Last updated on December 18, 2022 by Wandering our World
When visiting the Hawaiian islands, choosing which one is suitable for your vacation can be tricky. Especially if you’ve decided to visit either Oahu and Maui, two of the most popular, beautiful and fun islands in the Hawaiian archipelago.
However the good thing is we know both islands well and are here to help you!
For example, Oahu has more activities, a livelier nightlife and a bigger shopping scene than Maui, as well as great surfing, beaches and hiking. However the beaches in Maui are less crowded and the water tends to be better for swimming, whilst the island as a whole has a more laid-back vibe compared to Oahu.
But that’s just scratching the surface when it comes to how different these two islands are.
With that the case, below we compare Oahu vs Maui and explore what each island has to offer in depth, looking at the atmosphere in each, which has the better beaches, surfing resorts, activities and more! All so you can choose the right vacation for you.
So read on to begin your Hawaiian adventure!
- A Quick Overview
- Which Has Better Beaches
- Which Is Better For Surfing
- Which Has Better Resorts
- Where To Stay
- Which Is Better For Activities
- Which Is Better For Hiking
- Which Is The Better Choice
A Quick Overview Of Oahu vs Maui
The island of Oahu is a significant hub for nightlife, history, and cultural experiences. It’s a bit of a polarizing place due to the size and crowds – people either love it or hate it.
Honolulu is located on the island, and this city alone has a population much bigger than the entire island of Maui, making it a pretty packed place. For good reason though due to the extensive amount of activities, shops, restaurants, bars, and hotels here.
On top of all that, in Oahu you can find some incredible waves to surf, exclusive resorts, and get a bustling city feel in the tropics.
On the other hand, Maui is a bit more like what people expect from an island vacation. It has that laid-back island atmosphere, fewer crowds, and is overall a stunningly beautiful environment.
It’s also a great place to whale watch (as we talk about later), snorkel, hike, and site see.
With fewer crowds than Oahu you can find more untouched, secluded areas on Maui, which definitely gives this island the advantage if you want some peace and romance.
Which Has Better Beaches?
This is a tough question when both Oahu and Maui have some of the world’s most beautiful and picturesque beaches.
Oahu: The Beaches
Oahu boasts some of Hawaii’s best beaches, but you’ll find crowds in certain areas as the beaches here are developed and can get crowded. That gives Maui a few extra points in this department.
However if you’re looking for a great place to watch the sunset and avoid crowds in Oahu, then China Walls (which is really more of a rock wall than a beach) is a perfect romantic spot.
Be sure to stop by Lanikai Beach as well, which has consistently been voted one of the most picturesque beaches on the island. You can even rent a kayak from this beach, allowing you to explore the island’s shoreline for the afternoon and see it from a whole new viewpoint.
And of course Oahu’s iconic Waikiki Beach is the place for a busy beach vibe, great surf, cocktails and lots of fun.
Both islands have fantastic options, but from a numbers standpoint Oahu has Maui beat as it has far more beaches.
Maui: The Beaches
The beaches in Maui are far less busy than on Oahu, and they also boast gentler waves, making it a better swimming environment for young children and people unfamiliar with navigating rougher water.
The beaches are gorgeous too, and it’s hard to pass up Ka’anapali Beach, which is one of the most famous spots on Maui, with it’s postcard-worthy white sand.
Kapalua Beach is worth visiting too, with its white sand and turquoise water. The bay here is our favorite spot for a romantic evening stroll.
With better water visibility on this island too, snorkeling tends to be better on Maui in comparison to Oahu. In fact the water is so clear around the island that you can actually watch sea turtles and other sea life swim around you. It’s very special!
If you do visit Maui, be sure to check out Molokini and Makena Cove – both are popular places to spend the day underwater.
While Oahu has more beaches, in our mind there’s a clear winner in the beach battle – and that’s Maui.
This island has less crowded beaches – so you don’t have to set up your towel directly next to other people – clearer water and gentler waves. Making it better for sunbathing and swimming.
Which Is Better For Surfing?
