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.
Which island is better: Maui or Kauai?
- Glorious swimming beaches
- Lahaina town
- Road to Hana
- Whale watching
- Haleakala Volcano
- Art galleries and shopping
- Great hotels
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, 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). 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.
Depending on where you stay, you may not even need to rent a car (except for when you want to do a day trip).
For example, if you stay in Lahaina – the largest tourist area – you’ll be able to walk almost everywhere.
You also won’t need to rent a car to stay in the Kaanapali (Ka’anapali in Hawaiian) beach area just north of Lahaina.
The free hop-on, hop-off Kaanapali Trolley connects the major resorts in Kaanapali with the shopping and dining hub of Whalers Village.
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.
Note: 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 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 (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 (It’s known for its amazing water visibility of up to 150 feet! Tours often combine snorkeling at Molokini and Turtle Town.)
So if you’re asking: “Which has better snorkeling: Maui or Kauai?” we’d say Maui.
Located in west Maui, Lahaina Town is the largest tourist town in Maui.
With all the years of tourism to the island, the former historic whaling village has bloomed from a small sea-town to a bustling tourist-centric community.
It’s where you’ll find most of the nightlife, loads of restaurants and plenty of entertainment. There are chain restaurants and five-star white tablecloth options – and everything in between.
If you’re looking for a happening place, Maui is the best island to visit in Hawaii (next to Oahu).
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 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 one 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.
Here’s a highly-rated whale watching tour (2 hours long) via high-speed catamaran that leaves from Lahaina Harbor. 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.
If you’re up for a fabulous (though hair-raising) adventure, some companies offer bike-down tours.
You can also hike within Haleakala Crater.
One of the best 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).
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 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. A slew of them are concentrated in the Lahaina area.
Check out Whalers Village near Lahaina for beachside boutiques and cafés, as well as The Shops at Wailea.
Both are malls, but very attractive ones with lots of outdoor spaces, and they have everything you could dream of.
If you’d rather stay out of the malls, take a stroll down Front Street in Lahaina.
Also drive to the hippie town of Paia or its neighbor Makawao for cute boutiques and unique shops.
Best galleries in Maui
The Maui Hands Art Gallery represents over 300 local fine artists and has four locations on the island. Find original paintings, glassware, Niihau shell leis, ceramics, jewelry and more.
Maui Crafts Guild:
An artist-owned and cooperative gallery, Maui Crafts Guild supports local artists.
Lahaina Arts Society:
The Lahaina Arts Society Gallery opened in the 1960s and is a big supporter of the community.
They host art fairs, teach children art classes and award partial scholarships to high school students every year.
Andrew Shoemaker Fine Art Photography:
You know all those incredible shots you try to take of Hawaii’s most beautiful spots? The ones that never look as good as the real thing? Well, Andrew Shoemaker’s photos do.
At the Andrew Shoemaker Fine Art Photography Gallery in Lahaina, you can finally find and take home a picture that looks as good as the real thing.
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.
Some of the best Maui resorts include the Fairmont Kea Lani, Ritz-Carlton Kapalua and Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea.
For a less fancy option, try Napili Kai Beach Resort for comfortable condos on a fabulous beach.
Of course, Kauai has lovely hotels as well, but not as many as Maui.
And most of the best resorts on Kauai (with the exception of the Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort) are still not as luxurious as the best places in Maui.
What is Kauai Known for?
Beautiful botanical gardens:
Kauai is known as the Garden Isle, and the botanical gardens on Kauai are amongst the best in Hawaii. (Indeed, they’re some of the world’s most gorgeous gardens.)
In particular, you must visit the Allerton Garden and McBryde Garden.
Kauai’s warm showers and the micro-climate sunshine in the southern part of the island nurture a luscious home for 280 acres of tropical plants, fruit and flowers.
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.
2 Most beautiful places in Kauai
Don’t miss the following two famous spots when you travel to this tropical island:
The Na Pali Coast:
When you picture Kauai, you probably think of luxuriant green jungle and dramatic jagged cliffs swathed in a carpet of verdant green flora. That is the Na Pali Coast.
It’s not the most accessible area to visit, but it’s a must.
You can see a bit of it by driving to Ke’e Beach in Haena State Park. But you can’t experience its full grandeur that way.
One option is to take a Na Pali Coast boat tour – although, sorry, the ride is notorious for being a bumpy vomit-comet in winter. It’s best to do this in the summer, when sea conditions are calmer.
Or you can do a hike (see the Kalalau Trail below).
But possibly your best bet? Take a thrilling helicopter ride.
Another option – considerably less expensive than a helicopter ride – is a scenic flight in a small Cessna plane (featuring huge bubble windows).
Some visitors say this small plane ride over the Na Pali Coast (and Waimea Canyon – see below), with Wings Over Kauai, is even better than the helicopter tours.
Waimea Canyon, another not-to-be-missed spot in Kauai, is known as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific. It’s a large canyon, about 10 miles long and 3,000 feet deep, covered in lush tropical foliage and sheer cliffs.
