Kauai vs. Big Island

A Comparison of Kauai and The Big Island Of Hawaii

Say ‘Hawaii,’ and most people picture sandy beaches, lush forests, crystal clear blue waters, and perfect weather. With gorgeous views, luxe accommodations, killer adventures, and tasty food choices, people from all over flock to Hawaii.

Hawaii has it all—sights, sounds, and people! With all the desirable features of Hawaii awaiting, how do you know which island is right for you? Our Hawaiian guide can help you choose. We compare the islands of Kauai and the Big Island based on the adventures and activities, beaches, food, drink, and nightlife.

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Kauai and Big Island Overview

Although the islands share some of Hawaii’s prominent holiday attractions, they each offer distinct features. Here are some of the things that set them apart.

Waimea Canyon Kauai

Waimea Canyon

Overview of Kauai

Are you seeking some downtime? Look no further than Kauai. Most find it far less touristy. With building restrictions that help control the size of hotels, you'll see less crowded beaches in Kauai. Get ready to enjoy a relatively crowd-free vacation that includes:

  • Spend hours exploring sites dedicated to the local culture and history.
  • Soak in the breathtaking views from the sugarcane fields to the Wailua River.
  • The island also features gorgeous waterfalls and the Na Pali Coast.
  • Poipu Beach Park
  • Friendly towns like Hanapepe, Koloa, Waimea, Kapaa, and Hanalei
  • Discover the family-friendly beaches with calm waters and shallow waters for the little ones.

This island provides a less touristy experience, with plenty of beaches, museums, historical landmarks, and natural sites that offer an authentic glimpse of the local way of life.

Akaka Falls Big Island

Akaka Falls

Overview of the Big Island

The best word to describe Big Island is “diverse.” The size of the island offers more choices: sand color, climate, or terrain. It provides such a range of temperatures, from the snowy peak of Mauna Kea to the warm, breezy beaches. As well, The Big Island resonates with adventure-seekers. You can hike through Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, watch the lava flow in the background, or tour gardens. The island features:

  • Dive, swim, and snorkel with the Manta Rays and experience the splendor of these creatures.
  • Take in the unsurpassed beauty and majesty of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
  • Watch the sunset at the Mauna Kea summit.
  • Witness the earth's exceptional power as lava flows into the ocean.
  • Take a dive into the world's most extensive coral reef system, explore the breathtaking beauty of the Kona Coast, and experience the lush rainforests of Hilo.

If you want diversity, then Big Island is the ideal destination.

Kauai Adventures & Activities

Kauai is never short on island adventures, including:

