Travelogue: Kauai, Hawaii

It’s been just over a month since we got home from Hawaii and I still find myself scrolling through videos of the kids playing in the surf. We were lucky to find ourselves returning for a family gathering on Oahu, at the Aulani, and so we decided to extend our trip with a stay on the garden isle—Kauai.

We hemmed and hawed about adding the extra flight, in particular because much of the North Shore was still inaccessible at the time of our booking after last year’s devastating floods. But the small taste we’d gotten of the island—in particular of the North Shore—back in 2016 had left me wanting to see more. I’m so glad we went. We got lucky when the North Shore access was restored just before our visit and we found the coast was even more beautiful than I’d remembered it!

Here are some of the highlights…

We flew in on a Friday and, with one stop at a grocery, headed straight for our Airbnb on the North Shore. Along the way, we counted the chickens (there are chickens and roosters all over the island), and looked out at wild surf and lush green farmland. I recall that the kids were arguing in the backseat when we approached the first lookout for the North Shore coastline, which made both Aron and I turn around and snap at them for being under-appreciative of the setting. I mention this because travel days are never the most fun, but some playtime in the water is always a surefire reset.

To that end, one of the nicest things about flying to the islands from the West Coast is that, with most flights leaving in the morning, you still get plenty of daytime to enjoy the beach right away. In fact, I always pack our swimsuits in the carry-on just in case our luggage is ever lost: worse-case scenario, at least you can still go swimming, and it’s usually almost all we wear anyway.

We’d reserved a one-bedroom place in Hanalei, just a block back from the beach. We’ve learned that the kids are perfectly happy to sleep on a foldout sofa and, with the little time we spend inside, it’s best to prioritize things like location—as well as smaller touches like sand toys and beach chairs for us to use during our stay. But I should note that we found, even with the smaller space, rentals on the island (and especially close to the beach) are expensive.

We took immediate advantage and bee-lined it to the sand and out to Hanalei pier, commenting on the setting all the while: one never got over just how gorgeous it was, every which way you looked.

There were tons of teenagers jumping off the end and Hudson in particular was thrilled to join in. He later told me that some of his favorite memories were “holding hands with dad and jumping off together, and diving down to touch the sand on the bottom.”

We later learned that most of the kids were in town with teams for the outrigger State championship races—which take place on a different island ever year for clubs filled with people of all ages throughout Hawaii. It seemed like everyone in town knew someone racing.

We stayed and played in the bay by the pier—tossing a frisbee we’d packed for the trip. Skyler made sand-angels, ensuring that every fiber of her rashguard and every strand of hair was caked with sand—most of which probably remained with us until our flight home. And every now and then we’d remember to stand still and look up to take notice of all of the waterfalls dripping down the lush, green mountains, the fading sun changing their hue. We walked back along the water’s edge toward home to get some dinner.

That first night we first drove over to the end of town where the food trucks are set up and where you find Wishing Well Shave Ice, but we learned that most places close up pretty early. Tropical taco, a favorite from last time, had sold out of fish for the day so instead we got tacos from another spot on the lawn in the center for town.

The kids followed a hen and her chicks and we had a hard time pulling them away to eat. One of the chicks had gotten separated from the hen and a cat was stalking it so, as you can imagine, it was very distressing and I was worried we were going to get a front-row, blunt lesson on the circle of life while we finished our burritos. They looked for and talked about that chick—who I’m certain is safe and enjoying a very happy adolescence, if you ever talk to them about it—every day thereafter.

After dinner, we decided to use the last of the light to drive west (toward the Nāpali  coast) and ended up at Hā’ena beach for sunset.

When we’d made our reservations, the road west of Hanalei was still closed for repairs in the aftermath of the devastating 2018 floods: Nearly 50 inches of rainfall, the greatest 24-hour rainfall total on record in the United States, produced flash flooding and landslides that covered roads and damaged or destroyed 532 houses in April of 2018. Some farmers in the area lost their entire crop. The road re-opened to visitors just before we arrived.

The repairs to the road are still ongoing and it’s important to do some research in advance of your visit if you’re coming out this way. This page gives updated alerts about roadwork in the area, and any plans to visit Hā’ena State Park should be made using shuttles or advance reservation.

In fact, before our trip, Aron had woken up in the middle of the night multiple times to get parking reservations for the park and we had a morning park-entry reservation for our first day. We thought we needed it to go to Tunnels beach, but it turns out that the reservation point is actually further down the road at the Ke’e Beach and state park entry point.

We parked in the open-parking lot for Makoa or Tunnels beach instead (just across from the dry cave) and, still confused, tried to figure out how we were supposed to display our parking reservation. It wasn’t until later (just before the morning reservation expired) that we realized the difference and made it into the other lot with our permit just before the time was up!

