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Camping at Anini on Kauai, Hawaii. (Photograph by Tania Racelo, My Shot)

Getting Lost in Kauai

If you close your eyes and imagine Hawaii, then you’re probably thinking of Kauai, one of the most remote islands in the 50th state.

You know — jagged peaks plunging into hidden rainforest valleys, beaches with impossibly blue waves thundering ashore, and of course, endless summer weather.

That’s Kauai. But that’s not all there is to it. Behind that postcard facade there’s a funky island that your kids can connect with. Ours did.

A canyon and a forbidden island

The signature attraction in Kauai is Waimea Canyon, also known as “the Grand Canyon of the Pacific.” If you only have a few days to spend in Kauai, put this at the top of your list. Think of it as a tropical Grand Canyon, because — well, that’s what it is. It’s a mile wide, 14 miles long, and roughly 3,600 feet deep, and on a clear day you can see all the way to the secretive (and privately owned) island of Niihau.

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Chickens are ubiquitous on Kauai. (Photograph by Emily Murphy, My Shot)

Kids don’t just notice the big things, like the terrifying drop-off in front of them or the diminutive guard-rails separating them from the abyss. But they do notice animals. Like the free-range chickens my 10-year-old son was obsessed with photographing (and which he later made into a collage using PhotoShop).

My daughter paid no attention to fowl or the scenery, and instead set her gaze on the mountain goats scaling the cliffs. Who knew there were mountain goats in Hawaii?

The real danger lurks in the valley, where shops line the road selling authentic and intricate Niihau shell lei necklaces that can set you back thousands of dollars a pop. They managed to take us for five aloha shirts. Isn’t that what visitors to Hawaii are supposed to do to support the local economy?

One of these days I’m going to return to Waimea Canyon with a full-frame DSLR camera and a tripod and take real pictures of the place. It is unspeakably beautiful, but in a surreal way. How else do you describe the odd confluence of livestock and extinct volcanoes?

Espressos and … puppies?

Kauai isn’t as well known for its coffee as Hawaii’s Big Island. That’s a shame, as we discovered when we visited Kauai Coffee, which offers free tours of its working plantation and plenty of samples. We found the coffee to have more character than some of the Kona coffees we tried a few weeks before. But, then again, Kona coffees are known for their subtlety.

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Waimea Canyon, "the Grand Canyon of the Pacific." (Photograph by Daniel Lockhart, My Shot)

A word of warning: When you visit a coffee plantation with your kids, remember to keep an eye on them. We failed to pay close attention and all three of them decided to try the coffee, too. I caught them as they were pouring themselves a sampler of espresso. It wasn’t their first cup, either.

You can probably imagine what happened next. The sedate retail floor became a playground for three caffeinated children. At some point, if I’m not mistaken, they decided to chase a chicken, because there are chickens everywhere in Kauai. We were thankful there were no puppies to be found — the only thing that could have made the situation worse.

For what it’s worth, Kauai’s coffee is really good. Even the kids liked it.

Gimme some sugar

Kauai is known for its historical sugar plantations, and the one we visited came with its own train. The Kauai Plantation Railway offers two tours: a short one that takes you around the old plantation by rail, and a longer one that includes a guided hike on the property and lunch. If you’ve ever wondered what sugar cane looks like, how it’s grown and processed, opt for the longer tour. The most fun part – at least for the kids – came at the end, when our guide brought us to the mango and starfruit groves, and allowed us to pick and sample some of the fruit.

Kauai is the kind of place where you can really get lost. Once the kids are older, I’ll bring my hiking boots and backpack and set off into the rainforests to discover the real island. But you don’t have to rough it to get an authentic experience. Just take your kids to some of the attractions, and you’ll see things they won’t show you in any tourism brochures.

And you’ll thank them for it…once the caffeine buzz wears off.