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For your Hawai’i vacation, do you go to the Big Island or Maui, or both? The problem is, everyone has a different opinion with the ardent supporters of both islands. As someone who lives on one and wants to retire on the other, here is how to decide:
Maui vs. Big Island: Maui is right for you if you’re looking for a romantic island, great snorkeling, a relaxing vacation, or the best beaches. The Big Island is right for you if you want more space to explore, more privacy (less crowded), hikes to waterfalls and volcanoes, snorkel with manta rays, or you want to travel on a budget.
Need more to compare? In this article, we break down everything to help you decide between Maui and the Big Island (Island of Hawaii).
Big Island in the Big Scheme of Things
Welcome to the youngest and still growing Hawaiian island. While Kauai evokes an image of a tropical paradise, the Big Island is hard to pin down. You will find jungles, deserts, barren lava fields, fern forests, snow-capped peaks, and swear you are in the Scottish Highlands at least once during your trip. The size of Hawai’i is thanks to its five volcanoes, with two being active. Is Kilauea erupting right now? USGS Kilauea Update.
The Island of Hawaii (nicknamed the Big Island or Orchid Isle) has 63% of the Hawaiian archipelago’s combined landmass. Even with the second largest population in the state, 185,079 people, one can still feel they have the island to themselves at times. The Big Island is the third most visited Hawaiian Island. You can explore secluded gold, white, black, and even a green sand beach on the Big Island. Watch our video on the Top 10 Beaches on the Big Island for details!
While the Big Island’s beaches are alluring, many come for other reasons. The Big Island is a trove of activities, here are some highlights.
- Taste and tour Kona coffee farms
- Night snorkeling with manta rays
- Horseback riding on one of the largest cattle ranges in America
- Whale watching (December – March)
- Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
- Numerous black sand beaches (our favorite is Punalu’u at the southern tip)
- Papakōlea green sand beach
- Excellent snorkeling spots
You can still find traffic on the Big Island. You may find traffic during rush hour in the main city of Kailua-Kona or when taking the saddle road that connects the county seat of Hilo on the east coast with Kailua-Kona on the west coast.
Most visitors choose to stay on the west coast as the weather is sunnier, better beaches, and it has the biggest airport. Numerous hotels, resorts, and vacation rentals line the Kona Coast, south of Kailua-Kona. For luxury resorts, the Kohala Coast north of Kona Airport (Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport at Keahole) is the place to stay.
The Big Island can feel sleepy as there is little nightlife and bars close early. People who visit the Big Island enjoy the slower pace. Most visitors choose to rent a car to explore the island as the popular sights are spread around the island.
The holiday season is a popular time to visit the Big Island. December is the first or second busiest month of the year, depending on the year. Consider planning a trip to Hawaii in Christmas.
See our Big Island Travel Guide for more information!
Maui is a little more in line with what most people envision when they think about a tropical vacation. It has beautiful beaches, gorgeous resorts, the best whale watching, and bucket list items like the Road to Hana.
Maui’s highlights include:
- the Road to Hana
- Haleakala volcano
- Molokini crater for snorkeling
- Iao Valley hiking
- historic Lahaina town
- fantastic snorkeling on the west side and south shore
- the best whale watching (December – March)
- lots of things to do with kids, like 68 of them
Maui is the second most visited island, behind Oahu. While the island is the second largest in size, Maui can feel crowded compared to the Big Island as visitors flock to West Maui and South Maui, both on the leeward or dry side of the island. You will find luxury resorts in Wailea and vacation rentals in Kihei in South Maui. Kaanapali is full of resorts and a 15-minute drive from historic Lahaina town, the Capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii from 1802 – 1845.
Kahalui Airport (OGG) is the main commercial airport in Maui, located in Central Maui. The resorts are about 45 minutes away on average. While there is a public bus system, most visitors decide to get a rental car or use Uber, Lyft, or taxis to get around the island.
See our Maui Travel Guide for more information!
Maui vs. Big Island: Resorts
If a sprawling, luxurious, resort is your thing, you’re in luck. Maui and the Big Island have beautiful resorts that will have you lounging in style. But, the resorts aren’t created equal. Maui resorts are generally better, though they are significantly more expensive.
