Kauai, nicknamed “The Garden Isle” due to its flourishing abundance of greenery, is geologically the oldest of the main islands in Hawaii. Many people think that it has some of the best, if not the best beaches in the world. I can’t say for sure if Kauai is the absolute best on the planet, but I can certainly say that I’ve had some very positive experiences here.
The particular experience I’d like to share today relates to snorkeling.
Being a Kauai native as well as a seasoned snorkeler, I think that most people don’t quite get everything possible from their seaside vacations.
Tourists swim, enjoy the sunbathing, delight upon the mountain landscapes, partake various delicacies, but they forget about an essential component of our planet.
I am talking about the oceans.
Since the very day I had started snorkeling, I have been continually amazed by the glory and mysteriousness of the ocean. Snorkeling close to the shore, you see just a share – albeit a stunning one – of what actually sea life and vast ocean are comprised of.
And many people come very close to appreciating what the ocean is, but they think about looking only up into the horizon and not deep into the sea, thus missing what is right before them.
Tunnels is an exceptional location if you wish to see some big coral formations.
Also known as Makua Beach, the Tunnels is a deceptively large snorkeling location situated in the north shore of Kauai. The landscape there is pretty expansive, but the snorkeling area is much smaller than it may seem.
The horseshoe-shaped reef is divided into an inner, shallower reef and a large outer reef that is abundant with lava tubes, coral formations, and arches.
The Tunnels Beach is predominantly an advanced snorkeler’s area. That’ because it is quite large, first of all, and it also has rather strong currents running along the beach.
Even if you are a seasoned snorkeler, you shouldn’t get cocky and attempt to go to the edge of the reef. I consider myself an experienced snorkeler, but I don’t go that far out too often.
If you are lucky, you can see plentitude of fishes like the Galapagos Shark up close and many colorful coral species.
Thankfully, there is one smaller area to the left side of the beach that is well suitable for beginners. As if you aren’t a very confident swimmer, then you really should stay closer to the coastline. The further out you go, the stronger the current will get naturally.
Tunnels is a seasonal location, and in winter, the water currents get really intense, so I wouldn’t recommend you to go there during stormy weathers. You could try to snorkel to the south of Kauai though if you are confident in your skill.
Tunnels Beach is pretty easy to get to, but note that it usually is a very crowded area. And its parking lot is full most of the time, so you’d want to get here earlier in the morning.
Due to the massive floods and washed-out roads, Tunnels island is currently closed until further notice. It is only accessible to the locals. The authorities are doing repair works as fast as they could, and I would advise you to try the Anini Beach nearby instead.
2. Ke`e Beach
Being the last snorkeling area on the northern beach of Kauai accessible by car, Ke`e is a rather secluded beach for those who enjoy marine landscapes. If you are such, then you’ll really like the lengthy route up to Ke`e beach.
I am not a fan of such drives, though the landscape along the way is truly fascinating. Perhaps that’s the reason I haven’t been to Ke`e that many times.
Ke`e is a safer and beginner-friendly snorkeling area than the Tunnels, partly because the seabed is more uniform within the protective reef. The currents within the reef border tend to be weak, and that’s why this spot is suitable for beginners and less experienced snorkelers.
Besides, because the reef is quite visible most of the time, the risk of you getting out towards the dangerous ocean hazards is low. You may still venture into this if you aren’t attentive, so make sure to keep an eye out where the reef is, especially to the left of the lagoon where the currents are particularly ferocious.
Because of its uniform and maybe even slightly dull seabed texture, there aren’t many corals for you to observe. The fish variety in Ke`e is rather remarkable though: aside from the common triggerfish, parrotfish, and surgeonfish, you may be lucky enough to spot green sea turtles in the lagoon. And those turtles are pretty rare in Kauai!
With of its relative beginner friendliness, Ke`e beach tends to be quite crowded, even though it lies in a secluded location. The parking lot here, unlike that of the Tunnels, is rather large, but it fills up quickly, so you would again want to arrive here early in the morning.
