Kauai, known as the Garden Island, is the under-appreciated and lesser-known of the Hawaiian Islands. But Kauai has so many things going for it: it’s smaller and lusher than the other islands, it has wild landscapes (like Waimea Canyon, the Na Pali Coast, and so many waterfalls!) and it’s significantly less populated than the other islands. Kauai is the oldest of the Hawaiian islands and has had the most time to become overgrown with lushness. Visiting Kauai is kind of like taking a step back in time to a low-key tropical island where you immediately feel 10 pounds being lifted off your shoulders upon arrival.
Everyone has an opinion about which Hawaiian island is the best. I have visited all of the islands (except for Molokai and private Nihau) and Kauai remains my favorite.
We most recently visited Kauai last February and here are 5 things to do (with or without kids!):
Tubing down the Sugar Canals
Kauai Backcountry Adventures has the exclusive use of the sugar cane ditch and tunnel system on the old Lihue Plantation. After checking in for our tour, we took a long van ride through Lihue Plantation up onto the mountain. When we got near the top, we stopped at the overlook of Waialeale Crater (above) – the wettest spot on Kauai. This is where the waters originate that flow through the ditches. We were warned that we could not call the water “cold” when we launched into our tubes. We could call it “refreshing”, “exhilarating”, “invigorating”, but if we said it was cold we’d get splashed or capsized by our guides! It was definitely “refreshing”, but once we were in and moving along it wasn’t too bad! We zipped down the canals, through tunnels, down mini rock slides, and enjoyed picturesque landscape the whole way. We were in a group of about 12 people and the guides did a great job keeping us all contained and moving down the canals together. This made me feel good about letting my 11 and 9-year-old float down the canals at their own pace (right at the front of the pack) and I usually hung towards the back with my 5-year-old!
Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail
This hike starts near Shipwreck beach by the Grand Hyatt in Poipu. It was a little bit hard to find the trailhead and we had to stop at the Golf Pro Shop to ask for directions, but the trailhead is just a little bit farther down the road towards the beach. We found that the trail was not very well marked and we ventured off course once or twice, but as long as we followed the coastline we eventually came back to the trail!
The views were spectacular and the trail was virtually empty. We hiked along the trail for a bit, past some beaches and sacred sites until we came to the golf course. We turned around just past the golf course as it was a really hot day, and while we brought water, there was very little shade and we didn’t want to overdo it on our first day. A little bit farther down the trail are some caves and possible sea turtle sightings. We will definitely do this hike again the next time we’re on Kauai and take it all the way to the end!
The kids stopped along the way to build rock towers at the beach.
The trail is 2 miles one way and is slightly rugged so wear sturdy shoes, bring water, and watch little kids as there are no guard rails and some steep drops into the ocean!
Na Pali Coast
There are three ways to see the Na Pali coast: by boat, by air, or by foot. On this last trip, we covered two of these (boat & foot). When Mike & I were in Kauai in 2004 we covered by helicopter. This last one was a source of tension between us and the kids. They really wanted to go by helicopter and I insisted we go by boat since that’s the one way I’d never seen it before.
In short, do this. It is pricey, but it is worth it! We happened to go on a clear day and had amazing views. There’s a guide to point out attractions along the way, like the waterfall shown in the opening of Fantasy Island and where they filmed parts of Lost. Plus it’s a view of the coast that you can’t see any other way! Next time we’re in Kauai we’ll treat the kids to a helicopter ride!
While I really enjoyed viewing the Na Pali coast by catamaran, I think our kids would have enjoyed the helicopter ride more. In February, the ocean is rougher and the waves are bigger. I did a lot of research up front and specifically chose Kauai Sea Tours because they would cancel the trip if the water was too rough. I had read some reviews of boats that went out on large 30 foot waves and the experience was ruined because everyone felt sick. Our tour started with a snorkel adventure, whale watching, and then cruised out to the Na Pali coast.
