Destination Guides,  Itineraries

3 Days in Kauai: The Perfect Garden Island Itinerary

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Is there ever a bad time for a tropical vacation? (No!) Especially under the current conditions, travel is limited, and we’re all dreaming of far-off destinations and vacations. (Yes, even me!) That’s why I’ve dusted off one of the oldest blog posts I’ve been meaning to write: a weekend guide to spend 3 days in Kauai.

I visited Kauai in 2014, but have worked hard to keep this post updated in the years since. With a good friend, I spent a long weekend exploring Hawaii’s “Garden Island” from top to bottom. My itinerary and suggestions are based on what we did during that trip – plus a ton of research to make sure my suggestions are completely up-to-date.

3 Days in Kauai Hero

The reality is that three days is not enough in Kauai. But almost two-thirds of Hawaiian visitors spend time on more than one island, and Kauai is a popular choice in combination with Oahu. So if you have one week in Hawaii and split it between Oahu and Kauai, you might end up with just 3 days in Kauai – hence writing this itinerary!

So whether you’re dreaming of a trip to Hawaii or actively planning your next trip, this post will help. Below you’ll find all the info you need to make the most of a short three days on Kauai: what to do, where to stay, what to pack, and more. Ready to dive in? Read on for some serious tropical travel inspiration.

In this post, I promote travel to a destination that is the traditional lands of the Kō Hawaiʻi Paeʻāina (Hawaiian Kingdom) people. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.

This post was originally published in April 2020, and was updated in October 2022.

Kauai Geography, Explained

3 Days in Kauai - Napali Coast

Before jumping in, it’s helpful to get oriented with Kauai’s geography. These will help you understand my itinerary and plan your trip.

First, it’s best to think of Kauai as a circle with a ring road – but the road doesn’t go all the way around the island. This means you can’t drive all the way around the island, and will need to backtrack as you explore different parts of the island. There are some roads that lead up into the island’s interior mountainous region, but the majority of sights and amenities are along the mostly-circumference of Kauai.

Second, Kauai’s four sides have different names:

  • The northern and southern coastlines are called ‘Shores,’ as in the North Shore and South Shore.
  • The east and west coastlines are called ‘Sides,’ as in the East Side and West Side.

Those are the terms I’ll use throughout the rest of this post.

Lastly, Hawaiians refer to the rest of the U.S. as the ‘Mainland.’ You’ll see me use this term a bit too, but I wanted to explain why I’m using that word as opposed to another.

Okay, now that you have a sense of Kauai’s geography as it pertains to traveling around the island, let’s get into the activities you can enjoy while there on a three-day itinerary.

The Best Things to Do for 3 Days in Kauai

I like to start all of my itineraries by running through some of the top sights and things to do first. Then, I’ll show you how to put them together in an itinerary. So before I lay out my itinerary for 3 days in Kauai, here are the best things to do on the “Garden Island.”

Beaches Around the Island

Obviously, if you’re planning a trip to a tropical island, you want beaches! While Kauai is far more verdant and vegitated than some of the other Hawaiian islands, there are dozens of beaches to choose from. Here are some of the most popular beaches that you can easily visit during three days in Kauai:

  • Poipu Beach – One of the most popular beaches on Kauai, this South Shore beach is near several resorts and golf courses.
  • Barking Sands Beach (Polihale State Park) – Polihale is the primary beach on Kauai’s West Side – and only accessible by dirt road. We got rained out from watching the sunset here as the road becomes impassable to smaller/rental cars during the rainy season.
  • Ke’e Beach (Hā’ena State Park) – On the opposite ‘end’ of the road around Kauai from Polihale State Park, Ke’e Beach is at Kauai’s far North Shore in Hā’ena State Park.
  • Hanalei Beach – Like Waimea Bay on Oahu, Hanalei Bay is that picturesque crescent-shaped beach you expect on Hawaii. It’s a great spot for surfing, SUPing, and swimming.
  • Tunnels Beach – Not far from Ke’e Beach, Tunnels Beach is on Kauai’s North Shore and a popular spot for snorkeling and diving.
  • Kiahuna Beach – One of the island’s most popular beaches, Kiahuna is near Poipu Beach on Kauai’s South Shore.
  • Glass Beach – Unlike other beaches on this list, Glass Beach is more similar to Fort Bragg Glass Beach in California. It’s the perfect spot to stroll among the sea glass generated from the surrounding industrial area.

