Big Island v. Kauai
Hawaii’s magnificence is profoundly felt the moment you step foot on one of its islands. Its ancient Polynesian culture—still palpable today—its lush rainforests, its glorious beaches, its sultry air: Is it any wonder why it’s frequently deemed one of the most coveted places in the world?
But vacationers often find themselves stumped when trying to choose between its six main islands. Should you go to Oahu to see legendary Waikiki Beach, to Maui to view its Humpback whales, to the Big Island to watch its live volcanic action, to Molokai to witness the splendor of the tallest sea cliffs in the world? To Lanai, perhaps, for an intimate, luxurious experience—or to Kauai to hike into the Grand Canyon of the Pacific?
Deciding between Hawaii’s oldest and youngest islands—Kauai and the Big Island, respectively—is especially challenging. Kauai possesses a prehistoric allure, while there’s no arguing that seeing geology in the making is spectacular. With that in mind, here’s the lowdown on the Big Island vs. Kauai so that you can plan the trip of your life:
Hawaii Island (or the Big Island, as it’s commonly called) is the largest of the Hawaiian Islands—so vast, in fact, that it’s 4,028 square miles are bigger than all of the other islands combined. (Tour the Island) Translation? Immense swaths of land are straight-up barren, with nary an accommodation in sight. And yet, the lodging the island does present is guaranteed to fit every traveler’s budget, wishes, and desires. Kona-Kohala, for example, was once a desolate stretch of lava rocks fronting a gorgeous coastline; in the 1960s, though, it transformed into an upmarket resort community. Today, it boasts a number of great hotels and resorts, from the Mauna Kea Resort to the Mauna Lani Resort and Kohanaiki—the Big Island’s newest private resort community, which comes in at 450 acres and stretches across 1.5 miles of beachfront. B&Bs, Airbnbs, adorable inns, fully-equipped condos, even ranches with well-appointment cottages—clearly, the island is also big on ensuring visitors sleep happily.
Similarly, Kauai runs the gamut when it comes to accommodations. Hanalei is globally renowned for its stellar views of Bali Hai and its uber-elegance, while the sunnier side of the island—Poipu—boasts reputable brands such as the Hyatt. Airbnbs are a particularly popular option on The Garden Island, while those looking to do Hawaii on a dime will be stoked with its options for older but no less charming hotels (Kapa’a’s Hotel Coral Reef; Coconut Beach’s Courtyard Kauai). Want to go big—but not on the Big Island? The St. Regis Princeville Resort on the island’s North Shore redefines exceptional.
Bottom line: The Big Island wins this round: More accommodations are available, some situated in diverse climes that give you a greater selection to choose from than Kauai. What’s more, the Big Island is home to the Forbes Five Star-winner, the Four Seasons Hualalai, which is arguably one of the most extraordinary resorts in the world. Just ask the Hollywood celebs who frequent it.
You’ll find no shortage of dramatic coastlines on the Big Island. Papakolea on the island’s south point is one of the few beaches in the world to possess naturally green—yes, green—sand. See beaches and more! Speaking of sand: “Magic Sands Beach” on La’aloa Bay can go from pearly white one day to nothing but black rocks the next, contingent upon the conditions of the surf. Indeed, a large part of the island’s beaches are comprised of black rocks and pebbly rocks, which provide a startling contrast against its dreamy, turquoise water.
Kauai’s southern side offers the sort of beaches that made Hawaii famous: golden sand, lulling waves, swaying palms, translucent water—and ample opportunities for doing little more than basking in the ubiquitous sunshine. Maha’ulepu is a sight for sore eyes, what with its two-mile stretch of strip of pristine coastline, sand dunes, sea caves, and ironwood copses, while Hanalei is often thought to be where the real beach magic takes place. And for good cause: The site of the shooting of South Pacific presents five incredible beaches that peer up at Kauai’s verdant and vertiginous cliffs.
Bottom line: Kauai takes the cake in regards to beaches—between Barking Sands and Kiahuna, 45% of the island’s coastline is dominated by white sand, thus offering visitors the prevailing view of paradise.
Oahu’s south side—home to Honolulu and Waikiki—may conjure up images of dancing under the stars at rooftop bars and clubbing from dusk to dawn. Most of Hawaii, however, has nothing near the action you’ll find in, say, LA and Vegas. This holds especially true on the Big Island, where what nightlife you’ll discover is in sipping a mai tai and watching a sunset—albeit a phenomenal one. Much of the island is rural, and while live music abounds at venues ranging from posh resorts to chill, country-ish bars, dancing is limited. In other words? Few come to the Big Island specifically for its nightlife. However, if stargazing or a luau is a part of your nightlife, you will find some of the best here on the Big Island.
