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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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.
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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