kauai guide: the north shore
Where do you go when you need a relaxing vacation, without having to deal with passports (if you live in the U.S.), traipsing miles and miles around a new city, trying to see everything while FOMO nips at your heals??? Hawaii of course! All of the Hawaiian islands are unique in their own way, but my favorite is the north shore of Kauai. It's lush with countless cascading waterfalls and is home to the Na'Pali Coast, Kauai's mysterious and dramatic coastline. Here are my favorite places and tips for planning your visit.
You have to rent a car in Kauai, there's just no way around it. With that said, one of my favorite activities happens to be just driving around, exploring different beaches and singing along to some tunes. If you can swing it, be cliche and get a convertible (just not a red one). It allows you to enjoy the inevitable driving while breathing in the warm, sweet, thick air of the island.
//Where to Stay//
To me it's a priority to find a place with a well-equipped kitchen. I love shopping for local produce at the farmers' markets on the north shore—there are about four markets/week. However, if cooking just isn't your thing while vacationing, book a hotel or opt for dining out. There aren’t many hotels on the north shore, but there are enough options to find a place that suits your needs.
Hanalei Colony Resort is north of Hanalei Bay. The units are clean and the kitchens are well-stocked. All the units are close to the water and many have ocean views. The grounds are beautiful and well kept. There are several grills on the property as well as a pool and hot tub (last time I was there they were doing maintenance on the pool area, so be sure to check). This location is very remote and a bit far if you want to get to the other side of the island or anywhere else for that matter…but it's close to the best beaches: Ke'e and Tunnels. There is also a beach in front of the property where you'll most likely be the only people there!
The St. Regis in Princeville is the nicest hotel on the island, and I'm sure the most expensive. It's located on a bluff in Princeville and has one of the most spectacular views overlooking Hanalei Bay and Bali Hai. Stay here if you want to sit in the lap of luxury and spend some beaucoup dollars. The rooms do not have kitchens so you'll have to dine out or order room service.
Westin Princeville Resort Villas are close to the St. Regis but don't have quite the same view…although the ocean views are also beautiful and far less expensive. The units have large, full kitchens and the rooms are updated and luxurious. It's also close to the Princeville Shopping Center where you can get everything you need. If you plan on cooking, opt to stay here over the St. Regis. They also have plenty of grills available for guest use. Both the Westin and St. Regis are close to one of my favorite beaches, Hideaways. The Westin also has a complimentary shuttle that will drop you off in lieu of parking (which can be difficult at Hideaways).
Hideaways is a small beach near the St. Regis. It's a bit of a hike down, so make sure you where shoes, not sandals. The beach is absolutely beautiful and can have great snorkeling if the water is calm. Parking is limited, but if you wait it out you can usually snag a spot in the small parking lot (I have never waited longer than 15 minutes so just be patient). Alternatively, there is complimentary parking at the St. Regis (however it’s customary to tip), or, if you're staying at the Westin their shuttle bus can drop you off.
Tunnels is one of my favorite beaches to go for the day. It has beautiful views of "Bali Hai” and the beginning of the Na’Pali Coast. The water is calm and there's great snorkeling—hello turtles and monk seals! Depending on the season, the water can be rough on the north shore and it can get windy, but somehow this beach is always protected.
Ke’e—I love this beach so much. Come here with some wine and cheese and watch the sunset over the Na’ Pali Coast. When you get to the beach, walk right about 20 or so yards, and you’ll get a great view of the Na’ Pali Coast. It’s also less crowded the further down you go. During the day, it’s fun to snorkel and swim here if the water is calm. Good beach for kids.
Anini Beach is located near Kilauea. It's a long, two mile beach stretch with calm water, although it can get windy. It's a great beach if you are visiting Kilauea or if the waters are rough at the other beaches on the north shore. Also a good place to snorkel.
//What to Do//
When I go to Kauai, I like to relax and not do much of anything. My excursions tend to be hanging out at the beach, swimming and watching the sunset with the occasional snorkeling. The scenery in Kauai is enough, all you have to do it kick back and enjoy. But, there are plenty of adventures to go on for you active folk. I recommend this guide for more on excursions.
Watch the sunset—it’s corny but you have to make it a ritual to watch it each night. It's always different and equally breathtaking. Ke’e is my favorite place to watch the sunset. Bring some beach chairs and a picnic. As mentioned before, be sure to walk about 20 yards to the right once you get to Ke'e, so you can see the Na'Pali Coast. The sunset at the St. Regis is also beautiful, just with a different vibe. Grab a seat, a glass of wine and watch the sunset over Hanalei Bay. They have a champagne sunset ritual daily, where they sing a Hawaiian song and share some history, it’s quite nice. Or, you can watch the sunset from their beach even if you are not staying at the hotel. Otherwise, find a park bench at the Kenomene Ocean Sunset Outlook in Princeville, just before the St. Regis—don’t forget your wine and snacks!
