If you’re looking for a cheap opportunity to redeem points for a trip to Hawaii, this is the post you need to read. Hawaii is generally an expensive destination, and award space on flights and at hotels can be hard to find. But Hawaii is also closer than Bali, the Maldives, or even the Caribbean (if you’re coming from the West Coast), and not everywhere is as touristy as Honolulu, which I think bears more resemblance to Las Vegas than the tropics.
I love Hawaii enough that I make a point to go every year. My wife and I always find new favorite spots as we rotate among islands. Kauai is more problematic than the others because it doesn’t have many great beaches, especially at the resort hotels, which are on opposite ends of the island.
I do find, however, that Kauai appeals to a certain appetite to just get away from it all. Even 5-star hotels can be overwhelming sometimes. What Kauai offers is a lovely rustic aesthetic similar to Oahu’s north shore or Maui’s road to Hana. So last June we decided to stay at the Hilton Garden Inn Kauai Wailua Bay, just north of the airport in Lihue and on the edge of the small town of Kapa’a.
Our cost was just 40,000 points per night, which is practically a bargain given how easy it is to earn Hilton Honors points. There were no parking fees at the hotel, the resort fee was waived because this was an award stay, and my Diamond status earned us a free made-to-order breakfast each morning.
Major apologies needed! I thought I took more pictures of the hotel property and our room but probably thought to myself, oh f- it, I’m on vacation and finally done with business school. I encourage you to check out the hotel’s website for more photos of the property. In general I’d say the photos match reality but are too bright. I will still share my unvarnished opinions of the rest of our stay.
We picked up our rental car and drove about 10 minutes north to the hotel, which is located adjacent to Lydgate State Park at the mouth of the Wailua River. We pulled around the drive and were greeted at reception. It’s a compact hotel so there are no long walks anywhere; the parking lot is directly adjacent to the lobby.
The receptionist walked us through the Diamond benefits, which included complimentary breakfast at the buffet each morning (as well as made-to-order eggs, if we wanted any) and an upgrade to an “ocean view” room. The hotel is a bit removed from the beach, since the state park has its own parking lot between the hotel and the ocean, but our room also opened directly onto the pool deck. That was convenient.
As Diamond members we didn’t have to pay the $22 resort fee, which included two complimentary Mai Tais each evening and complimentary bike rentals in Kapa’a.
We made our way to our room on the main level of the hotel, which is the middle of three floors. Upstairs you can find a coin-operated laundry room, and downstairs there is easy access to the state beach across the lawn.
The nice thing about facing the pool deck is that we had a couple of chairs facing the pool and could walk outside the sliding door to sit outside. On the other hand, it was only a few feet more to lie on an actual lounge chair. This hotel doesn’t have actual balconies, so this was about as good as it gets.
The one downside of our room is that it was very humid. I know Hawaii is more humid than the mainland but this seemed unreasonable. It was unpleasant at night when trying to sleep, and running the air conditioner only made it cold. I looked past it since our primary reason for visiting Kauai was to go out and explore the Garden Isle, not spend our time at the hotel.
There are also cottages to the side of the hotel, which may be a good fit for families with children who want more space to spread out. These are a bit further from the pool, and they were all booked up when we visited because a film crew was in town shooting a movie for Disney.
Fortunately the rest of the hotel was quite pleasant. The staff at breakfast always remembered us and were very accommodating. I actually liked the buffet and never bothered to order off the menu. My wife likes her eggs special and always got what she wanted. The Mai Tais in the evening were better than the ones we ordered at every bar in Kapa’a, and it was a nice treat to come back to.
Lydgate Beach is normally pleasant and has a couple of sheltered wading pools for children and other people uncomfortable with the open ocean. Unfortunately, a recent tropical storm meant that a lot of debris had washed down the river and back up onto the beach. I still headed out to watch the sunrise in the morning, and a loop around the park makes for a good run if you’re trying to stay fit.
Instead, we spent our beach time at three other places that I recommend you check out. First, everyone should go to Hanalei, about an hour’s drive to the north near Princeville. It’s a beautiful beach, and the town offers a cute place to shop and eat. We particularly liked The Hanelei Gourmet for hamburgers out on the lanai.
Get to the beach early if you want to find a spot in one of the dirt parking lots. We could see the beach at the St. Regis Princeville from our spot (it has since left the Marriott Rewards program and rebranded as the Princeville Resort). It has a better view, but frankly I’m not sure it’s worth the expense when it was so easy to enjoy get a similar experience for free.
The second beach you should visit is in downtown Kapa’a. This is a very walkable town and reminds me of Capitola (a small beach town just south of Santa Cruz, California).
There a few cute shops and some cafes, but if you’re looking for food then I’d recommend either Bubba’s Burgers or one of the food trucks. (Tiki Tacos are also good, but not convenient to the beach.) You can easily rent a bicycle and ride a few miles up to Donkey’s Beach, which is even nicer. Parking at Donkey’s Beach itself can be limited.
Finally, consider Salt Pond Park outside Hanapepe. It’s nothing special but does have a gentle surf that’s great for kids. We stopped here on our way back from hiking Waimea Canyon. It was great to just lie on the sand and not worry about looking cool. Kauai is not a place where anyone should worry about looking cool. This is not like Maui, where I fear the South Beach aesthetic is taking over.
As I said, we spent a good chunk of one day hiking Waimea Canyon. This is easily one of the best attractions of Kauai. The canyon runs from the south end up the middle of the island, and the whole time you’re climbing a mountain ridge. Once you reach the very top you can look down on the Nāpali coast on the north side of Kauai.
Along the way there are plenty of spots to pull over look around.
However, the best is the hike to Waipo’o Falls. I don’t know why, but I thought it would be smart to do this hike in flip flops and a knit polo. It would be better if you wore sneakers and running gear. Anything that wicks away the sweat.
It’s about one or two hours each way along a steep path that is barely maintained. At the very end you have to shuffle down and turn along a dirt area while hoping not to roll off the cliff. Then I nearly fell over the edge of the falls while taking pictures. So, yeah, I’ve seen lots of kids and old people do it but it’s still a hike that requires some physical exertion.
There are many other waterfalls that do not require so much effort, some of them just a few minutes from the airport, like Wailua Falls.
My wife and I both liked the Hilton Garden Inn, and the staff were absolutely lovely. The rooms could have benefitted from a dehumidifier. Other than that, I have no complaints. Service was friendly and prompt, we were catered to every morning at breakfast, and the free Mai Tais each evening were a nice treat. Although there was driftwood on the beach, it was not at all the hotel’s fault and was a common sight across much of the island. This area in particular was hard hit because debris flowed down the river and washed back up to shore.
Despite the nice things I can say about the Hilton, I’m not sure I’d pick it again if I returned to Kauai. First, there is a Courtyard by Marriott halfway between the Hilton and Kapa’a if you’re still interested in redeeming points. The greater proximity to town would have made it easier to walk. Second, the Hotel Coral Reef is actually in the town of Kapa’a and has easy access to the miles-long bike path that runs all the way up to Donkey’s Beach. Both hotels have beach-front access without having to cross the parking lot of the state beach that the Hilton shares. On the other hand, we found plenty of free parking in Kapa’a, so it was easy to stay at the Hilton and just drive up the road.