Oahu vs Maui – Which Island to Choose?

by | May 20, 2022 | Maui, Oahu

The Hawaiian Island chain is comprised of eight major islands. Six of these islands are frequently visited by tourists: Oahu, Kauai, Maui, Molokai, Lanai, and Hawaii Island (Big Island). When planning a trip to Hawaii, one of the first major decisions you’ll have to make is deciding which island – or islands – you’ll be visiting during your trip and in my opinion, each island is unique in its own way and you can’t go wrong with any one you pick.

Deciding Oahu vs Maui

Oahu is home to almost a million people and, as the city core, it’s definitely a metropolitan area. If you want to enjoy a Pacific tropical paradise bundled with a strong city vibe, Oahu is the right choice for you. If you want the exciting thrum of clubs, restaurants, and vibrant nightlife, have access to lots of tours, visit historic sites, or eat your way through dozens of “must have” local foods, chose Oahu. In contrast, Maui is home to a little over 165,000 people but is a larger island than Oahu. While there are many things to do in Maui, towns are more spread out and has a more relaxed culture. The atmosphere will be a lot more laid back and less busy. If you want a relaxing vacation with a wide variety of outdoor activities, Maui may be the right choice for you.

Oahu

When my best man came to Oahu for my wedding, one of the first comments he made was “Wow, I didn’t know Hawaii is such a metropolitan area!” Many people around the world view Hawaii as a tropical, natural paradise covered in rainforests and empty beaches dotted with palm trees. This actually isn’t that far off…for most of the Hawaiian Islands, just not Oahu (there are some more isolated beaches and rainforests on Oahu as well, they’re just not as common.) Many people are surprised to see skyscrapers (although we don’t have too many) and traffic jams. Oh, yeah, Oahu is known for our congested highways, in fact, we compete with LA for some of the worst traffic in the US! (Didn’t know that, did ya?). Oh, and our mile-long beautiful beach in Waikiki gets pretty packed with hotels, condos, and people, both visitors and residents alike.

Oahu also hosts most of the visitors coming to the Hawaiian islands. In fact, over 10 million people come to Hawaii each year and those visiting Oahu account for little more than 6 million of them; people spend on average 6.8 days in Oahu.

All those numbers are not to stop you from coming, it just means that on any given day, Oahu will feel urban, and there’ll be lots of people…and it *sometimes* might be hard to find parking. At the same time, because there are a lot of people, there are lot of things to do, and things will be more convenient, and you’ll have a LOT of places to visit / food to eat / sights to see. As a side note, since no one loves traffic, I would avoid morning and evening rush hours if possible – it helps a bit to plan ahead, but since a single traffic accident can cause a 30+ minute backlog, just give yourself some buffer time when you’re heading out.

Also, outside of Waikiki, there are a lot of resorts, beaches, and hikes that are much more relaxed and secluded, rest assured there are options available where you can get away from city life while still having access to big city amenities. Oahu is where my wife was born and raised and where we lived for seven years with our kids and we absolutely loved it.

Maui

We went on a trip to Maui a few years ago and even though my wife visited multiple times as a kid, she kept saying that she didn’t remember it looking like this. Basically, there was a lot more island, that what she remembered and for me, it was much bigger than what I pictured in my head before going. Maui is bigger and younger than Oahu, but with one-sixth of the population living there. Two dramatic mountain ranges offer picturesque views pretty much anywhere on the island and with the sheer height of Haleakala, there is more variation in climate and geography than Oahu. Even Mark Twain reminisced about his visit to Haleakala and his travels through Maui, and our youngest son still talks about our road to Hana trip, the Maui beaches, and all the fun he had when we were there.

Oahu and Maui Resorts

If you’re looking to relax at a world-renowned resort during your Hawaii vacation, both Oahu and Maui have great options with lots of amenities and dining choices.
Maui has more resort getaways and because Maui has more land, resorts tend to feel more spread out and relaxing. Maui’s famous resorts include the Grand Wailea, Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea, The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua, and a multitude of others. If you are looking for an adults-only resort in Hawaii, Maui has the only adults-only resort throughout Hawaii.

On Oahu, whether in or out of a resort, places will have more people and with a resort in Waikiki the moment you step out of the resort, you will probably find yourself walking right into the space of several other hotels and businesses. Oahu’s famous resorts include Turtle Bay Resort, Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort, and Ko Olina (Disney’s Aulani Resort is part of this development).
Both Oahu and Maui resorts have great amenities but with Maui, resorts are usually ensconced in a resort village area and you’re probably surrounded by other vacationers. On Oahu, any resort in Waikiki will have all the conveniences of a resort village, but you’ll also be around a lot of people who are not on vacation and there might be a lot of other events and activities going on at the same hotel.

