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Kauai North Shore Boat Tours: Seeing the Napali Coast from an Ocean Zodiac Raft

If you’re going to Kauai, you’ve probably figured out that the #1 thing to do is see the Napali Coast. And like some of the world’s best sites, it’s not just something that you can drive up and see. 

Kauai’s Napali Coast is so isolated and rugged that it can only be seen by helicopter, by boat, or via a challenging hike. 

Well my favorite way to see it is by boat…it’s way better bang for your buck than a helicopter tour (four+ hours of fun vs one) and way easier than a hike. 

The Best Time to Do a Napali Coast Boat Tour

The best time to do a Napali Coast boat tour is during the summer months. That’s roughly April to October. This is when ocean conditions are calmest. Now, the ocean isn’t super aware of our calendar dates so nothing is guaranteed. Boat tours during the shoulder season months of April and October can be “iffy” even if they’re bookable and sometimes might be canceled the day before. But generally the summer months are when you’ll have the best conditions for a Napali Coast Boat Tour. 

Waves get so rough in the winter that boats don’t leave from Hanalei on the north shore at all. Tours are still offered from the south side (mostly out of Port Allen), but they’re frequently canceled due to high surf. 

The best time of day to do a Napali Coast boat tour is in the morning. Usually conditions are calmer (waves and wind) and you’ll have a better time. The last hour or so of the morning trips are often pretty rough so I can’t imagine what an afternoon tour is like. And there are really not too many offered. Most of the big catamarans switch over to prep for dinner cruises in the afternoon. 

Kauai North Shore Boat Tours

There are a TON of companies that offer boat tours down the Napali Coast, so narrowing it down can be a little tricky. I strongly suggest picking a tour operator that leaves out of Hanalei instead of Port Allen (or anywhere on the south side). 

When you leave out of Hanalei, your whole tour is up and down the Napali Coast. When you leave out of Port Allen, you have to sail for almost an hour and a half before you even get to the Napali Coast. And then to make it back within the allotted tour time, the boats often turn back about half way up the Napali Coast so you won’t get to see the whole thing. 

Leaving out of Hanalei is only an option during the summer months though due to weather. If your trip is during the winter months, your only choice will be to leave from the south shore.

You’ll also have to narrow down what kind of boat you’ll take on your tour. Boats range from small ocean rafts to large catamarans. 

When you have an option, always go out on a smaller boat. The big catamarans (although cheaper) can’t venture into the sea caves and that’s one of the best parts of the Napali Coast. 

Most of the tours on Zodiacs (ocean rafts) are advertised as “snorkel cruises” or “snorkel adventures,” but don’t go in expecting too much. These are definitely boat tours of the Napali Coast to revel in the scenery of one of the most magnificent parts of Hawaii with a (sub par) snorkeling spot thrown in. It’s not terrible, but I’ve done a few different tours that stop at different spots and it has never been anything to write home about. You’re going to see the scenery and enjoy being out on the water.

Like I mentioned before, there are so many tour operators to choose from. If you follow the criteria I’ve outlined above when looking, you’ll end up having a great time. I can’t speak about every single tour, but my favorite north shore boat tour is Holo Holo Charters. 

***Want to save major $$$ on a fancy beach resort? My favorite travel hack is cashing in points to score free nights at some of the island’s most high end resorts. My go to hotel brand is Marriott so I use this Marriott Bonvoy Boundless card to rack up points for a lot of my trips to Hawaii. If you pay for your monthly expenses on the card and are responsible about paying it off every month, the points add up really fast. Plus, if you sign up through my link, you’ll get THREE bonus free nights to use. On Kauai, use your points at some of my favorite Marriott properties like the Koloa Landing Resort, Sheraton Kauai, and Westin Princeville Ocean Resort Villas. 

Side Note: If you’re looking for a rental car for your trip, I LOVE Discount Hawaii Car Rentals. They’re seriously the only company I ever use. They’ll give you the very best prices, you don’t have to reserve with a credit card or pay until you show up, you can cancel and re-book anytime if you find a better rate, and they usually have a special that adds additional drivers for no fee. It’s a no brainer. Click here to check rates for your trip.

Napali Coast Tour with Holo Holo Charters

Last time I was in Kauai, I booked with Holo Holo on their Napali Snorkel Adventure out of Hanalei, which is a four-hour tour. 