It offers various hikes for all levels of experience. But if you’re not into the hiking option, there are several lookouts as well as tours to show you around.
However you experience it, know this: It’s a breathtaking nature lover’s paradise.
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).
Final thoughts on Kauai vs Maui
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.
Our top travel tips and resources
Here are our favorite travel resources:
Hotels: Booking.com is great for scoring a “wow” hotel – or at least a decent one. (We especially like their flexible cancellation policy!)
Vacation homes, condos and rentals: We prefer and use Vrbo (Vacation Rentals by Owner).
Tours: For the best local food, walking and other guided tours plus skip-the-line tickets to attractions, check out GetYourGuide and Viator.
Car rental: Renting a car is often one of the best ways to explore off the beaten path. Discover Cars searches car rental companies so you get the best rates.
Travel insurance: SafetyWing is designed for frequent travelers, long-term adventurers and digital nomads. It covers medical expenses, lost checked luggage, trip interruption and more.
Vaccines and meds: We follow CDC travel guidelines to see what medications and vaccines are needed for trips. You can get vaccines at your pharmacy, travel medical clinic or doctor’s office.
Travel gear: See our travel shop to find the best luggage, accessories and other travel gear. (We suggest these comfy travel sandals for city walking, the beach and kicking about.)
Need more help planning your trip? Check out our travel tips and resources guide for airline booking tips, ways to save money, how to find great hotels and other crazy useful trip planning info.
Pssst! If you make a booking or purchase through our site, we may earn a small commission (at no cost to you). Thanks!
Share the aloha. Pin this, so others can read it too!
Photo credits: 6, 8 to 11 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase | 2 Ritz-Carlton Kapalua | 15 The Shops at Wailea | 16 Lappert’s Ice-Cream | 17 Fairmont Kea Lani
About the authors
Luxury travel journalists and SATW, NATJA and TMAC “Best Travel Blog” award winners, Janice and George Mucalov are the publishers of Sand In My Suitcase. Between them, they’ve traveled to all 7 continents. See About.
Find destination guides, global food-and-wine stories, luxury hotel reviews, articles on cultural explorations and soft adventure trips, cruise reviews, insanely useful travel tips and more!
Monday 26th of September 2022
As one who has been to each of the 2 islands about 8 times, I actually prefer Kauai by a nose. And we are actually the pool/beach people who don't hike much. Kauai is more chill and the fewer tourists make it easier to relax there.
You didn't mention the Marriott/Royal Sonesta Resort on Kalapaki Beach. We own here and honestly don't have to leave as everything you need is here or within walking distance.
The nod I'll give Maui is the number of restaurants post-Covid compared to Kauai. Many places on Kauai have closed whereas Maui's mayor was smarter.
Anyway, there is not a bad choice as we love both, but we like Kauai more by a tiny margin.
Janice and George
Monday 26th of September 2022
Thanks for chiming in!
As for your resort on Kalapaki Beach, head on over to our post on 10 Beautiful Hotels in Kauai for detailed coverage of the Marriott/Royal Sonesta. We've stayed there a few times too - love it there, and the beach is great :-).
Friday 3rd of June 2022
Kauai is beautiful and has more lush tropical scenery. The south and parts of the West side of Maui are pretty dry, thus more brown/beige and less green. Still, for me it's about the beaches and consistent sunshine. Maui wins hands down. Kauai does have a more authentic vibe due to less congestion and less tourism, but Maui does have plenty of soul if you look past the surface. And the water and accessible beaches are unmatched.
Janice and George
Friday 3rd of June 2022
We couldn't agree with you more :-). Thanks for commenting!
Friday 14th of January 2022
I'm a haole (mostly white) girl who grew up on Kauai and my Tutu (grandmother) lived on Maui, so I've spent plenty of time on both islands. As a free diver and surfer, I much prefer the beaches on Kauai. The surf is better, and in the summer we go North for calm waters while in the winter we go South. You can usually find live music on the weekends in Poipu or Hanalei, and Kauai is so much more authentic feeling in regard to the true Hawaiian spirit! I also have a boutique on the South side called Mana and my customers have become my friends and family - that's just how we roll here :) I also think that Kauai is a bit more beautiful, almost everywhere you look is breathtaking!
Janice and George
Friday 14th of January 2022
Yes, Kauai is gorgeous! You're blessed to live on such a beautiful island :-).
Sunday 1st of August 2021
This sounded like one long advertisement for Maui. In short, Kauai has soul, Maui does not.
Janice and George
Monday 2nd of August 2021
Oh no, we hope that is not the impression given. We love both islands equally, just in different ways :-).
Tuesday 27th of July 2021
We have a saying here on Kaua'i... If you love Kaua'i, send your friends to Maui. But if you are laid back, respectful of the land and of others, by all means, you will love visiting here... 💜🙏
Janice and George
Wednesday 28th of July 2021
That's a lovely saying! Thank you very much for sharing that :-).