Kauai is the island most Hawaiian dreams are made of. Lush, green mountains, tropical hideaways, gorgeous beaches, epic hiking. While there’s nowhere in Hawaii that feels truly undiscovered anymore, Kauai does have a pure feeling that many prefer over Oahu and Maui.
But if you’re very far into the planning process, you’ve probably realized that picking the right place to stay on the island is just as important as choosing the right island. And that usually comes down to choosing between Princeville on the north shore and Poipu on the south side.
This post may contain some affiliate links, which means I’ll make a little money on anything you choose to purchase. But of course, I only recommend my absolute favorites to you. Thank you for supporting the brands that make the Lincoln Travel Co possible.
Where to Stay on Kauai
You’ll fly into Lihue (LIH) which is the most sizable city (city might be a bit of a stretch but it’s where the Costco and Target are) and while there are quite a few places to stay along the east coast (sometimes called the Coconut Coast), most people end up gravitating towards the north shore or the south side.
Both areas are great, but depending on what you’re looking for and what’s most important to you (budget, convenience, stellar views, beautiful beaches, luxury resorts, etc.) one area of the island may be more desirable than the other.
Let’s be clear…yes, this is a this vs that post and I’ve got opinions for you, BUT if your biggest problem is trying to decide between Princeville and Poipu, you’re already a winner.
In this post, you can expect two things: 1) the rundown on each part of the island (mostly between the north shore and the south side) so you’ll be able to figure out the general area where you want to stay, and 2) specific recommendations on my favorite hotels and resorts in those areas.
So here’s how it’s going to work…I am not going to recommend every single resort on Kauai to you. It’s just not helpful.
There are a lot of amazing places to stay and your budget and other factors may make some places more attractive to you. So if you’ve been checking out a certain place and I don’t recommend it here, it’s not necessarily a bad place to stay. I’m just really picky about where I like to stay and what I recommend.
Final Note (and a big favor to ask): If you find my blog and info AT ALL helpful, the absolute best thing you can do to help me out is to click through the links in this post to book your hotels. I make a small commission on your bookings and if you’re going to book a hotel anyways, it’s a WIN WIN. Thanks so much!
Okay, onto the good stuff…
North Shore of Kauai (Princeville & Hanalei)
In my opinion, the north shore of Kauai (Princeville & Hanalei) is the most gorgeous place on the planet. It has beautiful beaches and the lush green mountainous landscapes that most people’s Hawaiian dreams are made of. It’s one of the more remote (but still accessible) parts of Kauai and generally not as developed as the south and east sides.
Also, as you might guess, it’s so lush because it rains more here than other parts of the island (especially in the winter). It’s not uncommon for it to rain for at least parts of every day.
The north shore is home to the charming little surf town of Hanalei and the resort area of Princeville which has a couple of resorts and a TON of condos. Hanalei is picture perfect and it’s on an amazing bay with a great family friendly beach. If you’re looking for a vacation rental nearby a very local feeling town, Hanalei is the area you want.
Princeville has a resort feel. It’s very manicured and landscaped and has all the amenities (tennis, golf, etc.). There aren’t a ton of beaches right in Princeville (some require a tricky little hike to get to) but a lot of condos have great ocean views. There are only a couple of resorts in the area and there’s also a shopping center with a smattering of restaurants. While Princeville is considered a Kauai’s “luxury” area, in my opinion it’s not on par with Wailea in Maui or other high end resort areas on the other islands. It’s pretty dated, but you can’t beat those views.
While it’s stunningly gorgeous, it’s also a bit remote if you’re planning on exploring sites on the south and west sides of the island.
Read my complete guide to Kauai’s north shore here.
Side Note: If you’re looking for a rental car for your trip, I LOVE Discount Hawaii Car Rentals. They’re seriously the only company I ever use. They’ll give you the very best prices, you don’t have to reserve with a credit card or pay until you show up, you can cancel and re-book anytime if you find a better rate, and they usually have a special that adds additional drivers for no fee. It’s a no brainer. Click here to check rates for your trip.
South Shore of Kauai (Poipu)
Kauai’s south side (Poipu) is the driest and sunniest part of the island, which makes it very popular with tourists. Nobody wants to go to Hawaii and sit around in the rain all day! Think: golden beaches, sunny weather, and swaying palm trees but all relatively flat. You won’t find the lush green mountains from the north shore down here, although the drive from Lihue (the airport) to Poipu is still pretty stunning.
