If Kauai’s different shores were contestants on a dating show, then the North Shore of Kauai would be the sexy but slightly unpredictable free spirit. The South Shore would be the cheerful, loyal but possessing a hidden quirky side contestant.
With almost as much anxiety as The Bachelor in the season finale, you must eventually pick where you want to stay on your Hawaii vacation. Unfortunately, knowing you must make a decision doesn’t make it any easier to decide which side of Kauai to stay on.
Looking at a map it doesn’t seem like it should be a big deal which side of Kauai you stay on. The island appears tiny in comparison to the other popular Hawaiian islands. However, first timers will be surprised how long it takes to get from one side of the island to the other. Driving 1 1/2-2 hours to get from the North Shore to the South Shore isn’t a huge deal, however everyone can agree that more time at the beach and less time in the car is always a good thing.
I’ve always been a loyal fan of the North Shore of Kauai. When anyone asks where to stay on Kauai I gush about the beauty, beaches, and quaintness of Hanalei Bay. Recently, I strayed away from Hanalei and got an Airbnb on the South Shore in Poipu. While the North Shore will always have my heart, I found myself seduced by the hidden charms of the South Shore…
North or South Shore of Kauai?
North: The beaches on the North Shore of Kauai are like something out of your best tropical fantasy. On a sunny afternoon at Tunnels beach you’ll be pinching yourself to make sure you aren’t dreaming. Stretches of golden sand with towering, lush mountains in the background are the norm on the North Shore. Anini, Ke’e, Hanalei Bay, and Tunnels are just a few of the spectacular beaches that bless this beautiful side of the island.
One of the reasons the beaches on the North Shore of Kauai have such a natural, uncrowded feel is that the journey to get to them isn’t easy. There’s a small one-lane bridge in Hanalei that can get congested with traffic and parking at the beaches themselves is limited. Because of traffic and parking issues visitors must now get a permit to park at Ha’ena State Park (Ke’e Beach/ Kalalau Trailhead). You’ll want to get the permit before arriving to Kauai since they sell out quick, especially during peak season.
South: The beaches in the Poipu area on the South Shore of the Kauai are sunny and family friendly. The geography of this side of the island means that the mountains are further in the distance. Additionally, the Poipu coastline is fairly built up with resorts and condominiums. In short, when you’re on the beach in Poipu there isn’t quite as much rugged, untamed, nature as the northern beaches.
While, the beaches in the Poipu area don’t have as much undeveloped beauty, Poipu is one of the best spots on the island to spot a sea turtle. The calm protected cove near Brennecke’s Restaurant is a popular hang-out for sea turtles. Frequently they come ashore around sunset and make their way out to sea at sunrise. In the evening tourists gather to take pictures and watch the turtles maneuver their way onto the sand. If you happen to be up at 5am, you might find yourself alone on the beach watching the sunrise with the turtles.
Where to Stay on Kauai for the Best Beaches: The North. Who doesn’t love less crowded, more natural, beaches?
Things to Do
North: Horseback rides to secret waterfalls and atv adventures are a few of the popular organized tours on the North Shore of Kauai. And of course there’s all the gorgeous beaches to explore. In the calm summer months the beaches on the North Shore have some of the best snorkeling on the island.
South: The south side of the island is closer to many of Kauai’s favorite tourist activities. Kayaking up the Wailua River, hiking in Waimea Canyon, taking a sail with Capitan Andy’s along the Napili Coast, and tubing through the old sugarcane canals are excellent adventures that are closer to the Poipu area. How much closer? It depends on what you’re doing but Waimea Canyon is at least 45 minutes closer to Poipu and the Wailua River is about 20 minutes closer.
Where to Stay on Kauai for Things to Do: The South. If you’re planning on doing a lot of organized tours then staying in the South will save you some time in the car.
North: The Kalalau Trail is a bucket list hike, and probably one of the best hikes in Hawaii. The trail takes hikers along the Na Pali coast with incredible views of the ocean. Most people reach the river and turn back. Some continue upstream to Hanakapiai Falls before retracing their steps back to the Ke’e parking lot. If you hike to the falls it is eights miles roundtrip. If you chose to turn around at Hanakapiai Beach and not go the falls it’s about four miles roundtrip.
An easier, often overlooked hike on the north side of Kauai is the Wai Koa Loop Trail. It’s a mostly flat 4.2 mile trail that goes past a little waterfall and is a mellow walk at the end of the day. Just a heads up, since the trail is on private property, hikers are requested to stop at the Anaina Hou Welcome Center to sign a waiver.
South: One of the big advantages of the South Shore of Kauai is it’s proximity to Waimea Canyon. It’s still about a forty minute drive to most of the trails in Waimea Canyon but nonetheless this is significantly closer than if you were driving from Princeville.
Also on the South side of the island is the Makawehi Cliffs Trail. Also, known as Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail, this hike is almost four miles roundtrip but you can easily go further. Most people hike from Shipwreck Beach to Punahoa Point, however you can continue on the mostly desolate stretch of beach for a longer hike.
Frequently overlooked by tourists, the trail goes along a mostly undeveloped section of coastline. (There is a portion of the trail where you have to cut across a golf course.) You’ll pass through a sacred ancient Hawaiian site, have stellar views of the ocean and end up at the massive Makauwahi Cave. If going into the cave is important to you, check the cave reserve website ahead of time for operating hours.
To get into the cave you have to crawl on hands and knees through a little opening in the rock. This will take you into a grassy open space. (pictured below) From here a guide will take you into the cave and educate you on the ecology and history of the cave. Don’t forget to bring a little cash to donate. After checking out the cave, ask the cave volunteer to point you in the direction of the tortoises. Tortoises? I could elaborate but part of the fun of this hike is the journey…
Where to Stay on Kauai for Hiking: Tie. The North Shore of Kauai has one of Hawaii’s most famous hikes but both sides of the island have fantastic trails.
North: The surf is typically better on the north side of the island in the winter. The swells are bigger and the winds more favorable. Hanalei Bay is a well known surf spot on the North Shore of Kauai, and for good reason. On big days it’s possible catch the larger waves on a shortboard and on smaller days it’s an idyllic longboard wave. The biggest downside to surfing Hanalei Bay is it’s a long paddle to the break.
Of course there’s plenty of other spots along the North Shore for surfing, just keep in mind that in the summer this stretch of coast is more conducive to snorkeling than surfing.
South: While the surf conditions are better on the North Shore in the winter they are better in the south in the summer. The south side of Kauai has a few very easily accessed surf breaks. This doesn’t mean that the wave itself is easy, just that it’s easy to get to. From the snorkeling cove at Poipu (near Brennecke’s Restaurant) it’s a less than five minute walk to the first surf break. On a day when the swell is small this is a beginner friendly spot and it’s possible to take a surf lesson here. Continuing down the beach there are several other spots where the reef creates a surfable wave, although these are usually better for intermediate-advanced surfers. On any given day the ocean off the coast of Poipu is a smorgasbord of short boarders, long boarders, and boogie boarders.
For those wanting to surf outside of the Poipu area, there’s a couple breaks near the town of Hanappe that offer up more advanced, local feeling waves. If you’re a decent surfer with a good understanding of surf etiquette and a sense of adventure, it’s worth it to go hunting for waves in this area.
Where to Stay on Kauai for Surfing: Tie. It depends on the season
Places to Eat
North: Hanalei Bay and Princeville are the main towns on the North side of Kauai. The town of Princeville is basically a big shopping center. It’s clean and tastefully designed, but even all the palm trees and hibiscus flowers in the world can’t hide the fact that you’re in a shopping center.
For a quainter, more lively meal keep going North for ten more minutes until you reach the colorful town of Hanalei. Food trucks and cafes are scattered along the couple block section of highway that is downtown Hanalei. Calypso has a nice porch and a decent happy hour if you want a mai tai and carne asada tacos after a day at the beach.
South: Most of the restaurants in the Poipu area are tucked away in a shopping center or part of a resort. If you want an ocean view and don’t mind paying resort restaurant prices, dining in Poipu is an appetizing option. For those of us, myself included, who enjoy the occasional Kauai chicken running under your table you’ll probably be happier tucking into a Hawaii mix plate lunch on the North Shore.
If you are in the Poipu area and looking for something more low-key and authentically Hawaiian, stop by Little Fish Coffee. The colorful little cafe stands alone on a large grassy lot and serves up simple breakfast and lunch options. On a rainy morning this is the perfect spot to sip a hot drink on the porch and watch the storm.
Where to Stay on Kauai for Restaurants: Tie. If you want food trucks and casual cafes head north. If you want an ocean view and an excuse to dress up a bit go to Poipu.
North: Most people traveling to the North Shore of Kauai stay in an Airbnb. There are a few hotels such as the Westin Princeville and the Hanalei Colony Resort, but a couple nights at these will cost you the same as a week in an Airbnb. However, if you’re in the mood to splurge there’s no better place than the St Regis Princeville.* The view of Hanalei Bay is incredible, the pool will keep kids occupied all day long, and you’ll feel like a celebrity sipping on a $20 cocktail at sunset.*
*As of January 2021 the St Regis Princeville was closed. A reopening date has not yet been announced.
Princeville has tons of Airbnb options. Enough that when you’re driving through the community you’ll wonder if anyone actually lives in the houses or if they’re all second homes and vacation rentals. Fortunately for people visiting the North Shore of Kauai, the volume of rental homes in Princeville keeps the prices relatively affordable. The key word being “relatively”. Hawaii and especially Kauai is notoriously expensive. The biggest downside to staying in Princeville is that there really isn’t an easily accessible beach. With the right conditions you can scamper down the path to Queen’s Bath, which is essentially a large tide pool. The pool at sunset is beautiful, however often times the path is slippery or the waves are too big to make swimming a safe choice.
South: There are significantly more resorts and timeshares in the Poipu area than what you’ll find on the North Shore. If you want a pool without the hefty price tag, and the possibility of walking to a swimming beach, the South Shore is your best bet. Take a look at the Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort & Spa for a decadent resort stay or the Sheraton Kauai Resort. Additionally, the Poipu area has quite a few Airbnb condos. Some are walking distance to the beach and some are a five minute drive. Since parking at the Poipu beaches can be difficult I would recommend staying someplace that’s walking distance to the beach.
Where to Stay on Kauai for the Best Accommodation Options: The South. There’s a wider range of accommodation options on the South Shore. Moreover, it’s possible to stay someplace that’s reasonably affordable and walking distance to the beach.
North: Everything comes at a cost. The price you pay for the incredible lush jungles of the North side of Kauai is more rain. A sunny day on the North Shore of the island is absolutely spectacular. Your soul will be radiating happiness if you’re lucky enough to hike along the Na Pali coast on a cloudless afternoon. It will be this memory that gets you through the next year of mind-numbing work meetings. Sadly, a completely cloudless day on the North Shore is an anomaly. A more typical day on the North Shore of Kauai is a mixture of clouds, sun, and a few sporadic downpours.
South: If you’re someone that absolutely must have sun on vacation then head to the south side of Kauai. This side of the island tends to be drier and sunnier. Sometimes the island is enveloped in clouds but there will be a little window of sunshine over Poipu. That being said there are still times when it rains all day in sunny Poipu. The upside to a few clouds and showers is the breathtaking sunsets that follow stormy weather.
Where to Stay on Kauai for the Best Weather: The South. Weather on a tropical island is unpredictable but the South Shore of Kauai is your best bet for sunshine.
The East Shore, Kauai’s Secret Coast
Now that you’ve decided between the North and South Shore of Kauai, I’m going to blow your mind with a little secret. The East Coast of Kauai is also a desirable place to stay. In recent years the town of Kapaa has grown into a lively little town. Once just a spot you drove through when going between Poipu and Hanalei Bay, more travelers are discovering the appeal of staying in the Kapaa area. With an atmosphere that somehow perfectly blends old-school Hawaii with artsy, trendy, earthy and beachy vibes, the “Coconut Coast” of Kauai is definitely increasing in popularity. Where else on the island can you find a surf shop, a boutique selling artisan bamboo bowls, an art gallery, a car wash and a “Chicken in a Barrel” restaurant all within a few blocks of each other?
Probably the main reason visitors forgo staying on East Side of Kauai is that the beaches are frequently windy and not as suitable for swimming. For many people vacationing in Hawaii this is a dealbreaker.
However, if you are planing on spending your days doing organized tours and exploring the island, the East Coast is a logical, central location. You can be in either Princeville or Poipu in about forty minutes. Furthermore the East Side of Kauai regularly has some of the best deals on hotels. There isn’t anything quite as upscale as what you might find in other parts of the island, but if you’re staying in Kappa poshness isn’t a priority.
Another added bonus for budget travelers is the Kapaa bike path, an eight- mile paved path along the coast. There are a few bike shops in Kapaa where you can rent a bike for about $20 and some hotels include them for guests. Hop on your bike and go for a coastal cruise, checking out the different beaches along the way.
If you prefer dirt trails over paved paths you can get your daily quota of mud hiking Sleeping Giant or Kuilau Ridge. Both are great hikes on the east side of Kauai and get less foot traffic than other popular Kauai trails.
The Bottom Line: I still haven’t decided which part of the island to give my heart to. The North Shore has more rain, lush jungles, and a small town feel. The South is sunnier and more developed, but there are some hidden natural gems in this area. If you’re on a budget or planning on doing a lot of tours and sightseeing, check out the East Side.