Same situation as the Tunnels Beach, the road to Ke`e beach is shut down due to floods. To my understanding, the repair works could take up to a year. Go for other beaches on the list instead.
3. Nualolo Kai Beach
If you love challenges, then Nualolo Kai situated on the Na Pali Coast in the vicinity of an ancient fishing village will undoubtedly interest you.
The one challenge you will face is that there is only one way of reaching Nualolo Kai snorkeling area: that is, by an authorized boat landing. And needless to say, when the water conditions are adverse, you won’t be making it there.
But if you pick the right time, then there sure will be some spectacles there to salivate. By and large, Nualolo Kai is one of the most beautiful spots that I’ve ever seen on this planet.
Words cannot describe the mind-blowing spectacles I’ve had the chance to relish.
Nualolo Kai’s reef sticks out quite far into the ocean and is visible from nearly the entire north coast. Likewise, you can see majestic 2000 ft. cliffs towering over you and expansive mountain ranges from Nualolo Kai, even those that are beyond Ke`e Beach.
I honestly feel that the water and corals are noticeably clearer around Nualolo Kai than in other snorkeling spots. That’s most likely due to less contamination of the seas and very well-preserved; not many people can reach it by boat themselves, and not many wishes to spend money on paid travel agencies towards Nualolo Kai, like Na Pali Pirates or Capt Andy’s guided tours.
Still, I think that most people should opt for such tours since the enthusiastic tour guides will share the enlightening history and stories about this secret sanctuary.
One thing to take note is there is no Wi-Fi internet or cellular network connection available to tourists on this 16-mile stretch of colossal cliffs and landmass so don’t expect to do live Facebook video streaming or upload your photos to Instagram instantly.
However, If you’d want to go to a spot that is less impacted by human activities, then Nualolo Kai is a must try for its pristine state.
4. Lawai Beach
Lawai Beach is an acclaimed snorkeling site well-protected from currents by the reef. As long as you stay close to the mid-eastern side behind the reef, it’s low risk for casual snorkelers. Of course, experienced snorkelers can fully enjoy everything this place has to offer too! Because of this versatility and friendliness, Lawai tends to be quite crowded.
Another reason for increased interest towards the beach may be the nearby Beach House Restaurant, hence why the beach is also called the Beach House Beach. Lawai Beach Resort is also close by, so there are plenty of events to get sidetracked.
And lastly, Lawai Beach is located just next to Lawai Road. So this beach is easily accessible, much more so than some of the other snorkeling areas on my list.
The beach of Lawai is rather small, and it almost disappears at high tides. If you wanted to sunbathe and were unlucky enough to come here at high tide, then the grassy lounge area of Beach House Restaurant nearby could come in handy.
Tip for turtles lovers! Go to the rocky shore behind the Beach House Restaurant, between 4 to 6:30 pm if you want to see resting sea turtles.
Like most shorelines, the coral is healthier the farther out you swim. The same goes for visibility. Fortunately, there is quite a lot of room between the beach and the reef; about 500 feet to be exact, so there should be plenty of space for you to explore.
Concerning fish variety, there is a lot to see as well. Lawai Beach is quite comparable in this regard to the Tunnels. It has a slightly narrower coral diversity, but you still could find something interesting for you.
The best thing about Lawai Beach is that there is a big restaurant conveniently positioned just a couple of steps away. If you prefer to dine at restaurants or don’t have any time to make your own snacks, then you’d certainly like the fact of the Beach House Restaurant’s proximity. The restaurant serves tasty food and watching the beautiful sunset while having your dinner is quite a sight to behold.
Remember this though: if you are utterly green at swimming, then you may want to have someone experienced with you since Lawai isn’t lifeguarded.
One of the biggest highlights of Lydgate Park is its submerged rock enclosed double-sectioned pools built in 1964. These are entirely closed off from the ocean’s currents, so they are suitable for children or elderly.
The shallow pool section would be suitable for toddlers and even babies, whereas the larger pool is safe for kids of any age to learn how to snorkel.
