Me and Cody on top of Mauna Kea watching the sunset

Kauai vs Big Island: Which One Is Best for You?

If you’re looking for the perfect Hawaiian vacation, you might be wondering if Kauai or the Big Island is right for you.

Compared to Oahu and Maui, both Kauai and the Big Island are more laid-back and secluded, and both are magnets for beach and nature lovers and for outdoor adventurers. But how do you determine which one is best for you?

Both islands are absolutely beautiful and offer a unique experience, but they’re very different. Kauai is known as the Garden Isle because of its lush greenery and dramatic cliffs. The Big Island is home to both snow-capped mountains and black sand beaches, making it a truly diverse destination.

So which island should you choose? It really depends on what you’re looking for in a vacation.

If you’re looking for a stunning, tropical paradise with miles of white sand and you have limited time, Kauai is probably best for you. On the other hand, if you’re fascinated by volcanoes, and you prefer variety and diversity in your surroundings, then the Big Island should be your choice.

Let’s compare Kauai and the Big Island in terms of natural beauty, beaches, things to do, outdoor adventures, and accommodations.

Natural Beauty: Kauai vs Big Island

Both these islands are stunning in terms of natural beauty, but in different ways, so it depends on what appeals most to you.  

Kauai: Natural Beauty

Many visitors regard Kauai, nicknamed the “Garden Isle,” with its lush greenery, spectacular cliffs, and excellent beaches, as the most beautiful Hawaiian island. Kauai is smaller than the other islands, more rural, and has a smaller population, so you’ll find a less built-up environment with pristine beaches.

Me and Cody stopped by in a random neighborhood to take photos overlooking the mountain range

The reason for the luxuriant plant life is that Kauai receives more rain than any of the other islands, with one of the wettest spots on Earth situated on the east side. Since December is the wettest month, it’s best to plan your trip in the drier summer months of May to September.

Cody watching the sunset at Poipu Beach in Kauai with a monk seal closeby
Sunset at Poipu Beach in Kauai. Monk seals enjoy sunsets too, apparently!

The rain has eroded deep valleys in the central mountains, carving out canyons with many beautiful waterfalls. A must-see is Waimea Canyon, called the mini “Grand Canyon of the Pacific”, which has many different lookouts to take it all in.

Helicopter flying through the Waimea Canyon in Kauai
Waimea Canyon, Kauai

The Napali coastline is also incredible, with its dramatic cliffs and jagged mountains plummeting directly into the ocean.

Big Island: Natural Beauty

If you prefer a more varied and unusual environment, you’ll find fascinating diversity on the Big Island, with conditions varying dramatically from one part of the island to another. It contains eight of the thirteen different climate zones in the world, each with a unique ecosystem.

So within hours, you can drive from lush tropical rainforest in the east, to sun-drenched desert, to temperate zones inland, to the snow-capped mountains. Much of the Big Island’s landscape is the brownish-grey lava from the volcanoes, creating a stark and rugged sight. In some areas, this is chunky and spiky, and in others, it’s swirled like the top of a freshly-baked brownie.

Beaches: Kauai vs Big Island

Both these islands have great beaches, and once again, it depends on what appeals to you and what kind of experience you’re seeking. Swimmers, snorkelers, surfers, scuba divers, and nature lovers will find a range of beaches to choose from on both islands, as will those who simply want to relax on the beach.

Kauai has enticing, gorgeous miles of white sand fringed with coconut palms and verdant mountains rising in the background. The sea is calm and clear in some areas while crashing dramatically to the shore in others.

The Big Island doesn’t offer the same quantity of white sand beaches, but if the unusual appeals to you, you’ll be intrigued with the black sand beaches created by lava rocks and a stunning green sand beach, which is one of only four worldwide.

See Also: 25 Best Beaches in Hawaii for a Spectacular Trip

Beaches on Kauai

When deciding which beautiful beach to visit in Kauai, you should factor in what you want to do. For example, Poipu Beach is perfect for safe swimming with its protective reef, but if you plan to do some kayaking, Hanalei Bay is the better option. If birdwatching is one of your hobbies, you’ll enjoy Ke’e Beach.

