Imagine miles of rolling hills plunging hundreds of feet down to an expanse of white sandy beaches. Hawaii encompasses impressive volcanic ridges rising like the spines of dragons out of the sea.
This is the backdrop for your island vacation and just one of many reasons why Hawaii is the best place to visit. But there are a few key differences between the various islands that are important to know before you go.
Let’s start by exploring the abundant discrepancies between two of Hawaii’s smaller, yet very popular islands:
Maui vs. Kauai
Many first time Hawaiian travelers wonder which island they should go to first. There is a plethora of options on every parcel of land dotting the volcanic archipelago in the Central Pacific, so choosing between the myriad island paradises is a task in and of itself.
Narrowing down your choices to two of the most classic Hawaiian islands, Maui or Kauai, is a great first step in making this oh so difficult decision.
Kauai is the oldest and northernmost Hawaiian island, and it also stands out as the smallest in the string of islands, with a population of only about 65,000 residents (72,000 in Kauai County which also includes the islands Ni'ihau, Lehua, and Ka'ula).
As a general rule, Kauai is going to be the far less touristy option for the island is better known for its sweeping mountain views and abundance of adventure sports than a hopping downtown residential area.
Think of Kauai as a private jungle oasis in the middle of the ocean where the people are few and far between and the spectacular mountain to sea views are beyond spectacular.
Maui, located less than 3 hours from Kauai by plane, is often thought of as a mix between Hawaii’s capital island, Oahu, and rural Kauai.
With more than twice the number of residents and a significantly larger expanse of developed land, Maui tends to be thought of as a classic Hawaiian vacation destination, replete with miles upon miles of white sand beaches, warm and inviting surf suitable for swimmers of all ages, and a vast selection of options for exquisite lodging, fine dining, and shopping galore.
Breathtaking views and natural beauty abound on both islands, but there are advantages and disadvantages to visiting either paradise, so take your time when trying to decide on which island to go to first.
We’ll go over some of the most common questions you may have that should help you make your final decision and get the most out of your Hawaiian vacation!
Unlike Maui, beaches in Kauai tend to be less family-friendly due to temperamental weather patterns, which result in rough and unpredictable wave formations. But for adventurous souls or those traveling solo, Kauai’s rugged and rustic feel might make it an ideal destination.
It’s the perfect place to immerse yourself in some of the best outdoor adventures Hawaii has to offer.
If you’re looking for an intimate vacation spot away from the crowds, Kauai’s prehistoric vibes might call to you.
Locals refer to Kauai as “The Garden Island”. The name is fitting as it’s a great place to escape the busy city streets. Here you can lose yourself in a garden of Eden brimming with tropical forest groves, rigorous mountain trails, and winding jungle rivers begging for exploration.
For a slightly more secluded beach experience, consider checking out Poipu Beach, colloquially referred to as the “Sunny South Side” of Kauai.
Weather is glorious there year-round with temperatures averaging in the mid-80’s and sunshine warming the golden sand so you can bask on the beach for hours if you so choose!
Poipu Beach Park has been classified as one of the safest beaches in all of Hawaii, with a lifeguard on duty 7 days a week, which makes it the perfect spot to bring the kiddos and enjoy a relaxing afternoon lunch or a riveting birthday party on the beach!
If you are an active family hungry for adventure, seek out hiking in Waimea Canyon, nicknamed the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific.” The 10 mile long and half mile deep canyon is located on the western side of the island, nestled in the vast jungle of Kokee State Park.
The park covers an area of approximately 43,000 acres and contains over 45 miles of hiking trails - that should be plenty of space to tucker out the little ones!
You can choose to either hike along the stunning Cliff Canyon Trail (1.8 miles roundtrip, about an hour trek) or drive up to the panoramic views along Waimea Canyon Drive.
The road brings you to a breathtaking vista point at the Waimea Canyon Lookout. There you can scan your eyes across an impressive expanse of red sand cliffs capped with verdant patches of forest, reminiscent of the Jurassic Period.
