Which Hawaiian Island? Maui vs Kauai

So you have whittled the choices down to Maui and Kaua’i and learned that besides draining your pockets the hardest part about visiting Hawaii may be choosing just ONE island to visit. Although a map may show the islands as small clumps of the same green stuff, each offers a unique experience due to varying geology, history, and culture making a decision no easier. Which is why we have taken the time to peel away the warm sun, soft sands and those happy rainbows to reveal just the goodness that distinguishes the two from each other. So, if you are fortunate enough to have the unfortunate task of choosing between Maui or Kauai, maybe we help give you a push East or West.

Maui – Wide Appeal and Accessibility

From above Maui takes the shape of two conjoined cones with roads that trace their edges. And it is from these roads that you can see much of the spectacular coastline often from an elevated vantage point, which can be great for spotting whales when they are around. Riding in a car or bus, or better yet a convertible, is a big part of the experience like driving along the enchanting Road to Hana, a narrow highway that winds in and out of valleys laden with heavenly waterfalls and dense jungle-like vegetation. All of these well-placed roads make Maui accessible and easy to see especially in comparison to Kauai. But there are more than roads.

There are whales! If you worship these majestic mammals (like we do) and plan to visit in the winter months, then Maui is your destination. The sheltered waters between Maui and its neighbors are a haven for humpback whales that in some places can be seen without leaving your hotel room. Don’t forget the binoculars! And if you are itching to get out on the water, there are a number of boat and kayak tours that can get you closer to the action. We have seen Humpback’s breaching the waters of  Kauai, but Maui offers the best environment to watch these great giants.

Maui coastline

And there’s shopping. For those who need to shop and dine Maui is the place to do it. You can find restaurants from simple to exquisite and cute shops especially near the great banyan tree in the old and charming whaling town of Lahaina. But, in Maui you will also find some true corporate Americana like Bubba Gump Shrimp Co and Ruth’s Chris Prime Steakhouse just in case you get home sick or have someone less adventurous in your group.

Road to Hana

Without a doubt both Kauai and Maui offer great snorkeling, but Maui, in our opinion, is the better option especially if you like to be a part of a guided group. In Maui there a numerous guides and companies that will get you to spots with best odds of seeing – OMG! – turtles and colorful fish that day.

Mt. Haleakala at sunset.

Maui’s landscape has unmatched diversity. Take for example the great Haleakalā, a massive shield volcano which offers hiking, out of this world sunrises, and chilly but eye-popping star gazing. Of course there is a road that leads right up each of its 10,023 feet (3,055 m).

With its great views from the roads, shopping, restaurants and tours, Maui brims with broad appeal. So if you are with multiple companions of varying tastes or activity levels, Maui may be spot on.

Kaua’i – Rural and Rugged

A pterodactyl would not look out of place floating over Kaua’i. Its wide plains and pointed mountain peaks all covered in green give it that prehistoric touch. There is fewer of everything man-made including shops and gimmicky chains, and scarcely will you find a building taller than two stories. Locating a restaurant or shopping away from the hotel can be a challenge or at least not convenient because agriculture still dominates much of the landscape.

Unlike Maui most of the coast is not visible from the road which is great for the active traveller and bad if you or your companions are not. Much of its treasures require an arduous hunt. For example, one of the island’s and possibly the world’s greatest treasures is the Nā Pali Coast. You can view a few nuggets of its cliffs after a short walk from one or two parkings lots, but to truly take in it’s awesomeness you options are limited: a dangerous one or two day hike to one of it’s peaks or beaches, a cruise through waters that test the fortitude of even the most seaworthy stomachs or ride a helicopter, an adventure in and of itself. In many spots throughout the island the surf and terrain can literally be deadly, but to some it may be worth the risk.

Hanalei Bay

And to others danger and exertion may defeat the purpose of a vacation. Kauai is not for the others. Or rather, Maui is better suited. So much more of Maui is visible without shuffling across a gut-wringing 5-inch ledge that looks a thousand or more feet down to twelve foot surf where if the fall doesn’t kill you the tiger sharks might. Some of Kauai’s best features will be difficult for many to appreciate.

Kauai Sunrise

We have referenced hikes multiple times because Kauai has many world-class trails with unreal views and rugged terrain. By rugged we mean there are no handrails, no paved paths and few stairs. So if you like breathtaking – and may we again emphasize dangerous – hikes, we would point you West to Kauai.

Polihale Beach, Kauai

In Kauai, you sometimes feel as if you are on your own. And if you want something less touristy and more adventurous that is a good thing.

So, let’s sum it up.  If you want an island with broad appeal, then let Maui point your keel and if you want something with a little more edge – literally – then we would suggest Kauai. You can only do right by whichever you choose. Both are wonderful places to walk on the beach, learn to surf or see a waterfall.

Still can’t decide? Keep an eye out for more posts about these islands in Hawaii that just might do the trick. And if you visited both islands, we would heart your comments below.

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