Poipu is where you’ll find the highest concentration of resorts and hotels in a tourist-like development. There are plenty of big resorts and condo complexes both on the beach and off the beach plus a couple of shopping centers and restaurants of all types. This area most closely resembles Ka’anapali on Maui, but it’s not quite as centralized or walkable.
In terms of location, in addition to it being perfect vacation weather year round, it’s pretty conveniently located for exploring the island. There’s a lot to do on the south side and it’s the best place to stay if you’re wanting to venture over to the west side (Waimea Canyon, Polihale Beach, Hanapepe town) which is pretty remote. It’s also pretty close to Lihue and Kapa’a on the east side. The only thing it’s not terribly close to is the north shore. But then nothing is that close to the north shore.
Princeville vs Poipu
So I’ve already described the two areas and you’ve probably gotten an idea of which side is the best for you, but if you’re still on the fence, I’ll give you some more nuances to think about.
1000% honesty here…Kauai is the island I struggle the most with where to stay. For me, the place I stay can really make or break the trip and there’s not one place that I think is a perfect place to stay on this island (the three other islands I have pretty extensive lists of places I like to stay-or are on my bucket list-for different reasons).
BUT after my latest trip to Kauai, I think I have a little more clarity on what the ideal spots are on the island (for me at least).
If we’re talking Princeville vs Poipu, the north shore is 100% the most beautiful part of Kauai and in my opinion what you go to Kauai for. Buuuuut it can rain a lot (especially in the winter) and there’s not a ton of places to stay up there.
If you’re going during the summer (April through October), you have to seriously consider staying on the north shore around Princeville. If you’re going during the winter, I’d more heavily weigh your options based on if it’s a once in a lifetime trip, if you travel often, how flexible you are, etc.
There’s something magical about the Princeville Resort. I stayed there previously when it was the St. Regis and even though it was looking a little tired, it’s such an unbelievable setting. The property has recently transferred ownership to 1 Hotels and it’s undergone an EXTENSIVE renovation and is expected to open Fall 2022. And I have HIGH HOPES that when it opens the 1 Hotel Hanalei Bay will be my overwhelmingly favorite place to stay in Kauai. It has all the bones and I think they’re going to get it right and be what Kauai really needs (a true luxury property in a knockout setting).
Also if you’re staying in Princeville you need to have the right expectations. Princeville is an older resort area and it’s not really on par with other high end resort areas around Hawaii (even Poipu really). Princeville is mostly cliffside so unless you’re staying at the Princeville Resort/1 Hotel Hanalei Bay, there’s not much beach access. At least access that doesn’t require a hike to get to.
And restaurant options are a little more limited (and laid back) on the north shore. In my opinion, the best restaurants on Kauai are predominantly on the south side. Options on the north shore are definitely more local, dive-ish feeling than high end. Still very good, but it just depends what you’re looking for.
Besides the 1 Hotel Hanalei Bay, I would also consider staying at the Hanalei Bay Resort which is next door and offers beach access, a gorgeous property, and a tennis program.
If you’re going to Kauai during the winter (November to March), you’ve got to stay in sunny Poipu on the south side just based on weather alone. 1000% honest here again…in previous years my impression of Poipu was that it was nice but if that’s my option…I’m headed to Maui.
And yes, Maui is still my favorite island and I think in a direct comparison both Wailea and Ka’anapali/Kapalua beat out Poipu for me personally, but I’m fresh off a week spent in Poipu and I definitely view it more favorably than I used to.
It’s a really solid resort area and it just feels like vacation. The amenities are so much better than the north shore and there’s a lot more going on (although I wouldn’t say hectic or crowded).
Besides the sunny weather, there’s a higher concentration of swimmable beaches in the area (which is something Kauai really lacks overall) plus more high end beach resorts and destination type restaurants. I think it most aligns with what the majority of vacationers to Hawaii are probably looking for.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that overall Poipu is a lot nicer than Princeville (possibly unless you’re staying at the 1 Hotel Hanalei Bay) and it’s a more attractive area to set up camp for the week and just do a day trip or two to the north shore.
On Another Note: If you’re looking for a condo or vacation rental for your trip, I always book with Vrbo. They’ve got the largest selection of rentals you’ll find anywhere and you can easily filter to find exactly what you’re looking for. Need a specific number of bedrooms and bathrooms? Narrowed it down to a certain location? Want flexible cancellation terms? Need to stay under a fixed budget? Click here to search for Kauai vacation rentals for your trip.
