Oahu vs. Kauai - Which should you choose?
A Comparison of Oahu and Kauai: What to Do, Where to Eat, Where to Stay
Ready to explore the magic of Hawaii? Many people dream of exploring the islands' diverse terrain that includes:
Waterfalls, volcanoes, and cliffs for basking in nature's glorious beauty.
White sandy beaches that sprawl for miles.
Crystal blue ocean is perfect for swimming, surfing, or other water adventures.
Visit the lush green landscapes and diverse gardens.
Besides Hawaii's beauty, their world-class resorts, rich culture, and unique selection of restaurants, bars, and shops make this tropical paradise worthwhile for any visitor.
Find the right island for your vacation goals, whether you want to enjoy a piece of paradise, experience an adventure, or spend some time with family and friends. Most visitors only have time to visit one or several islands. This guide discovers the differences between Oahu and Kauai based on their activities, beaches, accommodations, restaurants, and nightlife.
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Oahu and Kauai Overview
Let’s start with an overview of what each island has to offer.
For more treasures of Oahu, look no further than:
Are you looking for a more authentic experience of the island? Visit the windward side of the island. Start by exploring its majestic mountains and open spaces. Many visitors prefer the slower pace and smaller communities in this region.
Don’t miss the enormous waves that hit the North Shore during the winter months.
Are you looking for inspiration? Start your day with the sunrise at Lanikai Pillbox.
Indulge your romantic side on a sunset sail in Waikiki.
The island of Kauai breaks all the rules for tourist attractions. Many vacationers find the island’s dense tropical rainforest, blue shores, and green mountain tops awe-inspiring. Yet, their local government placed several restrictions on maintaining the island’s integrity. Thus, visitors can truly soak up the island’s energy without massive resorts and crowds of people scrambling for the best spot on the beach.
Discover more of this uniquely remote island by:
- Engage the local culture for a more intimate experience.
- Explore vast terrains spanning dunes to bare desert plateaus, fertile river valleys, tropical rainforests, and dramatic mountaintops; stunning views abound this island.
- Are you looking for excitement at the beach? Try whale spotting or swimming with the sea turtles at Poipu Beach Park.
- Explore natural gems like Waimea Canyon, the Coconut Coast, and gorgeous waterfalls.
- Survey their agriculture like the sugarcane fields.
- Hike the stunning beachside cliffs along the Na Pali coast.
- Coasting the rugged Wailua River.
- Visiting welcoming towns like Hanapepe, Koloa, Waimea, Kapaa, and Hanalei
Besides the beaches and natural sites, Kauai offers access to museums, historic landmarks, and local cultural attractions.
Oahu Adventures and Activities
Ready for an exciting vacation? Oahu offers a list of thrills for adventure and exploration:
- Snorkeling at Hanauma Bay: The calm waters here provide a haven for people of all ages to enjoy snorkeling in shallow waters. People of all ages will enjoy exploring the bay’s corral and sea life.
- Hiking at Diamond Head: The crater of this volcano provides a stunning panoramic view of Honolulu. Access its beautiful Waikiki skyline via paved trails. Along the way, learn how it helped form the Hawaiian islands.
- WWII and Pearl Harbor: History buffs and tourists alike flock to this popular attraction to view the Arizona Memorial, the U.S.S. Bowfin, and the U.S.S. Missouri.
- Bishop Museum: The Bishop Museum provides insight into Hawaiian history and Pacific wayfaring.
- Iolani Palace: Visit this restored palace where the royal family once resided. Before Hawaii became the 50th state in 1959, their monarchy ruled this sovereign n Now, it serves as a museum to depict Hawaii’s history and nation.
- Polynesian Cultural Center (P.C.C.): The P.C.C. is an ideal place to explore Hawaiian culture. With interactive exhibits, performances, boat rides, and a fantastic theme park concept, the center provides the perfect opportunity for all family members to immerse themselves in Hawaiian culture.
Kauai Adventures and Activities
Though Kauai lacks size, it more than makes up for in adventure, including:
- Kokee State Park: This incredible place extends to over 4,345 acres of forest and wildflowers, at 3,200 to 4,200 feet above sea level. Its hiking trails provide a perfect spot for birdwatchers and hikers alike. It gives access to stunning views of Waimea Canyon.
