Kauai (Courtesy: Kauai Visitors Bureau)
Kauai (Courtesy: Kauai Visitors Bureau)

By Lena Katz

When people say you may spot dolphins off the shore of Kauai, they don’t mean just one or two. Noisy, fun-loving, fearless spinner dolphins cruise the Na Pali coast in pods, swimming alongside the sailboats and wowing the humans with airborne antics and graceful waterborne power. Spinners can’t be trained, and they can’t survive beyond a few days once taken from their natural habitat. They’re one of many unforgettable Hawaii vacation experiences that can only be experienced with Mother Nature’s permission, and if you’re willing to go a little out of your comfort zone to reach them.

Kauai’s nickname is “The Garden Isle” but its gardens are not merely the pretty floral kind. It’s got thousands of acres of backcountry and jungle where bold visitors can hike or zip line, kayak to waterfalls or four-wheel through swamps — ALWAYS with a tour guide, of course — even the locals know better than to go running around the ancient jungle by themselves.

Cave tubing (Courtesy: Kauai Backcountry Adventures)
Cave tubing (Courtesy: Kauai Backcountry Adventures)

If you want to score immediate daredevil points with the folks back home, you could include a Kauai Backcountry Adventurescave tubing expedition on your Hawaii vacation. It takes place way up in the private lands that used to be the Lihue Plantation, and the “caves” and streams are actually part of a canal and tunnel system built for the sugar plantation in the late 1800s. Guests sit in big black innertubes and ride the current through a series of underground caves — the last one completely in the dark. It sounds like something out of “Indiana Jones” but in reality, anyone with a sense of adventure and a sense of humor can participate. It’s the jungle version of a “Lazy River” water amusement ride…which is to say, a lot chillier with some unexpected bumps, but so much more fun.

(Courtesy: Kauai Backcountry Adventures)
(Courtesy: Kauai Backcountry Adventures)

Kauai Backcountry Adventures also operates a zip line course (7 zip lines), but it’s not the only place to offer this attraction. Kauai, with its countless waterfalls and dense jungle canopy and picturesque valleys, is a place that practically begs you to go a little bit Tarzan-style in your explorations. Outfitters Kauai just introduced a new zip line course featuring an 1800-foot tandem flight followed by a “Water Zip” — AKA a swing out over a natural-fed swimming pool — let go and jump in, or hang on and enjoy the view. There’s also a zip line experience at Princeville Ranch.

Horseback riding (Courtesy: Princeville Ranch Stables )
Horseback riding (Courtesy: Princeville Ranch Stables)

Princeville Ranch is primarily famous as the spot where Hawaii’s paniolo (island cattle rancher) heritage still thrives — ergo, one of the most popular activities here is horseback riding. There’s only one horseback outfitter on the 2500-acre working cattle ranch: the Carswells, who’ve been on Kauai for many generations and have operated Princeville Ranch Stables for more than 25 years. Join them for a trail ride/waterfall swim, or put on your working boots and saddle up for an actual cattle drive.

And what about the ocean, you ask? In winter it can be a wee bit rough, but when conditions are good, it offers an endless variety of adventure: surfing at Hanalei Bay; snorkeling the protected lagoon at Ke’e Beach or the “Tunnels” at Makua.

(Courtesy: Captain Andy’s Sailing Adventures
(Courtesy: Captain Andy’s Sailing Adventures

Boat tours abound, but if you can only take one and you want to hang out with those amazing spinner dolphins, my recommendation is Captain Andy’s Kauai Sailing Adventures. Everybody — from tourism professionals, to tourists who plan regular Hawaii vacations on Kauai, to locals who remember taking their first job with Andy one summer 15 years go — has good things to say about this Na Pali Coast tour operator. Raft tours operate year round, though beach landings are usually only do-able in the summer. The sailing adventures take place aboard beautiful, perfectly maintained catamaran yachts. They usually start off sunny and smooth-sailing, but things get rolling — and soaking wet–when returning home through a Na Pali offshore swell.

Not all Kauai adventures require a helmet and/or a swimsuit, though. At historic Kilohana Plantation, guests ride antique-styled trains through the working farm, stopping for a rainforest hike and picnic. If that’s too rugged for you, upon your return, explore the shops in the refurbished plantation house, dine at Gaylord’s, be among the first to taste newly launched Koloa Rum, or enjoy the awesome evening spectacle of Luau Kalamaku.

(Courtesy: Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort & Spa)
(Courtesy: Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort & Spa)

Tired yet? You will be, after a day out under the sun, doing any of these activities or ones I haven’t thought of yet. Happily, Kauai hotels know how to take care of salt-spattered, punch-drunk travelers who have packed just a wee bit too much adventure into a too-brief itinerary. Stagger into the beautiful lobby of the Grand Hyatt, burned like a lobster and staggering on sea legs, and reception will present you with a cold glass of juice before spiriting you to a cool, spacious, herbal-scented hideaway mere steps from the swimming pool. Arrive at the Sheraton Kauai with a passel of over-excited kids going a zillion directions at once…and you’ll be relieved to find a sprawling condo-styled property with drive-up units and a casual, kid-friendly vibe. Castle Resorts operates several condo resorts on the island, including Castle Kaha Lani and Castle Kiahuna Plantation.

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Lena Katz is the author of SUN: California and SIP: California, part of the Travel Temptations series published by Globe Pequot Press.

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Tagged: Beach Vacation, Eco-Tourism, Family time, Hawaii Vacation, Romantic getaways, Sports Travel

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