Skip to Content

Oahu Vs Maui, Which Island To Choose?

View of Diamond Head crater from the ocean

Understandably, the tropical islands of Hawaii attract millions of visitors each year. Almost ten million, to be exact, and more than half of them choose the island of Oahu as their tropical destination. But is Oahu the best place to vacation for families, first-timers, or honeymooners?

Maui, after all, is the destination of choice for many well-known Hollywood movie stars. Is Maui better than Oahu? So, Oahu Vs. Maui, which island should you choose?

I often get asked, which is the best Hawaiian island to visit for first-time visitors? The answer depends on what you want to do during your time in paradise. While Oahu and Maui are two popular choices, the Big Island and Kaui are best for those who prefer fewer crowds.

The Hawaiian Islands are an archipelago of eight main islands in the Pacific Ocean. Surrounded by the ocean, these islands have tropical weather with refreshing trade winds, white sand beaches, and rainforests that will leave you speechless.

Since the weather is perfect all year round, visitors can travel to Hawaii in all four seasons. Most travelers come from the United States, but Canadians favor Hawaii too.

There are various ways to enjoy a Hawaiian Island; by backpacking, cruise ship, or staying at a beach resort hotel. I remember my first trip to Hawaii and agonized over which island to visit.

Like many vacationers, I read numerous reviews online and read every article on what to do on the islands. Not only was this time-consuming, but it also didn’t get me any closer to making a decision.

My First Trip To Hawaii

In the end, I chose a repositioning cruise from Vancouver to Hawaii, which included Oahu, the Big Island, Maui, and Kauai. Stopping on a variety of islands gave me a good sense of each island’s vibe and showed me tidbits of what they had to offer.

Having visited Hawaii numerous times since then (in April, May, and September), I discovered many differences between the Hawaiian Islands. However, each is amazing in its way.

So, how do you choose one island? Technically, you don’t have to select one since Hawaiian Airlines offers daily flights from Oahu to Maui and vice versa. However, these are pretty expensive if you visit two or three of the Hawaiian Islands.

Oahu Vs Maui For Snorkeling

Maui is the better place to visit should you want to snorkel. I have taken a snorkel excursion to Molokini Island, a bird sanctuary 2.5 miles off Maui’s south shore.

Here, I saw plenty of fish, an octopus, a small shark, and the most massive moray eel ever. If the waters are relatively calm, you can snorkel the inner circle of the crater. 

However, the day I visited, the ocean was incredibly rough, so our tour snorkeled the backside of the crater to avoid the strong currents.

On the way back to the harbor, a massive pod of dolphins followed our boat and jumped in the boat’s wake. That experience was my favorite memory from that particular Hawaiian vacation.

There are many places to snorkel on Maui where the waters are sheltered and calm, perfect for beginners. These include Kapalua Bay, Napili Bay, and Black Rock.

The trade winds blow on the northeastern side of Maui, so any snorkeling area located in the south and west (or leeward side) is sheltered and offers calmer waters.

When searching for the best Oahu snorkeling locations, you need to start with the world-famous Hanauma Bay. This circular bay is a pristine marine sanctuary close to Honolulu, but it tends to be overcrowded at the best of times.

I have snorkeled at Hanauma Bay a few times and was slightly disappointed the first time. Much of the coral seemed dead, and there weren’t many fish species.

However, during my last trip, the bay was filled with an abundance of tropical fish, including the Humuhumunukunukuapuaa fish (which no one can pronounce). During the pandemic, the lack of tourists has also given the bay time to recover.

Humuhumunukunukuapuaa fish seen in both Oahu and Maui
I spotted this Humuhumunukunukuapuaa fish in Hanauma Bay, Oahu

Other beaches that provide good snorkeling are Waimea Bay, Kahe Point, and Shark’s Cove. Currents can be pretty intense depending on the time of year you visit these areas, so some waters are only recommended for intermediate and strong swimmers.

Oahu Vs Maui For Wildlife

The Hawaiian Nene Goose, green turtles, and mongoose are native to Oahu and Maui. But If you’re looking for larger wildlife, Maui offers humpback whale sightings during the winter months.

While most humpbacks leave Hawaii in April to migrate to their feeding grounds in Alaska, I was lucky enough to see some humpbacks on my last trip to Maui. 

If you’re staying in Maui, consider taking a whale-watching excursion. Most boat tours usually include green turtles and dolphin sightings too. The Maui Ocean Center offers a chance to see marine life you missed in their natural habitat.

Honolulu, Oahu, of course, has a large zoo close to the city center. On Oahu, Sea Life Park allows you to swim with the dolphins. Visitors can often see green turtles sunning themselves on the beach on the north shore.