In the end, we were perfectly happy with our mistake—as Tunnels turned out to be our favorite spot for snorkeling. Even Skyler came out with us this time! It was quite a trek down the beach, but well worth it. We walked—”and walked and walked,” so says Skyler—to the best spot to enter for snorkeling, basing ourselves under some shady trees.

I asked the kids to help me remember what we saw under water (Hudson said it was the best snorkeling ever, though keep in mind that they use lots of superlatives in their admirable enthusiasm). Hudson recalls that we saw parrotfish, boxfish, pufferfish (“a grown, deflated pufferfish”), and plenty of eels (including an “extremely—sorry to say—ugly, eel”) and even some lobsters. Skyler got cold pretty quickly and wanted to go back in earliest, so we did end up taking turns in the water, and I also spotted an octopus hiding in a crack and, later, a small turtle.

In fact, I think we would have stayed put there all day if it weren’t for the ominous weather forecasts. A storm was brewing off the coast and heavy rains were threatening to dampen the rest of our stay. We got the impression this might be our only sunny day on the island and so tried to pack it in: following a morning of snorkeling, we drove into the state park to make use of our parking permit, crossing the Taro fields (where the kids looked for frogs), and passing Ke’e beach to hike the first 1/2-mile of the Kalalau Trail on the Nāpali  coast.

We thought we might actually go as far as to walk the first section—the 2-mile stretch from Hāʻena SP to Hanakāpīʻai valley—but we quickly surmised that we would need more advance planning (water, in particular) for the round-trip. The first half-mile—which is a lot of uphill—gives you excellent views down the coast and we enjoyed getting a taste for the challenge. Although maybe my memory is more positive. According to Hudson: “it was not my favorite, it was not the worst. I really liked when we were going downhill. I liked washing off mud in the stream but I did not like the mud. It felt funny.” He also described the trees with all the exposed roots along the trail as interesting: “like a teepee made of sticks with a tree on top of it.”

Here’s a description of the entire trail, section by section. In terms of whether I would recommend this with kids, I’d say they have to be really good listeners and really sure-footed. There are some places where missteps could have serious consequences, so I’d probably only go on a dry (less slippery) day with someone as young as Skyler. There are a lot of danger warnings about the trail—which fascinated the kids—and tips regarding water portage. They recommend 2L per person for the two miles and I think that seems really accurate. But that first half-mile was very doable and it was really cool to get a feeling the trail.

When we got back to the bottom, we cooled off in the water, and then drove back to Hanalei for some shave ice. Along the way, Hudson thought he’d left his sunglasses at Tunnels so we pulled out near a driveway that led out to the sand. I ran out to check and to my left spotted spinner dolphins doing acrobatics and then a monk seal beached to my right. I quickly ran back and switched with everyone in the car so they could see, too. Incredible!

Wishing Well Shave Ice was recommended heartily by our friends and with good reason. We may have spent an entire day’s food budget between the various ices, coffees (iced with scoops of coconut creme), bowls, and souvenirs, but it was for sure a highlight. In fact, by the end of the week, both kids had hats from there that I coveted, so the ordered one for me for my birthday once we got home.

Oh, and Skyler told me it was her first shave ice ever—ha!—which just serves as a reminder why you should go and do the things you want to do when the kids are little (they don’t remember anyway). As it turned out, our kids actually learned that they prefer açai bowls to shave ice.

Tip: they don’t serve single-use coffee cups, so either bring your own or bring home one of their mason jar souvenirs. We really appreciated the focus on low-waste as well as the setting:  You can see Namolokama Mountain—said to have up to 23 waterfalls—while you sit.

Afterward, we walked further into town and picked up food to-go—burritos for the kids and poke bowls for Aron and me—that we could carry out to the beach.

I had bookmarked a ton of dinner options as people shared their top recommendations, but it turned out that our favorite “restaurant” was bringing sand-chairs out to Hanalei bay for some swimming and sunset-watching. We did it again later!

That night, after the kids went to sleep, we reviewed our boat reservations for the following day and had a shock: we were certain that we had reserved tickets for one of the couple of companies that leaves from the North Shore to see the NāPali coast, but we were mistaken. Assuming it was not cancelled for weather (the rain had already started), we were to meet it on the south shore—two hours away! That meant a 5am wake-up call, so we quickly gathered our things and got to bed!

It was a painfully early drive to get out there, but it went quickly and was totally worth it. Apparently there’s truth in that expression “calm before the storm”: the squall forming just offshore seemed to mean flat, calm seas for our boat ride. We’d been concerned about rough seas for sensitive stomachs and had brought along anti-nausea meds, but the ride was smooth!

We’d reserved seats on a 36-passenger “scarab” with the NāPali Explorer. It has some of the elements of the zodiac tours—small enough to go inside caves—but is stable enough for younger passengers like Skyler and Hudson.