Helicopter ride—a helicopter ride is the best way to see Waimeai Canyon (the Grand Canyon of Kauai) without having to drive to the south shore. Although it's pricey, it is one of the most spectacular views you will ever see. We did a doors off helicopter ride that both terrified and amazed me. I recommend Jack Harter.
Na’ Pali Coast—this is an absolute must for your first time in Kauai. The only way to see the Na’Pali coast is to fly over it or take a boat ride. I recommend both, but if you forgo the former then a boat or catamaran ride is a great option. My favorite is Na'Pali Catamaran in Hanalei, it’s in the same lot as Big Save. Another bonus is dolphin sightings, which has occurred both times I've toured with this company.
Hiking—I'm not a big hiker but on one of my next trips to Kauai I hope to muster up the energy to hike along the Na'Pali Coast. There are many other hiking options and I suggest checking out this book for more information on that.
Waimea Canyon—if you don’t take a helicopter ride, then you should definitely make the trip out to Waimea Canyon via car.
//Food & Drinks//
As mentioned before, I prefer to cook breakfast and dinner, but tend to eat a casual lunch out. The few times I've gone out to dinner in Kauai, I was pretty disappointed by the food and exorbitant prices. But, if you don't feel like cooking, there are some decent options—and in which case, I would embrace the local restaurants to avoid paying for overpriced, mediocre food.
Kapa'a is an adorable little area on the way to/from the airport. Stop here for a bite when you land or on your way back to the airport. My favorite lunch spots are below...
Mermaid's Cafe—Fresh fare; lot’s of gluten-free and vegan options. their hours are not always consistent which is pretty typical in Kauai.
Kauai Juice has fresh juice and other little snacking options.
Java Kai has decent coffee—I don’t think the coffee in Kauai is all that good in general. They have good salads and sandwiches as well (vegan/GF options).
Kilauea is a cute little community before you get to Hanalei. A lot of locals live here and there are a few good spots for lunch.
Sushi Girl—this is one of my favorite daily lunch spots after being on the beach for a couple hours and needing some food. They have great sushi and some vegan options as well. Everything is or can be made gluten-free.
Kauai Juice (second location) has fresh juice and other little snacking options.
Trilogy coffee Kauai probably has the best coffee on the island, meaning it's pretty decent but not great.
Hanalei is a picturesque town on the north shore, just past Princeville. It's set against a back drop of the dramatic mountains of Kauai, laden with tall waterfalls. Hanalei has many dining options .
Dolphin—don’t go here for dinner or into the restaurant at all really, just order a couple sushi rolls and some poke at the market around the back for lunch. Eat your food at the picnic tables next to the river. Last time I was in Hanalei they were closed for remodeling after the floods. But they should reopen soon.
Postcards is my favorite restaurant to go out to dinner. It's romantic, local and reasonable considering Kauai prices. There is something for every one here.
Bar Acuda is highly rated and the most trendy place, but I'm always disappointed by the food. The wine list is the best part. It’s worth it to go there for dinner if you aren't planning to cook. Be sure to make reservations in advance.
Hanalei Bread Company is the best place for morning libations. For breakfast, it's very casual—order at the counter, sit outside and enjoy the view. They also have delicious, freshly baked, gluten-free bread. I always buy a loaf and make it for breakfast in the morning.
Tahiti Nui is a locals joint in Hanalei. They have bar food and drinks. It’s the latest place open in town. They also have a little wine bar around the back.
Ama has ramen and noodle dishes. It’s located right behind Bar Acuda. It tends to be hit or miss, but you can eat outside at the bar overlooking the mountains and it’s beautiful.
Princeville is located on the bluff just before you go down into Hanalei. Not much here in terms of dining options, but here are a few of my favorites:
Tiki Niki is owned by Todd Rundgren and his wife Michele. It's a locals spot and a fun place to get a Hawaiian-themed drink.
Princeville Wine Market has the best selection of wine on the north shore. Located in the Princeville Shopping Center.
Kauai Farmers' Markets have the best local produce and it's the most cost effective way to eat on the island. Going to the farmers' markets is one of my favorite past times. Even if you don't have a kitchen, they have great fruit and other options for snaking. There's a market just about every other day on the north shore. Check for times and locations here.
Foodland is the best option in terms of grocery stores on the north shore.
Harvest Market is a small health food store located in Hanalei. They have fresh ground nut-butters and other specialty items. It's a bit overpriced but you can find lots of vegan/GF options.
Healthy Hut is another small health food store located in Kilauea.