Are you trying to decide on the best part of Kauai to stay during your tropical getaway? You’ve come to the right place!
Kauai is a gem of an Hawaiian island, offering a stunning blend of jaw-dropping landscapes, serene beaches and vacation-perfect vibes.
It’s dubbed the “Garden Isle” in honor of its lush rainforests and emerald valleys (and it has gorgeous botanical gardens too).
But, figuring out where to stay in Kauai can sometimes feel like a puzzle with all its alluring options.
No worries – we’ve got your back!
After many trips over the years to this Hawaiian paradise – staying in resorts all over the island and enjoying everything from helicopter trips to snorkeling – we’ve compiled a heap of info about Kauai’s top-notch hotels and must-do activities.
We’re not just here to guide you through your stay. We’re also here to show you precisely why Kauai could be the best Hawaiian island for you!
Okay, let’s get your perfect Kauai trip rolling!
Best part of Kauai to stay
There are four main areas in Kauai:
- South Shore
- North Shore
- East Shore
- West Shore
Each side of the island differs in terms of weather, landscape, affordability and general vibe, and one main road connects each area.
The biggest debate is usually about Kauai’s North Shore vs. South Shore. But we’ll cover all four sides – including the top attractions, best accommodations and the pros and cons of each side.
Rainy side of Kauai
You have to be prepared for rain. (It’s the rain that makes Kauai so lushly beautiful!)
Don’t get us wrong. It doesn’t rain all the time – typically, you can still expect lots of sunshine. You may have a shower in the morning, and then it clears up for the afternoon.
And even if it’s raining in one part of the island, you can usually escape the wet weather by heading to another part.
As for the rainiest parts of the island, the north and east sides of Kauai receive more rainfall than the south and west sides.
(The northeastern part, especially around Mount Waialeale, is famously one of the wettest places on Earth, receiving a whopping 450 inches of rain per year!)
In contrast, the south and west sides of the island, such as the Poipu and Waimea areas, tend to be drier and sunnier.
Poipu gets an average of 32 inches of rain a year, while the annual rainfall in Princeville on the North Shore is often more than 60 inches.
Winter – November to March – is the rainy season in Kauai. (December, January and February are the wettest months.) In winter, especially, the south side of Kauai is less rainy than the North Shore.
South Shore Kauai
With that intro out of the way, say hello to Kauai’s South Shore, arguably the most popular area on the island – and for good reason.
This part of Kauai is where you’ll find the best weather year-round, the most luxury resorts (some with full kitchens), the best year-round swimming beaches and lots to do.
It’s also very family-friendly.
As for the weather on the south side of Kauai, expect daily highs in the mid- to high-70s F during winter.
It’s hotter in the summer, usually in the mid-80s F. The South Shore beaches also see slightly rougher waves in the summer than in the winter.
This side of the island also has a well-deserved rep for being the sunny side of Kauai, especially in winter.
We usually vacation in Kauai in winter – gotta get away from the cold here in Canada! So we typically choose to stay on the South Shore.
Top Kauai South Shore attractions
Poipu Beach Park
This quintessential Hawaiian beach is a popular location for snorkeling, fishing, stand-up paddleboarding and surfing.
We often see endangered Hawaiian monk seals snoozing on the sun-kissed sand here. Also keep your eyes peeled for nesting sea turtles.
Poipu Beach Park is the perfect place to relax and admire the views. From December through April, you might even spot humpback whales in the distance.
You’ll also find the intriguing Spouting Horn blowhole on the South Shore of Kauai.
The surf creates this natural wonder. As the ocean water rushes into a natural lava tube formation, it shoots a 50-foot spout of water up through a hole. The geyser-like effect is often accompanied by a loud hissing sound.
It goes without saying that the Spouting Horn is a cool place to take a photograph, especially during high tide or when the surf is strong.
Allerton Botanical Garden
Sprawling over 80 acres, this vibrant garden is full of themed outdoor garden “rooms,” exotic plants, sculptures and water features.
Stroll around the golden bamboo grove, admire the tropical heliconias, smell the fresh scent of ginger that fills the air… Oh, and make sure to check out the Moreton Bay Figs – those gigantic tree roots starred in Jurassic Park!