Surfing is for sure a bigger deal in Oahu, and there’s plenty of spots where waves can reach as high as 40 feet on the island. So if you’re surfer and catching a wave is your priority, then Oahu will likely be a better choice for you.
With that said, Waikiki Beach in Oahu remains a great spot for beginners as there’s very little danger of getting scraped on a reef or being in water that feels too deep. Snorkeling is an option here too, but visibility isn’t usually very good because of crowds and potentially high waves.
You can surf in Maui too, although it doesn’t have such a strong surfing culture as Oahu.
But if you want an excellent area to surf or relax on the beach in Maui, check out Hamoa. Surrounded by cliffs and plenty of open ocean, this area provides a more secluded experience without a long drive or hike.
Another great place to catch a wave on Maui is The Cove in Kihei for gentle waves, or Olowalu which has rougher bigger waves and good place for surfers more comfortable on their board.
Which Has Better Resorts?
Both islands offer fantastic resorts; however, we think Maui tends to have better (although somewhat more expensive) options due to the seclusion and all-inclusive options.
Maui has two major resort areas: Ka’anapali and Wailea, alongside various stays scattered throughout the island.
You’ll find many of the resorts on Maui sit in wonderful landscapes, and feel like a tropical paradise. The one issue is there’s definitely not as many accommodation options compared to Oahu. Which also contributes to Maui being a more expensive place for accommodations in general.
In contrast, Oahu has more chain resorts and hotels (like Marriott and Hyatt), which both offer great stays. However instead of being surrounded by beautiful beaches, there are often more shops than sand!
You can find trendy independent hotels on Oahu too, probably more than anywhere else in Hawaii.
Take Vive Hotel Waikiki as an example: this boutique hotel offers stunning views, is just a short walk to the beach, and feels like an authentic island experience. There are also more budget-friendly options throughout the island, making Oahu more accessible for budget travelers.
When considering the two, Oahu wins when it comes to variety of accommodation and affordability. However, if you’re looking for something more remote, secluded and potentially in more beautiful surroundings, Maui is a no-brainer.
Below we look briefly at some of the best resorts in each island so you can see what’s on offer:
Where To Stay
Maui: Resorts & Accommodations
Wailea Beach on Maui is an area that’s known for boasting some of the most extravagant resorts in the state, and a great place to be based.
Both the Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea (see photos and rates) and the Grand Wailea – A Waldorf Astoria Resort (see photos and rates), are the sort of gorgeous resorts that need to be seen to be believed.
Many celebrities have spent time in both hotels, and the area’s appeal is clear with massive swimming pools and gorgeous greenery surrounded by beaches and lush forests.
You can also find less expensive options in Ka’anapali with 4-star amenities. Airbnb stays are also an affordable option and can be found scattered throughout the island.
Oahu: Resorts & Accommodations
Located in the heart of Waikiki, 2 minutes walk to the famous Waikiki Beach and surrounded by shopping and dining is the luxury boutique Halepuna Waikiki hotel.
This four-star hotel will stretch budgets, but the panoramic views of the ocean and city – alongside the gorgeous infinity pool – will be worth it. See photos and rates here!
For a real taste of lucky then check out Espacio – The Jewel Of Waikiki. With its gorgeous rooftop infinity pool that looks out unobstructed onto the Pacific from Waikiki Beach, its hard to find anything more luxurious. The location is perfect, the suites unbeatable, and the service world class. See photos and rates here.
But as mentioned previously, the sheer number of hotels, resorts and rentals in Oahu actually means you can find accommodations to suit every traveler here, from backpacker to celebrity!
Which Is Better For Activities?
Oahu: The Activities
Oahu has the Polynesian Cultural Center, a great educational experience. You can easily spend half a day at the center learning about each Polynesian island, including Hawaii, Fiji, and Tahiti.
There are over forty acres of recreated villages, cultural demonstrations, and interactive exhibits to enjoy and keep your mind busy too.
