From the peaks of Na Pali to the sands of Poipu, here’s a roundup of the best spots for families to stay and play around the Garden Isle.
By Judith Gottesman
I ran into Marc Maron, the comedian and star of G.L.O.W. and Maron in Papayas, my favorite Kauai health food store, located in Kapa’a. I’d seen him on TV criticizing Kauai as a boring place with nothing there except for roaming chickens. But after running into him, I’m guessing he was downplaying the island’s beauty and tranquility to keep it from becoming too popular.
Unlike some other islands in Hawai’i, which are famous for having big mansions on huge estates (yeah Maui, I’m looking at you!), Kauai’s celebrities seem to value lying low. It’s quiet, it’s casual—in other words, it’s no place to dance the night away or eat at the latest Top Chef–owned bistro. You’re pretty much welcome anywhere here in a bathing suit or cutoff shorts except for a few higher-end restaurants, which are still casual by mainland standards.
One of the rainiest places on the planet, Kauai is covered in tropical rainforest. It’s the fourth-most-visited island in Hawai’i, which is a big reason it’s my favorite: less crowded and less developed than the other popular islands, it’s also cooler, which is a big plus. That said, during a normal year, more than 1 million visitors arrive, a huge number compared to its full-time population of about 72,000.
Kauai is all about relaxing and enjoying nature, moving slow, and (for the island residents anyway) talking slow. Clean air, no traffic noise (unless you have the misfortune of staying next to the island’s little airport), no skyscrapers, and only one main highway, which circumnavigates the whole island and has a maximum speed limit of 50 mph.
Being near, in, or on the water is the main attraction of Kauai—swimming, surfing, sailing, snorkeling, diving, stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking, hiking a trail, or walking along the beach—is the order of the day.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Hawai’i closed to visitors unless they quarantined for 14 days upon arrival. When the state reopened in October 2020, it was instantly flooded with tourists and a spike in infections followed. Kauai’s small healthcare system feared being overwhelmed, so it became the only major island to shut down to tourists, again requiring a two-week quarantine for all arrivals.
In January 2021, the island began a “bubble resort” program. (Click here to read the rules about visiting Hawai’i.) The program allows travelers to book a room in a participating resort, stay on the property for three nights, wear a location-monitoring wristband, pay for a post-travel test, and, if negative, gain freedom to travel around Kauai as normal. So it’s once again possible to visit Kauai without a 10-day quarantine. Give Kauai as little as a week and your family will be hooked.
A Kauai real estate agent recently told me the island has been inundated with Californians moving here since many can now work from home. In fact, the tiny elementary school in her area enrolled 50 new students last year. So, while there may be fewer tourists, there is also a smaller supply of long-term rentals.
Kauai’s Three Main Tourist Areas
Families usually stay on the north coast (Hanalei, Princeville), the eastern “Coconut Coast” (Kapa’a, Wailea), or the south coast (Poipu). Unlike the Big Island, Kauai is small enough that it’s possible to drive from one side to the other for a morning or afternoon outing. After many trips to Kauai, here are my favorite spots in each area.
The North Coast: Hanalei, Princeville, Kilahuea
Green and lush, the north is the rainier part of the island. It definitely feels like the “small town” part of Kauai and is the arguably the most scenic, as well.
Hanalei Bay. This town near the end of the road north is known for its sunsets and village vibe. You’ll likely recognize the main beach from The Descendants and classics including South Pacific. Just off the pier is a favorite swim spot for locals. Families love to rent houses in the streets behind Hanalei Beach and walk to the perfect sandy cove for sandcastles and surf lessons. The price of rentals has gone sky high in the past decade—but plenty of people think Hanalei is worth it.
Hanalei’s town center has many shops, cafes, and restaurants, as well as a friendly community of locals. Postcards Cafe in Hanalei is more of a fine dining experience, while maintaining the island’s casual vibe. It specializes in local organic produce and some vegan dishes.
