In July 2019 my husband and I took a week long trip to Hawaii. We visited the islands of Kauai and Oahu. Part of our stay on Oahu was at Disney’s Aulani Resort. Welcome to my blog series that will cover our entire trip. My goal is to help you get an idea about what visiting Hawaii is like, offer some activity options, and to review our accommodations, dining and other experiences. See the links below to read about other portions of this vacation.
I am a travel agent and I would love to help you plan your trip to Hawaii or anywhere else!
All of my travel services are complimentary.
If you would like to discuss your next adventure contact me at: email@example.com
Really why not Hawaii? It is absolutely beautiful, has tons to do, offers something for every aged or type of traveler. Plus if you are coming from the mainland US you won’t have to worry about passports or changing money or any of the hassles of international travel. But you will feel like you are somewhere very different from home.
We choose Hawaii as part of our journey to visit all 50 states as a couple, this was state 47. This was my second visit to Hawaii and my husbands first. On my first visit I was only on Oahu.
Planning this vacation I knew I wanted to visit 2 islands and I knew one of them would be Oahu. When looking at my options for what the second island would be I was captured by the beauty of the “Garden Island” of Kauai. The scenery looked the most appealing to me, particularly the Napali Cliffs. Budget wise I also liked that many of the activities that appealed to me on Kauai were inexpensive. While there are of course many pricy activities available the ones I was honestly attracted to were the less expensive ones. I found a flight direct to Kauai from the mainland, without changing plans in Oahu and that sealed the deal.
After visiting I can say that the vibe of Kauai was very laid back, rural, with no bustling cities, or even large towns. There were chickens and flowers all over the island. It was a very calming place. At the same time it does not have as much going on as some of the other islands. If that is the Hawaiian vibe you are looking for Kauai is a great option.
Getting To Kauai
Coming from Maryland the trip to Hawaii is a long one. Our flight from Baltimore (BWI) connected through Los Angeles (LAX). We had about an hour and a half layover, I don’t recommend anything under an hour especially in a large airport like LAX. We grabbed something quick to eat while we waited and then boarded our flight from LAX to Kauai, where we landed at Lihue Airport (LIH) at 7:00 PM local time, which felt much later to us coming form the east coast.
Lihue Airport (LIH) is the main airport on Kauai and several airlines offer direct service to Lihue without having to transfer in Honolulu, on Oahu. I highly suggest a direct flight to Lihue, any time you have to change plains is a chance for something to go wrong, and it is a hassle. The convince of a direct flight is truly a luxury. The Lihue Airport itself was on the smaller side so nothing was too far of a walk and it had a lot of open air elements. This is an odd way to describe an airport but it was actually cute. Not to many food options but they did have a Starbucks and several places to grab packaged snacks, one sit down option plus a bar/lounge option. They also had a flower shop where you could pick yourself up some leis. The baggage claim process was simple and we could walk to the car rental location.
We picked up our car and we were off. Unless you plan to visit a resort and never leave it a visit to Kauai really requires renting a car. It turns out that Jeeps are a very popular option when renting on Kauai. The vibe of driving a Jeep around the island would be fun and the height would assist in the best views of the scenery while driving, we were also told it was better for some of the roads around the island. We stuck with our much less expensive compact car and had no troubles at all and we drove all over the island. We drive smaller cars at home and are much more comfortable keeping that standard on vacation. It also saves us money we would rather spend on other things during vacation. But if driving a Jeep around the jungle is going to be really fun for you consider the upgrade and work it into your budget.
We stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn Kauai Wailua Bay and it really worked for our vacation style and needs. It was about a 10 minute drive to the hotel from the airport, which means you are about 10 minutes from any shopping and dining in Lihue. If you continue north past the hotel you are about 5 minutes from Wailua dining and shopping options.
The parking lot here was a bit small and had tight corners, with the convenient locations filling quickly but it was not too far of a walk from the side lot to the lobby, and it was free. The lobby and many of the hallways and common areas are open air which provided a lovely tropical vibe to the whole place. The restaurant and bar off of the lobby looked very comfortable and is a nice option for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, but we did not eat there. Outside there was a Tiki Bar for drinks and snacks near the pool. The theming and decor around it was very fun. The fitness center was adequate and nicely kept up. The pool itself was nice but standard.
The hotel offers great beach views, it is about a 5 minute walk from the hotel across the grounds and a parking area to the beach itself. All beaches in Hawaii are public so this is not an area just for resort guests. The beach here is smaller and does have a lot of driftwood on the shore. It is certainly adequate for those looking to grab a beach towel and take a dip. However, there are no loungers or other amenities at the beach. If you are looking to spend the day on the beach I would consider other hotel options. This beach is a fantastic option to view the sunrise or sunset, which I did one morning.
The landscaping throughout the hotel was beautiful with tropical flowers all over. There are also chickens, and a few stay cats that wonder the exterior of the property. We saw this all over the island as well. But don’t worry they do provide ear plugs if you are a light sleepers and don’t want to be awoken by a rooster in the morning.
