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Kauai: The Perfect Bonding Experience for Today's Harried Family

Kauai is the most remote and most rainy of the main Hawaiian Islands. So why would anyone want to drag their entire family halfway across the Pacific if the weather is so unpredictable? The answer is, with or without rain, Kauai is a still an unspoiled paradise with opportunities for a family bonding experience through safe yet challenging activities. Playtime includes:

  • sugar sand beaches
  • scenic mountain vistas
  • learning about local customs and endangered species
  • watching the majestic sun set on America's farthest point west

Kauai also boasts the best family park and playground in the state.

I will not describe the myriad beaches, restaurants or hotels on the island. These are more than adequately covered in other Travel Notes, or in any good guidebook. However, I am going to propose a week's worth of (mostly) free ideas for two hassled yet playful parents, and their sometimes whiny, but overall decent children. These suggestions strike a balance between relaxation and adventure. Family walking and hiking experiences allow parents to communicate with their children in a different manner than sitting poolside. This is the time to notice and contemplate the beautiful planet on which we live. And in today's hurried and electronic world, that is no small feat.

Beach at Hanalei, north end of Kauai

Kauai is a small island. Local maps are plentiful and specific driving directions will also be in any guidebook. Plan to stop as often as you can for that local treat - Shave Ice. The children will marvel at the huge ice block being hand shaved right before their eyes. Let them sample every flavor over the duration of the vacation. They can't get anything like this at home.

Day One - Get supplies and head to the beach!

On your first morning, you will be up early if arriving from any part of the Mainland. Use this opportunity to drive into Lihue and stock up on supplies. You will need bottles of water, salty snacks or trail mix for hiking, and snorkel equipment for the whole family. These items are too reasonably priced, and too heavy to carry over in your luggage.

The kids will probably want to swim today. To lessen the problem of rough seas, plan on visiting south shore beaches if it is winter time, and north shore beaches if it is summer time.

If you are near the south shore, in the late afternoon or evening, take a meandering stroll along the Makawehi Cliffs. These are located at the east end of the Hyatt beach (separate parking lot). On this pleasant walk, you will encounter beautiful shore line overhangs made from cemented sand dunes deposited here during the last ice age. The kids can hunt for fossils in the sandstone. Marvel at the schools of fish swimming in trapped tide pools. The walk goes on for miles and it is very windy up there on the cliffs. Stop whenever you feel tired and head back to the car.

Day Two - Hike at Keahua Arboretum and head to the beach!

Next day, after a hearty breakfast (this is an active day), drive to the Keahua Arboretum on the east side of the island. Park in the lot and head up the Kuilau Ridge Trail (trailhead about 100 yards before the parking lot). The trek is uphill on the way in, downhill coming back. The best views are a mile in where you will you look right down at Mt. Waialeale (the wettest spot on earth) and a fern filled ridge. Sometimes you will see it raining over the mountain, but not where you are standing. Continue to the footbridge and then turn around. This trail keeps going, but is not meant for less than very experienced hikers. There is a picnic bench where you can rest and contemplate the graffiti from the many that have come before you.

By now the kids will be complaining about being hot and tired. Head straight over to Lydgate State Park (10 minutes away). Spend the afternoon at a place just meant to be savored by families. Enjoy perfect soft sand, rock rimmed pools for calm exploring and snorkeling, and an amazing playground (Kamalani) with slides, swings, climbing bars, and gorgeous ocean themed mosaics. Just when you think it doesn't get any better, head to the other end of the park. Here the locals have built a wonderful three story wooden play bridge; a giant wooden fantasy-type play structure, with mirror mazes, a suspension bridge, and lava tubes. It is just off the beach, and all children enjoy climbing, crawling, swinging, and sliding down and around the many turrets, ramps and fixtures.

Day Three - Head to the beach and go snorkeling!

The next day head west to Salt Pond Beach Park. For some reason it is almost always sunny and warm here even if it is raining elsewhere on the island. It's a popular family beach where the colors are bright and the natural lagoon is safe for everyone. Bring nets to catch fish. Practice with your new snorkeling gear. Explore the tidal pools where salt is still harvested.

When you start to see blue lips and shivers, begin an easy hike on nearby Glass Beach (very short drive away). This area used to be a dump (literally) and you will see an amazing amount of old trash. The sides of the overhanging cliffs are embedded with junk, mostly metal and glass. On the lava is an amazing assortment of ancient engine blocks and car frames. It sounds ugly, but your kids will be astounded. The hulks are often interwoven with the lava itself.

Day Four - Hiking in Waimea Canyon!

Now that you are warmed up, the fourth day will be the first for some serious hiking. Head up Waimea Canyon Road to Kokee State Park (remember to bring all your previously purchased hiking gear to include water, snacks, sweatshirts, moleskin, bug repellent, band aids, etc.). You want to astonish your kids? Stop at every lookout on the way up. The views and changing colors of Waimea Canyon are incredible. Mark Twain called this the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, and it truly is a sight to be seen by all who visit Hawaii. You may want to hike down the short but steep Kukui Trail which begins at the end of the Iliau Nature Loop (a short flat trail with descriptions of local flora). Children can often hike this better than adults, but watch their footing. You lose altitude quickly, so about one mile down is a very safe place to stop, be awed, and head back out.

