So, you’ve got your heart set on a Hawaiian vacation and are planning a trip to Hawaii.
You’ve narrowed your choices down to two main Hawaiian islands: Maui or Kauai.
You can envision yourself on both islands, chilling on a dreamy beach eating luscious Hawaiian fruit and then hopping in a helicopter for the views of a lifetime.
But choosing which of these two islands to visit has left you stumped.
There are so many things to do in Kauai. It’s an adventurous traveler’s dream island.
But the same can be said for Maui.
Therein lies the challenge.
Have no fear, though.
We’re here to help you decipher which Hawaiian island is best for you, Maui vs. Kauai? Hawaii is a favorite vacation destination for west coasters (that’s us!) and we’ve visited both islands many times.
Let’s dive in.
Maui vs. Kauai: Difference between Maui and Kauai
The islands have a lot in common.
They’re both tropical, lush, exciting and relaxing. And both are island paradises.
However, knowing about some significant differences can help you choose which is better: Maui or Kauai?
General differences – Maui vs. Kauai vibe
Maui has a more polished and sophisticated vibe than Kauai.
It’s made for lovers and honeymooners. It even has a romantic lavender farm you can visit – just one of the special things to do in Maui for couples!
But it welcomes families too. And it offers easy access to the best beaches, loads of adventure and incredible restaurants and nightlife.
Kauai is more rustic. More mellow. And far less touristy – it’s not as developed as Maui and receives about half the visitors that Maui gets.
There are still plenty of tourist attractions on Kauai, but they’re more challenging to reach, and therefore it’s perhaps not as easy of an island to visit.
Most of the well-known sites in Kauai involve a helicopter or boat tour or a bit of a hike.
Mind you, what Kauai lacks in easy accessibility, it makes up for in jaw-dropping scenery.
Kauai is for the more intrepid traveler. It also has a quieter feel.
Weather in Kauai vs. Maui
There isn’t too much variance in the temperature between Maui and Kauai.
But the rain makes all the difference. In fact, one of the things about Hawaii you should know is that if you go in winter, be aware that it could rain.
Kauai gets more rain than Maui, especially in the winter months from December to March.
Kauai’s South Shore is the big exception (think Poipu). It’s the best area to stay on Kauai to escape the rain.
But that jaw-dropping scenery we mentioned above is mainly on the North Shore.
Maui’s climate is sunnier and more reliable throughout the year. There’s far less rain, so you can vacation there year-round without worrying too much about daily downpours.
But regardless of whether you’re packing for Maui or Kauai, be sure to throw a light rain jacket in your suitcase.
Getting around Maui vs. Kauai
Driving in Maui
Maui is a big island (728 square miles). But many sites are quite close together. The Road to Hana and the Haleakala Volcano (covered below) are the two exceptions.
Many visitors rent a car in Maui to get around while on vacation.
But depending on where you stay, you may not need a rental car – except for when you want to do a day trip.
For example, if you’re staying in Wailea in South Maui – say at the Grand Wailea Resort Hotel & Spa or Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea – you may be quite content to stay put at your fabulous hotel for many days, at least!
To eat outside of the hotel, you could walk from these resorts (as well as from other nearby vacation properties) to The Shops at Wailea, where you’ll find several excellent restaurants and eateries.
You could take an Uber to get to restos further away, and book a couple of guided tours when you want to leave your beach chair.
Driving in Kauai
Kauai is about 562 square miles and is less densely populated than Maui.
Because it’s less developed, only about 20% of Kauai is accessible by car.
And making it more of a challenge, the roads don’t run along the coastline. You can’t see those stunning views from your vehicle.
Bottom line? Even though Maui is a much larger island, it’s definitely easier to navigate than Kauai.
And unless you stay in Poipu – where there’s a free Poipu shuttle (the “Aloha Spirit” trolley) – you’ll probably want to rent a car in Kauai.
Driving in both Maui and Kauai
Be prepared to drive Aloha-style on both islands, meaning slowish (25 mph to 45 mph). There are no big cities on either island, so there are no fast multi-lane highways.
But you’re on holiday – so you can happily ease your foot off the pedal!
What is Maui known for?
Many swimmable beaches
Maui is known for its calm waters and great beaches.
Some of the beaches in Kauai aren’t as swimmable as those in Maui.
The water is generally rougher, the swell is larger and some places have strong currents. This is especially true on Kauai’s North Shore in winter.
Don’t get us wrong, the beaches in Maui and Kauai are equally stunning.
Maui’s beaches have golden sand with a few black and red sand beaches as well. Kauai has gold sand beaches plus those powdery-white sand beaches that people buy postcards of.
The bottom line is that if you’re a water baby and you have to decide between Kauai or Maui, we’d suggest you stick with Maui.
Snorkeling in Maui versus Kauai?
