Planning a vacation in Hawaii is exciting. This beautiful state consists of several islands featuring year-round sunshine, including the ever-popular Maui and Kauai. Both dream locations have fantastic beaches, gorgeous resorts, and fun outdoor activities. How do you choose between them? Which island is best for you?
Maui is best for first-time visitors to Hawaii, newlyweds, and wealthy tourists: enjoy a sunny beachfront resort, vibrant nightlife, and family activities. Kauai is best for intrepid, outdoorsy visitors wanting epic eco-adventures, solitary beach hikes, and spectacular scenery.
Depending on your idea of an island paradise, you’ll surely find it on one of Hawaii’s islands. Maui is a tourist’s dream, with picture-postcard beach and volcano experiences. Kauai is where you’ll unplug and immerse yourself in nature. Let’s explore their differences in more detail.
Maui vs. Kauai: Costs
Hawaii is a dream vacation spot for a once-in-a-lifetime visit. Maui and Kauai are not budget destinations, as travel costs alone are huge because of distance.
If you compare the major costs of a vacation (airfare, accommodation, car rental, food, and activities), Maui is more expensive every time, by $500 to $1000.
Food and shopping are also more expensive on Maui because they’re designed for tourists, meaning you’ll pay a premium. Maui is where you’ll find designer stores like Tiffany & Co and Louis Vuitton and plenty of entertainment, from luxe spas to bowling alleys.
Kauai is less developed, so you’ll spend your time outdoors rather than shopping. Budget for activities like kayaking and camping.
The best way to save costs on either island is by shopping around and booking your accommodation and car rental far in advance.
Best For Costs: Kauai
Kauai is definitely a cheaper option than Maui, so long as you aren’t looking for a busy tourist experience.
Maui vs. Kauai: Weather
The joy of Hawaii is the beautiful, sunny weather year-round, which you’ll enjoy on both islands.
If you’re a sun lover, head to Maui, which is sunny all year and gets very little rain. The beautiful resort areas bask in the sun. The only exception is if you climb Haleakalā volcano, which gets chilly, seeing as it’s over 10,000 feet above sea level. Make sure you are suitably dressed with a windbreaker, beanie, and gloves.
Kauai gets far more rain than Maui does, especially from December through March. That said, the showers are brief, and the weather remains balmy. The southern shore around Poipu is always sunny, even in winter.
Best For Weather: Maui
With its year-round sunshine, Maui trumps Kauai’s rainy season.
Maui vs. Kauai: Getting Around
Whichever island you choose, it will be a long-haul flight, probably with at least one connection.
You can fly direct to Maui from both the east and west coasts of the US. It’s easy and practical to rent a car on Maui, as roads are around most of the coastline. The longest drive is to Hana or up to Haleakalā. Public transport is also available, especially if you stay in tourist resort areas like Lahaina.
There are very few direct flights to Kauai, so you’ll have a roundabout trip. Once you’re on the island, hiring a car is a mixed blessing as only one-fifth of the island is accessible by car. Despite tourism, Kauai remains one of the least developed of Hawaii’s islands. If you want to experience the most dramatic scenery on the island, you’ll need to pack your hiking boots.
Best For Getting Around: Maui
With its larger population and better road network, it’s much easier to get around Maui than Kauai. Renting a car in Maui is the best way to get around.
Maui vs. Kauai: Accommodation
For kid-friendly resorts with several pools and restaurants, head to Maui. There are plenty of beachfront properties to choose from to suit every budget.
Kauai does have some family-friendly resorts, especially in Poipu. Along the island’s east coast, you’ll find holiday rentals that are popular with families as they’re far more pocket-friendly.
Best For Resorts: Maui
For the family resort experience, Maui is your best bet – there are plenty of options to choose from.
Best For Budget: Kauai
If the resort experience is not for you, Kauai has plenty of relatively inexpensive hotels and rentals.
Maui vs. Kauai: Beaches
People go to Hawaii to enjoy the magnificent beaches and seemingly endless ocean.