Our room was a standard 2 queens, with an ocean view. We happened to be on the ground floor, which meant a patio instead of a balcony. This turned out to be the best part as we could see the chickens right outside our sliding glass door and we could walk right out to the beach or hotel grounds from our room. The views, especially in the morning were beautiful. The room itself was spacious, with lovely decor inspired by the islands, and was inline with the Hilton Garden Inn brand standards. The room offered free-wifi, coffee maker, TV, mini-fridge and microwave.
Why did this hotel works for us? We chose Hilton properties wherever possible as we enjoy the amenities and participate in their loyalty program, this is the only Hilton property on Kauai and was honestly the biggest reason we choose it. We are not beach or pool people and when they are available spend very limited time enjoying them so this hotel where we could just enjoy the views of the beach was perfect. This location worked for all the activities we had planned and we knew we would be close to a lot of dining options here. The presence of a fitness center is also high on the list when we choose a hotel. It also offered a mini fridge and microwave in room, we typically make our own breakfasts and sometime pack lunches when on vacation. So access to the appliances is a huge convenience. This hotel worked perfectly for what we needed.
I recommend this hotel for couples and adult groups, specifically those who are looking for a visit not centered around beach time. For families I would look elsewhere, there is nothing really attractive for kids here.
After waking up to beautiful ocean views and some chickens we hit the road. After a 40 minute drive to our destination we arrived at Shipwreck Beach. We grabbed some free parking in the small dirt lot off of Ainakoa Street. From there is was about a 2 minute walk to the beach. This was a lovely beach and and option to spend some time at if you are a beach fan. There are several resorts in this area so it was a lively beach atmosphere. Public restrooms were available at the beach.
We had come to Shipwreck Beach to find the start of the Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail. As you face the water at the left end of the beach you will see several pathways up to the trail. Once you are on the trail you have access to the cliff edges where the views are spectacular. This is one of the only ocean side trails on the island and I highly recommend it. As soon as you start the views are already worth it, you can take a very short walk or an extended hike. The trail itself is almost 4 miles one way. You will find some Hawaiian heritage signs and sites along the way. We explored for about an hour and then hopped back in the car. I can’t stress how cool the views were the whole time, I highly recommend this hike for everyone.
Our next destination was the Spouting Horn which was about a 15 minute drive. This small park had ample parking and a rest room and so many chickens. We made our way to the fence edge to view the Spouting Horn which is consistently spouting with the waves coming in. This is just a quick stop but it is worth the stop if you will be in the area to see this unique feature of the island.
The next stop on our list was Waimea Canyon State Park, but first we needed to grab some lunch. About 5 minutes from Spouting Horn we found a small shopping center The Shops at Kukui’ula where we stopped at Living Food Market. There were serval other restaurants and stores as well. This is a small local grocery store with a quick service counter where you could order sandwiches, salads, pizzas, bakery items, breakfast items, plus smoothies and coffees. They also had some popular Hawaiian dishes as well, we got a poke bowl and an acai bowl which were both excellent. This place felt like a tiny Hawaiian Whole Foods, which I was very into, the food we ordered was great and it was fun to see some local Hawaiian brands on the shelves along with natural or organic classic brands you would find anywhere in the US.
After lunch we made the drive to Waimea Canyon State Park and to the Canyon Lookout. The canyon is nick-named the “grand canyon of Hawaii”. By the time we arrived it had started to lightly rain. We paid around $5 to park at the lookout lot and then climbed a few flights of stairs to get to the lookout itself. When we go to the top all we could see was fog, and more fog, with no canyon in sight. This was a blow, we would not have time to return during out trip and this round trip was about 2 hours of driving we had put in. So take my failure as a lesson and check the Waimea Canyon State Park website and social media accounts the morning of your visit and before you depart they should let you know the weather that day. Something I learned after our visit. But what is a vacation without at least one fail.
We re-grouped and were off to the last activity of the day after a 35 minute drive back in the direction of our hotel. We arrived at Hanapepe a small town the was the inspiration to the setting for the Disney animated movie Lilo & Stitch. As a huge Disney fan this was a must see for me. I absolutely love when I can stuff a little Disney into any trip. The town was small and quite quaint. This is a town full of artwork, both on the streets and to buy in the shops. There is a Lilo & Stitch mural that was a great photo opportunity. We also really enjoyed the Talk Story Bookstore, which has new and used books and a few Lilo and Stitch items for sale as well, it even had an adorable store cat. Most of the others stores were art galleries, or artists shops and were delightful to explore. The real “attraction” here was the Hanapepe Swinging Bridge which was historic and fun to walk across. The perfect small town visit for any Disney fans or art lovers.
When we were done exploring the town we headed back another 40 minutes to our hotel. After spending some time at the hotel we hopped over to the Sleeping Giant Grill for dinner in Kapa’a. This area had a lot fo dining options. We wanted something quick so we opened for the Sleeping Giant where we could get some Hawaiian flavors with a “plate lunch”, or wraps, tacos, or burritos. We were happy with our food but it was nothing special. We were exhausted from the day and still jet lagged so it did the trick and we were off to call it a night.
