The last time we were on Kauai, we saw most of the “must do’s” for the island, but not all of them. One of the absolute, no kidding “must do’s” for Kauai is visiting the Na Pali Coast. Pound for pound, there are few more astoundingly beautiful stretches of land on this Earth than the Na Pali Coast. It is just endless folded mountains, green lush trees, golden sandy beaches and bright blue ocean.
Due to the nature of the terrain, and the wisdom of the Kauai government, this is the one part of the island where there are no roads. Sure, you can drive up to the Kalalau Valley Lookout that is part of Waimea Canyon and Koke’e State Park to get a good overhead view of part of the Na Pali Coast. You could also take a (very expensive, but ultimately worth it) helicopter ride a wide look at the Na Pali Coast from above. And of course, you can see the Na Pali Coast from the ground by hiking the Kalalau Trail in whole or at least in part. But it requires much more effort to see the coast, because you can’t just drive to it.
The last time we visited, I hiked two miles on the Kalalau Trail out to Hanakapi Beach. The entire trail is 11 miles one way, which is a hike you can’t really do in one day due to the difficult nature of the trail. You can’t even stay overnight at any of the coast beaches unless you have a camping permit. However, the two miles and back to Hanakapi Beach is an eminently doable day hike if you are in at least moderate fitness. The trail isn’t easy, because the trail isn’t well maintained. It’s often muddy and slippery and there are significant inclines and declines in parts. But the ground views of the Na Pali Coast and Hanakapi Beach make the journey worth the time and effort.
While hiking gives you a nice intimate view of the coast, you can’t REALLY appreciate the full, exquisite splendor of the Na Pali Coast unless you take a step back and take it all in. The Na Pali Coast rewards a more expansive view, just because it is the mountains, trees and beaches altogether that makes the coast so special, and not any one specific feature.
This time around, we elected to take a boat and snorkel tour along the coast. We hadn’t done one of those in Kauai before. It would give us a chance to see a wider view of the coast at a more leisurely pace, and afforded an opportunity to snorkel just off one of the beaches. After careful consideration of the different tours offered, we went with Na Pali Catamaran company. Again, they were the most recommended, but there are many good tours offered on the island. The company offers a morning and afternoon snorkel tour (among others), and we went with the morning tour, since the island weather is often better during the morning, with clouds more likely to roll in during the afternoon.
While there are many tour companies offering Na Pali Coast boat tours, one of the biggest things to consider when choosing a company is where the tour departs. Typically, tours either leave from Hanalei Bay on the North Shore or from the western side of the island at Port Allen. If you can swing it, definitely choose a Hanalei Bay departure. The boat trip goes all the way across the Na Pali Coast, to the designated snorkel spot, which is usually around one of the farthest beaches. Ultimately you see more of the Na Pali Coast if you depart from Hanalei Bay, rather than Port Allen. Since none of these tours are exactly cheap, it makes sense to get most bang for your buck.
If you take the morning tour, your day will start early, because you have to check in around 0645. Afterward you are transported to the beach, where you board the boat and start the trip.
The view is always beautiful, but there is something extra special when you pass Ke’e Beach and officially enter the Na Pali Coast. Then the just regular beautiful mountains, become the gorgeous folded mountains of the coast. Everywhere you look, you just want to take pictures, because you can’t believe how amazing this place is and can’t get enough of the view.
Our tour guide announced when we passed named beaches, such as Hanakapi Beach. We also saw parts of the Kalalau Trail overhead, and even waved to a couple hikers making their way along the trail.
Since we were on a smaller catamaran, it enabled us to get closer to the shore. We got up close and personal with some cliffside waterfalls, and we even got to enter some larger sea caves.
Even though it is not guaranteed on the trip, these boat tours offer the opportunity to see local wildlife. This particular morning offered a wealth of nature viewing. Luckily we ran into a pod of dolphins and they playfully accompanied us half the way to the turnaround point. We also saw a few sea turtles splashing around the ocean as well. Turtle viewings are a rare opportunity, though they are a protected species in Hawaii.
Eventually we got to the turnaround point, which also was our snorkel site. We weren’t allowed to approach any of the beaches, but we did some snorkeling along one of the coastal reefs. As snorkeling trips go, it was reasonably decent. I have seen better and more colorful reefs teeming with life and color, but this reef did get the job done. At times, we had to gently fight some of the waves, but for the most part, the snorkeling wasn’t too rough (I’ve snorkeled in areas in the past, where it felt like I was fighting the ocean the entire time). There were schools of brightly colored fishes, and we could get a little more up close and personal (but not TOO personal) with some of the sea turtles.
After snorkeling, we headed back to Hanalei Beach. All told, the tour lasted about four hours, which is enough time to take in all of the Na Pali Coast, and get a decent amount of snorkeling done. If you want a more intimate view of the Na Pali Coast, I HIGHLY recommend taking a boat tour. You definitely won’t regret seeing some of the most beautiful nature the world has to offer.