Five Things You Oughta Know Before Traveling to Kauai
So, you booked a trip to Kauai—yay! Happy dance!!
Each of Hawaii’s main islands without a doubt has its own unique flavor and appeals but obviously, we’re partial to Kauai. Kauai is the oldest of the islands and has thus had the most time to erode, and thus has the biggest and best sandy beaches. It’s a good thing! We also have several jaw-dropping geologic marvels including the Napali Coast, which looks like a Hollywood CGI creation, and Waimea Canyon, the Grand Canyon of Hawaii.
Yes, friend, as you’re soon to experience for yourself… Kauai is extraordinary. However, she’s also got her flaws, and that’s what we’re addressing here today.
Let’s face it, vacations are always a bit stressful. You’re out of your comfort zone, you’re spending a lot of money, there are logistics logistics logistics to figure out, and no matter who you’re with, tensions tend to run high when things aren’t going as we imagined they would.
Most of our blog posts hype Kauai but in this one, we’re taking the opposite approach and actually laying out five of our island’s downsides. Not to scare you away and certainly not to talk smack about our beloved Kauai, but just so that you’re mentally prepared for a few things and have realistic expectations coming in. Hopefully reading this before your trip will help you travel intelligently, so you can experience Kauai to the fullest and make the best memories while suffering as little stress as possible.
So here they are. Five things that before traveling to Kauai, we think (in our best Alanis Morissette voice) you, you, you, oughta know!
Ugh! Ask anyone that lives here what’s the most frustrating part of day-to-day life on Kauai, and nine times out of ten we’re griping about the traffic. Us Kauaians love to gripe about the traffic and for good reason—the struggle is real! When you come to Kauai and confront our traffic situation, trust us—we feel your pain.
Let us explain Kauai’s road/traffic situation and share some insider tips, so hopefully, you can avoid getting stuck in the thick of it.
You cannot drive all the way around the island of Kauai; the highway covers about ¾ of the island. If you think of Kauai like a clock, there’s a highway from approximately 12 to 9 and then from 9 back to twelve 12 (the northwest quarter of the island)—there’s no road. That’s the Napali Coast State Wilderness Park and to experience this mind-blowing stretch of Kauai (and you MUST)—you need to get on one of our five unique Napali Coast and Niihau Kauai boat tours. No trip to Kauai is complete without seeing the Napali Coast.
But we digress. Back to the roads!
Kauai has two main highways:
- Kuhio Highway, Hawaii Route 56, running 28 miles from Hanalei to Lihue and named after the “People’s Prince” Prince Kuhio.
- Kaumauli’I Highway, Hawaii Route 50, running 33 miles from Lihue to the Pacific Missile Range Facility (just west of Kekaha), and named after Kauai’s last reigning chief.
Hopefully, you have time on your trip to cover all sixty of these combined miles because while Kauai is small, it’s worth experiencing all of her many unique regions. Did you know Kauai has seven distinct climate zones? True story!
Anyways, the most notorious area for Kauai traffic is without a doubt the Kapaa area, on the Kuhio Highway, on the island’s east side. The daily jam is known locally as the “Kapaa Crawl” and its textbook bottleneck traffic, both ways, every single day, and while there is a bypass, there’s no need to get your hopes up– it gets stupid backed-up too.
Naturally, your best bet is to go through Kapaa town as early or as late as possible, but it’s inevitable—we alll get stuck in Kapaa traffic from time to time. The best way to approach it is to get zen, accept the things we cannot change, recline the seat a notch, and throw on a good podcast.
As a general Kauai vacation strategy, just try to minimize the number of times you pass through Kapaa. If you’re going to be up north for the day, stay up north for the day; if you’re south for the day, stay south. Don’t be fooled by mileage because the twenty-two-mile roundtrip from north Kapaa to Lihue and back midday can easily take two hours, and that’s just one example.
Another time/area to avoid if possible is late afternoons going southbound on the Kaumauli’I Highway, in front of Kauai Community College. Everyone’s heading home from work and school and that light can get very backup up, so just beware, not that sitting in twenty minutes of traffic ever killed anyone.
The simple truth is that traffic delays can happen anywhere and anytime, because if there’s even the slightest fender bender—they’re liable to close down one lane, and then everything just goes FUBAR from there. You definitely don’t want to be “that guy” that causes the fender bender, so take it easy!
On Kauai, you need to plan for traffic. Always give yourself plenty of time to get where you’re going, so you don’t have to stress. Nobody comes on vacation to stress out in traffic. Also, keep your water bottle in the car and maybe some snacks. Being hangry never helps anything.
- Cost of Existing
Ugh! Ask anyone that lives here what’s the most frustrating part of long-term life on Kauai, and nine times out of ten we’re griping about the ever-increasing cost of living. And yes, we know, everywhere’s pricey these days– but it’s just next-level expensive out here on the westernmost island of the most remote inhabited island chain in the world.
If you’re coming from San Francisco or another big city, Kauai’s prices may not faze you. But if you’re coming from a lot of places, it’s not unlikely that you’ll experience some sticker shock. Again—trust us, we feel your pain!
Everything here is expensive and we’re just giving you fair warning now, so you’re not surprised and stressed out about it later when you’re here and trying to have a good time. Also, so you’re not tempted to compensate for the sticker shock by shirking on the tip. Shirking just hurts those that are often the most vulnerable to exorbitant housing costs, inflation, etc.