The next morning we are headed to the activity we are most looking forward to on Kauai, what we expected to be the the highlight of the visit. Hiking the Kalalau Trail along the Napali Coast. The Napali Coast are the iconic cliffs of Kauai, they are the most popular attraction on the island, you would recognize them as the island in Jurassic Park. The cliffs are popularly seen through helicopter and boat tours mostly. The only option to see from land is the Kalalau Trail, a trail that is 11 miles one way and that you can camp overnight on (with permit) or enjoy a shorter hike of a portion of it. My husband does not enjoy boats and neither one of us are interested in a helicopter so we chose to hike. This was also a large savings vs any of the other options.
The drive from our hotel to the Napali Coast State Wilderness Park was about an hour and was a beautiful drive itself. The parking lot at our destination was recently expanded but was still fairly small as this is a very popular destination. I advise getting there at opening or close to it. If the lot is full there is overflow parking with a shuttle bus available. Check the parking times and shuttle options before your visit. Beware that the only restrooms at the park are some port-a-potties available at the start of the trail.
At the start of the trail is also Ke’e Beach, which is a stunning beach and a great stop after your hike. The Kalalau Trail starts off rather steep and with lots of rocks. It was a challenging trail and I would approach it with appropriate caution. I highly recommend hiking boots, a water bottle, and even hiking polls if you have them. When you get up the first hill you have a great view of the beach. After a bit more hiking you have a fantastic overview of the cliffs, which was awesome. Throughout the hike you are in an unbelievable rainforest. It honestly felt like an unreal setting. This experience was the highlight of Kauai for us. We hiked for about an hour and a half and the views were stunning the whole time. After a quick stop at Ke’e Beach we hopped back in the car and made the beautiful drive back towards the hotel.
On the way we stopped at the Hanalei Center with several dining options and grabbed some yummy taco salads from Federic’s Hanalei. Back on the road we made another quick stop at Kilauea Point just to see the lighthouse and views there. You can pay to enter the park and tour the lighthouse as well but we skipped that. The refuge is home to a lot of Hawaiian birds and is a good place to sighting Humpback Whales in the right seasons. (Not when we were there.) One final stop before we arrived back to our hotel, and very close to the hotel, was the Opaeka‘a Falls, the parking is right next to the falls, so this is a very easy quick stop that I recommend. Stops like this can help to break up a longer drive.
After a few hours at the hotel we hoped over to the the Wailua River and the departure dock for the Smith’s Wailua River Cruise to Fern Grotto. The departure dock is located right next to the Smith’s Luau and there are options to combine the two experiences. There is also a small shop at the dock, and restrooms. This riverboat takes you down the river, with live narration about the history of the area, the attractions nearby, and the many movies that have used the river as a filming location. After about 20 minutes you arrive at the Fern Gotto, which is a state park, and there are restrooms available here. After a brief walk from the dock to the grotto, surrounded by beautiful plant life, at the grotto your guide speaks about the cultural history of this spot and plays some authentic Hawaiian music on guitar. On the boat ride back there is a performance of hula and music. More Hawaiian history and culture is shared throughout the performance. I really enjoyed the boat ride especially the insight into the movie history, as well as all of the Hawaiian musical experiences throughout the trip. The fern gotto itself was cool to see but it was not overly impressive. I always enjoy and recommend picking at least one activity that provides you insight in the history of an area, in this case history into the Native Hawaiian people. I enjoyed the experience over all and would recommend it for those who enjoy tours in general. But I would not prioritize this over either of the hikes mentioned above. If your mobility is more limited or you are traveling in a large group I think this is a great option, especially if combined with the Luau afterwords.
For dinner we went to the nearby Coconut’s Fish Cafe, which is a local chain. The fish was good, and I recommend checking one of the locations out for a quick lunch or dinner if you are staying near one. Overall our food experience in Kauai was average, while later in the trip we found Oahu to be extraordinary. After dinner it was back to the hotel for the night.
The next morning we headed back to the airport, The check-in desks and start of security was actually outside, though under cover, which felt unique. The process was standard of US airport security, though there were a few extra questions about if we had any fruits or flowers which is standard for Hawaii airport travel. We found our gate and their was ample seating in the waiting area.
We were ready to island-hop our way on Hawaiian Airlines to Oahu and Daniel K. Inouye International Airport (HNL) in Honolulu. Our experience with Hawaiian Airlines was perfect and the whole processes was fairly simple. The flight itself was under 30 minutes and we were soon in the large Honolulu Airport. This airport felt much more like ones I am familiar, with lots of stores and dining and many more gates than the Lihue Airport. Thought it did have some areas that are open air which is lovely in a tropical climate.
If you have any hesitation about visiting more than one island during your trip, don’t it was an efficient and affordable way to see two very different Islands.
The next leg of our trip took us to Oahu, specifically Honolulu and Waikiki. Stay tuned for the next blog in this series to hear all about that.
I am a travel agent and I would love to help you plan your trip to Hawaii or anywhere else! All of my travel services are complimentary.
If you would like to discuss your next adventure contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org