I mention several of these in my three-day Kauai itinerary (below), but if any in this list catch your eye as a must-do, you can easily map and swap them out.

Coastal Formations: Cliffs, Caves & Tide Pools

In addition to sand beaches that stretch for miles, Kauai’s coastline is also made up of fascinating rock formations, including mountains, cliffs, tide pools, arches, and caves. Here are some of the most iconic and popular:

  • Nā Pali Coast – Kauai’s Nā Pali Coast is that iconic Jurassic Park landscape you instantly think of – and it’s hard to reach. The most common way to visit is either by hiking or aboard a day cruise. If hiking, the trailhead sets out near Ke’e Beach on the North Shore; you can also drive up to Kalalau Lookout to look down on the valley if hiking isn’t your jam. Another way to view the Nā Pali Coast is by helicopter if you have the budget to splurge.
  • Queen’s Bath – Queen’s Bath is a natural tide pool along Kauai’s North Shore, and a popular swimming hole. It’s a 10-minute hike to reach the pool and it’s not advised to visit the pool when surf conditions put the waves above 6-8ft swells. This guide is great to help you find the pool and provides good suggestions on when it’s safe to visit.
  • Spouting Horn – A natural blowhole that waves have carved into the rocks, Spouting Horn is on Kauai’s South Shore and puts on a real show at high tides.
  • Wet Cave/Blue Room – A short walk from Ke’e Beach in Hā’ena State park, the Wet Cave/Blue Room is the third of three caves on a short hike from the main road.

Waimea Canyon

Kauai Weekend - Waimea Canyon

Waimea Canyon State Park is located inland along Kauai’s southern coast. It’s affectionately called the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” and it’s not hard to see why when looking out from the Waimea Canyon Lookout point along Hawaii Highway 550.

Waimea Canyon is over 10 miles long and is over 3,000 feet at its deepest – but unlike Arizona’s Grand Canyon in its palette of reds, oranges, and browns, Waimea Canyon has dynamic color scheme of iron red, verdant green, and hazy blue depending on the day.

Wai’Ale’Ale from Pu’u O Kila Lookout

As the second highest point on Kauai, Mount Wai’Ale’Ale is a fascinating “view” as seen from Pu’u O Kila Lookout.

I put that in quotes because it can be hard to get a great view from Pu’u O Kila Lookout. Depending on the season, the confluence of clouds and precipitation roll up from the Pacific Ocean, soaking Kauai. This rain encourages the lush flora that covers the island but it also hides the island’s peaks and valleys from view.

If you’re lucky enough to visit on a clear day, Pu’u O Kila Lookout gives you stunning views of the Nā Pali Coast too.

Craft Beer & Tiki Cocktails

It’s an island. You’re on vacation. Enjoy it.

To the surprise of exactly nobody, Kauai is home to plenty of local watering holes and a few craft breweries. They can hook you up with a good drink on those days you’re chilling on the beach and not driving around and sightseeing.

During my Kauai trip, I did a tasting flight at Kauai Beer Company and sipped Mai Tais at Tahiti Nui Restaurant near Hanalei. You could also try visiting Nani Moon Meadery for a different libation or the Kōloa Rum tasting room near Lihue.

3 Days in Kauai: Your Weekend Itinerary

Ok, now it’s time to put it all together! To do this three-day Kauai itinerary, you’ll need a rental car. It doesn’t really matter where you stay – this itinerary works from accommodation on any part of the island – but I put some suggestions for where to stay on Kauai at the end of this post.

