Miles Away: Exploring Kauai, Hawaii’s ‘Garden Isle’
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This week on Miles Away, TPG‘s credit cards editor Sarah Silbert transports listeners to one of the most beautiful destinations in the world, the Hawaiian island of Kauai.
Although the former St. Regis Princeville has left Marriott, rewards hopefuls still have a handful of redemption options throughout the island, including The Westin Princeville in the north, the Kauai Marriott near Lihue Airport (LIH) and Koloa Landing in Poipu. All three locations offer loads of opportunities to explore the island’s revered surfing spots, hiking trails and endless opportunities to get up close and personal with Hawaii’s magnificent Garden Isle.
So, who should book a trip to Kauai? As Sarah explains:
“I’d say Kauai is for those who want to get a little bit off the beaten path to very off the beaten path. It’s definitely not as touristy as Oahu or Maui, so there’s more of an emphasis on nature. It’s the Garden Isle, so you’re kind of getting away from it all, and the nature there is absolutely drop-dead gorgeous.”
You can play this episode of Miles Away above, or listen and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, including:
Zach Honig: Welcome to today’s episode of Miles Away. We are talking about one of my favorite destinations and my favorite Hawaiian island for sure. It’s the island of Kauai. Our resident Kauai expert, Sarah Silbert, also our credit cards editor, is here to join us today. Welcome, Sarah.
Sarah Silbert: Hey, thanks for having me. I have to say, I think it’s a pretty heavily stacked team of Kauai experts here at The Points Guy. We all love that island, I think it’s our favorite.
Zach Honig: Absolutely. I would say Maui is my runner up. You know, I’ve been to Maui just once, but I keep going back to Kauai. How many times have you been?
Sarah Silbert: Six or seven, I think.
Zach Honig: OK, so you are definitely our foremost expert, I would say.
Sarah Silbert: Yeah, or I don’t know. Darren Murph may have me beat there, but yeah.
Zach Honig: Darren’s been everywhere.
Sarah Silbert: Darren’s been everywhere seven times.
Zach Honig: Seven times for sure. So I’m looking forward to my fourth trip. I actually just got back from my third.
Sarah Silbert: Oh, you already have another one booked?
Zach Honig: No, no, no. I know I’m going to go back, and that will be my fourth trip.
Sarah Silbert: OK, got you.
Zach Honig: It’s going to be within the next year, I’ve decided, because I’m going to Kauai every year.
Sarah Silbert: Kauai, good pronunciation. We were talking offline about the correct pronunciation of Kauai.
Zach Honig: I’m never going to get it wrong again.
Sarah Silbert: Yeah, you’ve been schooled.
Zach Honig: Now, my favorite part of Kauai is Princeville. Am I pronouncing that correctly?
Sarah Silbert: Princeville, yes. Princeville.
Zach Honig: Princeville, just as it reads. Kauai is really kind of divided up between the north and the south, I guess. So there’s Princeville up top, and then Poipu. Am I pronouncing that right?
Sarah Silbert: I will not extend my expertise to that level, but yes. I think it is Poipu, yes.
Zach Honig: And Poipu is in the south. So there’s more resorts in the south, so a lot of people that are going and using points and miles, which we’ll get into a little bit later, are probably heading down to the south part of the island. Is that right?
Sarah Silbert: Right. There are more points properties there, for sure. It’s also more of a kind of family-friendly feel. I would say that Princeville’s more … it’s higher end. There are more golf courses. So yeah, there’s definitely like a more exclusive vibe on the north side.
Zach Honig: Who is Kauai for, I guess? You know we talked about the north side is definitely higher end. I’ve been there a few times, I’ve seen a few families, but nothing compared to Poipu. So, break Kauai down for us, if you wouldn’t mind.
Sarah Silbert: I’d say Kauai is for those who want to get a little bit off the beaten path to very off the beaten path. It’s definitely not as touristy as Oahu or Maui, so there’s more of an emphasis on nature. It’s the Garden Isle, so you’re kind of getting away from it all, and the nature there is absolutely drop-dead gorgeous.
Sarah Silbert: So you have the Napali Coast, you have tons of hiking, water sport activities.
Zach Honig: It might be the Napali Coast.
Sarah Silbert: Napali Coast. Damn.
