Maui Vs. Kauai – Which Hawaiian Island Should You Explore First?

This is an aerial view of the Maui coast in Hawaii.

The Maui vs Kauai debate continues. They both consist of beaches and volcanoes. So, what’s the difference between these two tropical paradise locations? Let’s compare landscape, weather, and activities together to help you decide which one to visit.

Molten lava shot up from the Pacific Plate located beneath the earth’s surface about 30 million years ago. Massive rock slabs separated present-day Hawaii into at least 136 landmasses. Many Hawaii islands exist only underwater. However, Maui and Kauai are two of the six Hawaiian Islands you can still visit. 

The best way to see contrasts between Maui and Kauai landscapes is to imagine what you would see while hiking in either place. To summarize my experience exploring these two locations from a travel app, I think of farmland when I think of Maui. 2012 USDA data confirms that this volcano island does have more agricultural land on it than Kauai. On the contrary, Kauai is known for some of its rare flowers that grow in high elevations, including some endangered ones.

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What You’ll See Exploring Maui on Foot

A misty lavender field in Maui, Hawaii.

On Naalae Road in the ancient district of Kula, you’ll see trees, shrubbery, and farmland against the Haleakala volcano background. Some slopes you see include those nearby the highway. A mountain resort sits at an elevation of about 3,200 feet. Booking time at the Kula Lodge will provide you the opportunity to explore Haleakala National Park. You could stay here for days if you want in between resting and hiking. If research is your hobby, you’ll appreciate Kula local facts.

Kula, Maui Local Facts

In Upper Kula, Hawaii farmers grew eucalyptus trees and vegetable or flower gardens. A primary Lower Kula crop was sugar cane. This area now produces carrots, onions, cabbage, and more. Jicama is also grown here, which is a golden-brown vegetable with an inside resembling a potato. This root vegetable is native to Central and South America. You can eat it raw or cooked, but don’t eat the toxic beans it produces.

To learn more about Upper Kula’s agriculture history, consider staying at the Ganz Upcountry Bed & Breakfast. This Haleakala resort will give you the whole farm life experience. Besides vegetables, this upcountry accommodation grows avocado, lime, coffee, pomegranates, and figs on its land.

What You’ll See Walking Through Kauai Terrain

This is a view of the Na Pali coast in Kauai, Hawaii.

If in Kauai, I would trek through Kawaikini. This summit sits between the Olokele and North Fork Wailua River. I noticed the fascinating, multi-colored flora and fauna as I hovered over it with my travel app. It’s just beautiful. That’s all I can tell you. I felt captivated at first glance.

About the Kawaikini Flowers

After the amazing floral view drew me into this Hawaiian island location, I did some research. Kawaikini reaches an elevation of 5,243 above sea level, which is the highest peak of Mount Waialeale. This inactive “shield” volcano emits streams less ferocious lava streams than stratovolcanoes and lava domes.

The dubautia latifolia, otherwise known as the N a’ena’e is one of the most significant floral growths on this island mountain summit (or near it). This Hawaii native plant produces orange, yellow, or purple flowers. Researchers hope to save this rare plant from extinction and still grow it in captivity.

A close look at the N a'ena'e, Hawaiian flower in bloom.

It grows on Mount Waialeale because it thrives best in wet, tropical forests at a minimum of 2,000-foot elevations. You might find other traces of this vegetation grown northeast of the Kawaikini summit. For instance, researchers see them at Alakia’I Wilderness Preserve and Koke’e State Park. Additional rare flower species growing here include the Hawaiian Bluegrass, Sandmat, and Sandtooth Longwood.

You may want to stay at a resort near the Keahua Arboretum if you yearn to study these plants. It’s one of the botany centers closest to Kawaikini.

Maui and Kauai – Which of these these islands has more rain?

Overall, Kauai experiences more rainfall than Maui, and most of that precipitation happens from December-March. Even if it does rain, the temperature remains in the 70s for most of the year. Recommended Hawaii beach spots with minimal showers on this island include Poipu near the southern shore. However, Hanalei and Princeville on the north shore offer scenic views you don’t want to miss.

This island produces higher precipitation rates not because of beach rain, however. On Mount Waialeale in Kauai, it rains about 100 inches a year. Because of it, researchers named this tropical rainforest one of the wettest places on earth. It’s the reason why the few (about 100 total) N a’ena’e plants still live.

You’ll see plenty of sunny days on the beach in Kauai as well as Maui, however. Don’t worry about that. Besides, a little rain might not matter depending on why you decided to visit one of these two Hawaii locations. For instance, you might not always need sun for snorkeling. However, you might appreciate no heavy rain when kayaking, swimming, fishing, surfing, or sunbathing.

Maui has more predictable weather in Wailea. This southern beach location stays sunny for most of the year. Other island destinations where it occasionally rains include Kapalua, Lahaina, and Kaanapali. Even then, the chance of rain is almost none. Wailea accommodations you might enjoy in this spot include The Four Seasons, Residence Inn, and Grand Wailea.

Average Maui vs Kauai, Hawaii Temperatures

This is an aerial view of one of the Hawaiian beaches.

Average beach temperatures are slightly higher in Maui than in Kauai. Sea-level temperatures usually range from 79 degrees on Kauai to about 82 degrees on Maui. Either way, most people consider this the perfect weather for enjoying a day. It’s not too hot and not too cold.

Traveling light is overrated if you plan to spend at least part of your time hiking in between relaxing on either a Maui or Kauai Island beach. Bring a spring jacket and at least a hat if not gloves or a scarf. It occasionally does reach below freezing in the mountains but averages about 50-60 degrees in Maui.

Average highs in Kauai range from about the same as in Maui (50-60 degrees) with average lows in the 40s. High-elevations in Kauai occasionally reach below freezing too, so bring warm clothing here as well.

