So many Hawaiian islands, so little time. With the average visit to Hawaiʻi being about a week, there’s not time to visit each and every island, and this means that one must make the tough decision of deciding which islands to visit, and which to leave until next time.
But how do you prioritize? And how do you know which island is the best fit for you?
In this series, we help you make a choice by comparing different islands. Not to decide which is “better” overall; but rather, to help you decide which is most-suited to your particular interests. Each island has its own strengths, and prioritizing what you deem important will help you decide between them.
Table of contents
Table of Contents
- The Big Island and Kauai in a nutshell:
- What island should you choose if you like…
- Skip the Big Island, go to Kauai!
- Skip Kauai, go to the Big Island!
- Sample Itineraries
In this edition, we tackle the differences between the Big Island and Kauaʻi. For more breakdown comparisons see the following pages: Maui vs. Oʻahu, the Big Island vs. Oʻahu, Maui vs. the Big Island, Kauaʻi vs. Maui, and Kauaʻi vs Oʻahu.
Big Island and Kaua‘i in a Nutshell
While it is unfair to summarize any of our paradise-like islands in a few paragraphs we are giving it a shot because it will help you focus your trip planning. We want to start by saying that this article is written to highlight relative differences between the islands but that, as you’d expect from Hawaii, both islands are perfect for exploring and kicking back with a cocktail after a day on the beach.
Having said that, here are the main things to know about the Big Island and Kauaʻi when making a choice between visiting one of them:
The Big Island
The Big Island boasts a ridiculous amount of biodiversity. Mauna Kea’s snowy summit sits at 13,800 feet while its collection of white, black, and green sand beaches sparkle down at sea level. If it’s adventure, nature, open space, and volcanic experiences you seek, the Big Island has more than you can handle in a single trip.
Recommended minimum stay: 7 days
Good to know for the Big Island: Remember, the Big Island is big, and having a rental car is essential to cover the large distances between points of interest. For example, it’s a 1.5-2 hour drive between Kona and Hilo. Visitors to the Big Island should be willing to make drives up to an hour each day and/or move hotels over the course of the stay.
Don’t miss these 3 things: The Manta Ray night swim/snorkel/dive in Kona; A visit to the Kīlaeau Volcano and Halemaʻumaʻu Crater at the Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park; Stargazing at the visitor center on Mauna Kea.
Kauaʻi, while a small island, is home to some of the most beautiful natural scenery in all of Hawaiʻi. For decades it remained a secret, explored only by intrepid travelers looking for a laid-back alternative to Oʻahu and Maui, but today, Kauaʻi has evolved into a mainstream travel destination thanks to its rural charm and dramatic volcanic formations.
Nicknamed the “The Garden Island,” Kauaʻi is made up of small communities and lots of farm and ranch land. Thanks to an abundance of preserved land, the island’s capacity for outdoor adventure and scenic beauty on Kauaʻi is extraordinary. The two main natural attractions, the Nāpali Coast on Kauaʻi’s north shore and Waimea Canyon on the west side, serve as bookends for its lush interior and myriad of hiking trails.
Read more in our Kauaʻi overview guide.
Recommended minimum stay: 4 days
Good to know for Kauaʻi: Kauaʻi does receive a lot of rain, and in the winter, the water conditions can be rough around the island. Knowing that, summer is a safer bet if you consider a rainy day unacceptable and want to spend a lot of time in the water.
Don’t miss these 3 things: A hike to Hanakapiʻai Falls on the Nāpali Coast; Beginner surfing in Hanalei Bay; A day hike in Waimea Canyon.
What island should you choose if you like…
Because each island is unique in its own way, we advise you to base your decision on the factors that are most important to you. Here’s the breakdown, as we see it, between the Big Island and Kauaʻi:
Outdoor Adventure: Tie
If you’re looking to explore the outdoors and natural world, you couldn’t have chosen two better islands. Though dramatically different in size, both the Big Island and Kaua’i are known for their natural offerings.
The Big Island has the most options of any island due to its stature. It’s approximately the size of the state of Connecticut, and all the other islands combined could fit inside of it. It contains eight of the world’s thirteen ecosystems, five volcanoes, and is home to the Hawaiʻi Volcanoes Natural Park.