The water in Maui is much calmer. A calm ocean means greater visibility for snorkeling and scuba diving.
It’s why snorkeling with friendly sea turtles is all but guaranteed in Maui.
Two particularly great snorkeling spots in Maui are Black Rock, near the north end of Kaanapali Beach, and Turtle Town. They’re considered the best places for snorkeling with turtles on Maui.
You can snorkel right off the shore on many beaches in Maui. It’s super easy to get up-close-and-personal to an abundance of sea life.
There are a lot of places to get underwater, but some of the best snorkeling spots around Maui are:
- Po’olenalena Beach
- Kahekili Beach
- Kapalua Beach
- Kaanapali Beach
- Black Rock
- Molokini Crater, known for its amazing water visibility of up to 150 feet! (We’ve enjoyed several great Molokini snorkeling tours, which often include snorkeling with sea turtles at Turtle Town too.)
So if you’re asking: “Which has better snorkeling: Maui or Kauai?” we’d say Maui.
Drive to Hana (Road to Hana)
The “Road to Hana” might be the most mesmerizing drive in the world.
It’s a narrow twisting highway with more than 600 hairpin turns and 59 stone bridges – 46 of those bridges are only one lane wide.
It’s not for the faint of heart or those prone to car sickness.
Starting in Kahului and ending beyond the town of Hana (at Kalepa), the 64.4-mile Hana Highway drive (52 miles to Hana) takes you through one stunning landscape after another.
You’ll motor through the Maui jungles and bamboo forests.
Maui also has thrashing waterfalls – and on the Hana drive, you’ll pass at least 10 falls (some with cool freshwater pools where you can swim).
You’ll also see red and black sand beaches.
Even more unique than the colored sands are the rainbow eucalyptus trees.
They look like they’re dripping in blue, purple, pink, orange and maroon paint – like you’re entering a painted forest.
Around each turn, the scenery gets more and more awe-inspiring.
Don’t even try to put your camera away; you’ll just be taking it out again in a moment. Every verdant stretch begs you to get out of the car for a photo op.
It’s just magical.
If you’d like to hike to several secret waterfall pools on the Road to Hana where you can swim, Hike Maui offers an excellent waterfall-and-rainforest hiking tour. (Hotel transfers and a picnic lunch are included.)
We did this tour with them recently – loads of fun!
Whale watching in Maui
If you’re headed to the island of Maui in the winter months (November to March), you’ll be able to spot humpback whales.
They migrate down from Alaska by the thousands to mate and give birth.
You can take a cruise to get up close to the gentle giants or paddle a kayak if you’re more daring.
It’s also possible to see them from your beachfront hotel – make sure you get a room with a balcony.
Whale watching is one of the best Hawaii water adventures and not to be missed.
If you’re bursting to see whales, Maui is therefore the best Hawaii island to visit.
Many different types of whale watching tours are offered during Hawaii’s whale season.
For example, you might like this two-hour whale watching cruise on a spacious catamaran that leaves from Ka’anapali Beach. (An open bar is included.)
Or maybe you’d prefer watching whales from a sturdy raft, departing from Kihei in South Maui?
This intimate adventure is limited to just 24 people, and of course, you’ll have an expert naturalist as your guide. It has hydrophones so you can listen to the whale songs too.
Believe it or not, the island of Maui is basically made up of two volcanoes.
Haleakala Volcano is the larger of the two and is part of Haleakala National Park. It’s estimated to be around 1 million years old. And don’t worry – it’s a dormant volcano.
Head to the top, more than 10,000 feet above sea level, for incredible views. Most people go for sunrise, but sunset is just as enchanting, and has fewer crowds.
You can drive yourself or take a guided Haleakala day tour.
Haleakala Crater is also one of the best places in Maui for hikers and other adventure enthusiasts.
You can hike within the actual crater.
One of the most popular Haleakala hikes is the Halemau’u Trail, which takes you down into the crater. (The crater floor is two miles down.)
Hike Maui also offers a guided hiking day tour of Haleakala Crater, where you enjoy two different hikes (4 miles total).
If you’re up for a fabulous (though hair-raising) adventure, some companies offer bike-down-the-mountain tours (like this one).
Don’t be fooled by the warm weather at your hotel though.
Be sure to bring a jacket or windbreaker as well as a hat and gloves. It gets pretty cold up there, especially in the early morning and at night.
Art galleries and shopping
Maui is known for its incredible art galleries and gift shops strewn around the island.
They are where you can buy some of the best souvenirs from Hawaii. From paintings to pearls and koa wood sculptures, Maui is the place for shopping.
If you’re planning to shop for clothes and jewelry, you’ll be spoiled for choice. You can find cute boutiques, souvenir shops and high-end stores throughout the island.