There are a plethora of resort, hotel, and condo options in the area, but I’ve narrowed it down to my absolute favorite picks:
My Favorite Places to Stay on Kauai
1 Hotel Hanalei Bay (Formerly the St Regis & Princeville Resort)
The only beachfront resort in the Princeville area (much of Princeville is cliffside), the 1 Hotel Hanalei Bay (previously the St. Regis and the Princeville Resort before that) has been through quite a few reincarnations, but it’s always been Kauai’s premier luxury resort. The newly remodeled resort is slated to open Fall 2022 (after many delays), and I have high expectations that it’s going to be fabulous.
When I last stayed at the St Regis, it was undeniably fabulous, but looking a little worn. The planned renovations look incredible, and if they pull it off it should indeed still be Kauai’s crown jewel resort.
What I can tell you 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.
I can’t wait to stay here once it’s reopened to see if it lives up to the hype.
Check pricing and read reviews here.
This is Kauai’s “grand resort.” Maybe you guessed that by the name, but you know what I mean. It’s a sprawling, impressive mega resort that caters beautifully to most visitor’s Hawaii vacation dreams. It has everything you’d want for a great vacation and a lot of people don’t ever want to leave. We’re talking multiple pools, a slide, a lazy river, tennis courts, golf, a kids club, a sandy lagoon, cultural activities, many restaurants, every water activity you could think of, a fabulous spa, etc.
If you’re traveling with kids (or you just enjoy a large resort experience), the Grand Hyatt is pretty much the first and last stop on the list of destination resorts on Kauai.
Pros: For as big as this place is, it has a pretty good ratio of pool chairs and space per rooms. Yes, people stake out their spots early, but it was way easier to get a “good spot” here than at other resorts I’ve stayed at. The spa is probably the best on Kauai. It’s located on the edge of Poipu…easy to get everywhere you want to go, but there’s never any crowds from popular beaches, restaurants, shopping complexes passing through the resort.
Cons: The beach isn’t great (the waves are usually too big and the current too strong for swimming), but there’s a large salt water lagoon that’s built to kind of make up for it. It’s also not what I would call a true luxury resort. It’s beautiful and on a grand scale, but in general it’s more of a “serve yourself” type of place. There are also a lot of kids, so depending on your tolerance and expectations, it may not be the best for a honeymoon or adults only trip.
Check pricing and read reviews here.
Places I Plan to Stay on Future Trips
I was able to do a little scouting on my last trip to Kauai, and besides my tried and true favorites, I’ve now got a short list of places that I feel pretty certain I would enjoy staying at. I’ll be making it a point to try them out on future trips.
Ko’a Kea Hotel and Resort: I visited the Ko’a Kea for dinner at Red Salt on my last trip, and I’m making it a priority to go back and stay here. If it turns out how I think, this will be my favorite place to stay in Poipu.
This small boutique property presents an understated type of luxury (it’s not as visually impressive as the Grand Hyatt) but it’s also a lot more personal and the service is top notch-like everyone who works here is going to remember your name. If you like more small-scale, boutique properties, you’ll love this place. It’s quaint and charming, with a great location on a sandy, swimmable beach where it’s not unusual to see turtles and Hawaiian monk seals basking in the sun.
Check pricing and read reviews here.
***Want to save major $$$ on a fancy beach resort? My favorite travel hack is cashing in points to score free nights at some of the island’s most high end resorts. My go to hotel brand is Marriott so I use this Marriott Bonvoy Boundless card to rack up points for a lot of my trips to Hawaii. If you pay for your monthly expenses on the card and are responsible about paying it off every month, the points add up really fast. Plus, if you sign up through my link, you’ll get THREE bonus free nights to use. On Kauai, use your points at some of my favorite Marriott properties like the Koloa Landing Resort, Sheraton Kauai, and Westin Princeville Ocean Resort Villas.
Koloa Landing Resort at Poipu: I have status with Marriott Bonvoy, so I’m always interested in what options they have wherever I’m traveling. I think this is the best Marriott option on Kauai.
This place is divine and a real contender if you’re looking for a relaxing getaway and a place to lounge around in style. I also love that they have studios, villas, and multi bedroom accommodations. The only negative is that it’s not on the beach. It’s right across the street from the water but there’s no real beach in this area. But considering that the Grand Hyatt (the jewel of Poipu if not Kauai) isn’t on a swimmable beach maybe changes expectations a bit.
Check pricing and read reviews here.
Hanalei Bay Resort: This place has never been on my radar much until recently when I was looking for a nice resort with a decent tennis program. Well, this is the best option I found. It’s right next to the 1 Hotel Hanalei Bay and has beach access there and I suspect it’s a much more economical option while still getting that lush experience Princeville is so famous for.
