by Darcy Levy
Kauai is my favorite beach destination and Hawaiian island. It’s also a fantastic place to visit with children (keiki) because of the year-round warm weather, swimmable beaches, relaxed vibe, and kid-friendly culture.
Before you arrive, be sure to pick up a copy of The Ultimate Kauai Guidebook, which is an incredibly detailed and thorough book about beaches, hiking, and activities.
Where should you stay?
Before you go, make sure to decide whether to stay on the north or south shore of the island. I prefer the north shore with its rugged coastline, more remote feel, and stunning beaches. Note, however, that it can be rainier in the winter months and some of the beaches will not be swimmable in winter due to high surf. In winter, the south shore offers more consistent sun and calmer waters so is more of a sure bet for those traveling with families.
If you are like me, and prefer to rent a home when traveling with family, I recommend staying in the heart of Hanalei on the north shore. If you’d like some of the added amenities of a hotel, the Westin Princeville offers suites with full kitchens and laundry, amazing pools for kids (including a small water slide), outdoor grills, and any baby item you could need (e.g., crib, high chair, tub mat, diaper genie). You can walk to nearby family-friendly Wyllie Beach as well. If you stay anywhere in Princeville, you can frequent the playground and library located in the heart of town (visitors can obtain a library card for a small fee).
On the south shore, I recommend the Kiahuna Plantation Resort. The Kiahuna is a spectacular property and they have everything you could want or need on hand (e.g., surfboards, SUPs, toys for kids, kayaks), plus a huge pool with a natural rock bottom and water slide, including numerous side pools made just for kids. It’s the kind of resort where you might arrive and never leave (but that would be a shame because Kauai is worth exploring).
What are the best beaches to visit with kids?
Starting on the north shore, I recommend Hanalei Bay and Wyllie Beach. Hanalei Bay is my favorite stretch of sand on the island and is a nearly three-mile long crescent-shaped bay. Even when the surf on the north shore is rough, Hanalei tends to be protected and have areas that are swimmable for children. This is a popular spot for beginning surfing, SUPing, and boogie boarding. Even though Hanalei is a popular beach, there is always room to spread out and have your own space. Wyllie Beach is located a short walk from the Westin in Princeville, but can be accessed even if you are staying elsewhere. It is a 10-minute walk (at most) down to the beach and you are rewarded with a shallow, protected, calm stretch of ocean perfect for splashing and exploring. Midway down the beach there is a huge tree with three swings and a small river meets the ocean, which kids love to splash in. The best part is that this beach is usually quiet.
On the east shore, check out Moloa’a Beach, an off-the-beaten track spot where you won’t run into tons of people and can have the tide pools and shallow water to yourself. The southeast corner is the best spot for small kids and allows for a lot of knee- and waist-deep wading. Other parts of the beach have bigger waves for boogie boarding and swimming so everyone should be happy.
Just north of the airport on the east shore is Lydgate Park, which is geared specifically toward families. There’s a walled off area of the ocean that is always calm, a separate area for snorkeling, and a huge playground nearby. The beach is equipped with grills and showers and you could plan to spend a day here with your family. It isn’t the most scenic and it certainly isn’t secluded, but it may be the best option for families if what you want is convenience and friendly surf.
Moving to the south shore, Poipu Beach is another popular beach for families. It has a walled off area for swimming and a playground nearby. It’s also located in the heart of Poipu where you can easily rent equipment (e.g, boogie boards, SUPs), pick up food, and make a stop at the nearby Starbucks.
What should we do when we need a break from the beach?
Visit the Kilohana Plantation Railway and ride a classic train around a plantation while learning about Hawaiian plants and animals. This sounds touristy (and it is), but the ride is really enjoyable for children and adults. We loved learning a few things about the local food, and our daughter loved the train ride, especially when we stopped to feed animals along the way. The ride lasts 45 minutes.
Play mini-golf at Anaina Hou, which is a surprisingly creative, clean, and organized mini-golf course just outside of Kilauea on the northeast shore. Our toddler was totally entertained exploring the beautiful gardens (and picking up people’s golf balls), and we were able to have fun playing and have an adult conversation!
Check out the Na ‘Aina Kai Keiki Day calendar before you arrive to see if you are in town for Na ‘Aina Kai Keiki Day at this north shore botanic garden. Once a month, this expansive children’s play area is opened to the public for the day. There is a huge fountain for splashing, slides, a Swiss Family Robinson-esque treehouse, a maze, rocks for climbing, and much more. The entrance fee is a bit steep so plan to come and stay for the day. Note that the remainder of the gardens are not open to you, just the children’s area. You can always play in this area if you book a private tour and let them know you are bringing kids.
