Updated: September 1, 2023
When most visitors head to Hawaii, they’re faced with a dilemma—do they explore the black sand beaches of Maui or snorkel with the turtles on Oahu? While both these islands have great activities and tons to explore, you want to get the most out of your vacation.
To help you pick, we’ve put together the ultimate Maui vs. Oahu showdown. Plus, we’ve gone over all the must-know beaches, activities, and nightlife on each one!
Maui Overview: What to Expect
Famously known as “The Valley Isle,” Maui is Hawaii’s second-largest island. Tourists and locals love visiting the island because of its renowned beaches and great whale watching during the winter months when humpback whales migrate south.
Maui is also famous for its sacred ʻĪao Valley and Haleakalā’s sunrise and sunset views. There are also the West Maui Mountains, not to mention gorgeous black sand Maui beaches which can make for a unique vacation spot for tourists.
Because of these famous tourist destinations, Maui was included as one of Condé Nast Traveler’s Best Islands in the US for more than 20 consecutive years. Clearly, this spot is a contender for your dream vacation destination!
One of the things that makes Maui a top tourist destination is the peacefulness and serenity you’ll experience. It’s not normally packed with people, and everything is more relaxing and slower than on other islands.
Oahu Rundown: What to Know
Oahu is the most populated island in Hawaii, and for good reason. This place has tons of beautiful beaches while still boasting the modernity of a thriving city.
Whereas Maui is quieter and more rugged, Oahu boasts stunning beaches and a bustling city life that gives you plenty to do no matter how you prefer to vacation. In fact, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority, Oahu is the most visited Hawaiian island.
Although Honolulu and Waikiki are the busiest places, you can also find medium-sized beach towns up on the North Shore. Places like Haleiwa and Ehukai are also a surfer’s paradise, giving big waves for the brave of heart.
Besides its stunning beaches, Oahu is also famous for its historical sites and cultural activities. Things like the Polynesian Cultural Center, the Bishop Museum, and Pearl Harbor are great ways to learn more about local history and culture.
Maui vs Oahu: The Faceoff
Now that you have brief overviews of both islands let’s look at what each offers in terms of location, hotel accommodations, beaches, activities, food, and more.
When figuring out which island to head to, it pays to know a bit about each island’s location. Regardless of which you pick, it can take you quite a while to arrive.
For example, a flight from Los Angeles can take between five and six hours to get to Oahu and Maui. If you head to Maui, you’ll likely have to take a second flight to arrive.
With that in mind, if you want to do island hopping and check out other islands in Hawaii, Oahu is your best bet. Flights depart from Oahu to all places like Big Island or the other smaller islands in Hawaii regularly. In contrast, flights from Maui can be a bit fewer and farther between.
Once you’re on the islands, however, things look a bit different. The Honolulu International Airport is about 20 minutes from Waikiki, whereas, in Maui, resorts tend to be a bit closer.
Both islands boast luxurious and tropical resorts for a relaxing getaway. Oahu and Maui have beautiful resorts with spacious rooms and outstanding hotel amenities. However, there are still a lot of different aspects.
Hotels in Maui tend to be slightly more expensive. Rooms are spacious, with private balconies to take in the best oceanfront views. Because Maui is more secluded and far from city life, you can expect more peaceful views of the island’s beautiful beaches.
On the other hand, you can find most of the Oahu resorts in Waikiki. And the rooms also feature views of the white sand beaches and busy nightlife. If you plan to stay in Oahu, you should be prepared for more crowds and noisier city life.
Some of the top resorts in Oahu include:
All of these are fantastic places to stay and offer easy access to some of the best beaches in the area.
Most tourists require visiting the beaches as part of their itinerary when visiting Hawaii. And if you’re one of them, you can find beautiful white sandy stretches of beach in both Oahu and Maui.
One similarity between the beaches in Maui and Oahu is that they are public. This means you can visit and swim, with a few exceptions. Also, beaches in these Hawaiian islands are cooler than those you can visit in the Caribbean.
Still, the islands have their differences. Maui beaches are more diverse. You can find several golden, red, and black sand beaches. The most famous is Makena Beach, aka “Big Beach.” You can also see Molokini Crater from here. But be careful as the shorebreak can get pretty big and powerful.
Another famous beach in Maui is Wailea Beach, on the west coast of the island. This is one of Maui’s calmest beaches and is also home to some top luxury resorts.
In Oahu, on the other hand, things look a bit different. Although there are tons of great Oahu beaches, Waikiki Beach is definitely the most well known in Oahu. It features beautiful Diamond Head views and amazing spots for surfing, canoeing, paddle boarding, and other water activities.
You can also go for a boat ride or a sunset sail to see local sea life. There are also several great resorts with on-site restaurants along the waterfront. You can take in the natural beauty of the area while enjoying a top-notch meal.
Besides Waikiki Beach, on this Hawaiian island, you’ll find Sunset Beach on the North Shore, which is famous for surfing. Another great beach on the northern tip is Kawela Bay, which is great for checking out local sea life.
Things to Do and Activities
When it comes to activities, there are tons to pick from on the two islands. You can check out historical activities or opt for outdoor activities such as hiking and snorkeling.
In general, however, Maui is better known for snorkeling. The island has clear blue waters, which make it easy to catch things like sea turtles or crustaceans on the ocean floor.
Maui is also home to Haleakala National Park. Haleakala volcano is the crown jewel of this park and is a great place to go for a sunrise hike and take in sweeping views of the area.
Or, there’s the sacred ʻĪao Valley on the windward side of the island. This is a lush valley with dense rainforest and the famous ‘needle,’ an eroded volcanic rock formation that rises regally out of the treetops.
