Kauai is divided into de facto districts based on compass points. Each area has its own heritage and is as unique as it is fiercely proud. There are four “hoods”: The Westside, South Shore, Eastside, and North Shore. Due to the consistent pattern of tradewinds dropping rain on the north and eastern sides of the islands, each district has its own climate for which it is known, as well as weather-carved geology and a set of corresponding natural attractions. We strongly recommend that you take the time to explore each side and sample their respective versions of island life. If time is too limited consider the salient features of each before picking one.
The Eastside is Kauai’s population and business center, where you will find yourself amongst many of the locals in hotel lobby bars and beachside restaurants. The County seat is in Lihu’e, which is not much more than a main street and a few generic shopping malls (one notable exception, however, is the Kauai Museum, a worthwhile stop where you can pick up a non-touristy, handcrafted shell lei). While there are plenty of non-rookie-friendly surf spots on-island, the Eastside offers the best chance for drama-free swells. Newbie beaches abound, such as Kalapaki Bay, which is an ideal spot for surf lessons and an apres-surf cocktail. The Eastside is also home to the best snorkel lagoon, found at Lydgate Beach. Beaches such as Wailua and Kealia are best skipped because of their dangerous rip tides. Kealia is, however, a great place to rent a bicycle for a coastal ride.
The South Shore
Easily the most-densely populated by visitors, the South Shore lays claim to most of the high-end hotels and restaurants on the island. The climate isn’t quite as hot as the Westside, but is second in terms of sunshine and has a far more lush landscape. Rife with rocky cliffs, azure waters and white sand beaches, the South shore is Kauai’s resort center. Po’ipu is the hub of the South Shore, where the flagship hotel Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort and Spa resides. While the cost for a night’s stay is around $400, the hotel is worth at least a stroll on the grounds if you can’t afford it. To be honest, South Shore is quite vanilla, don't expect to find much in terms of Kauai culture here, but that's not to say that the generically upscale, visitor-friendly scene isn't enjoyable because it is. The exception to this is the dunes of Maha’ulepu, a long stretch of beach alongside jagged rocks and crashing waves. Po’ipu Beach Park offers some of the safest snorkeling on an island notorious for rogue waves and a literally killer rip tide. Unfortunately, it’s also among the most crowded.
With the most pristine beaches the island has to offer, the North Shore can legitimately claim to be the most picturesque side of Kauai. It’s no wonder this is where most of the transplants from elsewhere have moved. Much seems to be pure hippie-dom, complete with surfers in their 60s and 70s ripping the waves as well as the younger “grommets” do. Towns like Hanalei make the North Shore the utopian enclave what it is today. The seemingly-perfect crescent shape of Hanalei Bay explains the allure, as does its thousand-foot Wai’oli waterfall from Mt. Na Molokama that functions as its scenic backdrop. Kitesurfing and snorkeling abound on the unspoiled ,Anini Beach. The further north you go, (which eventually becomes west as you begin to circle the island), the more striking the scenery becomes as the mountains and sea squeeze closer together until they meet at Ke’e Beach at end of the road, the north onset of the cliffs of the Na Pali Coast.
The island’s most rural district, the Westside, proudly lives the life of a bygone era. Until 2008, the family-run Gay and Robinson sugar plantation was still in operation on land purchased from Victoria Kamamalu, an heir of Kamehameha. Spanish and Portuguese influences have infused the Westside with “paniolo,” or cowboy characteristics, including main streets fronted by buildings with flat, western-style facades. Tumbleweed doesn’t roll in the streets, but red dust from the canyon does. The Westside is dry, and notoriously hot. So red is the earth here that local salt panning, an ancient tradition, produces red salt, one of the most savory forms of salt found on the planet. Westside gems are towns Waimea and Hanapepe, the latter of which is best known for its Art Night every Friday. Drive further west for the best of the best in terms of scenery, heading up Koke’e and Waimea Canyon state parks.