Staying for two nights on the North Shore and two nights on the South Shore gave me the opportunity to see most of the island without having to drive very far in either direction. I had visited some of the more popular tourist attractions on previous trips already, but there were still many places that I hadn't been before. On the first full day after I arrived, I decided to visit a couple of spots on the North Shore, including Queen's Bath, a (formerly) hidden spot right in Princeville.
The guide books are all over Queen's Bath these days, and even Google Maps will show its exact location. Unfortunately, the short trail leading to the swimming hole begins in a residential neighborhood, and as such, parking is very limited. There is a small parking lot right next to the entrance, but it was completely full when I arrived around 10:00 am. After circling the streets for a bit, I finally decided to just wait it out. Thankfully, the turnover rate was quite high and people came and left fairly quickly.
Be careful going down the trail as it is very muddy in some sections. Once you reach the ocean, it is just a short stroll to the left along the lava rocks to Queen's Bath. There are warnings posted around the area, including a hand-made wooden sign documenting the number of drownings that have occurred there. Large waves constantly crash over the rocks into Queen's Bath, feeding the pools with fresh ocean water. Because of this, people who climb the rocks at the edge of the baths risk getting swept out to sea.
Other than that, I felt like it was a very safe area for sunbathing and swimming. If you can, definitely take a dip in the baths. It's a fun experience when a large wave comes over the rocks... it almost feels like a giant wave pool. You can also swim inland towards a rocky channel to do some exploring. There are multiple pools all along the shoreline in the area, but only Queen's Bath is safe for swimming. The others I saw open directly into the sea and are very dangerous.
Just beyond the Princeville Shopping Center on the Kuhio Highway is a famous lookout over the taro fields and Hanalei Valley. There are other lookouts along the road as well. Hanalei itself is a quaint little town with plenty of good eats. One of my favorites is the Hanalei Taro & Juice Company lunch wagon, which serves up delicious kalua pork platters and refreshing taro-based smoothies. Their kalua pork sandwich is also very good. There are tons of restaurants and snacks shops to try in town, so take your time and enjoy!
Hanalei Valley Lookout
Kalua pork platter, taro mochi cake, and papaya taro smoothie
Kalua pork sandwich and mango taro smoothie
Hanalei Bay has a beautiful beach that is usually very quiet and uncrowded. The downside seems to be the weather. The few times I've gone have always been somewhat cloudy. Maybe the morning hours are better since that seems to be the general case along the North Shore. Even if you don't decide to hike the Kalalau Trail, it is worth a drive all the way to the end of the Kuhio Highway. The one-lane bridges, lush setting, and wonderful beaches (check out Ke'e Beach) are all things you shouldn't miss.
Heading back down the east side of the island, make sure to stop at a hole-in-the-wall joint called Duane's Ono Char-Burger. My local friends guaranteed this is the best burger place in Kauai, and I think I agree. Or perhaps I was just starving after returning from my hike. Either way, the Duane's Special was fantastic. Be aware that the wait for your meal tends to be long, even if there are few customers.
Duane's Ono Char-Burger
The towns of Kapa'a and Lihue on the east coast form the population center of the island. There, you can find the usual big chain stores, restaurants, and supermarkets. A number of inexpensive and moderately-priced resorts are also located in this area, but personally, I would avoid staying here if peace and quiet are what you are looking for. The roads between Kapa'a and Lihue are some of the most congested on the island, and it can definitely take away from the "paradise" atmosphere.
One of my favorite stretches of road in Kauai is where Maluhia Road breaks off from the Kaumuali'i Highway going south towards Poipu. Otherwise known as the Tree Tunnel, the thick canopy of Eucalyptus trees form a natural gateway to the South Shore. It's not usually safe to stop and take pictures here, but I pulled over to the side anyway and quickly grabbed a few photos when there were no cars around. Be very cautious if you attempt to do the same.
The large shopping center in Poipu mostly caters to tourists, but there are still some good places to eat there. I tried Tortilla Republic, which had delicious fish tacos, as well as Savage Shrimp, a former lunch truck establishment that did well enough to set up permanent shop. Savage Shrimp wasn't nearly as good as the famous original, Giovanni's Shrimp Truck in Oahu, but it wasn't bad either. Further up the Kaumuali'i Highway is a great breakfast/brunch place, the Kalaheo Cafe and Coffee Company. Their scrambles were delicious, and be sure to try their coconut cake as well.
On my last full day in Kauai, I did the drive up to Waimea Canyon, a requisite attraction for all visitors. If you don't go early enough, however, the canyon can get so foggy you won't be able to see anything. A few more miles up the road will take you to the Kalalau Lookout. On a clear day, I imagine the view to be stunning. But sadly, it was pouring rain when I arrived and visibility was non-existent as the entire valley was shrouded in a heavy layer of fog.
Waimea Canyon Road
The drive past Kekaha along the southwest coast of Kauai takes you past military installations and more barren lands. However, if you are adventurous enough (and don't mind breaking your rental car agreement), all the way at the end of the Kaumuali'i Highway is an unpaved road that leads to Polihale Beach. I wasn't confident enough in my compact car, so I didn't attempt the drive, but I've heard plenty about this beautiful and secluded locale. Hopefully I will be able to visit someday.
On my last morning, I took a short and easy drive on Lawai Road in Poipu to see the Spouting Horn, a natural blowhole. It was somewhat interesting and worth the quick drive, but definitely not a must-see. Before returning my car to the airport, I stopped at a great little stand called the Kalapaki Beach Hut in Lihue for some last minute local grinds. Their loco moco was scrumptious, and it was also the first time I've ever tried taro fries (not sure I liked the taste and texture).
Loco moco and taro fries
There are so many things to see and eat in Kauai that I barely even scratched the surface here, but hopefully I've touched upon some good ideas. Finally, for those who have never been to Kauai, I would highly recommend doing a boat or helicopter tour of the Na Pali Coast. That is definitely the highlight of Kauai, in my opinion.