It’s easy to make the decision to come to Hawaiʻi on a whole, but after that, you have the tough task of choosing which islands to visit. There are six islands to choose from, and most likely, you’ll only have time to visit one, two, or three of them. At some point, you’ll probably have to decide between two islands.
Which island is the best fit for you? Do you seek out the active volcanoes on the Big Island, or the diversity on Oʻahu? Do you hit the lesser-visited Kauaʻi, or see what all the fuss is about on Maui?
Table of contents
Table of Contents
- Oahu and Kauai in a nutshell:
- What island should you choose if you like…
- Sample Itineraries
In this series, our goal is to help you compare the islands to each other and decide which is best suited to your particular interests, as each offers different strengths. In this edition, we break down the differences between Kauaʻi and Oʻahu. Other guides in this series are:
O‘ahu and Kaua‘i in a Nutshell
The shores of Kauai and Oʻahu are only 63 miles apart, yet in some ways the differences between these two islands couldn’t be bigger. Only 35 square miles larger than Kauai, Oʻahu’s population is over 13 times that of Kauai. Kauai is, in contrast, known for its natural beauty and its dramatic, beautiful sites – perhaps more so than any other island in the Hawaiian island chain.
Oʻahu is the most diverse of the Hawaiian Islands, a melting pot of people, landscapes, and lifestyles: the buzz of Waikīkī, the history and culture of Honolulu, the pristine beaches of the east and west coasts, the big waves of the north shore. On Oʻahu, it’s possible to experience everything Hawaiʻi has to offer, including a restaurant and nightlife scene you won’t find on any other island. (For more, see our complete O’ahu overview.)
Recommended minimum stay: 4 days
Good to know for O‘ahu: Waikīkī is a popular destination on Oʻahu for its myriad of hotel options, nightlife, dining, shopping, beginner surf, and convenience, but it is crowded and often lacks the spacious, laid-back vibe people seek. Take a look for yourself, of course, but remember there is much more to see on Oʻahu than just Waikīkī. The windward side has jungles and off-shore islands; the north shore is a world-famous surfing community; the west side is home to local farms and lesser-visited beaches; and central Oʻahu is full of surprises. Get around when you’re on O‘ahu to discover how diverse it is, even beyond the big city.
Despite having some of the most stunning natural scenery in all of Hawaiʻi, Kauaʻi flew under the radar for a long time, taking a back seat to Oʻahu, Maui, and even Big Island when it came to tourism. Well, those days are long gone now. In the last decade, Kauaʻi has become the darling of Hawaiʻi tourism, attracting both first time and repeat visitors like never before.
And why not? Kauaʻi, nicknamed the “The Garden Island,” is as lush and dramatic as it gets. It’s the oldest inhabited island in the chain – about 4 or 5 million years old – and Mother Nature has done her beautiful work. The heavily-eroded Nāpali Coast on Kauaʻi’s north shore is absolutely spectacular, with tall, jagged peaks and sprawling jungle-filled valleys. Waimea Canyon on the west side is called “The Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” 10 miles long and more than 3,000 feet deep. Countless movies have been filmed on the island. The capacity for outdoor adventure and the amount of scenic, natural beauty available on Kauaʻi is extraordinary. (For more, see our list of 19 most popular sights and destinations on Kauaʻi and of course our complete Kauaʻi overview.)
Recommended minimum stay: 4 days
Good to know for Kauai: Poʻipū is the resort area of Kauaʻi, but Hanalei, Kapaʻa, and Waimea are all interesting home bases as well. Kauaʻi does receive a lot of rain – the summit of Mount Waiʻaleʻale, the volcano it’s built upon, is considered one of the wettest places on earth – and during the winter, the surf can be extremely rough around much of the island. In that sense, summer is a safer bet if you consider a rainy day unacceptable and want to spend a lot of time in the water.
What island should you choose if you like…
Because each island is great in its own way, we find the easiest way to make a difficult choice is to base your decision on the factor that is most important to you. These are things most considered when comparing Oʻahu and Kauaʻi:
Outdoor adventure: Kauaʻi
O‘ahu might be a bigger island than Kauaʻi, but it’s drastically more developed. So while you can find really good and even spectacular hikes on Oʻahu, Kauaʻi is more connected to the natural world on a whole. The Kalalau Trail has become an international destination in the last decade, and Waimea Canyon offers big-league backpacking options as well. Hiking on Kauaʻi is one of the most popular activities, with a wide range of trail options and terrains. Boat tours and kayaking along the Nā Pali Coast are a must, and if you can swing it, you’ll never forget a helicopter ride over Kauaʻi.
Between Waikīkī, the north shore, Kailua, and the Waiʻanae coast, Oʻahu offers an overwhelming amount of variety when it comes to beaches. Kauaʻi has many beautiful beaches itself – Hanalei, Polihale, and Poʻipū among them – but its surf tends to be less swimmable, especially in winter. You can enjoy a beach day on any island, of course, but beach fanatics will find more options, more variety, and more reliable swimming conditions on Oʻahu.
O‘ahu is made up of two volcanoes, and has a lot of volcanic features to explore, including Diamond Head, Koko Head, Punchbowl, and the Waiʻanae and Koʻolau mountain ranges. Kauaʻi only has one volcano, but it is a significantly older island than Oʻahu (4-5 million years old versus 2-3 million years old, respectively). That age difference has allowed time for Kauaʻiʻs mountains to be eroded away more significantly, creating dramatic cliffs, peaks, and canyons of a magnitude with which O’ahu cannot compare. The Nā Pali Coast and Waimea Canyon are world class in this regard.
Food, drinks, and nightlife: Oʻahu
Kauaʻiʻs food scene has improved in the last decade, without question, and has a large food truck scene to go along with gastropubs like Street Burger. But still, there’s simply no comparison here. Oʻahu is the prime island for its quality and quantity of dining and entertainment options in Waikīkī and Honolulu. (read more about nightlife on Oʻahu).
Oʻahu’s metro, beach, volcanic, and historic offerings give visitors the most variety of any island in the chain. Kauaʻi’s charm rests in its simplistic vibe, general lack of development (especially when compared to Oʻahu), natural attractions, and country living.
Sample itineraries for Kauaʻi and O‘ahu:
Ready to start planning your trip and Kauaʻi or (and!) Oʻahu? We suggest the following itineraries for both islands to help you plan out the specifics of your holiday.
For O‘ahu: our series of things to do in Kailua, Honolulu, the rugged leeward coast, the tropical and lush windward coast, central O‘ahu, and the world-famous North Shore, all are a good place to start planning your trip. Fort a complete trip suggestion see our 7 day itinerary to explore the whole of Oʻahu.