West Kauai Vacation Guide: Popular Activities, Attractions, and Things To Do

(Part 5 of 5 of the Kauai Vacation Guide – Which Side of the Island is Best For You?)

West Side: Eleele, Waimea, Kokee, Hanapepe, Kekaha

The West Side of the island is noticeably different from the rest of Kauai as far as the scenery goes. Here you can find wide open spaces, agricultural farmland, and lots of red dirt. Full of historical sites, natural attractions, and cultural activities, the West Side is also where a lot of the island’s sugar cane fields used to be and still are.

Waimea Canyon, “The Grand Canyon of the Pacific”

Waimea Canyon, “The Grand Canyon of the Pacific”

One unique aspect the West Side enjoys that the other sides don’t get to are views of the Forbidden Island of Niihau. At the right time of year, you can watch the sun sink behind Niihau and light up the sky with impressive pinky-purpley-orange colors, making it worth driving home a little later than usual.

If you want to follow the highway, see some historic and scenic attractions, visit popular Kauai-made businesses, and catch a spectacular sunset, the West Side is the perfect destination.

Take a video tour of Kauai’s West Side

When venturing out to Kauai’s West Side, we recommend you check out the following places:

Eleele

The first town that is considered to be on the West Side is the town of Eleele. There are several businesses and tour companies located in this town due to it being home to the second biggest harbor on island, Port Allen.

Kauai Coffee Company: The Kauai Coffee Company grows, packages, and distributes delicious coffee that is grown in direct Hawaii sunshine across 3,100 acres of Kauai. They are not only the largest coffee grower in the state of Hawaii – but also in the entire United States – with over 4 million coffee trees, producing a consistently high-quality Kauai-made coffee. They offer coffee tasting and also offer walking tours, so be sure to stop by if you’re an avid coffee enthusiast.

Photo courtesy of Kauai Coffee Company

Photo courtesy of Kauai Coffee Company

Other Kauai-made businesses to visit on the West Side include:

Port Allen: Eleele is home to Port Allen, a great place to go on a fishing charter or a sunset sail down the Na Pali Coast. Both the North Shore and the West Side offer the opportunity to view the Na Pali Coast, one of Hawaii’s most spectacular sights.

The Na Pali Coast is probably one of the most recommended places to see on a Kauai vacation

The Na Pali Coast is probably one of the most recommended places to see on a Kauai vacation

Na Pali Coast: Hidden along this stretch of coastline are some pristine Kauai beaches, flourishing snorkeling spots, and secluded sea caves. Impossible to see everything on just one trip down this coastline, you can also go whale watching, see dolphins, and go on some amazing sunset cruises. The Napali Coast is probably one of the most recommended places to see on a Kauai vacation. It’s that amazing – and offers a Kauai experience like no other.

The Na Pali Coast, Kauai

The Na Pali Coast, Kauai

Known For: Historical Sites, Natural Attractions, Cultural Activities, Tours
Places to Visit: Kauai Coffee Company, Port Allen, Na Pali Coast
Best Restaurants:
Best Beaches:
Weather: Dry, Warm, Sunny
Distance from Lihue Airport: 1 Hour

Hanapepe

For those that have a passion for art, be sure to pencil in a trip to Hanapepe. Known for its charming, century-old buildings and its many art galleries, this town is a favorite setting for Hollywood filmmakers. Movies including The Thornbirds and Flight of the Intruder were filmed in town and scenes from Jurassic Park were filmed from the Hanapepe Valley Lookout. Disney’s Lilo and Stitch was also inspired by the authentic buildings and small town charm found here.

Once considered Kauai’s largest community, Hanapepe is now a pleasant country town, rich in history, with a lot to teach you about Kauai’s past. From WW1 to the early 1950s, it was also one of the island’s most happening towns, frequented by G.I.s and sailors training in the Pacific Theater.

Hanapepe does have a few attractions worth checking out, including:

Salt Pond Beach Park is a protected white sand crescent-shaped beach perfect for swimmers of every skill level as the waters are calm and inviting. It’s a great place for beach strolls, and is also a popular place to snorkel, surf, and wind surf.

Salt Pond Beach Park is a great place to bring the whole family

Salt Pond Beach Park is a great place to bring the whole family

Why is it called Salt Pond? For many generations, Hawaiians have been harvesting natural sea salt during the summer months at this location – and still do to this very day. It’s the only place on Kauai where you can find natural salt ponds. To get the salt, seawater is first evaporate in pans and then the remaining product is bagged. Originally the salt was used for cooking and medicinal purposes, and today it can be found at several local shops in the area.

