You’re going to HAWAII!!
Next comes the BIG question in planning for your Hawaii vacation…
Which island to visit in Hawaii?! What is the BEST island in Hawaii?!
So let’s say you’ve narrowed down your choices of which Hawaiian island you want to visit…
The island with Kona
Which Hawaiian island to choose: Maui or Big Island?!
To be lame, to choose between Maui and the Big Island truly is HARD! To choose between ANY of the Hawaiian islands is hard. Much of it really depends on what you’re looking for out of your Hawaii vacation!
But the thing is that no matter which island you choose for your Hawaii vacation, there’s a VERY good chance you will love it!
If you’re coming from landlocked USA (or landlocked anywhere really) and this is your first trip to Hawaii, then any Hawaii experience can only be amazing I’m sure.
So, don’t stress TOO much over choosing the “best” Hawaiian island or the “perfect” Hawaiian island.
That said, if you are looking for a beach vacation in Hawaii, Maui is better known for having a ton of amazing beaches. It’s more so that Maui has many more beaches to choose from compared to the Big Island, and there are many more developed tourist areas around beaches. And that means that Maui also has more beachfront accommodation options. Still, the Big Island does have some great beaches too. (See the best Maui beaches and the best Big Island beaches.)
And if you’re looking for MORE than just a beach vacation, then coming up below are some more things that Maui and the Big Island can offer you during your trip to Hawaii!
I have spent around 3 weeks on Maui and around 3 weeks on the Big Island, doing something new almost every one of those days. There is always more to discover in Hawaii, but I do think that I’ve done a lot of things on each of these islands to be able to make some comparisons between these 2 islands! These comparisons are listed below!
Comparing the islands vs Oahu?!
Maui vs Oahu
Big Island vs Oahu
Oahu is the island of Honolulu and Waikiki. This is another popular Hawaiian island choice for a first trip to Hawaii. It can be considered the most budget friendly island in Hawaii.
If you had to choose the best islands in Hawaii for the beaches, it would likely be Maui or Oahu. Once again, similar to Maui, on Oahu you have a lot of picture-perfect beaches to choose from. (See the best Oahu beaches.)
I don’t have any specific comparison post of Maui vs Oahu or the Big Island vs Oahu, but I do have some individual posts of the best things to do on Oahu! (I have also spent more than 3 weeks on Oahu.) So if you are also looking at Oahu for your first trip to Hawaii, be sure to see the best of Oahu in 3 days and the best Oahu beaches to get you started.
Also, if you are looking at a solo trip to Hawaii, also see about things to consider when traveling to Hawaii alone.
Let’s compare Maui and the Big Island in a few ways!
- Black sand beach
- National parks + volcanoes
- Colored sand beaches
- Lava tubes
- Scenic drives
- Snorkeling + turtles and seals
- Whale watching
- Do you need a rental car?
- Stick with 1 island or visit 2 islands?!
- Where to stay
Black sand beach in Hawaii
Well, if you want to see a black sand beach in Hawaii, then out of all the Hawaiian islands to choose, you will want to go to Maui or the Big Island! So when your choice is between these 2 islands, no matter which island you choose, you can see a black sand beach!
If your goal is simply to see ONE black sand beach, then you will be very happy with either of the islands. There’s at least one beach on both Maui and the Big Island that’s a very good (meaning very black) black sand beach.
Maui has one very great black sand beach
THE famous black sand beach on Maui is the black sand beach at Waianapanapa State Park on the Road to Hana. This will not disappoint. There’s also a small little lava tube cave here that opens up to the ocean.
You can also make you trip to Waianapanapa State Park more than just about the black sand beach. There is the Waianapanapa Coastal Trail which will give you grand ocean views with the opportunity to hike across lava fields.
There are more beaches that are sometimes listed as black sand beaches on Maui but they are not always the really black-colored black sand beaches. So basically, Maui has one great black sand beach for tourists to visit.
The Big Island has many very great black sand beaches
If you want to see MANY very good (again, meaning very black) black sand beaches, then the Big Island is better. The Big Island has the most recent volcanic lava activity (what causes the black color sand in Hawaii) and as a result, there are also “newer” black sand beaches here.
The famous black sand beach on the Big Island is the Punaluu black sand beach. This is also a beach that is known for frequent turtle sightings. I went to this beach 3 times and saw at least one turtle each time.
There are also many black sand beaches on the Puna coast. Red Road along this coast can be a 30 minute drive point to point, and you can make stops for 3 black sand beaches that are very black in color.
National parks in Hawaii: Volcanoes in Hawaii
There are 2 national parks in Hawaii, and Maui and the Big Island each have one national park! So again, if you want to visit a national park in Hawaii, then you will want to choose Maui or the Big Island.
