Saturday, October 7, 2017

Nine Can't Miss Activities in Kauai

Wild and isolated Na Pali coast
(See the teeny tiny person on the beach at the center of the photo?)

In my last post, I mentioned that we had an unusually relaxing vacation on the island of Kauai. As I compiled this list of can't miss activities, I surprisingly realized that we actually did quite a lot. I think the key to not feeling rushed is that we spent a full week on the island in paradise. Surrounded by all this natural beauty, it would be a shame to do a quicker trip.

Na Pali coast photo above: You cannot reach the wild and isolated Na Pali coast by car. Hiking trails and boats are the only way in. When I posted this photo on  Facebook, my friend commented that she kayaked to this beach and camped here, relying on that waterfall for her fresh water supply. What a trip that must have been! Another friend viewed the Na Pali coast from above via helicopter. 

1. Go kayaking

There are tons of kayaking opportunities around the island. The most adventurous one would be heading out to the Napali Coast like my friend did. Being the less adventurous sorts, my family opted for a quiet and easy, 90-minute kayaking trip along the Hule'ia River and through a National Wildlife Sanctuary.

Photography tip: Don't get sunscreen on your lens even though it does lend a soft focus look to the picture.

On this excursion, I realized that my paddling technique is horrible, and we ended up taking a rather serpentine path from shore to shore as we headed upriver. If you totally run out of energy, the guide will tie your kayak to his and tow you. Not that it happened to me. Afterwards, we hiked through the jungle to a ropeswing over a pond and on to Hidden Valley Falls where we had a picnic lunch. A motorized boat brought us back to our starting point.

Along with the Hidden Valley Falls Kayak tour, Outfitters Kauai also offers high adventure excursions such as ziplining, downhill mountain biking, stand up paddleboarding and a whale watch sea kayaking tour.

Other kayaking options on Kauai can be found on the Wailua River through Fern Grotto, the Hanalei River, Kalihiwai River or the Hule'ia Stream.

2.  Ride a Horse

Did you know that the cattle ranches and cowboys on Hawaii predate the ones in the American West? Spend a few hours on Kauai pretending you're a paniolo, a Hawaiian cowboy. Silver Falls Ranch stretches across 300 acres and breeds and trains working cowhorses and cutting horses.

Trail ride at Silver Falls Ranch

Okay, okay, we weren't exactly doing rodeo tricks. It was more like a nice and easy, nose-to-tail trail ride along a stream and through a tropical valley featuring over 150 different palm trees. We even saw a mama feral pig with her little piglets trailing behind her. Along with the 90-minute Hawaiian Discovery Ride that my family went on, Silver Falls Ranch offers rides lasting 2-3 hours that include a waterfall swim and a delicious picnic lunch in a thatched hut.

3. Take a Hike

One of the cheapest ways to explore Kauai is on foot. Trails are all over the island. One of the most challenging is the 11 mile Kalalua Trail starting by Ke'e Beach and extending down the Napali coast. This is why we didn't do it. A friend and her teens did the up and down climb along the first 2 miles to Hanakapiai Beach as a day hike. Going beyond this point is only recommended for experienced hikers.

Kalalau Trailhead by Ke'e Beach

Instead, we did a very easy 1 mile hike along the Old Club Med loop in Princeville. (Notice how I've used the word "easy" to describe every single activity we've done so far.) Hanalei Plantation Road ends at a locked gate blocking the road. To the left is an opening for pedestrian access.

Walking along the ruins of the Old Club Med

I don't know how long the Club Med has been closed, but all that's left of the buildings are foundations, some half walls and a few pillars that are all being taken over by the surrounding jungle. I tried to convince my kids that it was actually the derelict ruins of a dinosaur cloning adventure park that went horribly wrong. The trail takes you to a cliff overlooking Hanalei Bay.

4. Float on a Boat

The highlight of our week in Kauai was the catamaran excursion we took to see the Na Pali Coast. I'm not one for open water kayaking, so I much preferred taking it easy (there that word is again) on a motorized vessel. Our tour with Na Pali Catamaran started on the north side of the island in Hanalei unlike most of the other Na Pali tours which embark from Port Allen on the southwest side of Kauai. Leaving from Hanalei, the boat only took 15 minutes to reach the legendary Na Pali coast and passed lots of pretty beaches and windsurfing spots. Boats leaving from Port Allen, in comparison, must first pass by 23 uninteresting miles of the Mana Plain before hitting the dry side of Na Pali.