  1. Kokee State Park. With more than 4,345 acres to explore, you can bask in the beauty of the forest, trek the hiking trails, and see an outstanding display of local wildflowers. The park is 3,200 to 4,200 feet above the sea, offering stunning vistas of Waimea Canyon. It's also a bird watcher's paradise with many local species to spot. While canyon views are spectacular, you can't miss the grand display of valleys opening to the North Shore.
  2. Waimea Canyon. There's a reason they call this "The Grand Canyon of the Pacific." Spanning 14 miles in length and a mile wide, this geological wonder is a massive chasm with crested buttes, crags, and valley gorges created by the forces of nature.
  3. Kilohana Plantation. This working plantation and its imposing home feature original and restored rooms and updated areas now used as shops, galleries, a restaurant, and a lounge. While you're there, sample some rum and join in the luau.
  4. Plantation Railway. Located at the plantation, this charming train travels through the dense tropical forest, where you get glimpses of plantation-era houses. At the Kilohana Plantation, you'll see over 50 fruits and vegetables, with several stops providing different aspects of the plantation. Kids love the stop at the farmyard!
  • Kokee State Park: Explore over 4,345 acres of high-elevation forest bliss. For instance, hike through the forest, trekking the hiking trails, and see an outstanding display of local wildflowers. For the avid bird watchers, pull out your binoculars and spot the local species. Sit back and watch as the valley opens to the North Shore.
  • Waimea Canyon: Known as "The Grand Canyon of the Pacific," this geological wonder spans 14 miles. Then, peer into its massive chasm and admire the beauty of crested buttes, crags, and valley gorges.
  • Kilohana Plantation: This working plantation features an exquisite home with original and restored rooms. The plantation houses modern amenities: shops, galleries, restaurants, and a lounge. Sample some rum while enjoying the luau.
  • Plantation Railway: At the plantation, this charming train travels through the dense tropical forest. Along the way, get glimpses of plantation-era houses. The ride will expose you to over 50 fruits and vegetables on the plantation. Kids love the stop at the farmyard!
  • Wander the Allerton and McBryde Gardens: The Allerton and McBryde Gardens sit beside each other, making for a pleasant stroll. Wander through the lovely gardens full of flowers, trees, and plants indigenous to Hawaii.
  • Enjoy views from the Kilauea Point Lighthouse.
  • Hanalei Town: Hanalei, a historic site, sits at the foot of lush mountains. Explore the town and browse the many galleries.  
  • Lumahai Beach: Visit the Beach from the Musical "South Pacific." The island's Mount Makana is the famous backdrop for the song Bali Hai.
  • Napali Coast: Na Pali Coast continues to captivate onlookers with its dramatic cliffs and turquoise waters. Once a thriving settlement for the locals, remnants of the past still stand here. Explore cliffs- discover the white sand and gushing waterfalls. Many movie directors film this coast because of its beauty.
Big Island Adventures & Activities

There’s no rest for the wicked (unless you want to relax) when it comes to Big Island adventures, including:

  1. Whale Watching in Kona. Whale-watching adventures in the winter offer a mind-blowing view of the massive gathering of humpbacks congregating during the breeding season.
  2. Explore Local Culture at the Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park. This cultural experience has plenty of insight into the ancient native Hawaiians.  
  3. Discover the Majesty of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Majestic might be an understatement when describing Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, and this is the place for the best views of active lava flows entering the ocean. Hikers can take to the Kilauea Iki trail, down from the Volcano rainforest into the caldera, where you can see how nature has shaped the island over millions of years.
  4. Chill at Kalapana. This is a unique spot where the beach was overtaken by lava in the 90s. Close by is the new black sand beach that is still forming. 
  5. Snap Some Pics at MacKenzie State Park. Impress your followers with jaw-dropping shots of the island taken from MacKenzie State Park.

There's no rest for the wicked (unless you want to relax) in Big Island adventures, including:

  • Whale Watching in Kona: Whale watching in the winter months offers a mind-blowing view of a massive gathering of humpbacks. They assemble for their breeding season.
  • Pu'uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park: The park allows visitors to explore the culture of ancient Hawaiians through a museum and interactive exhibits. They established ecological preservation, and the park houses diverse wildlife.
  • Hawaii Volcanoes National Park: Most words cannot capture the power and beauty of Hawaii's most well-known national park. The park covers many geographical features, from bubbling lava to rainforests.
  • Kilauea Iki Trail: Hikers, grab your gear, and head down to the rainforest for a quick hike into the caldera of the Kilauea Iki trail. Over millions of years, you can see how nature has shaped the island as you hike through lush forests and volcanic landscapes.
  • Kalapana is a unique spot where lava overtook the beach in the 90s. Today, black sand beaches are still forming next to the old lava flow.
  • MacKenzie State Park: Impress your followers with jaw-dropping shots of the island taken from MacKenzie State Park.
  • Exploring Hilo: Hilo offers everything you want in a tourist town without all the tourists! Local boutiques and galleries are filled with local flair, while the restaurants are hard to beat. With its picturesque view of the Pacific Ocean, Hilo is non-touristy—and that's precisely why it's so popular.
  • Tsunami Museum: The museum offers a quirky yet exciting breakdown of this natural phenomenon. Take a tour of an in-depth history of tsunamis. You won't want to miss it! Visit on Wednesday or Saturday to sample local foods and find unique souvenirs at the local farmers' market.
  • Stargazing at Mauna Kea: The summit offers a 360-degree view of the clear sky. From the summit, catch a stellar sunset or shining stars.
  • Drive the Kapoho Kalapana Road: Experience the beauty and serenity of the Hamakua Coast with a drive on the Kapoho Kalapana Road. This scenic route in Puna offers some of the best views on the island. You can also drive along the Hamakua Coast to see the coastal attractions.
  • The Historic Town of Honoka'a: Honoka'a is a former sugarcane plantation that has become a bustling center for arts and culture. Take time out to enjoy their local shops, galleries, and eateries.
  • Rainbow Falls: If you want a perfect example of Hawaii's cascading falls, this spot is accessible and ideal for anyone.
Kauai Beaches

