KAUAI, HAWAII — Family vacations can take many forms, but the basic ingredient is simple: fun.
With its three navigable rivers, more than 50 miles of white-sand beaches, and mile-long list of adventures, Kauai is as much the island of family fun as it is the island of gardens. Vacationing families will gain a lifetime of new memories in the mountains and beaches of the Garden Isle.
First: accommodations. You can stay in a hotel, a condominium, or a vacation rental—an inn, a sprawling house, a bungalow, a villa on the beach. Accommodations for families abound. You can choose the north shore of Hanalei, the “Coconut Coast” of the east side, the south shore resort of Poipu, or the sunny west side where Waimea Canyon presides, or Lïhu‘e and Kalapakī.
Wherever you are, you’ll be close to recreation, adventure and diversion suitable for all age groups. Many companies offer room-car packages, and some travel packages include airfare. A flight from Honolulu takes 25 minutes on dozens of regularly scheduled inter-island carriers, and there are nonstop charter flights and regularly scheduled direct flights from mainland hubs to Kauai.
Second: family activities and dining. Once on the island, pick your pleasure. Family activities and outings are seemingly numberless, from swimming and canoe riding to hikes along the shoreline, kayak or riverboat rides, or exploring a botanical garden. Many restaurants offer the mini-sized “keiki menu” for children, and the lü‘au, with its hula, fire-knife dancing, and island-style fare in exotic settings, never fails to mesmerize.
ZIP, DIP, AND BE HIP
You can build an entire family scrapbook on ziplining. The ultimate thrill for families, it’s a unique way to see the island: from the air, flying like a bird, looking down at bamboo forests, streams and waterfalls, listening to birdsong and feeling the wind and sun on your face. You can even zipline in tandem and take video and pictures of each other.
Getting there is half the fun. Zipline tours take you on private ranchlands, up and down rivers, along streams and rope bridges, to waterfalls and mountain pools. You can stitch together different segments and combine ziplining with a kayak river trip, a short hike, a rope swing over a stream, and a ride back on a hay wagon—an adventure never to be forgotten.
KAUAI MOVIE TOURS
South Pacific in surround-sound. The Jurassic Park wilderness, right before your eyes. Raiders of the Lost Ark, clearer than in hi-def. You can live your fantasies with a movie tour that takes you to the locations immortalized in some of the biggest blockbusters of our time.
More than 60 movies have been filmed on Kauai, and this tour covers the highlights. A special touch for all ages: surround-sound clips of the movie or television program that was filmed right where you are looking. Choose a mini-bus along the coast or a 4×4 into the rugged interior of the island.
From movies starring John Wayne and Elvis Presley to Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster adventure films, there’s plenty to entertain the family while you learn the history of the island. Children are welcome for $10 less than adults, and for the 4×4 tour, they must be at least four years old.
Hotel swimming pools and water slides are wonderfully entertaining, but beaches are the ultimate playground. And Poipu Beach is the beach-lover’s beach, a family-friendly spot for swimming, snorkeling, boogie boarding, and simply peering into tide pools. Turtles love this reef-protected beach, so turtle-watching is often a bonus.
On the west side, partially protected by a reef, the Salt Pond Beach Park is the best family beach, popular for swimming, picnicking, or exploring tide pools near the Hawaiian salt ponds that give the beach its name.
In Nawiliwili, near Lihue, the half-mile crescent of Kalapaki Beach is beach boy central, a recreational nexus of canoe riding, catamaran sailing, surfing, swimming, wave riding, and every beach sport imaginable. And you don’t have to limit yourself to the ocean. Kayakers can explore the glassy Huleia River nearby, featured in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and gaze at the koloa duck and other endangered birds from a wildlife refuge on the river.
On the east side, families love Lydgate Beach Park, near the mouth of the Wailua River. Its protective boulders keep the lagoon calm and snorkelers happy, and its pavilion, small playground, and white-sand beach are tailor-made for families.