Check pricing and read reviews here.
Kauai Vacation Rentals & Condos
If a resort/hotel isn’t what you’re looking for, you want more amenities, or you’re not finding anything in your price range, YOU MUST READ THIS POST. It’s a roundup of the best condo complexes on Kauai (I’ve got details on 40+ complexes) that’s well organized so you can find exactly what you’re looking for.
Still Looking for a Place to Stay?
Here’s one more really important thing you need to know before your Hawaii trip…
Reservations You Need to Make BEFORE Your Hawaii Trip
You’ve got your airfare, hotel, rental car and your big activities booked, so you should be good to go, right? Wrong!
Travel is BOOMING in Hawaii so a lot of state and national parks used the closure and reopening to institute reservation systems at some of the island’s most popular spots to make things a little more sustainable.
That means that there are now over half a dozen sites (beaches, trailheads, etc.) that require advance reservations. And some sell out well before you arrive on the island so you really need to have some sort of a plan.
I recently saw somebody in a Hawaii travel group post in a panic that they didn’t know they had to make reservations for things in advance…they thought they could just show up and “go with the flow.” I was tempted to say, well, “as long as the flow doesn’t take you somewhere that requires reservations, you can!” ; )
But I don’t want YOU to be that person, so I’ve pulled together a list of all the places you need to reserve entry in advance (plus all the details on booking windows, price, links, etc.) and a handful of popular tourist hotspots that book out really far in advance too.
Haleakala National Park (Maui)
To visit Haleakala National Park for sunrise at the summit, you must make reservations in advance here.
Reservations are required to enter the park gates between 3AM and 7AM (sunrise hours).
Online reservations are $1 per reservation/vehicle PLUS you’ll pay the park entrance fee of $30/vehicle when you arrive (National Park annual passes are also accepted at the gate).
The reservation booking window opens 60 days in advance at 7AM HST. There are also a limited number of tickets released two days before.
You can make one reservation every three days with the same account. So if you want to make reservations for back to back days (in case of weather/conditions), you’ll need to do so with separate accounts (email addresses).
If you can’t get reservations for sunrise, you can enter the park anytime after 7AM without reservations. The summit is spectacular during the day and you don’t need reservations for sunset.
I strongly recommend creating an account before and making sure you’re logged in at 7AM HST because it’s not uncommon for reservations to sell out quickly.
Waianapanapa State Park (Maui)
To visit Maui’s famous black sand beach at Waianapanapa State Park on the Road to Hana, you must make reservations in advance here.
Reservations are required to visit the beach and are distributed in windows from 7AM-10AM, 10AM-12:30PM, 12:30PM-3PM, and 3PM-6PM. And they are pretty strict about exiting by the end of your window time (you can arrive anytime within your window).
It’s $5/person to enter plus $10/vehicle to park and those fees are paid when you book your time slot.
Reservations open up 30 days in advance.
Iao Valley State Park (Maui)
To visit the lush, green mountains and hike at Iao Valley State Park, you must make reservations in advance here.
Reservations are offered for 90 minute time slots beginning at 7AM and ending at 6PM. They ask that you arrive within the first 30 minutes of your time slot.
Entry is $5/person plus $10/vehicle to park.
Reservations open up 30 days in advance.
Diamond Head (Oahu)
To hike to the top of Waikiki’s famous Diamond Head, you must make reservations in advance here.
Reservations are offered in two hour increments beginning at 6AM (6AM-8AM, 8AM-10AM, etc.) and ending at 6PM. If you’re parking onsite, they ask that you arrive within the first 30 minutes of your reservation window.
Entry is $5/person plus $10/vehicle to park.
Reservations open up 30 days in advance.
Tip: I recommend booking one of the first two time slots because there isn’t much shade on this hike and it gets pretty hot.
Hanauma Bay (Oahu)
To snorkel at Oahu’s pristine Hanauma Bay, you must make reservations in advance here.
Entry times are staggered in 10 minute increments from 7AM to 1:20PM with roughly 1000 slots being assigned in advance every day.
Reservations can be made two days in advance and they open at 7AM HST. They’re usually gone in minutes (if not seconds).
If you’re unable to get an advanced reservation, you can try for a day of, walk in ticket. They open at 6:45AM and they only have a limited number available. Everyone in your group needs to be present when you purchase your tickets in person.
There are no reservations for parking and it’s first come, first serve. $3/vehicle.