The good news is that most of Kauai’s parks and beaches are free, with two exceptions:
- Waimea Canyon State Park. Park entrance fee for non-residents is $5/each and the parking fee is $10. So, a group of four in one vehicle would cost a total of $30.
- Ha’ena State Park and Napali Coast State Wilderness Park. Same as Waimea– park entrance fee for non-residents is $5/each and parking fee is $10. Note that for Ha’ena State Park, entry and parking reservations must be made in advance!
Both parks are 1000% worth visiting and we hope you understand the need for fees to help protect and maintain these extremely popular areas of Kauai.
Read more about Kauai’s parks, fees, and reservations here: https://dlnr.hawaii.gov/dsp/parks/kauai/
- Competition for goods and services
Kauai is a small island that’s in big demand. Our resident population is around 73,0001 and every month we see between 100,000 and 140,000 visitors2. Kind of crazy huh?
Of course, the pandemic threw a major wrench in our tourism-based economy and well, we have to admit that Kauai is still struggling a bit to provide enough quality services to meet all the demand.
The point is, don’t wait until you get here to book your activities! Kauai activities are in high demand year-round and often sold-out weeks or even months in advance, especially during the peak seasons (holidays, spring break, and summer.)
We recommend you take the time to do your research, pick out your activities, and book them now. Then you can plan your days intelligently and make the most efficient use out of your time. Say you’re coming to Port Allen to take one of our Napali Coast Kauai boat tours. Fine choice! It would be smart to combine your Holo Holo excursion with another activity or attraction on this side of the island– perhaps a visit to Hanapepe town, a stop at the Kauai Coffee fields, or a swing by Spouting Horn.
If you have a pre-planned and agreed-upon basic itinerary to guide your trip, we think your vacation will be much more enjoyable. If you leave everything to the last minute, then you’re stuck staring at your phone, trying to piece things together, getting frustrated, and wasting valuable time!
And the best thing about having a general plan is knowing that you can always deviate from the plan! If inspiration strikes or an opportunity arises, you can always let life unfold organically—as you should! You’re not married to the plan, but it’s nice to have a general idea of what you’re doing, so you don’t have to waste your precious energy having the time-old conversation, “I don’t know, what do you want to do?”
Set yourself up for success friends! Research your activities now. Book them now. Book your rental car now. Make your restaurant reservations now.
- Flash Flooding
In a perfect world, your Kauai vacation days would be NBS—nothing but sunshine. Unfortunately, here in the real world, that notion is NTBE—not to be expected. It rains a lot here, and sometimes, to borrow the Morton Salt slogan, when it rains it pours.
When it’s pouring rain on Kauai, flooding is a likely possibility, especially on Kauai’s north shore. The Hanalei River is prone to flooding and the one-lane Hanalei Bridge closes probably a dozen or so times a year. Sometimes the bridge is closed for just a couple of hours but sometimes, in extreme circumstances, can stay closed for days at a time—leaving people trapped on one side of the bridge or the other.
Depending on your cell phone carrier and your phone settings, you may or may not get flash flood alerts directly to your phone. If you get the emergency flash flooding alert– heed the warning! If your accommodations are in Hanalei, get back there as soon as possible. If you’re in Hanalei and your accommodations are elsewhere, drop what you’re doing and go get across the bridge as soon as you can, so you don’t get stuck and have nowhere to go.
If torrential rain is happening, it’s smart to dial your radio to our local station 93.5 KONG FM. Kong does a great job of keeping everyone on the island in the know, reporting up-to-the-minute conditions on flash flooding, bridge or road closures, and general traffic conditions. By the way, KONG is a fun station to listen to in general—a nice variety of positive music and a great source for community information.
- Nonexistent Nightlife
This consideration is only relevant for some, but just a fair warning for the night owls and the revelers out there– Kauai has almost zero nightlife. If you’re looking to “go out” on your vacation, you’re barking up the wrong tree. Kauai already didn’t have a ton to offer in the nightlife department; then the pandemic froze our island’s entertainment scene to the bone.
Covid was a serious buzzkill! Hopefully, someday the night vibes will thaw out and come back to life but for now, there’s just not a whole lot happening on Kauai after say 10 pm. So, if you didn’t know, now you know.
And that about wraps up our island’s shortcomings! We think you’ll find that other than these five factors, Kauai is nothing but sunrise shells, spinner dolphins, sandy toes, umbrella drinks, hibiscus flowers, plumeria, mermaids, unicorns, and pots of gold at the end of the rainbow!
Sometimes in the travel planning process, you have very specific questions and instead of digging online for an answer– you just want to simply ask a human being who knows what they’re talking about. We get it! Call us at Holo Holo Charters (808) 335-0815. A real live Kauaian will answer the phone and be happy to answer all your questions about our award-winning Napali Coast Kauai boat tours, and your general questions about traveling to Kauai as well.
MAHALO NUI LOA for choosing Kauai. We hope she speaks to your heart while you’re here and that you have an unforgettable, low-stress vacation!
P.S. Another resource to help you get in the “Kauai state of mind” before your travels is our Holo Holo Pono Pledge. Check it out before you arrive.