You can only visit the Allerton Garden on a guided tour – 2½-hour small-group tours are offered three times a day.
The McBryde Garden is adjacent to the Allerton Garden.
The first garden in the National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG) series, it houses the biggest collection of native Hawaiian plants, palms, Zingiberales (flowering ginger), Erythrina (tiger’s claw) and more.
Go at night, and you’ll discover that the McBryde Garden also happens to be one of the best places in Kauai for stargazing.
Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail
Ah, the Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail!
When we stayed at the Grand Hyatt on Kauai (covered below), we loved hiking along the rugged red cliffs that wind around the ocean from Shipwreck Beach to Maha’ulepu Beach.
The trail is about 2 miles long (so 4 miles out and back). All the while, the Pacific whispers at your side.
Where to stay in Poipu (and nearby)
The following are the best places to stay in Poipu and the south side of Kauai:
- Best luxury hotel in Poipu: Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort & Spa
- Beautiful deluxe resort with huge villas: The Lodge at Kukui’ula
- Best beachfront condos: Kiahuna Plantation Resort
- Romantic boutique hotel for couples: Koa Kea Hotel & Resort
- Best beachfront hotel for activities: Sheraton Kauai Resort
- Family-friendly villa resort: Koloa Landing
- Quiet oceanview condos: Whalers Cove
- Top-rated 3-bedroom beach house: Beach house steps away from Poipu Beach
Pros of staying on the South Shore
These are some of the things we love most about this side of Kauai:
- The South Shore is the best side of Kauai to stay for a wide range of resorts and vacation rentals.
- The South Shore is home to cute towns like Old Koloa Town and Poipu.
- Typically, the south part of the island is the sunniest part of Kauai.
- You’ll find some of the best year-round beaches in Kauai on the South Shore.
- A free open-air shuttle service operates in Poipu. (It will take you to restaurants and local points of interest.)
- The South Shore has all the amenities you need (shops, restaurants, etc.).
Cons of staying on the South Shore
Here are some of the not-so-great things about the South Side. Luckily, there aren’t many!
- The beaches can get more crowded.
- Generally, resorts and restaurants are more expensive in the south.
- There are fewer budget-friendly accommodation options in Poipu.
- Poipu is one of the busiest resort areas in Kauai. (It doesn’t have the same secluded, get-away-from-it-all, rainforest feel that the North Shore has.)
North Shore Kauai
Okay. The South Shore’s got the sun. But if you’re chasing raw natural beauty, the North Shore is where it’s at.
With verdant mountains, a vast rugged coastline, watery taro fields and dense tropical rainforest, it’s the perfect place to stay in Kauai for nature lovers, hikers and anyone itching for an outdoorsy vacay. And it has its fair share of beaches too.
In our opinion, this side of the island offers the “real” Hawaii experience.
Although Kauai’s North Shore has fewer hotels compared to the south, it doesn’t skimp on luxury offerings. You can embrace the mud and sweat on a hike, but still wrap up your day in a 5-star hotel.
Admittedly, the weather isn’t as good as down on the South Shore, so expect a sprinkle or more during your stay.
Top Kauai North Shore attractions
Hanalei Bay will quickly become one of your favorite places in Kauai!
Surrounded by splendid mountains, it’s the North Shore’s crown jewel. The largest bay on the North Side of Kauai, it boasts almost 2 miles of pristine beach.
Want to ride the waves or paddle the day away? Whether it’s surfing, paddleboarding or sailing, be sure to get your feet wet in the waters of Hanalei Bay!
The charming history-rich Hanalei town also calls this bay home.
Na Pali Coast
On the North Shore of Kauai lies the Na Pali Coast and Napali Coast State Wilderness Park.
The Na Pali Coast is renowned for its towering sea cliffs soaring up to 4,000 feet high.
To see the coastal cliffs, boat tours leave from Hanalei (as well as from Port Allen on the southwest side of the island).
Lace up your hiking boots! If you seek a strenuous hike along the rugged Kauai coastline, tackle the Kalalau Trail.