Zach Honig: Although maybe they’ll have an Italian restaurant on the way to the Napali Coast.
Sarah Silbert: Yeah, maybe I didn’t actually go to Kauai. Maybe I went to like, a fake Italian version.
Zach Honig: Right. Interesting you should mention the Napali Coast. It’s been closed for the last … or the majority of it’s been closed for the last year, almost, after some record flooding that they had in Kauai. So you actually can’t really get past the town of Hanalei. And so when I was up there, I stayed actually at a friend’s house, which was just a bit past Princeville at the end of Hanalei, and that was the end of the road so
Zach Honig: You know a lot of people go to Kauai to hike, and that was my plan because I didn’t do as much research as I should have. I didn’t realize that some of the best hiking trails were actually kind of off limits for right now. But we stayed at the end of the road, and I just love the north part of the island. Even without having that opportunity to hike the Napali Coast, there’s still just a lot to do up there.
Sarah Silbert: Right. Hanalei Bay is beautiful.
Zach Honig: My friends and I, I actually watch, because I’m not very good when it comes to maintaining my balance. But they learned to surf on the north coast of the island.
Sarah Silbert: I would love to do that. I did that in Maui when I went, but I’ve never done that … actually, I did do it in Kauai when I was very young. It’s so fun. I think everyone, no matter where you go in Hawaii, you should absolutely take a surfing lesson.
Zach Honig: But one of the things I really love about Kauai is that you can do so much in one day. So you can start with a hike in the mountains and not even see the coast. I mean, you can if you want, if you hike high enough. Then in the afternoon, do a surfing lesson, and then have some amazing seafood and go golfing and watch the sunset. It’s such a diverse island.
Sarah Silbert: And the sunsets there are amazing, especially in Princeville, I would say. I mean, I’ve seen great sunsets everywhere I’ve stayed. My family had a timeshare in Poipu, so I’ve stayed there more often than the north shore. But I just remember the St. Regis is no longer a part of the Marriott program.
Zach Honig: I know. I’m so bummed out.
Sarah Silbert: I know. It really, really is a bummer because it’s just such a beautiful property, and the restaurant there has just an amazing lookout over the north shore and amazing sunsets.
Zach Honig: I actually, so I went to the St. Regis. It’s now called the Princeville Resort.
Sarah Silbert: I saw that, yeah.
Zach Honig: It is not affiliated with any hotel chain anymore, unfortunately. And it really seems to have gone downhill.
Sarah Silbert: Really?
Zach Honig: Even in the few months since they left Marriott.
Zach Honig: So we’ll talk a little bit more about hotels and flight options, as well. They have changed a little bit and there aren’t as many options as you’ll find on Oahu. Obviously if you’re going and you want a lot of, I guess, diversity when it comes to redemption options and things like that, the other islands may have you better covered.
Sarah Silbert: Definitely.
Zach Honig: Kauai is kind of more of an off the beaten path, I would say, Hawaiian island.
Sarah Silbert: Yes. Not to say that you don’t have options, I’d just say that most of your options are not going to be in Princeville.
Zach Honig: Yeah. So walk me through Poipu versus Princeville. Who would you recommend each section of the island for?
Sarah Silbert: I would say there are a few things to consider. Poipu is definitely more accessible. It’s closer to Lihue Airport and it’s more family friendly. The beaches there are honestly great. Poipu has several monk seals that are kind of permanent residents there.
Zach Honig: I remember seeing that.
Sarah Silbert: They’ll just be on the sand, and they’re kind of roped off so you don’t get too close to them, as you shouldn’t. I did a little research before this, and apparently there’s like 40 monk seals left on the island total.
Zach Honig: Wow, really.
Sarah Silbert: So pretty, pretty small numbers.
Zach Honig: OK. And there’s some turtles, as well, I think, right?
Sarah Silbert: Yes. I was going to mention this when we were talking about the Napali Coast, but my family did an amazing snorkeling boat tour. I remember swimming with sea turtles, right by them. It was amazing.
Zach Honig: There’s some pretty incredible scenery. One very interesting thing, if you look at a map of Kauai, it looks almost like you can drive all the way around the island, but you cannot.
Sarah Silbert: Right. There’s a lot that’s not accessible by car, exactly.
