Maui vs. Kauai: Which Hawaiian Island Is Right for You?

Hana Kauai Hawaii beach
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If you're trying to decide which of the six Hawaiian islands to visit, it's worth knowing that they all offer incredibly unique experiences—and choosing the right island for your vacation depends on what you enjoy most. Featuring everything from incredible hikes to scenic beaches, each isle is cultivated by its own rich history, diverse landscape, and the people who live and care for their island communities. When it comes to visiting Maui and Kauaʻi, the absence of big city life is alluring if you’re looking for a slow-paced, country-style trip.

Maui may be more appealing to couples and honeymooners, and Kauaʻi’s charm tends to allure solo and more adventurous travelers—however, every type of visitor can find something suited to their interests at either destination. Can’t choose between the two islands? A plane ride is only 50 minutes long and, oftentimes, less than $100 round trip. So if you have the time and budget to squeeze in both Maui and Kauaʻi, you’ll get the best of both worlds.

Kalalau Trail Landscape, Napali Coast State Park, Kauai, Hawaii
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Best for Hiking

Each Hawaiian island has its own nickname for a reason. When you fly into Maui and Kauaʻi and get an aerial view of the two islands, it’s easy to understand why Maui is known as “The Valley Isle” and Kauaʻi is known as “The Garden Isle.” Maui’s towns are embraced by two major mountain ranges—Hāleakala and the West Maui Mountains—while Kauaʻi's ancient grounds are blanketed in lush greenery as so much time has passed since the island's last volcanic eruption. While the two islands both offer differing and breathtaking trails, Kauaʻi takes the lead for hiking.

Hiking on Kauaʻi

The Kalalau Trail on Kauaʻi's Nā Pali coast is a picture-perfect representation of Hawaiʻi's stunning beauty, making it one of the most sought-after hikes in the world. Set on the North Shore of Kauaʻi, the 11-mile journey into the Kalalau Valley leads you through verdant forest and dry red clay terrain, along scaling sea cliffs, lively beaches, and flowing streams. The trail ends at the secluded Kalalau Beach, a campground, and the refreshing Ho‘ole‘a Falls, where you can take a refreshing drip post-hike. If you don’t want to commit to the whole Kalalau Trail, there are shorter hikes along the way. Check out the state’s website for more information on access, reservations, and best practices for visiting the Nā Pali Coast.

On the other end of Kauaʻi, Waimea Canyon State Park is nicknamed “The Grand Canyon of the Pacific.” On the winding 26-mile drive to the canyon’s peak, there are scenic outlooks that make for great picnic stops or photo ops of the sweeping canyon layers. The park has several trail options for advanced and family-friendly hikes where you can check out thriving native plants.

Hiking on Maui

Maui is home to the otherworldly Haleakalā National Park, whose namesake volcano dominates the landscape at an impressive 10,023 feet tall. The summit of Haleakalā, which translates to “house of the sun,” is where the demigod Maui is said to have lassoed the sun from the sky, slowing down its descent and making the daylight last longer. Trekking to the top to watch the sun rise above the clouds almost feels like you’re on another planet. Locals often head to this sacred summit for ceremonies and to greet the sun with chanting.

Haleakalā has more than 30 miles of hiking trails ranging from 10-minute walks to overnight camping treks through desert-like ecosystems and shrublands. Whichever route you choose, you will be in awe of one of Hawaiʻi’s most awe-inspiring scenes, but don’t forget to dress warm—the high altitude and wind can reach below-freezing temperatures. Check out the national park's official website to book your reservation and permit.

And no trip to Maui is complete without driving through the iconic Road to Hana, the 52-mile route that snakes through the island’s northeastern coast alongside cliffs, thriving forestry, and countless waterfalls. There are many hikes along the way that can take anywhere from 10 minutes to up to two hours.

Wherever you end up, note that some parks on Maui and Kauaʻi use a reservation system for certain activities like hiking and camping. Check out Hawaiʻi’s Department of Land and Natural Resources website to book your entry or check the latest updates for closures, events, and weather warnings at the parks you hope to visit. Sometimes during the winter months, when it rains the most in Hawaiʻi, flash flood warnings prohibit hikers from visiting some parks with streams or waterfalls.

Black Beach Honokalani Wainapanapa Maui Hawaii
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Best for Beaches

Whichever island you choose, you are sure to experience a sun-kissed, tropical getaway. However, if you're traveling to Hawaii mainly to enjoy the beaches, Maui has more to offer than Kauaʻi. That’s mostly because the island boasts large stretches of beach whose calmer waters make activities like swimming, kayaking, diving, and snorkeling much more accessible. Plus, Maui is one of the only Hawaiian islands with both black- and red-sand beaches, each one promising breathtaking views as you sunbathe or take a dip in the water.

On Kauaʻi, most of the driving is more inland, so not only do you not get the same coastal views as you would on Maui, but the beaches here are also a little more difficult to get to. However, if you’re equipped with the right vehicle and directions, you’ll be blown away by Kauaʻi's beaches, often surrounded by towering peaks of lush mountains.

Two dishes on the patio at Fleetwood's on Front St

Courtesy of Fleetwood's on Front St.

Best for Food & Drink

If you’re looking for good dining options and food, Maui is the way to go. Its Lahaina town is lively with diverse restaurants and bars that are sure to meet your cravings. On Kauaʻi, the small towns of Kapaʻa, Poʻipū, and Hanalei have quaint eateries with good local food and produce, but be sure to get an early head start: In Hawaiʻi's smaller towns, many restaurants, and most shops really, shut down for the day once the sun goes down.

On both Maui and Kauaʻi, a good rule of thumb is that if you have your heart set on a certain restaurant, be sure that it's open when you want to go and make a reservation. If you're planning to cook any meals at your vacation rental or campsite, you may also want to hit up your nearest grocery store and get what you need ahead of time. Options for late-night snacking and drinking are limited the later it gets into the night.

Choosing Accommodations

For these small-town islands, it’s best to plan for things like your accommodation, rental car, and activities in advance because they can book up quickly. Airbnb and other short-term rental property restrictions are implemented across Hawaiʻi, and hotel rooms can easily reach maximum capacity during busy seasons like summer. Consider staying at inns, motels, B&Bs, cabins, or campsites to get a near-to-true Hawaiian island experience.

Car travelling in Road to Hana, Maui, Hawaii
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Getting Around

Getting around on both Maui and Kauaʻi is possible without a car, but very difficult if you’re hoping to venture away from your place of stay. To take advantage of the beaches, hiking, and other activities, you should definitely book the right kind of vehicle. Some terrain—especially on Kauaʻi—can feel more off-the-beaten-path, and requires sturdier wheels; consider booking a 4x4 if that’s within your interest. If you find yourself getting stuck in mud or getting a flat tire along the way, keep in mind that roadside assistance and cell service can be very limiting, especially in more rural towns.

Buses, taxis, and ride-share services are also available on both islands, but very limited. For travelers to Kauaʻi, you'd have to book a helicopter or boat tour to see the whole island, as the Nā Pali coast makes much of it inaccessible by car.