If you’re in the midst of planning a trip to Kauai, Hawaii, you’re probably debating between staying on the Garden Island’s North or South Shores. Given the attitudes of most Kauai guidebooks, you’d think that the small island’s East Coast is just as inaccessible as the beautiful, rugged Na Pali Coast on Kauai’s west side.
But Kauai’s East Coast, particularly the Kapa’a area, is seriously underrated. There are so many must-do things in Kapa’a to add to your Kauai itinerary.
This area of Kauai offers lush jungle, towering palm trees, and some of the best restaurants on the island. Stop viewing Kapa’a as “that spot on Kauai with bad traffic” and get exploring!
A Quick Introduction to Kapa’a, Kauai
Kapa’a sits in the middle of Kauai’s Royal Coconut Coast. It’s said that the area’s signature palm trees are courtesy of an unlucky investor planted thousands of coconut trees along the coast, hoping to strike it rich, but not factoring in the decades it would take for the trees to reach maturity.
Located just 6 miles north of Lihue Airport, Kapa’a makes a convenient base for a Kauai vacation. Nearly 30% of the island’s population lives in the small area north of the Wailua River and east of Makaleha mountain range. You’ll find a high concentration of towns in this small geographical area of lush valleys and plentiful fresh water including Wailua, Wailua Homesteads, Waipouli, and Kapa’a. For the purposes of this post, we’re exploring things to do in this entire area.
While all of Hawaii caters to tourists, Kapa’a feels very different from Kauai’s other more tourist-centric destinations like Poipu. In Kapa’a, tourists need to merge into everyday life with the locals. Many downtown Kapa’a stores are designed with residents, not visitors’ souvenir shopping, in mind. If you need a supermarket, pharmacy, or hardware store while you’re on Kauai, you’ve come to the right spot!
With so many people calling the Kapa’a area home, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the East Coast is the epicenter of Kauai’s notoriously bad traffic. There’s stop and go traffic, especially in the southbound lane, almost all day long. You can avoid this (to a certain extent) by using the bypass road around Kapa’a. Just remember, there’s only one main road around the island and everyone’s trying to get somewhere. Practice patience and know you’ll get where you need to go in good time.
Why Visit Kapa’a, Kauai
In addition to those striking palm trees, the Kapa’a area offers vast sandy beaches, access to the thick Kauai jungle you known from Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park films, and numerous municipal paths and hikes, all with a dramatic mountain backdrop. You’ll also find the mouth of Wailua River here, which is one of the most sacred places in all of Hawaii.
A base in Kapa’a puts you in the perfect position to explore all corners of Kauai. You can be in Princeville on the North Shore in about 30 minutes. Meanwhile, the furthest reaches of the island – Waimea Canyon State Park – is only an hour’s drive away. But with so many things to do right around Kapa’a, you might find you never need to venture beyond this lush area during your entire Kauai stay.
13 Best Things To Do in and around Kapa’a Kauai
Hike the Kuilau Ridge Trail
This popular jungle hike is located about a 20-minute drive inland from Kapa’a. An easy wide trail takes you uphill through lush foliage on 3.5 mile round-trip out and back hike. You can make it into an 8-mile loop hike if you prefer, but the trail narrows considerably when you reach the small waterfall at the 1.7 mile mark. Just be sure to wear shoes you don’t mind getting covered in Kauai’s infamous red clay!
Visit Keahua Arboretum
After your time hiking the Kuilau Ridge Trail, the neighboring Keahua Arboretum is a great place for picnic among native Hawaiian plants and trees. A stream runs through the Arboretum and trails crisscross this rainforest oasis.
Kayak the Wailua River to Secret Falls
One activity you’ll see on almost every Kauai itinerary whether you’re staying in Kapa’a or elsewhere is to kayak up the Wailua River and hike to Secret Falls. At this point, this waterfall is anything but secret! To reach Secret Falls, you’ll kayak two miles up the river from its mouth, then hike approximately a mile to the waterfall. There are several kayak rental shops in Wailua and Kapa’a who will either drop off your kayaks at the river or help you strap it to the top of your car.
Smith Family Garden Luau
If you’re looking for a luau experience in the Kapa’a area, the Smith Family Garden Luau is considered one of the best luaus on Kauai. Located in a beautiful, lush garden park, the experience includes a feast loaded with traditional Hawaiian foods followed by a show. Just be sure to make reservations in advance for this popular luau if this is going to be an integral part of your Kauai visit.
Get hand pies at Passion Bakery Café
This small bakery located in Wailua is a great place to pick up a breakfast sandwich or plate lunch. If you’re looking for some baked goods to take on a hike, they are especially known for their hand pies. (Try the haupia!) On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, they make fresh malasada donuts.
Shop at the Coconut Marketplace /Thursday farmer’s market
This open-air market right off the Kuhio Highway in Wailua is a fun place to take care of all of your Hawaiian shopping needs. The market includes gift shops, restaurants, and the Island Country Market where you pick up souvenirs, groceries, alcohol, and other supplies.
