For many visitors to Hawaii who want to get a bit off the grid, they find themselves having a common debate: Maui vs. Kauai. While each island has its own flavor, for those unfamiliar with the islands, it can be difficult to distinguish the differences. So to help you make your decision, here’s a detailed comparison of Maui vs. Kauai (from a Hawaii local).
Maui vs. Kauai: The Vibes
I know that in my Maui vs. Oahu comparison post, I said that certain Maui towns had a sleepy vibe. But pretty much all of Kauai has Maui beat on the sleepy vibes scale. While Maui has 150,000 people, Kauai has less than half of that at 67,000 people.
To put it in perspective, there’s actually a Kauai law that says no building can be taller than a coconut tree. And Kauai also happens to be home to the largest population of wild chickens out of all of the Hawaiian Islands. Most locals would describe Kauai as “country,” not in the filled-with-cowboys kind of way, but more in the rural, natural kind of way. If you’re headed to Kauai, be prepared to enter the world of Jurassic Park (minus the dangerous animals, except for a few wild pigs) and do quite a bit of hiking.
Maui, on the other hand, is more of the picture-perfect island getaway that most visitors to the Hawaiian Islands picture. It is the island most visited by couples (especially for honeymoons). Maui is also more touristy than Kauai, with the tourist hubs located in Lahaina and Wailea in particular. Basically, instead of Jurassic Park, think of 50 First Dates vibes (although, just for the record, 50 First Dates was filmed on Oahu, not Maui).
Maui vs. Kauai: Weather
Kauai is easily the rainiest Hawaiian Island of all. Mount Waialeale, the dormant volcano located at the center of Kauai, is one of the wettest spots on the entire planet. While you may not have pictured your Hawaiian vacation to be wet and rainy, there are some perks to this.
First of all, the waterfalls are large, ubiquitous, and constantly flowing. Wailua Falls, Hanakapiai Falls, and Opeakaa Falls are a few of the most popular. You know when you decide to visit a waterfall and find out that it’s just been too dry lately for the waterfall to exist? That never happens on Kauai. Second, the rain can provide some relief from the Hawaiian sun! For many visitors to the islands, the sun can be a little intense, but Kauai’s rain provides a nice break from the heat.
It’s also important to note that, while Kauai does rain quite often, the rain tends to be concentrated towards the middle of the island, so you’ll still likely have some sunny beach days.
Maui, on the other hand, is much more consistently sunny than Kauai. The only part of the island that can be rainy is the east side (a.k.a. the road to Hana). That said, the road to Hana isn’t consistently rainy either, which means that there is also a chance that these waterfalls on the drive will be dry when you visit.
Maui vs. Kauai: Accessibility and Transportation
Because Maui has double the number of tourists that Kauai has, the flights to Maui are slightly cheaper than to Kauai. There are also slightly more directly flights to Maui than Kauai (as most flights to Hawaii make a stop at the Honolulu Airport on Oahu).
If you’re trying to visit the private island of Niihau, the only way to do this is by taking a half-day helicopter tour from Kauai.
The bus systems on both islands are extremely limited. I would not recommend relying on the bus system on your trip to Hawaii if you choose to visit Maui or Kauai.
The car situation compared between Maui vs. Kauai is about the same. Traffic jams are rare, but, when there is an accident, it can cause bad traffic, simply because of the limited number of roads.
Both islands also have rather large chunks of the island that are only accessible by 4WD. However, unless you’re extremely adventurous, there’s a good chance that you’ll be able to access all of the sights that you would like to see on your visit to both Maui and Kauai WITHOUT a 4WD.
Unlike on Maui, there are large portions of Kauai that are inaccessible except by boat. Yes, I’m talking about the famous Na Pali Coast. While you could, in theory, visit the Na Pali Coast by helicopter or by one of the world’s most dangerous hikes, most visitors opt to see this breathtaking oceanfront mountain range by boat.
If you’re hoping to visit the small islands of Lanai and Molokai, you can only do so by taking a boat from Maui (or a plane from Oahu).
Maui vs. Kauai: Accommodations
While Maui definitely has more accommodation options than Kauai does, the price range of the options on Maui doesn’t vary all that much.
If you’re looking for large, extravagant accommodation options, Maui is the island for you. For example, Maui is home to the Grand Wailea, A Waldorf Astoria Resort, a huge hotel with four slides, several fantastic dining options, and the world’s only water elevator. The island is also home to other luxury hotels, such as the Four Seasons Resort at Wailea, Fairmont Kea Lani, and The Ritz-Carlton Kapalua.
If you’re sticking to a tight budget, Kauai will likely be the better option for you. While there are high-class hotels like the Princeville Resort Kauai and The Lodge at Kukui’ula, there are many other budget-friendly accommodations as well, many of which are Airbnbs.
Maui vs. Kauai: Things to Do
For the Beach Lover
As can be expected from any Hawaiian Island, the beaches on both Maui and Kauai are fantastic. Both have fantastic surf spots. And both have golden sand to lie on and the warm sun to enjoy.
