It’s as though the gods took a peacock and molded it into forest and sky, sea and mountain. Kauai has an iridescence, a shiny-shimmery quality that seems almost beyond belief – its blues improbably intense, its greens pulsing with an internal, explosive exuberance. You gaze down the sweep of the Kalalau Valley from a ridge above, or up at the bony fingers of jade scratching the sky at Na Pali, or across the rusts and russets of Waimea Canyon contorted into bluffs and cliffs and crags, and it simply seems implausible that so much geographic diversity, so much sheer beauty, could be contained on an island roughly the size of Atlantic County, New Jersey.
Having spent a sensational week in Princeville, on the north coast, we headed for our second week on Kauai to Poipu (population 1.075), on the south shore. The area has great beaches (see video), and the travel channel once named Poipu “America’s Best Beach.” I don’t know about that, but it is indeed a pretty superlative stretch of sand.
Poipu Beach Park consists of two lagoons separated by a narrow spit of sand and a low breakwater, the smaller lagoon being perfect for children as it slopes gently into the protected bay. One of the problems with beaches in Hawaii is that they can have heavy surf, dangerous currents and riptides, so it’s great to find a spot where you don’t have to worry about the kids. There is ample parking, there are restaurants and shops across the street, and picnic facilities, bathrooms, and showers are available on site. Not the place to go if you’re looking for pure seclusion, but we never found it to be at all crowded and it scores very high in family-friendliness. Snorkeling can be very good in the rockier areas, and you’re likely to see a good variety of reef fish and even green sea turtles.
Shipwreck Beach is a fantastic place for a morning or evening stroll and it’s here you’ll find the trail head for the 3-mile Mahaulepu Trail, which winds along a remote section of coastline through dunes, to secluded coves, and along cliff tops from which it’s common to spot humpback whales during the winter months. Shipwreck has no facilities, so bring plenty of snacks and water, and don’t even think about swimming. While the beach is popular with surfers, it is far too dangerous for adults to swim, let alone kids.
Aside from the beaches, the south coast offers some excellent outdoor activities. Waimea Canyon, dubbed “The Grand Canyon of the Pacific” by Mark Twain, is a 10-mile, 3,600-foot-deep (1100 meter) convolution of gorges, buttes and chasms carved out over thousands of years by flood waters and rivers sluicing down from the summit of Mount Waialeale, one of the wettest spots on Earth.
Waimea Canyon Drive weaves through the mountains up to Koke’e Road and a parking and overlook area at Koke’e State Park, and along the way there are numerous pullouts where you can get out to snap photos, admire the views, and clean up the vomit your kids have spewed all over the back seat. From the car park at the road’s end there are numerous trails, but be advised that many are steep and conditions will most likely be wet, making what would seem an easy stroll a shoe-sucking mire of mud. We were overly ambitious in our hiking plans, so I’d say that after you’ve admired the views, head on over to one of the shorter routes like the Kawaikoi Stream Trail and you’ll be better off with the kids. Get to the canyon early in the morning before afternoon clouds roll in and obscure the views.
McBryde Garden, part of the National Tropical Botanical Garden, is a fabulous place to spend half a day. From the car park at the visitor’s center a golf cart takes you to the farthest end of the gardens, where a thin waterfall drops into a seemingly bottomless pool and Lāwa`i Stream begins its winding way through the gardens. Bamboo bridges arch over the water, leading to grassy glades, hidden corners draped with orchids, and jungles of twining lianas creeping up tree trunks. The transport carts make the run every hour until 4 pm, so you can stay as long as you like and catch whichever ride back that suits you. Bring a picnic and make it a day – the kids can explore as much as they like, and the website has a Kids’ Corner where you can prep them with information about interesting plants they may find.
Certainly while you’re in the area you’re going to want to check out the Na Pali coast. Since the strenuous 11-mile hike is pretty much out of the question with kids, your best bet is to take a boat tour to see the coast from the water. There are at least four tour boat operators out of Poipu, and they all offer food, beverages, snorkeling gear and a guide. The snorkeling from the boat was nothing special - you’ll see just as much setting off from the area beaches – but there are not enough synonyms for the word ‘beautiful’ to describe the Na Pali coast – it’s just something you have to see for yourself.
If you want to go diving, Seasport Divers has a wide range of both boat and shore dives available. We dove two sites, and watched green sea turtles being picked of parasites at a cleaning station, octopus gliding along the sea floor, white-tip reef sharks patrolling for prey through lava arches, and moray eels gaping their toothy maws from the mouths of their tunnels. The staff was friendly, easy-going and professional – a pleasure to dive with.
Where to Stay:
If you’re going to be there a week or more, as always we recommend looking into apartment or condo rentals rather than hotel rooms, and you can read more about the reasoning in the article “Hotels: Forgo and Forget.” VRBO and Homeaway are great places to start, and Poipubeach.org has extensive listings in several categories. Don’t be afraid to ask for a reduced rate – particularly in the summer many homeowners would rather have someone stay at a discount than have the place be empty.
Where to Eat:
If you’re staying in a self-catering place you’ll be eating many of your meals in (which saves a lot of money), and Living Foods Market has great organic, sustainable and locally grown produce as well as pretty much anything else you’ll need.
Keoki’s Paradise enjoys a gorgeous garden setting (surprising since it’s in a strip mall) and good food. The kids will enjoy wandering around the grounds until the food comes. Recommended.
If you’re down at Poipu Beach and are looking for a place to pop in for lunch, Brenneke’s Beach Broiler has great views from the open, airy dining room, and pretty good food. Not something you’d drive out of your way to get to, but you can haul the kids in with wet bathing suits and sandy feet and they won’t bat an eye. Good food at reasonable prices. Recommended.
Set outdoors at the Kiahuna Golf Club, Joe’s on the Green has outstanding breakfasts – try the banana and macadamia nut pancakes. Fabulous mountain views and friendly staff. Highly recommended.