Looking at photos of the Na Pali coast really does not do it justice. The immense size of the peaks and cliffs is easy to underestimate unless you can make out a small dot of a person on a beach or along a trail for scale.

Heading into the 1,155 ft (352m) Waiahuakua sea cave with a waterfall coming through a hole in the ceiling

If the conditions are right during the calmer summer months, Na Pali Catamaran will head into some of the sea caves that dot the coast. This is an incredible experience! The darkness began to close around us as we bobbed into one cave. Waves crashed on the rock walls, and and the sound reverberated around us. As my eyes began to become accustomed to the low light level, I could make out two passageways that reached deeper into the cave, much too small for our boat to fit through. The water continued to surge in and out through the openings when I was startled by the eerie tones of a conch shell being blown like a horn by one of our guides.

Ho'olulu cave's entrance was partially blocked by a waterfall cascading down from the moss covered rocks towering above us. Those who wished to stay dry remained under the boat's canopy, but I rushed to the back so I could feel the water rain down on me. Waiahuakua cave was also graced by a waterfall, but this one emerged from a hole it had worn through the porous, lava rock ceiling. At 1,155 feet (352 meters) long, it's said to be the second longest sea cave in the world. The fourth cave we entered was actually a collapsed grotto, an open ceiling cave. Massive rock walls rose up all around us. With nothing to block it, sunlight streamed down on us from the sky, and a singular slab of lava rock rose above the water as if it were a stage.

5. Take a dip in the Ocean

As long as we were on a boat, we decided to go snorkeling, too. I had made a list of places to snorkel — the extremely calm Lydgate Beach Park on the east side of Kauai, Ke'e Beach on the northwest side or Po'ipu Beach on the south shore. As it turns out, we never made it to Lydgate, only swam at Ke'e and spent all our time looking at the sleeping Hawaiian monk seal at Po'ipu. So where did we go snorkeling? Off the boat during our Na Pali Coast tour. 

Using a Full Face Snorkel Mask

This is the second vacation where we've used our Full Face Snorkel Masks. It covers the entire face from the forehead down to the chin. The down side to it is that the valve that keeps water out required a teeny tiny bit more lung power to breathe than a regular snorkel tube. The up sides are the 180 degree field of vision and that it feels more natural to inhale via your nose or mouth as usual. I personally prefer it to a regular snorkel mask and tube, but my kids and their kid-sized faces did not love it as much as I did. You can't dive deeper than 8 feet with it, but since I stay on the surface, it didn't matter to me.

Of course, there's always scuba diving, but that require more effort than I like to put out on vacation. Plus, I think I might freak out under water, hyperventilate, and use up my oxygen tank really fast.

6. Go to a luau and hula show

A trip to the Hawaiian islands isn't complete without dining at a luau and watching a hula show. We thought about doing the Tahiti Nui Lu'au in Hanalei since the small venue holding only 60 people seemed appealing and the food was supposed to be good quality albeit not a lot of selection. However, it only happens on Wednesday nights, so we looked elsewhere.

Take a stroll through Smith Tropical Paradise before the luau and show

We ended up at Smith Tropical Paradise. Granted, it's not the most Hawaiian sounding name, but we enjoyed ourselves. The extra bonus for me was getting to walk around the large garden area for about 30 minutes before the show started. After the imu ceremony when the pig is pulled out of the pit in the ground (imu) lined with hot coals and stones where it's been roasting all day, it's time to eat. Each table is called up in turn to the buffet to keep things orderly. I made sure I tried poi which is pounded taro root and a Polynesian staple. Off-gray and the consistency of glue, it wasn't bad, but it wasn't good either. That's just my opinion. Feel free to form  your own. I enjoyed the shredded kalua pork, chicken adobo, beef teriyaki and lomi salmon much more. While we dined, a Hawaiian band playing traditional songs kept us entertained.  

That gray stuff in the cup is poi (pounded taro root).
The dark purple thing next to it is Hawaiian sweet potato.

After dinner, we made our way to the theater where the show began as the night skies darkened. Like the menu, the show highlighted the many cultures that come together to make up the people of Hawaii. 

Traditional  Hawaiian dances

They did the hip-shaking hula, of course, but also the Filipino tinikling dance which requires jumping over bamboo poles as they're tapped back and forth, a Japanese fan dance, a Maori haka war dance, and a breathtaking bit of fire baton twirling. 