Further north, in Haena, Makua Beach, called Tunnels, is an aquarium during the summer months, its underwater caverns and cathedrals a thriving habitat for tropical fish and a Technicolor treat for snorkelers and divers.
North shore beaches have larger swells during the winter, so heed the warning signs and always be sure to pick a beach with a lifeguard.
Also, two good sources of information to check out before exploring Kauai’s beaches are KauaiExplorer.com or calling (808) 241-SURF.
EATS AND TREATS
Shave ice, saimin, plate lunches, taro burgers, teriyaki beef sticks, pineapple and mango smoothies, lilikoi sorbet, coconut ice cream—there are taste treats throughout the Garden Isle. Shave ice, a magnet for kids, is an island institution, a mound of finely shaved ice topped with tropical syrups and sometimes paired with ice cream and sweetened azuki beans. Saimin is the noodle soup that reaches its pinnacle in the small kitchens of this island.
Plate lunches—rice, macaroni salad, and beef, chicken or fish in local-style preparations—are the dine-and-dash specialty for Islanders, a Hawaii signature available at diners and take-out counters around the island. Enjoy the island’s roadside fruit stands, where fresh chilled coconut can be cracked and served for its cool, refreshing coconut water and freshly picked fruit is blended on the spot for smoothies.
In hotel restaurants, rural diners, and everything in between, local fare is a multi-cultural journey through Hawaii.
KAUAI PLANTATION RAILWAY
What could be more memorable than feeding animals, slurping fresh fruit from a tree, and riding a sugarcane train through a working plantation?
Every child loves a train. The Kauai Plantation Railway is a throwback to the 19th century, to the days when trains crisscrossed the island hauling sugar cane from the fields to the plantations. With its mahogany cars and friendly conductor, the diesel-powered train winds over 2.5 miles and 6,000 railway ties through the 105-acre Kilohana plantation, around orchards of starfruit, lychee, mangoes, rambutan, sugar cane, and more than 50 varieties of produce.
Choose from a 40-minute train tour or a longer half-day tour through the farm. See the sights, have lunch, and take a hike into lush Kahuna Nui Valley, leaving time to make new friends: the farm’s horses, pigs, goats, cattle, and sheep, some of which love being fed and petted! At the center of Kilohana is a Tudor-style mansion from 1935, now the popular Gaylord’s Restaurant with a complex of galleries.
HIKES AND BIKES
Canyon trails, waterfall trails, short streamside trails, challenging uphill trails, trails through a Sugi pine grove—it’s a hiker’s heaven in the Waimea Canyon-Kokee State Park uplands of west Kauai.
At the Waimea Canyon lookout, you might hear the echo of distant bleating goats and glimpse a white-tailed tropicbird soaring overhead. At the Kokee Natural History Museum, you can see owls, rare honeycreepers, and rare plant and wildlife up close and personal, and you can plan your adventure with the trail maps available at the museum. The road ends at the Kalalau Valley Lookout, towering over the spectacular valley of the ancients. Look up, too: rare red honeycreepers flit among the ohia trees and feed on lehua nectar with their delicately curved beaks.
For a wheeled adventure, you can cycle to the coast from Waimea Canyon rim, more than 3,000 feet high, in Kauai’s version of the Tour de France. Children 12 and older are eligible for the downhill Waimea Canyon bicycle cruise, led by expert guides over panoramic views of Niihau and the island’s west coast.
The National Tropical Botanical Garden welcomes volunteers for its Limahuli Garden on the north shore and Allerton and McBryde gardens on the south shore. Vacation volunteering is an opportunity to enrich your knowledge of Kauai and have a hand in preserving its natural beauty.
In exquisite garden settings, roll up your sleeves and tend a taro patch at the north shore’s Limahuli Garden, or help clear invasive species in the gardens of the south shore.
Volunteer programs are open year-round for those 14 and older, with flexible hours and special benefits: invitations to special events, access to behind-the-scenes places and people, and the fun of leaving a mark in the fragile beauty of the Garden Isle.