Oahu and Maui Beaches

Oahu is home to world-famous beaches, like Lanikai Beach, often voted the “Best Beach in the US” or the internationally-recognized Waikiki Beach. Once you experience Waikiki Beach – the waves perfect for learning how to surf or the man-made enclosed lagoons, perfect for kids or sunbathing – you’ll understand why people around the world would gather here.  Also, Oahu hosts many international surfing competitions on its North Shore beaches.

Maui also boasts incredibly beautiful beaches, including one black sand beach and a rare red sand beach! Maui’s beaches are more open with fewer natural and man-made barriers to block the waves and currents; so, if you and your family are comfortable swimmers, you’ll have many options for beaches on all the islands. If you have small children or you are not comfortable in waters with currents and waves, then Oahu will have a few more options.

Oahu and Maui Snorkeling

Oahu and Maui both have great options for snorkeling. Oahu has the famous Hanauma Bay where an old volcanic crater created a lagoon which is home to a wide variety of fish. Hanauma Bay now requires a reservation (new procedure started in 2021). In addition to Hanauma Bay, there are many other places to snorkel as well; for beginners, we’d recommend, Ko Olina Lagoons on the Leeward side or Kuilima Cove at Turtle Bay Resort on the North Shore. Maui has quite a few great snorkeling spots off many popular beaches, but it also has a unique boat-only accessible snorkeling spot at Molokini Crater. We haven’t had the opportunity to go, but it looks amazing and it’s been rated highly for both beginners and advanced snorkelers.

For many, where to snorkel isn’t going to completely change which island you plan on visiting. Just know that both Oahu and Maui have great options for snorkeling both near shore and via boat. Overall, Oahu will probably have more people snorkeling at any beach, but places in Maui are becoming popular too. One thing to note, sadly, due to the larger population and influx of tourists on Oahu, you will probably see more plastic waste and trash on Oahu beaches.

Oahu and Maui Scenery

Ah, this is a tough one. Both islands are beautiful in their own ways and we probably have tens of thousands of pictures and videos to prove it. Oahu, of course, has a lot more buildings, more roads to navigate, and it has a pretty nice around the island (well, more like half-a-circle around the island) drive. Oahu is very diverse in its scenery depending on where you are on the island – rainforests, semi-arid desert, agricultural, and concrete jungle (ha.) – but anywhere you go, most locations will have homes, condos, or buildings in view. At the same time, even condo high rises can look amazing with Hawaii’s blue skies, rainbows, or Diamond Head in the background, right?!

Maui is even more diverse, in terms of the number of microclimates found there, but Maui overall has a more rural and rustic appeal. It’s nice to take so many pictures of our natural surroundings, or just pictures of our family without having to rush or block the sidewalk just to get them. And, I’d have to say, the dramatic views going up Haleakala were so impactful (when I wasn’t concentrating on not falling off the side of a mountain) and our Road to Hana (our family really liked our “Reverse Road to Haha”) drive was such as amazing experience, even my wife was worried people would think our pictures looked fake because the colors and the vibrant views were unbelievable! Okay, if you’re going for a once-in-a-lifetime visit, we’ll have to vote for Maui.

Oahu and Maui Hiking

I’m not sure if it’s because there are more people living on Oahu (so we eventually find more places to hike) or if it’s because of Oahu’s geography, but there are definitely more hiking options on Oahu, and because of that, there are a wide range of difficulty levels as well. For example, Makapu’u Lighthouse Trail is completely paved with almost no stairs until you get to the end. You are going up a cliff so there is an incline but you can (and we have) push a stroller to the top. Then you have the short but intense Koko Crater Trail which is over 1000 railway track steps up a mountain. We did this one too but my wife was planning to use a back carrier for our youngest one but we had to trade-off early in the hike. She could do it, but it would take her a gajillion hours – the hike is about 25-60 minutes – with him on her back she said.

Maui has some beautiful hikes too. With the prominence of Haleakala, there are quite a few hikes weaving around and through the different sides of the mountain. Of course, you can hike UP Haleakala but it would a long trip and more often people go for a combination of backpacking, camping, and hiking. Of course, there are many waterfall and oceanside hikes as well so if you’re plan is to definitely head toward Maui, rest assured that you’ll find lots of walking trails and hiking there as well, the only difference is in the number of hikes between Oahu and Maui, the quality is there for both locations.💗

Oahu and Maui Weather

One of the things our kids found amusing while living on Oahu was knowing that even if it was pouring rain where we were, we could usually drive somewhere else on the island and find sunny skies. With the slightly varied and dramatic landscapes of each of the Hawaiian islands, all the islands have microclimates; it was fun to enjoy all the different regions the islands have available. While Oahu is a little more basic – a wet side (Windward) and a dry side (Leeward) – Maui has a little more climate diversity and is, overall, slightly drier and hotter than Oahu. With Haleakala, in addition to having wet and dry parts of the island, Maui has a noticeable distinction in hot and cold regions as well.

