So you’re made the decision to head to Hawaii. Lucky you.
Now comes the hard part: choosing which idyllic island to visit. Among the larger destinations, two finalists will quickly emerge: Oʻahu and Maui.
Which of these two stars should you choose for your time in paradise? We’ve asked two passionate writers to make the case for why the natural attractions, beaches, food scene and overall vibe give their preferred island the edge.
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Why I’m mad for Maui
Amy C Balfour has visited Maui regularly for the last 10 years, often bringing friends and family members from the mainland – and always reconnecting with the local friends she’s made over the years. The duration of her average visit to the island? Three to five weeks.
Have you seen the sun rise over Haleakalā? This luminous show is the stuff of myths, pilgrimages and (of course) Instagram feeds. Maui wakes up gorgeous – and never lets up. Oʻahu? Well, we concede it does wake up.
The sunrise at Maui’s Haleakalā Crater is always a showstopper © DonLand / Shutterstock
The world’s largest dormant volcano, Haleakalā is the marquee attraction at stunning Haleakalā National Park. Haleakalā also wins bragging rights with its dazzling silverswords, a rare and finicky plant that thrives in Maui’s soils – and which doesn’t grow on the slopes of Oʻahu’s “volcanic tuff cone” at Diamond Head State Monument.
Humpback whales prefer Maui, too. In winter, these leviathans will swim the Oʻahu coast, yet the waters of western Maui are their preferred spot for mating and birthing. Most visitors can observe their graceful glory from the island’s condos, catamarans and clifftops – and a lucky few from a kayak on Makena Bay.
Another bucket-list experience is driving the Road to Hana, where waterfalls tumble into sparkling pools mere steps from the road. (Maui has no shortage of dazzling road trips.) Hana itself offers a window into the Hawaii of old, where locals “talk story” over mahi-mahi tacos, tropical fruit popsicles and warm banana bread, all sold at roadside food stands.
Honolulu’s Bishop Museum might celebrate Polynesian culture and history with a glossy cool. Yet this history packs a visceral punch on Maui. Hike over ancient lava rocks on the King’s Highway. Stand in awe below Pi‘ilanihale Heiau, an immense Polynesian temple. Or wade into the Ko‘ie‘ie Fishpond, originally built for a royal family.
In Maui, fantastic meals are not confined to the big city, as in Oʻahu. Deliciousness is a given at Mama’s Fish House, Leoda’s Kitchen & Pie Shop, Kula Bistro and other far-flung outposts. And no one can resist the Old Lahaina Luau, which complements its scrumptious Native Hawaiian feast with storytelling and traditional hula. Where’s your hula, Honolulu?
The scene at Waikiki has its partisans – but Maui’s Ka‘anapali Beach sports a similar oceanfront cool. And here, every evening kicks off with a mesmerizing traditional cliff dive from the astonishing Pu‘u Keka‘a.
Hop in a traditional outrigger canoes off Maui’s southwest coast for an outdoor adventure © drewsulockcreations / Getty Images
Outdoor adventure? Another winner. Snorkelers flock to Maui’s coves to get up close to tropical fish and honu (green turtles). Windsurfers dazzle crowds at Ho‘okipa Beach, while outrigger canoes paddle past lava-rock shores on the southwest coast. And though Oʻahu’s North Shore does offer world-class surfing, Maui wins the awe factor with the monstrous annual break at Pe‘ahi (also known as Jaws).
And finally, the beaches. Golden strands hug the entire perimeter of the Valley Isle, all ready-made for your postcard moment. We especially love Oneloa Beach (Big Beach), a showstopping mile-long stretch of sand in Makena. Flanked by tangled tropical greenery and a wild blue sea, it finds no worthy competition on Oʻahu. Or anywhere in Hawaii. Or really anywhere in the world.
You should be agog over O‘ahu
Catherine Toth Fox grew up on Oʻahu, and has spent years as a travel writer reporting on the best things to see, do and eat in her native state. Having traveled all over the Hawaiian archipelago, she’s an expert on which island is the best. Her pick? Oʻahu.
There’s a reason the majority of visitors to Hawaii – 60% in pre-Covid 2019 – come to Oʻahu. Quite simply, there’s more to do here than on any other island, Maui included. Much more.
