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Many first-timers to Hawaii do not know which island they should visit. We have put together a detailed list of how Maui compares to Oahu so hopefully future visitors can make a more informed decision on where they want to travel when coming to our beautiful island chain in the Pacific Ocean.
Maui: There are not too many structured historic landmarks on Maui. There is a sugar cane museum as well as free museum in Lahaina that highlights the town’s rich history as a major whaling port. Haleakala National Park is a crowd pleaser, which allows tourists to drive to the top of a dormant volcano at an elevation of over 10,000 feet.
Oahu: Oahu is rich with history that is more well-known on a global stage. Tourists can visit sites like Pearl Harbor, the USS Arizona Memorial, the Pacific Aviation Museum, and Iolani Palace (where Hawaii’s final monarchs reined. Diamond Head State Monument is an iconic volcanic crater on the ocean’s edge in Honolulu that features a very popular trail to scenic views.
Maui: Most tourists visiting Maui choose to stay in one of two regions on Maui. The “westside” is made up of Lahaina, Ka’anapali, and Kapalua. Lahaina is an old whaling town with a charming oceanfront street featuring restaurants, art galleries, window shopping, and bars. Ka’anapali features about 15 or more oceanfront major resorts all on a great white sand beach. The “southside” of Maui is made up of Kihei, Wailea, and Makena. Some of Maui’s top 5-star resorts can be found in higher-end area code of Wailea. Kihei is made up of 20 to 30 condominium resorts great for families and all within a block or two of great beaches. Other popular towns on Maui include the remote town of Hana(where you will see waterfalls and lush vegetation around every turn) and Paia, which is Maui’s North Shore town filled with surf enthusiasts and ocean addicts.
Oahu: To put things in perspective, there are almost double the amount of people that live in the city of Honolulu than the entire island of Maui. The beachfront strip of Waikiki in Honolulu is where most tourists opt to vacation when on Oahu. Think of Waikiki like the Las Vegas strip. There are countless restaurants, shops, resorts, street performers, attractions, and one long white sand beach that make up Waikiki. Oahu’s North Shore is extremely famous because of world-renowned surfing beaches like Pipeline, Sunset Beach, and Waimea Bay. Head out to the North Shore to see a more laid back, no-shirt-no-problem vibe.
Maui: Take your pick from all the top surf brands and shops located across the island. Great window shopping is available on Front Street in Lahaina. Also in Lahaina are the Outlets of Maui, which can easily be accessed from Front Street. On the other side of the island is The Shops at Wailea which feature higher end fashion brands. Maui’s largest mall is located in Kahului and is called Ka’ahumanu Mall. When compared to Oahu, the shopping options on Maui are a drop in the bucket.
Oahu: I would argue that shopping is one of the top reasons tourists choose to visit Oahu. Many Japanese visitors spend hours looking through the unique Hawaiian style brands or popular international fashion brands found along the streets of Waikiki. A few minutes away from Waikiki is the state’s largest mall, Ala Moana. You could spend hours exploring this mall. Another top shopping venue is the recently renovated International Marketplace.
Maui: There are no major highways on Maui. I believe the fastest speed limit on the island is 55 miles per hour (and that is only on a few stretches of pavement). There is rarely traffic on Maui (occasionally on the road out to Lahaina/Kaanapali if there is an accident). It is highly recommended to rent a car when visiting Maui as the road trip to Hana is something you will never forget, as you pass waterfalls, thick rainforests, fruit stands, and amazing coastal views.
Oahu: Because there are close to a million people living on Oahu, the roads do get clogged up with traffic during commute hours. The island has made numerous top 10 lists of worst traffic sites in the United States. There are a few major interstate highways on Oahu (three to five lanes wide) and also downtown Waikiki can be a bit of a labyrinth of one-way streets. Parking is usually paid and hard to find. For these reasons, some guests choose to opt out of getting a rental car and spending most of their time on foot or public transportation throughout downtown Waikiki, which is very doable.
Maui: Think of the story of Goldilocks and the three bears. There was the bed too hard, the bed too soft, and the bed just right. I would argue that picking to vacation on Maui of all the Hawaiian Islands it like picking the bed that is just right. Maui is big enough and has enough things to do to keep most all who visit wowed and entertained. From ziplines through tree canopies to snorkeling on remote coral atolls, Maui offers some great experiences without being congested with tourists. The beaches are beautiful and won’t have the crowds found in Waikiki. That being said, Maui does not have much of a nightlife and heads tend to be on pillows with the lights off around 10pm, ready to wake up at sunrise to enjoy the next day’s adventure.
Oahu: If Hawaii ever had a professional sports team, they would play on Oahu, and most likely in Honolulu/Waikiki. This is the state’s main hub. Once you understand this concept you can start to decide if this is the vacation experience you want. Waikiki has countless great restaurants, shopping options, night clubs, bars, high rise hotels, and flashing lights. Waikiki beach is beautiful, world famous and on a given day probably accommodates over 10,000 different beach goers. You will find less unadulterated island landscapes but on the flip side have great structured attractions to pick from like visiting Pearl Harbor, going to the zoo, or visiting established cultural museums.
You really can’t go wrong if visiting Maui or Oahu. Perhaps the best option would be to visit both! Spend four or five days on both islands. Feel free to leave your recommendations on what islands to visit below in the comments.
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