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Deciding to see Napali Coast by boat is an easy decision. Choosing the outfitter to go with is not. There are numerous boat-tour operators to choose from, and, quite frankly, they all do a good job. Before you even start thinking about whom to go out with, answer these three questions: What kind of boat do I prefer? Where am I staying? Do I want to go in the morning or afternoon? Once you settle on these three, you can easily zero in on the tour outfitter.
First, the boat. The most important thing is to match your personality and that of your group with the personality of the boat. If you like thrills and adventure, the rubber, inflatable rafts—often called Zodiacs, which Jacques Cousteau made famous and which the U.S. Coast Guard uses—will entice you. They're fast, sure to leave you drenched, and quite bouncy. If you prefer a smoother, more leisurely ride, then the large catamarans are the way to go. The next boat choice is size. Both the rafts and catamarans come in small and large. Again—think smaller, more adventurous; larger, more leisurely. Do not choose a smaller boat because you think there will be fewer people. There might be fewer people, but you'll be jammed together sitting atop strangers. If you prefer privacy over socializing, go with a larger boat, so you'll have more room to spread out. One advantage to smaller boats, however, is that—depending on ocean conditions—some may slip into a sea cave or two. If that sounds interesting to you, call the outfitter and ask their policy on entering sea caves. Some won't, no matter the conditions, because they consider the caves sacred or because they don't want to cause any environmental damage.
There are three points boats leave from around the island (Hanalei, Port Allen, and Waimea), and all head to the same spot: Napali Coast. Here's the inside skinny on which is the best: If you're staying on the North Shore, choose to depart out of the North Shore. If you're staying anywhere else, depart out of the West Side. It's that easy. Sure, the North Shore is closer to Napali Coast; however, you'll pay more for less overall time. The West Side boat operators may spend more time getting to Napali Coast; however, they'll spend about the same amount of time along Napali, plus you'll pay less. Finally, you'll also have to decide whether you want to go on a morning tour, which includes a deli lunch and a stop for snorkeling, or an afternoon tour, which does not stop to snorkel but does include a sunset over the ocean. The morning tours with snorkeling are more popular with families and those who love dolphins. You don't have to be an expert snorkeler or even have any prior experience, but if it is your first time, note that although there will be some snorkeling instruction, there might not be much. Hawaiian spinner dolphins are so plentiful in the mornings that some tour companies guarantee you'll see them, though you won't get in the water and swim with them. The afternoon tours are more popular with nonsnorkelers—obviously—and photographers interested in capturing the setting sunlight on the coast.
Blue Dolphin Charters. This company operates 63-foot and 65-foot sailing (rarely raised and always motoring) catamarans designed with three decks of spacious seating with great visibility. The lower deck is best for shade seekers. Upgrades from snorkeling to scuba diving—no need for certification—are available and run $35, but the diving is really best for beginners or people who need a refresher course. On Tuesday and Friday a tour of Napali Coast includes a detour across the channel to Niihau for snorkeling and diving. Blue Dolphin likes to say they have the best mai tais "off the island," and truth is, they probably do. Morning snorkel tours of Napali include a deli lunch, and afternoon sunset sightseeing tours include a meal of kalua pork, teriyaki chicken, Caesar salad, and chocolate-chip cookies. Prices range from $105 to $196, depending on the tour. Two-hour whale-watching/sunset tours, offered during winter, run $63. Book online for cheaper deals on every tour offered. In Port Allen Marina Center Turn makai onto Rte. 541 off Rte. 50, at Eleele, HI, 96705. PHONE: 808/335-5553 or 877/511-1311. www.kauaiboats.com.
Capt. Andy's Sailing Adventures. Departing from Port Allen and running two 55-foot sailing catamarans, Capt. Andy's runs the same five-hour snorkeling and four-hour sunset tours along Napali Coast as everyone else, though we're not crazy about its seating, which exists mostly in the cabin. It also operates a six-hour snorkel BBQ sail aboard a new addition—its "Southern Star" yacht—originally built for private charters. The new boat now operates as host for two of Capt. Andy's daily sailing trips for an upgraded feel. For a shorter adventure, they have a two-hour sunset sail, embarking out of Kukuiula Harbor in Poipu along the South Shore—with live Hawaiian music—on select days (check website for particulars). If the winds and swells are up on the North Shore, this is usually a good choice—especially if you're prone to seasickness. This is the only tour boat operator that allows infants on board—but only on the two-hour trip. Note, if you have reservations for the shorter tour, you'll check in at their Kukuiula Harbor office. Prices range from $69 to $159. www.napali.com.