Gorgeous view of Hanalei Bay in Kauai with perfect blue water and white sand beach with lush green scenery
Hanalei Bay, Kauai

If you’re traveling with children, you can select family-friendly beaches. For example, Lydgate Beach Park is one of Kauai’s most family-friendly public places, with large, rock-enclosed “pools”. Toddlers and babies can play in the smaller pool, while older children will enjoy the larger pool.

kids playing in the water at Lydgate Beach Park in Kauai
Lydgate Beach Park, Kauai
Gorgeous golden sand beach at Tunnels Beach in Kauai
Tunnels Beach, Kauai

If you’re on your honeymoon or enjoying a romantic getaway, Shipwreck Beach (despite its name) is a great place to sunbathe on a relatively quiet beach or hold a romantic ceremony. The strong currents and big waves don’t allow for safe swimming, but the natural scenery, relative seclusion, and the romantic atmosphere make up for the lack of good swimming.

Big Island Beaches

If you’re keen to picnic on a black sand beach, Punalu’u is the most famous, accessible, and largest of these beaches. The black sand develops from hot lava spewing from volcanoes and then solidifying, fragmenting, and being ground down into smaller and smoother grains.

Green sea turtles at Punalu'u Black sand Beach on the Big Island
Punalu’u Black Sand Beach, Big Island
Perfect black sand beach at Punalua Black sand Beach on the Big Island
Punalu’u Black Sand Beach, Big Island

Black sand soaks up the sun faster than white sand, making it hot as the day progresses. The heat of the sand attracts green sea turtles to Puanlu’u Beach. These beautiful endangered creatures can be seen warming themselves on the sand or swimming in the sea.

Green Sand Beach (or Papakolea) is one of the Big Island’s most famous beaches, being one of only four beaches in the world that share its unique geology. The sand is olive-green due to deposits of olivine, a crystal formed millions of years ago during a volcanic eruption. Rough surf and unpredictable currents don’t allow for safe swimming here.

Me on top of the lava rocks at the green sand Beach Big Island
Green Sand Beach, Big Island

See Also: Hike to Makalawena Beach Big Island

Things to Do and Outdoor Adventures: Kauai vs Big Island

Both islands provide wonderful opportunities if you enjoy an active vacation outdoors. The big difference is the chance to get up close and personal with volcanoes on the Big Island, a rare and magnificent experience.

Volcano Tourism on the Big Island

If volcanoes pique your interest, then the Big Island is best for you. One might think of volcanoes as destructive, but they were critical to the development of life on Earth. Their eruptions released gases that helped form our oceans and our atmosphere, both features that enabled life to develop here. Earth would have been desolate without volcanoes.

All the Hawaiian islands are the exposed peaks of a great undersea mountain range that was formed by volcanic activity. Each island resulted from one or more volcanoes that first erupted at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, with land eventually emerging above sea level. Kauai is the oldest island (about five million years old), but there are no active volcanoes on Kauai today.

On the other hand, the Big Island is the youngest island, formed by five volcanoes connected by a lava ridge. Kilauea is the world’s most active volcano, while Mauna Loa is considered the world’s largest active volcano. These two volcanoes are the main feature of the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and occupies 505 square miles (1,308 sq km).

Me hiking and posing on a hike at the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

When you explore the park, either self-guided or with tour guides, you learn about calderas, lava tubes, steam vents, craters, and all the changes seen after the recent eruptions in 2018. Visitors can enjoy spending the night in a hotel room overlooking a crater.

Gorgeous view of the sea arch at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Sea Arch at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Big Island
Trysta at the Thurston Lava Tube entrance at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island
Thurston Lava Tube entrance at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Cody entering the Kaumana Caves on the Big Island of Hawaii
Kaumana Caves, Big Island

Another volcano on the Big Island, Mauna Kea, is the world’s tallest volcano (from the sea floor to its summit). You can ascend to the summit to watch the sunset, observe constellations in the sky using powerful telescopes, and enjoy the best place in Hawaii to stargaze.

Cody watching the sunset at Mauna Kea on the Big Island
Watching the sunset at Mauna Kea on the Big Island
Manta Rays seen while snorkeling at night on the Big Island
We took this photo while night snorkeling with manta rays on the Big Island

Water Activities

On both Kauai and the Big Island, you can enjoy swimming, bodyboarding, paddleboarding, surfing, snorkeling, scuba diving, and kayaking. There are fishing charters on offer as well. Rental shops make equipment available, and you can sign up for lessons to learn new skills.

An extraordinary experience that some visitors report is a highlight of their visit to the Big Island involves snorkeling with manta rays. These enormous, harmless creatures of the sea, some with wingspans of up to 20 feet (6 meters), are drawn at night to spotlights that light up the clouds of plankton they thrive on, gliding gracefully beside human observers swimming alongside them.

Adventures on Land

On both Kauai and the Big Island, you can experience the environment on foot via superb hiking trails (with amazing views and a chance to jump into waterfalls), on horseback, or on an ATV (all-terrain vehicle). Ziplining is popular if you want a bird’s-eye view.  

If you wish to do something unusual that takes you off the beaten track and provides a glimpse into Hawaii’s history, both islands offer “fluming”, either by kayak or on tubes. Floating down flumes (long channels built to transport water to the sugar plantations) takes you through remote and beautiful areas. Visitors cruise across mountainsides and forests via elevated flumes and glide through tunnels lit only by headlights.

Coffee Plantations

The black, volcanic soil of the Hawaiian Islands provides ideal conditions for growing coffee plants. Many rate the coffee beans produced on the islands as the best on Earth. On the Big Island, you can visit one of the many coffee farms offering tours and tastings. You’ll learn about coffee growing, the history of the plantations, the stages of processing and roasting, and of course, you’ll be able to taste the various blends. You can also do this on Kauai at the Kauai Coffee Plantation.

Accommodations: Kauai vs Big Island

Both the islands offer a wide range of accommodations, from luxury resorts (with top-rated golf courses, full-service spas, pool complexes, and water slides), to popular hotel chains, cheap hotels, Airbnbs, B&Bs, guesthouses, and charming, local, historic inns. Big Island also offers on-ranch cottages.

Frequently Asked Questions

Which is the best month to visit Kauai and the Big Island?

The summer months, between May and September, are arguably best because that is the islands experience their lowest rainfall and highest temperatures. However, the Kona district on the Big Island is the only place in Hawaii that receives its highest rainfall during the summer months and has a dry winter; the adjacent Kohala Coast on the Big Island is the driest and sunniest area of the island, making it the most popular part of the island for vacationers. Keep in mind though that summer is also considered high season, so visiting during less popular times of year has its perks.

How many days should one spend on Kauai and the Big Island?

The Big Island is the largest of the islands with many exciting activities and places to see. To do it justice, we recommend spending at least 6 – 10 days there. While very beautiful and with magnificent sights, Kauai is much smaller, so you could manage it in as little as 5 days.

Does it rain every day in Kauai?

This island does have high rainfall, but even if the weather forecast lends itself to rain, it’s often just for short periods after which there’s sunshine.

Which is cheaper, Kauai or the Big Island?

The Big Island is possibly cheaper as far as gas and accommodation costs go. Kauai isn’t particularly expensive. Some activities, such as helicopter rides, will, of course, cost a lot more than others. Many visitors enjoy staying at B&Bs to save money and also as a way to get to know the places more directly.

Do I need to rent a car in Kauai and the Big Island?

If you plan to explore and see the most beautiful and interesting sights on both islands, you need to rent a car. 

What are the average annual temperatures on Kauai?

In Kauai, average daytime temperatures in July are around 83°F, while in December, they average 79°F.  

What are the average annual temperatures on the Big Island?

The average daytime temperature near the major resort areas on the coastline is 86°F in July, and 82°F in December. At the higher elevations on the Big Island, temperatures are much lower, with the summits of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa dipping to below freezing at night in winter and daytime winter highs around 40°F.

The Wrap Up

Both Kauai and the the Big Island offer a wealth of outdoor activities, and each is beautiful in its own way. If you prefer a tropical island with lush vegetation and pristine white sand beaches, then Kauai is best for you. But if you want to explore volcanoes, and you like a lot of variety in your environment, then the Big Island will be best, provided you have sufficient time.

Mahalo for reading our post! Until next time, Aloha!


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