- Waimea Canyon: Explore this famous canyon for its geological wonder. Dubbed “The Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” this natural wonder stretches 14 miles long and 1 mile wide. You can marvel at the crested buttes, crags, and valley gorges from 3,600 feet or deeper.
- Kilohana Plantation: For an authentic glimpse into an actual working plantation, visit this trip back in time. Besides the original and restored features, visit the updated rooms in their shops, galleries, restaurant, and lounge. You can also sample rum and attend a luau!
- Plantation Railway: The Plantation Railway incorporates a train ride through the tropical forest. Along the ride, see the unique view of plantation-era houses and the farm still growing over 50 fruits and vegetables. Plus, experience these different areas, including a farmyard kids love.
- Allerton & McBryde Gardens: The National Tropical Botanical Garden network includes the lovely Allerton and McBryde Gardens. This provides a close look at exotic flowers, trees, and indigenous Hawaiian plants.
- Historic Daniel K. Inouye Kilauea Point Lighthouse: Keen to enjoy the rugged views of the coast from Kauai’s northernmost tip? Considered a popular island attraction, visitors enjoy the wild coastlines. Bird lovers appreciate seeing local frigates, shearwaters, boobies, and Laysan albatrosses.
- Hanalei Town: The timeless beauty of Kauai communities gains fans every day. Set where the mountains meet the sea, the town offers historic sites and art galleries.
- Visit the Beach from the Musical “South Pacific”: One of Kauai’s most pristine beaches, Lumahai Beach was the setting for the hit musical, “South Pacific.”
- Napali Coast: This coast offers magnificent views of the Pacific Ocean, with lush emerald cliffs and jagged ridges overlooking the blue of the Pacific. Sandy stretches of beaches, and plummeting waterfalls offer a rugged terrain where local settlements once flourished.
If you're looking to experience paradise, you're in luck. The North Shore of Oahu is a surfer's heaven because of huge swells, perfect for catching waves. Bask on the sunny beaches. Either go to Kailua Beach on the windward side of the island or Nanakuli and Yokohama on the leeward side.
Besides the rugged coastline, Kauai offers a variety of beaches. Discover your perfect beach, whether traveling through the east coast, south shore, or north! The crystal-clear waters await you at the pristine beaches of Poipu Beach Park on the south shore and Haena Beach Park in the north.
You’ll also discover the unique lava rock wall that acts as a natural shield for Lydgate Beach Park, making it the ideal location for snorkeling. Many of the beaches are very kid-friendly thanks to shallow waters and calmer, safer conditions for swimming.
Oahu Food, Drink and Nightlife
None of the Hawaiian Islands can match Hawaii’s metropolis, Honolulu. Discover its world-class food, drink, and entertainment. The vibrant nightlife keeps people until the wee hours of the morning. Smaller communities on the island offer a nightlife of their own. Wherever you find yourself on this island, enjoy live music, sample some beer, dine in elegance or casual comfort and sip cocktails from an impressive list of nightclubs.
Kauai Food, Drink and Nightlife
Although Kauai offers an impressive dining selection, that’s where the nightlife ends. This is a laid-back island where things shut down early. Hence, people retire to enjoy a quiet night at home. If you’re looking for exciting nightlife with lots of entertainment, bars, and live music, stick to Oahu to make the most of your vacation time.
What Makes Oahu Unique?
Oahu’s activities and attractions range for visitors to enjoy on the island. Whether you’re staying for a day or a month, there is something for everyone to enjoy on Oahu! Enjoy catching a wave at Waikiki, diving with whale sharks in Shark’s Cove, and enjoying the cultural festival’s sights and sounds that arrive every year.
What Makes Kauai Unique?
Many things make Kauai unique, but the most significant is its natural beauty. The island is home to many plants and animals, including the endangered Nene goose, only found here. Kauai's diverse landscapes, including an active volcano, make for great photo opportunities and adventure. Plus, the island is home to some of the finest beaches in the world.
We recommend Oahu if you desire a Hawaiian vacation that combines the amenities of a world-class city with the breathtaking beauty of nature. If you seek a peaceful time, we recommend Kauai because it offers a unique Pacific Paradise experience.
Updated 2023 Hawaii Visitor Guides
If you're visiting Hawaii soon, be sure to download a copy of one of our updated 2023 Hawaii Visitor Guides. We've updated the packets with a lot of new great information for potential visitors (and for those who've been a time or two as well).