All Articles 3 best areas to stay in Kauai

3 best areas to stay in Kauai

A Hawaii insider shares her best tips.

Charlene Fang
By Charlene Fang23 May 2024 7 minutes read
Aerial view of Kauai island coastline and mountains
Image: Matteo Colombo/Getty Images

When I was growing up, Kauai—the Garden Island—was where my family would head when Oahu felt too busy. It hasn’t changed much. The most pristine of all the Hawaiian islands, it is also the oldest. The island’s landscape—often a backdrop for major films like Jurassic Park and Pirates of the Caribbean—is mesmerizing. Think: deep verdant valleys, towering sea cliffs, neon rainforests, and white-sand beaches

Since it’s just 25 miles wide, you can stay almost anywhere in Kauai and get a feel for the island’s spirit. But depending on your agenda—whether it’s exploring ancient trails, kayaking down serene rivers, or soaking in the breathtaking vistas—you might want to base yourself in one of three main areas. Here’s the lowdown.

For beaches, sun-soaked luxury, and convenience: Poipu

Aerial view of oceanfront resort with pools and lush grounds
Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort & Spa
Image: Management/Tripadvisor

Kauai’s lush landscape means it’s no stranger to rainfall. Poipu on the sunny south shore is known for its reliable weather—so I like to stay here even though it can get busy. It’s also conveniently located for easy travel to other parts of the island.

Where to stay

Couples on their honeymoon love the intimate and serene Koa Kea Hotel & Resort. With pretty coral-themed ocean-facing view rooms, I like the resort’s adult vibes (no waterslides in sight). Plus, it’s walking distance to Kiahuna Beach and Poipu Beach.

For a family-friendly option, the expansive Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort and Spa has an overwhelming amount of amenities including 10 restaurants, three pools, a salt-water lagoon, a massive spa, and a kid’s club—so be warned that you might not leave the resort.

Travelers say: “This was our 13th stay at the GHK. Always a wonderful check-in experience from the lei greeting pleasant front desk staff and impressive lobby. Our room was spacious and clean with some new furniture and a new carpet. The pool area is spectacular. You can hike a very scenic hike along the coast right from Shipwreck beach and see tons of turtles in the ocean.”—@turtlegirl

Where to eat

Even if you’re not staying at Koa Kea, book a meal at the superb Red Salt, where chef Noelani Planas, a Kauai native, whips up one-of-a-kind dishes like lemon pineapple souffle pancakes. Every week, Planas hosts a five-course wine-pairing Pa’Ina Dinner with dishes like blue crab-crusted monchong (a local fish).

For a more casual (but very Hawaiian) spot, there’s the beachside Puka Dog, where there's always a line—for good reason. I love the array of Hawaiian fruit relish (coconut, banana, starfruit), and even if you think passionfruit has no place next to Polish sausage, you’ll change your mind after trying this combo.

Travelers say: “Just arrived in Poipu and wanted lunch. Saw a very long Queue for Puka Dogs. Tried it, loved it. I had polish sausage/chilli pepper sauce, mango chutney and mama’s spicy mustard. So so good. Line went down quick and the wait was worth it. Nice covered benches across the road to eat with a view of the sea.”—@Dannyk K

What to do

Poipu is all about starting and ending your day at the beach. Plan different activities at each local spot—snorkeling at Poipu Beach, spotting Hawaiian monk seals at Kiahuna Beach, relaxing in the shallow waters of Baby Beach, and boogie boarding at Brennecke’s Beach.

For golfers, teeing off at Poipu Bay Golf Course is a treat. You'll want to play the whole 18 holes of this PGA course if only for the ocean views from holes 15 and 16.

For a different kind of sunset activity, explore the Allerton Garden, which might look familiar: It was a major filming location in Jurassic Park. Be sure to sign up for a botanical tour followed by an oceanfront lanai dinner.

More to do in Poipu

For lush landscapes and epic hikes: Hanalei

Aerial view of Hanalei Bay, with boats docked in the bay
Image: DOUGBERRY/Getty Images

I like Hanalei—a laid-back pocket on the north shore—for its tropical scenery and stunning views of the Napali Coast. If beach bumming, surfing, and hiking are on your agenda, this is your spot.

Where to stay

Splurge on an ocean-view suite at 1 Hotel Hanalei Bay, where the soothing design is inspired by the surrounding nature and the rooms have spectacular views of Puu Poa Beach. Unwind further at the Bamford Wellness Spa: Hawaiian plant-based massages take place on a quartz table, while meditation pods and a cryobuild chamber provide much-needed me time.

At Hanalei Colony Resort, you can doze to the sound of crashing waves and spot sea turtles on morning beach walks. Additionally, the resort has free shuttles to/from places like Hanalei town, Napali Trail, and Ke’e Beach (where the Kalalau Trail begins), so you may not need to rent a car.

Travelers say: “My husband and I stayed at the 1 Hotel for 5 nights. This hotel is beautiful and the only luxury property in Hanalei. The service from the valets, to the front desk, to the bartenders and waiters, everyone was so helpful, nice and accommodating.”—@shrink711

Where to eat

Start your morning with a tasting box of Holey Grail’s taro donuts. Fried in coconut oil and available in wacky flavors like the Rick Martinez (raspberry, dragonfruit, and coconut tres leches), one has never been enough for me.

