It would be pretty hard to choose the “wrong” Hawaiian island for your vacation. They’re all stunning and you can find amazing beaches and recreational activities on all of them.
With that said, picking exactly where you go may come down to a few key points that mean the most to you. Maybe you want to hike or have a resort experience. Perhaps you love exciting nightlife or hitting the surf early in the morning. Maybe you want it all and don’t care to choose!
That’s where we come in! We know Hawaii well and can tell you exactly what makes each island different. So let’s start by comparing Kauai vs Maui.
Kauai vs Maui: What to expect?
Kauai and Maui are both relatively quiet when compared to bigger islands like Oahu. Maui is more accessible in regards to beaches and outdoor adventures. It’s also a major honeymoon destination with high-class resorts.
On the other hand, Kauai is a bit more on the rural side, boasting jagged mountain peaks and expansive forests. Kauai is an adventurer’s paradise, lacking the big tourist draws and crowds. (Recommended: The Best Hawaiian Islands for Families).
Kauai vs Maui: Which has better beaches?
You’re in Hawaii, so a beach day is a must.
Maui boasts gentler waters, along with much diversity. From the sparkling white sand in Kaanapali to the red sand at Kiki Beach Park to the black sand at Wai’anapanapa State Park, you can take your pick. You can also see the stunning Molokini crater from Big Beach.
The water is calmer on this island and might be better for those who aren’t the strongest swimmers. Rent a kayak to take along the coast or shop and dine at one of the many stores nearby. Lao Valley is also a fun option, where you can find the iconic 1,200 foot Needle Rock formation.
Maui is also known for its top-notch snorkeling, and you don’t want to miss it if you choose this as your vacation spot. When the weather is mild, there is no shortage of great sites to dive deep and see the underwater world.
Kauai has wider beaches, but they can be harder to reach.
You may need a four-wheel drive to navigate the unpaved road that leads to Polihale State Park but there you can find impressive tall dunes and waves. However that makes for dangerous swimming unless you’re at Queen’s Pond, which is protected by a sandbar. All of these reasons lead to the seclusion and privacy of the area though.
If you like to surf or sail, Kalapaki Bay is a perfect spot. Anini Beach is a calmer water option because a large reef protects it. It’s also quite long, with 2 miles of beach access, so finding a private spot won’t be challenging.
Poipu Beach Park is another popular spot, and the Haena Beach Park is absolutely gorgeous and has a view of Mount Makana.
Overall, Kauai beaches tend to have rougher currents and strong swells, especially if you hit the island during the winter months. So when it comes to which one has the better beaches, we believe Maui has better beaches than Kauai. (Recommended: Kauai vs Big Island).
Kauai vs Maui: Which has better resorts?
Maui wins this category due to the number of options.
Wailea Beach holds some of the most luxurious resorts, like the Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea or the Grand Wailea – A Waldorf Astoria Resort. Many A-listers have spent time here, and for good reason.
The draw to Wailea is clear, with massive pools and gorgeous green lawns surrounded by beaches and lush forests. You can find less expensive options in Ka’anapali with 4-star amenities.
Kauai is a bit more sparse due to building restrictions. However, with that said, you can find nice resorts on Kauai as well, like the Grand Hyatt and Koa Kea Resort in Poipu.
Kauai vs Maui: What daytime adventures are available?
Take the Road to Hana in Maui. Stunning views, several hiking trails, hidden swimming holes, and farm stands scattered throughout this drive which makes it a great day’s adventure. This is hands-down one of the top scenic drives in the world, so make sure to keep your head on a swivel while on your way. (Recommended: The Most Beautiful & Rare Birds of Maui).
Maui also provides the opportunity to explore many quirky beach towns and agricultural areas, where you can tour coffee and pineapple farms. There are plenty of excursions, whether to beaches, farm tours, or whale watching.
Maui is also a perfect spot to take a boat tour because of the calmer waters. You’ll be able to relax with smooth sailing and plenty of views all around.
Kauai is an outdoor lover’s paradise. With so much untouched land, it has fully earned the nickname the ‘Garden Isle’.
