WHAT TO DO AND WHERE TO STAY ON KAUAI
Updated: Sep 12, 2021
Why choose Kauai for your Hawaii vacation?
Lush, tropical, verdant, untamed, rugged beauty, a jewel in the Pacific... these are all words to describe the "Garden Isle" of Kauai, Hawaii. It is the oldest of the major Hawaiian Islands, and most of the island is undeveloped. It's this rawness and untouched landscape that gives Kauai its pristine beauty. Once you've decided you need to experience Kauai, the next big decisions are where to stay and what you'll do once you get there. We're here to show you some highlights of this incredible Hawaiian island, and the best places to lay your head at night after a day of adventures.
What kind of traveler would enjoy Kauai?
People who appreciate nature
Those looking to disconnect from the ordinary and reconnect with their surroundings
Travelers who enjoy quaint towns and getting to know friendly locals
Those who aren't looking for nightlife, an urban environment, or hustle and bustle
To get a feel for the Garden Isle, you'll want to know a little island geography.
The North Shore of Kauai
The north shore is the more lush and rainy side of Kauai. It's dotted with a few resorts, famous landowners, and grand homes. The furthest point you can go on the north shore (besides hiking the Na Pali coast) is Ke'e Beach (for which you'll need a permit). With the cliffs in the background and a lush jungle setting, you'll know you're in paradise when you arrive. The north shore is also home to the picturesque and charming town of Hanalei and Hanalei Bay. Hanalei is full of shops and local eateries. Hanalei Bay boasts one of the most delightful beaches to walk and enjoy the gentle lapping waves at your feet with giant emerald green mountains in the background. And if you've had enough activity for the day, head out to the end of the pier and watch the surfers ride the waves.
Note: the north shore experienced a landslide in March of 2021 that completely blocked access to the north shore (there's only one road to get in and out). The road is still being repaired so accessing the north shore is a little tricky. At this time we recommend staying on a different part of the island, and only visiting the north shore once during your trip. We can plan all your north shore activities in one day.
The East Shore of Kauai
The east shore is home to Kapa'a and Wailua. Charming little towns with plenty of shopping and eating to fill an afternoon. You'll also find Lydgate beach- a perfect place to take the Keiki (kids) to swim as it's protected by a barrier to keep the waves at bay. Lihue, the island's capital, and the airport are also on the East Shore.
The South Shore of Kauai
The south shore is the sunnier, drier side of Kauai. Here you'll find tons of things to do and many fantastic resort options! The south shore is home to Poipu Beach, where we always find the giant sea turtles and endangered Hawaiian monk seals sunning themselves. (Make sure to keep your distance, they're protected by law!) It's the perfect place to spend an afternoon snorkeling and people/wildlife watching. The nearby Kakui'ula shopping center is a great place to enjoy the evening. Dine at Merriman's or one of the many other upscale restaurants, then walk around and browse through the shops and galleries. Don't forget to grab an ice cream at Lapperts before heading back to your resort!
The West Shore of Kauai
The west side is the quieter, much hotter, and drier side of the island. Here you'll find an uninterrupted 12-mile beach that you can often not see anybody else in sight. The waves are huge and awesome to watch. However, most visitors don't stay long down here as there isn't a lot to do. There are just a few reasons you come to the westside: 1) passing through on your way to the canyon, 2) to go to Polihale State Beach Park, 3) to get shave ice at Jojo's!
Where to stay on Kauai
Ask anybody where you should stay on Kauai, and there is a 50% chance they'll say the north shore and a 50% chance they'll say the south shore. Each option is appealing for many reasons. Let's dive in!
Where to stay on Kauai's north shore
We think the north shore is perfect for those looking to escape to a quintessential tropical island. If you're looking for a quiet place to unwind, read a book, have an ultimate escape from ordinary life- this might be the spot for you.
Located in Princeville, the Westin is a great option if you're interested in exploring the lush tropical north shore. The Westin is perched atop a sea cliff, giving it dramatic and expansive views of the ocean below. The often harsh and loud waves seem peaceful and calming from this vantage point. An ocean view room is a perfect place to check-in and then check out! Check out of everyday life and stress as you are engulfed in your tranquil surroundings. This resort is the ideal jumping-off point for exploring Hanalei. Go for a stroll through quaint Hanalei town and enjoy their shops and relaxed restaurants. Take a leisurely walk along Hanalei Bay and walk to the end of the pier. After a day of exploring the north shore, head back to the resort to relax at one of their four heated pools.
Pro tip: There isn't a convenient nearby breakfast stop. Your best bet is to get the breakfast package or book a room with a kitchenette and stock your room with breakfast items.
One Hanalei Bay
One resort we are keeping our eye on is the One Hanalei Bay. Formerly the St. Regis Princeville, this luxury property has been completely revamped and transformed into a luxury wellness resort. It's set to open in summer 2022. We are excited for the potential of this unique place to unwind and tap into a wellness market that is not as common as you might think in Hawaii. With a very steep price tag, we will be watching closely to see if this resort can live up to its own expectations.