The majority of Big Island resorts are found on the Kohala Coast. These are modern, luxury resorts dotting the coastline with lava cove beaches. While all beaches in Hawai’i are public, the resorts of the Kohala Coast are carved into the isolated lava field making for a secluded experience. With extravagant landscaping, they feel tropical while being located in the driest part of the island. With an average of 10 inches of rain a year, there is a high probability you will have a sunny holiday. They are also spaced apart to provide privacy but poor walkability.
Kailua-Kona also has many resorts to choose from for your stay. The Kona Coast is greener than the Kohala Coast and closer to many activities like snorkeling, Kona coffee country, and local restaurants. The resorts in Kailua-Kona are not as modern as the Kohala Coast or Maui’s resorts, but there are some good places to stay here at good prices.
Maui offers a broad range of resorts to stay at in two main parts of the island. Overall, Maui resorts are more modern (newer or recently remodeled), luxurious, and more expensive than the Big Island. Maui has the most expensive resorts compared to any other island (source: Hawaii Tourism Authority).
The resorts of Wailea bump up the average cost across the island as you will find the Fairmont Kea Lani, Four Seasons, Grand Wailea, Hotel Wailea, and The Andaz to name a few. These resorts are sprawling estates on lave cove beaches, with a walking trail connecting them. Golf, fine dining, and a host of activities are nearby.
Kaanapali Resorts in West Maui are also nice with the Hyatt, Westin, Sheraton, and Kaanapali Beach Hotel to name a few stretched across the long Kaanapali Beach. We compare the two Maui resort locations in this article: Kaanapali vs Wailea.
Winner for best resorts: Maui
Oahu vs. Maui: Beaches and Snorkeling
What island has better beaches? This is a clear winner but let me explain.
The Big Island has amazing beaches. As we shared in our 10 Best Beaches on the Big Island video, one can find the best selection of black sand beaches in Hawai’i and long stretches of white sand beaches, like the famous Hapuna Beach and Manini’owali Beach at Kua Bay.
Check out our 5 Best Sandy Beaches Near Kailua-Kona.
The high surf, especially during the winter, makes the best Big Island beaches along the west coast unsafe or inaccessible for swimming. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go to the Big Island but check the ocean conditions before you go swimming. We share our 5 favorite Big Island snorkel spots for beginners here.
Maui on the other hand has a plethora of beaches with good accessibility all year long. Maui has Kapalua Bay, Napili Bay, Makena Beach (Big Beach), Wailea Beach, and so many more.
Snorkeling is hands-down better on Maui. The Big Island does have some great snorkel spots, but if you want to get into the water, snorkel easily, and not have to drive far, Maui is your place. Plus, you’ll see turtles everywhere. We love snorkeling in Napili Bay, Kapalua Bay, Honolua Bay, Turtle Town & Maluaka Beach.
Winner for best beaches and snorkeling: Maui
Maui vs. Big Island: Activities
The Big Island wins by a landslide in this category. The Big Island has a large mix of free, low-cost, and paid excursions that are all worth doing. You will have to plan your trip carefully to cover all the bucket list items.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but you’ll find Hawaii’s Volcanoes National Park, manta ray night snorkeling, stargazing on top of Mauna Loa, hike into Pololulu Valley, Kona coffee tours, snorkeling at Captain Cook Monument, and so many more.
Maui has activities, but it’s quieter. Outside of things like snorkeling boat tours, hiking, luaus, and great restaurants (including beachfront dining), you won’t find as many interesting things to do. For some people, what Maui has is more than enough. After living here, I can still say I’m not bored. But for people who love a little bit more variety on their vacation, Big Island offers that.
Our Hawaiian Island Itineraries showcase all the free or low-cost things to do around the island. We include our favorite paid tours, but we love to showcase the things you can do yourself on your excursion days!
Winner for best activities: Big Island
Big Island vs Maui: Nightlife
Compared to Oahu, both Maui and the Big Island are sleepy places to vacation. You won’t find discos, nightclubs, or late-night dinner options on the two islands. But since you are asking, Maui has more options.
Maui is full of wonderful happy hour spots, like in Lahaina and Wailea. You will find plenty of bars and restaurants in Lahaina and Kihei to keep you occupied. The resorts also feature lounges and bars with sunset views. And music, you can’t beat Maui for live music. It is a necessity to have the ukulele player on the sand with you.
Downtown Kailua-Kona on the Big Island has a good mix of bars and restaurants to visit. Most of the action is found at the resorts with fine dining, beachside restaurants, and lounges overlooking the Pacific.
