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Na Pali coast public domain

Kauai’s Na Pali Coast

When we came to Hawaii, we came with a vision of finding an exotic, remote paradise, and were at first disappointed to discover that Maui, the first island we visited, was much more developed and American than we had anticipated. But we soon adjusted our expectations and found that Maui offered plenty of natural wonders to complement its more civilized attractions.

And then we visited Kauai.

Kauai felt like the untamed alter ego to Maui’s more touristy and American vibe, reflected in its spectacular geography, impossibly lush and inaccessible coastlines, and sparsely-populated towns. Its position at the north end of the island chain makes it vulnerable to the powerful trade winds of the Pacific, making for wild surf in the winter and more dangerous beaches than the more resort-rich Maui, whose western shores are protected by two other islands.

map of Hawaii

But we weren’t looking for tame beaches or all-you-can-eat lunches on family-friendly snorkelling tours. We wanted adventure, and Kauai offered all kinds of it. Here are 4 Kauai adventures that show off the best the island has to offer.

1. Take a Helicopter Tour

Napali Coast

The best way to see the Na Pali Coast is from a helicopter

Maui has the Road to Hana, which many visitors might find adventurous enough, but Kauai is a different island altogether when it comes to driving. Most of the roads are small with single-lane bridges, especially on the north shore, and it’s physically impossible to drive completely around the island, because the impassable Na Pali Coast and its mountains get in the way.

Which was all the excuse I needed to take a helicopter tour instead.

Kauai helicopter

A helicopter is a must-do Kauai adventure if you really want to see the island.

This may be the best bang for your buck you’ll find when it comes to helicopter tours, since Kauai is small but offers an incredible amount of diversity when it comes to its geography. A half hour ride in the sky shows you everything: lush rainforests with year-round waterfalls (this island claims to be the ‘Wettest Place on Earth” with Mount Wai’ale’ale measuring more than 452 inches of rain a year on average); a rugged interior split in the middle by a spectacular canyon; and the famed Na Pali Coast, where green mountains plunge into the Pacific punctuated with secluded beaches you can only reach by hiking for hours on the 11-mile long Kalalau Trail.

And if that isn’t enough, it is only by helicopter that you’ll get a view of Manawaiopuna Falls, made famous in the original Jurassic Park movie, when the cast made a dramatic arrival of their own by helicopter, landing in front of the 360-foot waterfall after flying through the Na Pali coastline’s hills and valleys.

Jurassic Waterfall Kauai

Manawaiopuna Falls (aka Jurassic Waterfall)

We hovered alongside the cascade on our helicopter ride and it was amazing!

2. Boat up the Na Pali Coast

Once you’ve seen how beautiful it is, you’ll know why you simply cannot get enough of Kauai’s Na Pali Coast. Whether you fly over it like we did on our helicopter tour, or take a boat alongside it to see it from sea level, this is one of Kauai’s natural jewels. We decided to do both, especially after seeing it from the air.

Na pali from boat

Some of Na Pali’s beaches are only accessible by boat

Looking for a more intimate boat tour, we stopped in at a local tourist information centre and asked for a small snorkelling/boat tour that was less about the lunch buffet and more about the adventure. As it turned out, we got everything we had asked for and more from our half-day excursion with ‘Captain Mike’!

Captain Mike was a 25 year-old third generation Hawaiian who had grown up on Kauai and knew its waters like the back of his hand. We were joined on his small boat by 6 other people as we headed out for the northwest coast just after dawn. Along the way we had some unexpected encounters with spinner dolphins (that Henk spotted even before Mike did), and before we knew it, the entire pod came over to the boat and were soon leading our way up the coast, leaping and spiralling out of the water in front of the bow.

spinner dolphins public domain

Spinner dolphins ‘spiral’ as they leap out of the water ahead of boats

Even more amazing was when we spotted a group of male humpbacks chasing a female in a competition between the ‘bulls’ to claim her as their mate. At one point we found ourselves in the path of the ‘heat run’ as this chase is called, with the female passing right under our stationary boat.

