Where to go, what to do? There are just so many really great destinations, beaches, historical sites, hikes, beautiful little towns and other places on Kauai that visitors would love to see, that it’s pretty tough for us to recommend a short list of rides. So you really need to decide if it’s mainly the riding that you want, or a lot of stops along the way, or a good balance of both. Whatever you want to do, here is a suggested route that you can plan around.
How long do you need?
You can actually ride the island in one day, as long as you don’t spend much time on beaches and places of interest. But if you want to stop and see more points of interest, two days or more is a more relaxed way to do it. There are some pointers below, but we suggest you look up these places in a guide book or online and then decide what works for you.
Here’s our suggested route.
If you don’t take long at the stops this route can be done comfortably in a full day. For a real experience of the island, rather take at least a couple of days and enjoy the stops, but you should still start with the West side and still follow the same route, just use more of the Extra Stops and maybe add some guide book suggestions too.
We recommend heading first to the West side and to Waimea Canyon. It’s the best ride, plain and simple. That side of the island is dry and sunny most of the year. The road to the lookout at the canyon is made for motorcycles – you won’t want to miss that ride or the stunning views at Waimea Canyon. (We might say ‘stunning’ quite a lot…) You can stop along State Road 550 for lots of photo ops while climbing up to about 3,400 feet next to the deepest canyon in Hawaii.
On the way back, stop in at the Waimea Cottages, it’s a cool piece of island history and right on the highway, and then you can also visit JoJo’s Shave Ice (see the Link) on the main road in Waimea to get 50% off any shave ice order with your motorcycle rental receipt.
[Extra stops: If you want to take a little longer while you’re out that way, look into stopping at Kauai Kookie Factory and Salty Wahines and the old Swinging Bridge in Hanepepe, the Russian Fort, and the Menehune Ditch. ]
Then head on down the highway to Poipu and the Southside.
And not to confuse you, but when we talk about the ‘highway’ on Kauai it’s mostly just a two lane road that tries but does not succeed in going around the island.
From the west side, get to Poipu on the back road by turning right at Lawai. The turnoff to Lawai is not far past Kalaheo. At that turn off, there’s a large well known gift shop that sells black pearls, if that’s something you like.
Poipu is a popular tourist destination and so it is well developed. You will want to check out Spouting Horn there, and the beaches offer good sun and places to snorkel if you’re down for some down time.
From Poipu go out to little Koloa town, the original commercial center on Kauai and worth a stop, before heading out through Tree Tunnels back towards Lihue.
[Extra stops: There are some pretty amazing botanical gardens on the south side of the island. Look them up before you ride if that’s something you want to take time to see.]
[Extra stops: Kilohana Plantation just outside Lihue is worth seeing if you have time, you’ll see some history from the elegant plantation days. You’ll find the old Grove Farms near the Kukui Grove shopping mall, but they usually only have guided tours. You can get to see Wailua Falls by going through Lihue past Walmart and the Wilcox Hospital and taking the sign-posted left turn just outside town. ]
Or just head for the North Shore and the East side by going straight through Lihue or else past the airport.
Heading on towards Kapaa, a quick stop at Lydgate State Park is just off the highway on the beach.
Then as you get to the Wailua River, take a left to see Opaeka’a Falls. It’s a short ride off the beaten track.
[Extra Stops: Going on further on that same road, there is a nice ride and a chance to hike at the Keahua Forestry Aboretum. On the way back, a stop at the Kamokila Hawaiian Village will show a lot about the old traditional ways. Or, traveling a little further inland on side roads, you’ll find lots of twisty back roads and mountain roads to get lost in, typically with less traffic and amazing views of the mountains. But go slow.]
Traffic Bypass: There’s a bypass to get around Kapaa traffic just after Wailua if you’re in a hurry, but you should rather ride through Kapaa and see if you find places you would like to stop at along the way. Kapaa has lots of good restaurants and some nice coffee shops.
[Extra Stops: Kelia beach shortly after Kapaa is a popular locals’ beach, crowded on weekends, and it has a good walking path several miles long along the coast.]