Zach Honig: No. And it’s just a short stretch, it’s just a few miles that you just … it’s completely inaccessible. So it can take quite a bit of time to get from one side of the island to the other. And you need a car, would you recommend?
Sarah Silbert: Yes, I would say you want a car, because even if you do stay in Poipu, where there’s more that’s immediately walkable from most of the hotels, you’ll want to get outside of that area and explore and see some nature.
Zach Honig: This is not necessarily the destination to go if you just plan to sit on the beach the whole time, especially if you’re coming from the East Coast. I would say that if you’re going to, the Caribbean is quite a bit closer than going all the way to Hawaii.
Sarah Silbert: Absolutely.
Zach Honig: I think if you don’t want the diversity when it comes to the variety of activities that you can do, that you’re going to have a beach experience in the Caribbean or in Mexico. If you want to really get out and do a lot on your five-day trip to Hawaii, then Kauai might make more sense for that.
Sarah Silbert: Yeah, I agree with that. Even if you’re coming from the West Coast and don’t think you want to be as active, I would say somewhere like Maui or Oahu would be a better choice.
Zach Honig: Um-hum. (affirmative). What about the food? What’s the food like in Kauai? I know that you’re a vegetarian, so I might be opening this up for me to come in, perhaps.
Sarah Silbert: Yeah. I mean, I can’t really comment to the seafood, but I remember going to an amazing, extremely local place in Poipu one of my first trips. It was the first time I’d ever had vegetable tempura, so it was very heavily Japanese-influenced food and I just became obsessed with Japanese food and tempura after that so …
Sarah Silbert: Actually, one of my favorite places to eat there in Poipu is called Puka Dog, which is just a little hot dog stand, and they have veggie dogs. Something about them, I don’t know if it’s just the novelty, but they’re really, really good. So that’s that’s honestly my favorite place.
Zach Honig: Shave ice is obviously a huge thing there.
Sarah Silbert: Shave ice, which is delicious.
Zach Honig: It’s not shaved ice.
Sarah Silbert: No, it isn’t. They call it shave ice.
Zach Honig: Since we’re talking about pronunciation on this podcast.
Sarah Silbert: Yeah, so let’s be correct … Yes, it’s shave ice.
Zach Honig: So how would you describe shave ice to someone who’s never had it before?
Sarah Silbert: Shave ice is extremely flavorful. It’s like dripping in syrup and they usually have like 30 different options of flavors wherever you go. And they get very fancy with it too, where you’ll see ice cream underneath, lots of different …
Zach Honig: Oh, the macadamia nut ice cream.
Sarah Silbert: Oh really? I’ve never had that.
Zach Honig: Oh my gosh. Get that as your base and then put condensed milk on the top.
Sarah Silbert: Oh yes, there’s that too, condensed milk. I just like it the plain way, you know, no ice cream, no condensed milk, but you can get very fancy with it.
Zach Honig: And that’s something that you’ll find throughout Hawaii.
Sarah Silbert: Yeah, that’s not specific to Kauai.
Zach Honig: Would you recommend that for a first trip to Hawaii, is Kauai somewhere that you should go, or is it better for subsequent trips?
Sarah Silbert: I’d say, if you know what you’re getting going into it it’s absolutely worth it. I think a lot of people want to go to Oahu first and, you know, see Pearl Harbor, do some of the more historical, typical touristy things. And I’d say if you do that and you can build in a side trip, the islands are all so close to each other, so if you could hop over, I think it’s absolutely worth it.
Zach Honig: Yeah. And you don’t need to go to Honolulu to connect. Hawaiian does actually have some flights between Kauai and some of the other islands. I know Maui for sure. So it could make sense, if you’re going for a couple weeks … Especially, we live on the East Coast. Obviously if you’re going out to Hawaii, it’s a commitment.
Sarah Silbert: Right. You want to spend a good amount of time if you’re traveling all that way.
Zach Honig: So you could very easily add Oahu to Kauai, as well, or you could do Kauai and Maui, you could do Maui and Oahu, which we’ll save for another episode. But you have a lot of options.
Sarah Silbert: I would love to go to Lanai or one of the smaller islands. Darren, our coworker, has been talking about that all the time and he raves about it. Even more off the beaten path than Kauai.
