If I were forced to pick a favorite Hawaiian island I would probably go with the Big Island, but Kauai is a close runner-up. The beauty of the Na Pali coast is unparalleled elsewhere in Hawaii, and it’s less touristy than some other islands, while still offering plenty of activities to keep people of all ages and interests busy. These are the things I enjoyed the most on my last family vacation there:
1. A Helicopter Tour of the Na Pali Coast
Helicopter tours are becoming incredibly popular; they’re now offered on all the major Hawaiian islands as well as lots of other places like the Grand Canyon and New York City. For me, however, the cost and risk involved means this is an activity I don’t do lightly. In fact, I didn’t originally plan to do one on our Kauai trip, but after a boat tour to the Na Pali was cancelled twice due to weather (a common occurrence in the winter, unfortunately), I booked myself a helicopter tour. I was going to see the Na Pali coast one way or another. And I have to say: wow, this might be some of the best money I’ve ever spent. I’m still not sure a helicopter tour would be worth it (at least for me) in other places, but Kauai is so inaccessible by car and foot that doing a helicopter tour here is the best decision you’ll make for your vacation.
Although I’ve had some bad small plane experiences in the past, I couldn’t have felt safer in the hands of the Jack Harter pilot. I was so sad when our helicopter touched down at the end of the tour, and now I tell everyone who will listen that they must do a helicopter tour on Kauai.
2. Ziplining Through the Jungle
I ziplined for the first time on Kauai so I admittedly don’t have much basis for comparison, but it’s hard for me to imagine a more beautiful place to soar through the trees than this lush green island. It’s not called the Garden Isle for nothing, after all. We went with Koloa Zipline and I can’t say enough good things about them; our guides were funny and engaging and wanted to make sure we all had a lot of fun, but they also clearly considered safety the first priority. As someone with a not-so-mild fear of heights I was a little apprehensive, but it was a total blast and not scary at all – much more like driving fast in a convertible than riding a roller coaster. If you’ve ever thought you might like to zipline, Kauai is definitely the place to try it out.
3. The Kalaulau Valley and Waimea Canyon Lookouts
Not much of the Na Pali coast is viewable without taking a boat, helicopter or hike. This is the one part of it you can drive up to it and see. It’s a gorgeous view if you catch it when it’s not socked in, but unfortunately the weather up here is fickle, which is all the more reason you should plan multiple different ways of seeing the coast.
4. Hiking (At Least Part Of) the Kalaulau Trail
Even if you’re understandably not up for this strenuous 22-mile roundtrip hike, a short hike along part of the trail is a must. If you’re pressed for time or not an experienced hiker, you can hike about a half mile one way to a viewpoint with nice views of the coast. The trail is fairly easy underfoot for that stretch.
If you’re looking for a more challenging day hike, the hike to Hanakapai Beach is about four miles round-trip and takes you further along the trail with progressively nicer views. The beach itself is also a lovely spot to take a mid-hike break, although swimming there is extremely dangerous. Beware, though, this hike takes a lot longer than you’d think it would based on the mileage, and the trail becomes a slip-n-slide at some points if it’s rained recently. Wear clothes you don’t mind getting muddy! The views are worth it though.
5. A Trio of Beaches with More than Just Swimming and Snorkeling
In my opinion, Kauai isn’t the best Hawaiian island for snorkeling; the Big Island and Maui are far superior. This is doubly true in winter when many of the North Shore beaches aren’t swimmable because the surf is too strong. Fortunately, there are several beaches that are still very much worth a visit even if you can’t go in the water.
Shipwreck Beach, off the Grand Hyatt hotel in Poipu, has pretty good snorkeling for Kauai (although the beach drops off much more quickly than others, so the fish are not right in your face) but the highlight of this beach for me was the highly endangered Hawaiian monk seal I caught snoozing on the sand. Apparently monk seals are spread around the Hawaiian islands, but I definitely associate them with Kauai and don’t know anyone who has seen one anywhere else.
Hideaways Beach, near the posh St. Regis resort, is a bit of a pain to get to (you have to climb down – and then back up – a steep dirt path) but the beach is worth it. It’s not crowded and has soft white sand, turquoise water and a decent selection of fish to snorkel with in shallow water. The bluff before you walk down to the beach is also a great place to spot whales in the winter; I was lucky enough to see one breaching (although not lucky enough to get a photo).
Even if you visit in the winter, when the surf there is likely to be rough, you shouldn’t pass up Tunnels Beach. It’s one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve been to, with beautiful views of the mountains that played Bali Hai in the movie South Pacific. It’s also supposed to be another good place to spot monk seals.
Have you been to Kauai? What would you add to my list?