It’s hard to knock Maui, home to the world’s largest dormant volcano and gorgeous beaches. Yet Oʻahu boasts more than 200 hiking trails, hundreds of restaurants and food trucks serving everything from birria tacos to Burmese cuisine, and some of the world’s best surfing breaks year-round. (Pe‘ahi – aka Jaws – in Maui? Good luck timing your trip around that.)
If you’re looking to hole up at your hotel for the entire vacation, pick Maui and its sprawling oceanfront resorts. But if you’re looking for adventure, to really experience the Hawaiian Islands and make the most of your well-earned vacation, Oʻahu should be your choice.
Let’s start outdoors. On Oʻahu you can view the sunrise from the top of the Makapuʻu Lighthouse Trail, an easy trek along a paved road that meanders along the island’s rugged southeastern coastline. Along the way, stunning views open up of the rural town of Waimānalo, off-shore islets like Mānana (Rabbit Island), Hawaiian seabirds like the ʻiwa (great frigate bird) flying above, and the historic, red-roofed Makapuʻu Lighthouse itself. And on calm winter days, you’ll have a front-row seat to the playful koholā, or North Pacific humpback whales, frolicking in Hawaii’s warm waters. Like most visitors, even these majestic creatures start their Hawaiian journey in Oʻahu. Did I mention that, unlike at Haleakalā on Maui, you don’t need a reservation to take it all in?
If you’re hungry, Oʻahu has way more restaurants – and way more variety – than any other island. Here, you’ll find hefty plated lunches served roadside (Rainbow Drive-In), authentic Hawaiian fare (Helena’s Hawaiian Food), family-run okazuya (Fukuya Delicatessen), manapua pork-bun shops (Royal Kitchen), old-school saimin noodle-soup stands (Shige’s Saimin Stand), elevated Vietnamese street food (Pig & the Lady), restaurants run by James Beard Award–winning chefs (Fête) and the bakery where sweet malasadas were first served (Leonard’s). Plus, Zippy’s Restaurants serves its popular chili, saimin and Apple Napples 24 hours a day. You won’t find much open after sunset on Maui.
The Koko Crater Trail near Honolulu is a popular choice among Oʻahu’s many hiking options © ChristianZanePhotography / Shutterstock
If hiking’s your thing, Oʻahu has more trails than any other island, from the easy trek to Manoa Falls to the epic trek to the top of Olomana. We have trails that run along pristine coastlines (Kaʻena Point), uphill jaunts (Kaʻiwa Ridge – aka Lanikai Pillbox – Trail) and walks through lush forests (ʻAiea Loop trail). Not to mention the popular Koko Crater stairs, which let visitors scramble up an old wooden tramway to the top of a 1208ft volcanic tuff cone. You won’t get this hiking variety in Maui.
Oʻahu is heaven for travelers with kids. The fun never stops at such sites as Waikiki Aquarium, the 42-acre Honolulu Zoo, an indoor play area (Hawaii Children’s Discovery Center), a water park (Wet ’n’ Wild) and Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa where the whole family can dine with Mickey Mouse even if you’re not overnight guests.
If you want to dive deep into the culture that makes Hawaii so special, the Bishop Museum boasts the world’s largest collection of Polynesian cultural artifacts and natural-history specimens. Explore an old sugar farm and settlement at Hawaii’s Plantation Village. Get inspired at the Hawaiʻi State Art Museum and the Honolulu Museum of Art, which display works from Hawaii and around the world. You can even help restore ancient Hawaiian fishponds at Paeʻpae o Heʻei, or plant taro, an important staple plant for Native Hawaiians, at Ka Papa Loʻi O Kānewai.
The Hawaii State Art Museum in Honolulu features vibrant works by artists from all over Hawaii, and the world © Alamy Stock Photo
The history lessons continue at opulent Shangri La, the mansion-turned-museum of the late philanthropist Doris Duke. ʻIolani Palace is the only official state residence of royalty in the USA. And the USS Arizona Memorial and Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum illustrate another vital moment in American history.
Oʻahu has it all, and there’s no place like it.