Zach Honig: Is that Larry Ellison’s island?
Sarah Silbert: Is it?
Zach Honig: Yeah, I think so.
Sarah Silbert: It may …
Zach Honig: There’s a Four Seasons. It’s pretty limited when it comes to the points options, but if you’re ready to splurge, that is definitely something to consider.
Zach Honig: Speaking of points opportunities, we’re going to dig right into the flights and hotels right after the break.
Zach Honig: So Sarah, if you don’t want to venture too far away from the airport, say you don’t have a rental car. What are your hotel options? Can you use points to stay there?
Sarah Silbert: Yeah, so there is one main option near the airport and that is the Kauai Marriott Resort, which is actually the first hotel that I ever stayed at in Kauai years ago. That is part of the Marriott Bonvoy program, as you can tell from the name. It’s a Category 6 property, and that costs 40,000 points per night, I think.
Zach Honig: OK, which is not terrible for Hawaii.
Sarah Silbert: Not terrible. I would say it’s very much a family property. It has a huge pool, like insanely big, and it has like I think five hot tubs, and they each have like Roman columns around them. It’s it’s quite impressive.
Zach Honig: That is very different than the Kauai experience I’ve had.
Sarah Silbert: Yeah, it’s very much not Princeville, I would say. But yeah, it’s not the most impressive beach either, but I would say, you know, if you’re going with your kids, your young kids, you want a fun pool, you want several restaurant options, and you’re close to the airport.
Zach Honig: Right in the area. Got it.
Zach Honig: Now let’s head down south a little bit, just because the resorts in Poipu are a little bit closer to the airport than Princeville.
Sarah Silbert: Right. Yeah so you have several options there. I actually really want to see this first one, the Grand Hyatt. I’ve never been there. My parents rave about the bar area, apparently has a beautiful view. That’s a Category 6 Hyatt property, so that’s 25,000 points per night. So actually, with a Hyatt card, which is offering up to 50,000 points right now for a sign-up bonus, you could get two nights there.
Zach Honig: OK.
Sarah Silbert: Yeah, so that’s good to know.
Zach Honig: Not bad for West Coast travelers, perhaps, for a bit of a weekend getaway.
Sarah Silbert: Yeah, or if you wanted to kind of vary it up, maybe stay a few nights on the south side, and then go up to Princeville for a few other nights.
Sarah Silbert: There’s also the Koloa Landing Resort, which is part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection. That’s 50,000 points per night. And our colleague Jessica Puckett, our news editor, stayed there recently and she really liked it. She thought it was pretty luxe, yeah. She didn’t have too many bad things to say about that, so that’s a good choice for sure on the Poipu side of things.
Sarah Silbert: And then if you want you know another kind of family-friendly, moderately-priced points option, there’s a Sheraton, and that’s 35,000 points per night.
Zach Honig: OK. Can you pair a Poipu stay, vacation with Princeville? Is that something you’d recommend, or would you choose one over the other?
Sarah Silbert: I’ve never paired the two. I do think that could be fun if you’re staying for a long time.
Zach Honig: Yeah, because you don’t really want to drive all the way to Hanalei for a day, necessarily. To get from Poipu to Hanalei and back, it’s got to be at least three hours, I imagine. Right?
Sarah Silbert: Something like that. Yeah, it’s a long drive. Even from the airport, it’s over an hour for sure to get to Princeville. So yeah, I think if you’re willing, you should absolutely rent a car if you’re going farther than the Marriott near the airport. In which case, if you’re flexible, yeah. I think that’d be a nice way to mix it up.
Zach Honig: The hotels in Poipu are a little bit more affordable, both from a cash and a points perspective than the options that you have up north.
Sarah Silbert: Absolutely.
Zach Honig: But I do personally prefer going to Princeville. I mean, Poipu is lovely for sure, but it’s a very different experience than you’re going to get up on the north side.
Sarah Silbert: Yeah. I think I need to see Princeville more, because I stayed at the St. Regis Princeville when it was indeed part of SBG, and I didn’t love the beach. But there’s obviously Hanalei Bay there.
Zach Honig: It’s a pretty small beach. One really funny thing that I … I don’t know. I always forget until I get to Kauai, but there are chickens all over the place.
