01/23/2013 07:08 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A Hawaiian Vacation Everyone Will Enjoy

If you close your eyes and imagine Hawaii's jagged peaks plunging into hidden rainforest valleys, beaches with impossibly blue waves thundering ashore and, of course, endless summer weather, then you're probably thinking of Kauai, one of the most remote islands in the 50th state.

Yes, that's Kauai. But that's not all there is to it. Behind that postcard-like facade is a funky island that your kids can connect with. Ours did.


A canyon and a forbidden island

The signature attraction in Kauai is Waimea Canyon, also known as the "grand canyon" of the Pacific. If you're in Kauai for only a few days, put this at the top of your list. Think of it as a tropical Grand Canyon, because, well, that's what it is. It's a mile wide, 14 miles long and roughly 3,600 feet deep. On a clear day you can see all the way to the secretive island of Niihau.

Kids don't just notice the big things, like the terrifying drop-off in front of them and the small guard-rails separating them from the abyss. They take notice of the ever-present chickens, for example. The free-range poultry is at the canyon, where my 10-year-old son took pictures of them and reinterpreted them as a Photoshop collage for our family travel blog.

My daughter paid no attention to fowl or the scenery, and instead set her gaze on the mountain goats scaling the cliffs. Who knew there were mountain goats in Hawaii?

The real danger lurks in the valley, where shops line the road selling authentic and intricate Niihau shell lei necklaces that can set you back thousands of dollars a pop. They managed to take us for five aloha shirts. Isn't that what visitors to Hawaii are supposed to do to support the local economy?


One of these days I'm going to return to Waimea Canyon with a full-frame DSLR camera and a tripod and take real pictures of the place. It is unspeakably beautiful, but in a surreal way. How else do you describe the odd confluence of livestock and extinct volcanoes?

Espressos and... puppies?

Kauai isn't as well known for coffee as Hawaii's Big Island. That's a shame, as we discovered when we visited Kauai Coffee, which offers free tours of a working coffee plantation and plenty of samples. We found the coffee to have more character than some of the Kona coffees, which are known for their subtlety, that we tried a few weeks before.

A word of warning: When you visit a coffee plantation with your kids, remember to keep an eye on them. We failed to pay close attention and all three of them decided to try the coffee, too. I caught them as they were pouring themselves a sampler of espresso. It wasn't their first cup, either.


You can probably imagine what happened next. The sedate retail floor became a playground for three caffeinated children. At some point, if I'm not mistaken, they decided to chase a chicken, because there are chickens everywhere in Kauai. The only thing that would have made it worse was a puppy or two. We were spared.

For what it's worth, Kauai's coffee is really good. Even the kids liked it.

Gimme some sugar

Kauai is known for its historic sugar plantations, and the one we visited came with its own railroad. The Kauai Plantation Railway offers two tours: a short tour that takes you around the old plantation by rail, and a longer one that includes a guided hike on the property and lunch. If you've ever wondered what sugar cane looks like, or how its grown and processed, you don't want to miss the longer tour. The most fun part -- at least for the kids -- came at the end, when our guide brought us to the mango and starfruit groves and allowed us to pick and sample some of the fruit.

Kauai is the kind of place you could get lost in. Once the kids are older, I'll bring my hiking boots and backpack and set off into the rainforests to discover the real island. But you don't have to rough it if you want to get authentic. Just take your kids to some of the attractions, and you'll see things they won't show you in any tourism brochures.

And you'll thank them for it -- once the caffeine buzz has worn off.