The rugged coastline of Kauai also gives way to miles of sandy beaches.

Head to Poipu Beach on the south shore for miles of white sand and black lava rock. You can start your day right with a scenic walk along the south coast or take in the views of Mount Makana from Haena Beach Park.

Snorkelers love the unique lava rock wall at Lydgate Beach Park. The wall offers a natural shield from the ocean to create calm waters. Many of Kauai’s beaches provide safe swimming conditions with more subdued, shallower waters if you have kids.

Big Island Beaches

On Big Island, you can pick the color of sand you prefer. While there are miles of white beaches, you'll also find the rare green sand at Papakōlea Beach and the rich, black beach still in its infancy at Kalapana.

Kauai Food, Drink, and Nightlife

There's something for everyone, from the most authentic Japanese dishes to a wide variety of Polynesian fare. If you need some sustenance on your holiday, look no further! You'll delight in the flavors of a cuisine that spanned and evolved over hundreds of years, with fresh local ingredients from the land and sea.

The local lifestyle fosters a subdued nightlife. Visitors can find some entertainment, from beach bars and restaurants to various live music venues. The quiet nightlife makes this a more attractive option for a calm traveler or family.

Big Island Food, Drink, and Nightlife

You’ll find more exciting nightlife in Kona, where you can enjoy a laid-back meal or cocktails at sunset. Hilo is also known for its diverse selection of dining options. However, much like Kauai, this is not the island to shake yer booty and drink ‘til dawn. You’re better off on Oahu for that.

Honopu Valley Na Pali Coast Kauai

Honopu Valley Na Pali Coast

What Makes Kauai Unique?

Kauai offers a slower-paced vacation where crowds are sparse. Thus, you can take your time exploring the many quiet places on the island. You can find stretches of forest and breathtaking mountain ranges, and local restrictions keep the beaches less developed. Thus, the island remains in a more natural state. Here peaceful attractions like the Na Pali Cliffs and Waimea Canyon shine. However, you also get a more authentic feel for island life and a refreshing perspective on island history. If the beauty of nature and cultural experiences inspire you, Kauai could be your happy place. This island is family-friendly, with safer waters and less nightlife to detract from quality time together.

mauna kea stargazing big island

Stargazing on Mauna Kea is something you don't want to leave without doing.

What Makes Big Island Unique?

Big Island’s diversity allows you to experience “more” of everything. Friendly towns, historic destinations, beaches, and even varied climates provide adventure for active travelers. Big Island pulls out all the stops for the ideal Hawaiian vacation, from stargazing at Mauna Kea summit to breathtaking waterfalls and glowing lava flows to quirky communities and ranch lands. You also witness an island undergoing changes watching the glowing lava streaming into the blue ocean. This adds to the uniqueness of the Big Island experience.

Kauai is the perfect getaway for relaxed island life. Kauai’s breathtaking landscape creates an authentic Pacific paradise with its vibrant local history, stunning natural beauty, and laid-back vibe. However, if you want to go big or go home, Big Island offers more of everything.

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