Maui has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, with golden, red, or black sand. With calmer seas than Kauai, Maui boasts ideal conditions for swimming all year round. If you like beach-hopping, there are many more beach options to choose from on Maui.
Wailea Beach is home to many celebrities (look out for Jessica Alba) and five-star resorts, and it is as gorgeous as you imagine. Kapalua Bay Beach is where you go for boarding, kayaking, and snorkeling.
You’ll find a variety of family-friendly beaches on Maui that suit kids from babies to teens. Paia has a protected lagoon and beautiful white sand, surrounded by tall coconut palms. The beach does get busy, though, so you might want to try Makena or Big Beach, which is quieter and has gentler waves but still has a lifeguard – visit Molokini Crater while you’re there. Another good choice is Kapalua Bay, where the natural reef calms the water.
See Also: Little Beach Maui
Although Kauai’s waters are generally rougher, the island has lovely wide, soft, white-sand beaches. There are kid-friendly beaches where the water is calm – Pu’u Poa Beach, Hanalei Bay, and Anini Beach have gentle waves. Poipu Beach is set up for families with lifeguards and kid-friendly snorkeling.
Some of the more secluded beaches are accessible only by four-wheel drive, like Polihale National Park beaches. The dunes are impressive and the coastline magnificent, but it is too dangerous to swim there.
Head to Kalapaki Bay on the east coast for surfing, sailing, and canoeing.
See Also: Queens Bath Kauai
Best For Beaches: Maui
For swimming and snorkeling, Maui comes up trumps. The sea is calmer, and swimming conditions are excellent all year round.
Maui vs. Kauai: Scenery
Both Maui and Kauai are extraordinarily beautiful, with magnificent scenery.
Maui is famous for its two enormous dormant volcanoes, particularly Haleakalā, which dominate the landscape and lends its name to the national park on the island. The volcano is accessible by the Sliding Sands Trail, road, and bike (via a downhill-only tour). A highlight of a trip to Maui is watching the sunrise from Haleakalā Crater – this is one of the most glorious views to see on Maui.
Exploring the volcano and its crater is a fascinating holiday activity – you can see remnants of the cinder cones and evidence of volcanic ecosystems.
The island also offers black and red sand beaches and tangled jungle with bamboo and eucalyptus forests, which you can reach via the Road To Hana. This is regarded as one of the most beautiful drives in the world.
The spectacular waterfalls on Maui are also a drawcard – you can see many of them from the road, but you can choose one as a destination for a hike. There are plenty of waterfall hiking trails suitable for families with little kids as well – consider Twin Falls, Punalau Falls, or Alelele Falls.
However amazing Maui’s scenery is, Kauai is the most beautiful of Hawaii’s islands. Kauai is nicknamed the Garden Island; you’ll find towering mountains covered in thick green jungle, massive canyons, cascading waterfalls, and glorious botanical gardens. Kauai is home to the navigable Wailua River, meandering through untouched wilderness.
Kauai has one volcano, which is far more weathered than Maui’s. The natural formations created by the volcano, however, are dramatic. Kauai is famous for Waimea Canyon, referred to as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, which is 3,000 feet deep and 10 miles long. You can drive out to the canyon and take pictures or hike some of the surrounding trails. The other well-known natural attraction is the Nāpali Coast, which you’ll find on the island’s northern side.
Best For Scenery: Kauai
Although Maui is a beautiful island, Kauai’s scenic beauty is spectacular and unspoiled.
Maui vs. Kauai: Outdoor Activities
With fantastic weather and spectacular scenery, both Maui and Kauai are ideal destinations for outdoor enthusiasts and lovers of adventure.
Maui is well-known for great snorkeling. The sites are easily accessible from beaches, and you will enjoy swimming with an abundance of undersea life, including sea turtles and tropical fish. Visit Po’olenalena Beach, which some consider the best snorkeling spot in Hawaii.
