If you’ve decided you want to travel to Hawaiʻi but are having a hard time choosing which island(s) to visit, you’re not alone. Given that there are six islands to choose from and that you (most likely) will only have time to visit one or two, you may find yourself in a position where you have to pick between them.
It’s a good problem to have, but still, we understand that this decision can be difficult. Which island is the best fit for your trip? How does one pick between Maui and Oʻahu? Between Kauaʻi and the Big Island?
In this series, our goal is to provide a breakdown of how the islands stack up against one another, comparing their particular personalities so you may see which is most in line with your interests. Here, we tackle the main differences between Kauaʻi and Maui.
Table of contents
Table of Contents
- Maui and Kauai in a nutshell:
- What island should you choose if you like…
- Sample Itineraries
For more breakdowns you should have a look at our comparisons of Maui vs. Oʻahu, the Big Island vs. Oʻahu, Maui vs. the Big Island, and Kauaʻi vs Oʻahu.
Maui and Kaua‘i in a Nutshell
Of course we are cutting some corners trying to compare two paradise-like islands in a 1000-word guide but for the sake of trip planning it’s important to know how the islands compare to each other – what they have in abundance, and what you may find lacking. This will help you map out your trip, choose the island that best fits your desires, and arrive with proper expectations.
Below, we give basic overviews of Maui and Kauaʻi, followed by a breakdown of how they stack up against one another.
Maui contains a little bit of everything that people picture when they think of Hawaiʻi: long white-sand beaches, tall volcanoes, luxurious resorts, and laid-back agriculture. Thanks to its generous size (it’s the second largest island behind Big Island) and lack of a big city, Maui’s vibe is relaxed, made up of a collection of small beach towns. Its natural landscape is highlighted by its two large volcanoes, its offshore islands and whale watching sanctuary, and its more adventurous offerings, like the Road to Hāna and outdoor opportunities in Haleakalā National Park.
Recommended minimum stay: 5 days
Good to know for Maui: On your way up to Haleakakā, you’ll pass through what’s called Upcountry Maui, a belt of small farms on the hillsides of the volcano. Pop into the towns of Makawao and Kula to experience a different slice of life in Hawaiʻi that features high-elevation living, panoramic views, ranches and cowboy history, and small, family-owned farms (lavender, coffee, pineapple).
Don’t miss these 3 things: A visit to the top of Haleakalā and its 10,000-foot crater, with stops in Upcountry Maui along the way; the Road to Hāna; A water activity (boat ride, snorkel trip, whale watching tour) off west Maui.
Kauaʻi is home to arguably the most stunning natural scenery in all of Hawaiʻi. For a long time, it flew under the radar in regards to tourism, but those days are over. In the last decade, the island has caught on in a major way, prompting new visitors as well as new residents to discover its laid-back, natural vibe.
It was only a matter of time. Kauaʻi, nicknamed the “The Garden Island,” is home to a collection of dramatic natural features that tower over small, rural communities, and the 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 endless stretches of wilderness, including hiking trails, a navigable river, and waterfalls.
Recommended minimum stay: 4 days
Good to know for Kauaʻi: To best experience Kauaʻi, consider visiting in the summer. The island receives a lot of rain during the winter, and the ocean conditions can be extremely rough at this time.
Don’t miss these 3 things: Experience the Nāpali Coast on foot or by boat; Hike or visit the lookouts at Waimea Canyon; Take a surf lesson at Hanalei Bay.
What island should you choose if you like…
Each Hawaiian island has a little bit of everything, but some islands are stronger than others in certain areas. In this way, it is helpful to come to a decision by considering which factor is most important to you. Here are some things to consider when comparing Maui and Kauaʻi:
Outdoor Adventure: Kauaʻi
Maui has a tremendous amount of outdoor activities, boasting an array of quality water, beach, and volcanic adventures. But, while people go to Maui for a variety of other reasons, most visitors to Kauaʻi go for its connection to the natural world. They don’t call it the “Garden Island” for nothing.
Hiking on Kauaʻi is one of the most popular activities, with a wide range of trail options and terrains, including the Nāpali Coast and Waimea Canyon – two of the most distinct, revered natural areas in the entire state. Because of its age (4-5 million years old, compared to Maui’s 2-3 million), Kauaʻi’s landscapes have been delicately carved and showcase the dramatic, beautiful effects of erosion. Waimea Canyon, for example, is called “The Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” 10 miles long and more than 3,000 feet deep.
Obviously, you can find outdoor adventures on any Hawaiian island, but on Kauaʻi, it’s the main event.
Kauaʻi has many beautiful beaches – such as Hanalei, Polihale, and Poʻipū – but ultimately, it can’t match the quality and quantity of what you’ll find on Maui. There are more options, more variety, and more reliable swimming conditions on Maui throughout the year.
Maui’s beaches are arguable the best beaches of Hawaiʻi!
Maui is made up of two volcanoes, including the 10,000-foot Haleakalā and its associated national park, home to hiking trails, star gazing, bike tours, and viewing areas that explore the volcano’s inner crater. Elsewhere around the island, visiting ʻĪao Valley, hiking La Perouse Bay, and snorkeling at Molokini are all experiential ways to explore the volcanic ecosystems on Maui.
Kauaʻi’s appeal lies largely in the activities associated with the weathering of its volcanic landscape. It only has one volcano, but it does feature extra-dramatic formations within and upon it. The Nāpali Coast and Waimea Canyon are world class in this regard, offering extreme scenic beauty and active, adventurous activities.
Maui gets the nod here, but it’s not a blowout win. The main differences are that Maui has two volcanoes compared to only one on Kauaʻi, and that Maui offers a more classic volcano experience. Because Haleakalā’s caldera has not been entirely eroded away, it is a good experience for those new to volcanoes because there are more recognizable geological remnants to explore (i.e., craters, cinder cones, etc). That said, if you’ve already seen a volcanic crater and are familiar with the formation of the islands, then Kauaʻi provides the chance to see the implications and effects of erosion via its highly-dramatic canyons and cliffs.
Food, Drinks, and Nightlife: Maui
Kauaʻiʻs food scene is better than it used to be, now supporting trendy gastropubs, such as Street Burger, alongside a local food truck scene with standouts like Hanalei Taro & Juice.
But Maui takes the cake here in a landslide. It’s a bigger island with a bigger population, so naturally, there are more options when it comes to local bars and restaurants in Lāhainā, Kīhei, Kahului, and Pāʻia. Maui’s high-end, luxury tourism market means you’ll find a variety of high-end establishments in areas like Wailea and Kaʻanapali.
Obviously, with Maui being a much bigger island, one could argue that it naturally has more quantity and, thus, more variety – and that’s true in many regards. It does have more restaurants, more residents, more beaches, and more towns to choose from. It also has two volcanoes (compared to Kauai’s one), quite some waterfalls, and an Upcountry aspect that most islands don’t have.
That said, Kauaʻi is no slouch when it comes to its diversity of things to do: Boat rides along the Nāpali Coast, waterfall hikes, charming beach towns, rainforests, resort areas (Poʻipū/Princeville), agriculture, plantation history, lots of stunning sights and destinations, and the largest canyon in the entire island chain (Waimea Canyon).
So, while it may be true that Maui has “more of everything,” both islands contain an impressive variety of experiences across a variety of interests. We wouldn’t worry about getting bored on either island.
Getting Started: Sample Itineraries for Maui and Kauaʻi
You can find more in-depth guides and itineraries for both islands on our website.
- Kauaʻi: Our Kauaʻi overview article and 7 day itinerary.
- Maui: Our Maui overview article and 8 day itinerary.