Hawaii is the perfect place for an island vacation. With beautiful beaches, lush forests, and a sparkling ocean, you can’t go wrong with any spot you choose. However, if you’re looking for a real vacation to slow down, relax, and escape the hustle and bustle of everyday life, Kauai and Big Island should be at the top of your list to consider.
Both are excellent options for those looking for outdoor adventures too. Despite their differences in size, if the natural world is your happy place, it’S hard to go wrong between either of these islands. Although as we show here, there are important differences between Kauai and Big Island that you must consider when planning a vacation.
The Big Island has the most options for things to do simply because of its size. You can find eight types of ecosystems, five volcanoes, and the Hawaii Volcanoes Natural Park. On the other hand, Kauai is the oldest island in Hawaii, and it’s known for its dramatic landscape.
Both also boast a laid-back atmosphere and lack the crowds and tourists of the other Hawaiian islands. So let’s take a closer look to break down each island so you can choose the right one for your vacation!
Kauai or Big Island: What to expect?
The Big Island holds incredible biodiversity.
It’s called “big” for a reason – it has incredible diversity, so you can literally choose what kind of weather and sand color you prefer on any given day. From the snowy peak of a volcano to the warm salty breeze down on the beach, make sure to pack layers for all weathers. It’s the only Hawaiian island with two active volcanoes, including Mauna Kea, that stands 13,800 feet tall and has an excellent observatory for stargazing.
Because of Big Island’s size, expect to rent a car because you’re looking at an hour’s drive at the minimum to get between major draws. You can find many quaint towns on the island, however to enjoy a more touristy environment, check out Hilo for plenty of boutiques, galleries, museums, and food! (Recommended: The Best Hawaiian Islands for Families).
Kauai is more rural and secluded compared to Big Island and has less crowds and tourists. Lack of people means the opportunity to experience authentic local culture, so be sure to check out towns like Hanapepe, Waimea, Koloa, Kapaa, and Hanalei. You can find plenty of museums and historical landmarks to learn about the island in those towns, so you can gain a genuine appreciation for the culture.
Due to building restrictions, beaches will never be overdeveloped or crowded this island, so you don’t have to worry about getting a perfect sunny spot or fighting crowds to get near the water.
This island is also home to some of the most stunning natural scenery in the world. From dramatic cliffs and lush forests. No wonder then that it was the perfect setting for movies like Jurassic Park.
However summer is the best time to visit Kauai because during the rest of the year you could run into a substantial amount of rain, as well as rough waters during the winter months.
Kauai or Big Island: Which has better beaches?
Kauai is incredible if you want solitude, even when it comes to beaches. You can find tall dunes and impressive cliff sides and countless white sand beaches, but many are only accessible by trails, ATVs, or four-wheel drive. That does, of course, mean you can have them all to yourself.
Kalapaki Bay is a prime spot for surfing and sailing, while Anini Beach boasts calm water that is perfect for visitors of all ages. Be careful of strong swells and currents, especially during the winter months.
From Poipu Beach Park to Haena Beach Park, there are plenty of spots to relax in the sun. If you love snorkeling, Lydgate Beach Park offers calm, shallow water, which may also be helpful if you have small children due to safer swimming conditions.
Big Island gives you more variety when it comes to beaches in that you can actually choose what color of sand you want! From rare green sand at Popakolea Beach to the black sand at Kalapana on Big Island, these picturesque areas are sure to pique your interest.
With all of that said, Kauai may be slightly better in this category because almost half of the island’s coast is covered in soft white sand. However, Big Island has some unique spots, making it a close race between the two islands.
Kauai or Big Island: What activities are there and things to do?
This island is an outdoor lover’s paradise. With so much untouched land, it has fully earned the nickname the ‘Garden Isle’.
Waimea Canyon is a must-see; its unique geology covering 14 miles earns it the name “Grand Canyon of the Pacific.” In addition, you can find plenty of hiking nearby, as the canyon is 3,000 feet deep. Take the trek all the way down to its base to take in its magnitude fully!
