Whether you’re after adventure, nightlife, beautiful beaches, scenic views, or cultural highlights, booking a vacation to Hawaii is an easy decision. But unless you are lucky enough to have plenty of time (and money), you have a second, tougher decision to make: which Hawaiian island should you visit? Each one offers its own unique experience.
The two that often have travelers especially torn is Maui and Kauai. After all, for those who have never been to either one, they both seem to be quieter, less-trafficked options compared to hot-spot Oahu, with its iconic Waikiki Beach. That’s true enough, but once you take a closer look at Maui and Kauai, you’ll see that there’s more to the picture. So let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of what sets these two dream vacation spots apart. But first, the good news: Both islands have their perks, and no matter which one you end up choosing, you’re likely to enjoy your trip.
Getting There and Around
Traveling to Hawaii, sadly, isn’t fast. Even those coming from the West Coast will have to take a six-hour flight, and it’s double for folks traveling from the East Coast. Since most flights arrive in Oahu, whether you’re off to Maui or Kauai, you may have another leg of the journey.
Maui: Thanks to new, recently added routes, you can fly nonstop to Maui from as far east as Chicago. That said, it can be a bit simpler to reach Maui, and once you land, it’s also easier to get around. You can drive (or take a bus) around much of the coastline. In all likelihood, your only long drives are going to be the Road to Hana or to the Haleakalā volcano. Everything else is likely to be pretty close by, especially if you’re staying in the big tourist area at Lahaina.
Kauai: There are considerably fewer nonstop flights to Kauai, and all are from the West Coast. Only 20 percent of the island is accessible by car, and most of the coastline can’t be seen from any road. For instance, the island’s most famous feature -- the dramatic Na Pali Coast -- can’t be experienced by the faint of heart. You can get a glimpse of its cliffs after a short walk from a parking lot, but properly experiencing it comes with an overnight hike, a boat tour that is notorious for making people seasick, or a doors-off helicopter ride -- a prospect that might be too pricey (or too daring) for some.
Average high temperatures at sea level are a few degrees warmer on Maui than on Kauai, 225 miles to the northwest. And we do mean a few -- 79 versus 82 degrees in December, for example. There is, however, more of a difference when it comes to rainfall.
Maui: Most of Maui’s main resort areas and attractions boast reliably sunny days all year round, especially the south coast near Wailea. Although Lahaina, Kaanapali, and Kapalua are slightly more fickle, the island sees negligible rain overall. A word about temperatures: If you venture to the top of Haleakalā volcano (more than 10,000 feet above sea level), you’ll need a windbreaker, hat, and gloves, especially at night. It will be cold, no matter how balmy it feels at your hotel.
Kauai: Kauai gets more rain, especially from December through March. The exception is the south shore around Poipu, which many tourists prefer during the winter. The catch is that the most beautiful scenery is on the north shore, near Princeville and Hanalei. But showers tend to be brief -- true throughout all of Hawaii -- and you may be treated to an Instagram-destined rainbow afterward.
Both islands are stunning, no question there. The difference comes down to the variety in the landscapes, which Maui wins by a narrow margin.
Maui: Haleakalā, a dormant volcano taking up about 40 percent of the island, offers beautiful, desert-like views via the Sliding Sands Trail. It’s easily accessible by a road that takes you up to the top. (Several tour companies also offer a bike-down option.) It’s the place to watch the sun rise, but sunsets or stargazing usually draw fewer people. The Road to Hana, a narrow, twisting highway, is often lauded as one of the most captivating drives in the world, passing black and red sand beaches, jungles, a bamboo forest, waterfalls, and a grove of rainbow eucalyptus trees, which look like they’ve been spray-painted.
Kauai: With plains and jagged mountain peaks that are cloaked in thick, emerald vegetation, it’s no wonder “Jurassic Park” was filmed here. It’s rural in feel (keep an eye out for the wild chickens), and lacking the trappings of tourism, at least as compared to Maui. Waimea Canyon on the western side of the island -- dubbed the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific” -- is impactful at 10 miles long and 3,000 feet deep. Plus, visitors can picnic here. At the viewing point, there are steps, but also a ramp. Hiking down into the canyon is doable, but strenuous.
For many travelers, a Hawaiian vacation without some beach time is unthinkable. You can loll away on Maui or Kauai, but the experience will play out a bit differently on each. (Technically, Maui has more swimmable beaches than Kauai.) Whichever swath of sand you land on, know this: It may remind you of a beach in the Caribbean, but the water here is noticeably cooler.
Maui: The waters are less rough around Maui than they are around Kauai, especially in the winter. Maui has a bounty of spectacular-- albeit sometimes narrow -- golden beaches, plus black and red sand options. Among them is Makena Beach (also known as Big Beach) from which you can see the Molokini crater. The surf here also tends to be gentle enough for timid swimmers. Wailea Beach is home to some of Maui’s poshest resorts, such as the Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea, the Andaz Maui at Wailea, and the Grand Wailea - A Waldorf Astoria Resort. Accordingly, A-listers, like John Stamos, Adam Sandler, and Jessica Alba, have been spied here. Kapalua Bay Beach, near the Montage Kapalua Bay and The Ritz-Carlton Kapalua, is a popular spot for boarding and kayaking, as well as swimming and snorkeling among parrot fish and turtles.
