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No matter your final destination on Kauai, the city of Lihue will be your first introduction to the Garden Isle — it's home to the island's major airport as well as the cruise port at Nawiliwili Harbor.
But don't make the mistake of simply passing through Kauai's commercial center on your way to the island's wilder offerings. The city and its surroundings play host to a number of fascinating historic sites, including the 1,000-year-old Alekoko Fishpond — which Hawaiian legends say was built by the mythical Menehune (a race of miniature forest dwellers) in one night — and the Kilohana Plantation, a 1935 Tudor-style mansion built for one of the island's most famous sugar barons.
For a taste of the island's plantation past, board a 1939 train for a tour of the farm's sugarcane fields, then sample the Koloa Rum Company's premium spirits, made from the tall sugarcane grown in the rich volcanic soil and distilled with pure water from nearby Mt. Wai'ale'ale. History buffs can go even further back with a visit to the Kauai Museum for a look at what the island was like when Captain Cook first arrived here in 1778.
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Celebrate Kauai's Japanese immigrant heritage at the Hui Alu Okinawan Dance Festival, a free event featuring sanshin (a three-stringed, snakeskin-covered instrument) and taiko drum performances as well as the chance to try traditional foods like shoyu pork, andagi (donuts), soba noodles, and Okinawan pig's feet soup.
June's King Kamehameha Celebration honors the warrior king who united the Hawaiian Islands in 1810 with a parade through Lihue from Vidinha Stadium to the Historic County Building on Rice Street. A traditional Ho'olaule'a festival follows, with plenty of Hawaiian music, food, and hula dancing.
May to October is prime surf season along Kauai's southern shore, and you can watch the pros do their thing — or try it yourself if you're feeling gutsy — at Nawiliwili Harbor and Kalapaki Beach near downtown Lihue. Though other surf areas in Kauai are better left to the pros, this stretch of coast features a shallow break that makes it more beginner-friendly.
Winters can be quite gusty in Kauai, but the steady 15- to 20-knot winds come with an added bonus: This is the perfect time of year for windsurfing. Watch the locals take on the waves from Kalapaki Beach near downtown Lihue, and don't forget to bring your camera!