Kauai’s Best Family-Friendly Attractions and Activities:
The Aloha State may have a rep as a destination for honeymooners, but it’s a fabulous place for a family vacation, too. We (Dear Hubby and the girls, my mama, and my bro Evan/SIL Alicia/niece Abby) took an extended-family vacation to the Garden Island of Kauai a few months ago, and had a blast. There are so many family-friendly ways to pass the time on this beautiful island. So I thought I’d share some of our favorite fun things to do on Kauai with kids.
Fun Things To Do On Kauai With Kids
1. Learn the language
My kids actually got a head start on this before we even left home. They’ve seen Moana a gazillion times already, of course, but I put the older Disney film Lilo and Stitch on their Christmas list. They both felt that Lilo and Stitch gave them a good kids’-level crash course on what to expect when traveling to Hawaii, including a first taste of the Hawaiian language.
While you’re in Hawaii, as when you’re anyplace where a different language exists than what you’d speak at home, pick up whatever words you can. And encourage your children (keiki) to do the same. This will help to broaden their horizons and spark their interest in learning about cultures and ways of life that are different from their norm. And this is part of why we take our children on trips to new places, right?
2. Splash in the sheltered pool at Lydgate Beach Park
Even though Kauai’s temperature is pretty stable year-round, seas and winds are rougher on the northern side in the winter, and on the southern shore in summertime. But a great beach to visit with little ones year-round is the sheltered pool at Lydgate Beach Park, on the island’s eastern side.
Lydgate Beach Park is a great example of the local community coming together to rally itself and rebuild after the devastating 1992 Hurricane Iniki. After the hurricane, locals built two stone walls to create sheltered swimming bays at Lydgate Beach. There is a very shallow, calm pool perfect for the littlest beachgoers, like my niece Abby (who was just shy of 24 months when we took this trip). Right next to it is a larger, deeper pool that’s open to the sea on one side, where waves often splash over the back wall into the pool. It’s great for older kids and grownups alike.
3. Climb and walk/roll the play bridge
In addition to the superb swimming lagoons at Lydgate, the park also boasts two amazing play structures. At the end of the park nearest the lagoons, there is an awesome outdoor playscape near the large picnic pavilion. The girls had a blast playing there one afternoon when it was a bit too chilly and windy to hang on the beach.
But by far their favorite playscape of all time (not just of the trip) was the play bridge at the other end of Lydgate, near the campgrounds. This amazing structure has hidden climbing opportunities for fully-able-bodied children, but much of it features long ramps that are perfect for kids who get around in chairs or with other assistive devices. Having spent significant chunks of my life less-than-fully-mobile, I REALLY appreciated this feature of the park.
In Kimmie’s words, the Play Bridge is “the BEST PLAYSCAPE EVER!!!”
4. Snorkel, dig, splash, and watch the wildlife at Po’ipu Beach Park
One of the best beaches on the whole island is Po’ipu Beach Park, on the island’s southern shore. The fact that we’ve only visited Kauai in winter colors the fact that this is our fave beach for swimming and snorkeling; we might not find it so pleasant in the summer, which is rougher on the south shore.
But that said: this is THE BEST beach for snorkeling that we’ve been to on Kauai, hands-down. Evan/my mama/I thought so 20 years ago on our first trip to Kauai, and we still think so today. As long as the waters aren’t too rough, the assortment of amazing colorful fish and other marine creatures you’ll see is unparalleled. We actually got the girls snorkel gear last year (super-cheap in the seasonal section at our local pharmacy for Essie, even cheaper at Goodwill for Kimmie), and insisted they learn how to use it in my mama’s pool over the summer. They were skeptical at the time – but once we got to Kauai, they were blown away by the underwater sights.
And there’s so much to do at Po’ipu Beach Park even if you DON’T snorkel. The protected cove is great for digging in the sand or splashing in the shallow water; my girls did this with their cousin Abby for hours on end.