We followed pods of dolphins along the coastline until we were facing those famous NāPali cliffs. One of the dolphin pods had a baby with them which was only about a foot long—Aron described its new, awkward movements like “toddling.”

The captain would point out features of the rock, crops of taro growing on its slopes, and navigate us into sea caves and under waterfalls. From Hudson: “I was brave enough to go under a waterfall and it was freezing cold!” Birds were flying in and out through the water to wash the salt crystals from their feathers and one of the crew played a song on a ukulele and sounded a conch shell (he told us his other job is at luaus).

I especially enjoyed spotting some wild goats and, later, some hikers on the trail—it really gave one a sense of scale to see them.

On our way back, the sky started to darken just as we jumped in the water to go snorkeling. I can’t say there was a lot to see underwater there—perhaps this is variable—but we did spot a green turtle. When the kids were back on deck for sandwiches, the captain threw in some of the bread and Hudson and Skyler thought seeing the fish swarm and jump for it was a highlight.

Those darkening skies gave way to rain around that time and they suggested we swiftly head back in. We raced along the coast—it was thrilling!—as what looked like a wall of water gathered offshore. Hudson will tell you that we raced the storm and won. Indeed, we watched the coast patrol zoom past on jet skis, heading out to meet the outriggers canoes still out on the water. The skies opened up as soon as we got back to land.

If you ever have the chance to go, I highly recommend it!

As the storm approached the shore, we watched the radar on our phones and took note that the majority of the rainfall seemed to be landing on the north shore, so it turned out to be a good day to be south. We took our time driving home—stopping in Hanapepe town (“Kauai’s biggest little town,” which supposedly was the model for Disney’s Lilo and Stitch) to take a walk on the “Hanapepe Swinging Bridge,” getting shrimp lunches along the road, and pulling off at Poipu beach for some boogie boarding.

One of the most popular beaches on the island, Po’ipu has a large, natural wading pool that’s perfect for young kids. There’s also a lifeguard on duty. But we couldn’t believe how much more full the beach seemed. The crowd even included a monk seal and a sea turtle, who had somehow navigated through swimmers to sun themselves up on the shore; it also included some friends from Davis we happened to run into, and a reader who said hi!

Also of note: It was Hudson’s first time boogie boarding! “My eyes stung like a bee sting, but I really liked riding the wave.”

We based ourselves around here on our first visit, so I have more about the south shore in an earlier travelogue. 

Finally, our last stop on the way home was in Old Kapa’a town for tacos at El Taco Feliz, and for dessert at The Spot. The storm was coming ashore and we drove through blinding rain on the way back to Princeville and Hanalei—we couldn’t keep the wipers going fast enough and wondered whether it was safer to drive or pull over. Our host even called that evening to make sure we’d made it back across the bridge as, she said, it often closes in such weather.

We worried that the rain would continue every day as was forecasted, but we couldn’t believe our luck when that was the only night interrupted by the storm. It never really stayed on the island, changing its course and bringing more rain to other islands instead. In general, wet weather does seem to be more of a threat on Kauai, and—as Aron put it—it makes the island seem like ‘high risk, high reward.’ We spent more time fretting about the weather (perhaps more than we should have), but it overall just felt like a less predictable place if a sunny, beach vacation is your goal.

Still, when it works out, it’s the most glorious!

Instead of rain, we woke up to mostly sunny skies each morning and spent the remaining days snorkeling—we returned to both Ke’e beach one day and to Tunnels—and eating as much tropical fruit as we could.

We ate one dinner at a nicer restaurant—Bar Acuda—but otherwise kept things simple by packing lunches and picking up things from food trucks. Otherwise I’ve perhaps gotten the most recommendations for Postcards, Tahiti Nui, and Dolphin.

We did drive back toward Princeville on one day, going for lunch at the Kilauea Fish Market, so that we could dry out a bit. And I think the Ahi burrito I had there was my favorite dish of the trip. We pulled into the Chocolate Farm for some dessert and considered making other stops while we were out in the car—like the lighthouse or Queen’s bath—but really found ourselves content to keep close to Hanalei.

It was the perfect home base for our time on Kauai—one of the most beautiful islands I’ve ever seen.

We were sorry to go, but looked forward to the next leg of our trip very much: four nights on Oahu with family at the Disney resort, the Aulani. We would be meeting Aron’s parents and his sister with her family—my brother-in-law and two nephews—who were visiting from Germany!

Have you been to Kauai? What should we be sure not to miss on our next visit?

P.S. More Hawaii travelogues: Here are some for Oahu (including Waikiki) and there are two from Maui. Also, we are meeting our family at the Aulani, and there are two earlier posts about staying at the Disney resort.


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