Our tour check in was at 7:30 AM behind the Tahiti Nui restaurant in Hanalei (it took us about 45 minutes to get from Kapa’a to Hanalei at this time of day). We checked in, signed our waivers, and loaded up our gear in waterproof bags (they provide them if you don’t have your own).

There were about 24 of us on this excursion, so it took two van rides to transport us down to the loading area near the mouth of the Hanalei River but it was less than a five minute ride so it didn’t take too long. Once we were there, our group loaded onto a small boat and we ferried out to the Zodiac waiting in Hanalei Bay. A Zodiac is kind of an ocean raft/boat so the sides are soft (you can sit on the sides and hold on to a strap) but there are also plenty of seats for everybody.

The neat thing about leaving out of Hanalei (instead of Port Allen on the south side) is that as soon as you clear Hanalei Bay, you’re pretty much on the Napali Coast! As we started down the north shore, our captain pointed out Tunnels and Ke’e Beach and helped us spot the famed Kalalau Trail up above us. This stretch of Kauai is my absolute favorite because it’s so lush and green.

On the journey down the coast, the boat would slow down so we could hear our captain’s stories and have time to take pictures. The views were so stunning that I don’t think the pictures do it justice at all. This wasn’t the first time I’d seen the Napali Coast, but I’m still blown away by how gorgeous it is!

The benefit of doing this trip on a Zodiac or ocean raft (as opposed to one of the big catamarans) is that you can zip in and out of sea caves! Conditions were good the day we went so we were able to go into several including one with an open ceiling.

Every single part of this trip is amazing but the highlight is probably seeing Kalalau. You can see it from an overlook at the Waimea Canyon but seeing it from the bottom makes you realize how big it really is. Kalalau beach is a beautiful beach at the end of the 11-mile hike along the Napali Coast. This hike is a two-day minimum but you can hike the first two miles on a day hike.

Our tour down the coast took almost two hours including all of our stops. We went almost all the way down to Polihale Beach before we stopped at our snorkel spot. We had 45 minutes there, which I thought was PLENTY of time. 

I’ve done quite a bit of snorkeling in Hawaii and the Caribbean and I really wasn’t impressed with this spot at all. I’ve done other Napali boat tours, which stopped at different spots and I didn’t think they were all that great either. 

After we finished snorkeling, we had lunch on the boat (premade sandwiches, chips, cookies, and a soda) and then started the trip back to Hanalei. 

The trip back took about an hour but during the second half it started to rain. I was sooooo glad the rain held off during the trip down the coast, and on the way back we just kind of hunkered down and rode it out. The ride back is also into the wind so it’s much rougher. 

Not the perfect ending to our trip but we made the most of it and even got to hide out from the rain in a sea cave on the way back. Thankfully the rain had stopped by the time we made it back to Hanalei Bay and started the disembarkation process. 

We celebrated with mai tais at Tahiti Nui’s!

On Another Note: If you’re looking for a condo or vacation rental for your trip, I always book with Vrbo. They’ve got the largest selection of rentals you’ll find anywhere and you can easily filter to find exactly what you’re looking for. Need a specific number of bedrooms and bathrooms? Narrowed it down to a certain location? Want flexible cancellation terms? Need to stay under a fixed budget? Click here to search for Kauai vacation rentals for your trip. 

A Few More Tips

If you’re prone to motion sickness, definitely take it before you get out onto the water! Generally speaking, those who are prone to seasickness might feel it more on a smaller boat than a larger boat.

Most tour companies provide dry bags for you to use. I recommend getting a waterproof case for your phone or camera though so you can keep it out, and bring along a towel or dry clothes for the ride back. It gets pretty windy and it’s nice having a long sleeve shirt to put on.

Still Looking for a Place to Stay?

Here’s one more really important thing you need to know before your Hawaii trip…

Reservations You Need to Make BEFORE Your Hawaii Trip

You’ve got your airfare, hotel, rental car and your big activities booked, so you should be good to go, right? Wrong!

Travel is BOOMING in Hawaii so a lot of state and national parks used the closure and reopening to institute reservation systems at some of the island’s most popular spots to make things a little more sustainable. 