And Po’ipu is also a place where giant sea turtles and Hawaiian monk seals regularly beach themselves for a few hours of rest. So while you can’t disturb them, of course, you can get a lot closer to these magnificent creatures than you’d expect.
5. Listen and look at Spouting Horn
If you’re already down at the southern end of the island to visit Po’ipu Beach Park, you might as well drive 10 minutes down the road to Spouting Horn Beach Park. Here you’ll see a bizarre natural phenomenon known as a blowhole, where ocean water pushes up through a small opening in the volcanic rock to make a spouting effect.
What makes the Spouting Horn blowhole unusual and unique is that in addition to being able to SEE it, you can also HEAR the water make an eerie moaning noise as it spouts. I wouldn’t say this is a destination in and of itself, but it’s cool to see if you’re already down at that end of the island.
6. See the birds (and the waves!) at Kilauea Lighthouse NWR
Just plan ahead for the price tag; kids are free, but grownups are $10 each. (Had we thought to bring Kimmie’s free 4th graders in the national parks program pass, we could have skipped the adult admission fees; oh well!)
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The girls had fun seeing and learning about the endangered Hawaiian nene (distant cousins of Canadian geese) at Kilauea NWR.
But just as amazing was watching the incredible waves from the path to the lighthouse. They were mesmerizing, and we spent much longer there than I’d imagined. Even if you’ve seen ocean waves before, the power of the waves we saw at many points of our trip to Kauai was truly breathtaking and awe-inspiring.
7. Have shave ice, at least once!
Shave ice is a Hawaiian delicacy that puts sno-cones to shame. As the name suggests, shave ice actually involves shaving blocks of ice into a fine powder, which then spits into a cup, which then gets drenched with flavored syrups – at least 3 flavors, up to 5.
Optional variations include a) a scoop of macadamia-nut ice cream underneath the syruped ice, and/or b) a “sno-cap” of coconut syrup or sweetened condensed milk on top.
Although this was my third trip to Kauai, I had somehow never had shave ice before this trip. Thanks to having the girls along, we more than made up for this omission on our most recent visit. Having now sampled shave ice at several sites, I will say that my favorite hands-down was JoJo’s. Yes, theirs was super-tasty, and I believe them when they say why their ice is the finest and their syrups are the best/most flavorful. But I am also impressed with the spirit and mission of giving back that underlies their operation.
All the profits from JoJo’s Shave Ice stands support a camp for underprivileged Kauai youth. It’s great to feel extra-good about enjoying such a treat, by knowing you’re supporting a great cause at the same time!
8. Comb the beach
Many of the more popular swimming-beaches have little available for combing. But if you visit one of the beaches less suitable to swimming, you may find some amazing treasures, and learn a lot in the process.
For us, this beach was ‘Anini Beach on the northeast side of the island. I grew up spending summers on the beach at the shore, and even I had never before held a sea urchin shell with the spines still on!
But we found several that day on the beach, as well as crabs and a huge variety of shells. Essie especially was transfixed – and the small collection of shells we gathered that day was enough to satisfy her for the trip.
9. Drive up Waimea Canyon Road; hike on Mars if you dare
The Waimea Canyon is known as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific/of Hawaii. This third trip to Kauai, I can definitively say (having now seen the real Grand Canyon as well) that this one is definitely greener – but just as awe-inspiring. The strata of red rocks are breathtaking in their own right, and the unexpected sight of Waipo’o Falls spilling down the canyon walls makes it even more breathtaking.
If you drive through Waimea Canyon, through Koke’e State Park/past the Koke’e Lodge, to the very end of the road, you’ll get to the Pu’u o Kila lookout. From there, if your kids are school-age or older and if you all have sturdy shoes, you can take an amazing hike, weather permitting, toward what’s arguably the wettest spot on earth. On the way, you’ll pass through landscapes so red, you’ll think you’re hiking on Mars.
Of the three times I’ve attempted this hike, this was the first time the cloud cover at the trailhead was thin enough to make a hike feasible. The red mud was intense (as was getting it out of our clothes and boots afterward).
