Kauai is the oldest of the eight major Hawaiian Islands, with volcanic rock dating back more than 5 million years. But the island still displays all the beauty and vigor of youth. From lush rain forests and valleys to majestic mountains and long stretches of white sand, there's no question: Nature takes center stage here.
In fact, Kauai has more beaches per mile of coastline than any of the other islands. Only 3 percent of the island has been developed for commercial and residential use; the rest is agricultural and conservation lands. Two-thirds of Kauai's land area is impenetrable.
Kauai is notable for many other reasons. British Capt. James Cook and his crew first landed in Hawaii at Waimea, on Kauai's west coast, in 1778. When Kamehameha the Great embarked on his campaign to unite all the islands under one rule, Kauai clung to its independence. After Kamehameha failed twice to take the island by force, Kauai's king finally agreed to cede his island to the Hawaiian king. After Kamehameha died in 1819, his son, Liholiho, became king. He lured Kauai's king, Kaumualii, aboard his royal yacht and sailed to Oahu. There, Kaumualii was coerced into marrying Kaahumanu, Kamehameha's widow, further ensuring that Kauai would remain under Hawaiian rule.
Kauai is the only Hawaiian island with navigable rivers; it also has a breathtaking gorge that Mark Twain dubbed the "Grand Canyon of the Pacific" and 15 miles of sheer cliffs rising along an uninhabited coastline. Hollywood has been so taken with Kauai that the island been cast in more than 60 movies and TV productions.
To ensure that concrete will never conceal Kauai's beauty, officials passed a law stipulating that no buildings on the island can stand higher than a palm tree (three or four stories). So no matter when or where you are on Kauai, nature will always reign.
Cruise ships dock at Nawiliwili Harbor, on the southeast side of the island, not far from the airport.
Look out for roosters -- and their families. When Hurricane Iniki hit in 1992, coops were blown apart and many chickens were released into the wild. The chickens appear to be thriving on this freedom, and you will see them everywhere -- at the car rental parking lot, the beach, public parks, etc. They don't pose a serious threat, especially because you're unlikely to be overnighting in a hotel, listening to the roosters crow at many times other than sunrise. Watch out for them while driving or when leaving food out on your beach mat, though.
ATMs are located at the Anchor Cove and Harbor Mall shopping complexes near the harbor, but the closest full-service banks are 1.5 miles away in Lihue on Rice Street.
English is the official language, but try your hand at any Hawaiian phrases you pick up. Aloha means hello and goodbye, mahalo means "thank you," and aloha ahiahi means "good night." If you hear Aloha, e komo mai, don't panic. It means "Welcome!"
You can get all the typical Hawaiian souvenirs in Kauai: aloha shirts, chocolate-covered macadamia nuts, etc. For something a bit more local, stock up on Red Dirt Shirts (4350 Waialo Road, Eleele), dyed with real red dirt from Kauai and decorated with Hawaiian-inspired designs, and merchandise from Island Soap and Candle Works (in Kilauea, Princeville and Koloa), including handmade soaps, body lotions, bath gels, aromatic massage oils, beeswax candles and more in tropical scents. If you're looking for consumables, consider items from Kauai Kookie Kompany (factory store in Hanapepe) and Kauai Coffee Co. (tasting room and store at 870 Halewili Road, Kalaheo).
It's best to go with classic tropical drinks -- try a Lava Flow (a cross between a strawberry daiquiri and pina colada, made with light and coconut rum plus strawberries, bananas, pineapple juice and coconut cream) or a Blue Hawaii (a concoction of rum, curacao, pineapple juice and sweet and sour mix). Any fruity drink with mango or pineapple or other tropical fruits and flavors will get you in the island spirit.