Beach time. Past Hanalei, Tunnels Beach is one of the last strands before the road ends at the entrance to the Na Pali coast. Snorkelers and divers enter the water here to see the lava tubes and other volcanic formations under the water as well as a wide variety of beautiful fish and maybe even a sea turtle. It’s a popular spot for picnics and sunset-gazing, as well as swimming. (Note that there are lifeguards at this beach.) Tunnels became infamous as the site of Bethany Hamilton’s shark attack, which was dramatized in the movie, Soul Surfer, although shark attacks here (and everywhere) are actually quite rare. And locals have been working to restore Ha’ena State Beach, another scenic spot at road’s end.
Na Pali Coast. The scenery of the Na Pali Coast is so stunning it’s not surprising many movies such as King Kong, Jurassic Park, and Raiders of the Lost Ark have all had scenes filmed here.
There are no roads here and lots of rain, so while you can hike sections at certain times of the year, it can be quite treacherous and not the best for parents with young kids. Most people prefer to see the coast by boat. There are several companies offering sunset cruises or all-day snorkel boat trips. I took the Blue Dolphin Charters snorkel trip. We saw many spinner dolphins and the biggest sea turtles I’ve ever seen, napping below the reef. Deep off the mostly untouched coast, the turtles are safe from the dangers of fishing and boats. With few predators, they live long here and grow large.
Since I spend so much of my visits to Kauai swimming and snorkeling up north, I often stay in condos in Princeville. The area is up on the cliffside and has comfortable, fully-equipped units. You may see whales from your lanai in Princeville, depending when and where you stay. Most condos provide binoculars for this purpose, but just to be safe you may want to bring your own if you visit during migration time.
Whale-watching. My favorite whale-watching place is by the Kilahuea Lighthouse on the north shore. The whale migration is between November through March but January and February are the best months to see them. (I’ve seen spouting straggler whales swim along during other months too.) It can be tricky to find a time at the lighthouse that isn’t foggy, so if you happen to be driving by when it’s blue skies, make the time to go then. It’s also a great place for birdwatching, and one of the few places to see flying or nests of albatross, the red-footed booby and the wedge-tailed shearwater. I’ve seen nene, the rarest goose in the world and the Hawai’ian state bird, here as well.
Accessibility. Kilahuea Point National Wildlife Refuge is run by the National Park Service, so there’s a $10 entrance fee per person, but kids under 16 are free. Unlike most beaches on Kauai, which are rocky or sandy, the walkway here is paved and fully accessible for wheelchairs and strollers.
Thrift shopping. There’s a great thrift shop in the Episcopal church just off the highway in Kilahuea, so stop by if you need anything from books to beach gear to local trinkets.
Hangry? The Healthy Hut is a health food store in Kilahuea, which features a delicious hot food bar with many vegan options. Farther south on the highway, you can get a smoothie at Kalalea Juice Hale, a little organic juice stand. They also have varieties of iced coffee. If you make it a habit, know Juice Hale has a frequent-buyer rewards program. Enjoy the lush open space with a view of the mountains while you wait. (But beware the mosquitos!)
Snorkel time! Just down from Princeville, Anini Beach has calm and clear water almost every day of the year, since it’s sheltered by one of the longest reefs in the Western Hemisphere. Stay inside the reef, as it’s really rough in the open ocean. It’s normally a good splashy spot and introductory snorkeling site for kids. No lifeguards here though and keep an eye out for boats using the local boat ramp. The orange swim buoy, just at the start of the main reef, is the signal to stop and turn around.
The Coconut Coast: Wailua, Lihue, Kapa’a
Lime in the Coconut? Lined with its namesake palms, the Coconut Coast on the east side is a fun, central part of the island. It’s not far from the airport, near the Wailua River activities, and equidistant to both Hanalei in the north and Poipu in the south. Accommodations tend to be a bit cheaper here, but the ocean is typically too rough for swimming, making a great pool a must-have for family lodging.
Wailua Falls is where the opening scene of the 1980s TV show Fantasy Island was filmed. It looks smaller in person, but it’s right next to the road, so it’s easily accessible and a must-see. The Wailua River is Kauai’s longest river and a popular place to kayak or do stand-up paddleboarding. We did an afternoon kayak trip here and included a hike at the turnaround point. We rented from Wailua Kayak and Canoe, which provided excellent customer service, and we lucked out by having a perfectly sunny afternoon with completely calm water. You can also opt for a Fern Grotto boat tour, although it’s a bit touristy.
