So, you’ve got your heart set on a Hawaiian vacation.
And 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, some significant differences can help you choose which is better: Maui or Kauai?
General differences – Maui vs Kauai:
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.
Kauai gets more rain than Maui, especially in winter. 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.
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 beach area just north of Lahaina – the free hop-on, hop-off Kaanapali Trolley connects the major resorts with the shopping and dining hub of Whalers Village in Lahaina.
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 Beach near the north end of Kaanapali Beach and Turtle Town (considered the best place 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.
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.
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.
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).
Don’t be fooled by the warm weather at your hotel. 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 in 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.
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.
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.
What is Kauai Known for?
Beautiful botanical gardens:
Kauai is known as the Garden Isle, and its botanical gardens are amongst the best in Hawaii (indeed, they’re some of the world’s most gorgeous gardens).
In particular, you must visit the Allerton and McBryde Gardens. Kauai’s warm showers and the micro-climate sunshine in the southern part of the island nurture a luscious home for 350 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.
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. 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 1/2-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.
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Photo credits: 7, 9 to 12 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase | 3 Ritz-Carlton Kapalua | 16 The Shops at Wailea | 17 Lappert’s Ice-Cream | 18 Fairmont Kea Lani