Another great activity for nature lovers is the Hana Highway in Maui, a twisting road that takes you through beaches, waterfalls, and a bamboo forest. Lastly, during whale season in Maui, you can watch humpback whales migrating south to warmer waters.
You also don’t want to miss a day at Kapalua Bay in the northern part of Maui. There, you can enjoy golfing amongst the palm trees with stunning views of the water.
Lastly, be sure to check out the coffee farm tours. There, you can learn about Maui’s history with coffee and how some of the world’s best brews are grown there.
Where in a nutshell, Maui is great for getting outdoors, Oahu offers plenty of fun activities as well. If it’s outdoor adventure you’re after, the island has tons of surfing opportunities. Waikiki Beach offers great surfing for beginners, whereas Waimea Bay and the Banzai Pipeline on the North Shore are great for those with a bit more experience.
North Shore’s Haleiwa is also a must-visit destination for a refreshing day trip. This historic surf town gives you nice spots to hang out while immersing in Hawaiian culture. Oahu also has excellent snorkeling spots, especially at the Waikiki Marine Life Conservation District and Hanauma Bay.
Besides outdoor adventure or lounging on Oahu beaches, you can check out cultural activities, such as a luau at the Polynesian Cultural Center. This place teaches you about the first settlers to the Hawaiian islands and gives you a chance to take a deep dive into how the islands were formed.
Alternatively, you could head to the Honolulu Museum of Art or learn about the royal family at the Iolani Palace.
The Pearl Harbor Visitor Center is another tourist destination in Oahu. Visitors are able to check out the USS Arizona Memorial. There are also museums, film-showing, and outdoor audio tours.
Finally, because Oahu is a mix of provincialo and city life, you can choose between hanging out in small beach communities or enjoying world-class shopping in the downtown part of Honolulu. Either way, this place won’t disappoint.
Although hiking Haleakala crater on Maui or strolling through Kailua beach park on Oahu is a great way to spend the day in Hawaii, when the sun goes down, things look a bit different.
Maui’s nightlife is famous in Kihei, Lahaina, and the historical Paia. Happy hour starts early, between 3 pm to 6 pm. It’s the best time to get refreshing cocktails and catch ocean sunset views.
Nightclubs are present, but they are scarce. Most tourists listen to live music instead with an alcoholic drink in one hand.
Nightlife in Maui also means joining luaus and sunset cruises. But by 10 pm, expect everyone to leave and return to their rooms for a good night’s sleep.
Now, while Maui becomes totally quiet by 10 pm, Oahu is the opposite. Known for being Hawaii’s most densely populated city, Oahu boasts live music bars, beachfront nightclubs, karaoke, and more. This island really gives justice to how Hawaiians party their hearts out.
Waikiki Beach is a famous nightlife scene, even when you’re relaxing by the sandy strip. The last call for drinks is at 2 am, so you have more than enough time to have fun, party, and dance.
But if you have a different definition of fun nightlife, Oahu also features entertaining luaus, dinner shows like Waikiki Magic of Polynesia and Rock-A-Hula, Blue Note Hawaii, and live music.
Staying in Oahu also means you should not miss out on Honolulu’s dinner and sunset cruise.
One reason why tourists love visiting Hawaii is the local delicacies and farm-to-table cuisines worth trying. Oahu and Maui offer different dining experiences, but each island has unique food options for every tourist.
From the usual Hawaiian local cuisine, Maui has developed innovative dining experiences, especially in Lahaina. This place has several celebrity-owned restaurants. Plus, it’s also famous for various breweries that serve the best coffee in town.
Some of the best luxury restaurants in Maui include Ka’ana Kitchen and Mama’s Fish House. International chefs love using freshly-caught seafood and farm-grown harvests.
However, Maui is also known for its low-key dining places, including Da Kitchen and Paia Fish Market. Both options are budget-friendly and perfect for travelers with big families. And for dessert, tourists should not miss the banana bread sold at roadside stands in Maui.
In Oahu, however, things are a bit different. Oahu has a wide range of flavors and restaurants, mainly because it’s heavily populated. Aside from the usual Hawaiian cuisine, various restaurants serve international cuisines that use fresh ingredients.
From dim sum restaurants to Portuguese bakeries, loco moco, fresh coffee grinds, and Filipino lumpia – Oahu takes you on a unique dining adventure around the world.
For upscale dining, Oahu will not disappoint. You can find several four-star to five-star restaurants in hotels. There are even beachfront spots, where you can dine under swaying palm trees as the sun sets.
What’s a trip to Hawaii without bringing home unique finds? And, of course, the best way to do this is to check out local boutiques and luxury stores.
Maui is more famous for its unique local boutiques, shops, and surf shacks. Plenty of galleries, specialty shops, and handicraft stores can also offer locally-made goods. Saturdays are meant for swapping jewelry pieces and other special handmade goodies.
On the other hand, if it’s big brands you’re after, Oahu is Hawaii’s shopping haven. In fact, it’s where you’ll find the US’s eighth-largest shopping mall! Whether it’s mid-range shops or high-end brands you’re after, you can find just about anything you need along the shop-filled Kalakaua Avenue.
Choose The Best Island for Your Holiday Getaway
When it all boils down to it, there’s no right or wrong answer when it comes to visiting Maui vs Oahu.
If you have to choose just one island, choose Maui if you want to escape the city and take a breath of fresh air. Resorts are spacious and secluded but are a little expensive. Plus, you can also enjoy unique activities like playing golf and snorkeling.
However, Oahu is the better option if you’re a party-goer and want to experience Hawaii’s nightlife. It might get crowded because of the city, but it offers a more diverse range of restaurants, outdoor activities, and shopping options.
Hawaii is your oyster, and now is your chance to enjoy a vacation your way on either one of these stunning islands.