Up, up in the air … Speaking of those opening shots from Fantasy Island, some visitors say there’s no better way to see Kauai than by helicopter! Yes, many Hawai’in islands have helicopter rides, but aside from getting up close and personal with spewing lava on the Big Island, Kauai is the best for helicoptering, and there are many chopper outfits leaving from Lihue that will gladly take you up. It ain’t cheap, but if you’ve got some extra cash, my friend Maria recommends the splurge.
Lydgate State Park is the safest swimming spot for families on Kauai’s eastern side. It provides an artificial pond to learn how to snorkel, and has clear, calm water with some fish. There’s a lifeguard posted at the shallow pond, which is connected to the ocean. Beautifully colored roosters and hens, often with chicks scurrying behind, roam the island and may be seen on the grassy areas (or really, all over the island).
Kickin’ it at the resort. The Kauai Coast Resort at the Beachboy and nextdoor at the Aston Islander on the Beach are both great resorts for families. The Aston has a free DVD rental machine if you book directly through the hotel and the newly renovated Beachboy has a long heated pool with a waterfall (and a separate children’s pool), a nice jacuzzi, and hammocks on the main grassy area.
The Aston features comfortable studios with microwaves, while the Beachboy has spacious one- and two-bedroom condos with full kitchens. All feature lanais. Both are along a narrow beach (really too rough and dangerous for swimming) and a wide public walkway to stroll or ride a bike. Note: Aston’s pool is cold, so it’s rarely used and the small jacuzzi is usually crowded. There’s live music by the pool bar at night.
East side eatin’. Russell’s Eat Healthy, on the east side by Wailua, is my absolute favorite restaurant on the island, as it is all vegan and features local, organic produce. It has a nice garden dining area and is also great for taking food to-go. Tip: If it’s time for a treat, be aware that Russell’s has the best chocolate-chip cookies and fruit turnovers on the island. Really, all their baked goods are delicious.
Another nice restaurant on the east side is Hukilau Lanai, which features live music and is located inside the Kauai Coast Resort at the Beachboy, just behind the Coconut Market shops. The Coconut Market also has a free hula show several days a week. There’s also a Mexican cafe and a coffee shop right next door, as well as the Lava Lava Club for dining on the beach.
One of the main cultural events in Kauai is the Art Walk, held in the evening in Old Kapa’a Town on the first Saturday of each month. A live band plays and locals sell their wares along the sidewalk. Restaurants and shops stay open a little later for the event.
The South Coast: Poipu, Waimea
Poipu, on the south end of Kauai, is drier and has calm beaches much of the year, most noticeably in winter, when water on the north shore tends to be rough. It’s a popular place to stay, since it’s reliably sunny.
The state beach in Poipu has lifeguards and well-protected beaches with plentiful tropical fish, which allows for snorkeling in kid-friendly shallow water. The Travel Channel named Poipu one of the world’s best beaches for all the above reasons, and some people even call it the best beach in the United States.
Poipu Beach is also a favorite spot for the endangered monk seal to snooze on the sand. These legally protected seals are super cute and always fun to see from a respectful distance. The lifeguards usually rope off areas to make sure no one disturbs them while they rest.
Blow it! Down the road from the beach in Poipu, by the fancy beachside homes, is the Spouting Horn blowhole. This lava tube jets water up to 50 feet high and is one of the most photographed spots on the island. It’s also a great place to see humpbacks in the winter months.
Grand Canyon? Continuing past Poipu for another hour, you arrive at Waimea Canyon State Park. It can be foggy if you don’t go early, but if you’re lucky, you can see spectacular views of Kauai’s “little Grand Canyon.”
Kauai Travel Tips
Perfect climate. Kauai has stable weather patterns, as well as cooler temperatures than other Hawai’ian islands, ranging from 72º to 87º degrees Fahrenheit, depending on the time of the year. Summer gets down to the mid-70s at night; nightly winter temperatures go as low as the mid-60s. March and April are known as the rainiest months. Locals don’t typically have air-conditioning in their homes. If you want A/C, be sure to find a place that has it. The big resorts usually do.
