Visiting Hawaii and Cruises on the Wailua River

Travelers visit Hawaii to experience a tropical paradise. With all the water surrounding the Hawaiian Islands, you’ll find many day, evening and overnight ocean cruise options. But did you know there are also cruises available on the Wailua River?  It’s the only river you can cruise in Hawaii. 

The Wailua River is located in Kauai, which is the westernmost island. If you’ve been to Hawaii, you might have already visited Kauai. If you have never been to Hawaii but hope to get there some day, it’s definitely one of the islands you should see. The scenery is spectacular!

Anyway, we’ll explore Wailua River cruises in a minute. But first I have an experience of my own to share.

Kalalau Valley on Kauaʻi's Nā Pali Coast

Kalalau Valley on Kauaʻi's Nā Pali Coast

By Scshute (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

Our Family Trip to Hawaii and an Unexpected Surprise

In 1982 my dad took our family to Hawaii for the first time. It’s the kind of place I always dreamed of visiting. And especially as the winter months were approaching, it seemed all the more incredible. We were going for two weeks! Leaving the U.S. Midwest for beaches, mountains, the ocean and palm trees! Wow, I could not wait!

We were going to visit four of the islands. I didn’t care. They all sounded great to me. The first night we spent in Oahu. Beautiful, crowded, touristy – what incredible views, though! Diamond Head Mountain, the ocean and palm trees. It was pretty spectacular, even though it was like a large city on a small island.

The next day we were off to the island of Kauai. I actually fell in love with Kauai. I think it’s the most beautiful island in Hawaii. It was very colorful - green with a lot of vegetation. And the island was still somewhat remote back in 1982. We spent a few days exploring Kauai before heading to Maui.

The day we were planning to leave the island,  we found ourselves in the midst of an approaching storm. A major storm! A hurricane! Oh no! Being from the Midwest, this was something very new.

Strange to note that the islands had not experienced a direct hit from a hurricane since 1959. 

We really had no warning. Being on vacation kept us very much in the moment,  so the looming storm caught us all by surprise.

I thought back to the night before when my brother and I were sitting on the lanai. It was balmy, tropical and very still and almost kind of ominous. We had no idea that a hurricane was approaching. But somehow there was just something in the air - something we could sense. Danger? Not sure. It was just kind of one of those things you can't explain.

The next morning we could see that something was happening. The wind was picking up, and people were scurrying around bringing outdoor furniture inside just trying to prepare for the impending storm.

Back to memories of last night. Now it made sense. But in spite of it (the danger that was lurking), my awe for the island - a tropical paradise - remained unchanged.

Fortunately, we were able to fly to Maui before Hurricane Iwa made landfall. And unfortunately for Kauai, it was the island that sustained the most damage.

In Maui we experienced tropical storm force winds, which was a little scary, especially since our hotel was right along the coast. We survived it and enjoyed the rest of our vacation. (They actually sold T-shirts after the storm that said "I Survived Hurricane Iwa".)

Though we did visit many of the major tourist spots in Kauai, we did not take a cruise on the Wailua River. If I ever get back to Hawaii, I'll make sure I do. 

About the Wailua River in Kauai

Wailua River in Kauai

Wailua River in Kauai

By Bret Robertson (Flickr: Wailua River) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The Wailua River is the only river on all the Hawaiian Islands that features cruises. There are other rivers in Kauai, but none of them are considered navigable. The Waimea River and the Makaweli Rivers are located on the western side of the island. 

The Wailua River is only about 20 miles long and is located on the eastern side of Kauai in Wailua Marina State Park. Comprising about 30 acres of botanical gardens with many native and tropical plants, the park is also rich with cultural history.

Wailua River Cruises

The main feature of a Wailua River cruise is the Fern Grotto. It’s basically a lava rock cave where fern grow upside down from the roof. Although the grotto sustained a lot of damage from Hurricane Iniki in 1992, it still remains a very popular tourist spot as well as a popular place for weddings. The Fern Grotto is only accessible by boat.

If you like kayaking, there are guided tours available. Or you can rent your own kayak and navigate the river yourself. 

Smith’s Fern Grotto Tours is the only company that offers Wailua River cruises.  The scenic tour is on an open air boat along a 2-mile stretch of the river. As your river boat moves across the river, you’ll be entertained with songs and stories about ancient Hawaiian history as you cruise to and from the Fern Grotto. 

You'll find some companies that combine other attractions with a cruise on the Wailua River, such as a trip to the Waimea Canyon. 

Waimea Canyon in Kauai

Waimea Canyon in Kauai

By Aaronbernstein (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

As you can see from the photo above, Waimea Canyon is amazing! It's referred to as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific. It's definitely worth exploring.

Whether or not you visit them both on the same day, you should allow time for both. It's just part of what makes Kauai what is is - scenic, tropical, colorful and very, very beautiful. 

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Lauri Wakefield is a travel writer who specializes in  river cruises in Europe and the U.S. Connect with her on Twitter and Google+.

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