Have you ever been on a tropical vacation (I am right now!) and wondered what life would be like to live there full time? My friend and photographer Rachel Thurston picked up and moved her family to Kauai and is sharing some dreamy insights into what life was like as a local. Keep reading to find out how they adjusted with young children, things that surprised her as a local (even after vacationing there dozens of times), and some favorite family-friendly spots she recommends if you’re planning a visit…
Tell us a little bit about your family!
My husband Grant and I have been married for 8yrs. We have three incredible kids ages 6, 4 and almost 2. We started our family in west LA and have since lived in Long Beach, Anaheim, Kauai and now San Clemente, CA. I have worked the last 20 yrs as a portrait and commercial photographer and Grant works in Insurance and Medical Sales.
What took you to Kauai?
I grew up with Kauai as almost a 2nd home. My Grandma grew up on Oahu and my other set of grandparents had always spent a month or 2 out of the year on Kauai. The island spirit was in me from the beginning. I had always known, even as a young child, that part of my heart was there and I wanted to call it home someday. I had vacationed there 25+ times before moving there. When my husband had a moment for a job change and our kids were still young, we seized the day and booked one way tickets to our beloved North Shore. It felt like coming home.
How did your family adjust to living there?
It did take a month or so before “vacation mode” wore off a little. Laundry had to be done, preschool started, money to be earned. We adjusted really well. My kids were young when we moved there (3 and 1) so there wasn’t any social stresses that might exist when moving to a tiny island with older kids. We were all happy and content playing on our beaches and exploring the jungle in between naps and mealtimes. It takes a lot of planning to move to an island. Shipping cars, selling stuff…and finding a place to live. Since we didn’t know how long we would be there we wanted to rent a long term furnished home and there are only so many available at any given time. Sometimes NONE. We had to rent short term rentals in the beginning and move every month or so until something turned up. Some people talk about island fever, feeling trapped since you are surrounded by water. None of us ever felt that. I was usually flying to the mainland or neighboring islands once a month for shoots so that helped, I’m sure.
What sort of changes, expected and unexpected, did living in Kauai bring for your family?
I always expected moving there that we would feel a little secluded. It was far from all of our friends and family. Sometimes cell service is wonky. The time difference makes calling the mainland after the kids bedtime to chat tricky since it was always much later there. I knew it would be a time to really rally as a family and learn to appreciate the solitude. Because of this an expected surprise was how exciting and comforting it was to have visitors. And lots of our friends and family visit Kauai. At least once a month a cousin or Aunt or Uncle or Grandparent would be on island. Even friendships that were maybe more causal on the mainland felt closer when they visited. It was so so nice. Having people over for dinner and spending time at all the places we loved with people who knew us. It really made me appreciate and value those relationships in a new way. I also knew “localism” existed and at times was a problem for some and although the vast majority of our new neighbors were filled with Aloha, not all were. Some people have a hard time welcoming and truly including when they aren’t sure how long you will be around. It makes sense because the turn over is high for island living but I had maybe expected more open arms and less proving myself. Hard to show how Hawaiian your heart is when you are the new Haole.
Did you notice any differences in parenting in Kauai versus LA?
I LOVE parenting on Kauai. It is so much more about quality time and not about appearances. It is one of the main things I love about Hawaii. You can not tell who has money and who doesn’t. It isn’t a brand and label fashion show at the beach. No one cares what your kids wear to preschool…in fact at our amazing school most of the kids came and left barefoot and wore clothes that could get muddy and wet. There just wasn’t as much comparing. It was so amazing. Most people who live there love nature as much as we do and value spending most of their time outdoors. Teaching their kids to honor the earth and water. Letting them learn in the oceans and rivers. Teaching them what the rain does. Outside living is magical. Of course there are still parenting differences, but such a huge common thread was our love for the island. I also love how any women or man who is helping your kids is and “Auntie” or “Uncle”. Someone helping checking you at the grocery store, “Hand Auntie the juice you want”. Or the sweet man who helps push your kids on the swing, “Thank you Uncle!”. It is definitely a habit now so don’t be surprised if my kids call you Auntie or Uncle and you aren’t related. It is a huge compliment.
What did a perfect day in Kauai with your family look like? (Not as tourists anymore!)
Wake up and eat breakfast (yogurt, anahola granola and papaya) on our lanai with the misty morning rain and birds. Drive and drop off Nova to preschool and check the “on your honor” fruit stand across the street to see if there are any lilikoi or mangos. Then head to Rock Quarry beach with Fairbanks to explore and play before heading back for nap time. While he naps I get a little work time before leaving to pick up Novs. Meet up with friends at Hanalei Bay for some pier jumping and long boarding before grabbing some Lau Lau at the Taro Truck and and slice of Haupia Pie at the Village Snack Shop. Then head to Ke’e to watch the sunset and eat dinner while the kids climb on the roots and chase chickens. Maybe I even fit a 2 hr elopement session in there somewhere.
What are your favorite kid-friendly beaches in Kauai?
I am the most familiar with the north shore and the most kid friendly beaches there either Anini Beach, where there are rarely waves and perfect for shell collecting and swimming for little ones. Or Kalihawai and Rock Quarry. Both of these beaches have rivers that run into the ocean so you get the best of both worlds for kids. If you are early risers there is a good chance you will be the only ones on the beach first thing in the morning.
What are your favorite kid-friendly spots (not beaches!) to visit in Kauai?
-Aina Kai Botanical Gardens has a kid day the first Saturday of every month. Lots of people come and play in the water feature and explore the grounds.
-We loved playing at the park near Banana Joe’s and playing on the skate ramps. There is a stroller accessaible hike right there as well.
-The Westin on the North Shore and the Hyatt on the south shore both of have fun pools for kids.
-Hike to waterfall on the Kalalau Trail for older kids 8+
-Free Hulu show in Kapaa at the shopping center or Fire Show if you can find one. My kids loved this!
-There are a lot of fun festivals around the holidays. Kilauea is super fun around Halloween and Christmas
–Tuesday nights they show an outdoor movie on the beach at the Marriott in Lihue
-Rent Bikes in Kapaa near the Ono Family Restaurant and ride the bike path along the beach
-Tube down the river (5+)
-Rent a Kayak and hike to Secret Falls
-Go to any of the farmers markets!
-Fun, easy trails up Waimea Canyon
Any other must-sees or must-dos?
A fun splurge is a helicopter ride. You see the whole island this way and the Jurassic Park soundtrack might make you cry. Taking a boat ride to the Napali Coast is breathtakingly beautiful. I suggest doing this at sunset. We also loved riding by horseback at the Princeville Ranch to a waterfall where we ate lunch. You won’t regret having a bonfire on the beach. It rains a lot and I suggest one of the afternoons you are there running outside and soaking yourself in the warm water. You might spy a rainbow or two while you’re at it.
Any other adventures on the horizon for your family?
Heading back to Kauai is always on our minds. We also daydream about possibly living in Spain for a couple years. Until then we’ll keep exploring California and digging our feet into Kauai sand whenever possible.
Thank you Rachel for sharing your dreamy take on island life with your beautiful family in Kauai! Photography by Rachel Thurston and family shots by Blenda Montoro.