Captain Sundown. If you're staying on the North Shore, Captain Sundown is a worthy choice, especially for the nonadventurous. Get this: Captain Bob has been cruising Napali Coast since 1971—six days a week, sometimes twice a day. (And right alongside Captain Bob is his son Captain Larry.) To say he knows the area is a bit of an understatement. Here's the other good thing about this tour: they take only 15 to 17 passengers. Now, you'll definitely pay more, but it's worth it. The breathtaking views of the waterfall-laced mountains behind Hanalei and Haena start immediately, and then it's around Kee Beach and the magic of Napali Coast unfolds before you. All the while, the captains are trolling for fish, and if they catch any, guests get to reel 'em in. Afternoon sunset sails (seasonal) run three hours and check in around 3 pm—these are BYOB. Prices range from $144 to $199. Meet in the Tahiti Nui parking lot. During the winter months, Captain Bob moves his operation to Nawiliwili Harbor, where he runs four- to five-hour whale-watching tours. 5-5134 Kuhio Hwy., Hanalei, HI, 96714. PHONE: 808/826-5585. www.captainsundown.com.
Catamaran Kahanu. This Hawaiian-owned-and-operated company has been in business since 1985 and runs a 40-foot power catamaran with 18-passenger seating. The five-hour tour includes snorkeling at Nualolo Kai, plus a deli lunch and soft drinks. The four-hour afternoon tour includes a hot dinner and sunset. The boat is smaller than most and may feel a tad crowded, but the tour feels more personal, with a laid-back, ohana style. Guests can witness the ancient cultural practice of coconut weaving or other Hawaiian craft demonstrations on board. There's no alcohol allowed. Prices range from $105 to $135. 4353 Waialo Rd., near Port Allen Marina Center, Eleele, HI, 96705. PHONE: 808/645-6176 or 888/213-7711. www.catamarankahanu.com.
HoloHolo Charters. Choose between the 50-foot catamaran called "Leila" for a morning snorkel sail to Napali Coast, or the 65-foot "Holo Holo" catamaran trip to the "forbidden island" of Niihau. Both boats have large cabins and little outside seating. Originators of the Niihau tour, HoloHolo Charters built their 65-foot powered catamaran with a wide beam to reduce side-to-side motion, and twin 425 HP turbo diesel engines specifically for the 17-mi channel crossing to Niihau. It's the only outfitter running daily Niihau tours. The Holo Holo also embarks on a daily sunset and sightseeing tour of the Napali Coast. Leila can hold 37 passengers, while her big brother can take a maximum of 49. Prices range from $99 to $179. Check in at Port Allen Marina Center. 4353 Waialo Rd., Eleele, HI, 96705. PHONE: 808/335-0815 or 800/848-6130. www.holoholocharters.com.
Kauai Sea Tours. This company operates a 60-foot sailing catamaran designed almost identically to that of Blue Dolphin Charters—with all the same benefits—including great views and spacious seating. Snorkeling tours anchor near Makole (based on the captain's discretion). If snorkeling isn't your thing, try the four-hour sunset tour, with beer, wine, mai tais, pu pus, and a hot buffet dinner. Prices range from $115 to $149. Check in at Port Allen Marina Center. 4353 Waialo Rd., Eleele, HI, 96705. PHONE: 808/826-7254 or 800/733-7997. www.kauaiseatours.com.
Liko Kauai Cruises. There are many things to like about Liko Kauai Cruises. The 49-foot powered cat will enter sea caves, ocean conditions permitting. Sometimes, even Captain Liko himself—a born-and-bred West Side boy—still takes the captain's helm. We particularly like the layout of his boat—most of the seating is in the bow, so there's good visibility. A maximum of 32 passengers make each trip, which lasts five hours (an increase from the previous four-hour tours). Final destinations are dependent on the season, as is the afternoon tour, which typically operates just in the summer months. Trips depart out of Kikiaola Harbor in Waimea, a bit closer to the Napali Coast than those leaving from Port Allen. The rate is $140. 4516 Alawai Rd., Waimea, HI, 96796. PHONE: 808/338-0333 or 888/732-5456. www.liko-kauai.com.
Napali Catamaran. One of the few tour groups departing Hanalei, this company has been around since 1973. Once you're on board, it takes only five minutes before you're witnessing the magnificence of Napali Coast. Taking a maximum of 16 passengers, tts 34-foot, powered catamaran is small enough—and with no mast, short enough—to dip into sea caves. In summer, they run two four-hour snorkeling tours per day, stopping at the best snorkeling site along Napali—Nualolo Kai. In winter, business slows as the surf picks up, and they run three-hour whale watching tours, ocean conditions permitting. If it weren't for the bench seating bisecting the boat—meaning one group of passengers enjoys unobstructed views of the open ocean instead of Napali either on the way out or back—we'd really be happy. Rate is $160, on the high side for a four-hour tour. Ching Young Village, 5-5190 Kuhio Hwy., Hanalei, HI, 96714. PHONE: 808/826-6853 or 866/255-6853. www.napalicatamaran.com.