For lunch, Fresh Bite Kauai’s Buddha Bowl (think lashings of fresh veggies with macadamia nuts dressed in a mac nut satay dressing) and Chipotle Cheese Fries hit the right note. D

Don't miss dinner at Bar Acuda, where a Pierce Bronson sighting—he lives nearby—might come with your spread of Hawaiian-inspired tapas. I love the zingy fresh Cucumber Salad with crispy garbanzo beans and ancho chili-marinated filet mignon.

Travelers say: “We stayed in the South Shore and got used to paying five star prices for three star food. But Bar Acuda was worth every penny. Their chef is clearly incredibly talented and inventive. We got mahi mahi, scallops, papas Rojas, the cucumber salad, and the honeycomb goat cheese and everything was wonderful. I’m not sure I’ve ever had such a perfectly cooked piece of fish.”—@Anne U

What to do

When in Kauai, you must take a cruise with Napali Coast Tours to take in the beauty of these majestic sea cliffs. The crew will regale you with stories as they deftly navigate in and out of the sea caves. If the summer waves are favorable and a northern swell is predicted, surf the Pine Trees break at Waioli Beach Park. Otherwise, sit back and watch the local waterman step into liquid.

Prefer a less advanced activity? Paddleboard or kayak down the Hanalei River, with the option to head upstream for jungle views or downstream toward Hanalei Beach.

For amazing views, brave the Okolehao Trail, a short but steep hike amid Hawaiian Ti, wild orchids, and ferns that rewards you with a stunning overlook of Hanalei Bay, Kilauea Lighthouse, and the Napali Coast. There’s also the 11-mile Kalalau Trail, which has jaw-dropping views of the Napali Coast (but permits are required).

On Saturday, stroll through Hanalei Farmers Market sipping a cold sugarcane juice, and pick up trinkets to take home. Stop by the picnic area at the back and you might catch sight of a rainbow bridging the mountain range.

More to do in Hanalei

For local culture and nature adventures: Kapaa

Aerial view of oceanfront resort with outdoor pool surrounded by red umbrellas at sunrise
Sheraton Kauai Coconut Beach Resort
Image: Management/Tripadvisor

Centrally located on Kauai’s windward side, the old plantation town of Kapaa is framed by the Sleeping Giant and has a relaxed, friendly vibe. Its location is ideal for travelers who are into outdoor adventures.

Where to stay

Oceanfront and just a 15-minute drive from Lihue Airport, the Sheraton Kauai Coconut Beach Resort is the place for short stays. The property has newly redesigned rooms, plus all the expected amenities (restaurants, spa, a beachfront zero-edge pool) and Hawaiian-inspired experiences like lei-making and hula classes.

For a more low-key ambiance, book a room at the retro-inspired Kauai Shores Hotel, where there’s direct beach access, complimentary bicycles, and proximity to local favorite Lava Lava Beach Club.

Travelers say: “We had an amazing experience at Lava Lava!! Kay was our waitress! Great service, great energy and sense of humor. Our dinner was delicious!!!! Fish of the day , planned by the chef based on the days catch of Opaka! So many elements to his dish!! Red pepper parmesan grits, artichoke purée, Mediterranean relish and balsamic glaze!!! I had the pineapple fried rice! We will be back!!!!”—@Dragonfly8484

Where to eat

Don’t make my mistake and limit Java Kai to just a breakfast; it serves 100% Kona coffee alongside a full menu, featuring items like a BBQ taro burger and a fat Kalua pork burrito.

For lunch, hunt down The Musubi Truck for “da bomb” musubis. The OG Spam musubi is a favorite; a close second is the chicken katsu musubi.

My top dinner splurge is Hukilau Lanai, which uses island-sourced ingredients in dishes such as sweet Kauai clams in a white wine broth or the Hukilau Mixed Grill, featuring a trio of locally caught fish—each seasoned with cult Hawaiian flavors.

The perfect sweet treat? Wailua Shave Ice. My favorite flavor is Da Mango One, loaded with bouncy mochi bits—though you might prefer triple coconut or ube.

Travelers say: “We always search for the best restaurants any new place we go and [Hukilau Lanai] came up. I was worried about the menu because it was smaller than some but that’s because they have perfected everything on that menu. We ate here 3 nights in a row!!! It was that good. ”—@Kandyceelise

What to do

Kapa’a beaches may not be the most swimmable, but the two tide pools at Lydgate Beach Park are safe for the little ones to swim with fish in a protected lagoon. The not-so-secret waterfall, Uluwehi Falls (Secret Falls) is accessible only by water, but that’s always a good reason to do a kayak tour down the Wailua River. How about tubing down the historic Lihue Plantation ditch and tunnel system? Book this unusual (but very scenic) excursion with Mountain Tubing Adventure. For a low-key day activity, I like to bike the scenic Kapaa Town Coastal Path (Ke Ala Hele Makalae) for the ocean views and whale spotting during the season. Additionally, the Kapaa Art Walk, on the first Saturday of each month, is an excellent opportunity to explore the main drag of Kapaa old town.

More to do in Kapaa

Charlene Fang
Charlene Fang is a US-based travel, food, and lifestyle writer. A former CNN and Time Out city editor, her work has appeared in publications such as AFAR, Fodor’s, Condé Nast Traveler, Forbes Travel Guide, T+L Asia, and Louis Vuitton Guides. Some of her most memorable trips include doing the Rim to Rim hike in a day, eating burek and cevapi in Belgrade, snorkeling in the presence of playful Hawaiian monk seals, and basking on sun-drenched beaches everywhere from Tamarindo to Crete, Seychelles, and Sicily. Read her work at www.charlenefang.co.