It’s $25/person to snorkel at Hanauma Bay (12 and under, active military, and locals with HI ID are free).
The Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve is open Wednesday through Sunday (CLOSED MONDAY AND TUESDAY) from 6:45AM-4PM. Last entry is at 1:30PM, the beach is cleared at 3:15PM and you have to leave the facility by 4PM.
Jellyfish patterns can also affect whether or not the bay is open so double check the day before/day of.
USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor (Oahu)
If you want to take the boat tour at Pearl Harbor out to the USS Arizona, it’s recommended to make advance reservations here.
Online reservations are guaranteed a specific boarding time to go out to the USS Arizona. If you’re unable to get an advance reservation, you can wait standby when you arrive. The line could be short (15 minutes or so) or long (hours) and it just depends on the day (if they’re having problems with the loading dock sometimes they don’t take many from the standby line) and the time of day.
Reservations are supposed to open up 60 days in advance, but keep an eye on your exact dates, because lately they’ve actually been opening up about 57ish days in advance???
They also release a small batch of tickets the day before.
The boat ride out to the USS Arizona is free, but it’s $1 to make the reservations online.
They recently started charging $7/vehicle for parking at Pearl Harbor.
Haena State Park / Kalalau Trail (Kauai)
If you want to hike Kauai’s famous Kalalau Trail, you must make advance reservations here.
You’ve got three options here:
1) Parking & Entry: This is the most flexible option and also the most limited. THESE RESERVATIONS SELL OUT IN LESS THAN A MINUTE. There are three time slots available: 6:30AM-12:30PM, 12:30PM-5:30PM and 4:30PM to sunset. You can purchase multiple time slots if you want to stay longer. It’s $10/timeslot (parking) plus $5/person and you have to reserve every person when you initially book. Everybody has to arrive in the same car and your ID needs to match the reservation.
2) Shuttle & Entry: If you can’t get parking at the trailhead, there’s also a shuttle option. Shuttle reservations are $35/person (16+), $25/person (ages 4-15), 3 and under can ride free. The shuttle runs every 20 minutes 6:20AM to 6:40PM.
3) Entry Only: If you’re a Hawaiian resident (with HI ID) or someone WITH a Hawaiian resident, you can purchase entry only for $5/person with no advance reservations. Also, if you’re walking or biking to the trailhead you can do this option. But there is NOWHERE to park in the area to walk in. So this really only works for those with bikes or who are staying close enough to walk. They will tow your car if you park outside the designated areas.
The reservation window opens 30 days in advance at 12AM HST. The parking & entry option usually sells out in a minute, but the shuttle availability will last longer.
There are a TON of FAQs here including the possibility of snagging a canceled reservation.
Other Things to Book in Advance
Hawaii is a busy place these days! Besides the state and national parks above, here’s a handful of miscellaneous things you should make reservations for in advance (if they’re on your radar):
Mama’s Fish House (Maui): The iconic spot is the most popular restaurant in Hawaii and they’ve been opening reservations (and selling out) 4-6 months in advance. You can call and get on the waitlist for one day or you can set notifications on OpenTable to alert you for cancellations every day of your trip. Most people have pretty good success on OpenTable.
Old Lahaina Luau (Maui): Honestly, any luau you’re planning to attend you should book early, but most people are usually shocked how far out the Old Lahaina Luau books out. Book it as soon as you know your dates (I think they open at the six month window). They also have a waitlist.
Kualoa Ranch UTV Tour (Oahu): Everybody loves Jurassic Park so getting to ride UTVs where they filmed the movies is very popular. The ranch offers a lot of different tours but the UTV tours usually book out a couple of months in advance.
Spa Reservations: If you’re staying at a resort with a spa (or planning on visiting one), don’t wait until you arrive to make your reservations. I’d make them at least a month in advance.
Tee Times: Same for golf, reserve your tee times well in advance.
Dining Reservations: Any “fancy” or resort restaurant is likely to be booked up these days so if you like having a nice dinner every night, make your plans in advance.
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.
P.S. Thanks for sticking around and reading this whole post! If you have ANY questions about planning your trip to Hawaii, you can join my free Facebook group here. I’m there answering questions every day and there are 7500+ other friends who have a ton of Hawaii information to share!
Also, if you want to follow along on my travel adventures in real time, you can follow me on Instagram (@caitylincoln). My post captions are full of travel tips and I have a ton of story highlights and videos with great info. And please share my account with your friends that are headed to Hawaii! Your support really helps me keep this blog running!