For our second trip to the state of Hawaii, we decided to visit the island of Kaua’i. The promise of tropical vistas, serene beaches and fewer tourists than neighboring islands lured us in. Having recently returned, I’m happy to report that our vacation was every bit the adventure we hoped for. We came home with beautiful photos, full hearts and memories to last a lifetime. In this post, I’m sharing the details of our travels to help other families plan a vacation as amazing (maybe more!) as ours was. If you’re looking for the best things for families to do in Kauai, you’re definitely going to want to read further. If you’re more a mountain lover than beach, check out my Banff Travel Guide
When it comes to vacation styles, my family walks the line between seeking relaxation, while still experiencing some active adventures. Kauai was the perfect destination to suit our vacation preferences. Rather than stay in one of Kauai’s many beautiful resorts, we opted to rent a vacation home on the island. Doing so allowed us the opportunity to enjoy plenty of privacy as well as the freedom to cook our own meals when and if we wanted. We spent three weeks on the island and lived like locals from day one of our trip, to day twenty-one.
Where to Stay in Kauai
We headquartered on the island’s southern shore in Poipu, but we also spent plenty of time on the northern, eastern and western shores of Kauai. Our length of stay on the island allowed us to experience a wide variety of beaches, hikes, restaurants and other activities. The things you’ll read about here are, in our opinions, the best things for families to do in Kauai.
The month of your visit may greatly influence your decision about which part of the island to call home during your stay. Generally speaking, ocean conditions on the north shore of Kauai are ideal during summer months, while surf on the south shore in the summer tends to be fairly rough. In spite of this, we opted to stay on the south shore, in Poipu, during our July vacation. We chose this area based on precipitation. The south shore doesn’t receive as much rainfall as the north shore and that was important to us. The downfall is that the south shore of Kauai isn’t nearly as lush and tropical as the north shore.
Just before departing for our trip, I started to second-guess my decision to stay in Poipu, wondering if we’d be disappointed. As it turns out, Poipu was the perfect spot for us. Even though it is one of the drier spots on island, it rained in Poipu almost every day of our three-week stay. Our visits to the north shore were even more wet. While the north shore certainly is beautiful, the south shore was definitely the right call for us.
The VRBO home we rented was located about five minutes from Poipu Beach. In addition to boasting a protected bay for swimming and snorkeling, Poipu Beach also is a magnet for sea turtles and monk seals. We saw several of each species chilling on the beach there during our stay. Insider’s Tip: The best time to view sea turtles or monk seals on Poipu Beach is early morning, within an hour or two of sunrise.
Poipu Beach (pictured above) and the beach park is also a great place for strolling in the early morning or late evening. It’s conveniently located near Little Fish Coffee (or Starbucks, if that’s your preference). If your ideal leisurely morning involves sipping coffee or tea whilst taking in a gorgeous view, this is not a bad place to do just that.
Best Beaches in Kauai
It’s impossible to talk about the best things for families to do in Kauai without talking about the best beaches in Kauai. The two go hand in hand, right? Each of the beaches we visited during our stay offered something unique. Because of that, it’s tough to choose a favorite. Rather, I’m going to comment on what we loved about each one.
Kiahuna Beach (Sheraton Beach)
Based on the location of our rental house, availability of parking, proximity of parking to the beach, and crowding, Kiahuna Beach was easily the most convenient beach to enjoy. There is ample parking on the street along the Sheraton hotel and a couple of parking lots that offer free parking. Bathrooms and showers are also conveniently located.
Kiahuna (Sheraton Beach) offers quite a stretch of shoreline real estate so it doesn’t feel as crowded as the more compact Poipu Beach. It also boasts a sandy ocean entry whereas some of the other beaches are rocky and can be hard to navigate.
Our eleven-year-old son did a surfing lesson at Kiahuna one morning with Aloha Surf Lessons. His instructor, Christian, had him riding waves in under fifteen minutes. I would highly recommend giving them a call if you’re looking to hang ten during your time on the island.
Pu’u Poa Beach
Pu’u Poa is the idyllic little beach that fronts the St. Regis Princeville. Even though the swanky St. Regis obscures this beach from open access, it’s still a public beach and available to anybody, resort guest or not.
During our trip, we splurged for a one-night stay at the St. Regis so as to experience a little bit of luxury. We arrived early and checked out late so that we would have almost two full days lounging around the St. Regis. The majority of that time was spent on Pu’u Poa (for obvious reasons).