I’m also assuming you arrive from the Mainland around midday on Day 1 and leave in the evening on Day 3. Obviously, you might need to adjust this Kauai weekend itinerary if your flight schedule is a bit different, but let’s dive in!

Day 1: Explore the East Side

Depending on your flights, you’ll probably arrive at Kauai’s Lihue Airport around midday or in the early afternoon. As such, you don’t have a full day to explore and it’s best to stick along the island’s East Side. The East Side is also called the “Royal Coconut Coast” for its lush landscape and coconut groves.

Today’s a great day for car sightseeing (such as Opaeka’a Falls, above), scoping out the street art in small communities, some beach time (Kalapaki and Lydgate Beaches are both on the island’s East Side), or tasting local food and drink. Kauai Beer Company is located in Lihue and you can enjoy a flight of craft beer with food from their menu (a combination of pub food and Hawaiian dishes).

In the evening, I recommend checking into your accommodation and enjoying an easy night; most people have an at least two-hour time change to visit Hawaii, which can cause a little jet-lag even for a short trip. The next two days are chock full of exploring the rest of island and you want to have energy for them, so calling it an early night will give you the most time to do so. It may be a small island compared to others in Hawaii but there’s more than enough to fill 3 days in Kauai!

Day 2: Soak in the South Shore & West Side

On your second of 3 days in Kauai, I would spend the day meandering along the South Shore before heading to Kauai’s West Side. There, you can end the day watching an epic sunset over the Pacific Ocean and try to spot the neighboring island of Ni’ihau, Hawaii’s westernmost inhabited island:

If the weather is nice and clear, here’s how I would spend the day:

  • Start your day with breakfast and sunbathing at one of the South Shore beaches like Poipu or Kiahuna.
  • Explore sights along the South Shore including Spouting Horn, Glass Beach, and Waimea Canyon.
  • Drive up to Pu’u O Kila Lookout to see the Nā Pali Coast and look out toward Wai’Ale’Ale.
  • End by watching the sunset from Polihale State Park before driving back to your accommodation.
  • If you love stargazing (like me) and want to try stargazing on Kauai, you could stay at Polihale to see the stars or stop at Salt Pond Park along the South Shore.

If the weather isn’t clear, it’s still worth exploring! You can definitely admire the misty clouds as they cling to the edges of Waimea Canyon or experience “whiteout” conditions at Pu’u O Kila Lookout.

Day 3: Relax on the North Shore

Kauai’s South Shore and West Side have a ton of sights and stops worth making – never mind beaches where you could easily spend an entire day. That said, it’s the North Shore I think is worth an entire day to itself before your departure.

After breakfast, start at the northernmost point on Kauai’s North Shore, Hā’ena State Park. From there, you can walk along Ke’e Beach and/or make the short hike to the Wet Room/Blue Cave.

From there, you could spend the rest of the morning snorkeling at Tunnels Beach or strolling along the sand at Hanalei Bay before lunch. I haven’t made many restaurant recommendations but Tahiti Nui is a great spot for lunch and makes incredible Mai Tais and other tiki drinks.

After lunch, you could make the short hike to take a dip in Queen’s Bath (along the same stretch of coastline as Hanalei Bay) if the conditions are safe, or visit Kīlauea Lighthouse further east along the North Shore. There are obviously plenty of other sights along this stretch and as you turn south toward Lihue.

From there, the rest of the day depends on your schedule. If your flight passes through Honolulu on the way home, you’ll probably need to be back at Lihue Airport around dinnertime to make the overnight flight back to the Mainland. If instead, your flight is direct to the Mainland, you’ll probably have time for dinner before heading to the airport.

Have an Extra Day in Kauai?

As I mentioned, I don’t think three days is enough time to enjoy all that Kauai has to offer. If you’re feeling the same after reading the things I recommend to do and how you can fit some of them together into a three-day itinerary for Kauai, you might want to take a day from another island and spend it here.

