Napali Coast Boat Tours: Everything You Need To Know [2024]

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If you’re coming to Kauai, there’s almost surely one thing that’s on your bucket list—seeing the rugged and green Napali Coast. But getting to this stunning place isn’t exactly easy—the only way to get there is via air, hiking trail, or boat. While all of these ways have their merits, seeing the Napali Coast via boat tour uniquely affords you the ability to explore its caves, get up close and personal with some of Hawaii’s incredible sea life, and appreciate the grandeur of its 4,000-foot cliffs from the water. 

So if you’re looking for a unique and adventurous way to experience one of the most beautiful places on earth, here’s everything you need to know about seeing the Napali Coast via boat tour, including what to expect and exactly which tours you should book.

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Green cliffs of the Napali Coast from a boat tour
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What To Expect On a Napali Coast Boat Tour

Most Napali Coast boat tours will follow approximately the same format. 

You’ll meet with your guide and captain on the southwestern side of the island, like the town of Eleele, and, after boarding your boat, cruise up the western coast of the island. During the ride, you’ll usually see pods of spinner dolphins playing in the water and, depending if you’re visiting from December through April, maybe even see some whales off in the distance!

Spinner dolphins along the Kauai coastline

After about ninety minutes or so, you’ll reach the stunning shores of the Napali Coast, with its famed green cliffs, straight out of Jurassic Park; pristine beaches; and sparkling turquoise water. 

If the waves cooperate, your captain will maneuver your boat past or, if your boat allows (more on that below), even inside some of the coast’s infamous wet and dry sea caves. For example, most tours stop at the Open Ceiling Cave, which is actually a collapsed lava tube and, true to its name, is wide open to the sky or the Waiahuakua Sea Cave, which has two openings and, at 1,155-feet long, holds the title of the second longest sea cave in the United States.

Waterfall along sea cliffs at the Napali Coast from a boat
Photo by DeborahKolb at Deposit Photos

Once you’ve explored the Napali Coast’s beautiful sea caves and waterfalls, the boat tour will start its return trip back to the southern shores of the island. Along the way, you’ll usually stop somewhere along the southwestern shore for a snack break and to snorkel with tropical fish—and, if you’re lucky, sea turtles! 

Which Kind of Napali Coast Boat Tour Should I Choose?

So, getting out on the water to explore the Napali Coast sounds cool to you- awesome! 

But, given there’s two different types of Napali Coast boat tours for different kinds of travelers, what kind should you pick?

Napali Coast Boat Tours by Catamaran

Catamaran tours in Kauai are the most popular options. A catamaran is a boat with two parallel hulls and can range from a fairly small vessel to superyacht HUGE.

Napali Coast boat tour by catamaran in Kauai

Catamarans are popular for a couple of different reasons. 

First of all, due to the versatility of their design, larger boats can comfortably fit more guests and offer amenities, like bathrooms or tables, that other tour options will not. Because there tends to be more guests per tour, this also means they tend to be the cheapest option.

Additionally, due to their immense weight, catamarans can cut through the Napali Coast’s notoriously rough waves and offer a smoother ride. Not only does this reduce the likelihood that you’ll get sea sick, but it’ll also make for a less noisy and chaotic ride, meaning your captain and crew can spend more of their energy giving you a tour of the spectacular coastline. 

View of the Napali Coast cliffs from a boat tour in Kauai

As for drawbacks, they tend to be a bit more crowded and impersonal than some of the smaller boat tour options. And most catamarans lack the agility to get into and out of the sea caves, which is definitely one of the highlights of a Napali Coast boat tour!

If you think a catamaran boat tour to the the Napali Coast is right for you, consider: 

1. Ni’ihau and Napali Coast Full Day Tour

Okay, if I was going to pick one catamaran tour on Kauai, it would be this tour with Holo Holo Charters. 

Beyond what you’d expect from a boat tour, like a knowledgeable and informative captain and a clean and comfortable boat, it also stops at two places that are pretty unique for a Napali Coast boat tour (in addition to the Napali Coast, of course).

Catamaran boats in front of the cliffs of the Napali Coast in Kauai

The first stop is at the Lehua Crater, an incredible area for seeing THOUSANDS of seabirds, including several species that are endangered and only seen in Hawaii.

The second stop is off the shore of the “Forbidden Island” of Ni’ihua, home to a small private colony of Native Hawaiians. Because of the unique underwater topography and its remoteness, the water off Ni’ihau is renowned as offering the best Kauai scuba diving and some of the very best snorkeling in the world, with monk seals, sea turtles, and manta rays regularly swimming through its waters. 