Besides hiking, prepare yourself to stay comfortable while kayaking or rock climbing.

Tropical Storm Behavior on Maui and Kauai

Tropical storms don’t happen often but caution yourself concerning them too. It’s always wise to keep an eye on hurricane reports before arriving. The last hurricane to hit Kauai was in 1992 versus more than 100 years in Maui, just so you know.

Which Hawaiian island is less touristy, Maui or Kauai?

Every Hawaiian island will have spots where people most often congregate. However, you can only access about 20 percent of Kauai by vehicle. What’s more, you cannot easily find most of this island’s coast just by driving down random roads. You’ll need to find a place to park your vehicle before you hike to Kaupea Bay and Lawai Bay, for instance.

The Rock Quarry Beach section of Kahili is close to the road. Still, fewer people visit it than the island’s popular resort areas. Quarry Beach counts as secluded without requiring much walking. Considering the percentage of places that require transportation without a vehicle, you could call Kauai the “less touristy” island. This has been confirmed by reports stating it has fewer visitors on it than on Maui.

Maui vs Kauai for Snorkeling

A turtle swimming by the Maui coral reef.

It’s possible to work snorkeling into your Kauai expeditions. However, most people prefer Maui for underwater ocean exploration. Perhaps, start your scuba diving journey in Po’olenalena Beach, which features sea turtles and coral reef spreads. Submerge yourself up to 25 feet deep, and mingle with schools of the trigger, hawk, parrot, and other fish. Barracudas, eels, urchins, oysters, and more also inhabit here.

You might notice a manta ray or two in some Maui locations. Perhaps you might plan a trip to Olowalu Reef, where about 350 varieties of manta rays inhabit.

A favorite whale watching spot in Maui, however, is at the less-crowded Kahekili Beach. First-time snorkelers often start out here as well because the water is not too shallow and not too deep. You can meet some of the same underwater wildlife here as you would at Po’olenalena Beach. These include boxes, needles, and cornet fishes. Antler, blue, rice, and other coral types and sea stars, the sea turtle, and urchins also live here.

Maui Vs. Kauai Hawaiian Island for First-time Visitors

Kauai is probably the better of the two for first-time visitors who prefer not to contend with unexpected volcano eruptions. This destination is no longer a part of the Hawaiian hotspot, so couples with children might consider this a low-risk place that still offers spectacular sightseeing. For instance, the cliffs formed by this area’s natural erosion would fascinate people of all ages.

Maui volcanic eruption occurs only about 10 times in approximately 1,000 years. Therefore, the chance of live burial by hot lava is slim to none. This dormant volcanic island provides preferred sunrise viewing points, and you can access most of its beautiful beach locations quite easily, unlike on Kauai.

Swimmable Beaches in Maui Vs. Kauai

A close view of the secluded beach of Haena in Kauai, Hawaii.

You can swim in both places. However, some areas of Makena Beach in Maui seem more suitable for novice swimmers than at some Kauai spots. If you have an interest in not only swimming but watersports, several resorts will accommodate you near places where you can fish, boat, and more. Apparently, stars such as John Stamos, Clint Eastwood, Jessica Alba, Oprah Winfrey, and Adam Sandler, and others have been sighted in Maui.

For a quieter swim than at some Maui resort areas, Kauai beaches include the Na Pali Coast, which requires an off-road vehicle to reach. Queen’s Pond also is a lesser-visited option, but the Anini waters are meant for calm swimming. Anini is a two-mile stretch, so it’s not usually crowded despite its easier reach than others.

Off-the-Beaten Path Activities on Maui Vs. Kauai

With being more rustic and less developed, Kaui could provide you more off-beaten activity opportunities than Maui. However, Maui does offer chances to explore to people seeking adventure. Here’s what to expect at either of these two Hawaii vacation island destinations when not on the beach.

On Kauai

A top view of the twin Wailua waterfalls in Kauai, Hawaii.

If you’re new to hiking in Hawaii, you could walk the Kuilau Ridge Trail in Kauai, which usually takes about two and a half hours. If that’s too easy for you, maybe a 22-mile hike on the Kalalau Trail, which takes approximately two days, is more your style. On your trek, you are likely to become mesmerized by the peaceful waterfall views. You also can work kayaking on Wailua River into your off-road adventure.

On Maui

A path through the bamboo forest in Haleakala, Maui.

Perhaps you already had enough hiking for the day. If so, rest your feet while you embark on an exhilarating drive. Your trip on The Road to Hana forces you to think fast as you take 180-degree turns on steep hills. Try not to miss the red and black sand beach views while on this wild and crazy ride.

Maui vs Kauai Distance to Honolulu

It’s important to book Hawaii island travel sleeping arrangements before you arrive. However, that doesn’t mean you have no room for spontaneity. To make room for last-minute adventures, you might want to consider distance to Honolulu. The proximity to this popular destination from the center of Maui as opposed to from the center of Kauai is slightly closer (104 miles versus 120 miles).

It only takes 39 minutes to fly to Honolulu, Oahu from Kahului, Maui. If you start out in Haleakalā National Park, it’s only a 51-minute drive to the Kahului Airport. It’s possible to fly to Honolulu from here at the last minute if a flight is available. Here you can partake in dolphins and humpback whale watching or find more places to dive.

Otherwise, stay at the Kaanapali Beach Hotel. You can fly from here to the Kahului Airport or book a flight to Oahu.

You can also quickly arrive in Honolulu, Oahu from the Hanalei Bay Resort. The nearest airport is Lihue Airport, which is only 33 miles from central Hanalei. This gives you plenty more opportunities, such as participating in Waikiki Beach snorkeling tours.

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