7. Play with the kids at Na 'Aina Kai Botanical Gardens' Keiki Day 

I wanted to visit the very well designed and maintained 240 acre Na 'Aina Kai Botanical Gardens, but the $35 cost of the slow-paced, 90-minute walking tour put me off. Luckily, our visit overlapped with the one Saturday a month Keiki Day when families with small kids are invited in to enjoy the Under the Rainbow Garden for only $10 per person from 9AM-1PM. 

It's not the same as seeing the whole place, but it was an option that kids ages 10 years and under could happily enjoy. (The older teens stayed in the hotel and slept in... an option they also enjoyed.) A sprayground greeted us at the entrance, and kids were welcome to play in the treehouse, walk through the bamboo forest and frolic on the other playground equipment.  It's one of the nicest playgrounds I've ever visited! An unexpected bonus was all the sculptures placed around the garden. Judging by the number of playgroups meeting here, this seemed like a place that locals enjoyed. 

8. Eat Shave Ice

Shave ice is a frozen treat that's synonymous with Hawaii. Notice that there's no "d" in "shave ice," by the way. Like eating gelato in Italy, we made sure to have shave ice every day that we were on Kauai. One of my favorite places was Wishing Well Shave Ice in Hanalei because of its local, organic syrups like the spicy ginger and the honey drizzle. Hee Fat General Store in Kapa'a was another excellent choice. The natural strawberry syrup tasted like real strawberries and not the least bit artificial. My one complaint is that there's nowhere to sit and enjoy the melting cup of shave ice since the serving window is in a gift shop. 

After driving up to Waimea Canyon, we stopped at Jo-Jo's Anuenue on Waimea Road behind the Captain Cook statue. It is not to be confused with the similarly named JoJo's Shave Ice on the main highway at mile marker 0. In addition to traditional shave ice, Jo-Jo's Anuenue also offers snow ice. Huge frozen blocks of milk flavored with syrup are put through the shaving machine to create a treat that's a cross between ice cream and shave ice. This was also the only place where I saw halo halo, a traditional Filipino shave ice topping that's a mix of tropical fruits. The ube, a type of yam, makes it purple.  

9.  Hit the Beach

If you don't do anything else on Kauai, hit the beach at the very least. Some of the ones on the Na Pali coast are so isolated that the only way there is via water, and so restricted that any type of boats — even kayaks — are prohibited from landing. Open water swimming is the only way to reach stunning Honopu Beach. We are not that type of family. We did not go here.

Instead,  we spent some time at Ke'e Beach at the end of the road on the north side of Kauai. The background is stunning with black lava boulders lining the left side of the beach and the beginning of the Na Pali coast rising up behind it. This lifeguarded beach is ideal for swimming and snorkeling in the summer months when the reef keeps the water calm. Like the rest of Kauai, it's also home to a bunch of wild chickens. It has a shower and restrooms but was extremely crowded when we were there late morning. (Also, I think SE Asia spoiled me because I was sad that there were no enterprising food stands anywhere other than one guy cutting open green coconuts.)

Pu'u Poa beach in Princeville

Another favorite Kauai vacation memory is hitting Pu'u Poa beach in Princeville at the end of the day just before the sun started sinking into the ocean. At that hour, the beach was practically empty, and Bali Hai point and other mountain ridges behind Hanalei Bay added to the panoramic view. During the winter, you can find expert level surfing conditions here, but the summertime brings calm waters. Public access to the beach is via the small public parking lot to the left of the guard house entrance to the St. Regis Princeville Resort. Then, it's 200 steps down to the beach. Luckily, our hotel, the Westin Princeville Ocean Resorts Villa, is a sister property to the St. Regis which gave us parking privileges and access to an incredible elevator that takes you down to the beach. Guests of Hanalei Bay Resort can take a hotel shuttle down a paved path to the shore.

So, that's nine Can't Miss Activities from my very relaxing week in Kauai. This doesn't include exploring Hanalei and all the driving around we did to see waterfalls, Waimea Canyon, and south shore sights. I guess it's more like 13 Can't Miss Activities. Any way you add it up, Kauai was a fantastic family vacation that you can scale up or down depending on your adventure level.

I've joined with the following linkups. Check them out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.


  1. Looks like a really beautiful part of the world - that first picture is really amazing! #TheWeeklyPostcard

  2. I have been to Maui and Oahu, but still need to go to Kauai. I would love to do another luau, spend time at the beach, and do some hiking there. Thanks for sharing on #TheWeeklyPostcard.