This tour is also amazing because the company is one of the most sustainably-focused boat tour companies in Kauai. For example, they’re the only boat tour company that’s certified by the Sustainable Tourism Association of Hawaii, which recognizes companies that focus on environmental protection and education, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s Dolphin SMART program, which promotes the protection of wild dolphins in coastal waterways. They also have thoughtful sustainability initiatives, like using locally-sourced foods in their on-board meals, using cloth napkins, and providing guests reef-safe sunscreen.

Manta ray underwater

2. Napali Coast Kauai Snorkel and Sail

This is another offering from the incredible Holo Holo Charters, mentioned above, but, at five hours long, it’s a bit shorter and more affordable than the Ni’ihau and Napali Coast tour. 

You’ll cruise to the Napali Coast—this time, with a sailing catamaran!- and past the beautiful sea caves and sea arches. If conditions allow, you’ll even get to go snorkeling along the Napali Coast or, if not, you’ll head further south along the coastline to find a good place to snorkel. 

Green sea cliffs along the Napali Coast by boat tour

In addition to the informative staff and incredible wildlife sighting opportunities, this tour comes with some fun little perks, like breakfast AND lunch and complimentary beer and wine after snorkeling.

3. Deluxe Na Pali Morning Snorkel Tour

The crew on this five and a half hour tour is incredibly informative about the history and culture of the island, helpful, and definitely goes the extra mile to make sure guests are having a good time. For example, as mentioned above, most catamarans do not go into the Napali Coast sea caves, but the Lucky Lady captains definitely toe the line as much as they can (safely, of course!), occasionally daring to go under caves and the coastal waterfalls.

Waterfall along the Napali Coast from a boat tour
Photo by Focqus at Deposit Photos

The tour also offers lots of little extras, like a waterslide on the boat, lunch (consisting of a build-your-own sandwich bar, chips, cookies, and pasta salad) and drinks, ranging from Mai Tais to beer and island-style juices.

Napali Coast Boat Tours by Zodiac Raft

The other popular option of Napali Coast boat tours is a zodiac raft, an inflatable, yet rigid boat that is known for its peppiness and agility. 

On the plus side, zodiac boats are WAY smaller than catamarans, so you’ll have a much more intimate, small group experience. My husband, Justin, and I opted to take a Zodiac boat tour and only had 12 other guests aboard the boat with us.

Zodiac bout tour heading to the Napali Coast in Kauai

Additionally, given that zodiacs ride low to the water and are basically open to the elements, it’s a much more adventurous—and, for lack of a better word, fun!—option than the other kinds of tours. You’ll almost certainly get soaked by the waves and you can get much closer looks at the wildlife, like dolphins, in the water. But most importantly, these boats have the ability to zip into and out of sea caves or under sea arches and waterfalls—allowing you to have a much more immersive Napali Coast experience than on the bigger boats. 

As for their drawbacks, because of their small size, there’s no real facilities on them—if you need to go to the bathroom while you’re on the boat, the ocean is going to need to be the answer!

Additionally, given that these boats ride low on top of the waves, you’ll experience a LOT more motion than a catamaran, so this isn’t a good option if you’re prone to seasickness or have a bad back, knees, or neck. And, with the noise of the motor and the waves, it’s hard for the captain and crew to give much of a “tour” without stopping the boat in a calm section.

View of the Napali Coast in Kauai from a boat

I’m so glad that we decided to opt for a Zodiac boat tour during our time on Kauai—even though the waves didn’t cooperate during our tour, we had an ABSOLUTE blast and, as a couple that prefers more “adventurous” travel, it definitely felt like the right fit for us.

If you’re interested in taking a Zodiac boat tour to the Napali Coast, consider:

1. Napali Coast Raft Adventure- Half-Day Snorkel 

This is the tour that we went with and I have zero regrets.

From start to finish, I was SO impressed by the staff at Kauai Sea Tours. 

Tropical fish swimming off the coast of Kauai

For example, at check-in, the attendant realized that something went wrong with our lunch order, so they ordered specialty sandwiches from the deli next door to meet our dietary needs. Our captain, Gabe, and our guide, Shain, were awesome—pointing out enormous turtles and respectfully observing pods of spinner dolphins, allowing us extra time to snorkel, and providing some of their firsthand insight onto what it’s like living in Kauai. They even ended the tour with a little gratitude circle, where everyone shared something they were grateful for—I wound up walking away from this tour with a bunch of new Instagram friends!