Much of The Garden Island goes dark shortly after it literally goes dark; after all, this is a place beloved for its early-morning surf opportunities and strenuous, marvelous hikes. What establishments are open, however, are lovely—from Bar Acuda in Hanalei (think: enticing atmosphere plus excellent drinks) to the sushi-lounge-cum-sophisticated-tavern that is Stevenson’s Library at the Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort and Spa (warm woods, intimate lighting, fresh rolls, and a dramatic, 27-foot koa bar). Trees Lounge on the eastern side of the island also offers great food, great music—and a dance floor (often a rare sight in Hawaii).
Bottom line: Kauai is rural too, yes, but it also has a livelier nightlife than the Big Island, which can feel wild and unpopulated to some after twilight.
The Great Outdoors
Drama defines the Big Island’s colossal outdoor arena, where eleven of the world’s climate zones give visitors the chance to see everything from verdant jungles to snow-capped peaks. The Orchid Isle, as it’s popularly known, is also home to one of the state’s biggest attractions, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which presents not just one but two active volcanoes (Kilauea and Mauna Loa); its 330,000 acres gives visitors the chance to see everything from massive craters to amazing lava caves. Scuba diving is also a huge draw for the Big Island, while its Kona Manta Night Dive is regularly considered one of the most fantastic dives on the planet (thanks in part to the fact that Kona has a large population of manta rays—as in, upwards of 250). Excellent ziplining, terrific hiking, elite golfing, first-rate horseback riding—such as through the ancient gulch that is Waipio Valley—and snorkeling are also up for grabs on this ceaselessly scenic island. Want a tour of all that the Big Island has to offer? Check this out!
Nearly 90% of Kauai is inaccessible by car, meaning that large parts of its great outdoors must be discovered by foot, helicopter, or boat. Those that remain off the well-trod path are positively unforgettable, from the radical and beguiling Na Pali Coast to the 17-mile stretch of virgin land that is Polihale State Park. Widely known as possessing the best hiking in all of Hawaii, Kauai is also a boon for anyone who loves the water; from surfing and paddle boarding to canoeing and snorkeling, its lucid waters are unforgettable. It’s also the eighth wettest place in the world and, as such, offers fertile lands to trek through and navigable rivers. Kauai is also home to the aforementioned Grand Canyon of the Pacific—a ten-mile-long, 3,000-foot-deep crater, christened Waimea, that stunningly reveals the effects of wind, rain, and erosion.
Bottom line: It’s a tie. There are few places in the world where you can see fresh land in the making—theatrical is just one way to describe it—but the “jungly” side of Kauai is straight from Jurassic Park (factually).
Like its nightlife, the Big Island isn’t necessarily famed for its shopping opportunities—again, its eminence is due to its copious, awesome beauty. That said, the shopping it does possess is quite nice: the indoor mall of Prince Kuhio Plaza (complete with a Macy’s and a movie theater), The Kings’ Shops at Waikoloa Beach Resort on the Kohala Coast (which has recognizable names like Michael Kors as well as smaller finds like Golden’s Handpainted Handbags & Accessories), and Kailua-Kona’s Coconut Grove, Kona Marketplace, and Keauhou Shopping Center—outdoor plazas filled with boutiques and galleries.
The island also boasts a number of interesting treasures, such as As Hawi Turns in North Kohala, where you’ll find unique souvenirs, vintage clothes, and one-of-a-kind jewelry.
Shopping—both big and small—is found across Kauai’s 552 square miles, with a number of its stores emphasizing its laidback, surfer culture. Boutiques filled with bikinis, surf shirts, and other beachy fashions can be readily found, as well as malls (Kukui Grove, for example, holds old standbys like Ross, Pier 1 Imports, and Jeans Warehouse, while Poipu Shopping Village, which is ensconced by lovely tress, has a sweet mix of surf-y shops and more high-end retailers). Upscale shopping is readily found at the resorts and beyond; the over-a-century-old Kong Lung Trading on the North Shore has a wonderful and eclectic mix of textiles, tableware, children’s books, stationary, and jewelry. The island is also the proud purveyors of Kauai Made—a line of merchandise, from crafts to food, that are made on Kauai by Kauai residents.
Bottom line: It’s a tie yet again, but if you really want to visit to Hawaii to fill a suitcase (or two), make a stop on Oahu: it’s inarguably the shopping hub of the islands.
