POIPU — On Kauai activities can be scaled to match the size of the adventurer. The first time I visited the island, pre-parenthood and with a friend, we hiked deep into an exposed canyon and along a treacherous cliffside path, rounded up cattle by horseback on a sprawling ranch, and discovered secret beaches where we played in the big surf.
This time, with my husband and our 1- and 3-year-olds in tow, we hiked gentle trails along the lip of the canyon and wandered along beaches where we could fly a kite as we strolled. My daughter met her first horse at the ranch where I had played cowgirl, and we discovered beaches sheltered from the big surf by natural reefs. We also enjoyed the simple pleasures of eating shave ice, discovering community playgrounds, and finding cool kid-friendly places to eat.
Since our flight landed in Lihue, the island’s capital, at 9 p.m. (meaning midnight by our body clocks), we started our adventure in Poipu on the south shore. Our one-room condo at Castle Kiahuna Plantation was an hour from the airport and near some of the island’s best beaches.
A local tipped us off to Baby Beach, where we spent hours searching for little critters in the tide pools, and watching giant breakers dissolve as soon as they hit the natural offshore reef, creating a calm and shallow swimming area that was ideal for wee ones. We found this unmarked beach tucked in a residential area off the road to the Spouting Horn blowhole. (From the Kukuiula Village shopping area, take Lawai Road south, turn left onto Hoona Road and look for the narrow public-access beach path between 5152 and 5142 Hoona Road.)
We had planned to go on a sunset cruise off the Poipu coast with Captain Andy’s, the only company that takes infants on the water (bring your own infant-size PFD), but the trip was canceled because of rough weather. Instead, we grabbed a $3 burger from Bubba’s Burgers, an island favorite, and a shave ice from Uncle’s and wandered around the Wednesday-only “designer” farmers’ market. We sampled fresh papaya, tried lemon-coconut soup, and learned about local spices, all while listening to live Hawaiian music.
We spent one day exploring the Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort and Spa, which has a meandering river that links chlorine-free pools (they are purified using ozone) and runs near a saltwater lagoon with a man-made white sandy beach and real palm trees. We floated around the pools under towering palms, zipped down the 150-foot water slide, and checked out Camp Hyatt Kauai, which offers day and night sessions for anyone 3 to 12 who is potty trained.
Before heading west to Waimea, we swapped our full-size car for a Dodge Grand Caravan, a much-needed upgrade to better accommodate our stroller, suitcases, and rental gear. We had rented a baby gate for the week from Kauai Baby Rentals, which proved invaluable in one cottage, where we needed to keep curious little people out of their en suite bathroom.
You can rent anything from an exersaucer to a crib, backpack carrier, double stroller, or portable swing from Kauai Baby Rentals. The well-cared-for equipment gets delivered to the airport or your hotel room and then scooped up at the end of your stay, even if you change hotels as we did.
Halfway to Waimea, we made a quick stop at Brick Oven Pizza in Kalaheo, a popular family restaurant that serves an all-you-can-eat pizza, pasta, salad, and dessert buffet on Monday and Thursday nights. Another big draw: Children get a hunk of pizza dough to play with.
At Waimea Plantation Cottages, our century-old two-room cottage overlooked the ocean and a grassy area that proved perfect for barefoot kite flying or kicking around a beach ball. We ate meals on the sprawling front porch while geckos darted around us and we fell asleep to the sounds of ocean waves.
One day in Waimea, we grabbed a delicious take-away meal from Wrangler’s Steakhouse, called a kau kau tin lunch, with shrimp and veggie tempura, steamed rice, and beef teriyaki packaged in a three-tiered lunch tin. Then we left the 89-degree sticky weather behind and drove 3,500 feet up to Kokee State Park, where it was a refreshing 22 degrees cooler. Stop at the Kokee Museum Visitor and Activity Center to see a small exhibit on the area’s bird, animal, and plant life, and its geological history, and to find out about trails suitable for children.
A volunteer recommended the Pihea Trail at the very end of Kokee Road, just beyond the Kalalau Overlook, and it turned out to be my favorite of the many hikes I’ve done in this area. The red and lumpy dirt-packed trail followed a ridge with peekaboo views of the Alakai Swamp on our right and sweeping views of the Kalalau Valley with its lush fluted cliffs to our left — the best taste of the Na Pali coast you will get without doing the actual Kalalau Trail, or hopping in a helicopter or boat.
The Pihea Trail ranged from about 10 to 40 feet wide, but with no guardrails or fences and steep drops on either side, we put the baby in a backpack carrier and kept a firm grip on our daughter (strollers can’t maneuver the bumpy, uneven path). The trail descends for one-quarter mile and then gently climbs for three-quarters of a mile to a lookout.
Don’t leave the area without stopping at Waimea Canyon Lookout in nearby Waimea Canyon State Park. Follow the stroller-friendly path up to a platform from which you can see the expansive red-rock canyon, understandably dubbed the Grand Canyon of the Pacific by Mark Twain. Look for tall waterfalls plunging off the canyon’s steep walls.
A big hit with our daughter was the Kamalani Playground in Lydgate Park just south of Kapaa on the east coast. The sprawling wooden structure, built by more than 7,000 local volunteers, has slides, a fireman’s pole, tires and rope netting to scramble across, and more nooks and crannies than a coral reef.
When the kids needed a break, we drove a few miles north to Coconut Coasters in Kapaa, where we rented cruiser bikes and a double bike trailer that came with a snuggly padded insert for our baby. We then pedaled 3.5 miles north of town on a multipurpose paved trail that runs along the coast, called Ke Ala Hele Makalae. The trail took us by popular beaches and numerous “comfort stations,” which are covered picnic areas, and then led out of town along an elevated pathway that gave us supreme views.
One of our daughter’s favorite swimming holes was the keiki (“kids”) pool at the Westin Princeville Ocean Resort Villas, which had a mini slide, four giant squishy turtles that squirted water, and a depth of only 1.5 feet. We liked the toy library, where children can check out anything from Candy Land and checkers to DVDs, and the other family-friendly amenities. The hotel provided a real crib, a diaper genie, and a high chair for free, and it offered a complimentary luggage service upon arrival. The hotel also has a Keiki Club for potty-trained youngsters. Here, children can make leis and sand art, go for nature walks, feed the fish, and dunk in the pool, among other adventures.
Princeville Ranch, just down the road, doesn’t run cattle drives anymore, but moms and dads can go for horseback riding tours while children attend a new Kids’ Adventure Center designed for those 4 years and 8 months to 11 years old. The program, which runs weekdays during school breaks, includes pony rides, a petting zoo, hikes in the “wild pig forest,” bug collecting, games such as hopscotch using Hawaiian numbers, and a chance to learn about horses. Children 4 and older can also take private or semiprivate horseback riding lessons.
Prearrange a tour at nearby Na Aina Kai Botanical Gardens and Sculpture Park, a lush wonderland. A guide leads families around the 12-acre formal gardens, where kids can feed koi in a lagoon, wander through a hedge maze, see dozens of playful life-size bronze sculptures, and explore the children’s garden, which has everything from a Navajo settlement with a covered wagon to a tropical jungle gym with bridges, tunnels, and slides.
We spent our last couple of days watching sunsets at Kee Beach on the island’s northwestern-most point, hiking through forests to idyllic places like Secret Beach near Kilauea, and playing in the shallow waters of Hanalei Bay.
Our daughter still talks about the trip, and we have promised her more adventures that suit her size next time: taller waves, longer hikes, and a bigger shave ice. We heard there is even another giant playground on the island.