Fun fact: the Hawaiian sea salt harvested here is naturally pinkish-red in color due to the red soil that comes in contact with it.

Fort Elizabeth: Also known as the Russian Fort, Fort Elizabeth was built in 1817, and is located at the mouth of the Waimea River. Visitors are welcome to explore the area on self-guided tours. This is a great area to see and learn some more about Kauai’s rich history.

Hanapepe Swinging Bridge: Originally built in the early 1900s as a way to cross the river, the Hanapepe Swinging Bridge is now one of the town’s biggest attractions. Crossing the bridge is the fun part, great for kids, and takes you to a residential area. It is recommended that you turn around once over the bridge and head back towards Hanapepe Town as the area does not have much else to offer visitors.

Little Fish Coffee House: On your way to your West Side adventure, stop by the Little Fish Coffee House for a nice breakfast and some great coffee or tea. The staff here are helpful, professional, and friendly, keeping the aloha spirit alive and well. Enjoy your breakfast or beverage of choice inside or outside in their wonderful little garden. Their acai bowls and coffee are recommended.

Hanapepe Art Walk: Every Friday from 6-9pm the community comes together to celebrate all of the wonderful local artists, musicians, sculptors, and craftsmen of Kauai. Hanapepe Road lights up and encourages you to take a stroll down the half mile strip of town, introducing you to several art galleries, local boutiques, and delightful eateries. The festive atmosphere is great way to meet people and see some unique island creations. This event is free and promises a good time, so check it out if you get the chance.

Annual Kauai Chocolate & Coffee Festival: As a known chocoholic to family and friends, I was extremely pleased to hear that 2015 held the first annual chocolate and coffee festival; it took place in October and is a great place to experience some of the finest local chocolate cuisines and confections. The Kauai Chocolate & Coffee Festival “showcases the many products and talents of our local farmers, chefs, roasters, chocolatiers, baristas, and roasters.” Absolutely worth attending for residents, this event provides visitors with a perfectly justifiable excuse to vacation to Kauai in the fall. A chocolate and coffee festival? Together? On Kauai? It doesn’t get much better than that!

Known For: Art Galleries, History, Salt Production
Places to Visit: Salt Pond Beach Park, Fort Elizabeth, Hanapepe Swinging Bridge, Hanapepe Art Walk
Best Restaurants: Little Fish Coffee House, Hanapepe Cafe
Best Beaches: Salt Pond Beach Park
Weather: Hot, Sunny
Distance from Lihue Airport: 1.5 Hours

Waimea

Found at the base of the Waimea Canyon, the town of Waimea, which translates to “red fresh water,” was established on the flood plain of the Waimea River. Famous for Captain Cook’s arrival to the Hawaiian islands in 1778, Waimea town is full of history and offers plenty of areas to explore, including:

Waimea Canyon State Park: Besides the Na Pali Coast, the biggest attraction on the West Side of Kauai is the Waimea Canyon, also known as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific (first nicknamed by the famous author Mark Twain). One of Hawaii’s natural wonders, Waimea Canyon is 1 mile wide, 14 miles long, and over 3,500 feet deep. Waimea Canyon was carved thousands of years ago by multiple floods and rivers flowing down from Mount Waialeale, known as one of the wettest spots on Earth (receiving an average of over 465 inches of rain each year).

Waimea Canyon Lookout (Kokee State Park): One of the many scenic lookouts for Waimea Canyon

Waimea Canyon Lookout (Kokee State Park): One of the many scenic lookouts for Waimea Canyon

Where’s the best place to view it from? There are several official lookouts along Waimea Canyon Drive, as well as some unofficial places to pull over and admire the sights. This road winds up the mountain and will take you all the way to Kokee State Park, where you will be able to access some of the best hiking trails on island. The hiking trails take you along the ridgeline and down to the canyon floor.

Tip: The best time to be at the Waimea Canyon Lookout is in the morning, when the lighting is good and the temperatures are cool.

Hiking Trails: If you are wanting to view Waimea Canyon up close and personal, there are several hiking trails you can explore. Please be aware that several trails have little shade and major elevation changes. It is recommended you hike in dry, clear conditions and always be aware of your surroundings. Landslides, falling rocks, and slippery sections can be encountered along the trails (even when it’s not raining). Always hike with a partner and bring plenty of sunscreen and water; bug spray is a good idea too.

