There are five ways that you can see the Nā Pali Coast of Kauaʻi.
You can hike on the Kalalau Trail, but the hike is extremely difficult and in many places dangerous.
You can fly over it as part of a helicopter tour. The views are amazing, but last only a few minutes.
You can sail the coast relaxing on a catamaran which allows for great views.
More athletic individuals can choose to kayak along part of the coast.
The only way that you're guaranteed to see the whole coast, explore several sea caves, and land at a secluded beach where Hawaiians once lived, is to take a zodiac excursion.
Detailed Briefing Before Departure
When our group arrived at the headquarters of Captain Zodiac Raft Expeditions at the Port Allen Marina Center in Eleʻele on Kauaʻi's southern shore we quickly learned that we were not in for a leisurely day on the water.
Before we got anywhere near their 24-foot rigid-hull inflatable zodiac we listened to a detailed briefing about what we would face should we choose to go through with the trip. To say that the guides do not sugar coat the briefing is putting in mildly. The briefing was fully intended to weed out any potential participants who were not prepared for a strenuous, often scary, and very wet six to seven hour experience.
We were told that while each zodiac has three seats in the rear, each of us could expect to spend most of the day sitting on the side of the raft grasping onto one of several ropes as the zodiac reached speeds in excess of 60 mph.
Each of us would have to take turns sitting in the most difficult areas of the craft and that any refusal to cooperate would end the excursion for all of us. We were told we would get wet (not just splashed, but soaked) many times during the trip.
On that day, no one scheduled for the tour backed down, so it was with a certain degree of trepidation that we headed down to the dock to board our zodiac, the "Discovery 2."
We were assigned seating locations by Captain "T" (for Tadashi) and his assistant Jonathan. They suggested that we sit on the raft's side facing forward with our left left folded underneath and our right leg inside the raft braced by a rope. Gloves were passed out so that we wouldn't get blisters on our hands from holding onto the ropes.
Three members of our group of six travel writers had opted to take the catamaran sail with Captain Zodiac's sister company, Captain Andy's Nā Pali Sailing Expeditions. The other three of us, Lindsey, Monica and myself and one of our hosts, Emele, had selected the zodiac. I soon realized that, at 51, I was the oldest person on board by far.
As the Discovery 2 pulled out of the harbor and Captain "T" revved up the dual outboard motors, I had an immediate sense of fear and immediately wondered what I had gotten myself into. That element of fear never fully disappeared as long as the zodiac was moving (which was for about four to five hours of the trip).
I realized that if I failed to hold on for dear life, I could easily fall overboard. The thought of hitting the water at 60 mph ensured that I would hold as tightly as possible.
Outbound Trip to the Na Pali Coast
The trip from Port Allen to the Na Pali Coast is long, which is why the zodiac has to proceed so fast to get there and still have time to see the coast, explore sea caves, and anchor for snorkeling, lunch, and the exploration of an old Hawaiian fishing village named Nualolo Kai. The trip to the Na Pali Coast passes by areas once dominated by sugar cane fields, the Pacific Missile Range Facility—Barking Sands—and the long and beautiful Polihale Beach, the longest in Hawaii at 17 miles.
Eventually the zodiac does reach the Na Pali Coast and you realize that the trip has truly been worth the struggle to get there. The coastal views are stunning.
The massive Na Pali sea cliffs were formed eons ago when about five miles of Kauai's western coast collapsed into the ocean. Captain "T" advised us that the original shoreline still lies submerged about five miles to the west.
Exploring the Na Pali Coast and Its Sea Caves
Over the next hour or so, our trip took us northward until Ke'e Beach on Kauaʻi's North Shore was visible in the distance. At this point we turned around and began to make our way back to the remote beach at Nuʻalolo Kai where we would stop for lunch and shore exploration.
Before anchoring for lunch, however, we explored several sea caves—some dark and open only at one end to the ocean and one which opens up into a cave without a ceiling where you can see the sky overhead. It was appropriately named the Open Ceiling Cave. Here, some of the crew took a quick swim.
From the Open Ceiling Cave we proceeded to a beach near Nuʻalolo Kai where the zodiac anchored. We had to wade to shore in waist deep water and climb over a rocky shoreline to reach a covered area where picnic tables were placed for lunch.
Those of us who chose to snorkel had a chance to do so, although the number of fish was disappointing on this day.
Old Hawaiian Fishing Village of Nualolo Kai
After our hot lunch we were offered the opportunity to tour the old Hawaiian Fishing Village of Nuʻalolo Kai.
What remains of the village is mostly lava rock foundations of old dwellings, a heiau, and a ceremonial area. Much of it is badly overgrown.
Volunteers are working to clear much of the area and preserve this historic site where Hawaiians are said to have lived from 1300 to the late 1800's. The tour through the village was educational and provided a welcome insight into the culture and lives of the Hawaiians who once lived here.
On a nearby beach, we were lucky to spot an endangered Hawaiian monk seal. Here on this secluded beach the seal is able to lie in the sun and digest his recent meal without fear of man or predators.
All too soon, however, it was time to gather our belongings and re-board the Discovery 2 for our trip back to port.
The return trip takes about an hour and a half and is every bit as wild as the outbound trip. I have to admit that for the last 45 minutes or so I asked for one of the seats in the back of the zodiac where, for the first time all day, I could actually relax and view the passing scenery.
Tips for Riding With Captain Zodiac
Here are some tips when taking a ride with Captain Zodiac.
- Wear only things that you're willing to get soaked.
- Pack something dry for the drive back to your lodging.
- Don't bring a camera that can't afford to get wet—consider a waterproof single-use camera.
- Don't even try to take a photo while the zodiac is moving. It won't turn out and trying to take it means removing your hold which is too dangerous.
- If you wear glasses, bring a strap to hold them on your head. Also, bring footwear that you use to walk through the water and rocky shoreline
- Bring and use plenty of sunscreen. Hats are useless—they'll blow off.
- Don't do this if you have significant physical limitations including a bad back, recent fracture, pulled muscle, or anything that would prevent you from grasping a rope tight for hours and bouncing continuously up and down and side to side.
- Bring some cash to tip the crew. I recommend $20 per person in your group.
- Be mindful if you are prone to seasickness and take Dramamine. Don't eat a large breakfast right before this trip.
- Have fun on the trip, but be careful also at all times.
- Speak up if you need to change your location on the raft—don't be a hero
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with a complimentary tour for the purpose of reviewing Captain Zodiac Raft Expeditions. While it has not influenced this review, About.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our ethics policy.