Kaua’i is the oldest island in the chain – about 4 to 5 million years old – and Mother Nature had done her work over that time span, carving deep grooves and sheer cliffs into the landscape. The heavily-eroded Nāpali Coast is known for its jagged peaks, waterfalls, and jungles, while Waimea Canyon is called “The Grand Canyon of the Pacific” because it is 10 miles long and more than 3,000 feet deep.
The Big Island does have many noteworthy beaches, including of the black and green-sand variety. But, overall, the island’s young, rocky, volcanic shores don’t offer the quality or quantity of white sand beaches that you’ll find on other islands. Kauaʻi has many beautiful beaches, including Hanalei, Polihale, and Poʻipū, among others, though conditions can be rough in the winter.
For the same reason, summer is a better time if you want to go snorkeling on Kauaʻi.
Volcanoes: Big Island
Made up of five volcanoes, including the currently-erupting Kīlauea in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, the Big Island is the only Hawaiian island with an active volcano. Mauna Kea, the world’s tallest volcano, is home to large observatories and is the best place in Hawai’i to stargaze. It is the youngest island in chain, meaning it has the most recent lava flows to explore. The National Park has a myriad of hiking trails and opportunities.
Kauaʻi loses this category on quantity, seeing as it only has one volcano, but it makes up some points with its extra-dramatic formations within and upon it. In this way, the appeal lies largely in the weathering of its volcanic landscape. The Nāpali Coast and Waimea Canyon are world class in this regard, offering extreme scenic beauty and active, adventurous opportunities. There’s no accessible, recognizable crater, but a hike in Waimea Canyon or a boat ride along the Nāpali Coast is as grand as any experience Hawaiʻi has to offer.
Food, Drinks, and Nightlife: Tie
Whereas the two islands tied for their greatness in the Outdoor Adventure category, they tie here because neither are known for their food or nightlife.
It’s not that you can’t get a good, authentic meal (every island has the Hawaiian staples of poke and plate lunches) or something local to drink (both Kauaʻi and Big Island have multiple breweries). On the Big Island, Kona has an abundance of bars and restaurants, and there are some places to write home about in Hilo, like the Hilo Bay Cafe. Kauaʻi’s food scene has greatly improved in recent years with gastropubs like Street Burger as a complement to its local favorites like Hanalei Taro & Juice and Pono Market.
It’s just that the quality and quantity you’ll find on Oʻahu and Maui aren’t present on these two islands. So, factor this reality into your expectations.
Variety: Big Island
Both Kauaʻi and the Big Island have a lot to offer in the way of outdoor and volcanic adventure, and each island’s hubs offer stark contrasts to one another. Hilo and Kona on the Big Island, for example, couldn’t be more different, as is the same with Waimea and Hanalei on Kauaʻi.
But, with the Big Island being so much bigger than Kauaʻi, it has far and away more quantity of things to see and do. It offers “upcountry communities” like Waimea, Volcano, and Holualoa to go along with remote, jungle communities like Pāhoa. It also has five volcanoes to explore.
If you’re looking to be on the go and constantly experiencing new sides of the island, then choose Big Island.
Skip the Big Island, go to Kauaʻi (if you like these things)
Two of the most popular Hawaiian destinations are the Big Island and Kauaʻi. While both offer a wide range of activities and stunning natural scenery, some travelers may prefer one over the other. Below, we explore 5 reasons why someone might choose to take a vacation to Kauaʻi over the Big Island.
5 Reasons to Choose Kauaʻi over the Big Island:
- Breathtaking scenery: Kauaʻi is known for its stunning natural scenery, including lush greenery, towering waterfalls, and stunning beaches. The island is home to Waimea Canyon, known as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” which offers incredible views of the surrounding landscape. Kauaʻi also boasts the Na Pali Coast, a rugged stretch of coastline featuring towering sea cliffs, secluded beaches, and hidden waterfalls.
- Kauaʻi is quieter and more relaxing: While the Big Island has its share of tourist hotspots, Kauaʻi is a quieter, more relaxed destination. The island is less developed and offers a slower pace of life, making it the perfect place to unwind and recharge. Kauaʻi also has fewer crowds, which can be appealing to travelers looking to escape the hustle and bustle of city life.
- Abundance of Outdoor Activities: Despite its laid-back vibe, Kauaʻi offers a wide range of outdoor activities for adventurous travelers. From hiking and kayaking to surfing and snorkeling, there is no shortage of ways to explore the island’s natural beauty. Visitors can also take a scenic helicopter tour or go horseback riding through the countryside (see also our overview of Kauaʻi land activities and water activities).
