Boat tours abound in Hawaii, but there’s only one that journeys inland -- away from the ocean -- and into a tropical rainforest.
“My folks started the boat tours right after the war,” Walter Smith Jr., the family patriarch better known as “Freckles,” told me. Now 81, he began working in the family business after school when he was 12.
A boat loaded with visitors navigates the Wailea River on the island of Kauai. The Smith’s tour company takes guests to a lush, hidden fern grotto during 1.5-hour journeys.(Jay Jones / For The Times)
Passengers board one of Smith’s boats near where the Wailua River, Hawaii’s only navigable river, empties into the Pacific Ocean.(Kamika Smith)
Guide Josh Horner motors a tour boat along the Wailua River as he shares local lore with his guests. The 20-mile-long river begins in Kauai’s lush interior, which gets an average of 450 inches of rain each year.(Jay Jones / For The Times)
Young men and women paddle an outrigger canoe along the Wailua River. The river is the only one in the state of Hawaii that can be navigated by watercraft bigger than canoes or kayaks.(Jay Jones / For The Times)
Ti plants grow in front of Fern Grotto in Wailua River State Park on Kauai. The hidden cave is accessible only by boat.(Jay Jones / For The Times)
Smith’s employees entertain guests with traditional music and dance beside Fern Grotto.(Jay Jones / For The Times)
Ginger plants, with their brilliant red flowers, grow along the pathway leading to Fern Grotto in Wailua River State Park.(Jay Jones / For The Times)
Water from a rain shower, common on this side of Kauai, runs off the roof of a tour boat docked at Fern Grotto.(Jay Jones / For The Times)
Paddle boards and kayaks are among the small watercraft that share the Wailua River with Smith’s large motorized vessels.(Jay Jones / For The Times)
Walter Smith Jr., who goes by the nickname “Freckles,” is head of the family that operates boat tours along the Wailua River. His parents started the tours in 1946, when he was a boy.(Kamika Smith)
As tourism to the island resumed, Walter Smith Sr., and his wife, Emily, began offering tours using a rowboat and a borrowed outboard motor. The destination remains the same today as it was 70 years ago: Fern Grotto, now part of Wailua River State Park.
Dozens of guests step aboard large, open-air crafts (they have roofs to shelter passengers from the unpredictable rain showers) to the grotto, which is only accessible by boat. From a landing, visitors take a short stroll through colorful vegetation, including plenty of bright red ginger, to a large deck overlooking the grotto.
The small cave sits at the base of a fern-covered cliff. Water trickles down from a spring above.
On a large wooden deck, tourists are greeted by the Smiths’ employees, who entertain with music, hula and storytelling. It turns out the scenic setting has been the site of thousands of weddings.
Rivers are rare in Hawaii, and the Wailua is the only one that can be navigated by boats bigger than a kayak. The Smith family’s motorized boats share the wide waterway with canoeists, kayakers, stand-up paddlers and fishermen.
Guide Josh Horner told his guests that the river is full of catfish, tilapia, tuna and even barracuda.
“They’re harmless,” Horner said of the barracuda. “They’re only about a foot long.”
Rainwater from one of the wettest places on Earth feeds the river, which begins on the slopes of Mount Waialeale, 20 miles inland. The 5,000-foot mountain averages a whopping 450 inches of rain a year. Guests learn that several ancient Hawaiian temples once dotted the lush riverbank.
The entrance to the Smiths’ operation (the family also operates a tropical garden and a luau) is just south of the bridge along Kuhio Highway (Route 56).
The tours, operated four times a day, last about 1 1/2 hours. They include a 30-minute stop at the grotto.
Tickets are $20 for adults and $10 for kids, and there’s a 10% discount when purchased in advance online.
Info: Smith’s Fern Grotto tours, (808) 821-6895