Just 30 minutes from the Lihue airport, Poipu might be the easiest vacation destination on Kauai. It’s also one of the most enjoyable. Square in the middle of perfect beaches and steep green peaks, this resort town serves as an ideal springboard for exploring the island's South Shore.
The best place to dive in to the area’s scenic highlights is Poipu Beach Park: two half moons of sand backed by a grassy expanse that’s popular with picnickers, families, and beachcombers. Black lava-rock breakwaters protect the shore, and the shallow waters and extensive submerged reefs offer an ideal first foray for snorkelers. Sea turtles and tropical fish are undeterred by swimmers, who can expect to spot polka-dot puffer fish and beaky-mouthed parrot fish skritch-scratching the coral as well as slender, silvery needlefish schooling close to the surface. To make it easy, Nukumoi Surf Company right across the street rents gear by the day or week.
Sun and sand are only part of Poipu’s charm. Roadsides teem with palm fronds, climbing vines, and delicate ferns, and the National Tropical Botanical Garden’s Allerton Garden gives tours of its alternately lush and manicured grounds. Knowledgeable guides point out elephant’s ear plant, the bulbous blooms of the Dutchman’s pipe, and the pink floral sprays and heart-shaped leaves of the chain-of-love.
For a deeper look at the island’s rugged interior, Outfitters Kauai leads tours nearby on the 4,200-acre Kipu Ranch. Adventures range from a tandem paddle down the Hule’ia River, a laid-back float, to the Nui Nui Loa Zipline Trek, which sails over canopied canyons to a freshwater swimming hole. Chatty, experienced guides escort the tour van and navigate suspension footbridges with ease while dispensing valuable local tips.
Another inland highlight, the restored strip of tin-roofed structures known as Old Koloa Town, is a nod to the island’s sugar-producing past. In the shade of 80-year-old monkeypod trees, family-run restaurants serve simple, delicious food. Sushi lovers should follow a steady stream of locals through the screen door at Koloa Fish Market (808-742-6199), where daily poke specials might include ruby-red ahi tossed with island avocado and soy or creamy wasabi and tiny green roe, then served with chile, sesame, and scallions. A few doors down, wood floors, soaring ceilings, and black-and-white photos of the owners’ Roman relatives welcome diners to La Spezia, which boasts the south shore’s most affordable wine list, anchored by Italian varietals that pair well with the spicy spaghetti arrabbiata and the hanger steak over polenta.
Above, between, and around its postcard-perfect beaches, the south shore also has its fair share of world-class views and hikes. Every foray is best begun with a picnic run at Living Foods Gourmet Market and Café. More than 30 Kauai farmers deliver produce, meat, and cheeses here, some of which are incorporated into a dazzling array of take-away dishes such as beet and goat cheese salad, and curried chicken with pineapple and raisins. Provisions acquired, you can opt to drive along the rim of Waimea Canyon, an hour northwest and arguably the island’s most famous landmark. Halfway up, a well-marked viewpoint reveals the rust-colored gorge. The park’s uppermost lookout offers stunning views of Kauai’s signature green, fluted peaks descending to the ocean. The Pihea Trail, two miles round-trip, begins here, leading to repeated panoramic glimpses of the hard-to-access Na Pali coast.
Back on the south shore, the Maha’ulepu Trail, a moderate two-mile hike, climbs limestone cliffs for views of crashing waves and rocky tide pools, then descends to the postcard-perfect sweep of white sand known as Maha’ulepu Beach. Poolside cabanas and umbrella drinks may be a stroll away, but a beach blanket and some sliced papaya make it easy to spend a day right here.