Kauai: Here, you’ll find more wide, soft, white-sand beaches, due to the fact that Kauai is older geologically than Maui. However, some of the most beautiful and uncrowded beaches are hard to get to. For example, you’ll need a four-wheel-drive vehicle to traverse an unpaved road and sand dunes to reach the secluded, 17-mile stretch of sand at Polihale State Park. Upon arrival, you’ll be rewarded with views of the beginning of the Na Pali Coast as well as Niihau, the state’s only privately-owned isle. The dunes, some 100 feet high, are an impressive sight, as are the waves. With the exception of Queen’s Pond, which is protected by a sandbar, the rest of the beach is too dangerous for swimming. That fact -- or the trek to get down here -- may be why the beach is almost always nearly empty.
Meanwhile, Kalapaki Bay on the eastern coast is a prime spot for surfing, sailing, and canoeing. The Kauai Marriott Resort is adjacent to the bay. On the north shore, Anini is the most noteworthy beach. The water here is calm, since it’s protected by Hawaii’s longest reef. At two miles long, it’s rarely crowded, especially at the west end.
The list of outdoor pursuits is long for both Maui and Kauai, and many activities overlap. Fishing, snorkeling, hiking, surfing, sea kayaking, golfing, and boating make both islands an adventurer’s paradise, but here are some distinctions to keep in mind.
Maui: Good snorkeling can be had on Kauai, but on Maui, it’s great. There are more top-notch sites here, and more are easily accessible from beaches. Sea turtles are often part of the underwater show on Maui. Po’olenalena Beach, in the southern part of Maui, arguably offers the best snorkeling in all of Hawaii. To the west, Kahekili Beach and Kapalua Beach are nearly as rewarding in terms of the variety and abundance of undersea life you can see.
Kauai: While Maui has the edge in snorkeling, Kauai -- also known as the Garden Isle -- is a hiker’s haven. While some of the treks are suited to experienced hikers -- such as the Kalalau Trail, a 22-mile, minimum two-day trek along the Na Pali Coast -- there are still some places where newbies can set off and see staggering sights. For instance, the easygoing Kuilau Ridge Trail takes only about two-and-a-half hours to hike, and displays views of Mount Nounou and, if it’s not cloudy, Mount Waialeale as well. Kauai also has something Maui doesn’t: navigable rivers. That allows for river kayaking, with popular picks being the Wailua River and the Hule‘ia River, which takes you through the surrounding National Wildlife Refuge.
Both islands provide plenty of opportunities to see wildlife, including colorful tropical fish, manta rays, and green sea turtles. (The latter, while certainly not unknown on Kauai, tends to favor Maui.) Here’s what else to consider if viewing wildlife is a priority.
Maui: Humpback whales, migrating down from Alaska, put on quite a show here during the winter months. The sheltered waters around Maui are a haven for humpbacks, so much so that in some places you can see them breaching without leaving your hotel room. It’s easy to book boat or even kayak tours to get up close and personal with these beloved marine mammals. While it’s possible to see humpbacks in the waters off Kauai, Maui is largely considered to be the better vantage point.
Kauai: What you might see in Kauai, however, is a monk seal. The total population of the critically endangered animal is down to 1,200 -- most live around the uninhabited northwestern Hawaiian islands. However, they’ve started popping up on beaches all around Kauai. These blubbering beauties are commonly spotted basking on Poipu Beach, including at the Koloa Landing Resort at Poipu, Autograph Collection. (You’ll need to keep a safe distance, for your sake and theirs.) The odds of seeing one in Maui, several hundred miles away from the seals’ principal feeding grounds, is slim at best.
Tropical, relaxing, and exciting -- Maui and Kauai have a lot in common. But which one you choose will come down to your vacationing style and who you’re traveling with.
Maui: If you are traveling with your family or another group with a range of ages and interests, Maui can be the clear choice due to the variety of entertainment and activity options it offers. If you’re honeymooning, you’ll have plenty of company, for better or worse, as Maui is newlywed central. For first-time visitors to Hawaii, Maui will jibe more with what they’re likely expecting. For one thing, many picture themselves staying on the beach, and that’s easier to do on Maui, which has a greater number of beachfront properties at various price points. You can find ample nightlife here, as well as fine-dining establishments and high-end shops like Tiffany & Co. and Louis Vuitton. (You’ll also find chain restaurants, such as Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. and Ruth’s Chris Steak House, which can be a positive or a negative, depending on your outlook.) In short, Maui is more touristy, but that’s not a bad thing for some people.
Kauai: Early to bed, early to rise types are welcome here! On Kauai, you have a real sense of solitude. A hopping bar scene just isn’t a thing here. For active, outdoorsy travelers seeking a true escape -- with no interest in staying out after 10 p.m. -- Kauai may well be heaven on earth.
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