Even though the pools are nearly isolated from the ocean, you could still see fish swim in and out of the pool through the man-made rock walls. Swimming with the fish alongside you is not a dream anymore!
Snorkeling outside the pools is much more involved, so you should avoid areas beyond that if you aren’t a confident swimmer. Sure there are lifeguards on duty nearby, but why risk it?
When it comes to sea life, Lydgate beach isn’t that rich. It has some fish, but there are no corals in the area to see. However, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing since Lydgate Park is more than just a location for snorkeling.
It also has some engaging activities to participate. Hikers and outdoors enthusiasts will enjoy the 2.5-mile walk beside the bike path stretching down towards the Kamalani Kai Play Bridge situated at the beach colloquially known as Kitchens. Along the trail, you’ll find several pavilions for picnic tables.
Apart from that, Lydgate State Park boasts two awesome playgrounds just across the road from the seaside and the pools. With its slides, climbing areas, swings, and various other facilities for children of all ages, those playgrounds are what make Lydgate Park an unrivaled recreation area for relaxing family vacations.
And overall, it certainly catches the eye when it comes to facilities. While some other snorkeling spots don’t have necessities like bathrooms or showers, Lydgate Beach Park has them, and much more.
6. Hanalei Bay
Some people don’t really like Hanalei bay when it comes to snorkeling. And I could understand their perspective: the sandy bottom is quite large here and waters slightly polluted, so some areas don’t have anything on display but slimy moss.
However, there is one spot situated between the highway mile markers 4 and 5 at the western end of Hanalei bay adjacent to Waikoko Beach. This area is shallow and is sheltered by a reef, so it is quite a safe area for snorkeling. While I haven’t visited this spot that many times to snorkel specifically, I feel that it has been on par with the rest of the snorkeling areas featured on my list.
My experience in Hanalei Bay is broader than just snorkeling. After all, Hanalei is a true oceanic playground!
The variety of activities you could engage yourself in or witness at Hanalei Bay is highly expansive. The two most remarkable events at Hanalei bay that you might have the chance to observe and participate in are the Hanalei Swim Challenge and the festivities organized by Hanalei Canoe Club during their regatta or sprint races.
In April 2018, due to the severe storms and flooding on the island, Hanalei Swim Challenge was canceled altogether – as evident from their website – while Hanalei Canoe Club suffered severe material losses.
Let’s hope that the venues can be rebuilt to its original state, and the swimming event will come back strong in 2019!
A thing you’d want to keep in mind before visiting Hanalei bay is that the restrooms are atrocious. I am more or less used to having poor toilets or none at all – as probably any experienced traveler is – so that isn’t a big problem for me, albeit it would be better if the authority can fix such issues.
Poipu, more specifically, Poipu Beach Park, is yet another popular snorkeling destination for both beginners and advanced snorkelers.
Poipu Beach Park is two beaches separated by a tombolo; one of them is a protected and calm baby beach, whereas the right half right in front of Marriott’s Waiohai Beach Club boasts a plentitude of snorkeling opportunities.
In summer, Poipu tends to be a dangerous place to snorkel due to southern swell. If you are unsure whether or not you should enter the water, you could ask a lifeguard for help or check water condition reports beforehand.
Poipu Beach features a unique near-shore tiny island that is connected with the beach via a sand split. This formation is called a tombolo, and there are only a few places in the world that have such natural formations.
Poipu’s tombolo used to be natural. Now, it is reinforced with additional sand to continue protecting the right side of the island from the waves. As such, so it isn’t wholly natural anymore.
I rambled a bit, back to snorkeling!
Due to the powerful currents, the underwater swimming area is pretty restricted here. It is located between the beach and the end of the island where the sea waves are breaking.
Touching on the subject of sea marine life, Poipu regrettably isn’t the most noteworthy location on this list. Nevertheless, it has some fish and corals varieties to boast. And besides, there tend to be plenty of sea turtles at Poipu! My most memorable moment here is catching a glimpse of the endangered Hawaiian Monk Seal basking listlessly on the sandy shore.