- Rich Cultural Heritage: Kauaʻi is steeped in history and culture, with a strong Hawaiian presence that is evident throughout the island. Visitors can learn about the island’s history by visiting the Kauai Museum or exploring ancient Hawaiian temples and petroglyphs. The island also hosts a number of cultural festivals and events throughout the year.
- Stunning Accommodations: Kauaʻi offers a range of accommodations, from luxury resorts to cozy vacation rentals. Many of these properties are located in scenic settings, such as on the beach or in the middle of lush gardens. Whether you’re looking for a romantic getaway or a family-friendly retreat, Kauaʻi has something to offer. We have written a whole guide on the best places to stay in Kauaʻi for families, beach bums, luxury seekers, backpackers, adventure travelers, couples, and resort lovers.
These travelers may prefer Kauaʻi:
- Nature lovers: Travelers who enjoy hiking, kayaking, and exploring the great outdoors will love Kauaʻi’s stunning scenery and abundance of outdoor activities.
- Couples: Kauaʻi’s quiet, laid-back vibe makes it the perfect destination for couples looking to escape the hustle and bustle of city life and spend some quality time together.
- History buffs: Visitors who are interested in Hawaiian culture and history will enjoy learning about Kauaʻi’s rich heritage and exploring the island’s many historical sites.
- Adventurers: Travelers who crave excitement and adventure will love Kauaʻi’s range of outdoor activities, including surfing, snorkeling, and helicopter tours.
- Relaxation seekers: Those looking to unwind and recharge will appreciate Kauaʻi’s slower pace of life, stunning scenery, and quiet, secluded beaches.
In short, while both the Big Island and Kauaʻi offer stunning scenery, rich cultural heritage, and a wide range of activities, Kauaʻi’s quieter, more relaxed vibe, breathtaking scenery, and abundance of outdoor activities make it a great choice for the above types of travelers.
Skip Kauaʻi and go to the Big Island (if you like these things)
While both Kauaʻi and the Big Island offer stunning scenery, rich cultural heritage, and a wide range of activities, the Big Island’s diverse landscape, more tourist amenities, and unique activities, make it a great choice for some travelers.
4 Reasons to Choose the Big Island:
- Diverse Landscape: The Big Island is the largest of the Hawaiian islands and boasts a diverse landscape that includes everything from black sand beaches to lush rainforests, volcanic deserts, and snow-capped peaks. Visitors can explore Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, go snorkeling in Kealakekua Bay, or hike through the Waipio Valley.
- More Tourist Amenities: The Big Island is a more developed destination than Kauaʻi and offers more tourist amenities, such as restaurants, shops, and hotels. This can be appealing to travelers who prefer more conveniences and a wider range of options.
- Unique Activities: The Big Island offers a range of unique activities that can’t be found on Kauaʻi, such as swimming with the Manta Rays, visiting a coffee farm, touring a macadamia nut factory, seeing lava, or stargazing on Mauna Kea. Visitors can also go horseback riding, take a helicopter tour, or go whale watching during the winter months.
- World-Class Resorts: The Big Island is home to some of the most luxurious resorts in Hawaii, offering visitors a range of high-end amenities and services. These resorts often include multiple swimming pools, world-class golf courses, and high-end dining options. Some of the most famous resorts on the Big Island include the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai, the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, and the Fairmont Orchid.
These travelers may prefer the Big Island:
- Adventure seekers: Travelers who enjoy a variety of outdoor activities, from hiking and snorkeling to stargazing and horseback riding, will love the diverse landscape and unique experiences available on the Big Island.
- Foodies: The Big Island offers a wide range of culinary options, from local Hawaiian cuisine to international fare. Visitors can sample Kona coffee, fresh seafood, and macadamia nuts, among other delicacies.
- Families: The Big Island is a great destination for families, with plenty of activities for kids of all ages, such as visiting a chocolate factory or touring a volcano.
- Culture and history buffs: Visitors who are interested in Hawaiian culture and history will appreciate the Big Island’s many cultural and historical sites, such as the Puʻuhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park.
Getting Started: Sample Itineraries for the Big Island and Kauaʻi
You can find more in-depth guides and itineraries for both islands on our website.