For families, go to Molokini Crater – you access the site by boat, which is always a winner with kids. Many of the boats have kid-centric entertainment, such as water slides and flotation devices to assist the little ones with snorkeling.
There are several hiking trails on Maui, many leading from the Road to Hana. Visit one of the waterfalls, or head up to the Iao Needle, an easy walk for the whole family. Most of the hike is paved and has stairs.
Another favorite outdoor activity is ziplining, with many tours available. The Mau Zipline Tour includes an obstacle course and a Camp Maui Museum.
Kauai is a top-tier destination for serious eco-adventurers and lovers of strenuous activities. Biking, ATV adventures, and hiking are some of the popular outdoor activities.
There are several trails and tours available, including along the Nāpali Coast. The Kalalau Trail is 22 miles long and takes two days, even for the most experienced hikers.
Whether on a family-friendly or more arduous trail, hiking down Waimea Canyon offers some of the world’s most breathtaking and ancient scenery. Parts of Kauai’s landscapes date back five million years and were created by erosion.
Kauai’s hiking experiences are not only for adults – families can also enjoy Kauai’s natural beauty. Sleeping Giant Trail and Kuilau Ridge Trail are short and offer amazing views and picnic spots.
With its navigable rivers, Kauai is also an excellent place for kayaking. The route down the Wailua River and the Hule’ia River takes you through the forests and waterfalls of the National Wildlife Refuge. You can stop and hike up to waterfall pools that are excellent for swimming.
Best For Outdoor Activities: Kauai
While Maui offers plenty of opportunities for relaxed outdoor activities, serious outdoor enthusiasts will love the rugged terrain and eco-adventures offered by Kauai.
Maui vs. Kauai: Cultural Highlights
Learning something about Hawaii’s culture is an integral part of a vacation.
In Maui, you can visit the aquarium at Maui Ocean Center. Apart from the marine life exhibits, both indoor and outdoor, the center offers Hawaiian Cultural Programs throughout the day.
You can also visit one of the last working pineapple plantations and learn about Maui’s agricultural history and pineapple cultivation. You’ll get the opportunity to taste and purchase pineapples.
Several places offer a traditional luau with drinks, buffet dinner, and Polynesian dancing.
If you’re keen on culture, Kauai offers a far more authentic cultural experience, as many residents live traditionally and observe ancient customs.
To learn about plantation life, head to Kauai Coffee, the biggest coffee farm in the United States. You can do a walking tour and taste the coffee as well.
For live cooking demonstrations and local food, Kuaui Culinary Market is worth visiting. There are also musicians playing and activities for kids.
You can also experience a luau on Kauai with the usual buffet of Hawaiian food and performances, dancing, and a fire show.
Best For Culture: Kauai
Being far less developed and tourist-orientated, Kauai retains many cultural traditions and practices.
Maui vs. Kauai: Food, Drinks, And Nightlife
Neither Maui nor Kauai are famed for their nightlife – everything quiets down at about 9 PM. Head to Waikiki if you want to party.
Maui is well provided with bars and restaurants. For local nightlife, head to Lāhainā, Kīhei, Kahului, and Pāʻia. You’ll also find high-end dining catering to the luxury tourism market on Maui, especially in Wailea and Ka’anapali.
Families are catered for by chain restaurants like Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. and Ruth’s Chris Steak House.
You’ll find gastropubs and restaurants in Kauai, but you’re more likely to buy dinner from a food truck or BBQ joint. The island remains largely rural and undeveloped, so it’s not for you if you’re looking to go bar-hopping.
Best For Nightlife: Maui
For a variety of restaurants and bars, Maui wins, hands down.
The Verdict: Maui or Kauai, Which Island is Better?
Both Maui and Kauai are fantastic holiday destinations with beautiful scenery. The more expensive option, Maui, is best for the full-on tourist experience with beach resorts, snorkeling, high-end shopping, and luxury restaurants. Kauai is best for outdoor enthusiasts who want to be off the grid and enjoy nature, family, and friends without high-rises, shopping malls, and crowds.