Group making silly faces after finishing a Napali Coast boat tour

Because of the enormous waves when we visited, our tour didn’t exactly go to plan (no sea caves for us sadly), but usually, on this five and a half hour tour, you’ll head to the Napali Coast and zip through sea caves and under waterfalls. Afterwards, you’ll head back south and go snorkeling on the Nu‘alolo Kai reef, which is teeming with huge, colorful fish and sea turtles.

This was absolutely one of the highlights of our visit and 10 outta 10, would recommend!

2. Raft Adventure- Nu’alolo Beach Landing

This six and a half hour zodiac boat tour is pretty unique. 

In addition to exploring the Napali Coast and its many sea caves, this tour also makes an additional stop at Nualolo Kai beach. This is the site of an ancient Hawaiian fishing village and still has many remnants of its inhabitants today, including a heiau (an ancient shrine) and petroglyphs. The only way you can reach the wild and untouched beach is by boat and even then, you need a special permit. At Nualolo Kai, you’ll get to snorkel (this is a GREAT place to spot monk seals!), relax, and have lunch on the beach.

Colorful sea cliffs along the Napali Coast from a boat tour

In addition to the unique activities on this tour, the staff are incredibly knowledgeable and provide a fascinating history of the Napali Coast, Nualolo Kai, and Kauai.

Things to know about the Napali Coast Boat Tours

Hopefully, you have a bit better idea of what Napali Coast boat tour you want to book, but here’s some things to keep in mind about this unique adventure.

The best time to go to the Napali Coast is in the summer.

The waves along the Napali Coast are famously choppy and especially so during the winter in Hawaii. If you have your heart set on seeing the coast and going into the sea caves, I’d strongly recommend trying to time your visit during mid-summer (i.e., June through August) for the best shot of good conditions. 

View of green sea cliffs from Napali Coast boat tour
Photo by Wirestock at Deposit Photos

We visited in May, which is generally considered the “calmer” season and still had very choppy waves along the Napali Coast—and weren’t able to go into any caves or even stay out on the coast for very long. Even if you visit in the summer, the conditions are very much up to the weather gods, but you’ll still have a better chance of living your best life out on the Napali Coast. Which brings me to my next point…

Tours may get canceled or changed.

If it’s impossible or unsafe to get to the Napali Coast or to go snorkeling, tour companies may change the itinerary of your tour around, from where you go snorkeling all the way to canceling the tour completely. In fact, the day that we went out in the zodiac, our tour operator canceled their afternoon tour, due to the enormous waves. 

Cliffs of the Napali Coast from a boat

Accordingly, I’d recommend 1/ booking a morning tour option, if available, when the conditions typically tend to be a bit calmer and 2/ most importantly, booking the tour at the beginning of your trip, so you can reschedule if your tour gets canceled. And, if you’re not one to really go with the flow, this might not be a great tour for you.

Don’t expect much for the snorkeling portion.

A fairly common complaint amongst guests on Napali Coast boat tours is that the snorkeling portion is too short or disappointing. 

Woman snorkeling in Kauai with two large fish

Honestly, if your number one priority on the tour is snorkeling, I’d suggest booking one of the Kauai snorkeling tours that focuses on that activity, instead. During our Na Pali Coast tour, we had plenty of time in the water at a really solid snorkeling spot during our tour, but I sort of suspect that most companies add this activity in as a bit of a “filler”, in case the Napali Coast portion of the tour doesn’t work out. 

Really, if you feel like you spent too little time in the water snorkeling, it probably means that you REALLY got to see and explore the Napali Coast—which is kind of the whole point of the trip, right?

Bring a rain jacket.

Kauai and, in particular, the Napali Coast, is known for having fickle and rather wet weather. So be sure to bring a rain jacket, like this one for men or this one for women—it can get surprisingly chilly on the water, especially if you’re already soaked from rain, seawater, or the Napali Coast waterfalls. And given

Couple smiling on a Napali Coast bot tour

Expect rough waters.

In case it wasn’t clear from above, Kauai can have some rough waters and it’s definitely not uncommon for folks to get sea sick on these tours. If you have a particularly sensitive stomach, I’d suggest bringing along some Dramamine or even considering another way of exploring the Napali coast—for example, what about hiking the Hanakapi’ai Falls Trail or going on a doors off helicopter tour in Kauai instead?

I hope you have a better idea of which one of the Napali Coast boat tours is right for you during your time on Kauai. Do you have any questions about seeing the Napali Coast via boat? Let me know in the comments below!

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