Sarah Silbert: I absolutely love that. They’re just running everywhere. It’s the cutest thing. I just love it.
Zach Honig: Including on the beach at the former St. Regis. You’ll see like 30 chickens just running around, and they do not leave you alone. They’ll come right up to you. If you’re sleeping and you have a french fry anywhere near you, they’ll dig around. They’ll poke around.
Sarah Silbert: I’m guessing this happened to you.
Zach Honig: I witnessed it.
Zach Honig: So, so (laugh) as we mentioned, the St. Regis has left Marriott and is now the Princeville Resort and I actually prompted readers to ask some questions on Instagram. One of the questions that came up a couple times, including once from Mark, is “Now that the St. Regis has left the Marriott brand, the Marriott portfolio, what are the top hotel recommendations in Princeville?”
Zach Honig: And there really is only one other Marriott option up there. It’s the Westin.
Sarah Silbert: Yeah, and really one main points option, as well. So yeah, it is the Westin, and that’s 60,000 points per night. That’s another one that our colleague Jessica Puckett recently visited, and she thought it was a really nice property. It had a few quirks, like they had a DVD library, which seems a little misfitting in this day and age.
Zach Honig: As long as they had Wi-Fi, as well, I think that I’ll take the DVD library, perhaps.
Sarah Silbert: OK. OK. Fair enough. Nitpicking here. But they also didn’t have direct beach access, which is something you’ll absolutely want to consider, because I think that is one of the main differences between Poipu and Princeville, is that there’s more of a golf club kind of feel and kind of layout to the properties on the north side.
Zach Honig: Yeah, it’s interesting. So in Princeville, there’s a huge golf course in the middle of the Princeville area and so Princeville is actually kind of like a gated community. There’s no gate, but it is completely privately owned, and it goes really deep in. So you can drive at least three miles into Princeville. So when you’re in the Princeville complex, it’s all private. It’s a mix of condos and golf courses and private beaches and hotels.
Zach Honig: It’s pretty self-contained. The only thing they don’t really have is restaurants outside of the resorts. So if you’re staying up there, you need to go and drive. It’s kind of a steep roundabout drive down to the town of Hanalei, but that is really your only dining option outside of the fairly expensive hotels.
Sarah Silbert: Yeah. Hanalei’s cute. It’s definitely worth the drive. It’s pretty scenic too, the drive, even though it is a little treacherous.
Zach Honig: That’s where you’ll find the better beach, I think, is over in Hanalei.
Sarah Silbert: Yeah. Yeah.
Zach Honig: There’s also a Wyndham up in Princeville, as well. So if you’re looking for a slightly more affordable option, that is definitely something to consider.
Zach Honig: One thing I want to mention too is that the Westin that they have in Princeville, I think it’s called the Westin Ocean Villas, and it is actually a timeshare property. So you can use points to stay there, but timeshare members also, that’s one of their go-to resorts. That presents an opportunity for someone who doesn’t have a timeshare to sign up to do a presentation. So you can actually reach out to the hotel. I think they even have a dedicated website for this, but you can get, I think it’s a three night, either three- or five-night stay at a significant discount if you are willing to go to a timeshare presentation.
Sarah Silbert: So are they all villas there, or no?
Zach Honig: They do have some standard guest rooms, but there are a lot of larger rooms as well.
Sarah Silbert: That’s good for families.
Zach Honig: Yeah, yeah. And actually, when you do the timeshare presentation, I think you have a couple different options to choose from. You can get a one-bedroom suite and they do, I believe, have two-bedroom suites. Definitely something to keep in mind and worth exploring a little bit if you want to experience Princeville at a bit of a discount.
Sarah Silbert: One thing that comes to mind when talking about Princeville too, based on my family’s experience, my aunt and uncle wanted to rent an Airbnb there, and I think they did. But they noticed that pretty much all of the options they saw didn’t have air conditioning, so that’s really something to keep in mind. I personally – it’s so humid in Kauai – that I don’t think I could go without AC.
Zach Honig: The one real downside, aside from the AC, to an Airbnb is that you’re not going to have the same views that you might get from a hotel.
Sarah Silbert: That is true.
Zach Honig: So if you want an incredible ocean view, you know you might actually end up being a few blocks back from the ocean, because it’s pretty residential over there.
