If there’s one question I get asked more often than any other, it’s definitely “which Hawaiian Island is best?” I’ve done a pretty extensive blog post on that topic here, but I still get a lot of variations on this question. After reading up on the different Hawaiian Islands, most people can pretty quickly narrow it down to two choices. That’s when I start getting the “this island vs. that island” questions.
Say you’re going to Hawaii for a week and you want a laid back vacation without a lot of hustle and bustle. It’s easy enough to cross Oahu off the list. And after doing a bit of research, maybe the sheer size of the Big Island overwhelms you. So that leaves you with Maui vs Kauai. So you start asking around. Guess what? All the people who have been to Maui loved it. And all the people who have been to Kauai will say it’s definitely the best. The people who have been to both will either suggest splitting your trip between the two because who could possibly choose, or they’ll have a definite favorite. Bless those people who can make a decisive recommendation!
Maui vs Kauai
Now I’ll tell you what I think ; ) There’s no “best” island. People’s “favorite” or “best” islands depend largely on their personality types and what kind of a vibe they like on vacation. Now unless you match that person 100%, your opinions are likely to differ.
So I’m not just going to tell you which I think is best, because that’s not really going to help YOU decide. I’m going to do my best to break down the pros and cons of each island so you can decide for yourself which will be best. I will let you know my personal favorite at the end though.
What You’ll Find on Both Islands
Pick either island and I guarantee you’ll have the Hawaiian vacation of your dreams. Laid back atmosphere, gorgeous vistas, stunning beaches lined with swaying palms, every water activity you can think of, posh beach resorts, mai tais a plenty.
Whatever your idea of the “dream Hawaiian vacation” is…both of these islands fit that bill. All of the Hawaiian Islands do actually. The difference between the two is more nuanced.
Let’s start with Kauai.
If I was forced to name the most beautiful Hawaiian Island, I would probably say Kauai. Most of the island (but especially the north shore) is made up of those jagged, green peaks that movies like Jurassic Park have made so famous. It is lush, it is tropical, and it is stunning. However, I have to admit that 75% of the most spectacular sites I’ve seen on Kauai either involved a helicopter tour, a boat tour, or an extensive hike. So while it might be the most beautiful, most of that beauty isn’t easily accessible.
The Napali Coast is by far what makes Kauai the most beautiful island, but like I mentioned above, it’s so remote that you’ll only see it via helicopter, boat, or strenuous hike. Actually, I would say the Napali Coast is trumped in beauty by Wai’ale’ale Crater (the birthplace of Kauai), but since you’ll only see it for a couple of minutes on a helicopter tour (and because of weather conditions only a small percentage of helicopter flights are actually able to enter into the crater), it’s not a major factor for most visitors.
The other major natural site on Kauai is Waimea Canyon, often called the Grand Canyon of the Pacific. It is truly unique, and it’s easily seen by car or via hiking if you’re more adventurous. However, once again, it’s most impressive when seen from a helicopter.
The north shore of Kauai is its true gem. It’s so lush, green, and gorgeous, however it’s that way because of all the rain. It is a rainforest after all. I cannot emphasize how much it rains on the north shore of Kauai, especially during the winter months.
Overall, Kauai does lush and tropical very well, but now on to Maui.
Maui wins easily for the most diverse island. It has lush and tropical, curated resort areas, rainforests, valleys, rolling ranchland, local towns, and an arid volcano summit. While Kauai excels in the green, jagged peaks department, Maui has it all.
Maui’s two most notable natural features are the Road to Hana which is a gorgeous winding road through the junglish side of Maui featuring countless waterfalls and colorful sandy beaches, and Haleakala, the 10,000 foot summit of Maui’s dormant volcano.
Watching sunrise or sunset at the summit of Haleakala is a completely unique experience. You’ll feel more like you’re on Mars than earth due to the terrain. And driving the road to Hana is one of the best adventure day trips in Hawaii. Along this route is where you’ll find the famous black and red sand beaches. Here’s something to note: both of these drives (while not dangerous) feature a LOT of winding roads so if you’re seriously prone to motion/carsickness that may have just knocked those out for you.
Maui’s upcountry is also one of its more unique areas. Most visitors won’t make it to the upcountry unless they’re just passing through to Haleakala. You’ll feel more like you’re in the high meadows of Colorado or the hill country of Texas than an island in the middle of the Pacific (except of course you can look out and see the ocean ; ) Maui also has the Iao Valley, which is its answer to Kauai’s lush north shore and it’s beautiful although not as epic or wide sweeping as the north shore of Kauai.