The view from this beach is the clincher. A hint of Hanalei Bay teases from the corner while the Na Pali Coast peaks give way to open ocean and clear blue sky. The other end of the beach is framed by black lava rocks and greenery. It’s gorgeous.
Beaches We Enjoyed:
Kiahuna (Sheraton) Beach – This beach offers easy access from parking and lots of space on the beach. Restrooms and showers are not far, no matter where you claim a spot on the beach. We saw monk seals on the beach here three separate times.
Pu’u Poa – This is a small stretch of sand nestled along a quiet bay with gentle surf. Access is a bit of a pain since you have to score one of the few parking spots or valet at St. Regis. Either way, you still have quite a trek to make it to the beach. Once you get there, you may luck into a spot beneath one of several shade trees.
Shipwreck Beach – We appreciated convenient access from parking to the beach. Shipwrecks can also boast powerful waves that make for perfect boogie boarding conditions. One night, we took a bottle of wine and Mexican takeout (Da Crack) to this beach for a simple date night. We sat on the sand and watched the surfers execute some pretty impressive moves. The drawbacks are that the beach is quite rocky and boogie boarding here could be a hazardous.
Salt Pond – We loved the gentle surf and the worry-free wading this beach offered for our kiddos.
Lydgate – for its convenience to restroom facilities and protected cove
Best Things for Families to Do In Kauai
One of the non-negotiables of visiting Kauai is experiencing the Na Pali Coast. There are two different ways to see the majority of it: by air or by sea. I recommend doing both if you can swing it.
Na Pali Coast Air Tour
We contracted with Blue Hawaiian for our helicopter tour. Based on my daughter and her boyfriend’s review of the tour vs. what we experienced, I gather that each flight varies greatly, based on the pilot. My daughter flew with Che (Shey?) while we flew with Matt. Matt provided a nice, relatively monotone tour, while I hear that Che offers a far more engaging, upbeat, scenic (for each passenger, no matter where they are seated) and informative tour. Even so, we had a nice time and don’t regret the money we spent. After all, it’s not every day you get views like these.
One of the most fun aspects of touring with Blue Hawaiian was that they sync the tour to music. So, when you’re flying up to and over the waterfall featured in Jurassic Park, they play the Jurassic Park music. And so it goes. The accompanying soundtrack adds a lot to the experience and makes the beautiful scenery that much more impactful. My guidebook claimed that visiting Kauai without taking a helicopter tour is akin to visiting the Sistine Chapel without looking up. I have to agree; a helicopter tour is definitely one of the best things for families to do in Kauai.
Na Pali Coast Boat Tour
Another way to experience the Na Pali Coast is by sea. We ventured out on an afternoon tour with Na Pali Catamaran. The tour departs out of Hanaeli Bay and is estimated to last four hours, though ours lasted just over five. The motorized boats seat sixteen people, though only twelve of those seats offer shaded seating. Had I known that in advance I would have made more of an effort to be at the front of the line when we boarded the boat. I know for a fact that we were the first to have booked this tour (based on stated online availability when we booked in March) on the day of our sailing. Still, the fact that we were traveling with two children (one with special needs) put us at a disadvantage when it came time to board. Boarding was first-come, first-serve and since our kiddos were the slowest to board, we were left with seats in the full sun. I thought that was in poor form.
As you can see from the photos, the view you get from a sea-based tour, is far different than the view you get from an air tour. From the air, you’ll see a serene landscape, reminiscent of a movie shot. From sea, you’ll experience more detail, sharper contrasts, and more moody shadows.
Another bonus of touring by sea is that you have the opportunity to get up close and personal with some of the resident wildlife. Our afternoon tour encountered a pod of spinner dolphins and several sea turtles.
Wildlife or not, the views make this a tour to consider. I will say that if you are even the least bit prone to seasickness, I would highly recommend taking medication the night before and the morning of your excursion. I did not do so, thinking I’d be okay. Boy was I wrong. I was sick as a dog the entire time we were at sea. Given the five hour duration of the tour, suffice it to say that I was lucky to have been able to brace myself against sickness long enough to snap a few photos and call it a success. The rest of the time, I was glued to my seat with my eyes fixed solidly on the horizon. It was fairly miserable for me but my family enjoyed it quite a lot.
Explore Waimea Canyon
The Waimea Canyon is known as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific.” Having lived in Arizona, the Grand Canyon State, for twelve years, we can see why they call it. Like Grand Canyon, Waimea Canyon bursts with layers of rich, warm colors. And the hiking there is pretty amazing, too.