This 11-mile trail leads from Ke’e Beach to Kalalau Beach along the Napali Coast. You’ll come across some of the most beautiful beaches on this side of the island, waterfalls, sea caves and ancient Hawaiian terraces (for taro farming).
Then you need to hike back – so the full trail is an overnight expedition.
We always just hike the first 2-mile stretch to Hanakapi Beach. This section is popular as a day hike with visitors – and it’s a challenging enough hike for us!
Actually, you don’t even have to go that far. If you walk just the first half mile, you’ll be rewarded with amazing views.
Grab your swimsuit and sunscreen and hit the beach! For snorkelers, Tunnels Beach (known locally as Makua) is one of Kauai’s most alluring beaches.
Unique lava tubes and hidden caverns beneath the turquoise waters create a magical underwater world to explore.
Hugged by dense rainforest and classic Hawaiian mountains, this long crescent-shaped beach also offers plenty of golden sand to dry up afterward in the sun.
Best places to stay in Kauai (North Shore)
You’re sold. The North Shore sounds like your happy place to base yourself. Here, then, are the best places to stay in Princeville and Hanalei:
- 5-Star luxury hotel in Princeville: 1 Hotel Hanalei Bay
- Romantic condo resort: Hanalei Colony Resort
- Family-friendly resort: Westin Princeville Ocean Resort Villas
- Top-rated oceanview condo: Beautiful 1-bedroom Princeville condo
- Gorgeous 4-bedroom house with huge private pool: Luxury home in Princeville
Pros of staying on the North Shore
Some of the good things you can expect from the North Shore?
- The North Shore is a lot quieter than the South Shore.
- You’ll find more natural attractions and hiking trails on the North Shore.
- The north of the island is a closer drive to popular attractions like Hanalei Bay and Tunnels Beach.
- The North Shore is arguably the best part of Kauai to stay if you love the great outdoors.
- Accommodation is usually more affordable on the North Shore.
- You can still find plenty of luxury accommodation options.
Cons of staying on the North Shore
The following are some of the disadvantages of staying on the North Shore:
- The North Shore is the wettest part of the island, so you have to expect rain at some point during your vacation.
- It has few swimmable beaches.
- The North Shore is more susceptible to road closures due to flooding (rain!) and landslides.
East Shore Kauai
Dubbed the Coconut Coast, the East Shore is the best location in Kauai for a central base on the island. With a rental car, you can easily access most of the island with little effort.
Like the South Shore, the East Shore is quite commercial. (The East Shore is the commercial center of Kauai.)
So it offers a variety of accommodation options, restaurants and activities for everyone. Notably, the East Shore has the region’s most affordable hotels.
With the mercury hovering in the pleasant range of high 70s to 80s F, you might want to spend most of your time kicking back on Kalapaki or Lydgate Beach. But you’ll be quite close to Wailua Falls if waterfall hiking or river kayaking calls out to you.
Top Kauai East Shore attractions
Kalapaki Beach is practically at your doorstep if you’re staying at any of the luxury resorts on the east coast.
In front of the grand Royal Sonesta Kauai Resort Lihue, this smallish protected beach is lapped by calm waters and is ideal for swimming and stand-up paddleboarding.
And when you’re ready for a Mai Tai and pupus? Swing by Duke’s, a long-established restaurant (and island fave) with a prime perch overlooking the beach.
Lydgate Beach Park
Nestled in Lydgate Beach Park are two serene bays, expansive green spaces, children’s playgrounds, picnic spots and a tree-lined beach dotted with various swimming zones. It’s a favorite with snorkelers and windsurfers.
A beautiful paved coastal path (2½ miles long) also stretches from Lydgate Beach Park to Wailua Beach Park.
Part of a longer bicycle path called called Ke Ala Hele Makalae (Hawaiian for “The Path that Goes by Coast”), it’s a great place to go for a morning run, a sunset walk or a bicycle ride.
The Wailua River meanders through the lush Wailua River State Park.
You can also join a guided kayaking-and-hiking tour that combines kayaking along the Wailua River with a hike to the not-so-secret-anymore Secret Falls (Uluwehi Falls).