You can also visit the Pearl Harbor Visitors Center which is free. There you can step back into time for a couple of hours, and learn what happened here during WW2.
Oahu’s Honolulu also has many shopping areas, with luxury stores and local goods available to browse. On top of that expect a great nightlife scene in Honolulu and Oahu, a zoo, aquariums, parks and more.
Simply put when it comes to activities, Oahu has everything you need and far more options than Maui. You’ll never be bored with endless options for nightlife, a zoo, aquarium, parks, Pearl Harbor, museums, beach activities, better shopping and more.
Maui: The Activities
Maui is definitely a lot quieter than Oahu, but has some great spots to visit as well, especially if you’re more interested in activities in nature rather than in the city. In fact when it comes to outdoor and nature-orientated activities, this island is probably the better choice.
The Road to Hana is one of the major draws to the island and a place you surely don’t want to miss. This 64-mile drive is bound to take your breath away as you twist and turn through the stunning (albeit narrow) roads.
With over 600 curves and 60 bridges, you’ll encounter unsurpassed ocean views, massive waterfalls, scenic hikes, produce stands, and more. Check out the black sand beach at Wai’anapanapa State Park and the quaint surf town of Paia on your way.
Recommended: The Most Beautiful & Rare Birds of Maui
Haleakala Crater is another iconic spot that has drawn people from all over the world. This is a staple excursion if you visit Maui, due to the out of this world views you get when up close and personal with Hawaii’s largest volcano! You can drive to the summit, so it’s easy to reach as well.
As you climb the heights of this dormant beast, notice the way the landscape begins to change in color, almost looking like an entirely new planet.
Be sure to bring a jacket, because at 10,000 feet it can get a little chilly (even up to 20 degrees colder than the beach!). It’s also an excellent spot for sunrises and sunsets, but be prepared for a couple hours of driving to make it to the top.
However where it may lack in shopping or nightlife, Maui makes up for with whale watching. From November to March you can see a gathering of 10,000 humpback whales as they swim to the warmer waters of Hawaii during the winter season.
You can see them from Maui’s shore, but you can also take a boat to watch them up close for a once in a lifetime experience.
Recommended: Are There Snakes in Hawaii?
Which Is Better For Hiking?
If you’re looking to hike, then Oahu and Maui are pretty equal.
There are great options on both islands, and Oahu you can get magnificent views with waterfalls, natural swimming pools to jump in, craters to see, and ridges with breathtaking views.
A hike up Diamond Head – which looms over Waikiki – will give you spectacular panoramic views of Honolulu and Oahu.
If you’re not staying near hiking trails in Maui, then many can be quite hard to reach, or are situated on the dry/hot side of the island.
Instead, you should check out Koko Head Crater Trail for a short but strenuous hike with incredible views. Or enjoy the Makapu’u Tide Pools, which is a bit of a scramble to get down, but you can then swim in the natural pools below.
While Oahu has more accessible hikes and better surfing, Maui feels more remote, rustic and isolated. The hiking trails in Maui are less busy, the beaches can sometimes be completely empty, and you can even whale watch from the shore while trekking! For that reason Maui is our choice for outdoor adventure.
Maui vs Oahu: Which Is The Better Choice?
When figuring out where to vacation, it’s hard to go wrong when choosing between Maui and Oahu. No matter which one you choose, there is truly something for everyone.
Especially as you’ll find amazing beach views, hikes for all levels, snorkeling, surfing, and all the adventures your heart desires on either island.
However there are several differences that we’ve found between the two.
When it comes to beaches Maui is probably the better choice. The beaches in Maui are less crowded and the water is better for swimming. The resorts tend to be better in Maui too, however they are more expensive than Oahu. Maui also has a more laid-back and relaxed vibe.
Oahu has a wider variety of hotel and resort choices, which also makes it a cheaper island than Maui. We’ve also found Oahu to have lots of activities, a lively nightlife and shopping scene, as well as great surfing and hiking opportunities.
So if you’re looking for a vacation which has lots on offer in a lively place, then Oahu may be a better choice than Maui.