Hawaii: Kauai With Kids

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Kauai’s dramatic scenery has drawn movie makers for decades with the wild’s of the Napali Coast and the vast wilderness of Wailea Canyon. The deep, narrow canyons filled with lush vegetation on the north and west coasts has made intense backdrops in such films as Jurassic Park, Hook and Raiders of the Lost Ark (for a full list visit Kauai Film). Kauai’s southeast coast offers a more arid and sunny climate for those seeking a sunshine filled vacation.  On the north shore, Hanalei is one of the most beautiful bays in the world, and was the backdrop for much of the 1958 film South Pacific.  Further west is the Na Pali Coast, a protected area with incredible hiking and scenery.  Just inland on the west coast is Wailea Canyon, the Grand Canyon of Hawaii, with huge red rock canyons snaking down to the Pacific ocean. 

North Coast of Kauai

Kauai’s north coast is known for its lush scenery and slow pace.  Starting at Hanalei, a beautiful bay famous for its role as backdrop in the movie South Pacific and its Princeville Resort (which is actually located a bit out of town), the road narrows and passes over a series of small suspension bridges.  The road is lined with huge fields of taro plants, which give way to the mountains and valleys of the Na Pali Coast.  At the end of the road is the start of the Kalalau Trail through the Na Pali Coast State Park.  The 11-mile trail is for experienced hikers and takes a couple days to complete.  However, if you would like a small hike, the first leg of the hike reaches nice scenery at Hanakapiai Beach and Hanakapiai Falls about 4 miles, but with all the elevation changes even this hike can take 3 – 5 hours with kids. The beach at the trailhead, Ke’e Beach (also within the boundaries of Ha’ena State Park) offers excellent snorkeling.  A large reef provides calm waters, however be sure to stay within the reef area as the current gets strong on the other side.  Nathan was only 4 when we took him snorkeling there.  He loved the huge schools of tropical fish and we even saw turtles!

East Coast

The east coast is a bit flatter than the north coast, but is greener than the south.  One of its most popular attractions isWailua State Park home of the infamous Fern Grotto.  We took a boat with Smith’s Kauai, a company whose family has been running tours on the river for over 60 years.  The boat cruised along the river as the captain pointed out various vegetation, sacred spots and filming locations.  We were allowed to disembark and follow an easy trail (the kids were running past us on this one) through amazing tropical rainforest to Fern Grotto, where waterfalls stream down soaring cliffs and caves grow upside down ferns on their ceilings.  The ferns are just now growing big again as the 1992 Hurricane Iniki tore most of them down. Shortly afterward they were re-planted using dart guns and seedlings, which the kids thought was super cool.  We stayed at Smith’s for the luau, which offered a taste of all different Hawaiian foods and a great show, which took visitors on a journey through the Polynesian islands in dance.  Also not to miss on the east coast (in Kapa’a) is Bubba’s Burgers, a hole-in-the-wall, but gotta-go burger shop with excellent old-fashioned burgers and amazing views!  Also in Kapa’a and great for kids is Kauai Children’s Discovery Museum, which has hands-on exhibits explaining the history and nature of Kauai.

South Coast

We stayed on the south coast simply because it means more sunshine and beach time and everything in Kauai is so close it doesn’t take too long to get anywhere.  Our resort in Poi’pu was about halfway between Hanalei and the north coast attractions and Waimea Canyon on the western part of the island.  Very close to where we stayed was Baby Beach, renowned for its calm waters and just down the road, the kids loved listening to the groaning and spraying water of Spouting Horn Blowhole.

Waimea Canyon

Located on the western part of the island, just south of Na Pali, but only accessible from the southern coast, this is often called the Grand Canyon of Hawaii and with its red earth-tone cliffs jutting deep to the valley floor, it’s easy to see why.  At the top of Waimea Canyon State Park, there is an overlook to the Na Pali Coast, with incredible views of the lush cliffs and ocean beyond.  It’s a great place for the whole family to picnic. There is hiking and seasonal fishing and hunting in the park.  At the overlook point in Waimea Canyon, look for roosters on the loose; another victim of Hurricane Iniki.  Their cages were blown to bits and the birds have now become free-wanderers on the island.  Just south of Waimea Canyon, Hanapepe makes a good place to stop for a snack.  The kids liked playing on their famous swinging bridge, inspecting the salt farms at Salt Pond Beach and stopping for a Hawaiian shave ice at Jo Jo’s.

Family-Friendly Places to Stay in Kauai

We stayed at Sheraton Kauai Resort in Poi’pu.  The beach is great, with excellent snorkeling just off shore and the beachfront pool has plenty of shallow areas for the kids to play and a great water slide.  We got an ohana (or family) suite, which offered two separate rooms separated by a partial wall.  One room had a king bed and the other had two queens and they each had their own bathroom, which meant we all had plenty of room to spread out.  The kids loved the activities at the Keiki (Kid) Club. Their favorites were coconut painting and fishing in the on-premise pond.

Getting to Kauai

Several airlines have direct flights from the mainland USA’s west coast to Kauai, or flights with connections in Honolulu.  The best schedules and fares are probably through Hawaiian Airlines.  US Airways has lots of connections through its hub in Phoenix and Alaska Airlines flies from San Francisco and Seattle.  go! Mokulele offers hundreds of daily inter-island flights on jet planes.

Getting Around Kauai

You could take Kauai Bus to areas around the island; however it only goes as far as Hanalei on the north shore (about an hour from Ke’e Beach and trailhead for Na Pali Coast) and it does not go up to Waimea Canyon, so you are probably better off renting a car.  Most major car rental companies have offices on the island.

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