First-time kayakers can't ask for a better place to pick up the basics than the Hanalei River on Kauai's North Shore. On calm days, the river is extraordinarily flat, bending around sweeping curves as it moves from the island's steep, lush interior at a surprisingly unhurried pace.
During a recent visit to the Garden Isle, I joined a family of four from Minnesota on Kayak Kauai's Blue Lagoon Paddle & Snorkel tour, which began on the mellow Hanalei River before venturing into Hanalei Bay, where the water conditions were a bit more adventurous.
"Upstream on the river's flat surface, where there's not much agitation, you can introduce some technique in a quick way," said Micco Godinez, who launched Kayak Kauai with his brother Chino in 1984. "By the time they've paddled a fair bit on the river, folks get into the swing of it pretty quickly, and then we add a little rock 'n' roll on the ocean."
But the olive-green river is far more than just a terrific place for a crash course in kayaking fundamentals. The gorgeous setting offers visitors a wonderful contrast to Kauai's coastal environments, showcasing riverbanks crowded with lush plants and colorful flowers. On clear days, you can see Kauai's Waioli Valley and the jagged peaks of Namolokama, Mamalahoa and Hihimanu, which host a collection of towering waterfalls if the weather has recently been rainy.
Paddling on the river also offers clients an intimate look at the verdant patchwork of taro fields sprawling behind the small town of Hanalei as well as a lesson in the crop's vital importance to Hawaiian culture and history.
"It's incredible eye candy," Godinez said, adding that his company pioneered kayak tours on the Hanalei River. "The idea was that it's a little taste of the river and a little taste of the ocean."
The Blue Lagoon Paddle & Snorkel tour goes from the Hanalei River to Hanalei Bay.
The mouth of the Hanalei River is reasonably well-protected by a distant barrier reef, and although there can be some interesting swirling currents around that mouth, depending on the tides and the season, the river empties into the bay at a location where you typically don't get massive waves breaking. That makes the transition from paddling on the flat river to traversing the ocean's surface a relatively easy one and enables Kayak Kauai to offer its Blue Lagoon tour pretty much year-round.
On my outing with the company, everybody appeared to make the river-to-ocean transition pretty easily, and in no time we were headed along the coast toward a favorite snorkeling spot. Moments later, our guide pulled the kayaks up onto a white-sand beach, and many of us were soon exploring the nearby reef in masks and fins, spotting all sorts of tropical fish on the western boundary of Hanalei Bay.
For Godinez, who spent his childhood in Cuba and Puerto Rico, Hanalei Bay is one of the most beautiful places on the planet.
"When you're on the water and looking up at the waterfalls and the rainbows, and maybe there's a stiff wind making horsetails from the foam of the breaking waves, it's just an incredible view," he said.
You wouldn't have heard any argument from our group during lunch on the beach next to our kayaks. The topaz blue of the ocean contrasting with the emerald green of the sawtoothed North Shore mountains was a gripping sight, and after all the paddling and snorkeling, a roast beef sandwich never tasted so good.
"What I've always learned is people want a wilderness experience, but they don't necessarily want to work for it," Godinez said with a chuckle. "So this offers that with a minimal amount of effort, and it's very family-friendly."
Adventurers looking for an outing with a bit more of the ocean's rock 'n' roll might want to consider Kayak Kauai's all-day, 17-mile Na Pali Coast tours. Offered only in the summer months when the waves are typically the most calm, the company refers to this outing as the "Everest of sea kayaking," because it's not for folks in poor physical condition or prone to seasickness.
Still, Godinez was quick to encourage me after I told him the excursion was on my must-do list.
"It'll knock your socks off," he said. "For people who do the Na Pali Coast, I hear it all the time, it's the highlight of their vacation.
"We also get the born-again paddler," he added with a laugh. "They're the ones who saw God during the trip along the coast."
Commissionable to agents, Kayak Kauai's five-hour Blue Lagoon Paddle & Snorkel Tour starts at $95 for adults, $85 for kids under 12, includes lunch and is offered Mondays through Saturdays year-round, provided the ocean and river conditions are safe.