Kauai, Hawaii, is a wonderfully laid-back and manageable island. It's just 33 miles long and 25 miles across its widest point. Scenic sights are connected by two main highways that skirt the coast and penetrate the mountains on the western side. So on a week’s vacation, you can get to know the island — and its lush jungle, white sand beaches, cascading waterfalls, and green hills — intimately.
On a family visit last year with my husband and two kids, our 5-year-old son Ben and our 6-year-old daughter Kaylin, we explored the diverse natural environment of the Garden Isle. My spry, 60-something mother-in-law opted for the most adventuresome-sounding activities. Grandma Bonnie snorkeled and kayaked, ziplined, and tubed right along with us.
Totally Tubular Tour
On Kauai, in order to see parts of the island that are privately owned, or other scenic spots that are simply inaccessible without an experienced outfitter, you’ve got to dish out the dollars for a guided tour. And, the cost is usually well worth it, especially mountain tubing with Kauai Backcountry Adventures.
After a short, scenic ride into the backcountry on a Pinzgauer (a restored Swiss military [photo tubing max-width=150 align=left]vehicle), we floated on inner tubes along the gently flowing waters of irrigation ditches that were once used on a sugarcane plantation. With no athletic skills necessary, we simply kicked back and relaxed, marveling at the mossy banks and the wide ditches that were hand-dug by immigrant laborers in the 1800s.
We went through six long, pitch-black tunnels, turning on the miners' lamps on our helmets to light the way. I thought my young children would be frightened, but the lead tour guide held on to their tubes, and talked them through the dark passageways. The 45-minute tube ride ended with sandwiches at a picnic spot next to a swimming hole.
This off-the-beaten-path mountain tubing tour is offered four times daily. It departs from Hanama'ulu, on the east side of the island.
Safari Jungle Trek
A few other tourists looked askance at our motley, multigenerational group when we piled out of our rental car to join them for the Kipu Falls Zipline Safari, a full-day, multi-sport adventure in the backcountry. I wasn’t very concerned about our athletic Grandma, but wondered how my son would like being paddled two miles upstream in a two-seat kayak. I also wasn't convinced that Ben, who didn’t love hiking around our Colorado home, would appreciate traipsing through a mosquito-infested tropical forest.
But once again, he and his sister amazed me. After a few moments of freak-out on the [photo zipline max-width=150 align=right]open-cockpit kayak, Ben mellowed out and enjoyed the ride. And apparently walking through a jungle is more fun than hiking the mountains at home. We didn’t hear one "I want to ride on your shoulders" request the whole day.
My first grader was the first of our group to sail down the 275-foot zipline high above a tropical stream. She also wowed spectators at our final destination, Kipu Falls, when she climbed a steep ladder to reach a rope swing. My heart lurched when she hurled her little body off the mammoth cliff and let go of the thick rope about 25 feet above the swimming hole. Never a dull moment on Kauai.
This seven-hour tour includes snacks, cold drinks, and a yummy deli-style lunch. It departs daily from The Kayak Shack at Nawiliwili Small Boat Harbor on the east side of the island.
Snorkeling in Safe Waters
Before leaving on our trip, we bought our children some pint-size snorkeling equipment, and practiced with it a few times in the bathtub. We introduced them to the sport in saltwater at Lydgate Beach Park in Wailua, which features a manmade lagoon surrounded by large lava boulders. With few waves, it’s home to an amazing array of marine life and ideal for first-time snorkelers. The kids loved floating along with Grandma, pointing out all the fish — tiger, parrot, angel, and trigger — they spotted.
For more experienced snorkelers, I'd recommend taking a snorkeling trip off the rugged, [photo lydgate max-width=150 align=left]northwest Na Pali coast, which you can only reach by boat or helicopter. Here you’ll find pristine, white sand beaches, sea cliffs, and waterfalls, as well as spectacular snorkeling opportunities around the reefs just offshore.
A number of different outfitters offer snorkeling cruises on catamarans or giant rubber rafts. From other guests at our resort, we heard rave reviews about Capt. Andy’s Na Pali Snorkel Adventure. On this five-hour tour, amiable crew members not only give expert snorkeling instruction, but they share legends and lore about the island, teaching kids about the geography and flora along the way. Snorkel and mask rentals, drinks, breakfast, and lunch are included on the trip.
Similarly, you might also enjoy reading Hawaii: 5 Islands, 5 Grand Resorts. We also have a great article on the best secret snorkel sites and suggestions for sun- and fun-filled beaches.
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