Kaua'i, the oldest island in the Hawai'ian chain, has been famous for "eco-travel" since long before that became a popular buzzword. Covered with lush mountains, green grottos, hidden beaches and dramatic waterfalls, this volcanic Garden Isle, an extraordinary natural wonderland, is truly a paradise for exploring and enjoying with the entire family.
Even if you've not yet visited Kaua'i, you may be familiar with its diverse beauty from watching some of over 50 movies such as "South Pacific," "Honeymoon in Vegas," "Jurassic Park," "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "The Descendants" which have used this island for scenic location shoots.
Keiki (children) love Kaua'i, too. You and your kids will easily pick up some of the native Hawai'ian language (an alphabet with only five vowels and seven consonants), and soon, you will all be saying mahalo (thank you), lu'au (feast) holoholo (to have fun), and, of course, aloha!
Many of the beaches offer elaborate playground facilities, and the golden sand is perfect for castle-building. Several hotels have kids' camp programs which feature Hawaiian crafts such as lei making, hula and ukelele lessons, Hawaiian stories, education about the wildlife and gentle hikes to archaeological sites.
Around the Island
Only 33 miles wide and 25 miles long, you can rent a car to easily experience the varied parts of Kau'ai and its offerings.Most activity is along the 90 miles of dramatic coastline, as the internal part of the island contains forest preserves and is quite mountainous. The major resort areas include:
Kalapaki Beach is nearest to the city of Lihu'e, with easiest access from Lihu'e Airport. It is on the southeast coast, and is very popular with surfers in the winter season, fishermen, and swimmers because it is protected by a jetty and life guards. Overlooking Nawiliwili Harbor, the island's major seaport, it is home to Wailua Falls and Kalapaki Beach, and is close to museums and shopping centers.
Poipu Beach, also known as the South Shore is a 20-minute drive south of Lihu'e Airport on the sunny, dry south coast. Here, great weather and wide, white sand beaches make it perfect for water sports, and an offshore reef creates ideal diving, surfing, boogie boarding, snorkeling and swimming conditions for all ages. Koloa Town offers a glimpse of the island's sugar plantation history.
The West Side, the site of Captain James Cook's discovery of the Hawai'ian Islands, is where you will find the towns of Waimea (at the entrance to the famous canyons), and Hanapepe, both quaint, artsy towns where historical walking tours are offered. The West Side is also home of the spectacular Waimea Canyon (named "The Grand Canyon of the Pacific" by Mark Twain), Waimea Valley and the extraordinary Napali Coast.
Princeville and the North Coast is a scenic 45-minute drive from Lihu'e Airport. This area is known for its spectacular majestic mountains, beautiful Hanalei Bay and beaches where the Bali Hai scenes from the movie "South Pacific" were filmed.
The Royal Coconut Coast is the island's busy, populated East Coast, 10 miles from Lihu'e. It is named for its acres of ancient coconut groves, and is where the ancient chiefs and other Hawaiian royalty once lived. It offers the island's largest variety of accommodations, ranging from more affordable to luxurious, as well as the most historical sites on Kauai. The Royal Coconut Coast is home to the Wailua River, the Fern Grotto an several beach parks, riding paths, hiking trails, shops and restaurants.
Absorbing the Local Culture
For an overview of Kau'ai's rich cultural heritage, your family should visit the Koke'e Natural History Museum in Koke'e State Park, which, in addition to its interesting displays, offers free guided hikes and sponsors environmental and cultural festivals. The Grove Farm Homestead in Lihu'e, celebrates Hawai'i's sugar plantation history. This site from the 1860s was one of the earliest of Hawai'i's 86 plantations.
