section of Kauai draws a lot of families to its midrange-to-upscale hotels and condo resorts. The gentle waves, ample sand, and tranquil coves make Kiahuna and Waiohai two of the island's best beaches for families. It's 90 minutes from Waimea Canyon and two hours from the north shore.
Finally, Kauai's north shore offers the easiest access to the Na Pali Coast, Kauai's isolated crown jewel, where the highway gives way to the Kalalau Trail's 11-mile hike through valleys and secluded beaches. The major resort area, Princeville, has the feel of a gated community, thanks to its 27-hole golf course and the tony residences that accompany its hotels. One-lane bridges bring automobiles to a crawl, contributing to a mellow, local-centric vibe in the bayside towns of Hanalei and Haena.
Kauai's beautiful, unspoiled landscapes are a large part of its appeal, and less build-up naturally means fewer hotel options, but during our exhausstive tour of the island our reporting team stayed at a handful that fit comfortably into the luxury catagory. And, like the island itself, these hotels tend to be low-key and serene (with the exception of the amenity-packed Grand Hyatt).
Less developed than other Hawaiian islands, Kauai represents authentic, unspoiled Hawaii. Its lush flora and rocky cliffs create a romantic backdrop for any vacation.
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