The rural landscape here means untouched views all around. With sea turtles and whale watching in Poipu Beach Park, plenty of waterfalls, Waimea Canyon – known as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific – and the Coconut Coast, you’re sure to find plenty of great sites.
Visit the friendly towns of Hanapepe, Koloa, Waimea, Kapaa, and Hanalei if you’re looking for indoor activities. Hanalei has plenty of art galleries to wander, all at a lush green mountain base, making it a very picturesque town.
You can also find Koke State Park on Kauai which boasts over 4,000 acres of forest and countless hiking trails. Kilohana Plantation is another cool spot to see an actual working farm. Try some rum samples and explore the restored home and enjoy lunch at the restaurant on site.
If you’re looking for some great hikes, Kauai has you covered. The Napali Coast has many hikes, including a 22 mile famous route, but you can also find plenty of easier hikes.
A benefit to Kauai is that you can hike through lush jungle no matter where you are based on the island. In contrast most resorts in Maui tend to be on the dryer side of the island, so access to waterfall or jungle hikes will require more of a drive and research.
Kauai vs Maui: What nighttime adventures are available?
Neither island is a major hub for nightlife, but if you’re looking for somewhere with a bit more going on, Lahaina in Maui is a prime spot. You can find restaurants, pubs, breweries, and entertainment options to fit your needs. Nothing super fancy, but it’ll do the job.
Kauai, on the other hand, is significantly more laid back. Most places shut down pretty early, so if you’re looking for late nights of dancing, this may not be the spot for you. With that in mind, however, it makes this island a very family-friendly option.
Kauai vs Maui: What outdoor adventures are available?
Maui is home to Haleakala, a massive dormant volcano. Bring a jacket and enjoy the scenic drive as you climb 10,000 feet above sea level (temperatures can drop up to 20 degrees from the beach to the top!). Sit above the clouds and enjoy extraterrestrial terrain or head up early to catch one of the world’s best sunrises.
Maui takes the cake for snorkeling due to the accessible beaches. Whale watching is also a popular draw for Maui from November to March, where you can see 10,000 humpback whales as they migrate to warmer waters! You can also find sea turtles and other amazing underwater life.
Catamaran cruises are a popular outing to check out, as well as many day hikes and waterfalls, especially on the Road to Hana.
Kauai is a prime spot for travelers that want to go off the beaten path – literally. A good portion of the island is only accessible by hikes or ATVs, but it’s well worth it. Waimea Canyon is located on the western part of the island, and is 3,000 feet deep and 10 miles long! Also known as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” it’s definitely a site you don’t want to miss. You can take the difficult hike down and see it from all angles.
Kauai is a hiker’s paradise, especially if you’re experienced. You can try the 22-mile two-day trek along the Napali Coast (Kapalua Trail) or the shorter Kuilau Ridge Trail which takes just a couple of hours.
This island also has perfect rivers for kayaking, especially if you take the Hule’ia River through the National Wildlife Refuge. Keep your eyes peeled for monk seals as well, as Kauai is home to a massive population of them!
Kauai vs Maui: Which is the better choice?
Maui is a popular honeymoon spot or place for groups/families due to the sheer access to various activities that are good for all ages and interests. You can also find more upscale restaurants, making for a classy, romantic evening. There are more resort options on Maui too, and better beaches than Kauai, so if beaches and resorts are your priority then Maui could be the better choice.
On the other hand, Kauai is an outdoorsy-type paradise with amazing views, a lack of crowds, and true solitude. It is definitely more rustic in comparison to Maui, and would be the better choice if you’re wanting a vacation with many outdoor activities in untouched Hawaii.
Wherever you choose to vacation, Kauai or Maui, you really can’t go wrong. You’ll end up on a gorgeous island with picturesque views all around, sparkling ocean and soft sand, and plenty of adventures no matter where you look.
Both serve as perfect spots to spend time away from the real world to rejuvenate your mind and body. Take a well-deserved, relaxing, and exciting vacation on either island, and you’re sure to have a wonderful time. Remember, no stress. You’re on island time now!