How to Travel Sustainably on Kauai, Hawaii’s Garden Isle

To travel sustainably on Kauai, keep it local.
Family on a beach in Kauai, Hawaii (Photo: Shutterstock)
Kauai, Hawaii (Photo: Shutterstock)

Golden beaches. Lapping waves. Pristine rainforests. If that sounds like your vision of paradise then it may be time to add Kauai to your family vacation ideas list. It’s the fourth largest of the Hawaiian islands at roughly 552 square miles, yet only three percent of it is developed for commercial and residential use. The rest is pure tropical bliss.

Where to Go on Kauai

Nicknamed the “Garden Isle,” Kauai is geographically divided into five major resort areas: North Shore, South Shore, West Coast, East Coast, and Lihue. Lihue, the island’s capital city, is the location of the airport and home to the popular tourist draws Kalapaki Beach and Wailua Falls. For many visitors, this is the starting point of any Kauai vacation.

A scenic 45-minute drive from the airport, the North Shore is where you’ll find Haena State Park, which includes the Kalalau Trail, Hanakapiai Falls, and Kee Beach. The South Shore is popular for Poipu Beach Park and Baby Beach, where families enjoy snorkeling and water sports. The West Coast features Waimea and its legendary canyon, historic Hanapepe Town, and Na Pali Coast tours. The East is home to shops, hotels, and the Ke Ala Hele Makalae (“The Path That Goes by Coast”), an idyllic multi-use trail known for its historic sites and coastal views.

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Sustainable Day Trips and Travel Experiences on Kauai

Na Pali Coast on Kauai (Photo: @sashapritchard via Twenty20)
Na Pali Coast on Kauai (Photo: @sashapritchard via Twenty20)

Traveling sustainably on Kauai means working with local providers, keeping the island clean, and visiting with a conservation mindset. Here are five sustainable ways to experience Kauai on your travels.

1. Beach Clean-Up with the Surfrider Foundation Kauai Chapter

The Surfrider Foundation is a non-profit environmental organization dedicated to the protection and enjoyment of the world’s oceans, waves, and beaches through conservation, activism, research, and education. The group encourages visitors to embrace actions and activities focused on “mālama ‘āina,” or caring for and nurturing the land and natural resources. 

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Through its Ocean Friendly Visitors Program, you can participate in sustainable travel activities on Kauai such as a one-hour beach clean-up where you can learn about micro-plastics and what to look for in protecting the shores.

2. National Tropical Botanical Garden Tours

The National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG) is dedicated to preserving tropical plant diversity and stemming the tide of extinction through plant exploration, propagation, habitat restoration, scientific research, and education. NTBG’s gardens and preserves are safe havens for at-risk species that otherwise might disappear forever. There are numerous tours offered daily that welcome guests of all ages. 

The new Allerton by Fire tour lets guests explore the Allerton Garden before enjoying dinner at the Allerton Estate House accompanied by live Polynesian dancing, music, and a fire knife performance. It’s the most intimate of NTBG’s tours and has limited capacity. Kids will be enthralled by the secrets of the gardens that are revealed during this picnic-style dinner in front of the live entertainment as the sun sets.

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Other sustainable travel experiences offered by NTBG include guided and unguided tours through McBryde Garden, where you can explore 50 acres of diverse plant collections and learn about native Hawaiian species. 

3. Tasting Kauai – Kilauea Food Tour 

Local fruits on Kauai (Photo: @the_bird_dodo via Twenty20)
Local fruits on Kauai (Photo: @the_bird_dodo via Twenty20)

In a light and easy tour from Tasting Kauai, you’ll get an excellent overview of the bountiful produce and proteins on the island. From poke bowls to taro burgers, you’ll sample local traditions that have become mainland favorites while also discovering new and unique ingredients, flavors, and presentations.

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The tour culminates with a trip to Kauai Farmacy. After a brief drive down a dirt road, guests arrive upon a vibrant farm and outside tasting room for teas and tinctures. The group has a private session with the onsite farmers and learns of the exotic and healing potions and teas. Stops along the way include Kauai Juice Company, Kilauea Fish Market, Kilauea Market and Cafe, Kilauea Bakery, and Kauai Farmacy. 

4. Makauwahi Cave Reserve

Hawaii’s largest limestone cave, the richest fossil site in the islands, and a uniquely preserved archaeological site, Makauwahi Cave Reserve is a living museum dedicated not just to the past but also to native species conservation.

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On abandoned farms and quarry lands surrounding the cave, native plants and animals have returned in response to innovative restoration techniques. Acres of restored forest land, dune vegetation, and wetland habitat feature almost 100 species of native plants, including many endangered species, as well as endangered water birds and even an underground ecosystem of blind cave invertebrates. 

This is an expansive conservation effort with many different facets to the mission. When visiting Kauai, you can arrange for a tour, see the tortoises that now call the reserve home, and the visit beehives, orchards, and more.

5. Ke Ala Hele Makalae Bike Path 

The Ke Ala Hele Makalae Bike Path along Kauai’s scenic Royal Coconut Coast (a.k.a. the East Coast) is a paved trail perfect for walking, jogging, and bike riding. Ke Ala Hele Makalae is a convenient trail that covers eight miles in two segments. 

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Whether you take the stretch from Lydgate Beach Park to Wailua Beach Park or start in Kapaa and head to Ahihi Point, there are plenty of opportunities to stop and enjoy panoramic ocean views. Get an early start and catch the sunrise. Or spend a sunny afternoon strolling by Kauai’s many beautiful eastside beaches. You can rent bicycles in Kapaa Town where stores are next to the trail. 

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Julie Bielenberg
Julie Bielenberg is an award-winning journalist and photographer based in Colorado. She is a national leader in agritourism and publishes more than 50 editorial assignments annually for over a dozen outlets.