First thing's first: Kauai, Hawaii’s lesser-known “Garden Island”, ain’t Honolulu, and it's definitely not some lounge-by-the-pool-with-an-umbrella-drink Caribbean resort. No offense to Caribbean resorts. Kauai is the place to go if you like your slice of paradise served with a healthy dose of well-earned cuts and bruises, and a sore muscle or two. It’s an amazing, exotic place that's definitely worth the visit, but if you're going to attempt it -- you should do it right. And this is how.
Take off: If you live on the East coast, flying to Hawaii is a hike and a half. Like, a 13-hour hike. Best bring extra batteries for your Walkman. Or smarter yet, download the last two seasons of
2 Broke Girls Game of Thrones on your iPad. As a season for most HBO dramas includes 13 hour-long eps, one'll get you there, the other back. Coincidence? Actually, probably, yes. Let's not over-think this one.
Touchdown: Flying direct to Lihue Airport (LIH). Once on the ground, grab your rental car and hit the road -- there’s only one, and it heads north to Princeville. En route, be sure to stop at the Pono Market in Kapa’a (it’ll be on your right) and politely ask the man behind the counter for some poke (pronounced “po-kay”). It's lightly seasoned raw fish, and is the most local thing you can eat here. Also, it's delicious.
Check in: The best place to stay on the island is The St. Regis in Princeville. While it isn't cheap -- and, quite frankly, probably fancier than you need -- it remains the overall unanimous choice as Kauai's best digs, and sunsets from the balcony are truly awe-inspiring.
Grip it and zip it: One of the coolest things to do in Kauai is to go zip-lining. JK! You didn’t fly halfway across the world to go zip-lining. Wait, did you?
Rock the boat: With lush, jagged cliffs shooting thousands of feet up and out of the Pacific Ocean, Kauai’s Na Pali Coast is a national treasure. Charter boat tours (like North Shore Charters) are your best move for exploring it, as they'll take you snorkeling, drive inside the sea caves, show you the Queen’s Bath (a "pool" carved into a lava shelf), and even point out where they filmed scenes from Jurassic Park. Dolphin and whale sightings are also common along the Na Pali.
Get in the chopper: Helicopter tours in Kauai are all the rage, as a large portion of the island’s stunning scenery is virtually inaccessible by other means of transportation. They aren't cheap -- ranging between $289 and $364pp -- but the views're spectacular. Also, how do you tell if a helicopter pilot is good at his job? He’s still alive. Ba-dum tshh! Don't forget to tip your server.
Take a hike: At the end of the road (yes, the same road -- it's the only one!), you’ll see a trailhead for both the Kalalau and Hanakapi’ai Trails. The Kalalau is 11mi and for seasoned hikers; the Hanakapi’ai, however, is more leisurely, and leads to a secluded beach (2mi) and a waterfall so awesome it looks fake (4mi). Plus, the beach boasts the above-pictured sign.
Paddle in: With your boots still laced, grab a paddle and kayak up the Wailua River on the island’s east side. Along the way, you'll pass a number of sites and ruins that were sacred to ancient Hawaiian royalty. A short hike from the river is Wailua Falls where, if you're nice to your guide, he or she might let you leap off the cliff; it's about 25ft above the river.
Make the leap: If the Wailua River cliff jumping is too tame, try Shipwrecks Beach in Poipu; its ledge stands about 50ft above the ocean’s surface. Don’t be scurred though, both Harrison Ford and Anne Heche did it in that hilarious romantic comedy 6 Days, 7 Nights. And if they can do it… wait, you saw that movie, right? No? Just us?
Paddle out: Whether you totally rip or are a complete beginner, you're in Hawaii -- why not give surfing a shot? Typically the South side of the island is gnarlier in the Summer, while the north side catches waves in the Winter. Local surf shops rent boards and provide lessons, but remember: no matter what level you are, if in doubt, don’t go out.
Drink up: For the diviest, most authentic drinking experience in Kauai, hit up Tahiti Nui in Hanalei. They pour cheap, cold beers, dangerously delicious mai tais, and best of all, play live local music nearly every night. Fair warning, though -- someone will inevitably try to get you to do the hula. Just keep drinking the mai tais. IMPORTANT NOTE TO FOOTBALL FANS: Because of the time difference, NFL games start here at 7a. Talk about getting the day started right; most bars are open, and nobody’s gonna give you the stink eye for cracking a beer at sun up.
Chow down: Hanalei also has one of Hawaii's best small-town food scenes, particularly if you like seafood. Bar Acuda is the swankiest place in town, and by that we mean you should probably wear a shirt and shoes. Try the local honeycomb with goat cheese and apples; it's delicious. At the Dolphin restaurant, pull up a stool at the bar and order -- after the poke, of course -- the giant squid calamari; it’s a buttery piece of fried calamari the size of a chicken cutlet (!!). Hanalei Gourmet is a funky little joint with a packed bar and live tunes. If they have the opah, a local relative of the sunfish, don’t think twice -- just order it. And finally, one last culinary gem in Kapa’a is the Olympic Café. From the outside it looks like a fratty little beach bar, but their fish tacos might just be the best in Hawaii.