1. Yes it's beautiful. It looks more like Vietnam or Thailand and their limestone karst stuff, all old and weathered and crumbly with these random protrusions and such. (it's cool how you can travel the Hawaiian islands from south to north and visually see geographic time passing at a rate of 100,000 years per island hop). It actually wasn't as lush as I expected given all the hype about how wet it was and the incredible lushness. It's no more jungley beautiful than the Hamakua Coast near Hilo is really. My favorite parts of Kauai were the northern coast, and also just south of Lihue around the Hulemalu Road area (which would be a pretty sweet bike ride; good pavement, no cars).
2. There're sweet beaches all over the island. Like you almost don't have to seek them out there's another one around every corner, and most with very few people on them. None of them looked really perfect the way Mauna Kea and Hapuna are just ridiculously perfect in every way (clear water, no rocks, bottom drops neither too fast nor too slow, no rips, etc), but they were uncrowded and more sort of charming in a rustic way and often have cool surrounding cliffs and pretty settings.
3. The traffic sucks. The island is small, which is cool for a vacation (actually I love staying on tiny islands, like Ko Hai, Caye Caulker, or the Isla Mujeres of my childhood; islands where you can walk from one side to the other in half an hour or so). However, despite the smallness it takes forever to get anywhere because it's constant gridlock. Sitting in traffic fucking blows, and this alone is almost enough to put me off Kauai.
4. The human development on Kauai is repellent. The cities are all really ugly (though that seems to be standard all over Hawaii); most of the island is strip malls and run down shopping centers and fast food and such. Then the alternative are these fancy manicured suburban/golf developments like Poipu and Princeville which are disgusting in a different way. Between the two, the human hand on Kauai has scarred it with an ugliness that is quite tragic.
5. It's extremely tourist-oriented. Every restaurant is for tourists (which means rotten food and weird phoney-nice service), the place is covered in tourist crap shops (t-shirts, mac nuts, koa, etc). It has no feeling of being it's own place independent from the tourists. It also has a big port where cruise ships drop out hordes. Part of the problem with that is that Kauai is so small it can't really handle the appearance of 5000 people in one day.
6. The Na Pali Coast trail (Kalalau) is pretty cool. We made it 6 miles in before turning around (just into Hanakoa Valley, which was the best part of the trail that we saw) (pretty impressive for a pregnant lady). It's definitely not the most beautiful hike ever (as some say); there are lots of hikes in WA that are better scenery and not so jam packed with ding-dongs. It is sweet to be able to take a dip in the rivers along the way and swim at the beach afterward. Much like the Big Island, there's too much private property and not very much development of good trails, so you see all this beautiful stuff around but you can't really get to it (unless you want to tresspass and bushwhack, which you certainly can do).
7. I think it would be a pretty great place for a surf vacation. One of the good things about it from that standpoint is there are decent beaches facing every cardinal direction, so you can pick your spot to match the swell, and because it's small it doesn't take forever to get there. I could see maybe going back to Kauai some day for an intensive "finally learn to really surf" vacation, based around Hanalei or something (and never leaving that area).
8. For anyone considering going to Kauai - don't go in winter. We got super lucky with no big storms during our short trip, but generally Kauai is pounded in winter with big waves and lots of rain. You can always go hide in the dry south, but since the north is the best part of the island it's just better to go when it's not storm season.
Overall it made me miss our Big Island home, and I'm happy to be back.
I guess I'm a little negative about Kauai because I was super tired the whole time from not sleeping well. I also realized that I kind of hate vacation these days. I like workcation where I rent a house for a while and settle in and can cook my own food and bring my bike and get to do what I like (bike, swim, work). I don't really like sight seeing, just going from place to place and going yep I saw that; it feels so pointless, and it's kind of all the same experience no matter what sight it is you're seeing. I hate hotels, the invariably awful beds and pillows, the ice makers and elevators and other guests, the nasty decor and bad air, the attendants angling for tips. I hate restaurants, I'm so sick of restaurants. I wish I could just buy some proper ingredients that are actually fresh and okay quality, and have them cooked simply at the time that I order. Instead you get frozen super-low-grade Sysco garbage that's been pre-cooked and then warmed to order and covered in some nasty "sauce", it's just revolting the filth that they pass off as food all over America. (and the fancy expensive restaurants are not much better). And you have to sit around forever while the waiter does god knows what and try to act nice and make the most of it while poisonous filth is flopped down in front of you.
I like the idea of vacations that are for a certain activity that you like. Not going to see sights or relax, but to go hiking in some place that's really great for hiking, or to go biking, or surfing, or whatever you like. I sort of did this with the CA work/bike-cation, and it was rocking good. I'd like to do it more, but it's hard to find good information. A lot of the "epic hikes" or "great bike rides" are actually total shit; the rating is done by people who don't know WTF they're talking about. (same is true of "great beaches", which are often total crap beaches except for their white sand or something stupid like that). For example, I know that Hwy 1 in CA is on many a list of epic rides, and having lived there for a long time I know that's totally retarded; not only is it not epic, it's barely even tolerable, like I would never ride it by choice (I only rode it when necessary to connect a loop between other roads), and in the same area where they recommend Hwy 1 there are probably 30 rides that are much better. So anyway, actually finding solid information on places that are good "destination biking" is very difficult.
I'm also getting more sensitive about travelling places where the tourism is sort of a form of exploitation. In Hawaii the bad vibes are mild, but they're definitely there. We stole these islands from the Hawaiians, and now they are mostly pretty poor and get to watch rich tourists come in and buy up their best land and crowd up their favorite local spots. But despite that Hawaii is immensely better than other beach destinations I've gone to. In Mexico & Central America you get to see the abject poverty of people whose lives have been destroyed by government corruption and "free trade" (which is a transparent absurdity when we own all the patents and subsidize our exports and fuel costs); most of the beach developments were the result of the government evicting the people who rightfully lived there with minimal compensation; you used to be able to get away from the Zona Hoteleria areas and find sweet little towns that were still pretty untouched, but that's increasingly hard. In Thailand you're surrounded by the sex tourists and the cheap-booze backpacking set, who generally sleaze the place up (but it's better when you get away from the tourist-heavy areas).
Anyhoo, some photos from Kauai :
(including "tree canopy" and "how to look at tree canopy")