Kauai is a hiker’s paradise and many of the trails are doable with children. The best hike on the island is the Kalalau Trail . The entire trail is quite long and requires a permit (and camping), but you can hike the first section from Ke’e Beach to Hanakapi’ai Beach and then from the beach up the valley to Hanakapi’ai Falls to experience the most incredible waterfall and to swim in the bottom of it. Round-trip, this was an 8-mile hike that we did with our one-year-old in a hiking backpack. It was challenging, but so worth it.
An easier hike that affords views of Hanalei is the Okolehau Trail, which is 2.5 mile trail (one way) making a ridgeline ascent that meanders through forests and does climb, but is not super challenging. There are also numerous trails in Waimea Canyon ranging in difficulty.
What should we eat on the island?
The best food on the island can be found at one of the many farmers’ markets that operate daily. You’ll find fruits and vegetables you’ve never heard of (plus those you have), as well as meeting interesting people and get a feel for what is in-season on the island.
In Hanalei, visit Tahiti Nui for delicious food and live music most nights; Hanalei Bread Co. and Coffee House for coffee, baked goods, and incredible sandwiches perfect for taking to the beach; Harvest Market for healthy beach snacks, smoothies, and sandwiches; and the Dolphin for the best poke bowls and sushi (this is both a seafood/sushi restaurant and the Dolphin Fish Market in the back, where you can purchase fish to grill, but also get poke bowls to take away). If you want a unique dining experience, consider a farm to table dinner under the stars with Kauai Ono. Tropical Taco is a good quick bite option for fish tacos or a burrito, and we had some seriously good local seafood for lunch at Trucking Delicious. Cap off any good meal or cool off in the afternoon with shave ice from Wishing Well, where they make their own natural syrups and also aca’i bowls. One tip from the locals is that really good (and fresh) poke can be found at Foodland (the grocery store) in Princeville. They’ll dish you up some rice with poke on top for $6.99, which is a bargain compared to what you’ll pay elsewhere and it is really fresh. This was a go-to lunch for us to take to the beach.
Elsewhere on the north shore, The Bistro in Kilauea is a must visit for a nicer meal on the island. There was live music the night we were there (not too loud, but perfect as a background to the meal) and even though this is a nice restaurant, it was very kid-friendly. Also in Kilauea, The Kilauea Fish Market is open for both lunch and dinner and the ahi wrap is a must. They do good take away for heading to the beach. If you need sandwiches, smoothies, breakfast bowls, or some groceries, check out the Healthy Hut.
In Kapa’a, I recommend The Locals if you can sneak away for a date night and Wailua Shave Ice for dessert for the whole family. The best fish tacos I’ve ever eaten came from Al Pastor food truck (only open until mid-afternoon) and good coffee can be found at Java Kai and Small Town Coffee Co. For an amazing burger, check out Kenji Burger and order a side of fries with seafood on top – yum.
Hungry for tuna? The best poke bowls are at Makai Sushi in Koloa, which is inside the Kukuiula Market. Don’t be dissuaded by the run down appearance of the market, the sushi and poke is so, so good. Plus, while you wait for your sushi or poke bowl to be made, you can visit the smoothie / aca’i bowl stand in the back of the market and pick one up for dessert. The Living Foods Market in Poipu also had a “choose what you want” poke bowl station that looks really good, plus a nice coffee bar with baked goods. This is the closest market to Whole Foods on the island. The Right Slice serves up pie in an array of Hawaiian-inspired flavors. I tried a slice of the Lilikoi cheesecake and it was divine. They can be found in Lihue, Kalaheo, and at the farmer’s markets on Tuesday (Waipa), Wednesday (Poipu), and Friday (Hanapepe). And don’t forget shave ice in Kalaheo at The Fresh Shave!
About the author:
Darcy Levy seeks adventure through travel. Whether it’s mountain biking in Cambodia, trail running in New Zealand, or kayaking in Hawaii, she loves to explore by getting outside. An attorney by training, she is spending 2017 traveling around the world with her husband and toddler-aged daughter (you can read more about their adventures on her blog, The Garden of Eden . When she isn’t on the road, Darcy calls Denver, Colorado home.