That means that there are now over half a dozen sites (beaches, trailheads, etc.) that require advance reservations. And some sell out well before you arrive on the island so you really need to have some sort of a plan. 

I recently saw somebody in a Hawaii travel group post in a panic that they didn’t know they had to make reservations for things in advance…they thought they could just show up and “go with the flow.” I was tempted to say, well, “as long as the flow doesn’t take you somewhere that requires reservations, you can!” ; )

But I don’t want YOU to be that person, so I’ve pulled together a list of all the places you need to reserve entry in advance (plus all the details on booking windows, price, links, etc.) and a handful of popular tourist hotspots that book out really far in advance too. 

Haleakala National Park (Maui)

To visit Haleakala National Park for sunrise at the summit, you must make reservations in advance here

Reservations are required to enter the park gates between 3AM and 7AM (sunrise hours). 

Online reservations are $1 per reservation/vehicle PLUS you’ll pay the park entrance fee of $30/vehicle when you arrive (National Park annual passes are also accepted at the gate).

The reservation booking window opens 60 days in advance at 7AM HST. There are also a limited number of tickets released two days before. 

You can make one reservation every three days with the same account. So if you want to make reservations for back to back days (in case of weather/conditions), you’ll need to do so with separate accounts (email addresses).  

If you can’t get reservations for sunrise, you can enter the park anytime after 7AM without reservations. The summit is spectacular during the day and you don’t need reservations for sunset. 

I strongly recommend creating an account before and making sure you’re logged in at 7AM HST because it’s not uncommon for reservations to sell out quickly. 

Waianapanapa State Park (Maui)

To visit Maui’s famous black sand beach at Waianapanapa State Park on the Road to Hana, you must make reservations in advance here

Reservations are required to visit the beach and are distributed in windows from 7AM-10AM, 10AM-12:30PM, 12:30PM-3PM, and 3PM-6PM. And they are pretty strict about exiting by the end of your window time (you can arrive anytime within your window). 

It’s $5/person to enter plus $10/vehicle to park and those fees are paid when you book your time slot. 

Reservations open up 30 days in advance. 

Iao Valley State Park (Maui)

To visit the lush, green mountains and hike at Iao Valley State Park, you must make reservations in advance here

Reservations are offered for 90 minute time slots beginning at 7AM and ending at 6PM. They ask that you arrive within the first 30 minutes of your time slot. 

Entry is $5/person plus $10/vehicle to park. 

Reservations open up 30 days in advance. 

Diamond Head (Oahu)

To hike to the top of Waikiki’s famous Diamond Head, you must make reservations in advance here

Reservations are offered in two hour increments beginning at 6AM (6AM-8AM, 8AM-10AM, etc.) and ending at 6PM. If you’re parking onsite, they ask that you arrive within the first 30 minutes of your reservation window. 

Entry is $5/person plus $10/vehicle to park. 

Reservations open up 30 days in advance. 

Tip: I recommend booking one of the first two time slots because there isn’t much shade on this hike and it gets pretty hot. 

Hanauma Bay (Oahu)

To snorkel at Oahu’s pristine Hanauma Bay, you must make reservations in advance here

Entry times are staggered in 10 minute increments from 7AM to 1:20PM with roughly 1000 slots being assigned in advance every day.

Reservations can be made two days in advance and they open at 7AM HST. They’re usually gone in minutes (if not seconds).

If you’re unable to get an advanced reservation, you can try for a day of, walk in ticket. They open at 6:45AM and they only have a limited number available. Everyone in your group needs to be present when you purchase your tickets in person. 

There are no reservations for parking and it’s first come, first serve. $3/vehicle. 

It’s $25/person to snorkel at Hanauma Bay (12 and under, active military, and locals with HI ID are free).

The Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve is open Wednesday through Sunday (CLOSED MONDAY AND TUESDAY) from 6:45AM-4PM. Last entry is at 1:30PM, the beach is cleared at 3:15PM and you have to leave the facility by 4PM. 

Jellyfish patterns can also affect whether or not the bay is open so double check the day before/day of. 

USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor (Oahu)

If you want to take the boat tour at Pearl Harbor out to the USS Arizona, it’s recommended to make advance reservations here

Online reservations are guaranteed a specific boarding time to go out to the USS Arizona. If you’re unable to get an advance reservation, you can wait standby when you arrive. The line could be short (15 minutes or so) or long (hours) and it just depends on the day (if they’re having problems with the loading dock sometimes they don’t take many from the standby line) and the time of day. 