And when your choice is down to these 2 islands, you will definitely be able to visit a U.S. national park in Hawaii no matter which island you choose!
Maui has a national park with one dormant volcano
Haleakala National Park is home to the Haleakala volcano aka East Maui volcano.
The popular thing to do here is to visit the summit of this volcano. You’ll be at high altitude, above 10,000 ft. You can pretty much drive straight up to it. You’ll be above the clouds!
The other thing to do here is the Haleakala crater hike. You’ll be treated to volcanic desert landscape.
The Big Island has a national park with 2 active volcanoes
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is home to the Kilauea volcano and Mauna Loa volcano.
The Big Island is known as THE island to visit in Hawaii if you want a chance to see active molten lava (aka the red stuff). It’s not always guaranteed, though.
For something like 30 years, lava was actively flowing on the Big Island. But then, in 2018, that stopped. And it stopped for over 2 years. That means that during that time there was no chance to see active lava. Then, in December 2020, lava started flowing again. See the video that was posted to twitter by the US Geological Survey.
So, will you be able to see active lava during your Hawaii trip in 2021?! There’s no certain way to know! You can check for the updates here.
Even if you can’t see the lava actively flowing, what you can see in the national park is the aftermath of all the lava that has flowed through over the years. There’s hardened lava all over spanning to the coast.
If you are interested in a volcano-themed vacation in Hawaii, be sure to see this list of where to see old lava flows on the Big Island! There are many parts of the Big Island (not just the national park) that you can see vast lava fields.
The Big Island is the better island in Hawaii to see old lava flows, but you can see old lava flows on Maui too.
See more about the national parks in Hawaii
- Things to do in Maui’s national park
- Things to do in the Big Island’s national park
- Driving to the summit of Maui’s national park
- Best hike in the Maui national park (hike into a crater with volcanic desert landscape)
- Best hike in the Big Island national park (hike into a former lava lake)
- National park sites in Hawaii
- Hawaii national park pass
Waterfalls in Hawaii
Hawaii is known for waterfalls, and you’ll be able to see waterfalls on both Maui and the Big Island. If your goal is to see ONE very great waterfalls, then you’ll likely be happy with either of the islands.
Maui has many waterfalls you can see on a single drive
If you want to chase waterfalls in Hawaii, then Maui is the better island! All you have to do is drive the Hana Highway aka the Road to Hana and you will see waterfalls!
Some you can see while driving, some can be quick stops to see, and there are some waterfalls to hike to! And there are waterfalls for swimming too. There are tons of waterfalls along the Hana Highway.
The Big Island has 2 waterfalls that are easy to see
For Big Island waterfalls, the most famous waterfalls are Akaka Falls. These waterfalls are pretty tall, and it’s a sight to see, so you probably won’t be disappointed! You just need to take a short trail to see it.
Kind of nearby is also Rainbow Falls that you can pretty much drive straight up to.
Colored sand beaches in Hawaii
Well, if you want to see a different colored beach in Hawaii, then out of all the Hawaiian islands to choose, you will once again want to go to Maui or the Big Island! Aside from seeing a black sand beach, you can also see a different colored beach on both Maui and the Big Island! (Not the same color, though.)
Hawaii’s red sand beach is on Maui
THE famous red sand beach in Hawaii is Kaihalulu Beach.
This colored sand beach requires a little bit of an effort to get to. It’s a relatively short hike that’s sometimes referred to as dangerous. So be sure to look into the red sand beach hike before you go to make sure it’s something you’re okay with.
Hawaii’s green sand beach is on the Big Island
THE famous green sand beach in Hawaii is Papakolea Beach.
But, it is not THAT green. Or at least, not some truly amazing color green.
But it’s said to be a very unique type of beach because it’s believed to be one of only 4 green sand beaches in the world that exist.
While you may not be able to truly see the green sand until you get up close and personal with the sand, it is a beach that gets this unique color from the mineral called olivine.
Lava tubes in Hawaii
Have you ever been in a cave that used to have lava flowing through it?! If not, you can see this in Hawaii! These are also called lava tubes.
On Maui, there’s the Hana lava tube that you can go to.
Scenic drives in Hawaii
Maui and the Big Island are… islands, and there are coastal drives on both Maui and the Big Island!
The Big Island IS big in size, and this can mean more driving compared to Maui to explore more.
Top scenic drives on Maui
The Road to Hana is THE drive to do on Maui. This is a drive on the Hana Highway.
There is also what’s called a “back road” of the Hana Highway. This has been considered a “scary” or “dangerous” drive. You can get a glimpse of that with a trip to Alelele Falls.
Far north of West Maui is also a must-drive if you want to see Maui’s rugged coastline. While much of this drive can be more about the scenic coastline, stops you can make include seeing a blowhole and tide pools.
