Deciding to see Napali Coast by boat is an easy decision. Choosing the outfitter to go with is not. There are numerous boat-tour operators to choose from, and, quite frankly, they all do a good job. Before you even start thinking about whom to go out with, answer these three questions: What kind of boat do I prefer? Where am I staying? Do I want to go in the morning or afternoon? Once you settle on these three, you can easily zero in on the tour outfitter.
First, the boat. The most important thing is to match your personality and that of your group with the personality of the boat. If you like thrills and adventure, the rubber, inflatable rafts—often called Zodiacs, which Jacques Cousteau made famous and which the U.S. Coast Guard uses—will entice you. They're fast, likely to leave you drenched and windswept, and quite bouncy. If you prefer a smoother, more leisurely ride, then the large catamarans are the way to go. The next boat choice is size. Both the rafts and catamarans come in small and large. Again—think smaller, more adventurous; larger, more leisurely. Do not choose a smaller boat because you think there will be fewer people. There might be fewer people, but you'll be jammed together sitting atop strangers. If you prefer privacy over socializing, go with a larger boat, so you'll have more room to spread out. The smaller boats will also take you along the coast at a higher rate of speed, making photo opportunities a bit more challenging. One advantage to smaller boats, however, is that—depending on ocean conditions—some may slip into a sea cave or two. If that sounds interesting to you, call the outfitter and ask their policy on entering sea caves. Some won't, no matter the conditions, because they consider the caves sacred or because they don't want to cause any environmental damage.
Boats leave from three points around the island (Hanalei, Port Allen, and Waimea), and all head to the same spot: Napali Coast. Here's the inside skinny on which is the best: If you're staying on the North Shore, choose to depart out of the North Shore. If you're staying anywhere else, depart out of the West Side. It's that easy. Sure, the North Shore is closer to Napali Coast; however, you'll pay more for less overall time. The West Side boat operators may spend more time getting to Napali Coast; however, they'll spend about the same amount of time along Napali, plus you'll pay less. Finally, you'll also have to decide whether you want to go on a morning tour, which includes a deli lunch and a stop for snorkeling, or an afternoon tour, which does not always stop to snorkel but does include a sunset over the ocean. The morning tours with snorkeling, more popular with families and those who love dolphins, enjoy the "waves" created by the front of the catamarans and might just escort you down the coast. The winter months will also be a good chance to spot some whales breaching, though surf is much rougher along Napali. You don't have to be an expert snorkeler or even have any prior experience, but if it is your first time, note that although there will be some snorkeling instruction, there might not be much. Hawaiian spinner dolphins are so plentiful in the mornings that some tour companies guarantee you'll see them, though you won't get in the water and swim with them. The afternoon tours are more popular with nonsnorkelers—obviously—and photographers interested in capturing the setting sunlight on the coast. No matter which tour you select, book it online whenever possible. Most companies offer Web specials, usually around $10 to $20 off per person.
Blue Dolphin Charters. Blue Dolphin operates 65-foot sailing (rarely raised and always motoring) catamarans designed with three decks of spacious seating with great visibility, as well as motorized rafts. The lower deck is best for shade seekers. On Tuesday and Friday a tour of Napali Coast includes a detour across the channel to Niihau for snorkeling and diving. Morning snorkel tours of Napali include a deli lunch. Sunset sightseeing tours include a Hawaiian-style buffet. North Shore and South shore rafting tours are also available, and daily sport fishing charters of four-to-eight hours for no more than six guests. Blue Dolphin promises dolphin-sightings and the best mai tais "off the island." Book online for cheaper deals on every tour offered. 4353 Waialo Rd., #2-6B7B, Eleele, HI, 96705. 808/335–5553 or 877/511–1311. www.kauaiboats.com. From $100–$185. Two-hour whale-watching/sunset tours, winter only, $75.
Capt. Andy's Sailing Adventures. Departing from Port Allen and running two 55-foot sailing catamarans, Capt. Andy's offers five-hour snorkeling and four-hour sunset tours along Napali Coast. Unlike other charters, they have a 24-foot Zodiac raft that uses hydrophones to hear whales and other underwater sounds. The longtime Kauai company also operates a snorkel BBQ sail and dinner sunset sail aboard its Southern Star yacht, originally built for private charters. This boat now operates as host for two of Capt. Andy's daily sailing trips for an upgraded feel. For a shorter adventure, they have a two-hour sunset sail, embarking out of Kukuiula Harbor in Poipu along the South Shore—with live Hawaiian music—on Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday. If the winds and swells are up on the North Shore, this is usually a good choice—especially if you're prone to seasickness. This is the only tour boat operator that allows infants on board—but only on the two-hour trip. Note, if you have reservations for the shorter tour, you'll check in at their Kukuiula Harbor office. 4353 Waiola Rd., Suite 1A-2A, Eleele, HI, 96705. www.napali.com. From $79, discounts for online booking.
