There are three ways to experience Kauai's Na Pali coast wilderness: on foot, in the air or, most commonly, by boat. Tour operators capitalize on the popularity of Na Pali by offering a range of snorkeling/diving, sightseeing and sunset cruises as well as beach landings, with a fleet of local catamarans, rafts and motorboats.
Port Allen, located on Kauai's south coast, is the key departure point for most Na Pali maritime adventures, with morning and afternoon sailings along the coast, a spectacular, 14-mile-long series of lush valleys, towering cliffs and needle-like pinnacles of rock towering over deep blue waters.
The large, modern fleet of vessels that plies Na Pali's waters consists primarily of catamarans, which usually carry from 37 to 49 passengers. The catamarans typically cruise under power down the coast, then cut the engines and hoist sail for return trips powered by the trade winds.
Catamarans offer plenty of outdoor seating as well as covered cabins for time out of the sun.
At the other end of the Na Pali sailing spectrum, smaller raft tours carry up to 15 passengers.
The highly maneuverable rafts are able to make beach landings, weather and sea conditions permitting, and access a wider range of snorkeling waters.
The downside to a raft excursion is a rougher ride and greater exposure to the elements.
Since it is on the north side of the island, the Na Pali coastline is prone to high surf during the winter months. This sometimes necessitates alternative sailings along Kauai's calmer southern coast.
Where to, how to
The trip from Port Allen to snorkeling sites along the Na Pali coast takes about two hours, lending enough time for the onboard continental breakfast most tour operators offer as compensation for rendezvous times that typically start around 7:15 a.m.
Mornings are the best time to spot whales -- sightings are almost guaranteed in winter -- as well as dolphins, flying fish and sea turtles. Snorkel cruise fees usually include the use of snorkeling gear.
Afternoon catamaran departures normally don't offer snorkeling but do include sunsets and, very often, dinner at sea.
The truly stunning views start at Polihale, where Na Pali's wild coastline first comes into view. The scenery alone would make the trip worthwhile.
Tour operators offering Na Pali sailings include:
• Blue Dolphin Charter: Options aboard two large catamarans include a snorkel/scuba tour for $147 and a sunset dinner cruise for $115, with discounts for Web bookings. The latest addition is the Raft and Snorkel Adventure, priced at $119. Call (877) 511-1311 or visit www.kauaiboats.com.
• Captain Andy's Sailing Adventures: Sailings include a morning Sail & Snorkel tour, which includes continental breakfast, a build-your-own deli sandwich lunch and beverages, for $139. The afternoon sightseeing tour features a hot dinner buffet and sunset sail for $105. Raft tours are priced at $138; the Ultimate Raft Adventure, with beach landing, costs $159. Call (800) 535-0830 or visit www.napali.com.
• Holoholo Charters: Options from Holoholo Charters include a snorkel catamaran sail that includes breakfast, lunch and beverages for $135 and an afternoon sightseeing cruise that ends just after sunset for $95. Call (800) 848-6130 or visit www.holoholocharters.com.
• Kauai Sea Tours: The catamaran snorkel sail is priced at $125. The afternoon sunset cruise (no snorkeling) is priced at $94. The raft adventure, which follows a similar route, includes lunch and costs $135. Call (800) 733-7997 or visit www.kauaiseatours.com.
For more on Na Pali, visit www.kauaidiscovery.com online.
To contact reporter Allan Seiden, send e-mail to [email protected].