All in all, both islands are beautiful and have excellent weather most of the time, keep in mind two things: there are basically two seasons for the Hawaiian Islands. The time from April to November is considered the drier “summer” season, however, it also aligns with the hurricane season, which runs from June through November. The second season is the cooler, winter season from December to March, but it also coincides with more rainy and overcast weather. There is no monsoon season, but it might be a little more cloudy and have a bit more rainfall during the “winter.”

Oahu and Maui Vacation Cost

Both locations are expensive, but, generally speaking, Oahu is cheaper. A larger population equals more direct infrastructure, and that means goods can be delivered for a cheaper rate. Also, Honolulu is often the first port most products go through before being redistributed to the neighboring islands, so the other islands end up incurring those additional costs too. Hotel costs tend to be higher in Maui too. When we vacationed in Maui, we traveled with a large group (our son’s soccer team) so in order to stay together, we searched for the cheapest hotel available. We were surprised, compared to a comparable hotel in Oahu, it was about 50% more. Oahu also just has a lot more options available and is probably a cheaper option for most families. But, I gotta tell you, Oahu just doesn’t have that drive to Haleakala and the scenery on the way up, nor does it have a Road to Hana drive. You have to pick what you want most during your vacation! 😉

You may want to check out our post about Hawaii Travel Cost for a Family of 4.

Oahu and Maui Nightlife

Okay, we have to admit, we’re probably a little rusty on this one. Between work, juggling four kids and their activities, and living further out from Honolulu, our nightlife experience usually consists of a post soccer game potluck by the pool.

Still, this is probably the easiest comparison just on a practical level. We didn’t get to experience ALL the nightlife options Maui had to offer on our last visit there but in the Kahului area, by 8:30 PM, a lot of places were closed or wrapping up their services. I think we hung out at Target that *wild* first night when we were all wired and ready to start our vacation.

On Oahu, most of the nightlife will be concentrated around Waikiki and the Honolulu area, there are local hangouts on other parts of the island but even most locals head toward Honolulu if they want to meet up later in the evening. Everything from diners to bars and clubs, to convenience stores, will usually be open until at least 11 PM in Waikiki, and when you walk around and night you can’t help but feel the energy pretty much any day of the week.

UPDATE: I should note though that even though Covid restrictions are down, many locations have cut back their hours, so check before you head out. Some places, including Ala Moana Shopping Center, close 2-3 hours earlier than pre-Covid times.

Oahu and Maui Activities

When it comes to things that are affected by the population size, it’s hard to compete; and with activities, there are overall, more things to do on Oahu vs. Maui. Still, what it boils down to is what kind of things you would like to experience on your vacation, right? So quantity doesn’t always matter and, quite frankly, both islands have a lot of great activities both indoor and outdoor, but Oahu might just have more variety. For example, Maui has the Maui Ocean Center and Oahu has Waikiki Aquarium and Sea Life Park. What it might narrow down to is: if you want your vacation to be focused on relaxation and lounging around your resort, Maui might be a better fit for you. If you want to visit as many historical sites, tourist destinations, and do as many things as possible, Oahu might be a better choice. We’ve done both styles of vacation, in Hawaii and other places and with and without kids (and grandparents!) and we’ve enjoyed them all! We hope that you find the right fit for your family and budget and have a wonderful, memorable time.

On a side note: If you’re on the fence about trying any activities, we’ve almost always enjoyed EVERYTHING we’ve tried. From snorkeling (I’m not a strong swimmer), to hiking with kids (we had to change our expectations and/or bring LOTS of snacks and drinks), to going on a boat (I usually get a little seasick) to see dolphins – which was absolutely amazing, by the way – we’ve usually had a good time. So, we hope you have the opportunity to try a lot of things while you’re here. Just make sure to check the reviews before you book anything and if it’s a local restaurant on Yelp, just know that locals tend to be *too nice* when giving stars so if the reviews are 4.5 stars, it’s probably like a 4 and if locals give it 2 stars, run away! LOL.

So, which is it? Oahu or Maui?

Both are beautiful in their own ways. As you can probably tell from above, we think of Maui as a more relaxing, less busy place and Oahu as more bustling (and a little hectic). We’ve never grow tired of rustling up the kids, hopping in the car, and going on a hike, to the beach, or anywhere else. We’ve even squeezed a visit to Ali’i Kula Lavender between two soccer games just to visit one more place (plus Kula was much cooler than Kahului!) while on our Maui vacation! So we know you can’t go wrong with either choice.

We hope you have a great time on your trip to Oahu or Maui, or both!?

Aloha!

Hi, we are the Kim Family. We wanted to share our experiences living on Oahu and traveling around Hawaii.  We have four kids and who enjoy all sorts of outdoor activities.  We’ve learned a lot raising our kids here and wanted to share with you.  We hope it helps with whether you are visiting, living, or a little bit of both.

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