What I like more about Poipu is that it is a delightful place to spend some family time and partake in activities other than snorkeling. It is a beautiful ocean playground with numerous facilities like restrooms, showers, pavilions, barbecues, and more, albeit it maybe isn’t as filled with events like Hanalei Bay is.
If you don’t have any gear on you, you could rent some equipment from the nearby Nukumoi Surf Shop!
8. Pali Ke Kua Beach (Hideaways Beach)
If you happen to stay at St Regis hotel, then you have to pay a visit to Pali Ke Kua Beach, which is also known as the Hideaways Beach.
I’ll refer to the beach by its second name since it is more commonly used, and a bit simpler to pronounce and remember.
This beach is quite hidden so to access Hideaways Beach, you will have to walk through a short but quite steep hiking trail. That will be great if you have a strong interest in hiking, but if you aren’t a fan of climbing with a rope, then getting to the Hideaways Beach may be a challenge for you. And overall, the trail is a dangerous one. Walking condition got worse after raining because the route will be muddy and slippery.
Another thing that you’d need to consider is that the parking lot of Hideaways Beach only accommodates about ten vehicles, which is ridiculously small. You would need to either get lucky to find a free parking spot or find the parking lot of the St Regis hotel if you stay there. Even if not, you can still hire a parking spot from them.
When it comes to the water, I can’t say that it is particularly abundant with coral. However, there are tons of fish here to see. And the mesmerizing channeling on the seafloor provides some thrilling topography to investigate.
The waters are pretty shallow at Hideaway Beach: about 10 feet max in most areas, though there is a deeper 15 feet area towards the right side of the beach.
Fortunately, you don’t need to swim that far out to see the rare stuff in Hideaway Beach. That’s a very good thing since you won’t have to expose yourself to any dangerous sea currents.
While waiting for the sun to set, I recommend you to grab the mouth-watering Italian Job Pizza and the Caesar salad from Hideaways Pizza.
9. Queen’s Bath
Queen’s Bath is among the most challenging and deceptive snorkeling locations in Kauai. The hiking trail is treacherous as most people will voiced out. It is often wet and muddy so be sure to wear proper shoes and not your sandals. Many people have become victims of the aggressive waters of the Queen’s Bath, so you are require to stay vigilant at all times.
Queen’s Bath is a tide pool that is isolated from the ocean by rock formations and a lava shelf. The unique kind of terrain around the pool is the star attraction about Queen’s Bath.
While the name Queen’s Bath refers to a small enclosed tide pool specifically, there are numerous other areas for snorkeling nearby. This may cause confusion in some people because it isn’t clearly evident that Queen’s Bath is just a small portion of a much larger water area.
All things considered, Queen’s Bath is safe in the area under normal condition since it isn’t exposed to the currents of the ocean. As a result, the water in it is relatively calm most of the time.
However, you shouldn’t behave recklessly in Queen’s Bath: waves crashing onto the pool’s rocky walls and water rushing in may put you into a very unpleasant situation.
Still, for beginners, with enough guidance, the tide pool could be an appropriate place to start building your confidence.
Some people may find Queen’s Bath boring, but I don’t quite think so, albeit there are very few areas nearby where you could safely snorkel and enjoy the immersion. Definitely worth getting myself muddy up for the stunning views!
For professional snorkelers or extreme sports enthusiasts like me, you might find irresistible charm about Queen’s Bath with its unusual and deadly terrain.
Moreover, the lava rocks remind me about a cataclysm that has once devastated this area. And the fact that I am so close to the epicenter of the event is very exhilarating for me.
It is a must to bring along a hiking stick.
People are different, and so are their skills and desire. Before actually heading out to snorkel on this garden island of Hawaii, make sure to understand what you are getting yourself into.
If you have picked one of the best beaches in Kauai to stopover, dig up more info about it. Do spend the time to learn what kind of risk await you there. And take your preferences and experience into account.
Snorkeling is a pretty spectacular outdoor activity, but you won’t be able to enjoy it if you do not follow instruction. Instead, do things right and your vacation in Kauai becomes the best moment in your life.