Oh, and let’s not forget the chickens! If you’re new to Hawaii, don’t be alarmed at the number of wild chickens running everywhere.

During Hurricane Iwa in 1982 and Hurricane Iniki in 1992, the locals say that chicken coops were blown away, allowing the chickens to escape.

Wild chickens on a parked car in Maui
Wild chickens on a parked car in Maui

Over the years, the chickens have thrived and multiplied in the wild, so it’s not unusual to see them almost everywhere. Kauai contains the largest population of chickens. However, I have seen plenty in Oahu and Maui too.

Oahu Vs Maui For Nightlife

If you love the vibe of a metropolitan city, it’s hands down Honolulu, Oahu for you. It’s interesting to note that Oahu is the third-largest island by size but contains a lot in its small space.

While I love the outdoors and being one with nature, the one bonus of being in a big city is the incredible dining options.

During my many stays in Honolulu, I spend my days outside the city and return to Honolulu in the evenings. At night, the city comes alive and reminds me of Las Vegas, where the people don’t sleep.

The streets are illuminated with tiki torches instead of street lights which adds a romantic feel to the city’s vibe.

There are countless bars, restaurants, and nightclubs to entertain you into the wee hours. Due to the tropical climate, most restaurants have outdoor patios, and most visitors prefer to sit outdoors, watching the sunset while enjoying their meal. I have Celiac and found Honolulu has lots of gluten-free restaurants.

Maui is your winner if you prefer to avoid the crowds and like a laidback feel. While Maui is slower-paced, it is by no means boring. It still has bars, restaurants, and small clubs in Lahaina, but you won’t get that city feel.

Here’s one of the best travel tips for Oahu island. Since Honolulu is a large city with plenty of hotels, first-time visitors can save money since more selection gives better pricing. If you prefer to stay outside of a hotel, there is an abundance of Airbnb too.

Maui Or Oahu For Culture And History

You don’t need to do any research to know Oahu is rich in history and culture. No visit to Oahu is complete without a visit to Pearl Harbor.

Here you can take in the sites of the world-renowned USS Arizona Memorial, USS Battleship Missouri, USS Bowfin submarine, and aviation museum. I’ve visited Pearl Harbor on two of my trips, and every visit is a humbling experience.

Combine your day trip to Pearl Harbor with a road trip to the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific located at Punchbowl Crater in Honolulu.

Located high above the city, the cemetery serves as a resting place for more than 25,000 victims of World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. The cemetery also offers spectacular views of Honolulu.

USS Battleship Missouri at Pearl Harbor, Oahu
USS Battleship Missouri at Pearl Harbor

If you’re looking to learn more about the Polynesian culture, then a day trip to the Polynesian Cultural Center is a must. Here, you will learn about the different South Pacific islands and the people who came to form Hawaii’s islands.

Finish your day with a traditional Hawaiian Luau and the fantastic show called “Ha, Wrath of Fire.”

Honolulu is also home to the stunningly beautiful Iolani Palace, the home of former Hawaiian monarchs. It’s located in Honolulu, so easy to get to if you have no vehicle.

It’s best to book a time slot before your visit so you’re guaranteed to go inside on your chosen day.

Brian and I at Iolani Palace on Oahu
Brian and I at Iolani Palace on Oahu

Oahu Or Maui For Romance

Many ask which island, Oahu vs. Maui, is best for a destination wedding? When seeking a romantic getaway, whether you’re getting married or going on a honeymoon, Maui or the Valley Isle oozes romance, so it’s the best island.

Maui offers plenty of emptier sandy beaches than Oahu’s Waikiki Beach. You can walk barefoot in the sand during the day and watch a sunset on the beach in the evening.

Even better, why not get up before the birds and travel to Haleakala National Park to watch the sunrise at the summit?

While it takes some planning and pre-booking, the views from the top of this 10,000-foot dormant volcano are breathtaking and unforgettable.

One of the tops things to do in Maui is to drive the famous Road to Hana. If you haven’t driven it, the road is a roller-coaster ride with over 600 curves and numerous bridges, of which 46 are one-lane.

However, there are many places to stop and swim in the pools and stand under majestic waterfalls. Every turn and curve in the road offers unique rainforest, ocean, and lush valley views.

If you’re not fond of roller coasters or get motion sickness, the Road to Hana might put your relationship to the test.

Oahu Vs Maui For Outdoor Activities

View of Honolulu from Diamond Head
View of Honolulu from Diamond Head

If you love the outdoors and enjoy hiking, you can’t miss the great trails offered on both islands. On Oahu, the most popular and famous is the Diamond Head hiking trail because of its proximity to the Waikiki Beach area.

Even if you don’t have a car, local buses and trolleys travel to the entrance daily.