You might recognize Wailua Falls from the opening credits of the popular TV series Fantasy Island.
A short drive from Lihue, this waterfall splits into twin streams as it tumbles down at the south end of the Wailua River. While some claim the falls plunge from a height of 80 feet, others believe it’s closer to a 200-foot drop.
Whatever, its beauty is undeniable.
Head to the observation point at the end Maalo Road. Go early in the morning and you might even see a stunning rainbow, created by the sun’s rays glancing off the mist.
Ninini Point Lighthouse
You should visit the Ninini Point Lighthouse (Nawiliwili Lighthouse) if you want to learn more about Kauai’s history.
Built in 1932, the lighthouse is an 86-foot structure that once served as a navigational aid for Kauai’s Nawiliwili Harbor.
Today, the lighthouse is a little run down, but it’s a unique point of interest. Also, even though you can’t go to the top of the lighthouse, the views are pretty spectacular from here.
Where to stay on Kauai (Coconut Coast)
The following are the best places to stay in Kapa’a, Lihue and Wailua:
Pros of staying on the east coast
Some of the best things about the east side of Kauai include:
- Generally, the East Coast is more affordable.
- It’s the best area of Kauai to stay for easy access to both the North Shore and South Shore.
- You’ll find a wide range of shops, restaurants and cafes.
- If you stay at Marriott’s Kauai Lagoons-Kalanipu’u, the Royal Sonesta Kauai Resort Lihue or Marriott’s Kauai Beach Club, you’re a stone’s throw away from beautiful Kalapaki Beach.
Cons of staying on the east coast
East Shore downsides?
- The beaches on the east coast aren’t as great as the ones in the north and south.
- The most populated area is Wailua and Kapa’a – and the traffic in and around Wailua at peak times can cause long delays.
- The East Shore can be surprisingly busy, especially during the high season.
West Shore Kauai
If you’d like to get away from the hustle and bustle, Kauai’s West Shore is the quietest side of the island.
This slice of paradise is less about shops and man-made goodies and more about nature’s awesomeness.
Misty forest reserves? Check. Standout attractions like Waimea Canyon and the wild 17-mile stretch of beach in remote Polihale State Park? Double check.
Aside from a handful of small towns like the charming nook of Hanapepe, the west side of Kauai is mostly undeveloped. There are countless opportunities to hike, spot wildlife, admire epic views and escape the daily grind here.
Accommodation options are limited, but there are still lots of cozy vacation rentals and cottages.
As for the weather, the West Shore is mostly warm and sunny with isolated showers – though Waimea Canyon is cooler than the coastal areas, which are at sea level.
Top Kauai West Shore attractions
Waimea Canyon State Park
Don’t miss Waimea Canyon State Park. It’s a must-see on Kauai!
Dubbed the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” Waimea Canyon is a jaw-dropping marvel. It’s roughly 10 miles long and more than 3,000 feet deep – and its magnificence is undeniable.
From the Waimea Canyon Lookout, feast your eyes on fiery red rocks, dramatic gorges and an impressive 800-foot waterfall. It’s a visual treat that feels otherworldly.
You’re going to be charmed by this quaint spot on Kauai’s southwest coast of Kauai – so make sure you add it to your list of what to do in Hawaii!
Though small, Hanapepe has a rich past and once flourished as one of Kauai’s liveliest towns.
Now it’s a mellow little place with vintage architecture, adorable cafés, art galleries, cute boutiques and street festivals.
Visit on a Thursday afternoon and you can catch the Hanapepe Farmers Market.
We recommend picking up some Hawaiian souvenirs while in Hanapepe!
Polihale State Park
Hugging Kauai’s unspoiled west coast, Polihale State Park is a true gem.
Spanning 17 miles, it’s the island’s most westerly point accessible by vehicle.
The star here is Polihale Beach – secluded and breathtakingly beautiful.
While we advise making the drive to this park in a four-wheel drive, the payoff is immense.
Think miles and miles of beach you can stroll with hardly anyone around. (You might even be tempted to stop and suntan in the buff!)