On Tuesdays and Thursday mornings from 9 a.m. – 1 p.m., there’s a farmer’s market in the parking lot where you can stock up on produce like tropical fruit, avocados, and coconuts. Be sure to check out their calendar of events as they often offer hula and lei making classes as well as free hula shows.
Get breakfast at Java Kai
Be prepared for a line at this popular breakfast joint in downtown Kapa’a. Known for their smoothies, breakfast sandwiches, and, of course, coffee, this is the spot to grab breakfast and that required coconut latte in Kapa’a. Inside the café can get pretty cramped, but they also provide ample outdoor seating where you can enjoy your meal.
Hike on the Ke Ala Hele Makalae path
Whether you’re looking to bike, scooter, or walk, the Ke Ala Hele Makalae multi-use path is a gentle, wide beach path that’s a great way to get out and enjoy the Coconut Coast. The 8-mile path uses an old train grade and is divided into two sections. The first section runs from Lydgate Beach Park to Waipouli. The northern part starts in Waipouli Park and continues to Ahini Point.
A popular destination along the Ke Ala Hele Makalae Path is the old Pineapple Dump site. Here you’ll find a large concrete structure left behind from an old pineapple cannery. From Kealia Beach, it’s just over a mile walk to the old Pineapple Dump. There’s a nice Pacific Ocean lookout here, along with an informational plaque about the area’s agricultural history.
Hike Sleeping Giant
The Sleeping Giant (or Nounou Mountain) watches over Kapa’a. (Or at least the giant would if he hadn’t fallen asleep on the job after eating too much at a feast, according to local legend.) You can hike up this mountain via a rewarding, but difficult 3.2 round-trip, out and back hike. Like all Kauai hiking trails, the trail can be quite muddy and slippery. At the top, you’ll enjoy panoramic views of the island, including a view of Mount Waialeale which is said the be the wettest place on earth with more than 400 inches of annual rainfall!
This out and back hike along Kapa’a Stream takes you past a series of waterfalls on a 2.2 mile out and back hike. You’ll recognize the second set of falls from Jurassic Park. If you want to, you can take a refreshing swim in the cool water at the base of the waterfalls. Since the trailhead is accessed in a residential neighborhood, local residents ask that hikers wait until at least 8 a.m. to start the hike, take care to park appropriately, and keep their voices down when accessing the trail.
Catch the sunrise over Waipouli beach and visit Kukui Heiau
As you might expect, Kapa’a’s location on the island’s east coast means it’s not a great spot for sunsets. However, what it lacks in sunsets, it makes up for in sunrises. A beautiful spot to watch the sun rise out of the Pacific Ocean is Waipouli Beach. While there, you can stroll along the Ke Ala Hele Makalae Path and visit Kukui Heiau, a small temple used by early Hawaiians that’s now listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. Since this is a sacred spot, keep your visit brief and respect all the instructions on posted signs.
Where To Stay in Kapa’a
This small vacation rental in Wailua has two small cottages: the one-bedroom Hale Iki cottage and a larger two-bedroom house. These fully equipped rentals offer a large supply of beach gear and are just a one-minute walk from Waipouli Beach. Check current rates.
Waipouli Beach Resort
Another great lodging option in the Kapa’a area is Waipouli Beach Resort, which combines the best aspects of vacation rentals with resort amenities. The resort features suites equipped with full kitchens and multiple bedrooms and bathrooms. There’s a restaurant, pool, and spa on site. Check current rates.
Pono Kai Resort
Pono Kai Resort is another popular suite style resort in Kapa’a. The resort’s location right in downtown Kapa’a makes it easy to walk to shops and restaurants. You can also access Kapa’a Beach and hop on the Ke Ala Hele Makalae path. Check current rates.
Best Kapa’a Restaurants
Lava Lava Beach Club
While no restaurant can’t actually operate on a Kauai beach, you can get a sandy, beachy dining experience at Lava Lava Beach Club where the outdoor tables are set up on a sandy expanse with an ocean view. This fun, casual restaurant has a great selection of both Hawaiian American fare and is a great spot to enjoy a mai tai.
One of the best restaurants on Kauai is tucked in the Kauai Coast Resort. They’re especially known for their fresh fish specials. Be sure to make your reservations well in advance.
Sam’s Ocean View
This favorite Kapa’a restaurant lives up to its name with a fantastic, unobstructed view of the Pacific Ocean. The menu features small plates and inspired entrées and cocktails. If you’re struggling with jetlag, they have a great happy hour if you need an early dinner.
Conclusion: What to do in Kapa’a, Kauai
Kapa’a and the East Coast makes a fantastic base for your Kauai adventures. Instead of blowing through this area on your way to the North Shore, take time to really explore Kapa’a. You’ll find ample amenities, excellent restaurants, and rewarding hikes. It’s a wonderful place to merge into Hawaiian culture and live your best island life.