The entire Hawaiian landscape brings the drama in a big way, but wild, exotic Kauai is an especially apt backdrop for high-octane thrills. The island is heaven for adrenaline junkies, and the best part is that almost all of the adventures are great for kids too. Although it’s hard to go wrong no matter what you choose to do, there are a few excursions that stand out as so special that you should put them at the absolute top of your list.
There’s simply nowhere on earth like the Na Pali Coast. Remote and unreachable by car, its crumpled cliffs vault skyward along a 17-mile stretch of shoreline, parting here and there to reveal moody green valleys. It’s a sight worthy of any bucket list, and it had been on mine ever since I first read about it.
As I boarded the Northern Star catamaran for a Na Pali snorkel and barbecue sail with Captain Andy’s Sailing Adventures, I wondered if the coast could possibly live up to the expectations I’d built — so often, hyped-up experiences fall flat. Happily, it blew past my expectations and left them in the dust.
Captain Andy’s has half a dozen different Na Pali excursions, from a sunset dinner sail to an all-day raft trip that includes sea caves and beach landings. Older kids can handle the raft, but the catamaran is ideal for little ones. The Northern Star and its sister boat, the Southern Star, are comfortable and beautifully appointed, including cushy banquettes, wooden tables and a full bar.
For my money, though, the place to be is right at the bow, where you can savor the rush of wind and salt spray along with the heart-pounding views. There are trampoline floor panels on either side, and kids will get a kick out of bouncing flat on their stomachs as the boat skips over the waves.
Our captain and crew were friendly, attentive and great with the kids on board, even letting them drive the boat as we headed up the coast. After a light breakfast and an hour or so of cruising, we anchored near a reef to snorkel — they offer both child-size and adult gear so everyone can get in on the tropical fish spotting. Many people in our group spied sea turtles, though I never managed to hit the right place at the right time.
Back on board, the chef had a delicious barbecue lunch in the works: burgers, grilled chicken and a few simple sides. By the time we neared Na Pali, we were stuffed and pleasantly sleepy from the sun and surf, sipping mai tais and watching spinner dolphins zoom alongside the boat. That is, until a first glimpse of the star attraction made us all shoot upright and race for the railings.
Words can’t do justice to how gobsmackingly gorgeous it is. The basalt cliffs tower 3,000 feet above the water, with craggy caves and small pockets of sand at their feet. Kauai is the oldest Hawaiian island, and it is here that its ancient mystique has the strongest pull. Our captain, descended from the generations of natives who once inhabited the valley, shared a few poignant tidbits about the rise and fall of their communities. The whole experience was so sublime that we were practically levitating as we headed back to port.
TIP: If the weather is dicey and the water is too rough, the crew may not be able to reach Na Pali — they’ll have to make a game-time decision to re-route the trip (or, in extreme cases, cancel it). My advice is to schedule this outing early in your vacation so you have a better shot at rebooking if nature doesn’t cooperate.
Also, if anyone in your family is even slightly prone to motion sickness, come prepared with Dramamine, acupressure wristbands or whatever works best for you. The ride can get seriously bumpy as the waves swell.
A helicopter flight over Kauai is an absolute must. More than 90 percent of the island is unreachable by car, so the only easy way to see the interior is from the air. I recommend going with Island Helicopters, as it’s the lone company allowed to land at Manawaiopuna Falls, tucked into a private parcel of the Hanapepe Valley. It’s nicknamed “Jurassic Falls” for its cameo in the movie Jurassic Park, and it’s the centerpiece of Island Helicopters’ signature tour.
I was lucky enough to be assigned a front-row seat, but even from the back the views are amazing. Our pilot did a great job of circling around so that everyone could see the full panorama. He expertly swooped and hovered along the mountains and lowlands as we made our way around the island. Having seen the Na Pali coast from the sea the day before, it was fun to get a fresh perspective on it from the sky — totally different yet no less incredible.
Another big highlight is Waimea Canyon, Kauai’s answer to the Grand Canyon. Formed by thin sheets of lava, carved out by floods and faults over the millennia, the canyon takes on a painterly quality from high above. Although you can explore Waimea on foot, a bird’s-eye view gives you a true sense of its grandeur.
