What Is The Best Napali Coast Boat Tour? North Shore Vs South Shore in Kauai, Hawaii

Spinner dolphins in Pacific ocean off of Kauai

The garden island of Hawaii is insanely gorgeous. Deep canyons, giant ridges left by dormant volcanoes, and, as the oldest of the islands in the Hawaii chain, the best-developed beaches. Surprisingly, it also has great food and, perhaps unsurprisingly, really fun and friendly folks who call it home.

The rugged Napali Coast in Kauai’s Northwestern corner is not easy to get to. While it can be viewed from the seat of a helicopter, the only way to actually stand on the coastline is by boat or on foot. Given our preference for boating–as showcased when we thought we were ballers and booked multiple boating trips in the Virgin Islands–there was no way I was missing out on an epic Napali Coast boat tour.

Reasons to Go:

First things first, why go on a Napali Coast Boat Tour? If the pictures–which obviously don’t do this glorious place a smidge of justice–don’t already have you psyched up, here are a few more reasons to park yourself on a boat here ASAP.

  • This small stretch of coast is unlike anywhere else in the world that I’ve been. Formed over millions of years, originally from lava flow and then sculpted by water and wind, the sharp edges of the Napali Coast State Wilderness Park are absolutely mind-blowing. The sheer, steep cliffs coming directly from the water reminded me a bit of a warmer, greener version of New Zealand’s Milford Sound.
  • Much of the ocean that lines the coast is over a sandy bottom, meaning visibility is great even 100’s of feet from shore. I peered over the raft edge at a distance where I wouldn’t dare try to swim to shore and could see the bottom as if I was standing ankle deep.
  • Recent flooding all but shut down the hiking along the Napali Coast. Some ridges are still accessible via Ko’Kee State Park, but at the moment, the trails that run the coastline are closed. They were supposed to re-open on May 1, 2019, but when I was visiting (May 1-12) there was no sign of re-opening. Fingers crossed this changes soon, but in the meantime, boat tours are the only option to visit. Get the latest info and updates on their website.
  • History! Any excuse to nerd out, am I right? Aside from the amazing geography of this place, there is also so much history. Stone terraces still mark where Hawaiians grew taro root, traditional hula and ceremonial grounds have been preserved, and people on the ground are working to restore the native plant life that has been overcome by invasives.
  • The wildlife viewing is spectacular. On two trips, I saw spinner dolphins, bottlenose dolphins, countless sea turtles, a Hawaiin Monk seal (really rare and sadly critically endangered), a ray, and quite a few fish and sea bird species.
Napali coast green cliffs blue sky on pacific ocean
Is this reason enough to go? YES.

Two Napali Coast Boat Tours: North Shore vs. South Shore

I did two Napali Coast Boat Tours during my time in Kauai. One when I was there solo and then again when my friends came. No, it didn’t get old and yes, I would do one every day given the option. Both times I had gorgeous weather and am told the water was calm for an outing–though let me be clear that Hawaii boat captain calm might not mean the same as your calm. The two were decisions were based solely on location because I stayed 3 nights on the South shore and 4 on the North.

For both companies, I opted for the raft tour over the catamaran. While sipping cocktails at sunset would probably be an amazing experience here, we’re always going to pick the more active option. The raft tours are more engaging, you are much closer to the water and potential wildlife, and, when the weather is rougher, I’m told they are much more exciting.

Pros & Cons

Any of these could be switched to pros or cons depending on how you like to travel. For example, I personally did not care about whether the seating or boat was comfortable, but you might. I did also factor in where I was staying in Kauai when I booked both of these.

**Note I paid for both of these tours, these are completely unbiased opinions

Woman sitting on boat for tour of Napali coast
Two boat tours in Kauai? Living my actual best life

South Shore

Tour Operator: Kauai Sea Tours
Tour Type: Na Pali Beach Landing Raft Adventure
Location: Port Allen, South Shore, Kauai, Hawaii
Cost: $175/Adult is what I paid, though their website shows $155
Time: 6.5 hrs
Included: Transportation to dock (2 min. airconditioned van ride), picnic lunch and bottled water/drinks, tour on land, beach landing, sea caves tour, two guides, snorkel equipment

Beach Landing – This is one of 3 companies that has a permit to land on the coast and one of the highlights of this tourNo bathrooms, though they did make stops for us to jump in the ocean and pee
A smaller boat – closer to the water and wildlife; less people; easier to
get in sea caves
Less comfortable seating than the other tour, only seats are on the sides of the raft
Includes a tour of an ancient Hawaiian village, now an Archaeological SiteHarder to hear the guides during the tour.
Had a bit better lunch – mediocre sandwiches but they also had a fruit tray and cookies

North Shore

Tour Operator: Holo Holo Charters
Tour Type: Na Pali Snorkel Adventure
Location: Hanalei, North Shore, Kauai, Hawaii
Cost: $229/Adult
Time: 4 hrs
Included: Transportation to dock (2 min. airconditioned van ride), picnic lunch and bottled water/drinks, sea caves tour, two guides, snorkel equipment, stop at reef for snorkel

Better seating, especially the front seats.No parking, had to eat lunch on the boat. I get a bit of motion sickness at times, so this was not ideal for me.
Snorkeling spot was better here along the reef instead of in the channel.Bigger boat = more people on the tour.
Bathroom on board – A “head”. It’s a toilet in a closet like area that I didn’t use because I get motion sickness inside on boats, but others did and it seemed to be fine.There was less food included with the lunch.
Certified dolphin safe – they practice and educate others techniques for giving tours without harming the dolphins. (Don’t get too close, don’t corner them between boats, ect.)More expensive and a shorter tour.

All in all, I enjoyed both companies enough to book again. The only slight edge would be to Kauai Sea Tours for their ability to park on the beach and showcase the really interesting archaeologic sites there. Also, I saw more wildlife with them, though I’m fully aware that’s probably just luck of the draw.

On the contrast, I liked that Holo Holo was right next to the Napali coast and the whole tour was done there. No time was spent getting to and from. I would probably base it on the location: if I’m staying on the South Shore, I’d go with Kauai Sea Tours, if on the North, Holo Holo.

What to Bring on Your Napali Coast Boat Tour

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Pack light. Both tour companies give a dry bag for your essentials. Wear a bathing suit, bring warm layers, a hat, a camera, and lots of sunscreen. I applied SPF 50 both days and still burned. Here’s what was in my bag:

Other Tips to Make the Most of Your Day

  • There is no cell service or assistance once you get on the coast.
  • In the case of bad weather or rough water, they will turn around. No refunds are given once the boat is on the water.
  • You are over an hour from medical help once on the NaPali coast. While there are first aid kits available, be sure to bring any of your own specific medications (inhalers, insulin, ect.).

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Alicia is a freelance writer, bartender, and the MLT wife! She loves running, beaches, and tiny animals.

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