The good news is that you don’t have to do a lick of hiking to get a view like the one pictured above. The road that leads to the tippy top of Waimea Canyon boasts several lookout points along the way. Simply pull over, park and walk to the viewpoint with your camera in hand.
If you drive the road as far as it will take you, you’ll end up at the Pihea Trail. In my opinion, the Pihea Trail is, hands down, one of the best things for families to do in Kauai. It’s a pleasant, simple hike that offers several different viewpoints and perspectives of the Na Pali Coast.
I highly recommend hiking the trail, if you’re even just a little bit inclined to do so. It starts out fun; kids will enjoy bounding over the giant red boulders.
Grown ups might enjoy that part, too. But if not, they’ll definitely enjoy the views afforded all along this trail.
Hike Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail
Like the Pihea Trail in Waimea Canyon, the Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail is an easy one to recommend as one of the best things for families to do in Kauai. It’s a coastal hike that leads visitors along the sandstone cliffs from Shipwreck Beach all the way to Gillin’s Beach.
The hike is quite easy, even for children (ages five and over). Inclines are minimal. Taking the more inland route offers even terrain on a sandy path. Taking the more coastal trail offers slightly less even terrain; the path is sandstone but still pretty easy to traverse.
Because this hike hugs the coastline, the views are gorgeous along the entire trail. Another nice thing about this hike is that you can turn around at any point along the way without missing a huge vista payoff. In other words, this is a hike about the journey, not the destination.
During our three-week trip, we did the hike twice. The first time, we started from Shipwreck’s Beach and hike in a northeastern direction towards Gillin’s Beach. The three photos above are views from hiking in that direction.
Later in the trip, we drove the long, unpaved road to Gillin’s Beach and hiked in a southwestern direction towards Shipwreck’s. It’s hard to say that one direction was better than the other. Families with older kids might do the entire four mile round-trip trail in one outing but breaking it into two adventures worked well for us.
Where to Eat in Kauai
We set out with big plans to taste our way around the island of Kauai. My itinerary included meals at some of the islands most highly-rated restaurants but upon arrival, we quickly changed our minds. Kauai is not an island known for it’s food scene and I can see why. Most of our restaurant experiences were underwhelming. Prices are high and food quality is just okay. We weren’t far into our trip when we decided to cancel the majority of our reservations and opt instead to cook our own meals. We had opted to stay in a VRBO rental home with a full kitchen and great outdoor grilling area and so it was an easy choice for us to make.
The notable exception is shave ice (And yes, on Kauai it’s called shave ice, not shaved ice). We quite literally spent hundreds of dollars on shave ice during our stay. We hit up nearly every shave ice stand on each shore and came away with some definite favorites. More on that in a future post.
In the meantime, here are some restaurant hits and misses we experienced during our trip.
Both of the dishes above were enjoyed at Hukilau Lanai, located on the eastern shore of Kauai, in Kapa’a. We dined there early in our trip and had such a great experience that we promptly made reservations for a return visit. Hukilau Lanai had it going on in the way of ambiance, service and food quality. Not only that, but they also offered significant value in comparison to the competition. Each entree was served with choice of soup or salad and the wine list was not ridiculously priced. The first time we ate there, our total bill came to about $150 including two fresh fish entrees, two kids fresh fish entrees and a bottle of wine. The second time, both kids ordered from the regular menu and we added an appetizer and bottle of wine. The bill that time was closer to $200. This place easily gets my vote for the best restaurant in Kauai. We had an ocean view from an open-air lanai and it was just an all-around excellent experience.
On the other end of the dining spectrum, we absolutely loved the Fresh Bite Kauai food truck in Hanalei. Dining opportunities on the north shore are far more limited than on the south shore. Given the scarcity of options, we were so thankful to discover this super cute food truck. They offer farm to beach dishes with fresh, local and flavorful ingredients. We tried the Summer Kauaian quinoa bowl. It featured honey mustard massaged kale, quinoa, watermelon, feta cheese and chopped mac (macadamia) nuts. We loved that dish so much we duplicated it in our own kitchen when we arrived home from our trip. My daughter also raved about the steak sandwich.
Of course, I also enjoyed my fair share of cocktails while I was on island. The best Mai Tai I tried (and I tried several) was the Monkeypod Mai Tai with lilikoi foam. I enjoyed it in two different locations: the Beach House Restaurant in Poipu and Merriman’s Fish House, located in the Kukui’ula Village Shopping Center, also in Poipu. While I can recommend the drink, I will say that our experience at the Beach House was not great. The prices are exceedingly high; they’re very proud of the view. During our happy hour visit, the server spilled an entire frozen mocktail in my son’s lap. Even if he hadn’t given our boy a bath in icy coconut milk, the server left a lot to be desired. Our experience there makes it hard to recommend the Beach House Restaurant, but the Mai Tai was good.
Restaurants We Enjoyed:
Hukilau Lanai – They boast an excellent view and ambiance. Fresh seafood is done amazingly right here and the value is hard to beat. During our first visit we had excellent service from Andrew, but our second visit was disappointing as far as service. The food quality was consistent for both visits.
Fresh Bite Kauai – This food truck in Hanalei offers delicious, inspired dishes at a reasonable price point. They also have ample seating and parking. With lots of menu options, this one is easy to recommend.
Living Foods Market – This cafe located inside an upscale grocery store in Kukui’ula Shopping Village in Poipu served up a yummy breakfast pizza. We also enjoyed two very good flatbreads and a Caprese salad during a subsequent visit. Prices are notably high and the food service is really slow. Only go if you have time to kill.
Duke’s Kauai – We stopped in for hula pie and did not regret it. They have a great ambiance. The food we saw coming out of the kitchen looked like standard bar food fare but the hula pie is a legendary dessert on Kauai. Stop in for dessert if you have the chance.
Lava Lava Beach Club – We enjoyed a toes-in-the-sand lunch here one day. Mai Tai’s were served strong and cold. The food was nothing particularly special but the ambiance and fair prices make this one quite enjoyable.
Restaurants We Did Not Enjoy:
Tortilla Republic – This was the first restaurant we tried on the island. Ambiance is nice, but the food is way overpriced and not all that good. We may be spoiled by having dined on authentic Sonoran Mexican food during all the years we lived in Arizona. If you’re not picky about your Mexican food, this might be okay for you.
Seaview Terrace – This bar located inside the Grand Hyatt was a bust. The crowds detract from the ambiance. Drinks are ridiculously expensive. Food portions are small and quality is reminiscent of something you’d find on a cruise ship.
Makana Terrace – Another resort restaurant, the Makana Terrace is located at the St. Regis in Princeville. We splurged on a buffet breakfast here. The view is impossible to match anywhere on the island but, unfortunately, the buffet offerings are really abysmal. The omelet bar is the only standout. Everything else is cafeteria food and there is not nearly enough of a variety of offerings to justify the hefty price tag. I wouldn’t recommend this one, even though the view was beautiful. When the bill came, it felt like we’d been robbed.
DaCrack – This is a hole in the wall Mexican spot in Poipu. They offer standard Mexican favorites like tacos, bowls and burritos. Prices are very fair for Kauai, but the food quality reflects that. The food was really salty. It seemed like they were trying to cover up the lack of flavor with salt. We did not enjoy the taste and have to disagree with all the positive reviews this place has earned.
Chicken in a Barrel – There are several locations of this local chain on Kauai. We visited the Hanalei store in the Ching Young Village. The chicken here was good but prices were high for what you get. During our visit, not all of the food we paid for was served and we had to return twice to the counter to remind them about our order. This place gets rave reviews but it was a miss for us.
One of the best dining memories I came home with was made on Shipwreck’s Beach. Toward the end of our trip, I cancelled reservations one night in favor of taking a bottle of wine and takeout to the beach. Jeff and I sat on rocks in the sand and shared our bottle. We watched the surfers catch all the waves they could as the sun went down. Once it was dark, we walked over to the Grand Hyatt and meandered along the torch-lit paths, enjoying the breeze. We found a swing near the pool and sat soaking up the second to last night of our vacation. It was a super cheap date night that turned out to be one of my favorite parts of the trip.
All told, our Kaua’i trip was unforgettable. As a destination, Kauai offers beautiful landscapes, gorgeous beaches, opportunities for adventure and a taste of Hawaiian culture. If I didn’t have such wanderlust (and the associated desire to try new places), I’d return to Kaua’i in a heartbeat. I think we discovered some of the best things for families to do in Kauai and most definitely enjoyed some really lazy beach days. If you happen to be planning a trip of your own, I’m happy to answer any questions you might have, just ask in the comments.
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