The north shore of Kauai is probably the dreamiest place in the Hawaiian Islands. Lush and tropical, this is the stuff your Jurassic Park dreams are made of. It’s less developed than the more tourist-centric south shore of Kauai and has more of a local feel giving many the impression of visiting the “real Hawaii.” The only bad thing you can say about the north shore of Kauai is how much it rains. It rains. A lot. That’s why it’s so tropical and beautiful. But it can make it unpredictable. Generally it rains more in the winter so if you’re visiting during the summer months you’ll have the best chance for some sunny days. If you’re staying on the south or east side of Kauai (more reliable sunshine year round) and looking to do a day trip to the north shore, keep an eye on the forecast and be flexible with your plans.
The north shore of Kauai consists of the resort area of Princeville, the town of Hanalei, and a mostly undeveloped stretch of gorgeous beaches and mountains.
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Parking/Shuttle Info: The stretch of north shore from Hanalei west towards Ke’e Beach (the end of the road) has become so popular in recent years that the state has taken measures to alleviate the traffic and parking situation. You now need a reservation to park (and walk in) at Ha’ena State Park (Ke’e Beach, the Kalalau trailhead, and Ha’ena Beach/Tunnels). You can make reservations 14 days in advance here. If you can’t get a reservation, there’s also a shuttle you can ride from Princeville.
Things to Do in Hanalei & Princeville
Napali Coast Boat Tour: This is probably my #1 favorite thing to do in Kauai. Book a raft tour leaving out of Hanalei (instead of a catamaran tour leaving out of Port Allen in the south). The smaller ocean rafts are able to zip in and out of sea caves, plus departing from Hanalei gets you to the Napali Coast WAY quicker than leaving from the south. FYI…boats only leave out of Hanalei in the summer (April to October), otherwise Port Allen is your only choice. There are several tour companies that run tours out of Hanalei. They usually leave in the morning and include lunch. Read more about Napali Coast boat tours here.
Hang out in Hanalei town: Hanalei just might be the most picturesque town in Hawaii. Stroll around and check out the shops. If you want an amazing acai bowl (local favorite!) stop by Aloha Juice Bar. Don’t forget to walk down to the beach and out onto the Hanalei Pier. It’s one of the prettiest backdrops in Kauai and a great place to take photos.
Find Hideaways beach: One of the north shore’s best beaches is pretty hidden (hence the name) and requires quite an adventure to find. It’s in Princeville (make the turn into the resort area where you see the sign for the St. Regis off the main road). You’ll go about two miles through Princeville and then turn right into a tiny little parking lot just before you reach the St. Regis’ guard shack. Just outside the parking lot, you’ll see a small pathway between the two fences. You’ll need good shoes to do this little trail (not flip flops!). There’s a pretty sketchy staircase you have to navigate before you get to the series of rope handles that will lead you to the hidden beach. Don’t miss this one!
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Hike the Kalalau trail. This is the best hike in Kauai! The entire hike is 22 miles round trip but that required a permit (and camping over night). But the first two miles (four miles round trip) is amazing and an absolute must. Plan 3 hours for this hike. The trail head is located at Ke’e beach (don’t forget to make parking reservations!), which is as far as you can go on the north shore (heading west).If you’re up for a longer hike, once you reach Hanakapiai beach (the point where you have to turn around), hike two miles up through a bamboo forest to reach Hanakapiai falls. This will double your hike time and distance (5-6 hours and 8 miles). Also, do NOT get in the water at Hanakapiai beach! It’s pretty dangerous and many deaths have occurred there. Just admire from a distance. Read more about hiking the Kalalau Trail here.
Ke’e Beach: Ke’e is very protected and one of the few good swimming spots on the north shore. It’s also an excellent snorkeling spot for beginners. It’s practically a swimming pool. If you take the road past Hanalei as far as it goes, you’ll end up at Ke’e beach (don’t forget to make parking reservations!), one of the loveliest on Kauai. Ke’e is great snorkeling for beginners if you bring your own gear.
Snorkel at Tunnels: Tunnels is probably the best snorkeling spot in Hawaii. Bring your own gear because there’s nowhere to rent nearby (you can rent some in Hanalei if you don’t have your own). This spot is pretty hidden, but it’s a little ways down from Ha’ena State Park (make parking reservations). There are two direct road/pathway entrances with minimal parking. There’s no lot and there are plenty of “no parking” signs on the street. That’s how you know you’re near. If you’re having trouble finding it, just find the Haena State Park entrance and then walk down the beach to the right.