But the girls LOVED looking DOWN over the tops of clouds, and scrambling through the red dirt, past strange otherworldly lichens and gigantic ferns as tall as they were.
10. Look for waterfalls and rainbows
Hawaii is full of both waterfalls and rainbows, and Kauai is no exception. Besides the several we saw on our drive up Waimea Canyon Road (including this small one at the side of the road), there are plenty more scattered throughout the island.
A trip along the Wailua River on the island’s east side is a good way to encounter a number of waterfalls, such as this one over the Fern Grotto. (Which is not as cool as when you could actually hike up INTO the grotto, before modern-day liability concerns took over.) With a little advance planning, you can take a river cruise or even a family paddling trip to visit various waterfalls – and even swim underneath them, in some instances!
But with the frequent spatters of rain showers that flit across the island day and night, you’re liable to see a rainbow at least once a day if you just look out the car window.
Or study the base of the nearest waterfall, where the spray glistens in the sunlight.
11. Sample fresh produce
The fresh produce on Kauai is out of this world. Kauai is the first place I ever ate lychee nuts (at a farmer’s market), or picked fresh guava off a tree and ate it right there.
Alas, the place I did the latter (the Guava Kai Plantation) is no longer open to the public. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have fresh-picked produce throughout your visit. The pineapples you can buy on Kauai are, of course, about as fresh as they come. And if you’re out and about in your rental car, you’ll probably encounter a farm stand at least once on your trip anyway.
We found this one outside a papaya farm, on our way down Waimea Canyon Road after our Mars hike. The strawberry papayas on Kauai are different than the redder variety you may be more used to in the mainland US. These look more like a mango, and are super-sweet on their own. Even if not for the free samples, I think we would have bought several.
They were soooo delicious.
12. Check out some farmer’s markets
Thanks to the moderate year-round temps, farmer’s markets are an all-year, seven-days-a-week phenomenon on Kauai. And there’s so much more than delicious fresh local produce, of course. Like many pop-up markets in other parts of the U.S., you can find everything from fruits and veggies, to baked goods and honeys and jams, to spiced nuts and homemade candy, to handmade craft items.
This time around we caught the last hour of the Anahola Saturday Farmer’s Market. Dear Husband had some fresh local coffee (of course!); the girls couldn’t get enough of sampling the nuts. They split a pineapple-and-cream-cheese-filled croissant; I enjoyed a delicious homemade samosa. I also couldn’t resist buying the last bag of mostly-organic homemade macadamia-crunch-toffee-chocolate candy.
But our favorite stop at this market was the tent featuring the handiwork of a local grandmother. You can buy all sorts of Hawaiian-print clothes at various stores around Kauai, but I chose to get each girl a sundress from her stand instead. It was cool to get to meet the artist herself, and her work was absolutely gorgeous.
13. Go paddling
If your kids are old enough to paddle a canoe or kayak (or even just to ride along), there are so many fun ways to explore on the water around Kauai. On a previous trip two decades ago, Evan and I went on a day-long paddling trip up the Waimea River. The organized tour included excursions to see various waterfalls, and opportunities to swim under them.
While we didn’t get to repeat the experience with the girls this trip, DH took a day off from the beach and went to Hanalei to rent a kayak and paddle up the Hanalei River. (Yes, as in Hanalei of Puff the Magic Dragon fame; it’s an actual bay/town on the north side of Kauai.) He had a wonderful time paddling up the Hanalei River and exploring in his kayak. He highly recommends the experience, if you’re looking for something more low-key (and low-cost) than a formal guided excursion.
14. Go take a hike
There are so many amazing places to hike in Kauai, for any and all levels. Even just walking from the parking lot to the shore at some of the island’s many beach state parks will give you a chance at a mini-hiking experience.
But if your kids are up for more, there are many treks you can take that are more adventurous. I’d recommend sturdy closed-toe shoes; trekking poles aren’t a bad idea, either, if you already own some. We took several short hikes down to various beaches around Princeville (which is where we stayed), as well as our longer hike at the end of Waimea Canyon Rd.