Captain Sundown. Sundown has one of the few permits to sail from Hanalei Bay and operates the only sailing catamaran there. Captain Bob has been cruising Napali Coast since 1971—six days a week, sometimes twice a day. (And right alongside Captain Bob is his son, Captain Larry.) To say he knows the area is an understatement. Here's the other good thing about this tour: they take only 15 to 17 passengers on the 40-foot boat. The breathtaking views of the waterfall-laced mountains behind Hanalei and Haena start immediately, and then it's around Kee Beach and the magic of Napali Coast unfolds before you. All the while, the captains are trolling for fish, and if they catch any, guests get to reel 'em in. Afternoon sunset sails (summertime only) run three hours and check in around 3 pm—these are BYOB. 5-5134 Kuhio Hwy., Hanalei, HI, 96714. 808/826–5585. www.captainsundown.com. From $150.
Catamaran Kahanu. Hawaiian-owned-and-operated, Catamaran Kahanu has been in business since 1985 and runs a 40-foot power catamaran with 18-passenger seating. It offers seasonal whale-watching, snorkeling, and sunset cruises, ranging from two to five hours, and departs from Port Allen. The five-hour tour includes snorkeling at Nualolo Kai, plus a deli lunch and soft drinks. The four-hour afternoon tour takes in the sunset and includes a hot dinner. The boat is smaller than most and may feel a tad crowded, but the tour feels more personal, with a laid-back, ohana style. Guests can witness the ancient cultural practice of coconut weaving or other Hawaiian craft demonstrations on board. There's no alcohol allowed. 4353 Waialo Rd., near Port Allen Marina Center, Eleele, HI, 96705. 808/645–6176 or 888/213–7711. www.catamarankahanu.com. From $79.
HoloHolo Charters. Choose between the 50-foot catamaran called "Leila" for a morning snorkel sail to Napali Coast, or the 65-foot "HoloHolo" seven-hour catamaran trip to the "forbidden island" of Niihau. Both boats have large cabins and little outside seating. HoloHolo also offers a seasonal voyage of Napali from Hanalei Bay on its rigid-hull inflatable rafts, specifically for diving and snorkeling. Originators of the Niihau tour, HoloHolo Charters built their 65-foot powered catamaran with a wide beam to reduce side-to-side motion, and twin 425 HP turbo diesel engines specifically for the 17-mile channel crossing to Niihau. It's the only outfitter running daily Niihau tours. The Holo Holo also embarks on a daily sunset and sightseeing tour of the Napali Coast. Leila can hold 37 passengers, while her big brother can take a maximum of 49. Check in is at Port Allen Marina Center. 4353 Waialo Rd., Suite 5A, Eleele, HI, 96705. 808/335–0815 or 800/848–6130. www.holoholocharters.com. From $100.
Kauai Sea Tours. This company operates the Lucky Lady, a 60-foot sailing catamaran designed almost identically to that of Blue Dolphin Charters—with all the same benefits—including great views and spacious seating. Snorkeling tours anchor near Makole (based on the captain's discretion). If snorkeling isn't your thing, try the four-hour sunset tour, with beer, wine, mai tais, pu pus, and a hot buffet dinner. Seasonal tours of Napali are offered on inflatible rafts. Check in at Port Allen Marina Center. 4353 Waialo Rd., Eleele, HI, 96705. 808/826–7254 or 800/733–7997. www.kauaiseatours.com. From $135.
Liko Kauai Cruises. There are many things to like about Liko Kauai Cruises. The 49-foot powered cat will enter sea caves, ocean conditions permitting. Sometimes, even Captain Liko himself—a Native Hawaiian—still takes the captain's helm. We particularly like the layout of his boat—most of the seating is in the bow, so there's good visibility. A maximum of 32 passengers make each trip, which last five hours and include snorkeling, food and soft drinks. Trips usually depart out of Kikiaola Harbor in Waimea, a bit closer to Napali Coast than those leaving from Port Allen. 4516 Alawai Rd., Waimea (Kauai County), HI, 96796. 808/338–0333 or 888/732–5456. www.liko-kauai.com. $140.
Napali Catamaran. One of the few tour groups departing Hanalei, this company, formerly known as Whitey's, has been around since 1973. Once onboard, it takes about five minutes before you're witnessing the magnificence of Napali Coast. Taking a maximum of 16 passengers, its 34-foot powered catamaran is small enough—and with no mast, short enough—to dip into sea caves. Between March and October, they run two four-hour snorkeling tours per day, stopping at the best snorkeling site along Napali—Nualolo Kai. If it weren't for the bench seating bisecting the boat—meaning one group of passengers enjoys unobstructed views of the open ocean instead of Napali either on the way out or back—we'd really be happy. The rate's a bit pricey; the four-hour tour includes a deli-style lunch. Ching Young Village, 5-5190 Kuhio Hwy., Hanalei, HI, 96714. 808/826–6853 or 866/255–6853. www.napalicatamaran.com. $175.
Best Boat Tours
Best for snorkeling: Z-Tourz
Best for romance: Capt. Andy's Poipu Sail
Best for thrill seekers: Napali Explorer (Zodiac 1)
Best for mai tais: Blue Dolphin Charters
Best for pregnant women: Capt. Andy's
Best for charters: Captain Sundown
Best for price: Napali Riders
Capt. Andy's Rafting Expeditions. Departing out of Kikiaola Harbor in Kekaha, Capt. Andy's Rafting offers both snorkeling and beach-landing excursions. The Zodiac rafts are on the smaller side—24 feet with a maximum of 14 passengers—and all seating is on the rubber hulls, so hang on. They operate three different rafts, so there's a good chance of availability. Trips include snorkeling at Nualolo Kai (ocean conditions permitting), sightseeing along Napali Coast, a hiking tour through an ancient Hawaiian fishing village, and a buffet lunch on the beach. A shorter snorkeling tour is also offered. You're closer to the water on the Zodiacs, so you'll have great views of humpbacks, spinner dolphins, sea turtles, and other wildlife. Kikiaola Small Boat Harbor, Hwy. 50, Waimea, HI, 96796. 808/335–6833 or 800/535–0830. www.napali.com. From $139.
Kauai Sea Tours. This company holds a special permit from the state to land at Nualolo Kai along Napali Coast, ocean conditions permitting. Here, you'll enjoy a picnic lunch, as well as an archaeological tour of an ancient Hawaiian fishing village, ocean conditions permitting. Kauai Sea Tours operates four 24-foot inflatable rafts—maximum occupancy 14. These are small enough for checking out the insides of sea caves and the undersides of waterfalls. Four different tours are available, including whale watching, depending on the season. Port Allen Marina Center, 4353 Waialo Rd., Eleele, HI, 96705. 808/826–7254 or 800/733–7997. www.kauaiseatours.com. From $115.
Napali Explorer. These tours operate out of Waimea, a tad closer to Napali Coast than most of the other West Side catamaran tours. The company runs two different sizes of inflatable rubber raft: a 48-foot, 36-passenger craft with an onboard toilet, freshwater shower, shade canopy, and seating in the stern (which is surprisingly smooth and comfortable) and bow (which is where the fun is); and a 26-foot, 14-passenger craft for the all-out fun and thrills of a white-knuckle ride in the bow. The smaller vessel stops at Nualolo Kai and ties up onshore for a tour of the ancient fishing village. Charters are available. 9643 Kaumalii Hwy., Waimea (Kauai County), HI, 96796. 808/338–9999 or. www.napaliexplorer.com. From $139.
Napali Riders. This tour-boat outfitter distinguishes itself in two ways. First, it cruises the entire Napali Coast, clear to Kee Beach and back. Second, it has a reasonable price, because it's a no-frills tour—no lunch provided, just beverages and snacks. The company runs morning and afternoon four-hour snorkeling, sightseeing and whale-watching trips out of Kikiaola Harbor in Waimea on a 30-foot inflatable raft with a 28-passenger maximum—that's fewer than they used to take, but can still be a bit cramped. 9600 Kaumualii Hwy., Waimea (Kauai County), HI, 96796. 808/742–6331. www.napaliriders.com. $149.
Z-Tourz. What we like about Z-Tourz is that it's a boat company that makes snorkeling its priority. Its two-hour tours include South Shore's abundant offshore reefs, as well as Napali Coast. If you want to snorkel with Hawaii's tropical reef fish and turtles (pretty much guaranteed), this is your boat. The craft is a 26-foot rigid-hull inflatable (think Zodiac) with a maximum of 16 passengers. These snorkel tours are guided, so someone actually identifies what you're seeing. Rates include lunch and snorkel gear. 3417 Poipu Rd., Poipu, HI, 96756. 808/742–7422 or 888/998–6879. www.kauaiztours.com. From $99.
Riverboat Tours to Fern Grotto
Smith's Motor Boat Services. This 2-mile trip up the lush and lovely Wailua River, the only navigable waterway in Hawaii, culminates at the infamous Fern Grotto, a yawning lava tube that is covered with fishtail ferns. During the boat ride, guitar and ukulele players regale you with Hawaiian melodies and tell the history of the river. It's a kitschy, but fun, bit of Hawaiiana and the river scenery is beautiful. Flat-bottom, 150-passenger riverboats (that rarely fill up) depart from Wailua Marina at the mouth of the Wailua River. Round-trip excursions take 1½ hours, including time to walk around the grotto and environs. Tours run at 9:30, 11, 2, and 3:30 daily. 5971 Kuhio Hwy., Kapaa, HI, 96746. 808/821–6895. www.smithskauai.com. $18.