Capt. Andy's Rafting Expeditions. This company used to be known as Captain Zodiac; however, the outfit has changed hands over the years. It first started running Napali in 1974, and currently, Capt. Andy's (as in the sailing catamaran Capt. Andy's) is operating the business. Departing out of Kikiaola Harbor in Kekaha, this tour is much like the other raft tours, offering both snorkeling and beach-landing excursions. The rafts are on the smaller side—24 feet with a maximum of 14 passengers—and all seating is on the rubber hulls, so hang on. They operate three different rafts, so there's a good chance of availability. Price is $185 in summer; $159 in winter, including snorkeling at Nualolo Kai (ocean conditions permitting), sightseeing along Napali Coast, a hiking tour through an ancient Hawaiian fishing village, and a hot buffet lunch on the beach. You're closer to the water on the Zodiacs, so you'll have great views of humpbacks, spinner dolphins, sea turtles, and other wildlife. Kikiaola Small Boat Harbor, Hwy. 50, Waimea, HI, 96796. PHONE: 808/335-6833 or 800/535-0830. www.napali.com.
Kauai Sea Tours. This company holds a special permit from the state to land at Nualolo Kai along Napali Coast, ocean conditions permitting. Here, you'll enjoy a picnic lunch, as well as an archaeological tour of an ancient Hawaiian fishing village, ocean conditions permitting. Kauai Sea Tours operates four 24-foot inflatable rafts—maximum occupancy 14. These are small enough for checking out the insides of sea caves and the undersides of waterfalls. Four different tours are available, including whale watching, depending on the season. Prices range from $79 to $155. Port Allen Marina Center, 4353 Waialo Rd., Eleele, HI, 96705. PHONE: 808/826-7254 or 800/733-7997. www.kauaiseatours.com.
Napali Explorer. Owned by a couple of women, these tours operate out of Waimea, a tad closer to Napali Coast than most of the other West Side catamaran tours. Departing out of the West Side, the company runs two different sizes of inflatable rubber raft: a 48-foot, 36-passenger craft with an onboard toilet, freshwater shower, shade canopy, and seating in the stern (which is surprisingly smooth and comfortable) and bow (which is where the fun is); and a 26-foot, 14-passenger craft for the all-out fun and thrills of a white-knuckle ride in the bow. The smaller vessel stops at Nualolo Kai and ties up onshore for a tour of the ancient fishing village. Though they used to operate out of Hanalei Bay during the summer, the company is now strictly a West Side operation. Rates vary from $100 to $140, including snorkeling. Charters are available. 9643 Kaumalii Hwy., Waimea, HI, 96796. PHONE: 808/338-9999 or. www.napaliexplorer.com. Hanalei.
Napali Riders. This tour-boat outfitter distinguishes itself in two ways. First, it cruises the entire Napali Coast, clear to Kee Beach and back. Second, it has a reasonable price, because it's a no-frills tour—no lunch provided, just beverages and snacks. The company runs four-hour snorkeling trips out of Kikiaola Harbor in Waimea on a 30-foot inflatable raft with a 28-passenger maximum—that's fewer than they used to take, but can still be a bit cramped. The cost is $129. 9600 Kaumualii Hwy., Waimea, HI, 96796. PHONE: 808/742-6331. www.napaliriders.com.
Z-Tourz. What we like about Z-Tourz is that it is the only boat company to make snorkeling its priority. As such, it focuses on the South Shore's abundant offshore reefs, stopping at two locations. If you want to see Napali, this boat is not for you; if you want to snorkel with the myriad of Hawaii's tropical reef fish and turtles (pretty much guaranteed), this is your boat. Z-Tourz runs daily three-hour tours on a 26-foot rigid-hull inflatable (think Zodiac) with a maximum of 16 passengers. These snorkel tours are guided, so someone actually identifies what you're seeing. Rate is $94, which includes lunch and snorkel gear. Check in at the business center then ride to Kukuiula Harbor in Poipu. 3417 Poipu Rd., Poipu, HI, 96756. PHONE: 808/742-7422 or 888/998-6879. www.ztourz.com.
Riverboat Tours to Fern Grotto
Smith's Motor Boat Services. This 2-mi, upriver trip culminates at a yawning lava tube that is covered with enormous fishtail ferns. During the boat ride, guitar and ukulele players regale you with Hawaiian melodies and tell the history of the river. It's a kitschy bit of Hawaiiana, worth the little money ($20) and short time required. Flat-bottom, 150-passenger riverboats (that rarely fill up) depart from Wailua Marina at the mouth of the Wailua River. It's extremely rare, but occasionally after heavy rains the tour doesn't disembark at the grotto; if you're traveling in winter, ask beforehand. Round-trip excursions take 1½ hours, including time to walk around the grotto and environs. Tours run at 9:30, 11, 2, and 3:30 daily. Reservations are not required. 5971 Kuhio Hwy, Kapaa, HI, 96746. PHONE: 808/821-6892. www.smithskauai.com.