There is also somewhat of a “back road” in West Maui. Likewise, this has also been considered a scary or dangerous drive. You can get a glimpse of that with a trip to the Kahakuloa Bay overlook.
Top scenic drives on the Big Island
Most of the island!
The main road somewhat loops around the outer part of the island, and a lot of it is along the coast and a good height above sea level which means stunning views as you drive.
And then there are also smaller roads off the main road that you can take that will look like you are driving straight towards the ocean too.
Snorkeling in Hawaii
If you’re a first-time snorkeler, there are beginner-friendly snorkeling spots on both Maui and the Big Island that will allow you to swim with lots of colorful tropical fish that likely won’t leave you disappointed!
Maui is generally better known for swimming with turtles, and there’s even a beach called turtle town.
But you can see turtles on the Big Island too, and similar to any island in Hawaii, you might randomly see them as you’re swimming in the ocean. I unexpectedly saw one when swimming at Mahaiula Beach, which isn’t even really known as a top snorkeling spot.
So whether on Maui or the Big Island, there are fish and turtles to be seen in many places.
But of course, you do increase your chances of seeing the marine life that will get you excited by going to the spots that are known as the best snorkeling spots on Maui and the best snorkeling spots on the Big Island!
As for seeing turtles on shore without going in the water, both Maui and the Big Island have a pretty reliable beach where you have a good chance of seeing turtles. On Maui there’s Hookipa Beach, and on the Big Island there’s Punaluu Beach (the black sand beach).
I never did see a Hawaiian monk seal on the Big Island, but I visited Hookipa Beach on Maui twice and saw seals laying on the beach there both times.
In any case, fish, turtles, and seals are wild marine life so they do what they want! There’s never any guarantee for sightings, but there are some places where you do have a better chance of seeing them!
Also, Hawaii is very serious about respecting marine life and not disturbing them. So be sure to keep your distance from turtles and seals if you do see them!
Whale watching in Hawaii
You have a chance to see whales on any of the Hawaiian islands during whale season, but Maui is generally said to be the best island for whale watching. Whale season in Hawaii is generally speaking in the winter.
I was on Maui during the prime of whale season and I feel like I saw so many whales from shore without even trying!
If you’re headed to Hawaii during winter and whales are at the top of your priority list, then this could be a reason to choose Maui too.
Aside from seeing whales off in the distance from shore, there are many whale watching boat tours. Among the most popular sports to get a boat tour from is Lahaina in West Maui. The channel between Lahaina and the neighbor island of Lanai is considered among the best areas to see whales. (Although not the only spot!)
There is also the Lanai ferry that you can take between Maui and Lanai.
See pictures from the boat ride:
Hiking in Hawaii
You will find hikes with beautiful views no matter which Hawaiian island you choose!
But THE famous bamboo forest hike in Hawaii is on Maui.
And then again, being islands, there are many hikes with ocean views on both Maui and the Big Island!
See photos of hikes in the Hawaiian islands:
Do you NEED a rental car in Hawaii?
So again, if you’re flying from somewhere that doesn’t have any shorelines, then surely, no matter what you do or where you go in Hawaii, you will have a very good time in Hawaii, whether you rent a car or not.
If you’re just interested in staying in resort areas, then you might be able to manage without a car if you don’t mind the extra time it takes to get around otherwise.
In the case of Maui, there are a few places you can go by taking the Maui bus, including:
I have been to all these places by bus – it works!
In the case of the Big Island, you can go a limited area on the Kona coast by bus, trolley, or bike sharing. (The bus does also loop around the Big Island.)
But when you’re choosing between Maui and the Big Island, to truly do the BEST things (and most popular things), I think it’s best to have a car no matter which island you choose. Some of the top places to visit in Hawaii on both Maui and the Big Island do require a car (or tour) and there’s no public transportation that will get you there.
Renting a car will allow you to be more efficient with your time, and do a lot more with your time. If you want a few easy days by the beach, it can also be reasonable to just rent a car for a few days of your vacation and not the whole time.
It’s best to rent a car from the airport. More cars usually means better deals. So that would be OGG Kahului airport for Maui, and likely KOA Kona airport for the Big Island.
You can get a bus to/from the airport if you don’t want to rent for your entire vacation. I’ve been to both the Kahului airport by bus and the Kona airport by bus in order to pick up a rental car, so again, bus can work! Uber is also available in Hawaii on both Maui and the Big Island.
A car will allow you to discover an island in your own way. There are plenty of random stops you can make along the way as you drive to discover “secret” spots that you don’t read about online in the all the lists of the best things to do in Hawaii.
Renting a jeep is popular on the Big Island. See more about whether or not you need a 4×4 on the Big Island. (The short answer is no, but you may consider renting one anyway.)