It’s no wonder they filmed part of Jurassic Park on the island of Kauai!
Although the jagged peaks and rugged feel of Kauai may not be for the faint of heart, it will appeal to those yearning for an exhilarating vacation. Less idyllic than postcard destinations, Kauai offers an urban escape where trees outnumber people and natural order prevails.
If you are traveling to Hawaii with family, you’re likely looking for a relaxed and peaceful experience. I would recommend making the welcoming island of Maui your first destination.
Extravagant resorts speckle the island of Maui, known colloquially as the “Valley Isle,” highlighted by the Honua Kai Resort and Spa on Kaanapali Beach, located in west Maui just north of Lahaina. Honua Kai features all the amenities of a luxury hotel in a private and expansive condominium format.
If you’re looking for that perfect place where the mountains meet the sea, you’ve also met your match on Maui.
Envision yourself sipping on pina coladas in a lush, mountainous paradise , where looming peaks slope down to calm, crystalline waters. Complemented by impeccably white sand beaches, Maui’s Kaanapali Beach is the place for you.
While you’re there, be sure to take some time to wander around the open-air Whalers Village, which is just south of Kaanapali Beach on the Kaanapali Highway in the town of Lahaina. The destination includes a vast array of local shops, delectable restaurants like Leilani’s on the Beach, and two championship golf courses.
Whether you’re a golfer or not, here you can catch rare glimpses of whales breaching the ocean surface.
Maui also boasts one of the most stunning island drives in the world. This is a significant draw for those more inclined to sightseeing than exploring on foot.
Be sure to travel the majestic Road to Hana, which spans the entire northeastern section of Maui. It runs from the quaint island town of Paia (where you should fill up gas before embarking on your journey) all the way down to the renowned city of Hana.
The road, also known as the Hana Highway, is technically only 42 miles in length -- but the journey is long and windy. There are 54 one-way bridges and 600 hairpin turns on this iconic stretch of road, and with a 25 MPH speed limit, you’re encouraged to drive slow.
But don’t fret, because you won’t want to travel much faster. Cascading waterfalls of epic proportions and patches of lush jungle bound to take your breath away characterize the journey.
The beaches and waterfalls along the way are all well worth a visit, so be sure to stop at designated mile markers.
If you need to cool off, spend the afternoon splashing in the waves at must-see swimming holes like Twin Falls, located at mile marker two on the Hana Highway.
You should also check out the Twin Falls Farm Stand while you’re there, which is conveniently located in the parking lot for the falls. There you can find a decadent array of local fresh snack foods ranging from homegrown pineapple and papaya to baked goods and tasty smoothies to help fortify your drive down to Hana!
Consider staying the night in Hana at a place like the Heavenly Hana Paradise rather than trying to complete the entire journey in a single day. Total cultural immersion reveals the city’s exclusive character.
If you must do it in a day, I recommend starting at dawn and driving until dusk or even nightfall. Driving under a pitch black, starlit sky is both mysterious and captivating. Imagine a full moon hanging overhead, suspended above the backdrop of a glistening expanse of endless ocean.
It’s no wonder Hawaii is often referred to as a “dreamer’s paradise”!
If you have young children and plan on enjoying lots of time by the water, Maui’s soft sand beaches and gentle, rolling waves are the perfect place for you and your family.
One great spot to check out is “Secret Beach,” located in Makena on the south side of the island. The best part? You’ll have the place mostly to yourself.
The beach is officially a part of Paako Cave. It’s accessible via two black lava rock walls located at the third (last) entrance to Makena Beach.
If you’re looking for a fascinating and intimate beach setting, it’s a great place to try out some local snorkeling without the pesky crowds!
If you’re looking for a romantic tropical paradise to escape the bleak winter months on the mainland, Hawaii is an ideal destination.
But the question remains: Which island should I visit?