And if you stay for the sunset, it’s well worth the wait while you watch the waves crash against the sand.
Koke’e State Park
Just north of Waimea Canyon, this state park is home to a variety of different hiking trails.
A sweet attraction is the Koke’e Museum, where you can learn all about the area’s native vegetation, Hawaiian fruit and native forest birds.
Oh, and don’t miss the scenic cliff views during the drive too!
Best places to stay in Kauai (west side)
Pros of staying on the west coast
Here are the best things about staying on the west coast:
- Kauai’s west coast is where you find spectacular Waimea Canyon State Park.
- The West Shore is perfect for outdoor enthusiasts as it’s the most remote part of the island.
- This part of Kauai is a lot quieter than the north and south.
- Some excellent boat tours leave from the West Coast.
- The coastal areas of the West Shore are sunny and dry.
- This side of the island is more picturesque than the South Shore.
Cons of staying on the west coast
Some of the downsides to staying along the west coast include:
- There’s no connecting road between the West Shore and the North Shore.
- You need a four-wheel drive to access some attractions.
- Expect longer journeys between attractions.
- There are fewer accommodation options.
- Some parts of the West Shore can only be accessed by boat.
Princeville vs. Poipu
Which is better: Poipu or Princeville?
It’s a question a lot of people ask! And it’s a tough one to answer… Because everyone likes different things and both areas have their own unique positives.
Poipu (on the south side) is ideal if you crave consistent sunshine, golden-sand beaches and a variety of watersports. It’s the top pick for those wanting to escape winter’s grasp. Think of it as Kauai’s sunshine hot spot.
On the flip side, if your heart beats faster for nature trails, lush landscapes and outdoor adventures, the North Shore’s Princeville area is calling.
Personally, we prefer to stay in Poipu. We get enough rain in winter where we live, so we fly to Hawaii to escape it!
Which side of Kauai has the best beaches?
Got beach dreams? Head straight to Kauai’s sunny South Shore!
This place is like those come-hither beach photos in travel magazines. Think ankle-deep golden sand, swaying palm trees and clear waters.
The sunnier weather on the south coast also makes it generally better for beach days.
As for the safest swimming spots?
Again, the South Shore wins.
Some of the best swimming beaches in Kauai (like Poipu Beach and Kiahuna Beach) are found on the South Shore. (Hanalei Bay on the North Shore is also safe in summer.)
Poipu Beach is also great for surfing and boogie boarding.
Which side of Kauai is best for snorkeling?
The East Shore is ideal as a beginner-friendly spot.
But for the best snorkeling on Kauai, our picks are Poipu Beach and the south coast of Kauai, along with Tunnels Beach and Anini Beach on the North Shore. These beaches are home to a diverse collection of sea life, including sea turtles, needlefish and baby unicornfish, and there are plenty of amenities nearby.
What side of Kauai is the best to stay on for a first visit?
If you’re asking yourself, “Where should I stay in Kauai for the first time?” we recommend heading to the South Shore first.
This area is perfectly geared toward visitors. You’ll find great beaches, a huge range of activities, lots of resorts and all the amenities you need.
Oh, and have we mentioned the South Shore is almost always sunny!
However, if you’re staying for a week or more on Kauai, split your time between Poipu and the North Shore. Over on the North Shore, you can hike in the rainforest, climb mountains and visit Hanalei, one of Hawaii’s most charming towns.
Final thoughts on the best area to stay in Kauai
Hopefully, our pointers have helped you decide what side of Kauai to stay on!
Kauai is wonderfully diverse. For a luxurious tropical getaway, the South Shore is ideal. If you’re after a more authentic Hawaiian experience, the North Shore is welcoming you.
Then again… Don’t overlook the East Shore (which offers easy access to the entire island and is a cheaper side to stay) or the West Shore, known for its natural attractions.
Our advice? Experience as many areas of Kauai as possible during your trip.
Staying on both the North and South Shores in one go is entirely feasible. We’ve done it ourselves.
Trust us, you won’t regret it!
Photo credits: 5, 8, 10, 14 to 16, 22 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase