As an archipelago, first-time and return visitors are often at a loss about which Hawaiian island they should visit. This holds particularly true when deciding between Maui and Oahu—the second and third largest islands in the Hawaiian chain, respectively, and the second and first most visited.
While it all comes down to personal preference—both islands are nothing short of exquisite—we’ve taken the guesswork out of your query.
Maui and Oahu are both globally known for possessing remarkable resorts—whether it’s the 800-acre Turtle Bay Resort on Oahu’s North Shore or the beautifully-appointed Andaz Wailea on Maui’s South Side—but both islands present lodging experiences that are distinctly their own.
Maui is home to two master-planned resort communities: Ka’anapali on its western coast and Wailea on its southern shores; some of the resorts here receive accolades as being among the best in the world (here’s looking at you, Four Seasons Wailea). In between, you’ll find Kihei and Lahaina, beachy, buzzy towns filled with condos that are great for budget travelers and families with children. The island’s less populated and more secluded regions—Upcountry, Hana, and the North Shore—have fewer accommodations, but what you will find, from Hana-Maui Resort to Makawao’s Lumeria, are absolutely matchless.
Chain resorts—from the Marriott to the Hyatt—line Oahu’s Waikiki, where high-rise hotels (and restaurants and shops) dominate what part of the landscape isn’t taken up by the enclave’s world-class beach. “The Gathering Place,” as the island is suitably called, also boasts trendy and unique hotels that can’t be found across the channel on Maui, from the intimate Aqua Bamboo Waikiki to the uber-cute Vive Hotel Waikiki near Kuhio Beach. Outside of Honolulu and Waikiki, Oahu also features Ko Olina—a resort and golf community on the arid leeward coast (complete with the kid-centric Disney’s Aulani Resort & Spa)—while B&Bs, cozy inns, and economical condos are spread across the island’s 597 square miles.
Due to the number of accommodations Oahu offers, it easily takes the cake in terms of reasonable options. Many of the resorts on Maui’s bustling leeward side tend to be grand (read: cost-prohibitive to some), while it’s a cinch to score an adorable room in Waikiki for less than $200. Still, if you’re keen on attaining a serene, once-in-a-lifetime lodging experience, head to Maui: The remoteness and romance of some of its resorts will endure for posterity.
The beauty of Hawaii is that each island presents beaches that are genuinely out of this world, from the Big Island’s green-sanded Papakolea to Kauai’s uber-picturesque Hanalei. In other words, assessing Hawaii’s beaches is like comparing apples to apples. That being said, it again comes down to the energy and experience you’re after.
Maui’s 120 miles of coastline boasts 30 accessible beaches, many of which are nothing short of extraordinary. The southern shore—Kihei, Wailea, Makena—is characterized by the white-sand coves, warm, crystalline waters, and gorgeously-manicured landscapes that star many-a-Hawaiian postcard; near the southern edge, you’ll also find the vast and aptly-titled Big Beach (Oneloa), “Turtle Town,” and La Perouse: a bay hemmed in by lava fields and featuring some of the most striking marine life in Hawaii. The beaches on the West Side—Lahaina, Ka’anapali, Napili, Kapalua—present equally beautiful (albeit narrower) beaches; its crown jewel, Ka’anapali Beach, is frequently voted one of the best beaches in the world. The North Shore sees windier, fiercer conditions and the more dramatic surf that arrives with it, which can be a boon for those who love to watch—or participate in—windsurfing, kiteboarding, and surfing. Its isolated eastern coast, meanwhile, offers beaches that may not be ideal for swimming or small children but will turn your Instagram into a gallery of breathtaking images.
Oahu’s beaches are just as spectacular—after all, this is the home of the iconic Diamond Head-framed Waikiki Beach and the surf meccas of Banzai Pipeline, Waimea Bay, and Sunset Beach (where waves exceed twenty-plus feet during winter). Just as outstanding are the beaches on its windward edge, where Kailua and Lanikai—two of the most lauded coves on the globe—peer out at Oahu’s outlying islets. Snorkeling at Hanauma Bay is one of the leading visitor activities in the Aloha State (and for good cause—the pristine ecosystem features a profusion of marvelous marine life), while Bellows Field Beach Park is marked by powdery sand and dazzling ironwoods.
It’s a formidable tie, but consider this: Honolulu alone has more than twice the entire population of Maui. Residents aside, Maui sees roughly 54,000 visitors per day; Oahu, 96,00o. Translation? Oahu’s beaches, particularly Waikiki, can be massively packed—so much so your towel may be mere centimeters from your neighbor’s. Maui’s beaches see its fair share of crowds too—especially Keawakapu at sunset—but on the whole, they offer more space, tranquility, and solitude.
Maui is an outdoor adventurer’s Eden, what with its excellent hiking trails, copious (and accessible) waterfalls, and abundance of ocean thrills (think: longboarding, paddle boarding, outrigger canoeing, snorkeling, and scuba diving). Because of its focus on daytime pleasures, most of the island shutters down as early as 10 pm. What nightlife the island does possess exists on its leeward shores: Kihei’s Triangle (a cluster of bars that tend towards the rowdy side) and Lahaina’s Front Street—a historic boulevard in a former whaling port that abounds with restaurants and bars. Dancing options are slim at best, and while Maui is seeing an increase in notable concerts and shows, few come to The Valley Isle specifically for its after-dark exploits.
Keen on rubbing elbows with international travelers, barhopping in the balmy air, and dancing the night away? If this (and more) is at the top of your vacation bucket list, then Honolulu/Waikiki is your place; from karaoke bars to late-night dining, “Town” has got it all. (Indeed, it’s considered the only real nightlife in Hawaii.) Beloved haunts—the sort that draw kama’aina and out-of-state visitors to its doors again and again—include Amuse Wine Bar, a luxe venue in the Honolulu Design Center that features over 80 wine varieties; Chinatown’s pumping Manifest, which showcases talented DJs; and The Royal Hawaiian’s fabled Mai Tai Bar—a beachfront jewel that’s best known as the birthplace of Trader Vic’s original concoction. Oahu is also the Aloha State’s capital of nightclubs, with options ranging from the super-sultry RumFire Waikiki to the beat-heavy Artistry Honolulu.
Oahu wins, hands-down. Admittedly, the island’s nightlife outside of Honolulu and Waikiki is either quiet or entirely nonexistent, but even its windward cities have more energy than most Maui evenings.
The Great Outdoors
Maui’s Great Outdoors
Maui may be lacking in terms of a vibrant nightlife, but it makes up for it in spades in its outdoor activities. Snorkeling is an enjoyable—and instructive—way to spend a sunny Maui morning; the island’s south side in particular presents cove after cove flourishing with ocean wonders. (Ahihi-Kinau Natural Reserve is especially magnificent.) Viewing Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles—or honu—in their natural habitat is also a Maui must; Makena and Ho’okipa are just two terrific spots to witness their splendor. The Valley Isle, which is comprised of two volcanoes with a saddle of land between them, is frequently praised as presenting the best hiking in Hawaii. Some of its stars include a bamboo forest trail (Pipiwai) that leads to the largest accessible waterfall on the island, and a mist-tipped trek along a ridge that offers panoramic views of the lush, stunning coastline. One of the island’s two aforementioned volcanoes, Haleakala—one of the largest dormant volcanoes in the world—towers over the eastern edge of the island and provides one of the most surreal and spectacular sunrises most will ever see in their life (truly). Meanwhile, Maui’s remote eastern coast, Hana, boasts black and red sand beaches perfect for exploring, waterfalls to climb to (and perhaps rappel and/or jump off)—and even more trails to trek. Golfing is no joke here, either; Maui’s pristine Kapalua course serves as the site of the annual Sentry Tournament of Champions. The island’s waters are also home to North Pacific Humpback Whales from November to May—enormous, beautiful creatures that can be admired from a boat or the beach. In other words? The Valley Isle is an outdoor lover’s paradise.
Oahu’s Great Outdoors
Given the attributes the Hawaiian Islands share—lusty beaches, awesome waterfalls, humbling volcanoes, and flourishing rainforests—it’s no surprise that Oahu’s options for outdoor entertainment are just as enticing. Home to Diamond Head Crater—inarguably one of the most iconic craters in the world—the island has enough natural marvels to make any day outside elating. In addition to the beach activities listed above, learning to surf at Waikiki Beach is tremendously fun, while the island’s North Shore offers one of the only places in Hawaii to skydive. Kualoa Ranch packs outdoor activities into one gorgeous spot—this is the site of Jurassic Park, after all—including ATV adventures, ziplining, kayak tours, and horseback riding. And from shark dives to big wave surfing and extreme helicoptering (yes, it’s a thing), extreme sports fans will have a ball exploring the island.
And the winner is…Maui. True, Oahu’s outdoor activities are just as diverse and compelling but keep in mind population numbers: Hanauma Bay sees roughly 3,000 visitors daily; approximately 700-1000 people visit Maui’s “Forbidden Coast,” with only a couple hundred stopping to snorkel at the above-mentioned Ahihi Kinau. Some of Maui’s gentlest waves are jam-packed with surfing schools, yes, but these sites barely compare to the number of people out in the water at Waikiki. Plus, traffic. Oahu is listed as among the top ten worst places for traffic in the United States, which can make getting to—and returning from—your outdoor adventure a time suck (and stressful). Given that most adventurers are intent on reconnecting with nature, Maui’s smaller crowds, greater peacefulness, and wide, open spaces render it a smarter choice for outsiders.
Luxe boutiques, surf shops, one-of-a-kind gems: Maui’s shopping scene has rapidly progressed in the last decade and a half, so much so shopping is on many visitors’ to-do lists. The Shops at Wailea on the island’s South Side is filled with the likes of Lululemon, Mahina (a line of economical women’s fashions made locally), Louis Vuitton, Cos Bar, and more. To the west and you’ll find not only an abundance of beachy boutiques on Lahaina’s Front Street but also Whalers Village—a predecessor to The Shops at Wailea that includes Kate Spade, Crazy Shirts, Cinnamon Girl, and Sephora, to name just a few. The center of the island boasts Ka’ahumanu—which holds Macy’s, Bath & Body Works, Pac Sun, and old standbys like Sears—while its northern shore and Upcountry slopes are peppered with peerless, quality galleries and shops. Saturdays on the island also see hordes of shoppers at its weekly swap meet, where local vendors peddle handmade wares ranging from pareos to fine jewelry.
Oahu has long been considered the epicenter of shopping in Hawaii—so much so residents from the other islands flock to its shores to stock up for the year and to do their holiday shopping. Honolulu houses Ala Moana Center—the largest mall in Hawaii and the eighth biggest mall in the U.S.—where Neiman Marcus is as likely to steal your attention as distinctly-Hawaiian venues like ‘Auana Quilts and Malie’s Health & Beauty. Waikiki’s Kalakaua Avenue practically throbs with shopping opps, including the tony complex appropriately dubbed “Luxury Row.” The island’s International Marketplace features Saks Fifth Avenue and 89 other stores, while outlets boom in Waikele. The island further offers an enormous swap meet and chic stores on its Windward and North Shores.
There’s no question about it: Oahu is the victor with its incredible range of options and its ability to satisfy even the most discerning shopper.
Gone are the days when Maui’s finest restaurants served little more than macadamia nut crusted mahi-mahi (which, to be fair, is still a remarkable dish) and standard American fare. Now a culinary destination that draws supremely talented chefs from around the globe, The Valley Isle’s dining scene is positively thriving—from the innovative, veritably farm-fresh fare at Chef Taylor Ponte’s Kamado dinners to the timeless, tropical jewel that is Kuau’s Mama’s Fish House. Many of the resorts feature ultra-topnotch dining experiences—Bitters & Bites at The Andaz’s Ka’ana Kitchen is highly memorable—while a few of the founders of Hawaii Regional Cuisine plate their appreciation for local bounty at restaurants from Kahana to Haliimaile. Better yet, even the island’s low-key haunts—such as the ever-busy-for-a-reason Paia Fish Market and Da Kitchen—offer terrific food at a fraction of the price.