  3. I love Kauai - and I've done quite a few of your experiences but I think it's time to go back to finish off the list :)!

  4. For us, Europeans, nothing sounds more exotic. I hope to visit Kauai and other island in the region once. #TheWeeklyPostcard

  5. All of these look like wonderful experiences. For sure, I will not miss a boat trip along the Na Pali coast. I do enjoy boat trips and can imagine how wonderful it would be to do one along one of the most beautiful coasts in the world. I didn't know there were sea caves or waterfalls. Another reason to go! #TPThursday

  6. Thanks for pointing out the tiny person on the beach. I think I would have missed them without that tip. It really brings the size of the backdrop into focus. They are awesome mountains.

  7. Hahaha, how funny, Michelle! We both write about Kauai at the same time. Isn't this island lovely? It's my favorite one. There is so much to do there if you are an outdoor person. I never tried shaved in Kauai. Was that good? #TheWeeklyPostcard

  8. The rugged peaks in your Na Pali beach photo are impressive (considering the spec that you called a person on the beach!). I would enjoy kayaking on a river and the snorkelling as well.

  9. OMGosh, thank you for taking me down memory lane! We totally did everything, except the snorkeling as we did the helicopter instead! I'd love to go back because I was like 15 when I went! Thanks for sharing on #TheWeeklyPostcard!

  10. We would love to visit Kauai, great activities, the catamaran looked great fun and the beach looks amazing. What a wonderful place to visit. #TheWeeklyPostcard

  11. FootstepsOfADreamerOctober 9, 2017 at 5:06 PM

    Thanks for the great ideas! I was in Kauai a few months ago, but unfortunately I was only there for about a day. I toured the Na Pali Coast the tour group "The Na Pali Experience" and absolutely loved the adventure. You also mentioned Waimea Canyon, which I too highly suggest. Standing at the top was absolutely breathtaking.

  12. I just read your post on the Na Pali Experience. Sounds like you had some really great snorkeling sightings. And your disposable underwater camera takes better photos than the waterproof kids camera my daughter has.

  13. Shave ice is fantastic! I highly recommend it, especially to cool off.

  14. I imagine the sights from the helicopter must be quite impressive.

  15. It's really a special pace filled with natural beauty.

  16. Summer time is best to get to enter the sea caves since the waves are much rougher in the winter.

  17. Kauai is so different from Maui and Oahu. I think each island is special in its own way.

  18. I'm a little envious of my friend who got to camp in that spot.

  19. Lisa @ Gone With The FamilyOctober 10, 2017 at 5:53 PM

    Kauai sounds and looks fabulous! We visited Maui and Oahu 9 years ago - I think we're overdue for a return trip to Hawaii to explore the other islands!!

  20. What a great vacation, and something for everyone. I'm like you. I like easy. I'm not sure what I'd do without touts on the beach trying to sell everything in sight. I love the sound of the caves, as long as I'm in a boat :) Thanks for linking up this week. #TPThursday

  21. I'm a big fan of easy activities :) Na Pali coast looks spectacular - thank you for pointing out the human on the beach. I didn't realize the scale of it just looking at it initially! I also giggled at your mention of paddling skills. I too don't have much of that. I tried to row a boat at the Palace of Versailles, but spent much of my time paddling myself in circles...!

  22. My favorite part of Kauai was the canyon. But, there was no bad parts!

  23. Looks like you did so much and had a wonderful time in Kauai. I love that you and your family had shave ice everyday - the photo made me wish I had some! Need to get back to Hawaii ;-)

  24. We are all about the snorkeling, kayaking, and luau-ing(?) in Hawaii! Solid list of activities - just wish we had a Hawaii trip coming up to do all of these things. Sigh... ;) Thanks for sharing on #TheWeeklyPostcard & #WeekendWanderlust

  25. guys did quite a lot for a relaxing vacation. I love the easy parts for most of it though. Your Kauai posts have me really longing for a much needed return visit soon. We've decided it's the next Hawaiian island visit for sure. We'll definitely follow in your steps when we make it back. One can never go wrong with Hawaiian shave ice everyday.

  26. I've had several US friends say, "Now that you are in Greece, why would you want to go back to Hawaii?" Your post says it all - there is no where on earth that compares with Hawaii -- no matter how wonderful it is!!


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