Where to stay on Kauai's south shore
Visitors that love the south shore crave sunshine, more friendly waters, and generally more to do and see. The south shore is a good option if you plan activities like visiting the canyon, the Na Pali coast (you'll be closer to the harbor and the airport) and have more beach time. With less rain on this side, you'll want to spend more time outside.
The Grand Hyatt has everything you could want in a Hawaiian resort. They have several great restaurants with island ambiance, a spa that will definitely help you slow down and settle into "island time," and tropically inspired pools (including a saltwater lagoon and lazy river) you can unwind in. The grounds are lush with tropical foliage, palm trees, and even resident tropical birds.
The Sheraton Kauai is one of our favorite resorts to match our clients with. We feel there is an incredible value for their oceanfront rooms. The resort is very close to the water, and they have an actual beach (a lot of Kauai is rocky shoreline). They have complimentary lounge chairs right by the beach where you can read a book, people watch, or simply lounge and soak up the sun. The view from the restaurants is gorgeous, and the coconut shrimp at Lava's is some of our favorite! The Sheraton also has a lawn with comfortable Adirondack chairs around firepits, they do a torch lighting in the evening, and it's THE place to be at sunset.
Right next door to the Sheraton is the Koloa Landing. There are a few reasons why the Koloa Landing tops our list of Kauai resorts. The first reason is their pool. They have a HUGE saline pool with a waterfall you can swim under. The ambiance is very relaxing with the soothing lights and sound of the waterfall, especially in the evening after a long day of exploring the garden isle. We also really love the rooms- they're very spacious, clean, and modern. If you are traveling with family and need a two-bedroom, this is the place you want to be! The two-bedroom is the biggest on the island and it has a kitchenette and a fabulous lanai.
What's there to do on Kauai?
See Na Pali by boat or helicopter
If there's one thing you have to do when you're on Kauai, it's seeing Na Pali. The western side of Kauai is made up of jagged sea cliffs and is only accessible by air or sea unless you do the insanely difficult hike for which you will need a permit. (However, getting a permit is even more complicated than the hike, so we'll skip talking about it.)
Na Pali by boat- a sunset dinner cruise is a perfect way to view Na Pali and the majestic, awe-inspiring Kauai sunsets. You can also explore the cliffs on a smaller boat that can get in and out of the smaller spaces and get you up close and personal to the towering cliffs. Captain Andy's and Holo Holo Charters are two companies we love to schedule our clients with.
Na Pali by helicopter- take a helicopter ride to get a bird's eye view of the whole island, including the Na Pali cliffs! You'll take in the geography and majesty of the island as you explore waterfalls (including Jurassic falls), fly through the Canyon, and weave in and out of the sea cliffs. This is an adventure you'll remember for a lifetime. For an epic experience, we love getting our clients on the Jurassic Falls Landing tour with Island Helicopters. You'll land at the base of the iconic waterfall, explore, take some photos, and then hop back on board to see the rest of the island.
Hike & sightsee the Waimea Canyon
Nicknamed the "Grand Canyon of the Pacific," this is a must-see on your Kauai vacation. You can easily drive up to scenic lookout points or you can use the stops (with convenient parking spots) as starting places for hikes. There are hikes for every fitness level. For an in-depth tour, hire a private hiking guide!
Pro tip: start your ascent to the canyon early in the day, you'll have less chance of clouds ruining your views at the Na Pali lookout.
Go mountain tubing with Kauai Backcountry Adventure
This activity combines adventure with history! You'll tube through Hawaii's old hand-dug sugar plantation canals. On the way to the launch point and throughout your journey, the guides will tell you about the history of the canals and Hawaii's sugar plantations. The tubing is pretty laid-back (the water moves about four mph). You go through several tunnels, so they'll outfit you with headlamps and helmets. You're sure to have a blast on this adventure! (Ages 5+)
Kayak to a waterfall
Hawaii has one navigable river- the Wailua River in Kauai. It's the perfect river for kayaking! Several companies will take you on a guided kayak tour that will end with a hike to "secret falls" where you can swim in a jungle waterfall. Make sure you bring a waterproof camera with you for this trip!
Kauai is becoming a foodie destination for good reason. Fresh fish and locally grown fruits and veg are artfully crafted into beautiful cuisine by some of the worlds best chefs.
Check out our article: Foodies Guide to the Hawaiian Islands
This is a small sampling of what Kauai has to offer. While Kauai is a small island, there are so many things to see and do it can be really hard to narrow it down! To us, each vacation is as unique as each traveler. We like to get to know our clients and what they envision and the feelings they want to capture on their vacation so we can craft the ultimate vacation just for them. We make sure they're armed with all the knowledge they need to have a beautiful Hawaiian vacation. If you'd like to ensure you get the best of the best for your Kauai vacation, fill out our Plan My Trip form, and we'll create something special just for you!
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No matter what island you choose, check out our Hawaii travel tips.