Queen’s Bath: If you’ve done much research about top things to do in Kauai, you’ve like heard of Queen’s Bath. It’s a sinkhole in the lava along the coast in the Princeville area that creates a natural swimming pool during calm days. Unfortunately, during high surf times (which can be unpredictable), it can be extremely dangerous. Numerous deaths have occurred here, however it doesn’t stop people from attempting it. I can’t recommend swimming in the pool under any conditions, BUT if you’d like to see it, the hike down to the pools is very pretty. In the Princeville resort area, there’s a small parking lot on Punahele Road. If there’s no parking available, you can pay to park at the golf course up the road. It’s a short (but often muddy and slippery) hike down where you’ll even pass a waterfall. I’d stay well away from the pools as even in calm weather, rogue waves can come out of nowhere. When I’m entering any area near the ocean, I like to hang back and watch the conditions for 15-20 minutes before deciding what a safe distance is. During high surf advisories, the trailhead will often be gated. Of course, many people will climb around the gates, but know that if you choose to do so you’re officially breaking the law and may be subject to fines.
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Where to Stay in Hanalei & Princeville
1 Hotel Hanalei Bay: Previously the St Regis (and the Princeville Resort before that), this property overlooking Hanalei Bay on Kauai’s north shore is undergoing extensive renovations (which it honestly needed). It’s expected to reopen by winter of 2022 as the 1 Hotel Hanalei Bay. I’m excited to see what they do with the property because it’s been in need of some help for a while. What I can tell is…the pool here boasts what I think it is the BEST view of any resort in Hawaii hands down. From your chair you can gaze across Hanalei Bay at those majestic green mountains Kauai is famous for. If this renovation turns out well, I think this is going to be one of the top places to stay anywhere in Hawaii. Pricing starts at $405/night. Book your stay at the 1 Hotel Hanalei Bay here.
Hanalei & Princeville Restaurants
Bar Acuda: This tapas restaurant in Hanalei is a favorite spot on the north shore and serves up both traditional small plates and unique combinations inspired by the island. Reservations are recommended.
Hanalei Dolphin: This low-key spot not only serves up fresh fish dishes but also has some of the island’s best sushi. This Hanalei restaurant is a favorite with visitors and locals alike.
Tahiti Nui: This iconic tiki bar is a Hanalei institution. It claims to be the oldest tiki bar in Hawaii and its mai tais are legendary. Stop by during the day for drinks (it’s always 5 ‘o’ clock in Hawaii) or grab a pizza (they’re really good).
Tiki Iniki: This tiki bar in Princeville has a fun happy hour.
Hanalei Gourmet: Hanalei Gourmet is a great local lunch and dinner spot. Fresh and tasty grub in a laid back atmosphere is the name of the game here. There’s often live music and there’s also a gourmet deli. A good place to pick up a picnic lunch if you’re headed to the beach.
Aloha Juice Bar: Stop by this little food truck/stand in Hanalei for an amazing acai bowl or smoothie.
Wake Up Café: Hanalei’s best local breakfast joint. Don’t miss the macadamia nut cinnamon rolls.
Hanalei Bread Company: This yummy coffee shop has the best homemade breads, bagels, and pastries. They also have some breakfast options and sandwiches. They open at 7 so if you’re catching a 7:30 Napali Coast boat tour out of Hanalei at 7:30, this is the perfect place to swing by for a quick morning snack.
Hanalei Taro & Juice Co: Stop by this local food truck to try taro in many forms. You can get traditional poi as well as taro smoothies, hummus, burgers, etc.
Wishing Well Shave Ice: The best spot for shave ice on the north shore.
Kilauea Fish Market: In addition to fresh fish, this small eatery offers lunch plates featuring the daily catch.
Kilauea Bakery and Pau Hana Pizza: Stop by for coffee and baked goods in the morning as well as smoothies and pizza.
Want to read more? Don’t miss some of my most popular (and favorite) posts about Kauai: my personal Kauai favorites, a breakdown of where to stay on Kauai comparing Princeville vs Poipu, my favorite restaurants in Poipu, the best places to watch sunset on Kauai, 5 day Kauai itinerary, my review of the Grand Hyatt Kauai, everything you need to know about Napali Coast boat tours leaving from Port Allen (south side) and Hanalei (north shore), my best Kauai travel tips, all about hiking the Kalalau trail (Kauai’s best hike), Maui vs Kauai, the best things to do on Kauai and more specifically in Hanalei and Poipu, whether you should see the Napali Coast via boat or helicopter, my best (and specific) condo recommendations on Kauai, everything you need to know about Kauai helicopter tours, Kauai’s best north shore beaches, where to play tennis on Kauai, how many days you should spend on Kauai (plus other FAQs), the best spas on Kauai, and my review of the Smith Family Luau.
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