Sarah Silbert: Yeah.
Zach Honig: I just want to finish off talking about flights, because they’re pretty limited I guess, your options when it comes to flying into Kauai. Especially compared to Oahu, where there are flights all around the world.
Zach Honig: It’s all from the US. There are no international flights into Kauai. I don’t even think they have an immigration facility there.
Sarah Silbert: No, I don’t think so.
Zach Honig: So a lot of connecting traffic from Oahu. Anyone flying from Australia or Asia is going to come in through Oahu and then hop a connecting flight on Hawaiian. If you want to fly nonstop from the mainland, your options are limited to the West Coast primarily.
Sarah Silbert: I’ve flown nonstop from San Diego on Alaskan to Kauai, and that was pretty nice.
Zach Honig: Actually, on my return I connected in Denver, so they do fly as far east as Denver.
Sarah Silbert: Oh, wow, I didn’t even realize that, that’s cool.
Zach Honig: Yeah, United actually has a nice 757 flight. It’s the international 757 so you get lie-flat beds, assuming your upgrade clears, but it is upgrade eligible, which is pretty nice.
Zach Honig: Interestingly with Kauai I’ve noticed, at least on my flight and the flights that my friends were on, there weren’t very many elites on those flights at all.
Sarah Silbert: It’s a leisure route.
Zach Honig: It is definitely a leisure route. So assuming the cabin is not completely sold out, you actually have a pretty decent shot at an upgrade.
Sarah Silbert: Yeah, and it’s great if it’s a nice lie-flat product like that.
Zach Honig: Yeah. The one downside of course is that flights can be pretty expensive. It can be a little bit pricier to get to Kauai than it can to Oahu. Sometimes we’ll see $279 round-trip fares from the West Coast to Hawaii, but those are usually to Oahu. So price out your options, I would start on Google Flights and see what the nonstops are. But you might be better off booking a flight to Oahu, maybe spending a day or two there, and then booking a separate Hawaiian flight over to Kauai.
Sarah Silbert: How much are the island hoppers, usually?
Zach Honig: It’s a little bit over, I think maybe $120 round-trip.
Sarah Silbert: That’s not bad.
Zach Honig: It’s not bad, but then when you consider that it’s like a 20-something-minute flight.
Sarah Silbert: But you get POG juice.
Zach Honig: Yeah, you get this tiny little thing with like three ounces of POG, it’s a shot of corn syrup, basically. Something to look forward to, perhaps.
Zach Honig: Then there are some redemption options, although awards can be kind of hard to find especially in the peak season. So if you’re going during the summer months, you might end up having to pay cash or using a higher number of miles to book an award flight.
Sarah Silbert: Very true.
Zach Honig: We’re just about out of time, but I want to answer one more reader question. This question comes from Jeff on Instagram, and very good question, Jeff. “Can you use points to book helicopter tours?” I think Jeff may have asked because my question was attached to a picture from a helicopter.
Zach Honig: Since I couldn’t hike the Napali Coast, I decided to take a helicopter flight instead, and I actually booked a photo flight, which was a ton of fun because they take the doors off. So you don’t have any reflections, you can get some really cool pictures, and they’ll do all these fun maneuvers in the helicopter to give you the best angles.
Sarah Silbert: Wow.
Zach Honig: It was a little bit of a thrill ride, I would say, but I had a blast. I did it through Mauna Loa Helicopter Tours, and they are not available with points, but if you do want to use your points, there are some options with Chase Ultimate Rewards. And so you can just log into your Chase account. If you have a Sapphire Reserve card, you actually get 1.5 cents in value per point, and then you can redeem any of the trip options that they have there.
Zach Honig: So I looked today and there were seven helicopter tours and one fixed-wing airplane tour. If you’re looking to save a little bit on the points and cash front, you can book the plane tour. You just won’t be able to do some of the crazy maneuvers, just because you don’t have the flexibility of a helicopter.
Zach Honig: Well, thank you so much for joining me, Sarah. It’s been a pleasure talking about Kauai.
Sarah Silbert: Yeah. Well, I hope we convinced some people to go to Kauai.
Zach Honig: I sure hope we did. I can’t wait to visit again.
Sarah Silbert: Same.
Featured photo by Paul Mounce/Corbis via Getty Images.
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