And if not for the fact that the road there was washed out, I’d hoped to take my family hiking at least a tiny bit along the Na Pali Coast, the northwestern coast of Kauai (whose only land access is on foot). Next trip!
15. Have some kalua pork, preferably at a luau
Kalua pork is roast pig cooked in the traditional Hawaiian method: underground all day, in a pit lined with heated lava rocks, covered in banana leaves.
While Dear Husband and I had kalua pork for lunch after our Puo’o Lika Lookout hike at the Koke’e State Park Lodge, we also enjoyed more at the luau we attended a couple days later.
Even if you rent a unit with cooking facilities for your family trip, so you can save money by prepping your own meals (as we did), I highly recommend splurging on a luau one night. Costs (and quality) vary widely; kids are often discounted or free, depending on the age. This is something you want to book at least several days in advance.
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Of the three luaus I’ve now attended on Kauai, the Smith Family Garden Luau was by far the best. The food was as plentiful and delicious as at the other luaus I’ve been to on previous visits. But what made this one stand out was the quality of the entertainment.
Yes, we got to learn all about cooking kalua pig during the traditional unearthing presentation before dinner. But the tour of the botanical garden grounds was a fabulous inclusion. (Visiting a botanical garden on Kauai is another must-do, but many have steep admission fees. This one was contained enough in scope that it was perfect for the kids to handle, and a perfect way to pass the time before dinner.)
The during-dinner entertainment at the Smith luau was first-rate. But the traditional dancing show AFTER dinner was phenomenal . It was also more comprehensive in scope than I expected, covering far more than just the original settlers to Hawaii. The demonstration even included dances from Japan and the Philippines, in honor of the migrant workers from those countries who have enriched the Hawaiian Islands with their cultures and labor.
Although Evan and Alicia had to leave the show early to get Abby to bed, my girls made it through the entire show, mesmerized, and were talking about the fire-dances for days afterward.
16. Watch the chickens cross the road
Why did the chicken cross the road? Well, in Kauai, it’s because chickens basically own the place.
Colonies of wild chickens run rampant all over Kauai, thanks in part to Hurricane ‘Iniki in 1992 (which apparently destroyed a lot of their coops, setting them free, according to local lore). I don’t think the girls quite believed me when I told them, before our trip, that wild chickens are EVERYWHERE on Kauai. Then we got to see them up close and personal, and the girls were entranced.
So much so that Essie (who had to research an animal on our trip for homework) even did her research project on Kauai’s wild chickens!
This is something to be aware of if you decide to picnic on your trip at all, which I highly recommend. (Especially on days at the beach, as there aren’t always food vendors nearby.) But kids who aren’t used to seeing chickens running wild everywhere will probably be mesmerized for quite some time, without a whole lot of encouragement, just watching the chickens come and go.
17. Visit Costco
Apologies to anyone who thinks this is a lame recommendation, but there are SO many reasons to do this if you’re staying on Kauai for a family vacation:
a) Groceries are expensive on Kauai compared to the mainland! And the further you go from the main town of Lihue, the more the prices rise! Stock up for the week at Costco and you’ll save a bundle.
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b) Gas is even more expensive than groceries! At Costco you’ll save at least 50c/gallon on refilling that rental car before you return it, compared to elsewhere on the island.
c) It’s always fun to visit Costco in different places. We do this wherever we go, especially when we leave the U.S. You’ll find local foods (like these giant Ono Shrimp Chips) that you won’t see in your local Costco store back home, and other different merchandise as well.
And my kids got a kick out of the fact that the food court was outdoors at Kauai’s Costco!
Be forewarned, getting there is a little tricky – we had a hard time figuring out how to enter the parking lot because of how the roads looped around. But if you don’t have a membership at home, you may find it cost-effective to get one just for your week or two of Kauai vacation.
Have you ever visited Kauai (or another of the Hawaiian islands)? What were your favorite sites? Are there any on your Kauai bucket list that I missed? Let us know in the comments!
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