The Poipu/Koloa area is brimming with cultural, historical and geological sites. Their self-guided Heritage Trail with 13 sites covering five million years of evolution will interest school-age children most.A very entertaining way to learn about native legends is through a traditional lu'au show. After a torch-lighting ceremony, and the presentation of leis, a typical meal includes kalua pig roasted in an imu (rock-heated underground oven), lomi salmon, taro chips, mahimahi, beef, chicken and other native and American specialties. There's enough variety to please every palate.Among the many lu'au's available, Smith's Tropical Paradise is a 230-acre botanical garden which presents a traditional lu'au meal amongst magnificent grounds. Older kids will appreciate the meal and International Pageant which provides insight into the many individual South Pacific cultures that melded to become the native Hawai'ians. In a torchlit lagoon amphitheater, ethnic dances and songs from Tahiti, China, Japan, the Philippines, New Zealand, Samoa and Hawai'i are performed.
The Natural Side of Kaua'i
Waimea Canyon State Park and the adjacent Koke'e State Park are must-sees. Koke'e State Park's 4,345 acres of rain forest beckons experienced outdoor enthusiasts with hiking trails. Younger children and the less energetic will enjoy a 20-minute self-guided nature walk to view native plants and trees, such as the rare Hawai'ian koa tree. Waimea Canyon, is one of the island's masterpieces. The Canyon Drive takes you into the interior of the island where hikers (and non-hikers) will be amazed by this 10-mile-long gorge whose reddish-orange hues change throughout the day. Your teens will be thrilled with a horseback or helicopter tour. Our teenage son just had to have a reddish-brown T-shirt that claimed to be dyed by being dragged behind a jeep through this canyon, and, as promised, the color hasn't faded!
The National Tropical Botanical Gardens, the only such organization chartered by the US Congress, offers public tours at three garden sites. McBryde Garden features unusual varieties of native species as well as plants from around the world, Allerton Garden celebrates landscape architecture and design with tropical flowers and trees set amidst fountains, sculptures and pathways, and the Limahuli Garden features rare and endangered tropical plants, including many with significance to Hawaiian culture.
Located near Poipu Beach, Spouting Horn is a lava rock outcropping known for the shooting geyser of sea water that appears during high tide, sometimes reaching as high as 60 feet. Ask your kids what they think makes the weird groaning noise that you hear. The local legend is that it's from a large lizard trapped in the lava tube.
On the North Coast, near the Kilauea Lighthouse, Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge is a nesting site for several species of Hawai'ian seabirds such as the red-footed booby and wedge-tailed shearwater. The Napali Coast State Park, along an uninhabited coastline of breathtaking beauty, can be accessed by an 11-mile trail that snakes its way up and down steep cliffs. Most visitors take boat or helicopter tours (some of which have age limits for children) to view this secluded treasure that many consider the most beautiful part of the Hawai'ian Islands.
As much of the island is difficult to navigate, families with older adventurers will find that Zodiac raft trips, kayaking treks, and helicopter tours maximize their enjoyment of paradise. Additionally, there are guided wildlife birding tours to the Huleia National Wildlife Refuge and to unusual spots such as taro fields and sand dunes, primarily for dedicated naturalists.
Water, Water, Everywhere
If you want exquisite beaches, you've come to the right place. Here, they are varied and too beautiful to describe. The most famous spots include Hanalei Beach Park, Ke'e and Lumaha'i Beaches on the North Coast; Kalapaki Beach and Lydgate State Park on the Coconut Coast; Mahaulepu Beach and Poipu Beach Park in Poipu and Salt Pond Beach Park on the West Side. Poipu, with its sparkling sand and gentle surf, has been named "Best Kid's Beach" and "Best Family Beach" in several recent surveys.
Most of these unspoiled, secluded spots offer safe swimming, while others are perfect for shell hunting and wave watching. Kaua'i's nearly endless watersport activities range from kayaking, fishing, scuba diving, snorkeling, boogie boarding, bodysurfing, and sailing. Many tour operators offer day trips and rental gear, but these fees can mount up quickly. Plan ahead and allow days at leisure between your scheduled eco-tours.
"Stunning." "Amazing." "Spectacular."
Many adjectives that describe Kaua'i are often used to describe other tropical islands. After you experience its extraordinary beauty first-hand, and learn about the customs and culture, I think these words will take on a whole new meaning for you and your ohana (family).
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.