Tastes and textures overlap across the Hawaiian archipelago, from the state’s beloved Spam musubi and malasadas to super-fresh poke and five-star eateries. The Big Island is part of this clique, but it also leads Hawaii in terms of agriculture and beef (it’s home to the renowned Parker’s Ranch). A number of restaurants across its stretch honor this with delicious dishes, from the CanoeHouse at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel on the Kohala Coast (which, notably, launched the career of Hawaii Regional Cuisine co-founder Alan Wong) to Holuakoa Gardens 4 miles up from Kailua-Kona, which features dishes such as homemade potato gnocchi with Hamakua mushrooms and Hawaiian pumpkin, and pan-seared mahi mahi with locally-grown kale. Or if you are looking for something traditional, a luau can check all of your “local fare” boxes. The farmers’ markets on the “BI” are also fantastic; Hilo’s, for examples, offers ice pops made with exotic mixes like dragon fruit and rambutan. Eating in a casual setting is also a dream here. Village Burger, for one, takes island (and national) favorites like hamburgers and gives them a gourmet twist with tomato marmalade and local goat cheese. And don’t forget that the Big Island is the place in the islands for coffee; opportunities abound to understand, first-hand, why the west side’s beans are universally famous.
The Garden Island has a similar vibe when it comes to dining—superb resort fare, casual joints that will gladly welcome you in your shirts and slippers, exclusive venues started by award-winning chefs (hello, Merriman’s), and local eats that’ll give you a taste of Hawaii. The Beach House Restaurant goes down as one of the loveliest spots on Kauai, where, in the light from tiki torches, you can stare out at the Pacific while savoring a plate of ahi tacos or lobster deviled eggs. Tahiti Nui may have been made famous in the George Clooney flick The Descendants, but it’s been catering to kama’aina and visitors for over 55 years; here, pork is braised in coconut milk to give it Polynesian flair, and chicken is bathed in macadamia nuts, bacon, gorgonzola cream, and a lilikoi drizzle. The Hukilau Lanai is also a revered dinner spot, what with its ultra-fresh (and only locally-caught) fish and gluten-free menu. The island further has fun craft breweries with grills that cook up some of the best bar food.
Bottom line: We may sound like a broken record, but it’s a tie yet again. Both islands have impressive gems, whether you’re in the mood for a romantic experience or want to grind a fish taco from the back bumper of your Jeep.
History & Culture
One of the most frequently heard comments among those who visit the Big Island is the sense of mana that strikes them upon landing. True, all of the Hawaiian Islands have palpable mana—just visit Maui’s ‘Iao Valley for a taste of it—but the Big Island practically radiates with it. This may be due in part to the powerful force of creation that’s still going—or the fact that it’s the site of Captain Cook’s demise, who marked the start of the Westernization of Hawaii. Whatever the case may be, the Big Island is a boon for history and culture lovers. Its complex tapestry of cultures—Hawaiian, Portuguese, Chinese, Tahitian, Korean, Japanese, Filipino—offer visitors the chance to experience everything from hula to Portuguese oven baking to Tahitian dancing. Meanwhile, large parts of its storied past remain extant, from the fascinating and immense Mo’okini Heiau (a sacrificial temple, dating back to 480 AD, that’s believed to be one of the most sacred in the islands) to ancient petroglyphs and the birthplace and original statue of Hawaii’s first king. The museums here may lack the polish of, say, Honolulu’s grand, historic sites, but those that do exist give travelers engrossing info on Hawaiian arts, volcanoes, tsunamis, and more. The island is also home to the aforementioned Waipio Valley, a holy valley, steeped in myth (and the site of Kamehameha’s training), that features burial grounds within its caves.
As the oldest island in the archipelago—and one that actively maintains its ties to its ancient Hawaiian past—Kauai offers a broad range of sightseeing experiences and activities for history and culture buffs. One of its most beloved and frequently visited sites is the Daniel K. Inouye Kilauea Lighthouse. Situated on a point, the beautifully-restored, historic beacon makes visitors feel like they’re at the end of the world—which is relatively true, given that it’s the northernmost point of Hawaii’s main islands. Old Koloa Town, meanwhile, enables visitors to step back into Kauai’s sugar plantation past with 19th century storefronts and its eponymous trail, which take visitors through 14 cultural sites as it weaves towards Poipu; along the way, you’ll find everything from the island’s legendary south shore blowhole, Spouting Horn, to the Koloa Jodo Mission, which dates back to 1910. The Kauai Museum in Lihue also showcases a vast assortment of Hawaiian artifacts, work by local artisans, and unforgettable, historical photos.
Bottom line: We may sound redundant here, but it’s yet another tie between the Big Island and Kauai, with each end of the Hawaiian-chain spectrum offering glimpses into the 50th state’s rich and complex history. The real bottom line, then, is deciding on the landscape you prefer. The Big Island epitomizes diversity with lava fields that are as austere as its “wet side” is luxuriant; the catch here is the great distance required to get between the two. Kauai, meanwhile, is a significantly smaller, rainier island, allowing you to savor its dry, sunny side at morning and its lush, waterfall-riven cliffs at sunset. Both have tremendous rural charm; both have amazing outdoor adventures. If verdant and intimate is what you’re after, by all means, head to Kauai; if large and fascinating is more your thing, then book it to the Big Island of Hawaii. Just know this: Whichever island you choose is guaranteed to exceed your expectations.