Paradise on the Cheap: Budget Travel in Kauai

Hiking in Waimea Canyon. Photo by Janna Graber
Hiking in Waimea Canyon. Photo by Janna Graber

Having fun on Kauai inexpensively is as easy as finding the nearest beach or trail. Geologically the oldest of the eight main Hawaiian islands, Kauai has seen the most erosion and had the time to form geologic wonders like Waimea Canyon and the famed Na Pali Coast.

Waimea Canyon cuts 13 miles (21 km) deep into Kauai’s rugged interior, affording dizzying views of 4- to 5-million-year-old lava rock from a more-than-2,000-foot (610 m) chasm. Popular with flight-seers, you can explore the canyon more intimately on foot through an extensive network of hiking trails.

Northeast of Waimea Canyon, only a few miles as the bird flies, the Na Pali Coast (pali means “cliff” in Hawaiian) attracts people in helicopters, catamarans, zodiacs and kayaks, but the way to experience Na Pali on the cheap is a get-soaking-wet-covered-in-sweat-and-mud hike on the Kalalau trail, starting at Ke‘e Beach where the road ends and the pali begin.

The 11-mile (18 km) Kalalau trail, which ends at Kalalau Beach, is popular for its unparalleled vistas as you weave in and out of the folds of sheer 1,400-foot-high (427 m) sea cliffs. Remember to contact the State Parks office in Li‘hue for permits if you go beyond the first two miles (3.2 km) to Hanakapi‘i Beach.

The most popular Kauai activity is to simply enjoy the 111-mile (179 km) coastline, 47 percent of which is sandy beach (the highest proportion in the United States). The area’s beaches, coves and expansive stretches of romantic coast are perfect for snorkeling, boogie boarding, surfing, diving, fishing, kite surfing, shell hunting or just strolling blissfully, waiting for the elusive “green flash,” an optical phenomenon at sunset, when a green spot may be visible above the sun. Kauai’s sea currents and surf can be treacherous and unpredictable however, so caution is strongly advised.

Escape mid-winter blahs for Hawaiian blues on Kaua’i. Pictured clockwise from upper left: swaying coconut palms in Wailua, jaw-dropping views from ‘Awa’awapuhi Trail, taking a tai-chi break at Nualolo Kai, alone in the warm, shallow waters of Hideaways Beach, Princeville, Kaua’i. Photo by Jon Letman
Escape mid-winter blahs for Hawaiian blues on Kaua’i. Pictured clockwise from upper left: swaying coconut palms in Wailua, jaw-dropping views from ‘Awa’awapuhi Trail, taking a tai-chi break at Nualolo Kai, alone in the warm, shallow waters of Hideaways Beach, Princeville, Kaua’i. Photo by Jon Letman

Hiking is another free activity, and Kauai arguably has the most extensive and varied hikes in the state. Check out the Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Na Ala Hele trail-access system to learn more about some of Kauai’s most popular hikes. The free Unofficial Guide to Kokee State Park has good information about the extensive network of trails at the western end of the island.

And while on the Garden Island, how could you not visit a garden? The National Tropical Botanical Garden has three locations on Kauai: The McBryde Garden, the Allerton Garden and the Limahuli Garden. The McBryde Garden, on the south shore, offers a self-guided tour for only US$ 30 per person, and the Limahuli Garden, on the north shore, has self-guided tours for US$ 20. Both are not to be missed. There is also a small, but beautiful (and free!) garden worth exploring in Poipu between the Sheraton and the Kiahuna Plantation called the Pa‘u a Laka Cactus Garden, commonly known as Moir Garden.

Another way to enjoy Kaua‘i’s incredibly diverse exotic and native flora is to explore local plant nurseries. Kaua‘i Nursery & Landscaping in Puhi is one of the largest plant retailers in all of Hawai‘i, but there are many smaller nurseries around the island that offer inexpensive plants certified for export to the U.S. mainland.

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