Kauai has enough kid-friendly adventures to fill an entire vacation with thrills. But families who crave a more leisurely pace are equally spoiled for choice. Although you might long to spend your days lying prone on the beach, it’s almost impossible to zone out with young kids who want to bolt for the waves or insist on help with their sand castles. Here are my best suggestions for a low-key day that has just enough action to keep everyone happy.
For veteran surfers, Hawaii is nirvana; for novices, there’s no better place to learn. Hawaiian Surfing Adventures, headquartered in a cozy wooden cottage in Hanalei, is a great bet for surf lessons at all ages and skill levels. The owners are friendly and down-to-earth, and set nervous first-timers at ease. After donning color-coded rash guards (true beginners wear red), our group of four piled into a van for the quick ride to breathtaking Hanalei Bay.
Lessons start with a 30-minute practice session on the beach to get the basic moves down before it’s time to splash out in the water. Our instructor was patient, funny and encouraging, just right for never-evers. He helped us gauge the exact moment to paddle out with each gentle wave and cheered us on as we leapt onto the boards. I can’t say I nailed it, but I did stay upright briefly and understood why people get so hooked on this sport. The feel of gliding toward the shore is heady and addictive.
Although families can take a lesson together, customized for everyone’s ability level, HSA also offers a half-day surf camp just for kids 8 and up. If surfing isn’t your cup of tea, they teach stand-up paddle boarding, lead yoga sessions and rent kayaks as well.
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TIP: After working up an appetite in the water, make a detour to the Hanalei Taro & Juice Co. food truck, just a stone’s throw down the road. Insiders claim it has the best classic plate lunch on Kauai and I heartily agree. Hours are short; check ahead to make sure it’s open.
Hanalei Town is also fun to explore. Even for an island that’s remote and mostly wild, Hanalei is exceptionally unplugged. There’s no WIFI anywhere in town, including the local coffeehouse, and it contributes to the peaceful vibe. For today’s hyper-connected families, being forced to put down the smartphones is refreshing; you’ll quickly find yourself falling in step with the North Shore’s mellow rhythm.
The town is compact and easily walkable, lined with boutiques, art galleries and more. Grab a table at one of Hanalei’s handful of restaurants, settle in with a drink and snack, and strike up a conversation with the locals. Almost invariably, they’ll offer a great tip about a little-known beach or other secret spot to round out the afternoon.
About 10 miles east of Hanalei, an unassuming little road leads to one of Kauai’s hidden gems: Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge. Home to indigenous plants and flocks of nesting seabirds, the refuge occupies a rugged peninsula with cliffs that drop sharply to the crashing surf. At the very tip sits the picturesque Kilauea Point Lighthouse. It’s not open for climbing, but a walking path allows visitors to stroll around the exterior.
Across an inlet from the lighthouse is a cliff that teems with red-footed boobies, which you can watch through mounted telescopes as they swoop and dive. Other avian species that call the refuge home include shearwaters, albatross, frigatebirds and the nene goose, Hawaii’s state bird. Kids will love seeing whales breach in wintertime; in spring and summer, spinner dolphins or seals might make an appearance.
No trip to Kauai is complete without a luau. Smith’s Tropical Paradise, a family-owned botanical garden and fern grotto in Wailua, has hosted the Smith Family Garden Luau for 50-plus years and counting. This is not an intimate experience — each nightly seating holds hundreds of people — but the extended Smith family is so warm and welcoming that it doesn’t feel at all impersonal. They have the entire process well choreographed, and the flow is surprisingly smooth given the crowd size.
The luau begins with the imu ceremony, during which the whole, roasted kalua pig is unearthed from its earthen oven. During the cocktail hour afterward, the Smiths serenade guests with a mix of Hawaiian songs and familiar ballads, and demonstrate a few traditional dance moves. Kids get to come onstage and join them at the end.
After a buffet feast — the signature pork and more than a dozen other Hawaiian specialties — it’s showtime. Smith’s performance setup has plenty of flash and dazzle: a full amphitheater with a lake, bandstand, artificial volcano and more. This is the first luau I’ve seen that includes dances from the different countries that have filtered into Hawaii’s cultural pool, such as Japan, Tahiti and New Zealand, which makes for a nice mini history lesson for kids.
Although the food is a big part of the luau experience, guests can skip dinner and buy tickets for the show only. Just know that it’s a bit of a late evening, so if you have little ones who might get tired and cranky, plan accordingly.
Editor’s Note: Lisa was hosted by the Kauai Visitors Bureau and received complimentary activities from Hawaiian Surfing Adventures and Smith’s Tropical Paradise. As always, our opinions are our own. Photos by Lisa Frederick except where noted.
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