Kayaking in Kauai
- Places to Explore
- Travel Tips
- Fodor's Choice
Kauai is the only Hawaiian island with navigable rivers. As the oldest inhabited island in the chain, Kauai has had more time for wind and water erosion to deepen and widen cracks into streams and streams into rivers. Because this is a small island, the rivers aren't long, and there are no rapids; that makes them perfectly safe for kayakers of all levels, even beginners.
For more advanced paddlers, there aren't many places in the world more beautiful for sea kayaking than Napali Coast. If this is your draw to Kauai, plan your vacation for the summer months, when the seas are at their calmest. Tour and kayak-rental reservations are recommended at least two weeks in advance during peak summer and holiday seasons. In general, tours and rentals are available year-round, Monday through Saturday. Pack a swimsuit, sunscreen, a hat, bug repellent, water shoes (sport sandals, aqua socks, old tennis shoes), and motion sickness medication if you're planning on sea kayaking.
Tour outfitters operate on the Huleia, Wailua, and Hanalei rivers with guided tours that combine hiking to waterfalls, as in the case of the first two, and snorkeling, as in the case of the third. Another option is renting kayaks and heading out on your own. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, but it boils down as follows:
If you want to swim at the base of a remote 100-foot waterfall, sign up for a five-hour kayak (4-mile round-trip) and hiking (2-mile round-trip) tour of the Wailua River. It includes a dramatic waterfall that is best accessed with the aid of a guide, so you don't get lost. Remember—it's dangerous to swim under waterfalls no matter how good a water massage may sound. Rocks and logs are known to plunge down, especially after heavy rains.
If you want to kayak on your own, choose the Hanalei River. It's most scenic from the kayak itself—there are no trails to hike to hidden waterfalls. And better yet, a rental company is right on the river—no hauling kayaks on top of your car.
If you're not sure of your kayaking abilities, head to the Huleia River; 3½-hour tours include easy paddling upriver, a nature walk through a rain forest with a cascading waterfall, a rope swing for playing Tarzan and Jane, and a ride back downriver—into the wind—on a motorized, double-hull canoe.
As for the kayaks themselves, most companies use the two-person sit-on-top style that is quite buoyant—no Eskimo rolls required. The only possible danger comes in the form of communication. The kayaks seat two people, which means you'll share the work (good) with a guide, or your spouse, child, parent, or friend (the potential danger part). On the river, the two-person kayaks are known as "divorce boats." Counseling is not included in the tour price.
In its second year and second issue, National Geographic Adventure ranked kayaking Napali Coast second on its list of America's Best 100 Adventures, right behind rafting the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. That pretty much says it all. It's the adventure of a lifetime in one day, involving eight hours of paddling. Although it's good to have some kayaking experience, feel comfortable on the water, and be reasonably fit, it doesn't require the preparation, stamina, or fortitude of, say, climbing Mt. Everest. Tours run May through September, ocean conditions permitting. In the winter months sea-kayaking tours operate on the South Shore—beautiful, but not Napali.
Equipment and Tours
Kayak Kauai. Based in Hanalei, this company pioneered kayaking on Kauai. It offers guided tours on the Hanalei and Wailua rivers, and along Napali Coast in season. It has a great shop right on the Hanalei River for kayak rentals and camping gear. The guided Hanalei River Kayak and Snorkel Tour starts at the shop and heads downriver, so there's not much to see of the scenic river valley. (For that, rent a kayak on your own.) Instead, this three-hour tour paddles down to the river mouth, where the river meets the sea. Then, it's a short paddle around a point to snorkel at either Princeville Hotel Beach or, ocean conditions permitting, a bit farther at Hideaways Beach. This is a great choice if you want to try your paddle at a bit of ocean kayaking.
A second location on Kuhio Highway in Kapaa offers access to the Kapaa reef and standup paddling on the Kapaa River, while the Wailua River Marina locale gives access to the river and bay. guided tours and kayak rentals. It's not right on the river, however, so shuttling is involved. For rentals, the company provides the hauling gear necessary for your rental car. Snorkel gear, body boards, and standup paddle boards also can be rented. 5-5070 Kuhio Hwy., 1 mile past Hanalei Bridge, Hanalei, HI, 96714. 808/826–9844 or 800/437–3507. www.kayakkauai.com. From $45 (river tours) and $145 (sea tours); kayak rentals from $29 per day. 4-1604 Kuhio Hwy, Kapaa, 96746.
Kayak Wailua. We can't quite figure out how this family-run business offers pretty much the same Wailua River kayaking tour as everyone else—except for lunch and beverages, which are BYO—for the lowest price, but it does. They say it's because they don't discount and don't offer commission to activities and concierge desks. Their trips, a 4½-hour kayak, hike, and waterfall swim, are offered four times a day, beginning at 9 am, with the last at 1 pm. With the number of boats going out, large groups can be accommodated. No tours are allowed on Wailua River on Sundays. 4565 Haleilio Rd., behind the old Coco Palms hotel, Kapaa, HI, 96746. 808/822–3388. www.kayakwailua.com. $50.
Napali Kayak. A couple of longtime guides ventured out on their own to create this company, which focuses solely on sea kayaking along the 17-mile Napali Coast from April to October. These guys are highly experienced and still highly enthusiastic about their livelihood—so much so that REI Adventures hires them to run their multiday, multisport tours. You can also rent kayaks. If you're an experienced kayaker and want to try camping on your own at Kalalau (you'll need permits), Napali Kayak will provide kayaks outfitted with dry bags, extra paddles, and seat backs, while also offering transportation drop-off and pickup. 5-5075 Kuhio Hwy., next to Postcards Café, Hanalei, HI, 96714. 808/826–6900 or 866/977–6900. www.napalikayak.com. From $200; kayak rental from $25.
Outfitters Kauai. This well-established tour outfitter operates year-round river-kayak tours on the Huleia and Wailua rivers, as well as sea-kayaking tours along Napali Coast in summer and the South Shore in winter. Outfitters Kauai's specialty, however, is the Kipu Safari. This all-day adventure starts with kayaking up the Huleia River and includes a rope swing over a swimming hole, a wagon ride through a working cattle ranch, a picnic lunch by a private waterfall, hiking, and two "zips" across the rain-forest canopy (strap on a harness, clip into a cable, and zip over a quarter of a mile). They then offer a one-of-a-kind Waterzip Zipline at their mountain stream-fed blue pool. The day ends with a ride on a motorized double-hull canoe. It's a great tour for the family, because no one ever gets bored. 2827-A Poipu Rd., Poipu, HI, 96756. 808/742–9667 or 888/742–9887. www.outfitterskauai.com. Kipu Safari $184; guided from $104.
Wailua Kayak & Canoe. This is the only purveyor of kayak rentals right on the Wailua River, which means no hauling your kayak on top of your car (a definite plus). This outfitter promotes itself as "Native Hawaiian owned and operated." No Wailua River tours are offered on Sunday. 169 Wailua Rd., Kapaa, HI, 96746. 808/821–1188. www.wailuariverkayaking.com. $50 for a single, $85 for a double; guided tours from $65.
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