I had no burning desire to go to Hawaii. If I was going to spend that much money taking the children on a trip, Europe was my choice, I thought.
Hawaii was a slightly old-fashioned vacation notion, I believed, more attractive to those from my parents’ generation.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. Visiting Kauai was like stepping into a world of peace, beauty and pleasure. And, at the risk of sounding silly, it was also spiritual, a place to return to life.
“That is the real strength of Kauai—the true beauty here is that nature heals,” says Ronald Kikumoto, the general manager of the Aloha Beach Resort where we stayed for three nights.
The lush 552-square-mile island is believed to be the oldest of the eight. It’s also the wettest, with a lot of rain, and one of the least developed, with a population of about 58,000.
There is a different pace and even a different language. Everywhere, people’s words are peppered with Hawaiian. It is easy to slip into saying aloha to greet and depart or mahalo for thank you.
It is also where family, or ohana, is not an afterthought—it is the island’s foundation. After one day, my son, Zachary, and I felt connected to the island’s people, history, traditions and nature. In fact, on our first day at the beach beside the Aloha Beach Resort, which is very popular with the islanders, Zachary made fast friends with two Kauai boys who spent hours helping him navigate the reef.
Staying around We were the guests of the Kauai Visitor’s Bureau during our seven-day visit and we stayed at three hotels.
First, we went to the Aloha, a moderately-priced hotel with room rates starting at $130 a night. We felt like honored guests because the hotel embraces children and tradition. We loved the classes in Hawaiian culture where we learned about the art of hula dancing and the island’s history. The Aloha at Wailua Bay on the east side has a front row seat to breathtaking sunrises. Kikumoto told us the beach was a sacred site to the ancient royales, who came every day to ensure daybreak by singing the sun up. The hotel holds a song ceremony each week.
Here you’re surrounded by history. Near the beach, there are temple ruins and on nearby rocks, petroglyphs, which warn you never to turn your backs to the ocean.
Next, we spent two days at the Princeville Resort on the island’s north end. This high-end luxury hotel, where rooms start at $450 a night, is a hideaway for celebrities. Perched on a bluff overlooking Hanalei Bay, it has breathtaking views of the ocean and the mountains.
Here, we felt pampered—from our fuzzy robes to our comfy overstuffed couch. When we showed up wet and sandy after being caught in a downpour at the beach, the staff made us feel as though looking like a drowned rat is beautiful. The lobby is amazing and there are three great restaurants. But the opulence and the beauty were also a drawback for me. It felt a little too much like we were in civilization rather than away from it. The beach is bit a rocky but well-suited for snorkeling. And the graceful pool has its own ocean view.
Our last stop was the Outrigger Kiahuna Plantation, 198 condominiums in Poipu on the island’s south coast. This was a laid-back place with a great restaurant, Plantation Gardens. The condos were airy and reasonable, starting at $180 a night.
The beach was a bit crowded and we felt as though we were part of a tourist pack. Yet, we also met sea turtles, or honu, a mystical creature of good luck. And we had the honor of watching a monk seal—an endangered animal named for its solo life style. The seal had given birth on a reef just off the Outrigger’s beach. The area was roped off, but we spied on the new mother and pup with a telescope and binoculars.
Finally, while we didn’t stay here, I will return to the Hanalei Colony Resort not too far from Princeville. We ate dinner at the resort’s Tunnels Bar and Grill. There are 48 two-bedroom condos, starting at $210 a night.
The place is more my idea of escaping. The motto is “unplugged, unspoiled and unforgettable.” There are no TVs, stereos or phones in the room. While being unconnected might seem scary, it is a great way to reconnect as a family. Here you can play at the beach, snorkel, visit the spa or grill outdoors. It is secluded, but with enough luxurious amenities that it is relaxing for adults but fun for kids. There were children all over when we visited, giving a community feel to this place.
Get outside The natural beauty and animal life is overwhelming. The birds (including the wild chickens everywhere) and flowers took our full attention.
Kauai is home to the Napali Coast, a 22-mile stretch of remote cliffs filled with lush, nearly inaccessible valleys and beaches. Most of us got there by boat or kayak. There is also the Waimea Canyon, known as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, another homage to what nature can do.
We tried to do it all—kayak, hike, surf, see the canyon and tour the coast—twice.
Our first coast tour was the NaPali Sunset Dinner cruise ($95, adults; $70, kids) with Capt. Andy’s Eco Adventures. It was an easy way to get a sense of the coastline’s majesty and watch the spinner dolphins at sunset. Not a bad dinner either. The return trip got rough and some passengers did not handle drinks, dinner and choppy waters. But the kids and a few of us adults enjoyed laying on the boat’s canvas tarps and flying with the bumps.
Our second tour was even better. It was more up close and personal, but a bit rougher. We had to wear gloves to prevent blisters as we held tight to the boat’s ropes. In my opinion, this is only for adults and older kids. Kauai Sea Tours put together this Nu’alolo Kai Beach Land Day Raft Tour ($135, adults; $109, children). We left early—the dolphins were still sleeping—in an inflatable motorized raft that seats about 14. We wove in and out of the sea caves on the rocky coast, stopped for a picnic lunch, had a hike and a tour of village ruins and did some snorkeling.
We also took Kayak Kauai’s three-hour Blue Lagoon tour. We paddled the Hanalei River, did a little reef snorkeling and came back. Kayak Kauai also set up a surf lesson for us. Veteran surfer Micco Godinez made even this late bloomer feel comfortable. And Zach stood up on the second try.
For a change of pace, we relaxed at the kid-friendly Na Aina Kai Botanical Gardens Children’s Garden. We also took a leisurely float down the Lihue Plantation irrigation ditch and tunnels. My son chose this and I was skeptical, but we both loved it. Kauai Backcountry Adventures drives you to near the top of Mount Waialeale, known as the wettest spot on earth, and you float in an inner tube through the tunnels surrounded by the wildlife that was a sugar plantation until it was shut down in 2000. We ended with a picnic lunch and swim in a mountain stream. This lovely, low-key adventure is for kids 5 and older.
Getting there Paradise has a price—in money and time. Getting to Kauai from Chicago takes a day there and a day back. A spring break ticket from Chicago to Lihue Airport ranges from $916 on American Airlines to $1,735 on Hawaii Airlines. Switch carriers from United Airlines to ATA in San Francisco and the price drops to a still-expensive $875.
The good news is there are deals. In fact, it is hard to give exact prices for any of the hotels, car rentals (and you should get a car) or flights. Online specials list seven-day packages for flight, hotel and car rental significantly less than the a la carte prices. Plan ahead if you want to be there for Christmas or Easter, but there still are deals to be found for spring break this year.
Susy Schultz is editor of Chicago Parent and would like to be a frequent visitor to Hawaii.