Take this Back road: After Anahola, look out for the Moloa’a Fruit Stand. (It’s kind of in the middle of nowhere on the right hand side of the highway.) Just before the fruit stand you want to take a right onto the old main road that runs through Moloa’a, full of nice tight turns. If you can find a sign, it’s now called Koolau Road. It was once the only way to get to the north shore, maybe in those days they camped along the way. This great ride will dump you back onto the main highway a few miles before Kilauea. But note, some turns can be way tight, so take it easy.
[Extra Stops: Moloa’a Bay is a small but very beautiful bay, not a normal tourist destination, and it’s only a couple miles off the old road.]
By the time you get to Moloa’a you’ve already eased out of the East side and into the North side of Kauai.
The north shore of Kauai is full of natural beauty, and it’s really hard to do it justice with descriptions or suggested stops and beaches. So we’ll just hit a few highlights and you can browse the guide books for the rest. On the other hand, you should know that it’s that stunning green for a good reason – so check the weather before you go (sometimes they will even have it right) and take rain gear along if you can.
Your first North Shore stop is Kilauea. Kilauea is famous for its lighthouse, although we are also big fans of the local bakery in the Kong Lung Center. The Kilauea lighthouse is only a few miles off the highway, definitely a worthwhile side trip.
Kilauea is as far north as you can go on the island (check the map if you don’t believe us) and after that you are heading west again on the highway, towards Princeville and Hanalei and the Napali Coast. All of it beautiful.
[Extra Stops: Anini Beach is a big easy reef sheltered beach. The side trip to Anini and back is quick and easy. Then Queens Bath, accessible through Princeville, is a favorite stop with a bit of a hike, just don’t do it during the high surf winter months.]
Lookouts: On the way to Hanalei from Princeville, check out the lookout point on the mountain side at Princeville overlooking the taro fields, and the other lookout as you start the descent into Hanalei. Your first single-lane wooden bridge will be at the bottom of that hill – it’s one way, wait your turn.
Hanalai town is a good place to stop, even if only for a short while. Old time Hawaiian town, crammed with tourists some times of the year. And you can visit JoJo’s Shave Ice again here (see the Link) in the Ching Young Village to get 50% off any shave ice order with your motorcycle rental receipt. Score! Maybe you’re addicted by now.
Hanalei Bay is also a must stop – see the pier, a landmark. And if you have time to chill, it’s one of the friendliest bays in the world and a great place to learn to surf.
[Extra Stops: Visit the beautiful old Wailoli Historic church in Hanalei and the building right next to it – history right there. You’ll get to see it even if you’re just riding by.]
From Hanalei, head to Haena, windy roads, some tight turns, lots of beaches and mountain views. You can take the beach-side streets when you feel like it, and enjoy more of the unique single-lane wooden bridges.
[Extra Stops: There are too many to list, but a special mention is Tunnels Beach, if you have the time.]
End of the Road. We told you the highway did not make it all around the island, and this is where is stops, right at the famous Napali Coast and Ke’e beach. Definitely take some time to check out Ke’e beach, and take a 1 mile hike from the trail head to a lookout to get a really stunning view of the Napali coast. You’ll need sneakers or similar for that, but it’s not too strenuous.
[Extra Stops: Limahuli garden, the tour takes about 1. 5 hours, it shows the old time cultural gardens. And the Blue Room is a good side trip if you can stand freezing water – well, pretty cold anyway. Hanakapi’ai Trail: The trail along the Napali coast goes much further, and you can hike to a secluded beach – but not ok in winter – and then also up the valley to a way beautiful waterfall. Two hours to the beach and back, double that to include the waterfall. Kalalau Trail: Uh… no. This also starts there, but is 11 miles one way, so maybe leave it for now…. ]
By this time, if you’re on a one day trip, you’re more than ready to head back. Don’t wait, off you go back to Lihue, enjoy the ride!
NOTE: It’s true that there are no snakes on Kauai, not real ones anyway, but there are some two-legged varieties that will help themselves to your valuables – so take them with you at your stops!!