While diversity isn’t exclusive to the Hawaiian Island chain, Oahu’s position as the most populated renders it the leading spot for a huge swath of international flavors. From dim sum restaurants in Chinatown to loco moco at Obama’s childhood fave Rainbow Drive-In and lumpias at the Filipino eatery Pinoy One Deli, the island has it all—even the state’s most famous Portuguese donut, the quintessential malasada, at Leonard’s Bakery. The founders of Hawaii Regional Cuisine got their start on Oahu; two of the most reputed from the original team—Alan Wong and Roy Yamaguchi—have restaurants that are among the most acclaimed in the islands. High-end dining also reaches new heights at spots like Chev Mavro’s, where Hawaiian-French fare is offered alongside one of the smartest wine lists in Hawaii. The Gathering Place is also home to the world-renowned Kahuku Food Trucks—a band of venues on wheels that deliver fresh, delicious grinds—and Eat the Street, an epic festival that offers bites ranging from tacos and lau lau to pasteles and poke.
Maui may be an impressive opponent—and this will only continue to increase—but Oahu scores major points for its range of options and sheer number of restaurants.
History and Culture
As the former capital of Hawaii—as well as one of the biggest whaling ports in the North Pacific Ocean—Maui brims with history, some of which is thoughtfully captured at intimate museums around the island. Take Hale Pa‘i in Lahaina, for example, where guests can see ancient Hawaiian currency, or consider The Bailey House Museum in Wailuku, where visitors can admire Hawaiian artifacts (and one of Duke Kahanamoku’s surfboards). Some of the island’s shows—including the highly-lauded Grand Wailea Luau and Royal Lahaina Luau—pay homage to Hawaii’s rich and riveting past, while the island’s remote eastern shore boasts the largest temple in all of Polynesia.
Once the capital moved to Honolulu, Oahu became Hawaii’s hub for generating what we deem historical—and, as such, presents some of the most impressive cultural sites in the islands. Chief among these is ‘Iolani Palace, a grand structure that housed Hawaii’s monarchy before the islands were overthrown (and Hawaii’s last queen was held captive); today, the building is the only royal palace in the U.S. Tobacco heiress’s Doris Duke’s colossal collection of Islamic art is also available for visitors to peruse on Oahu’s southeastern side, while two of the island’s most iconic hotels—The Royal Hawaiian and the Moana Surfrider—are museums onto themselves. On the North Shore, visitors can also garner a glimpse into Pacific traditions at the Polynesian Cultural Center; art enthusiasts can get their fill at the Honolulu Museum of Art. Most notably, perhaps, is the fact that Oahu is home to the numerous sites that signified the U.S.’s involvement in the Second World War: the monuments, memorials, ships, and museums of Pearl Harbor.
Much of Hawaii’s legacy is illuminated at spectacular, poignant spots throughout Oahu, making it the best island in the state for history and culture buffs. But whatever island you choose, know this: Each island is inimitable—and pure magic.
Maui versus Oahu
The mere mention of Hawaii is enough to make most people swoon. And is it any wonder? As the most isolated populous archipelago in the world, the 50th state embodies exoticism with its remote location and natural beauty. Throw in an abundance of thrilling outdoor activities, first-rate resorts, delectable food, culture galore, and perennially-perfect weather, and its designation by the Travel Channel as the second-best place on the planet to visit is nearly inarguable.
But where the argument ensues is when only one island can be chosen of your Hawaii vacation. We can’t objectively choose between Oahu and Maui. There’s no clear choice that fits every visitor. It all depends on what you’re looking for! Review our comparisons above and choose the island attributes that mean the most to YOU!
The one thing we do know is that, whether visiting Maui or Oahu, you’ll have a great time! ALOHA!
25 Things to do on Oahu
The sheer number of things to do on Oahu are enough to make even the most organized traveler’s head spin. With that in mind, we’ve narrowed down Oahu’s musts to 25 so that you can experience the extent of “The Gathering Place’s” wonder: