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A stand-up paddle boarder glides along the waters of Hawaii. (Photograph by Jayms Ramirez)

Adventure 101: Stand-Up Paddleboarding

The fastest-growing water sport in the world, stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) was born in the Hawaiian Islands, and with calm jungle rivers and 50 miles of beaches, Kauai is one of the best places for the sport.

“SUP is the marriage of the two most important water sports in Hawaiian culture: surfing and outrigger paddling,” says Laird Hamilton, world-renowned big-wave surfer and master of crossover board sports. 

> When to Go:

April through October is Kauai’s dry season, best for sunny days and calmer seas and great for beginner coastal paddling, where smaller surf and flat conditions are desirable.

Year-round, hawksbill turtlesgreen sea turtles, and pods of Hawaiian spinner dolphins are found along the coast.

> Getting Started:

You don’t need to be a gymnast to balance on the board and paddle at the same time. Stand with your feet hip distance apart and knees slightly bent, across the center of the board. Hold the paddle with the blade angled away from you.

“With each stroke, put the blade in at the nose of the board, pull through the water with the paddle shaft vertical, and take the blade out at your feet,” says Hamilton.

> On the Water:

  • Wailua River: Smack in the middle of the island’s eastern coast, the 20-mile Wailua River features jungle landscapes, natural lava grottoes, and cascading waterfalls. Hamilton compares the river to a “gentle slope on the mountain” for beginners, where protection from surf and wind makes it an optimal place to learn with outfitters such as Kayak Kauai.
  • Huleia River: South of Lihue, the Huleia River meanders from the inland refuge through Nawiliwili Harbor to meet the ocean, providing a variety of scenery and environments. Here, paddlers with Outfitters Kauai pass the serene Menehune Fish Pond, a stone-walled pond created a thousand years ago to trap fish; legend says a dam was built across a portion of the river overnight.
  • Hanalei River: Head to the north shore to paddle the Hanalei River past emerald taro fields and river banks filled with hibiscus out into Hanalei Bay, a crescent-shaped beach with views of Makana peak (aka Bali Hai).

> Essential Gear and Tips:

  • Outfitters and rental shops provide boards and paddles for about $45 per day.
  • For beginners, the larger boards with traction pads provide more stability.
  • Neoprene water shoes protect feet from rocks and sea urchins. 
  • Hamilton suggests bringing a waterproof camera—strapped to your wrist or secured with a flotation device—to capture Kauai’s coastal view. 

> More SUP Spots:

This piece, written by Jill K. Robinson, first appeared in the June/July 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine.