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.
Side Note: If you’re looking for a rental car for your trip, I LOVE Discount Hawaii Car Rentals. They’re seriously the only company I ever use. They’ll give you the very best prices, you don’t have to reserve with a credit card or pay until you show up, you can cancel and re-book anytime if you find a better rate, and they usually have a special that adds additional drivers for no fee. It’s a no brainer. Click here to check rates for your trip.
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 touristy hubs which were once historic towns but now seem to be full of a certain kind of shops and restaurants (namely Kapa’a on Kauai and Lahaina on Maui).
- 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).
Want to read more about Maui? Don’t miss some of my most popular (and favorite) posts about Maui: my Maui favorites, the best Maui itinerary, how many days to spend on Maui, Maui vs Kauai, where to see turtles on Maui, my favorite road to Hana itinerary, guide for sunrise at Haleakala National Park, how to bike down Maui’s volcano, my review of the Maui Pineapple Tour, 20 of the best adventure activities on Maui, 5 Maui day trips, and the best things to do on a Maui honeymoon.
Want to read more about Kauai? 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.
P.S. Thanks for sticking around and reading this whole post! If you have ANY questions about planning your trip to Hawaii, you can join my free Facebook group here. I’m there answering questions every day and there are 7500+ other friends who have a ton of Hawaii information to share!
Also, if you want to follow along on my travel adventures in real time, you can follow me on Instagram (@caitylincoln). My post captions are full of travel tips and I have a ton of story highlights and videos with great info. And please share my account with your friends that are headed to Hawaii! Your support really helps me keep this blog running!