Crusin’ Kauai – An Island Family Road Trip

Genie Davis February 27, 2011 No Comments


Can you take a road trip on an island? The answer is a resounding yes. We’ve enjoyed traversing all the Hawaiian islands by car, getting a view of the Oahu’s beautiful North Shore, and mainly locals West Side; Maui’s Hana Highway and Highway 30 routes, and looping the entire circumference of the aptly named Big Island, Hawaii

Kauai has no road that traverses the entire island. The Na Pali coast is inaccessible by car, you can only see it by helicopter – as we did, but that’s another story – or by boat. Still, the part of Kauai that you can see by car offers a vast number of great, family friendly attractions and varied scenery that will keep the kids interested as you explore. The northern end of the island is green and wet, the southern dry and golden – with canyons, gardens, and light houses to visit en route, driving the garden island is delightful. 

So if you’re not hanging out on one of those perfect island beaches every moment, and you’re looking for a road trip, Kauai has a special one in store for you following Kuhio Highway. We began our driving day in the center of the island, in Lihue, having just flown in from Oahu. We stopped in busy Kapaa as we headed north, dining al fresco at the Mermaid’s Cafe. We sat roadside an outdoor picnic table to get us in the road trip mood. The Mermaid has exceptional sea weed and ahi wraps – but for the kids, ask them to leave off the tasty but spicy wasabi mayo. 

Heading North on Kauai

Our island driving trip took us north toward Hanalei


Full and content, we drove farther north, taking a side road over to the Kilauea Lighthouse which perches at the northern point of the island. Bird watching is wonderful here, as the lighthouse directly abuts the Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge, where you can spot red-footed boobies, albatross and if you’re lucky, even a great frigate bird. And if bird watching should pale, take a look at the amazing coastal view – the island’s North Shore, and Moku’ae’ae Islet, home to Hawaiian monk seals, are both visible here. 

Back on the main drag, we headed for Hanalei town, the picture perfect north shore village where long ago the musical Bali Hai was set and the movie version of this Rogers and Hammerstein classic was filmed. A side note: from Kapaa to Hanalei is about twenty five miles, and beware of work day “rush hour” traffic in the Kapaa area – its surprisingly thick. 

In Hanalei it was time for desert, at the beloved Wishing Well shave-ice truck. Well regarded for a reason, the large shaved iced treats here can be ordered with such exotic syrup flavors as passion fruit and plum, although we stuck to strawberry. You can also add ice cream and adzuki beans. The jungle was lush and green but the skies were cloudy, so while we drove to the end of the road and took a beach walk, we didn’t stop for a swim here. Ke’e Beach is well known not just for excellent snorkling and turquoise waters but also as the trail head for the Na Pali coast’s Kalalau Trail. We took a short but steep stroll – hold the hands of your little ones or carry them – for a beautiful view of the Na Pali Coast. 

Picturesque Hanalei bridge may look, well, a little shaky but it’s perfectly safe to cross, assuming you make it under the fifteen ton weight limit. 

Stay the night in Hanalei or head on back south – we devoured the beautiful ocean views and the roadside food, stopping for fried banana chips, fresh and crisp, along the way. The warm sunny South Shore beaches of Po’ipu beckoned, particularly the left side of Po’ipu beach where a sand bar divides the beach, creating a sheltered sea going experience for small children. 

But the lure of the road led us away from the foamy surf and we headed inland instead to the small town of Hanapepe. Cross a narrow swinging foot bridge or drive onto the town’s main street where many artist-run galleries and small restaurants, plus a large and enjoyable used book store make for a pleasant browsing experience. The Disney animated film Lilo and Stitch was set here; and one of the best farmer’s markets on the island occurs here. We found wonderful apple bananas – perhaps the starting point for those crispy banana chips we snacked on earlier while leaving the North Shore. 

We’re not too far now from our second end-of-the-road experience while cruising the island. 

A view of Waimea Canyon, Kauai

When visiting beautiful Waimea canyon, the drops can be steep, so keep a hand on your little ones if you get out of the car for a closer look


Wonderfully deserted beaches stretch roadside, easy to simply pull off the road and jump into the sea; but we continued on to Polihale State Park. This expansive white sand beach runs up against the other end of the Na Pali coast, and unlike the peaceful Ke’e beach lagoon on the north side, here the waves are wild and dunes are large. 

We left for the black sand beach that borders the lovely restored sugar plantation cottages of the Waimea Plantation Cottages hotel, and watched the sunset from there… 

Our road trip continued the next morning, with a forty mile spur trip up to Waimea Canyon on Highway 550. We watched plenty of Kauai’s well known wild chickens cross the road – to get to a more stunning canyon view on the opposite side perhaps. Here the road ended not at the beach but at the top of the canyon, affording fabulous views of this island Grand Canyon, and an excellent opportunity for photos with an amazing back drop. Waimea’s multi colored chasm is the largest canyon in the Pacific, and runs ten miles long and a mile across. It’s also thirty five hundred feet deep so this is not the time to turn your kids loose in search of one of those chickens. 

Descending into Waimea town again, we made another shave ice stop at Jo Jo’s, a true locals spot with enormous and inexpensive ice cones and a large variety of combo flavors to choose from. The perfect, if messy end to a road trip – well, almost the end – we drove north again to the airport in Lihue to reluctantly end our wheels to the ground experience of Kauai.

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Genie Davis is a multi-published fiction author, screen and TV writer, and travel writer. If it was possible, she'd like to spend every day traveling.

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