Lonely Planet writer Andy Murdock takes his kids to the Hawaiian island of Kauaʻi for some outdoor adventures. After playing botanist in Limahuli Garden, taking a dip in the azure waters of Hanalei Bay and contemplating the sheer cliffs of the 'Grand Canyon of the Pacific', he discovers he might not want to leave.
‘Can we move here?’ my daughter asked, her nose pressed against the airplane window. We had touched down in Kauaʻi only seconds earlier, and already she was making permanent plans.
In Hawaiian ‘keiki’ is the word for both ‘child’ and the young buds of orchids. On Kauaʻi, the Garden Isle, both types of keiki thrive. Kauaʻi is a small, laid-back island with a family vibe and a deep cultural love of children. As a visitor, you’ll never feel Hawaii’s welcoming spirit of aloha more than when you visit Kauaʻi with kids.
My daughter was perhaps a bit premature in her plans to pack up and move, but by the end of the trip I was asking myself the same question.
For many kids, proposing a day in a botanical garden is like asking them to go on a quick trip to Snoozeville. Not so in Kauaʻi.
Sure to be a hole-in-one, Kauaʻi Mini Golf takes gardens (and mini golf) to a whole new place. No dragons and spinning windmills here; instead you’ll find a challenging course through gardens and waterfalls with signs that teach about native Hawaiian plants while you fish your ball from a water hazard. At nearby Na ʻAina Kai Botanical Gardens, kids can feed the koi and explore the children’s garden with its jungle playground during the weekday family tours and at the garden's popular monthly Keiki Day (naainakai.org/keiki-day, reservations recommended).
Limahuli Garden, arguably Hawaii’s most beautiful botanical garden, tucked away on the far north past Haʻena, becomes a wild jungle adventure as you explore the twists and turns of the lush landscape that looks straight out of Jurassic Park – much of the 1993 movie was actually filmed nearby on the island.
When it’s beach time – which could be all day, every day – you’re spoiled for choice in Kauaʻi. While the surf can get too high on some beaches, particularly on the north side of the island in winter, you can find kid-safe, protected spots year-round.
For toddlers, the bath-like ‘baby beaches’ at Poʻipu Beach Park and ʻAnini Beach Park are the perfect places to get their feet wet. Lydgate Beach Park at the mouth of the Wailua River is another popular choice for families with younger kids: the man-made ponds keep the surf very calm, and there are often fish for snorkelers-in-training – if they can get past the large, community-built Kamalani Playground.
Kalapaki Beach Park is a gem for families. So close to the airport that it’s often bypassed by visitors not staying at the Kauaʻi Marriott Resort, this beach has easy access and gentle surf, as well as nearby shopping and food options, including the touristy-but-classic Duke’s right on the beach.
In the north Hanalei Bay Beach Park is a picture-perfect arc of sand protected by a reef at the mouth of the bay. For kids, the calmest waters are usually found between the Hanalei Pier and the mouth of the Hanalei River. Just up the road Keʻe and Makua (Tunnels) Beach past Hanalei are superb snorkeling beaches in summer months for those with a little more experience in the water.
Hit the trail
Kauaʻi is a hiker’s dream, but there’s no need to risk the slippery slopes of the Na Pali coast with the family to enjoy the island’s beauty. Younger kids will love Maniniholo Dry Cave, a quick and safe place to spelunk with a floor as soft and sandy as Haena Beach just across the road. Tracing the quiet coast east of Poʻipu, the dramatic Mahaʻulepu Heritage Trail is easy enough for kids and a feast for the eyes. Past the idyllic Mahaʻulepu Beach, a local favorite that most travelers miss, the trail follows the bluffs past hidden coves and feels utterly remote.
Waimea Canyon and Kokeʻe State Park are premier destinations for serious hikers on Kauaʻi, and there’s much fun to be had with kids as well. The drive from Waimea on the coast up to the island’s iconic Kalalau Lookout is a very twisty 45-minute drive (don't worry, it's worth the trip for kids who appreciate the outdoors). Head out early in the morning for clear views and good light. Even short hikes will yield wild, unforgettable views. In clear weather kids up for a longer hike will get a thrill from the view along the rim of the Kalalau Valley to Pihea Vista on the far side.
Restaurants in Kauaʻi are ready for kids and willing to accommodate – the percentage of restaurants with kids’ menus is about as high as you can find anywhere.
Calling shave ice ‘food’ might be a stretch, but whatever you call it, it will be the one things kids of all ages will agree on. Wishing Well Shave Ice in Hanalei is a standout with a list flavors that's almost as impressive as the celebrities who have eaten there. Jo-Jo’s in Waimea and Ono Ono in Kapaʻa are two favorites among many.
Heading out to the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge to spot whales, dolphins and rare birds, and then climb the recently restored lighthouse. On the way, Kilauea Bakery & Pau Hana Pizza is the perfect pit stop. With its freshly made pizzas, lilikoʻi lemon bars that your daughter just might steal from you when you’re not looking (or so I’ve heard), and books and games on the lanai, this is a sweet spot.
For kids who love slurping noodles – or at least will do it to get at the slice of lilikoʻi chiffon pie that follows – Hamura Saimin in Lihuʻe is the go-to spot for the Hawaiian home-grown saimin noodle soup and manapua (pork buns).