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Beaches & Snorkeling
The last major thing to note about Maui’s natural beauty are its beaches. To put it simply, overall, they’re the best in Hawaii. More than any other island, Maui has a large amount of beautiful, accessible beaches with nice amenities (parking, showers, restrooms, etc.) that have good conditions for swimming and snorkeling. For as many beautiful beaches as Kauai has, surprisingly few of them are safe for swimming. Beaches (and sites in general) are also not super well marked on Kauai as compared to Maui. I’ve found the Kauai Revealed guidebook to be a necessity for finding even some of the island’s most popular beaches and parking is rarely straightforward if there’s more than a couple of spots. This could be a pro or a con depending on your adventurous spirit and how you like to vacation.
But generally speaking, Maui wins hands down in the beach department. Maui also has far better snorkeling. While it has its famous spots like Molokini and Turtle Town that will require a boat tour to experience, there is a lot of really good snorkeling on Maui that’s right off the beach. Kauai is much more limited. If you’re just an average snorkeling fan and you might go out once and be fine if you see a fish or two, you’ll be perfectly happy with some of Kauai’s better spots, but if snorkeling is a big priority for you, Maui definitely has the edge.
If you’re an avid hiker, Kauai is probably the better island for you. Don’t get me wrong…Maui has some incredible hikes (don’t miss the Pipiwai Trail and the Waihee Ridge), but if you want a hike for every day of your two week vacation, you’ll be happier on Kauai.
If you’re just planning for one or two decent hikes, I don’t think there’s much difference between the two islands.
Overall, the weather is the same on both islands.
The one big point I’d like to make about the weather situation on Kauai is what I hear about the north shore versus the south shore. For me, the north shore is hands down the best place to be. It’s why I go to Kauai. It’s pretty magical. However, as I said earlier, it rains. A lot. Especially in the winter.
So, many people gravitate to the sunny south shore around Poipu. It is sunny and the beaches are pretty nice, but my opinion is if it’s between the south shore of Kauai or Maui, I’d pick Maui every time. The two major tourist hubs on Maui (south side and west side) are relatively sunny year round although Hawaii as a whole experiences more rain in the winter months.
Also, Maui has more diverse ecosystems so there’s more variation in the weather on different parts of the island (most notably upcountry and at Haleakala), but in the main tourist areas on each island…the weather is pretty much all the same.
The next major category to compare the two islands on is their levels of development. Maui is certainly more developed than Kauai and locals even refer to Kauai as being the “country” or more “slow,” but you should know that while less developed than Maui, Kauai certainly isn’t an unspoiled island paradise. It has its share of development too. It may be the “most” natural of the main Hawaiian islands, but that’s all relative.
Also, tourism has really changed in Hawaii in the last couple of years. Cheap flights from the mainland have made Hawaii so much more accessible and the floodgates have opened for a different kind of visitor (cheap condo, cooking own meals, mostly exploring on their own) and overall I’m noticing that while there are fewer visitors on Kauai numbers wise, it feels like more people because the island hasn’t invested in the infrastructure to handle visitors in the last 5-10 years.
For example, in some small “local” towns on Kauai that are more sought after by visitors because they offer a more “authentic experience” they seem crowded because they don’t have enough parking and restaurants to accommodate the number of people that are showing up or even just good sidewalks and crosswalks to manage pedestrian traffic which means traffic gets backed up from all the people walking everywhere.
The difference between the two airports is pretty noticeable too. The Maui airport has been renovated over the last 5 years or so to be better able to manage the flow of people coming through. So yes there are probably a lot more people coming through the Maui airport every day, but it’s a more pleasant experience than peak times at the Kauai airport. The Kauai setup is “quaint” until you have a 2 hour line to pick up your rental car or a 3 hour line for TSA.
None of this is to scare you away from either island, but just to know that when you read that Maui is more developed, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The number of visitors isn’t correlated to the island’s development anymore so fewer visitors on Kauai can “feel” the same as more visitors on Maui.
Here are some facts:
- The population of Maui is roughly 166,260 while Kauai is 72,159. Maui is a much bigger island though.
- Both islands have a Costco, Walmart, Target and many chain grocery stores plus a cruise ship port.