Humpback heat run from video

*Photo from video of a Humpback whale heat run.

Captain Mike made sure we got up close and personal with the coastline itself, too, even going so far as to take the boat inside caverns an backing the boat up against the cliffs so that we could take a ‘waterfall shower’ on the open back deck!

Several hours out and after snorkelling with sea turtles and a bottle-nosed dolphin, we turned back for the harbour as the Pacific Trade Winds were picking up, making the ocean here a much more dangerous place for small boats. Captain Mike knew the drill, though, and his sea legs kept his feet glued to the deck as he stood on the front of the boat as it bounced through he waves. He even allowed 3 of us to bow ride ourselves as we navigated what felt like a roller coaster all the way back to shore.

(Note: Bow riding alongside the Na Pali coast is definitely NOT something I would recommend unless a) you are prepared to literally hang on for your life, b) you have strong knees to cushion every 10-foot drop off the crest of the wave, and c) are willing to say goodbye to any hat you might be wearing!)

Our tour up the Na Pali coast was as thrilling a boat ride as I’ll ever experience – and despite the fact that my back paid the price the next day, it was well worth it.

3. Visit Waimea Canyon

waimea canyon

Kauai’s Waimea Canyon, called the ‘Grand Canyon of the Pacific’

It has been described as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific” and although it is much smaller than its Arizona counterpart, for an island as small as Kauai, this canyon is huge. At more than 10 miles long, a mile wide and over 3600 feet deep, it’s a pretty impressive ‘little sister’ and the views from the overlooks are truly grand. But the biggest difference when comparing it to the Grand Canyon, is that this canyon has similar red soil to Arizona’s, but much of that red is covered in green.

waimea canyon public domain

There’s plenty of green here on the ‘wettest place on earth’ as well as red

If you’re a hiker, there are several trails into the canyon, but if you just want to take in its views, the road into the State Park is easy to follow and takes you to several lookouts with parking lots nearby. Just don’t be surprised if you see wild chickens here – there are thousands running free on the island and this is a favourite hangout.

4. Hang Ten at Hanalei Bay

Henk surfing

This was the only ‘surfing’ that Henk or I did on Kauai

Speaking of hanging out, Hawaii is a mecca for those who love to hang ten, and Kauai is known for its surf. In fact, mention ‘North Shore’ in any conversation on Kauai and you are sure to get the attention of every surfer dude within earshot. That’s because the island’s biggest surf can be found here in the winter, and Hanalei Bay is one of the locals’ favourite spots to test their skill.

Hanalei Bay

Hanalei Bay Beach

Close to the bay is the town of Hanalei, a laid-back, pretty town with art galleries, boutiques and plenty of restaurants to go along with its prerequisite surf shops and bikini stores, making it a great place to enjoy a cold beer and bite to eat. They even hold local ukulele concerts if you want to get in the true ‘aloha’ state of mind.

Aloha is a way of life here


In Hawaii, ‘aloha’ means more than just hello and goodbye. It’s an attitude and a way of a life that embraces the natural world and seeks harmony in the way we interact with it. Nowhere does this make more sense than on Kauai, where locals and visitors alike are humbled by the island’s beauty and natural wonders.

Even as a visitor who has only been there once, our Kauai adventures made an impression that have stayed with me for years, making it easy to understand why people who come here never really say ‘goodbye’ to this island – or any of the others that are part of Hawaii.

TIP: If 10pm is jokingly referred to as “Maui Midnight’ because of the lack of nightlife on the island, be prepared for even less action on Kauai. There are places where you can stay out after dark and have some fun, but unlike its geography, don’t expect anything too wild.

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Jane with Hat Tanzania

Jane Canapini is a member of the Travel Media Association of Canada and the North American Travel Journalists Association. She established in 2014 to share information and tips based on personal experience so her readers could get the most out of their travels.

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