Popular Kauai Shore Excursions
Na Pali Coast: Soaring more than 3,000 feet above the undulating Pacific, the cliffs of Na Pali form an impregnable wall along the northwest coast of Kauai. The gorgeous valleys tucked along these magnificent green ramparts are all uninhabited and accessible only by foot, boat or helicopter. The panorama is accented by graceful lava arches, white sand beaches and caves hidden by waterfalls. Several companies offer boat tours along Na Pali; the best leave from the north shore but only operate during the summer months (winter conditions are too rough for recreational craft). In the winter, you can book trips from the south, but even these don't leave in the roughest conditions. Some cruise ships, like Norwegian's Pride of America, will do scenic sail-bys of the coast when leaving Kauai. (Pride of America sails north around the island from Nawiliwili Harbor, so the best views are on the port side, though the ship does turn around before it sails away.)
Waimea Canyon and Kokee State Park: Fourteen miles long, one mile wide and more than 3,500 feet deep, Waimea Canyon was carved over eons by rivers and floods flowing from the summit of Mount Waialeale, which, with an average of 460 inches of annual rainfall, ranks among the wettest spots on Earth. You can enjoy breathtaking views of the gorge from numerous lookouts along Waimea Canyon Drive or get a bird's-eye view of it from a helicopter. Hikers can choose from many trails, most in Kokee State Park. They range from less than a mile to a 10-mile loop and from easy to strenuous in terms of physical challenge. The park also offers a wonderful natural history museum.
Wailua River State Park: If you're looking for a navigable river, Kauai is the only Hawaiian island with them. A popular stop for cruise visitors is the Wailua River, in a lush, jungle setting with waterfalls and tropical greenery. Here, you'll find activity options for all adventure levels. Active types can rent a kayak (you'll need a car to pick it up from a nearby provider) and paddle themselves; ask about the muddy hike to Secret Falls. Others can take a boat tour, usually stopping at Fern Grotto, a lava cave with ferns growing down from its ceiling. The river's Opaekaa Falls are even accessible by car; you can also stop for a picnic along the riverbanks.
Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge and Lighthouse: More than 200 breathtaking seaside acres at the northernmost spot in the inhabited Hawaiian Islands are managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge. It was established on Feb. 15, 1985, to protect and encourage the propagation of migratory seabirds and native coastal plants. Naupaka, ilima, hala, aheahea, akoko and the rare alula plants flourish here, along with multiple seabird species and Hawaii's state bird, the endangered nene (Hawaiian goose). Spinner dolphins, Hawaiian monk seals and humpback whales also are commonly seen there. You can also visit the 1913 Kilauea Lighthouse, a perfect backdrop for your photos.
Hanapepe: Kauai's "Biggest Little Town" invites visitors to take its 1.5-mile self-guided walking tour, which encompasses 69 key historic sites. Forty-three of them meet the criteria to be listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places, including being at least 50 years old; having a tie with significant historical events or people; and possessing high artistic values or displaying the distinctive characteristics of a type, period or method of construction. If you can, do the tour on a Friday afternoon so you can linger in town for Friday Art Night, which is held weekly from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. About fifteen galleries participate, offering pupu (appetizers), demonstrations and special exhibits. Artists are available to discuss their work, techniques and inspirations, and most nights, a strolling musician adds to the ambience.