The Diamond Head summit offers the most amazing views of Honolulu, the ocean, and back into the dormant crater. In my opinion, this is a must-do hike in Oahu.

Oahu’s other amazing hikes include the Makapuu Lighthouse Hike, Lanikai Pillbox Hike, Koko Crater Trail, and Waimea Falls.

Ioa Needle, Ioa Valley, Maui
Iao Needle, Iao Valley, Maui

For those who choose Maui as their island destination, Haleakala summit crater not only offers an impressive sunrise but a collection of exciting hikes. The dormant volcano offers a moon-like appearance, and on a clear day, visitors can see the peak of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa.

If you prefer to experience an active volcano, you’re best to visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island.

At Haleakala, travelers can enjoy the hiking routes of Pipiwai Trail, Waihe’e Ridge Trail, Twin Falls Hike, and Kuloa Point Trail. Alternatively, you could look at Maui and Kaui for outdoor activities.

Oahu And Maui For Adventure

For thrill-seekers, plan your Hawaii itinerary with activities that raise eyebrows. The Hana Highway tests your driving skills on a highway with over 600 curves and numerous one-lane bridges on Maui.

Alternatively, thrill-seekers might prefer a Haleakala downhill bike tour. Tour operators drop participants at 6500 above sea level. Then they descend at their own pace to sea level. The self-guided ride takes about 1-1/2 to 2 hours without stopping or up to four hours with stops.

The fearless might prefer a shark cage dive on the north shore of Oahu. Shark encounters are guaranteed, but you might see turtles, whales, and dolphins too.

Oahu’s north shore has the big waves the surfers crave. While I’m not a surfer, I enjoyed watching the surfers catch the big waves on the north shore. Also, Laniakea Beach is the best area to see giant green turtles on Oahu.

Further south, Kualoa Ranch invites travelers to enjoy a myriad of excursions, from their Best of Kualoa Excursions to Jurassic Valley zip lining.

Oahu Vs Maui For Beaches

The Hawaiian Islands are blessed with beautiful beaches suitable for swimming, snorkeling, and surfing. On Oahu, Lanikai Beach and Kailua Beach Park offer pristine white sand if you prefer to escape the crowds of Waikiki. Further north, Waimea Bay Beach Park and Sunset Beach have giant waves for surfing.

If you’re a beach bunny, Maui’s the place to be. Kaanapali Beach may be the most popular beach in West Maui due to its miles of pristine sandy and proximity to luxury resorts.

If you want to see a black sand beach, there’s no better example than Honokalani Beach. Near Hana Bay, Kaihalulu Beach is one of the few places globally with red sand.

If you’re traveling to Hawaii for a beach vacation, island choice comes down to quiet and relaxing (Maui) or energetic and vibrant (Ohau).

Dining On Oahu And Maui

Choosing the best island for food is a tough comparison. Both offer authentic Hawaiian cuisine and fantastic Luaus.

You can’t go wrong with choices like The Plantation House, Sea House Restaurant, and Duke’s Beach House in West Maui. Mama’s Fish House has raving fans of its fresh seafood dishes and daily caught fish in northern Maui.

For selection, nothing can compare with the vast restaurant choices along Waikiki Beach. Its beachside patios offer dinner with a sunset view.

While you might not choose a Hawaiian Island for food alone, you won’t need to walk far in Waikiki to find somewhere to eat. The only downside to eating in Honolulu is the line-ps at popular eateries.

Azure, Dukes Waikiki, and House without a Key offer oceanside dining. Could you ask for a more idyllic paradise with dinner under the stars and live music?

Hawaii Islands, More To Know

If you’re considering island hopping, there are daily flights from Honolulu International Airport to Maui and Maui to Honolulu. I know some people who stay in Oahu for one week and fly to Maui for the second week. They fly into Honolulu and out of Maui to return home.

If you love to golf, Maui is a golfers paradise. The majority of the golf courses are in the Kihei, Lahaina, and Wailea areas. These range from inexpensive public golf courses to fantastic, award-winning tournament courses.

Honolulu Vs. Maui for shopping? Honolulu, Oahu, offers the largest selection of stores for visitors. Honolulu has it all, whether you’re looking for the standard name brands like Louis Vuitton, Armani, Jimmy Choo, or want local Hawaiian gifts.

The state-of-the-art malls are modern, and many have a Hawaiian feel with banyan trees growing in the center.

No trip to Hawaii is inexpensive. Luxury beachside resorts come at high prices. According to the Hawaii Tourism Authority, travelers to Maui pay significantly more than those staying on Oahu. Regardless of which Hawaii Island you choose, it will be the right one because a Hawaiian vacation is simply magical!

Happy travels ~ Karen