In the past I’ve been pretty vocal that the Zodiac ocean rafts that leave from Hanalei (on Kauai’s north shore) are the better way to see the famed Napali Coast. But the catamarans that leave from Port Allen (on Kauai’s south side) are sooooooo recommended and Captain Andy’s Napali Coast Catamaran Snorkel Tour is hands down the most popular tour on Kauai. So I decided that on my last trip to Kauai, I’d go sailing with Captain Andy’s so I could really compare the two.
Well I won’t leave you waiting long…the north shore boat tours are still my favorite way to see the Napali Coast, but the Captain Andy’s cruise was really fun and there are definitely times where it’s a better option.
Captain Andy’s Napali Coast Catamaran Snorkel Tour
Here are the details from my trip with Captain Andy:
The excursion I did with Captain Andy’s was the 5.5 hour cruise leaving from Port Allen on Kauai’s south side. It took roughly 20 minutes from the Grand Hyatt to get to the dock.
Our cruise left at 8AM and returned at 1:30PM, but we were advised to check in by 7:15AM.
At the rendezvous point, there’s plenty of parking and a huge shop with water, sunscreen, merch, bathrooms, etc. It’s a big time operation, folks. And they have all of the amenities you would expect.
We scanned a QR code from a sign in the parking lot to “check in” and at 7:30 they texted or emailed out “boarding passes”. The boarding passes were really just colors that sort everyone onto the right boats. There were 3 catamarans loading at the same time so it was a LOT of people milling about. Our color group followed a guide down to the dock where we left our shoes in a bin and boarded group by group.
For this tour, Captain Andy’s sails huge catamarans with 3 crew members plus the Captain. We boarded quickly and then the captain gave one of the most extensive safety/procedure speeches I’ve ever heard on a boat trip.
We set sail right at 8AM. From Port Allen we sailed clockwise around the island. It took us ONE HOUR AND 15 MINUTES before we even reached the tail end (or beginning) of the Napali Coast, which is generally considered to be Polihale Beach. We mostly sailed past the dry, not super scenic part of Kauai (hey it can’t all be Jurassic Park).
This is my biggest “beef” with boat trips that leave from the south…you spend a good chunk of your Napali Coast cruise not on the Napali Coast. In all, we spent almost 3 hours of the 5.5 hour cruise in transit. So on a 5.5 hour cruise, you’re really only getting about 2.5 hours of time on the Napali Coast (including snorkeling) which isn’t the main problem…it’s all the travel time that’s added in.
Anyways, by 9:30AM we reached a mooring near the beginning of the Napali Coast and had about 45 minutes of snorkeling time.
I’ll level with you…snorkeling along the Napali is pretty abysmal in general. At every place I’ve ever been (3 different spots which is about all of them) the reef is pretty much all brown with minimal interesting coral formations, and fish are sparse.
This isn’t a riff on Captain Andy’s, it’s just how it is. So my point is…for whatever company you’re looking at for a boat ride down the Napali Coast…an excursion that offers snorkeling isn’t necessarily a big value add unless you just want to get in the water.
I saw about three fish the whole time I was in the water until I headed back to the boat and somebody threw a couple of crackers right by me. That felt like being in an aquarium but don’t count on that happening. And really, of the 40ish people on our boat, probably only a handful of us were nearby to see it when it happened.
After we got dried off and settled back onto the boat, we sailed on up the coast and it was BEAUTIFUL. No matter how many times I see it, I’m always amazed. My position on this is: if you come to Kauai and you don’t see the Napali Coast, you haven’t seen Kauai.
A tip: find a spot on the right side of the boat for the best views of the coast.
The main thing I didn’t like about the catamaran cruise (that I didn’t know before I did it) is that there’s not NEARLY enough seating for everyone to have a good spot. There were probably 40-50 people on our boat and I ended up standing at the rail for the first couple of hours. About halfway through they let us sit on top of the catamaran which was a great view but hard to get up and down.
