Kauai on a Budget
Kauai has no shortage of resorts, with sparkling infinity pools, water playgrounds and breakfast buffets that cost more than a nice stateside dinner. But look across the street from their entrances, and you’re likely to find a motley assortment of rental cars, dust-encrusted jeeps and pickups full of surfboards.
Unlike some destinations where private resort guests have exclusive rights to the best beaches, this laid-back Hawaiian island has such great public beach access (including paths that cut through swanky hotel grounds) that you can enjoy the best of Kauai on a much more modest budget.
Your trip probably won’t meet the definition of cheap, but Kauai is welcoming for do-it-yourself travelers. Case in point: The proprietors of The Beach House – a famous seafood restaurant with spectacular coastline views – don’t seem to be phased by the crowds that gather on its lawn, with their own drinks, to watch the sunset each evening.
There are many condos and homes for rent on the island, which can easily cut the price of lodging in half. Kitchens and separate bedrooms are a plus for parents of toddlers whose idea of a vacation does not include going to bed at 8 p.m. Grocery prices on the island are high, so while cooking at home may not necessarily save you much money, it’s nice to have the option.
Several golden sand beaches that are buffered from incoming swells by lava rock barriers make for an especially relaxing experience with children too young to swim. These protected waters are more like saltwater wading pools, where even the smallest kids can haul buckets of water or hunt for crabs without fear of getting knocked over by waves or taking a step that sends them plunging in over their heads.
For nature lovers, there’s the not-to-miss Waimea Canyon, with dozens of waterfalls and easy snorkeling. But our 2-year-old was just as happy to stalk the wild roosters that strut around parking lots.
Kauai has a wide range of microclimates – the rural western shoreline gets about 20 inches of rain a year, while the interior mountains catch more than 400 inches. So check which areas are likely to be sunny and calm when you’re there. In the March shoulder season, when we visited, there was almost always a glorious sunbreak right over Poipu, a collection of relatively generic condos and resorts on the southern coast, even when the rest of the island was stormy. The beaches on the funkier and less developed north shore around Hanalei were too rough for children that time of year, but become calmer later in the summer.
Waikomo Stream Villas, 2721 Poipu Road, Poipu Beach
The interiors of these condos can trend towards the dark and dated, but those disadvantages are outweighed by the spacious size, kid-friendly layout, beautiful gardens and good value (with units starting around $130). The units are within walking or short driving distance of Poipu’s sunny beaches. One quibble: the “kiddie” pool is three feet deep, which is frustrating for small children who quickly discover it’s over their heads. www.parrishkauai.com/kauai-condos/waikomo-stream-villas.html.
Camping is allowed by permit at county and state parks but requires advance planning, as sites may need to be booked a year to several months in advance. Start with this helpful Q & A: www.poipubeach.org/visitor_info/faqs.html.
Merriman’s Fish House and Café, Kukui'ula Village Mall, 2829 Ala Kalanikaumaka St., Koloa
A casual downstairs café features fresh local ingredients, a kid-friendly menu and an adjacent grassy area where kids can burn off energy while you enjoy a cold drink at the outdoor tables. http://merrimanshawaii.com/kauai.htm#about.
Moloa’a Sunrise Fruit Stand, located halfway between Kapa’a and Kilauea on Route 56, between mile markers 17 and 18
This roadside stand has fabulous fruit smoothies, breakfast items, salads, sandwiches, and a delicious taro burger.
Red Hot Mamas, 5-6607 Kuhio Hwy., Hanalei
Here’s a blink-and-you-miss-it burrito stand offering delicious and affordable Mexican food on the north shore. It’s cash only.
Kauai’s popular farmers markets are the best place to stock up on organic produce and the island’s amazing fresh fruit. Arrive early, and prepare for combat shopping. See the weekly schedule at www.kauai.gov/default.aspx?tabid=214.
Koloa Fish Market, 5482 Koloa Road, Koloa
This is a good place to buy local fish for the grill and get to-go plates of poke and seared ahi.
Living Foods Market, Kukui'ula Village Mall, 2829 Ala Kalanikaumaka, Koloa
Try this upscale foodie market with an extensive to-go menu, where you can also stock up on everything from organic cereal to chemical-free sunscreens. http://livingfoodskauai.com/.
Poipu Beach Park, located at the end of Hoona Road, Poipu
This beach is extremely popular with families, and for good reason. Divided by a tombolo (a curved spit of sand), the protected shallow beach on the left is wonderful for babies and toddlers. The beach on the right has slightly bigger waves for older kids and boogie boarders. There’s a playground and outdoor showers.
Lydgate State Park, Leho Drive near mile marker 5 (Heading north from Lihue on Route 56, turn right on Leho Drive near mile marker 5 and then into the park.)
A lava rock enclosure makes this another great choice for protected swimming and beginner snorkeling. The amazing playground with marine mosaics, complicated climbing structures, tunnels and slides will occupy kids for hours.
‘Anini Beach Park, Anini Road (Turn off Route 56 between the 25 and 26 mile markers onto the second Kalihiwai Road, follow road left to reach Anini Road and beach.)
The protection offered by one of Hawaii’s longest reefs and shallow nearshore bottom makes this lagoon one of the most toddler-friendly beaches on the north shore. It’s also one of the island’s best windsurfing spots.
Kauai Surf School, Poipu Beach
Their beginner lessons for adults and kids (including private lessons for kids as young as 4) are a blast. Reservations are required. www.kauaisurfschool.com.
Kauai Plantation Railway
This train ride through a plantation that grows everything from lychee to pineapples to cashews will appeal to kids fascinated by trains and animals (there’s a stop to feed the pigs). www.kauaiplantationrailway.com.
EXTRAS FOR KIDS
This versatile company will deliver a crib, pack ‘n’ play, stroller, wagon, wheeled cooler, beach umbrella and other kid essentials to your condo or rental. Their beach chairs with backpack straps are great for public beaches. www.readyrentals.com
Happy Kids Kauai
This babysitting service provides CPR- and First-Aid-trained babysitters and nannies. They will bring books and crafts to entertain your child in a hotel or condo, or engineer an outdoor gecko safari or trip to the pool for older children. Our amazing babysitter sent us home with sock puppets and taught my daughter how to dunk her hair for shampooing. www.happykidskauai.com/.
Kiahuna Swim and Tennis Club
If your rental doesn’t have a pool, this local swim and tennis club near Poipu has weekly memberships for visitors. But the beaches are so kid-friendly, you may never miss it. www.kiahunatennisclub.com.