The Napali Coast looks exactly like a scene out of a movie (looking at you, Jurassic Park). Do the 22-mile trek along the coast or a shorter, more leisurely hike at the Kuilau Ridge Trail.
You can also find plenty of rivers throughout the island that are perfect for kayaking or paddleboarding. Hanakapi’ai Falls on the Napali Coast is a big draw for travelers, and if you’re looking to surf, Hanalei Bay has you covered.
Koke State Park is a great place to visit if you want amazing views of Waimea Canyon and plenty of hiking spots. It has over 4000 acres to explore and is a nature lover’s paradise. If you love birds, keep an eye out for the many exotic species on the island.
Kilohana Plantation and the Plantation Railway are great options in Kauai to explore some original plantation-era homes. Some have been converted into shops, galleries, and restaurants, so it’s an excellent spot to grab a bite to eat. You can even take the Plantation Railroad for a peek into the variety of farms found on the island.
The Big Island is full of excursions as well. Scuba diving is particularly popular due to the island’s lava caves and the high manta ray population. There are plenty of unique dive sites in the area to check out.
The Big Island has plenty of hiking options for those looking for exercise, so check out the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. If you’re lucky, you may get to witness lava actively flowing into the ocean.
However, this isn’t the only national park to see because Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historic Park is another draw to the area. You can learn about native Hawaiian culture and history with this cultural experience.
Consider also taking a boat or helicopter tour to see the full expansiveness of the island. You can also go zip lining through the forest to see the island from an exhilarating perspective!
Big Island also boasts many unique opportunities, like whale watching during the winter months where you can see humpbacks gathering in the warmer water for mating season. Catch a boat and see it from the water!
Kauai or Big Island: Which has the better nightlife and evening activities?
The islands tie for this one, as neither are known for having great nightlife. You can find awesome food options on either island though, or even a few cozy breweries, but keep your expectations in check if you compare both of these islands to the likes of Oahu or Maui.
Big Island definitely gets an extra point in this department due to night snorkels, scuba dives, and swims. Many excursions revolve around seeing manta rays in their natural habitat during the evening. You can watch these amazing creatures during their busy time at night. Stargazing at the Mauna Kea visitor center is unparalleled as well, and can be a great way to spend an evening.
Due to the seclusion and lack of development on both of these islands, they both offer amazing sunset views. You can always enjoy a tropical cocktail while the sun goes down for a wonderful taste of paradise.
Kauai or Big Island: Which has better resorts and accomodation?
This one is a toss-up. Both islands offer high-end to budget-friendly resort options, as well as rentals and bed/breakfast type setups. So whether you’re looking for a place big enough for the whole family or something cozier for a romantic vacation, both islands have you covered.
With that said, there are some definite places you should check out.
The Big Island has an entire private resort community that stretches along an amazing beachfront called Kohanaiki. You can also find great stays at Mauna Kea Resort and Mauna Lani Resort with upscale amenities. In addition, the Four Seasons Hualalai is a significant draw for celebrities and is a fantastic resort to enjoy.
Kauai has similar options, from upscale to budget, big to intimate. Popular spots are Grand Hyatt and Kia Kea Resort in Poipu, or the more budget-friendly Coconut Beach’s Courtyard and Kapa’a’s Hotel Coral Reef. Are you looking to splurge? The St. Regis Princeville Resort is the definition of luxury on the North Shore.
From sheer volume of resorts alone though, the Big Island may win this round.
Kauai vs Big Island: Which is the better choice?
Once again, both islands are amazing in their own right, and there is no “wrong” place to choose for your Hawaiian vacation.
That said, Big Island due to its size has more activities available, whilst Kauai has the better beaches due to the number of white sand beaches and coastline diversity. Both have great resort and accommodation options, but you’ll find more choices on Big Island.
However if you love solitude and amazing views, Kauai and Big Island are both excellent options you’re sure to love. Either way, take the time to relax and rewind on island time.