We were prepared and took Dramamine about an hour before the boat left the dock. The first part of the cruise was great – we saw lots of whale tails & blow spouts, we snorkeled and saw sea turtles and other colorful fish, and then we headed towards the coast. Once we rounded the westernmost bend of the island, the ocean got A LOT rougher. There were VERY large waves. On our way there, we sailed about 50-100 yards away from the coast. Huge waves came toward the shore and then bounced off the rocks and came back at us. This meant we were getting hit by waves in both directions and this did not sit well with the kids who all got seasick. So while I loved the ride, I spent the majority of my time tending to sick kids at the back of the boat.
I’d love to say that I got some fabulous pictures of the coast, but I ended up with kids lying on me for most of the ride and I’d occasionally stick my camera up in the air and try to get a one-handed picture over the tops of everyone’s head (which is hard to do). So while I could have found a beautiful picture taken by someone else, I decided to post this one anyway because this is real life and sometimes hiccups on vacation happen.
While we had a rough experience in the winter, the ocean is typically calmer during the summer and the chances of a smoother ride are higher.
The Kalalau Trail along the Na Pali coast is the only way to see this part of the coast by land and is by far my favorite hike ever. The trail begins at Ke’e Beach and traverses 11 miles through lush valleys and over towering sea cliffs finishing at Kalalau Beach.
Day hikes to Hanakapi’ai beach (4 miles roundtrip) or Hanakapi’ai Falls (8 miles roundtrip) are allowed without a permit. Hiking any further, or camping overnight, requires a permit.
We didn’t have a set turnaround point in mind – we figured we’d just turn around when the kids were ready. But once we got about a mile in, I was determined to make it all the way to Hanakapi’ai beach.
The hike to Hanakapi’ai beach is not terribly difficult, but there are hills and uneven surfaces. It’s certainly not easy. The trail is not wide and there are some steep drop-offs with no guard rails so definitely keep a close eye on little ones. The trail starts off uphill and we were quickly rewarded with a view overlooking the beach where we started.
Once I’d made up my mind that we were hiking all the way to Hanakapi’ai beach, the kids were about ready to turn around, but we made them push on. The trail was very muddy in parts (wear good hiking shoes or Keen sandals that can get wet) and we had to cross streams that ran across the trail. A couple of times the kids stepped right in the deep water with their sneakers which stayed wet and were uncomfortable to hike in. This made the hike a little less fun. To get to the final beach, there is a large stream to cross. Most people took off their shoes and waded across – others tried to step across on rocks and branches.
As you can see, our spirits were not quite as high at the turnaround point as they had been at the start! Again, real life.
On the way back, my daughter and I let the boys go ahead of us. I let her stop in the mud along the way and paint her face and then she was in a much better mood and we were able to enjoy the amazing views on the way back.
This hike definitely pushed the kids, but in the end I got one thumb’s up and two OKs. Next time we’ll start the hike earlier and go all the way to the Falls! I haven’t been there since I was a kid, but I still remember how awesome it was!
As much as I love adventures on our trips, some days we just like to park it at the beach. Our kids just love playing in the water and digging in the sand.
Some of our favorite beaches:
Salt Pond Beach
Zip Lining & Kayaking
We went with Princeville Ranch Adventures on their Jungle Valley Adventure which consisted of kayaking, hiking, zip lining, and swimming in a water hole.
Our first job was to pick out kayaks and launch into the river.
The kayaking was very easy and not a problem for our 5-year-old. Some parts of the river got a little narrow and we had to navigate out of the trees & branches, but there was no current and fairly shallow water.
Hiking to the zip line course.
If you are new to zip lining and just want to get your feet wet, this is a good option. If you are looking for an exciting zip line course then this is not it. There were 2 zip lines: one out and one back, each about 450-ish feet. It was fun, but it left my kids wanting more and not feeling satisfied. They are the type of kids who want a day full of zip lining (like our Cabo adventure). They still had swimming and a kayak trip back to our starting point so it was probably a good that the zip line portion was relatively short!
After zip lining, we hiked a bit further to a swimming hole for a dip & lunch.
This list kept us busy for a week and barely scratches the surface of all the things there are to do and explore on the island. That’s OK, it just means we’ll need to keep going back!
Traveling to the Big Island? Read about our doors off helicopter adventure here.