Water play. The sea is warm but not “tropical warm.” I’m an open-water swimmer and prefer warm, clear, calm water, and I don’t really like to wear a wetsuit, so Kauai is the perfect place for me to swim. My travel buddy is super-skinny and gets cold easily, so he always wears a wetsuit here. Hot-blooded kids splashing on the beach or paddling near shore won’t need wetsuits for sure.
Weather watch. Being the least-developed of the four main Hawai’ian islands allows for natural beauty to dominate the Kauai experience—and frequent rain is the reason for the lush landscape. You have to be prepared for sunny skies or rain during your visit. Flash floods can come out of nowhere, including on the usually calm Wailua River. I recommend traveling with rain as well as snorkel gear in your rental car, as you just never know when you’ll be caught in a downpour—or see an inviting beach!
Doggy fix. If you’re missing your dogs at home, take advantage of the doggie field trip program at the Kauai Humane Society. You may even wind up adopting your new friend! (Don’t worry they’ll help you make all the necessary canine arrangements for your flight home.) Be sure to get there early during the pick-up window, as it is a popular program and they run out of dogs!
Check your beach. One local TV station is dedicated to solely broadcasting the current wind and water conditions on different sides of the island. Be prepared to change beaches and sides of the island at the last-minute as weather and water conditions change frequently. The county also provides this site to check on current beach conditions to plan your day accordingly.
Rough ’n’ ready. Hawai’i is famous for its big surf and unpredictably rough waves, and most beaches don’t have lifeguards, so not every beach is the best for kids. Many tourists and even some locals have drowned over the years, so you really have to know where to go. Check the surf report daily to know when and where water conditions are safe. Remember, the goal is to have a fun—and uneventful—beach vacation!
Not for nightlife. Restaurants typically close by 9pm; there are only a few bars and places to hear live music; and the one main movie theater closed due to Covid. Most people just relax in their condos or hotels in the evening.
Easy drivin’. Being such a small island with one main highway, it is easy to navigate. By Day 3, you’ll know your way, as well as shortcuts around “rush hour” traffic.
Mosquitos aplenty. Be sure to wear insect repellent if you hike or head into the forest, especially by a river. Any standing water without wind conditions is a prime spot for mosquitos. And beware of accommodations that don’t have air-conditioning or screened windows; though the tradewinds make for pleasant temperatures, open windows let in armies of mosquitos that can devour little ones and parents alike.
Yummies for your tummies. Hawai’i doesn’t change its clocks and sunset is around 6:30pm year-round, so it gets dark pretty early. After a big day at the beach or hiking, dinner becomes a big focal point, whether eating out or cooking with delicious local produce from one of the many farmers’ markets. (There’s a farmers’ market somewhere on the island almost every day of the week.) Some markets are more expensive and geared to tourists, while others are more for the locals, so check out several and compare. You won’t believe how huge and inexpensive the lettuce and avocados are, or how delicious the mangoes, papayas, and other tropical fruits taste.
Sharky-ness Deer attack more people than sharks do, but the big fish make some Hawai’ian visitors nervous nonetheless since shark encounters are not totally uncommon in Hawaii. Shark sightings are very rare at Poipu and Anini, but, as mentioned, you may see them at Tunnels and some other beaches. Advocacy organizations like Shark Stewards are great resources for how to stay safe in the water.
Here … fishy, fishy. I recommend bringing your own snorkeling gear. There are places to rent in Kapa’a and other spots around the island for about $15 a day but that adds up if you’re traveling as a family or want to snorkel every day like we do, plus you may not be renting the best fit or quality. The Kauai Snorkeling Guide ebook by TropicalSnorkeling.com authors Galen Piehl and Nicole Atkins is a useful book with a wealth of helpful information. The Quick Location Reference provides an excellent ranking of each beach for best places to see fish, turtles and coral, as well as water depth, area size and type, and ease of entry (rocky versus sandy, short versus long walk).
Sea turtles are endangered and protected on Hawai’i shores. Please keep a distance and never touch them—and never touch or step on coral. Also be sure to wear “reef-safe” sunscreen in the ocean. It’s now the law, meant to protect the corals.
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