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We sailed pretty slowly up to the Kalalau Valley (the real showpiece of the Napali Coast), and the crew was great about taking people’s pictures in front of the railing with that magnificent backdrop.
Just north of the Kalalau, we turned around to head back, which is my other not so favorite part about the south side catamaran cruises—they can’t do the whole thing and make it back to port in a timely manner which means that we didn’t get to see almost half of the Napali Coast.
Whether or not this is a deal breaker for you is up to you. Nobody on the boat seemed to mind (or even know really what they were missing) and it did feel like we spent a good amount of time seeing the peaks around the Kalalau which is what most people expect to see. But if you’re serious about seeing Kauai and the Napali Coast, just know that you won’t actually see the whole thing on a catamaran that leaves from the south side.
Once we turned around (you’ll want to move to the left side of the boat), they put up the sails and it was SMOOTH while we had lunch and they opened the bar. The food was honestly the best I’ve ever had on a snorkel boat tour (and I’ve had a lot) and the service from the crew was phenomenal the whole trip.
They serve everyone food and drinks the whole trip so you never have to go below deck and stand in a line to get what you want. And they were great about checking for refills, taking trash, etc. All of the beverages offered were canned (soda and beer) or wine…they didn’t have mixed cocktails.
I also really thought the captain had a good balance between narrating what we were seeing, telling stories, and just letting us listen to some great Hawaiian music (on the way back it turned into more top 40 classics).
It was smooth sailing going back until we turned the point around Polihale (the beginning/end of the Napali Coast) and it became one of the roughest boat trips of my life.
We’d dried off from snorkeling but everyone up top was totally soaked by the time we made it back from the waves.
Also it seemed like a natural end to the tour (saw the coast, had lunch, drinks, etc), but then we had an hour and a half ride back to the port (in the aforementioned conditions). It just seemed super long.
It was a completely clear and flat day but the ride back was WILD. It wasn’t scary and thankfully most people didn’t seem to get sick, but I’ve heard people recommend the catamarans over the zodiacs because they’re a more comfortable and relaxing experience but that definitely wasn’t my experience. It felt active and we all got super jostled around for an hour plus but with most people not having a good place to sit or much to hold on to.
Going below deck would’ve at least given you a break from the waves, but I suspect if you’re prone to motion sickness it would’ve been pretty bad down below plus since we were sitting up on top of the catamarans, it felt too tricky to get down with the big waves.
Now, it really wasn’t scary at all (for me at least), but I do just want to let you know that you should at least expect and be prepared for some rough sailing and if that doesn’t sound fun then you should prioritizing getting a seat on one of the bences towards the back of the boat (and underneath) on the way back.
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So should you do a north shore boat tour or a south side catamaran tour?
Do a north shore zodiac tour if 1) you’re going April to October-ish when they’re offered 2) you can drive up to Hanalei early or you’re staying in the area 3) you want the very best Napali Coast boat experience including see the whole things, going into the sea caves, etc. 4) you’re okay with more of an adventure experience instead of a day cruise experience. Read more about the north shore boat tours here.
Do the south side catamaran tour if 1) you’re staying in Poipu and can’t handle driving up to Hanalei early 2) you’re going with kids who want to snorkel, swim, jump off the boat, bounce on the trampolines 3) you’re okay with seeing the highlights of the coast and don’t need to see the whole thing 4) you want a more relaxing experience although that’s debatable and be prepared for a rough ride either way
Now, there are quite a few options out of the Port Allen area including other companies (Blue Dolphin looks good) and other Napali versions that Captain Andy’s offers (ocean rafts, no snorkeling, dinner cruises, etc.), but the trip I took with Captain Andy’s was VERY recommendable.
You can find the exact trip that I’ve described here. It cost $185/adult and $165/child. And don’t forget to take cash to tip the crew!
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.
P.S. Thanks for sticking around and reading this whole post! If you have ANY questions about planning your trip to Hawaii, you can join my free Facebook group here. I’m there answering questions every day and there are 7500+ other friends who have a ton of Hawaii information to share!
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