Winner for best nightlife: Maui
Maui vs. Big Island: Cost
That said, prices differ from island to island. We did a full cost analysis using data from the Hawaii Tourism Authority and found that the Big Island is the second cheapest island to visit and Maui is the most expensive. In fact, for a one-week vacation, the Big Island comes in 20% cheaper than Maui.
Of course, you can find cheap places to stay on Maui and expensive places to stay on the Big Island. But comparing apples to apples, Big Island offers lower prices.
Winner for cost: Big Island
Maui vs. Big Island: Weather
Contrary to what many people think, Hawaii does have a rainy and wet season. Winter here looks very different from the rest of the US, but we still do get some cooler temperatures and wet weather. That’s likely not what you’re looking for on your tropical vacation.
For ocean temperatures, Maui and the Big Island have the same temperatures. You will find a low of 75 degrees during the winter and a high of 80 degrees in the summer. No wet suit required!
Kailua-Kona does receive more rain than Wailea, Maui throughout the year per the graph below. We used the main vacation destinations on each island to measure the rain but couldn’t find reliable data for the Big Island’s popular resort area of the Kohala Coast.
Overall, the Kohala Coast receives an average of 10 inches of rain a year. But, Hilo on the windward side of Hawaii is one of the wettest towns in America. Hilo has a rainforest climate. Every trip to the Big Island, no matter the time of year, we get rain during our trip.
On both islands, the vacation spots are primarily located on the leeward side of the island, which is drier. Head to the windward side on either island, and you’ll encounter more rain.
That said, if you’re heading to Hawaii outside of the summer months, you’ll have a better chance of avoiding rain on Maui.
Related read: here’s why visiting Maui in the winter is a great idea (and a few reasons you may want to skip the winter months).
Winner for weather: Maui
Maui vs. Big Island: Hiking
When we moved from Oahu to Maui, we assumed Maui would have all the exciting, diverse hiking trails that Oahu shows off. Maui has some good hikes, like ‘Iao Valley, Pipiwai Trail in the Bamboo Forest, and the Kapalua Coastal Trail, but they are not hikes worth writing home about.
The Big Island on the other hand offers those waterfall hikes, hikes to secluded beaches, and other jaw-dropping hikes. Our favorite is hiking into the Polulu Valley on the northern tip of Hawaii.
Let’s not forget Volcanoes National Park with its web of hiking trails through lava tubes and on the edges of volcanic craters.
If you’re looking for the best-guided hikes on the Big Island, check out our favorite tours here:
- Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Guided Hike
- Hidden Craters Hike: Hualalai Volcano Above Kailua-Kona
- Kohala Waterfall Swim and Hike
Related article: The Best Hawaiian Island for Hiking: 11 great hikes on Oahu
Maui also has some great hikes, but they fall short when compared to the Big Island. If you’re staying on the leeward side of the island (like most visitors) you’ll be hiking up fairly dry trails in the heat. These are our 3 favorite easy hikes on Maui.
If hiking is going to play a big part in your vacation, a trip to the Big Island is a better option.
Winner for hiking: Big Island
Maui vs. Big Island: Still Can’t Decide Which Island to Visit?
Try them both! Many people choose to visit Maui and then island-hop to the Big Island for a short stay. Hawaii Tours, our favorite local tour company, even offers one-day guided trips to the Big Island from Maui, airfare included.
While a few days on the Big Island isn’t enough to fully experience the island, a short visit will let you know if you are interested in coming back during your next trip to Hawaii. Learn more about Hawaii island-hopping here.
Maui vs. Big Island: You Can’t Go Wrong
Whether it’s your first trip to Hawaii or your 10th, it’s hard to choose a bad spot. Yes, you might prefer one island to another, but they all are beautiful and have something that will appeal to everyone.
Once you pick an island, the next step is to plan your itinerary. That’s where we can help.
Make the most of your vacation time and experience the Big Island and Maui without doing the heavy lifting of planning with our itineraries.
Our itineraries map out excursion days where you visit the best spot — beaches, historical sights, restaurants, snorkeling spots, farms, and more — on a well-planned out route. Plus, we provide tips on parking, when to go, and how long to stay.
“I just wanted you to know that my family and I purchased the Maui itinerary and we are wrapping up 12 days on the island. We did so much of what you recommended and it was awesome for everyone. We have three college-age kids and everyone enjoyed the things that you suggested, including the restaurants. Thanks for all of the work that you put into this.” – Gunnar