With the exception of a 20-minute drive to the boogie-boarding beach, there are four words most parents will never hear from their kids while on vacation in the Hawaiian paradise of Kauai: “Are we there yet?” Roughly 550 square miles, this compact island has enough adventure to keep the whole family satisfied for weeks. By law, no building can stand higher than a coconut palm, so instead of hotel towers you’ll find sheer sea cliffs, lush tropical forests and 50 miles of sandy beaches. It’s a place where kids can reclaim their imaginations: where iPods, Game Boys and the Internet take a back seat to zip lines and Zodiac boats.
MAKING YOUR LIST
The big problem with Kauai is choosing your adventure. You can hike through a rain forest; explore the backcountry by mountain bike, horseback or dune buggy; or float on an inner tube or paddle a kayak on rivers that flow through secluded tropical forests. Among the island’s natural wonders are the spectacular 10-mile-long Waimea Canyon, known as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, and the rugged cliffs of the verdant Na Pali Coast on the northwest shore.
THE BEACH, OF COURSE
Kauai has more sandy beaches per mile of shoreline than any other Hawaiian island. Anini Beach on the north shore, Salt Pond Beach to the south and Lydgate Park to the east are favored by those who like to use a mask and snorkel to meet the denizens of the not-so-deep. You can rent equipment from Snorkel Bob’s (808-823-9433) in Kapaa, a short drive from the Lihue Airport. Holo Holo Charters (808-335-0815) and Kauai Sea Tours (808-826-7254) run guided snorkel tours along the pristine Na Pali Coast, accessible only on foot or by boat.
The calm waters off Poipu Beach are perfect for learning to surf or boogie board. World champion surfer Margo Oberg and her teaching staff will have your kids (and maybe even you) up and riding in a single 90-minute lesson (Margo Oberg Surf School; 808-332-6100; from $60). Oberg works with groups of six; Kauai Surf School (808-742-8019) teaches four at a time. Wherever you swim, remember that even when the waves are small, they’re at the edge of a very big ocean; an adult should always stay with the kids. If you want to learn some tips by watching the pros hang ten, ask the lifeguards to show you where the surf is way up.
MUD BUGGIES & MOVIES
“Dirty” is the key word when taking a mud-spattered dune-buggy tour of Kauai’s old sugar-mill trails with Kauai ATV Tours (808-742-2734; kauaiatv.com; $125 to drive and $105 per passenger). “Mud bugs” carry two to four passengers (children must be five or older; cover-up clothing is provided). While you enjoy the lush trails, the kids will enjoy acting as lookouts for wild pigs and colorful Hawaiian birds like the apapane.
If Kauai’s terrain looks oddly familiar, that’s probably because more than 50 feature films, from South Pacific to Jurassic Park, have been shot here. Hawaii Movie Tours (808-822-1192; hawaiimovietour.com) conducts five-hour tours of well-known movie and TV sites ($111 per person). The company’s minibuses are equipped with DVD players that show clips of the film sites you visit. Kids can spot locations from Lilo & Stitch, while parents might recognize the beach where Gilligan and the other castaways washed ashore.
VIEW FROM THE TOP
You could call this island Zip Line Central for its ecofriendly, adrenaline-pumping treetop tours. Step off a wooden platform and travel, suspended by a steel line and held tight by a harness, high above the lush tropical tangle. The trees rush by—and then you land easily on the next platform. The first time might be a bit frightening, but by the third line on the circuit, you’ll feel like a bird in flight.
The zip line ride offered by Outfitters Kauai (808-742-9667) is part of a day-long excursion. Before even reaching the zip line, you kayak and then hike to a waterfall in the mountains. Kauai Backcountry Adventures (808-245-2506) operates tours on 17,000 acres of old sugarcane land. A three-hour outing can include tubing downstream in the tunnels and flumes used in the past to irrigate the cane fields. Age and weight restrictions vary by company.
Kauai is the perfect place to keep your little eating machines happy. Roadside fruit stands attract visitors and locals alike with treats like freshly cracked coconut, juicy pineapple and luscious papaya. “Shave ice,” Hawaii’s mouthwatering answer to the snow cone, ranges from the obvious flavors like pineapple to such novel concoctions as sweet azuki bean-studded ice cream covered with a mound of shave ice in “rainbow” flavors (most often strawberry, orange, lemon and vanilla). For a picnic at the beach, follow the crowd to one of the takeout counters serving “plate lunch”—usually a meat entrée flanked by macaroni salad and two scoops of rice.
In the 1800s, when much of America’s cane sugar came from Hawaiian plantations, harvested cane was moved to the mills by train. A new attraction that opened last winter, the Kauai Plantation Railway, re-creates those days with a vintage diesel locomotive pulling four brand-new mahogany passenger cars modeled after the traveling coach of Hawaii’s King David Kalakaua.
From its old-fashioned station house at Kilohana (just south of Lihue), the Tudor-style plantation home of the sugar baron Gaylord Wilcox, the train chugs through 105 acres of orchards (growing lychee, mangos, starfruit and bananas), sugarcane groves and coffee farms, with nary a car or building in sight. Five 40-minute tours run daily starting at 10 a.m.; check in 30 minutes before boarding (808-245-7245; kauaiplantationrailway.com; from $18). For $75 ($60 per child), the early train will drop you midway for a 90-minute guided hike into the mahogany-canopied Kahuna Nui Valley. After a picnic, jump back on the train.
At Kilohana, you can check out art galleries, grab a salad or sandwich at Gaylord’s Restaurant and take a horse-drawn carriage ride. Two vintage Hawaiian steam locomotives are currently being restored to power the train, but they won’t be ready this summer. That’s just another excuse to come back with the kids to this charmed island.
For outfitters’ websites, go to 101thingstodo.com. For everything else, visit kauaidiscovery.com and kauaidiscoveryblogs.com, or call the visitor center at 800-262-1400. In Hawaii, your options typically outnumber your vacation days, so ask the experts. Your hotel concierge or someone at the activity desk can help you choose what’s best for your family.