One of the most difficult parts of planning a trip to Hawaii is deciding which island to visit. In an ideal world, you’d have enough time to see a couple of them. But, in reality, sometimes you are forced to narrow it down to two, or even one island.
Our breakdown of Oahu versus Maui is made to help you choose between those two islands based on 5 different criteria. It is broken down into the following chapters:
Oahu and Maui in a Nutshell
Maui and Oahu are separated by one island (Molokai), 65 miles (100 km), or 40 minutes by plane. They have some similarities, such as their world-renowned beaches, but we will mostly talk about their differences here.
Oahu is the most diverse of the Hawaiian islands, offering all kinds of people, landscapes, and lifestyles. From the buzz of Honolulu to the big waves of the north shore, it’s possible to experience everything Hawaii has to offer on Oahu. If you’re looking for a mix of city and outdoor opportunities, Oahu is your island.
See our complete O’ahu overview for a longer list of Oahu essentials.
Recommended minimum stay: 4 days
Good to know for Oahu: It’s tempting to stay in Waikiki for its convenience (it is, after all, where most of the hotels are), but Oahu has so much more to see. Its windward side is full of beautiful mountains and local beaches; its west side a hub for small communities and culture. Get around when you’re on Oahu – you will be surprised by how diverse it is outside the big city.
Maui has long been a favorite of visitors because it represents everything that people think of when they picture Hawaii, a beautiful blend of beaches, volcanoes, palm trees, an agriculture without the crowds. Now, that last part is subjective, of course – Maui certainly has its fair share of visitors, and you can find all those things mentioned above on Oahu – but because Maui lacks a big city, it’s overall vibe is much calmer than what you find on Oahu.
That said, Maui does have a pulse. It has plenty of medium-sized beach towns that provide a spark of life, making it a popular destination for people who want variety but not at the expense of open space (i.e., many residents of Molokai and Lanai go to Maui for shopping and nightlife). Much of Maui’s appeal comes from its natural landscape and biodiversity, including its two large volcanoes, whale watching season, and remote, undeveloped parts of its island, like Hana.
Recommended minimum stay: 5 days
Good to know for Maui: Although it lacks the big city feel of Oahu, Maui combines all other aspects of Hawaii and does so beautifully. One that often goes overlooked is its “up-country” lifestyle, that is, the belt of small farms that occupies the hillsides of Haleakala. The town of Kula, for example, is a good place to take a farm tour (lavender, coffee, pineapple, protea), visit a distillery, and check out a winery. The views from this part of the island are unforgettable, and it offers a different perspective and a different way of Hawaii life.
Don’t miss these 3 things: Exploring the summit of Haleakala, the beaches of south and west Maui, a boat trip in the Auau Channel (especially during whale season).
What island should you choose if you like…
We have found that the best way to make a difficult choice is to base your decision on just one or two factors that are most important to you. These are our suggestions of what you should base your choice on for Oahu and Maui:
Outdoor adventure: Maui
Though Oahu might feel “bigger” due to its large population, Maui is actually the larger island of the two, with unpopulated areas like Haleakaka and the West Maui Mountains taking up much of its mass. Both provide many opportunities for outdoor adventure, including hiking, biking, camping, and stargazing.
Complementing that large amount of open space is the fact that Maui is surrounded by big islands – Lanai, Molokai, Kahoolawe – and is the main seasonal stomping ground for humpback whales (Nov-Mar). Oahu has a lot of hiking and a lot of outdoor opportunities, but Maui has more variety and far more space.
Yeah, we know – ties are no fun. But in this case, it’s warranted. For every beautiful beach you could name on Oahu, you could follow it up with one on Maui, and vice versa. Both have dozens of beaches, with Maui a little bit more variety in that it offers a few alternative options, like red and black sand beaches.
Still, either island will satisfy your beach fix, so unfortunately you can’t decide between islands using this category alone.
Oahu and Maui are both made up of two volcanoes each, but because it’s a younger island, Maui’s volcanoes stand taller and are much bigger in mass (due, in part, to a lack of time and erosion). Haleakala’s summit is more than 10,000 feet tall, compared to the highest peak on Oahu, Mt. Kaala in the Waianae Range, which is only a tick above 4,000 feet.
By the way, if volcanoes are the main subject of your visit to Hawaii you should seriously consider visiting the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island.
Food, drinks, and nightlife: Oahu
Maui is littered with small towns, like Lahaina, Paia, and Kihei, that operate as small beach towns with shops, bars, and restaurants, many catered directly to visitors. However, there’s no comparing its offerings to what you find on Oahu, where Honolulu – a large metropolitan city – combines cultural, food, and entertainment options from all over the world. Oahu also has its fair share of small beach communities – Kailua, Waianae, Haleiwa.
If you’re looking for nightlife, entertainment, and world-class culinary options, Oahu is your island.
This one is close, but the nudge goes to Oahu. True, Maui essentially has it all as well – volcanoes, beach towns, offshore activities, and old-world Hawaiian agriculture. But so does Oahu, and while its volcanoes might not be as tall, its diverse population, historical sites, surf breaks, hiking trails, and beach towns give it a spice of variety that other islands – even Maui – can’t match.
Sample itineraries for Maui and Oahu:
Hopefully this guide has helped you decide what island(s) you want to spend your well-earned vacation on. We suggest the following itineraries for Maui and Oahu to help you plan out the specifics of your holiday.
For Maui: Our Maui overview article is great way to start planning your trip.
For Oahu: our Oahu overview article and our series of things to do in Kailua, Honolulu, the rugged leeward coast, the tropical and lush windward coast, and the world-famous north Shore, all are a good place to start planning your trip.