If you’re on the hunt for colored sand beaches, both Maui and Kauai have black sand beaches. And if you’d like to visit one of the world’s only red sand beaches, Maui is home to one. Do note that visiting Maui’s red sand beach is both illegal and very dangerous!
While there are a few exceptions, the waters on Kauai are quite a bit rougher than the waters on Maui. So if snorkeling is high up on your Hawaii bucket list, Maui is the right island for you. Between the famous Molokini Crater, the Kanaio Coast, and Poolenelena Beach, the rocky beaches on Kauai don’t really compare.
For the Nature Lover
Kauai, hands down, has the best nature out of all of the Hawaiian Islands. Between the famous Na Pali Coast, the numerous hikes, and the ubiquitous waterfalls, there’s literally no end to the exploration of nature on Kauai. The Kalalau Trail on the Na Pali Coast is considered to be one of the most beautiful (and dangerous hikes), not only on Kauai, but in the world.
And we definitely can’t forget about Kauai’s Waimea Canyon. As basically Hawaii’s version of the U.S. mainland’s Grand Canyon, Waimea Canyon is truly a sight to see! And unlike many of the hikes in the Grand Canyon, the hikes in Waimea Canyon only take a few hours (rather than a few days). In other words, if you’re looking for a short, canyon hike, Kauai’s Waimea Canyon is the place to do it.
While Kauai’s nature undoubtedly beats Maui’s nature, that’s not to completely discredit the beauty of the nature on Maui. After all, it is still one of the Hawaiian Islands. There’s the road to Hana, Haleakala, the West Maui Mountains, and Iao Valley, which all have stunning views of nature.
For the History Buff
The historic places on both Kauai and Maui are hidden gems. However, Kauai has many more of these historic gems than Maui does. While Maui is home to the Pioneer Mill Co., which explains Hawaii’s plantation history, Kauai has a handful of different
places to learn about the island’s history.
While the Pioneer Mill Co. teaches visitors to Maui about Hawaii’s historic sugar plantations, the Grove Farm Homestead Museum in Lihue teaches visitors to Kauai about that very same topic! Just before the sugar plantations became popular in Hawaii, there were the missionaries, whom you can learn about at the Waioli Mission House and Waioli Huiia Church. Plus, the Kauai Museum gives visitors a chance to learn about native Hawaiian history, prior to the influence of missionaries and immigrants.
For the Culture Fanatic
When comparing the cultural events on Maui vs. Kauai, they are strikingly similar. Both islands put an emphasis on Hawaiian cultural, with a Japanese obon festival or two mixed in.
Maui has a couple Hawaiian culture festivals that are unique to the island, including the East Maui Taro Festival and the Olukai Hoolaulea. Similarly, Kauai has a few unique Hawaiian cultural gatherings of their own, including the Kauai Mokihana Festival, the Kauai Poke Fest, and Eo E Emalani I Alakai Festival.
For the Shopper
There isn’t a ton of shopping on Kauai. There are a couple of small shopping centers, but nothing that’s out-of-this-world unique or made on island. (For those items, you’d be much better off finding a farmer’s market.)
If you’re looking to compare lists of things to do on each of the islands, here is our list of things to do on Maui. And because I haven’t gotten around to writing a list of things to do on Kauai, this interactive page from the Hawaii Tourism board is pretty solid.
Maui vs. Kauai: Food
When it comes to food, the question is: are you looking for high-class restaurants or hole in the wall gems? If high class restaurants are your thing, Maui is the place to go. If you’d rather visit random holes in the wall, Kauai is perfect.
A large chunk of the restaurants on Maui that are worth your time are located either in resorts or near resorts. This inevitably means that they are rather pricey. Merriman’s, Mama’s Fish House, and Lineage are just a few of these delicious high-class restaurants. That’s not to say that there aren’t hidden gems on Maui. Rather, they’re just much harder to find – and I’m not going to leave you hanging. Until I finally get around to writing a Maui food guide, the lists from Pride of Maui and Conde Nast Traveler are both great places to start. I will say that, overall, Maui does have a bit more variety than Kauai when it comes to food.
As for the Kauai hole in the wall gems, we always make sure to go to Kauai Kookie for their bite-sized guava macadamia cookies and Kauai Coffee Company for some fantastic coffee and an amazing self-led coffee tour. A few other hidden food gems on Kauai that are worth noting are Kalaheo Café & Coffee Company, Da Crack, The Local Restaurant, and Hukilau Lanai.
Not sure if Maui or Kauai is the right island for your Hawaiian vacation? Check out our article that covers all of the Hawaiian Islands!
What did you think of our comparison of Maui vs. Kauai? Do you agree or disagree? If you’ve been to both islands, let me know what you think in the comments! And are there other topics that you would like me to compare between the two islands? Let me know about those in the comments too!
If you’re still deciding which of the two islands you want to visit, pin this post so you can peek back at it later!
Disclosure: I may use referral links in this post, and I might make a commission from my recommendations at no extra cost to you.