The pinnacle, though, is the waterfall, which lives up to its billing. We plunged through a maze of deep valleys, touched down in a clearing and debarked into absolute stillness, save for the thundering water a short hike away. Manawaiopuna is a 400-foot stunner cascading over a sheer cliff face, far more majestic in person than onscreen. This is no quick in-and-out detour; you have a full 15 or 20 minutes to enjoy the spray of the water on your face.
The surrounding valley is so pristine that you’re asked to wear paper booties over your shoes to ensure that you don’t track in contaminants. There are few such primal places left in the world, and to stand in the middle of one is an all-too-rare treat.
Before takeoff, I’d had a few minutes to chat with Bonnie Lofstedt, co-owner of the company, who described the tour as “like riding on the head of a brontosaurus.” Her words gave me goose bumps (or chicken skin, as Hawaiians say), and they flashed through my mind again as we hovered over Waialeale Crater, the deep scar left by the volcano that formed Kauai. To come face to face with the birthplace of Hawaii was profoundly moving. I don’t think I was the only one who got misty-eyed.
TIP: You’ll be tempted to take photos throughout your flight, but resist. Island Helicopters provides a complimentary photo CD, and those shots are far better than what you’ll get through a glass window. Snap a few if you must, then sit back and drink it all in.
Princeville Ranch on Kauai’s North Shore is known for two big things: beef cattle and outdoor adventures. Its 2,500 hilly acres are a delightful playground for families; activities include horseback riding, off-road vehicles and more. I signed up for the Jungle Valley Adventure to sample a smorgasbord of rainforest hiking, kayaking and — most exciting — my first-ever zipline.
The two-mile hike began in a rolling meadow with views of fog-capped mountains in the distance. Our two guides were not only knowledgeable, but skilled at sharing tidbits in just the right way to engage the kids in our group. Two miles may sound long for small legs, but don’t worry: That’s the round-trip total, with stops for the other activities on the tour.
Along the way, the guides plucked fresh guava for everyone to taste, pointed out wild animal tracks and stopped to show us fascinating foliage such as the “shy plant,” with leaves that furl when you stroke them. Not for nothing is Kauai known as the Garden Isle, and its unspoiled, lavishly diverse landscape is on spectacular display here.
As the fields gave way to forests and the hike grew steeper, we picked our way toward the gentle Kalihiwai Stream, where individual adult- and kid-size kayaks awaited our launch. The stream is shallow and the kayaking is super-easy, even for the younger set, but the guides are good at keeping an eye out for anyone who struggles. We glided through the quiet under a canopy of tropical foliage, then landed for a bounce along a suspension bridge to the piece de resistance: the ziplines.
The two-way zip crisscrosses a pretty gorge with double waterfalls — you’ll be too entranced with the views to remember to get nervous as you fly over. Many similar zipline courses, including others at the ranch, require kids to be at least 10, but this one is open to those as young as 5. Although the little ones with us weren’t so sure about taking that first step off the platform, their grins afterward said it all.
Our final stop: a swimming hole with a waterfall (yes, there’s a theme on this island), where the guides set up a simple picnic lunch of sandwiches, chips and cookies while we took a dip to cool off. There’s a low cliff that you can jump from — daredevil kid heaven. It was a perfect, idyllic spot to relax and take in the peaceful sights and sounds of the jungle before we turned around for the hike and kayak trip back to home base.
TIP: Your feet will get soaked many times over and, more than likely, covered in mud. Kauai’s red dirt leaves permanent stains, so wear shoes you don’t mind sacrificing. Princeville Ranch Adventures also has loaners for those who need them.
Our Family Vacation Consultants can put together an unforgettable trip that includes these excursions and many more, plus accommodations and other tips. Visit our Connect with a Travel Advisor page to send us a request.
Browse family-friendly accommodations on Kauai
Kidding around Kauai: Why the Garden Isle is a dream for families
The ultimate tropical escape with kids
Editor’s Note: Ciao Bambino was hosted by the Kauai Visitors Bureau and received complimentary activities from Captain Andy’s, Island Helicopters and Princeville Ranch in order to review them. As always, our opinions are our own. Photos by Lisa Frederick unless otherwise noted.
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