Reservations are supposed to open up 60 days in advance, but keep an eye on your exact dates, because lately they’ve actually been opening up about 57ish days in advance???

They also release a small batch of tickets the day before. 

The boat ride out to the USS Arizona is free, but it’s $1 to make the reservations online. 

They recently started charging $7/vehicle for parking at Pearl Harbor. 

Haena State Park / Kalalau Trail (Kauai)

If you want to hike Kauai’s famous Kalalau Trail, you must make advance reservations here

You’ve got three options here: 

1) Parking & Entry: This is the most flexible option and also the most limited. THESE RESERVATIONS SELL OUT IN LESS THAN A MINUTE. There are three time slots available: 6:30AM-12:30PM, 12:30PM-5:30PM and 4:30PM to sunset. You can purchase multiple time slots if you want to stay longer. It’s $10/timeslot (parking) plus $5/person and you have to reserve every person when you initially book. Everybody has to arrive in the same car and your ID needs to match the reservation. 

2) Shuttle & Entry: If you can’t get parking at the trailhead, there’s also a shuttle option. Shuttle reservations are $35/person (16+), $25/person (ages 4-15), 3 and under can ride free. The shuttle runs every 20 minutes 6:20AM to 6:40PM.

3) Entry Only: If you’re a Hawaiian resident (with HI ID) or someone WITH a Hawaiian resident, you can purchase entry only for $5/person with no advance reservations. Also, if you’re walking or biking to the trailhead you can do this option. But there is NOWHERE to park in the area to walk in. So this really only works for those with bikes or who are staying close enough to walk. They will tow your car if you park outside the designated areas. 

The reservation window opens 30 days in advance at 12AM HST. The parking & entry option usually sells out in a minute, but the shuttle availability will last longer. 

There are a TON of FAQs here including the possibility of snagging a canceled reservation. 

Other Things to Book in Advance

Hawaii is a busy place these days! Besides the state and national parks above, here’s a handful of miscellaneous things you should make reservations for in advance (if they’re on your radar):

Mama’s Fish House (Maui): The iconic spot is the most popular restaurant in Hawaii and they’ve been opening reservations (and selling out) 4-6 months in advance. You can call and get on the waitlist for one day or you can set notifications on OpenTable to alert you for cancellations every day of your trip. Most people have pretty good success on OpenTable. 

Old Lahaina Luau (Maui): Honestly, any luau you’re planning to attend you should book early, but most people are usually shocked how far out the Old Lahaina Luau books out. Book it as soon as you know your dates (I think they open at the six month window). They also have a waitlist. 

Kualoa Ranch UTV Tour (Oahu): Everybody loves Jurassic Park so getting to ride UTVs where they filmed the movies is very popular. The ranch offers a lot of different tours but the UTV tours usually book out a couple of months in advance. 

Spa Reservations: If you’re staying at a resort with a spa (or planning on visiting one), don’t wait until you arrive to make your reservations. I’d make them at least a month in advance. 

Tee Times: Same for golf, reserve your tee times well in advance. 

Dining Reservations: Any “fancy” or resort restaurant is likely to be booked up these days so if you like having a nice dinner every night, make your plans in advance. 

Want to read more? Don’t miss some of my most popular (and favorite) posts about Kauai: my personal Kauai favorites, a breakdown of where to stay on Kauai comparing Princeville vs Poipu, my favorite restaurants in Poipu, the best places to watch sunset on Kauai, 5 day Kauai itinerary, my review of the Grand Hyatt Kauai, everything you need to know about Napali Coast boat tours leaving from Port Allen (south side) and Hanalei (north shore), my best Kauai travel tips, all about hiking the Kalalau trail (Kauai’s best hike), Maui vs Kauai, the best things to do on Kauai and more specifically in Hanalei and Poipu, whether you should see the Napali Coast via boat or helicopter, my best (and specific) condo recommendations on Kauai, everything you need to know about Kauai helicopter tours, Kauai’s best north shore beaches, where to play tennis on Kauai, how many days you should spend on Kauai (plus other FAQs), the best spas on Kauai, and my review of the Smith Family Luau





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