If you want a Hawaiian island that you can really get away with not renting a car, then Oahu is the true budget Hawaiian island. There is plenty to do on Oahu without a car. Here are ideas for how to spend 2 weeks on Oahu without a car.
Renting a car in Hawaii in 2021
As of spring 2021, there are reports of there being a car rental shortage on the Big Island.
It seems like there’s a similar situation on Maui with incredibly high car rental costs.
If you’re planning your trip to Hawaii for later in the year, then you might consider looking up availability for a car rental FIRST before you book your flight to Maui or the Big Island.
And book your car sooner rather than later!
One week in Hawaii: 1 or 2 islands?
Travel between Hawaiian islands isn’t difficult. There are frequent flights between all the islands, including Maui and the Big Island.
Still, with just one week in Hawaii, I think you would be better off spending your time on one island. This way you can really get to know better an island, and you’d be able to take it easy more, I think!
Maybe if you have 10 days in Hawaii you might start to think about visiting 2 islands, but even then, I think spending time on one island can better!
But again, it depends on what you’re looking for out of your Hawaii vacation!
Otherwise, there is no ferry in Hawaii between the main Hawaiian islands.
For future trip planning (way out into the future probably), it is possible to get a week-long cruise around Hawaii though! With a cruise around the Hawaiian islands you would visit Oahu (start/end), Maui (2 days), the Big Island (2 days), and Kauai (2 days). Visit many islands in Hawaii and unpack only once!
There are also cruises TO Hawaii. These are usually around 15-day cruises, with the majority of time spent at sea.
Day trip to Oahu
If you are interested in visiting the Pearl Harbor national memorial, this is on the island of Oahu. It can be reasonable to make it a day trip to Oahu to visit Pearl Harbor from Maui or from the Big Island if this is a top priority for you. You would fly into Honolulu Airport.
Where to stay in Hawaii
On Maui, the resort areas are West Maui and South Maui:
- Kaanapali (West Maui)
- Kapalua (West Maui)
- Wailea (South Maui)
Kaanapali has a long stretch of beach that’s lined with many beachfront resorts and hotels. Kapalua would be the quieter resort area of West Maui. Wailea has a long stretch of coastline that’s lined with many oceanfront resorts and hotels, some with beaches out front.
A beach in West Maui was named best beach in America by Dr. Beach a few years ago.
On the Big Island, the resort areas are:
- Kona coast
- Waikoloa / Kohala coast (a little bit north of Kona)
See more: where to stay in Kona
Airbnb is also an option in Hawaii.
If you are traveling to Hawaii alone, or you’re a backpacker on a budget, then also see where to stay when backpacking Hawaii. On Maui, there are hostels that offer free group tours. (Including to those places that you can’t get to by bus too!)
There are things to love about both the Hawaiian islands of Maui and the Big Island!
I really don’t think you can go wrong with either!
For further reading, for further picture viewing, and for further trip planning, also see:
- Maui itinerary: The best of Maui in 3 days, then take it easy the other days!
- Big Island itinerary: The best of the Big Island in 7 days – explore all the different areas of the island!
Things to do in Hawaii:
HAPPY CHOOSING BETWEEN MAUI OR THE BIG ISLAND!
Top things to pack for your Hawaii vacation!
The ultimate beach towel for travel?!Turkish towels are considered to be more absorbent and lightweight than your average beach towel. Be sure to check out turkish towels like these!
The cheapo way to waterproof your phoneYou can take underwater pictures with a simple waterproof phone case like this. Touch screen may not work well underwater - try the volume button to snap the pic instead!
Wear less sunscreen by wearing a UPF swim shirt!Wearing a swim shirt means less skin that's exposed to the sun which means less sunscreen you need to apply! See about wearing swim shirts with UV protection like these when you're snorkeling.
For a Hawaii experience you are sure to remember, get out on the open water to sail the ocean!Look for the reviews!
- OAHU: Take a look at a morning sailing trip like this one that includes snorkeling and sailing with the iconic Waikiki skyline as your backdrop. (It comes with a good chance that you'll be swimming with turtles!)
- MAUI: Take a look at a catamaran cruise like this one from West Maui to the coast of Lanai that can include snorkeling, seeing the West Maui Mountains and Lanai cliffs from the boat, and maybe even seeing some turtles and dolphins!
- BIG ISLAND: Take a look at a catamaran cruise like this one off the Kona coast for the chance to swim with manta rays at night. (One of THE most popular types of tours in Kona!) Or for a daytime boat ride, take a look at a sailing trip like this one off the Kona coast to go snorkeling at one of the best snorkeling spots on the Big Island.
- KAUAI: Take a look at a catamaran sunset sailing trip like this one along the famous Na Pali coast.