This is especially true if you’re feeling torn between the touristy, yet more accessible Maui or the rural mountainous haven of Kauai.
Both islands tend to maintain balmy temperatures in the mid-70’s to low-80’s during the day even in the winter months, although the evening temperatures may drop down into the mid-60’s.
It would be a good idea to bring a light jacket and breathable, waterproof rain coat or umbrella regardless of which island you choose to visit in December, just to be prepared for any type of weather while on vacation.
Also keep in mind that the holiday season is often when hotel prices spike and travel to the Hawaiian Islands becomes a lot more expensive.
The first couple of weeks in December are usually a good time to plan your trip, because that’s when you’ll encounter the least amount of crowds and seasonal price hikes haven’t been put into place yet.
By the time December 20th rolls around and through to the end of the New Year celebrations around January 3rd, every island in Hawaii is destined to be packed to the brim with tourists and good deals on lodging and airfare will be almost non-existent.
If you would prefer to avoid the heavily crowded areas and don’t mind a more rustic location for your Christmas vacation, then Kauai would be a better option than Maui.
However, if the hustle and bustle of the holiday season excites you and you enjoy being in the heart of a thriving city during one of the busiest seasons of the year, then Maui would probably suit your fancy.
In large part, your decision will depend on what you’re looking for when you’re traveling in December.
If whale watching is a huge priority, Maui is an excellent choice for winter wanderlust. The downside is having to wade through crowds during one of the busiest seasons of the year, but the rewards are plentiful.
Humpback whale season on Maui starts in December and continues through April, giving visitors ample opportunity to spot these majestic sea creatures during winter or spring breaks.
One of the best places to spot whales in Maui is Wailea Beach, located about forty five minutes south of Kaanapali near Makena Beach. Approximately 10,000 whales frequent the beaches of Hawaiian islands each year, and Maui has an entire two-week festival dedicated to whale watching!
You’re more likely to spot the elusive monk seal in the winter on Kauai, as these blubbering creatures frequent the island year-round. If you do manage to catch a glimpse of a monk seal, make sure you report your sighting to the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) to help them keep track of this critically endangered species.
One last thing to keep in mind when deciding which island to visit over the holidays is the weather.
Honestly, winter (which spans from November - April) is not Hawaii’s best season due to heavy rainfall and heavy crowds that accompany holiday travel season. If you do decide to travel to Hawaii in the winter, then it’s important to keep in mind that weather patterns may impact the quality of your vacation.
December is the start of rainy season in Hawaii and both islands are affected by torrential downpours and gusty winds. Kauai tends to have more violent weather events than Maui, which is the more tame and accessible destination overall.
Regardless, the south side of either island is your best bet for visiting in the winter, as the storms in the south are less intense than in the north.
Since the north is where the true beauty of Kauai lies, you‘re better off visiting Maui for Christmas and saving your trek through Kauai for the spring or summer months, when the island is drier.
This will allow for more pleasant adventures on both land and sea.
Which island you choose to explore first is entirely dependent on your personality, family size, and what you’re hoping to gain from your vacation.
If you’re looking for the storybook tropical paradise replete with crowds of fellow tourists, hopping island nightlife, miles of swimmable beaches, and oceanside resorts, then Maui fits the bill.
If you’re more of an independent explorer and find bliss in the silent immensity of the mountains or you’re seeking out a wild island adventure, then Kauai may be the better choice.
If timing allows, there is always the possibility to visit both islands in one trip, thereby catching two fish on one line.
My suggestion? Explore the best of both worlds by traveling to both islands if you can!
The US Navy was kind enough to make Andrew live in Hawaii for 3 years spending most of his time in the Kaneohe area. When he wasn't working on helicopters he was playing baseball around the island, falling off his surfboard and getting speeding tickets on his motorcycle in Waikiki (follow the rules of the road kids!). Older and just a little wiser, he prefers the slower pace and never ending beauty of Kauai!
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