Kauai Museum: The island's fascinating history is showcased at the Kauai Museum through a variety of permanent and changing exhibits of ancient tools, implements, tapa cloth, featherwork, furniture, china, clothing, shells, bird specimens, scrimshaw, photographs and original paintings by esteemed island artists, and much more. Interestingly, all the museum's acquisitions have been through generous donations and bequests from individuals, businesses and organizations in the community. (4428 Rice Street, Lihue; 808-245-6931; open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Saturday)
Botanical Gardens: Founded in 1964, the nonprofit National Tropical Botanical Garden comprises five gardens -- Allerton, McBryde and Limahuli on Kauai; Kahanu on Maui; and the Kampong in Florida -- and two preserves on the Big Island. It is the only institution chartered by an act of Congress to protect and study rare and endangered tropical plant species. Visitors are welcome on guided or self-guided tours of the organization's Kauai gardens, which display their own distinct beauty. For example, in McBryde Garden's Canoe Plants of Ancient Polynesia collection are plants that voyagers of long ago carried across the Pacific to provide food, medicine, building materials, clothing and shelter. (McBryde and Allerton Gardens: 4425 Lawai Road, Poipu; open daily)
A botanical masterpiece, the 240-acre Na Aina Kai Botanical Gardens showcases diverse gardens; a hardwood plantation featuring teak, rosewood, mahogany; a verdant canyon; and a white-sand beach. Winding paths meander past gazebos, arched bridges, a koi-filled lagoon, waterfalls, a Japanese teahouse, children's garden and more than 90 life-size bronze sculptures of people and animals. Visit by tour only, Tuesday through Friday. (4101 Wailapa Road, Kilauea; for tour reservations, call 808-828-0525 or email firstname.lastname@example.org)
Sugar Plantations: The Wilcox family made significant contributions to Kauai in business, politics and community service. You can get a glimpse into the lives of generations of Wilcoxes on tours of their gracious 10th-century sugar plantation manor, Grove Farm, and their 20th-century family homestead at Kilohana Plantation. Two-hour tours of Grove Farm take you through the buildings and grounds of the plantation and are led by local residents; advance reservations are required. There are stories behind every item in the home, from the handsome koa furniture to the bookcases filled with hymnals, Bibles and other works in the Hawaiian language. They even have a steam locomotive collection and offer free train rides every second Thursday. (4050 Nawiliwili Road, Lihue; for tour reservations call 808-245-3202 or email email@example.com; tours 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Thursday) At Kilohana, you can opt for a mansion tour, train ride through the farm (great for kids), shopping for local arts and crafts, evening luau or drinks or dinner at the bar and fine dining restaurant on the grounds. (3-2087 Kaumualii Highway, Lihue; 808-245-5608)
Golf: Kauai boasts 10 golf courses at seven venues. The closest are in Lihue: Kauai Lagoons Golf Club, a Golf Magazine Gold Medal winner designed by Jack Nicklaus that boasts a cliffside location with ocean views, and Puakea Golf Course, with a mountainside backdrop. Princeville is also a prime destination for golf. The Makai Golf Club was the first course on Kauai designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr.; it was refurbished in 2010. The Prince Golf Course is an island paradise, featuring jungles, ravines and a waterfall.
Kauai offers a range of popular and more secluded beaches, but waters can be rough, especially on the north shore during the winter. Be sure to look into surf conditions before heading into the water.
Best for a Day at the Beach: A popular and safe beach destination, Poipu Beach Park is a hit with snorkelers, families and wildlife enthusiasts. It's located on Kauai's south shore, about 25 minutes west of Lihue. Calm waters reveal colorful fish, and a wading pool entertains young kids. From the shores, you might spot humpback whales, green sea turtles or even monk seals. Located near several resorts, the beach has easy access to bathrooms, showers, picnic tables, water sports rentals, restaurants and shops. Lifeguards are on duty.
Best for Families: Lydgate Beach Park is made up of two "ponds" cut off from the pounding surf by lava rock walls. Its warm, shallow waters and sandy beach with scattered shade trees are perfect for families. Beginning snorkelers and those too young to try will appreciate the clear water; you can spot fish and crabs even without a mask. Bathrooms, showers and picnic tables are available. There's also a park with an elaborate play area on the other side of the parking lot. It's about a 15-minute drive north from the cruise port.
Closest to the Cruise Port: Fronting the Marriott Kauai, Kalapaki Beach might not be the best beach in Kauai, but it is the most convenient for a quick dip right by the ship. Cruise passengers cannot access the resort's pools, but they can take advantage of beachside dining and water sports rentals. It's about a 10-minute walk from the port or just a few minutes by one of the free shuttles to the adjacent Anchor Cove or Harbor Mall shopping centers.