Back in your car, I recommend continuing along the main road until you can travel no more. Remember, stop at every lookout on the way up. From the final parking lot, walk to the Pihea Trail head. It is here than you will be stunned by the majestic Bali Hai. You may hike for another two miles and be awed by the unusual scenery. On one side huge green precipices tumble directly into the ocean, while on the other scores of ferns struggle for light in this swampy eerie place. If the day is sunny, this hike will be remembered by all of you.

Day Five - Kick back and relax!

Relaxation is the order of the fifth day. Spend the morning at Spouting Horn Beach Park. This is a small lava shelf where water from waves is thrust through an opening causing water and air to squirt out a blowhole. A nearby additional hole that blows only air causes a loud moaning and gasping sound. The kids will enjoy this groaning geyser. On the grounds are assorted novelty stands. The prices are reasonable should one of the young'ns be pining for a trinket.

Spend the afternoon in nearby Po'ipu Beach Park. This is a very protected swimming and snorkeling area. There is no more perfect beach for kids. There is a rock-sheltered pool, with graceful swells beyond. Kids can explore the long rocky point at the far end and find fish in the tidal pools. Hundreds of schools in rainbow colors feed on the coral, and they are so tame that they almost swim into your hands.

Day Six - Kilauea Lighthouse and some gardens!

The next excursion involves a morning drive to the Kilauea Lighthouse. In this north shore area you will see frigate birds with 8' wingspans, red-footed booby, nene (original Hawaiian species), tropical birds, albatross, monk seals, dolphins, and green sea turtles. There is also visitor's center and museum filled with stunning photos of past lives maintaining the lighthouse. Docents are happy to answer any questions about wildlife or the lighthouse. It is highly likely that your children will run from railing to railing trying to follow the antics of a swooping albatross, or spouting whale.

Spend the afternoon at nearby Na Aina Kai Gardens. This spectacle of color and whimsy offers fantastic family tours that wow the whole group. Not only will you learn more than you ever thought possible about various plant species, but the sights and smells are glorious. There are dozens of fanciful statues particularly created for the grounds, upon which kids may climb for a better photo or up close view. There are indigenous plants and many more which were imported. Regardless of the time of year, much of the grounds will be in bloom. A knowledgeable docent will explain everything to you, and if you are lucky, she'll even give you a delectable rambutan to eat. The gardens also boast a Japanese tea house, mazes, bridges, waterfalls, carnivorous plant house, desert area, and specially designed children's garden. This prize should be savored last, as you may cool off while watching Jack race to cut down the beanstalk.

Day Seven - We saved the best hike for last!

On the final full day, head back to Kokee State Park for the most difficult, yet awesome hike of the trip. The entire Nu'alolo/Awa'awaphui Loop (begins at the 17 mile marker) is 10 miles long and would take all day for most families to hike. A somewhat shorter and safer version is to hike in and out the Awa'awaphui Trail alone. It is roughly 6 miles round trip, which is challenging for most and rewarding to all. This trail is much less crowded and easier to get to than the famous Na'Pali.

The descent in, and ascent out, are gradual more often than not, but you will likely fall or trip at some point. At some spots you are walking in the clouds. The moist clammy air provides an experience just sufficiently frightening. You feel that you are accomplishing something wondrous and exhilarating. However, the vista awaiting you is the most spectacular sight ever seen. After 3 miles of trekking you will be atop a ridge, at 2,500 ft. elevation, gawking at the spectacular views down sheer palis (cliffs) into the Awaawapuhi and Nualolo Valleys overlooking the Pacific Ocean. You actually see helicopters flying below you.

This journey will bring the family together in wonder. It will leave you with memories to savor for a long while.

Note of Caution

All of Kauai's fresh water streams are now infected with Leptospirosis. This bacteria causes infection and flu-like symptoms which can range from moderate to severe. The bacteria enter your body through an open scratch or cut, or through the mouth. The best preventative, especially with children, is to stay out of the streams and rivers altogether. Swim in the salt water or hotel pools instead.


Hawaii Vacation Rental Reviews

www.kamalani.org: Friends of Kamalani and Lydgate Park

www.naainakai.org: Na Aina Kai Gardens

www.hawaiitrails.org: Hawaii trail system and access - hiking trails on Hawaii (Department of Land and Natural Resources, under the Division of Forestry and Wildlife).

www.kauaivacation.com: Kauai vacation planner

Slow Travel USA - Pauline's Notes on Kauai: A different take on a Kauai vacation (less active :) ).

Slow Travel USA - Hawaii Vacation Rentals: Lists of vacation rentals and agencies for Hawaii.

Slow Travel USA - Pauline's Notes on Kauai Vacation Rentals: Descriptions of cottages in the Poipu area (south end of Kauai).

Guide Books

The Ultimate Kauai Guidebook, by Andrew Doughty, Harriett Friedman, Wizard Publications, 7th edition, 2008

This is the best guide book for Kauai. It has excellent descriptions of the beaches and things to do, plus detailed restaurant reviews.

Order from Amazon

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