Also drive to the hippie town of Paia (Pa’ia in Hawaiian) or its neighbor Makawao for cute boutiques and unique shops.
Huge range of accommodations
Since Maui has more tourists than Kauai, it has more vacation rentals and accommodation options, especially luxury beachfront resorts.
With some beautiful honeymoon hotels in Maui, the island is a favored honeymoon destination.
Indeed, Maui has some of the best 5-star hotels and resorts in Hawaii.
Once a former historic whaling village, the town of Lahaina is located in West Maui.
Due to the tragic August, 2023 wildfires, it remains closed to the public for now, out of respect for the town’s residents.
What is Kauai Known for?
Beautiful botanical gardens
These two gardens are connected to each other, so it’s easy to spend a day exploring and maybe even getting lost on the grounds.
If you love to explore by kayak or SUP (stand-up paddleboarding), there’s no question whether Maui or Kauai is for you.
Kauai wins hands down because it is the only island in Hawaii with navigable rivers.
You can kayak or go stand-up paddleboarding in Kauai up the Wailua River, past an authentic Hawaiian village, then do a short hike to a 120-foot waterfall. No experience necessary! (The river is very calm.)
Jurassic Park scenery
Many people believe Kauai is the most beautiful island in Hawaii, which means a lot given all the islands’ natural beauty.
It’s so beautiful and lush that the 1993 blockbuster Jurassic Park was filmed there.
These mammoth seals are critically endangered, and they mostly live near the uninhabited northwestern islands of Hawaii and Kauai.
There are only about 1,100 left in the world. So seeing a Hawaiian monk seal is a big deal.
They grow up to 7 feet long and can weigh up to 600 lbs, and they’re often spotted basking in the sun on Kauai’s Poipu Beach.
If you do spot one, keep your distance. Not only can you get a heavy fine for getting too close, but they can also cause harm if they feel threatened.
Kauai or Maui: Which is better for hiking?
Maui has hiking opportunities, but Kauai is a hiker’s paradise.
The Garden Island has hikes for all experience levels.
If you’re a well-established and confident hiker, take on the Kalalau Trail – a two-day, 22-mile trek along the Na Pali Coast.
But if that’s too much, you can do a shorter section of the trail, getting in and out in a day, with a beach stop included.
Or try the easy-going, 3.6-mile (roundtrip) Kuilau Ridge Trail or the Mahaulepu Coastal Trail (both great half-day hikes).
Which island is best for…?
Maui vs. Kauai honeymoon
Is Kauai or Maui better for a honeymoon?
Tough one! Both islands have their unique allure.
But Maui is probably the better choice for a wider range of upscale resorts, gourmet dining and luxury experiences. (Maui also has the only adults-only hotel in Hawaii – the Hotel Wailea.)
On the flip side, if you’re leaning towards a more tranquil and intimate escape, away from the bustling crowds, then Kauai stands out.
But really, the essence of the perfect honeymoon island lies in the details – where you stay, restaurants you pick and the activities you indulge in.
Ultimately, the choice boils down to your personal preferences and the kind of honeymoon you’ve always dreamed about.
Maui vs. Kauai for families
We’ve enjoyed family vacations on both islands. But when deciding between Kauai or Maui with kids, we think Maui is the better choice for families.
Maui has more condos and vacation rentals – and places with kitchens are easier on the wallet (and more convenient) when you’re traveling with children.
Maui also has more easily-accessible beaches and water spots for younger swimmers.
Kauai or Maui for nature lovers?
For nature enthusiasts, Kauai definitely has an edge here.
As the oldest Hawaiian island, it showcases botanical gardens, waterfalls, jaw-dropping sea cliffs, canyons, rivers and rugged mountains.
While Maui has its own natural wonders, we think Kauai offers more quiet spots to truly appreciate nature.
So, which island is best for you?
So, now you know the similarities and differences between Kauai and Maui.
But, still, which one is the best island?
It’s hard to choose one over the other since they both have such unique attributes.
However, if you want to chill on beautiful beaches all day and have a relaxed (but also exciting) Hawaii vacation – with some nightlife to top it all off – Maui might just edge out the island of Kauai.
Many people who’ve vacationed on all the main islands prefer Maui and think it’s the best Hawaiian island. If this is your first visit to Hawaii, Maui is usually recommended as being the better option.
On the other hand, if the thought of being lazy and lying on a beach all day bores you, get adventurous on Kauai. It offers a genuine escape and a casual paradise vacation, where you can envelope yourself in nature.
If you have a week or more? Definitely do both.
Start in Kauai with the daring strenuous hikes, and then head to Maui to rest your weary self. Both will answer your vacation prayers.
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Photo credits: 7, 9 to 13, 20, 25 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase | 2 Ritz-Carlton Kapalua | 19 The Shops at Wailea | 21 Fairmont Kea Lani