Recommended hiking trails include:
Kukui Trail: 2.5 Miles, Difficult, Hot, Sunny, 2,500 Feet Elevation Change
Puuo Kila: Foggy, Difficult, Amazing Views

A visit to Waimea Canyon is what you make it – you can spend a couple of minutes viewing it from the side of the road, or you can go on several hikes and take days to explore it. You can even fly over it in a helicopter. However you choose to experience Waimea Canyon, just be sure it’s on your list of things to do on your Kauai vacation.

Waimea River: Flowing throughout the Waimea Canyon, Waimea River is about 12 miles long, making it one of the longest rivers in all of Hawaii. At the mouth of the river is where you can find Fort Elizabeth, another one of the West Side’s historical landmarks.

Kauai Technology & Visitor Center: Before you drive up to Waimea Canyon, consider stopping by the Kauai Technology & Visitor Center. They offer several activities, like lei making, that the whole family can enjoy. “They are a museum-style resource center with a collection of historic photographs, exhibits, and multiple projects intended to encourage dialogue and cultivate an interest in learning more.” You can also go on a Waimea walking tour. Computers with free Internet access are also available here.

Public Hours
Monday – Friday: 10:00am – 4:00pm
Closed Saturday, Sunday, and Holidays

Please Note: Reservations or scheduling is required for some of the activities. Visit their website or call (808)-338-1332 for more information.

Captain Cook Monument: British explorer Captain James Cook is a significant person in Hawaiian history, as he first landed in Hawaii at Waimea Bay, Kauai sometime in 1778. A statue of Captain Cook now stands in Waimea Town commemorating this event.

West Side Craft Fair: Every weekend in Waimea Town there is a craft fair that welcomes both locals and visitors to come out and support the local artists from around the island. Live music and local food are available and it’s a great event to bring the whole family to.

Known For: History, Hiking, Camping, Exploring, Sightseeing
Places to Visit: Waimea Canyon, Kauai Technology & Visitor Center, Captain Cook Monument
Best Restaurants:
Best Beaches: N/A
Weather: Dry, Warm, Sunny
Distance from Lihue Airport: 1 Hour

Kokee

Another must-see place on the West Side of the island is Kokee. Kokee is located up a windy road at the top of a mountain, is the coolest place on Kauai, and is often quite foggy, but provides you the opportunity to see some unique island sights. Imagine a tropical cloud forest on top of a beautifully sculpted mountain with absolutely stellar ocean views – that’s Kokee.

Kokee State Park: Kokee is known for being a place to experience the great outdoors in a little different way than the rest of the island does. It’s like an island-style mountain retreat town. This is where many locals go on camping trips with their families. There are little reservoirs or ponds to do some catch-and-release fishing and plenty of surreal places to explore. It’s different for Kauai in the fact that you can’t access any beaches from this town, but it gives you some absolutely stunning views of Kauai’s mountaintops and the ocean down below.

Kokee State Park offers 19 hiking trails, which will lead you through Koa forests, many of them showcasing magnificent ocean and coastline views. Be sure to be on the lookout for some rare, endemic bird species that live in the area.

If you are at the park during May, be sure to check out the Banana Polka Festival. This well-attended event includes hiking, crafts, and fun family activities. In October, hula performances are put on for the Eo e Emalani I Alakai Festival, held to commemorate Queen Emma’s visit to Kokee in 1870.

Kalalau Lookout: Found at the end of the road in Kokee State Park is one of the most photographed places on Kauai, Kalalau Valley. Protected by Kokee State Park, it includes 4,345 acres of land with 45 miles of trails that run through the canyon. Views from the Kalalau Lookout are some of the most breathtaking sights on the island; you truly are on top of Kauai, as high up as you can go on foot. Experience the stunning Kokee views of waterfalls, rainbows, jagged cliffs, and the ocean.

One of the most photographed places on Kauai, Kalalau Valley

One of the most photographed places on Kauai, Kalalau Valley

Tip: The best time to view Kalalau Valley from Kokee is first thing in the morning. The light and shadows on the green etched cliffs offer simply amazing views. Winter months and heavy rains tend to leave trails up here muddy and slippery, so keep that in mind when planning a trip to Kokee.

Alakai Swamp: Alakai Swamp is known as the highest elevation wet forest in the world. Explore the swamp on foot by way of a dirt trail (sometimes reinforced with boarded planks) that runs throughout the area. The trail leads you through the native rain forest to the edge of the Na Pali’s Kilohana vista, and offers the opportunity to encounter native plants and birds along the way.

