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One of the most enjoyable things to do in Kauai with small and medium sized children is to visit Lydgate Beach Park. This park is just south of Wailua and boasts the usual playground and picnic benches. But it also has two large rock rimmed pools on the beach which create calm, shallow waters, perfect for kids to play in! Beyond the rock wall is rolling surf and, although it is seldom listed as a good snorkeling spot, many, many beautiful fish are trapped inside these pools where the water is calm and clear. Also, located at Lydgate Park is the fabulous Kamalani Playground. This playground is wonderful for children of all ages from toddler to pre-teen.
Another beach with a rock-rimmed pool for keikis (children) is located on the south shore at Po'ipu. There is a reef, too, for snorkeling, and large sea turtles are known to crawl up on the beach. A sand island, away from the pool area, is accessible from the beach, but watch the cross currents that meet where you cross. The crossing can be deep for small children.
You can feel relatively safe at both Lydgate and Po'ipu next to your infants and toddlers in the "pools." Lydgate offers more shade near the beach. Salt Pond Beach Park (south of Poipu) is another place to find calm reef-protected wading waters and local kids to play with.
Generally, anything called Beach Park means you'll find a parking lot, an outdoor shower, and maintained bathrooms, as well as other facilities, and often a lifeguard station. Most are maintained by the county. Another good rule of thumb for child-friendly beaches is to find those that are protected by reefs. The season can make a difference, too. The beaches along the north shore's Hanalei Bay, for example, are very calm in the summer, but may be much more treacherous in the winter.
Two popular, reef-protected beaches on the north shore are Ke'e (at the end of the road) and Tunnels (difficult parking). Both offer some of the best snorkeling for slightly older children.
There's a lot of recreation possibilies for families in Kauai, including kayaking several rivers. So-called "self-guided" tours are available on some rivers and with some outfitters. The cost of "self-guided" kayak rentals can be very reasonable. A three-person rented kayak, or triple, can accommodate two adults and two small children and is surprisingly stable and easy to paddle and maneuver. With older children, try two doubles. The outfitter will provide life vests, along with a paddle for each passenger. Bring sunscreen and hats. A tied-on soft cooler should be provided to store your picnic foods and water, as well as a dry bag for valuables. All in all, a great family outing.
The drive up Waimea Canyon is worth a family trip. As you go up the road from Waimea on the south shore, there will be spots to turn off to view the deep canyon, often referred to as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific. In the heart of the canyon, before you get to Koke'e State Park, there are two official lookouts with large parking lots, ramps and facilities. Both of these are accessed by paved roads (to the right) off the main road and are marked.
At Koke'e State Park, there is a natural history museum which is run by a community-based, non profit organization. It is small but excellent and has perhaps the best bookstore. Next door is the Koke'e Lodge, where you can stop for good food. You're at about 4,000 feet here. There are many hiking trails in this area. Beyond this point, you can drive to two lookouts (with parking) above the Na Pali coastline and valleys. If you have teenagers, you may want to try the muddy swamp trail at the very end of the road. The hike will take a half-day. Much of it is along a wire mesh topped boardwalk which allows for safe foot placement. The swamp can envelop you in misty fog in minutes so do not wander off into the bog. There is a platform at the end of the trail where the mist occasionally opens up to views of Hanalei Bay. To get a sense of what the swamp trail and Waimea Canyon looks like check out www.trailblazerhawaii.com. Should bad weather close off the trails at the top, try the short Black Pipe trail for spectacular canyon views at a lower (usually sunny) elevation.
Try as you might to avoid them on vacation, children are drawn to toy stores. On the north shore, the Village Variety in the Ching Young Village in Hanalei is a good source for cheap gifts. Next door is Kokonut Kids, with baby and toddler clothing and a small but good selection of toys and books. In the Princeville Shopping Center you can find a store combining art supplies and high-end toys.
For food, fresh pineapple, fruit smoothies and shave ice are the big hits for children. There are several stands around the island to find these, or try one of the several farmer's markets held on regularly scheduled days at different locales. Often you will find fresh pineapple grown locally. They are low-acid and delicious. Smaller than what you may find elsewhere, they may cost about $5. Plan on buying one a day; they're that good. Children will love shave ice, better than any snow cone they may have had, lots of flavors and combinations to choose from, and served with or without ice cream on the bottom. You have to get it with ice cream. Along the way to the lighthouse and bird preserve in Kilauea, on the north shore, the Kialuea Fish Market offers yummy fish wraps for the adults and keiki boxes of teriyaki chicken, rice and carrot sticks for the kids. Across the street, the Kilauea Bakery & Pau Hana Pizza offers the children's classic, cheese pizza slices, along with other good fare. There's an enjoyable place to sit and eat outside and some good shops to peruse, too.