Nāpali is considered the jewel of Kauai, its emerald cliffs rising above the island’s northwest shore. In Hawaiian, Nāpali means “the cliffs” and it’s estimated the 17-mile coastline is about five million years old, the result of volcanic eruptions. The now razor-sharp cliffs were created by strong winds, rain and crashing waves. Its numerous valleys were home to thousands of Native Hawaiians centuries ago and today the towering coastline is a remote, nature-lover’s dream destination.
How to see Nāpali
There are only three ways to see the Nāpali Coast: by air, by sea or on foot via the 11-mile, one-way Kalalau Trail. Currently, the Nāpali Coast State Wilderness Park, where the Kalalau Trail is located, is closed because of earlier flood damage.
*See tour websites for current pricing
- Blue Ocean Adventure Tours
Nāpali coast tour and tour with a shore landing at Nualolo Kai beach
- Makana Charters
32-passenger or 12-passenger charters
- Capt. Andy’s
Four different tours available
- Nāpali Riders
Zodiac raft tour
Note: Tour operators offer morning and afternoon tours, but afternoon tours are only available typically from June through September because of the large wintertime waves.
- Blue Hawaiian Helicopters
Kauai ECO Adventure tour
- Safari Helicopters
60-minute tour or 90-minute tour, including a landing at the Kauai Wildlife Refuge
- Jack Harter Helicopters
60 to 65 minute tour and 90-minute tour
There are only three ways to see the Nāpali coast: by air, by sea or on foot via the 11-mile, one-way Kalalau Trail. (Currently, the Nāpali Coast State Wilderness Park, where the Kalalau Trail is located, is closed because of earlier flood damage.)
For a fun, immersive experience of the storied coastline, I opt for a boat tour. Not only could I get up-close to Nāpali ’s 4,000-foot tall cliffs, but I also snorkel off shore, explore hidden sea caves and see dolphins and honu, or Hawaiian green sea turtles. We make sure to keep our distance, though, as sea turtles, monk seals, whales and dolphins are protected under federal and state laws.
Our boat cruises out of Kikialoa Harbor in Waimea, before picking up speed as we sidle up to Nāpali . The coastline transforms from expansive white sand beaches to soaring cliffs in shades of jade and copper.
These views make me catch my breath. But in addition to the stunning coast, I remember I’m on a boat and there’s plenty to see in the azure sea. Nāpali is home to pods of na`ia or spinner dolphins. Early on our tour, our captain spots them jumping in the distance. Soon these friendly animals are leaping alongside us. I also saw a honu bobbing peacefully at the surface.
Nāpali has one of the best snorkeling spots on Kauai, and it’s only accessible by boat. Just offshore of a beach called Nualolo Kai is a protected reef. The reef is teeming with marine life, which once sustained a Native Hawaiian village. In fact, remnants of traditional housing structures and a heiau, or temple still exist. (Some boat operators have a special license allowing participants to land on Nualolo Kai beach; check with the operator in advance. While it’s a secluded, special place to visit, be respectful of the space.)
Another highlight of touring Nāpali by boat is exploring its sea caves. There are five navigable sea caves along the 17-mile coastline. My favorite is nicknamed Open Ceiling Cave and is one of the largest and most spectacular. This cave is appropriately named as the large hollowed out lava tube has a collapsed roof, which created a large, natural skylight. Further up the coastline is another fun sea cave. Our captain glided the boat into a smaller cave, dubbed the Honeymooners Sea Cave. This one features a waterfall cascading about 100-feet down the cave’s right wall. There is even a small, white sand beach at the back, giving the sea cave a romantic atmosphere. And because the Honeymooners sea cave faces true west, it’s been reported that at certain times of year in late afternoons the sunset turns the cave orange as it reflects off the water, making the spot even more idyllic.
We near the end of the coastline as the isolated Honopu and Kalalau beaches appear. A dramatic natural rock wall separates the two beaches. In the middle is a 65-foot tall arch, under which you can walk. Hawaiian lore suggests the valley behind might have been home to the elusive menehune, or mythical little people. The beach is also a favorite film spot of Hollywood. It’s appeared in the original “King Kong,” “Six Days Seven Nights” and the James Bond movie, “The Man With the Golden Gun,” in which a helicopter flew through the arch.
Next to Honopu is Kalalau Beach. At about two miles wide, Kalalau is the biggest valley along Nāpali. The valley was home to hundreds of Native Hawaiians. Today, it marks the end of the grueling 11-mile Kalalau Trail and its powdery, white sand beaches offer solitude and serenity in one of the most scenic places in Hawaii.