Kokee Museum: Within Kokee State Park is the Kokee Natural History Museum. Inside you can find great exhibits that educate visitors on the unique plants that grow up here. Maps of nearby hiking trails and nature walks are also on display. Need help deciding which trail is best for you? Rangers are on hand to help with all of your interests and questions.

Known For: Hiking, Camping, Fishing, Hunting, Exploring, Sightseeing
Places to Visit: Kokee State Park, Kalalau Lookout, Puu okila Lookout, Alakai Swamp, Kokee Museum
Best Restaurants: N/A
Best Beaches: N/A
Weather: Cool, Foggy, Breezy
Distance from Lihue Airport: 1.5 Hours

Kekaha

Kekaha is the last town on the West Side before the start of the Na Pali Coast. This side of the coastline is quite different from the North Side, much drier and warmer, but still beautiful. Ask the majority of locals why they would venture down to Kekaha and they’ll probably tell you it’s because that’s where the fish are biting, that’s where the surf is firing, or they just need to get their Polihale fix.

There are a few activities for Kekaha visitors, including:

Kekaha Beach Park: This beach is the last beach on the West Side that has a lifeguard on duty. It’s great for sunbathers, surfers, and wind surfers.

Watch the sun sink into the ocean at Polihale Beach

Watch the sun sink into the ocean at Polihale Beach

Polihale State Park: Probably the most popular destination on the West Side of the island, and somewhat of a drive down an unpaved, bumpy dirt road (5 miles, to be exact), Polihale is a 17-mile long, beautiful sandy beach. It is the longest beach in the entire state of Hawaii. Golden sand dunes that can reach up to 100 feet, colorful sunsets, sculpted cliffs, and lapping ocean waves make up the scenery at Polihale Beach.

If you’re used to seeing the north side of the Na Pali Coast from Ke’e Beach, Polihale allows you to see what the other side of the Na Pali Coast looks like from land. If you’re really lucky, you may just stumble upon a coveted sunrise shell that washed up along the beach overnight.

Please note: This beach is known to have strong currents and is not a recommended place to swim or enjoy other water activities, especially because there is no lifeguard on-duty here. The beach can be exceptionally hot during summer afternoons and offers little shade, so be sure to be prepared.

Polihale Beach, West Kauai – as far West you can go on foot

Polihale Beach, West Kauai – as far West you can go on foot

Bird-Watching: If you are a bird enthusiast, you will really enjoy spending some time on the West Side of the island, which is an excellent area to find some rare, endemic species. The following recommended locations are just a short drive from the town of Kekaha, and are excellent places to bird-watch:

  • High Elevation Endemic Species: Kokee State Park & Alakai Swamp
  • Low-Land/Wet-Land Species, Shorebirds, & Scrub-land Species: Kawaieleele Sand-Mine Bird Sanctuary

Hiking Trails: Many of the hiking trails in this area end with gorgeous ocean and Na Pali Coast views. The trails are hot and can be challenging, but the rewarding sights of majestic cliffs, cascading waterfalls, and endless ocean views are worth every step. Be sure to always hike with somebody, bring plenty of water, sunscreen, and bug repellant, and hats and good hiking shoes are always highly recommended.

Some popular trails in the Kekaha area include:
Awaawapuhi Trail
Pihea Trail
Kokee State Park

Na Pali Tours: While it’s true that you can book tours down the Na Pali Coast mainly in Hanalei and Eleele, you can also find some worthy tours all the way in Kekaha. Unforgettable sea cave tours, whale watching, sunset cruises, and fishing charters are available and at least one trip down the Na Pali Coast is highly, highly recommended.

Na Pali Coast Sea Cave Tour

Na Pali Coast Sea Cave Tour

Known For: Surfing, Beaches, Hiking, Fishing, Tours
Places to Visit: Polihale Beach, Polihale State Park
Best Restaurants:
Best Beaches: Kekaha Beach Park, Polihale Beach
Weather: Sunny, Warm, Dry
Distance from Lihue Airport: 1.5 hours

Make a Trip to Kauai’s Charming West Side

It’s interesting to see for yourself just how different the West Side is from the North Shore and the other parts of Kauai. Each side is truly unique in its own way. If you’re into exploring the island, want to see the unique West Kauai landscape, learn about Kauai’s rich history, view some amazing art, and discover some charming, old school Hawaii towns, make the drive.