If that’s the case, there’s one must-do activity that will take up the majority of your day: visiting the Na’pali Coast. With only one day, you won’t be hiking – so either book a boat or helicopter tour to take in the jaw-dropping scenery of Kauai’s northwestern side and shore.

For another truly off-beat option, you might look into visiting nearby Ni’ihau. This private island – nicknamed the “Forbidden Island” – is only accessible for day visitors (and you usually can’t make landfall unless you book a private helicopter tour!). The easiest way to visit is a boat tour; this is a truly unique experience you can only have when visiting Kauai, and will make your friends back home jealous even if they’ve visited before.

Other Kauai Travel Tips

Kauai Weekend - Hanalei Bay

Before wrapping this all up, here are afew last considerations when it comes to planning your trip to Kauai.

When to Visit Kauai

An important consideration in planning your trip to Kauai is the seasons. Broadly speaking, there are two seasons in Kauai: the rainy season (November through March) and the dry season (April through October). I visited in February, the heart of the rainy season – that’s why so many of my photos feature drab grey skies.

For the most part, whether you visit during the rainy season or the dry season has no impact on the sights you can see or things you can do in Kauai; some unpaved roads might be particularly muddy during the rainy season, so be aware if your rental car has conditions about that.

What to Pack for Kauai

When it comes to packing for Kauai, you’re in luck: the same things you pack for any other Hawaiian island are appropriate for Kauai too. I have a Hawaii packing list which covers all the essentials you need no matter which island you’re visiting, including sunglasses, reef-safe sunscreen, and mosquito bands.

As Kauai does have a much rainier season than the other islands, you might also want to include one extra item: a raincoat. Alternatively, throwing a disposible poncho in your bag will save space and then you can just pull it out when you need it.

Where to Stay in Kauai

Last but certainly not least, you might wonder where to stay in Kauai. I already mentioned that this itinerary for three days in Kauai doesn’t take where to stay into account – you can choose to stay anywhere on the island and easily drive to the other shores and sides on the appropriate day.

What I don’t advise is what I did: staying in multiple places/parts of the island. Instead of hopping from place to place, just pick one accommodation for both nights you need somewhere to stay.

All that said, here are some hotels that are great options for this short trip to Kauai:

There you have it – a weekend itinerary for Kauai. While you can certainly pack more in, this 3-day Kauai itinerary shows you the island’s best sights and natural wonders… with a few Mai Tais in between! Have other questions about visiting Kauai for three days? Let me know in the comments!

Help others discover this post too!

I was born on the East Coast and currently live in the Midwest – but my heart will always be out West. I lived for 15 years in Alaska, as well as four years each in California and Washington. I share travel resources and stories based on my personal experience and knowledge.

6 Comments

  • Margaret

    Hi Valerie, Kauai is the island I’ve always wanted to visit. Thanks for the information! Your pictures are gorgeous!

  • nicole elkins

    Hello! I’m loving your page!

    I am planning a visit for my husband and I this summer to Hawaii 8-10 days total.
    I think I have narrowed down two islands for our first visit. I want to see Kauai and he wants Honolulu area. So I’ve looked over your recommendations (along with friends). I’d like to travel around the islands and not stay in one area. Given that, would you stay in one area on each island and venture out each day or should we book accommodations on different areas of the islands along our itinerary? I googled that you are able to get from honolulu to north shore in about 45min. Not sure if I want two hours of my day driving. Things to ponder. We can pack light (we had the most epic trip to south island NZ to campervan for a week in 2020) and move easily.

  • Shawna

    You might want to update your article to say that Haena State Park requires a paid reservation. We drove there from Kapa’a, waited 45 minutes for road construction on the way, and were turned away for lack of a ticket. Of course there was another 45 min wait on the way back. Tried to reserve for the next day, our last on Kauai, and there were no spots available. Not blaming you for not knowing, but it would have saved us a lot of wasted time had we known in advance.

    • Valerie

      Sorry to hear that happened, Shawna. I haven’t updated this post in a year, so that must have changed to help manage tourism.

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