- Both islands have two main “resort” areas (Poipu and Princeville on Kauai and Ka’anapali and Wailea on Maui) while Maui has a smattering of other small “communities” with guest lodgings built up in clusters whereas Kauai hotels seem to line the coast but without the “preplanned” or central community feel.
- Both islands have several charming historic “local” towns that have been/are being reenergized with new shops/restaurants/art galleries, etc. (Paia and Makawao on Maui and Koloa and Hanapepe on Kauai).
- Both islands have a selection of upscale resorts and restaurants.
The main differentiator is that Maui just has more, and honestly what it has is a little…nicer…than its counterpart on Kauai. For example, the nicest resort on Maui is a lot more upscale than the nicest resort on Kauai and Maui’s old plantation town Paia is much more trendy and polished than Kauai’s Koloa town, etc.
I bring all of this up to let you know that while Kauai hasn’t been developed as much as Maui, don’t expect it to be an undiscovered paradise. It’s Hawaii. It’s been discovered.
FAQs about Maui vs Kauai
Which island is better for nature lovers? I love this question. The internet has come to the conclusion that Kauai is the better island for nature lovers. I’ve got news for you…nobody goes to Hawaii for anything other than nature. It’s all about being outside. In the nature. You can spend a week+ on either island being in the nature doing hiking, snorkeling, kayaking, swimming, boogie boarding, surfing, and whatever other activities people do in nature. Maui is not all about resorts. Yes, they are there. They are there on Kauai too, but the reason these resorts were built is because people are drawn to Hawaii because of its natural beauty. So you’ll find what you’re looking for on either island if you prioritize spending your time in “nature” instead of the resort pool, shopping, etc.
Which island is better for kids? I’m going to go with Maui just because of the higher percentage of swimmable beaches and accessible sites. But I’ve never seen unhappy kids on Kauai ; ) Anecdotally I’ve heard of parents saying their teens were bored on Kauai (or even Maui) usually in comparison to Oahu, but that probably just comes down to poor planning. If your kids need to be more entertained than just being at the beach, swimming, boogie boarding, snorkeling, or hiking, then both islands have an endless amount of “activities” that you can book. And if it’s in your budget, shoot for the moon!
Which island is better for honeymooners? Eh, probably Maui again, but seriously…you can have an absolutely fabulous Hawaiian honeymoon on ANY Hawaiian island. It’s more about what specifically you plan on each island (where you stay, where you eat, what you do, etc.) than which island you pick.
My Favorite Island
So let me wrap this up by saying you won’t be unhappy with a vacation on either island. They’re both fantastic. But while I really love going to Kauai (and will continue to go back), Maui is my personal favorite. But that’s probably because it matches best with how I like to spend my vacations. I can appreciate a nice resort area, good restaurants, some “local” atmosphere, and epic day trips. I’m also a major beach bum. On Maui, I find that there’s always plenty to do or the best kind of conditions for doing nothing at all.
If I had to best sum up my overall two cents of these two islands, it would be that Kauai does lush, dramatic, green landscapes better than anywhere else in the world, but I find it to rank at the bottom of my list in most other categories. Maui wins for best overall vibe. I like its variety and choices. It has so much to offer that a week never feels long enough, whereas after 4-5 days on Kauai I’m ready to move on (although always ready to come back).
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 Maui: My Favorite Hotels on Maui | Wailea vs Ka’anapali | All of the Wailea Resorts Ranked | Maui Travel Tips | Things You Can ONLY Do on Maui | Where to Find Maui’s Best Condos and Vacation Rentals | My Favorite Road to Hana Itinerary | Road to Hana Tips | Should You Drive the Backside of the Road to Hana? | 10 Day Maui Itinerary | Is Mama’s Fish House Worth It? | Tips for Sunrise at Haleakala National Park | Things to Do in Wailea | Things to Do on the North Shore | Things to Do Upcountry | Where to Stay in Hana | Where to Stay in Kihei | Where to Stay in Lahaina & Ka’anapali | Best Beaches in Wailea & Kihei | Best Restaurants in Wailea | Maui vs Kauai | Four Seasons Maui Review | Andaz Maui Review | Fairmont Kea Lani Review | Wailea Beach Resort Review | Four Seasons vs Andaz Maui | Andaz Maui vs Wailea Beach Resort | Best Breakfast in Wailea
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