Island Smackdown-Maui vs. Oahu

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I have only been to two of the six major Hawaiian islands so in the interest of this post, Maui and Oahu are the only two I will be discussing. (There are technically eight major ones in all, but the other two are uninhabited, hence off-limits to visitors obviously.)

Best for: Foodies, History lovers, Urban enthusiasts 

Food: When one thinks of gastronomic capitals of the world, places like Paris and Las Vegas and Hong Kong come to mind, yet Honolulu, the capital of the state of Hawaii, is home to some of the world’s most popular and well known restaurants. Chefs Roy Yamaguchi and Alan Wong both got their culinary start on Oahu and today their restaurants are some of the most sought out places to dine for both locals and visitors. However, Oahu is also home to the largest population of the Hawaiian islands and as a result has the most varied dining options. Japanese, Korean, Hawaiian, Vietnamese, French, Portuguese, Indian-you want it? Oahu has it. Just as New York City has always welcomed immigrants, it’s been the same with Oahu. So when you tire of more upscale dining, go to that small hole in the wall restaurant and get the best dim sum this side of the Pacific.

One of the culinary creations at Monkeypod, a Peter Merriman restaurant

History lovers: Although Oahu wasn’t always the capital of the Hawaiian kingdom (what Hawaii was known as before the monarchy was overthrown in the late 19th century), once it became so, you could say history abounded there. Oahu is home to Iolani Palace (where Hawaiian monarchs lived), numerous sites connected to the infamous date of December 7, 1941 (the USS Arizona, USS Missouri, USS Bowfin), the Mission Houses Museum, National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, and two hotels that are considered to be “great dames” (The Westin Moana Surfrider and the Royal Hawaiian, both in Waikiki). Sure, Maui has some historical sights but nothing compared to what’s found on Oahu.

The Westin Moana Surfrider is THE most historic hotel in Hawaii

Urban enthusiasts: When we went on our Road to Hana tour, I remember one of the participants (a Canadian woman from Toronto) saying how she couldn’t wait until they moved on to Oahu as she found Maui “too quiet,” with “not enough going on.”  All I can say after now having visited Oahu, specifically Honolulu and Waikiki Beach, is that this woman would definitely  experience the opposite of quiet there. If you want noise and people and traffic and high rise hotels, Oahu has it all, not to mention scores of dining options and shops and nightclubs to go with it, all within blocks of each other in the city area of Honolulu and Waikiki.

Bright lights big city-you’ll find it here in Waikiki

Best for: Nature/outdoor lovers, Individuals looking to get away from it all, First time visitors to the Hawaiian islands

Nature/outdoor enthusiasts: Don’t get me wrong, Oahu has tons of sights and areas that a nature enthusiast would simply adore. However, on Maui getting to those types of sights doesn’t necessarily mean sitting in traffic or having to drive through one of the most populated areas (Honolulu) in one of the smallest land sizes. Maui has such a myriad of outdoor activities to choose from-incredible beaches, a dormant volcano (Haleakala), a rainforest (Hana is the only rainforest in an American state), even a blissfully peaceful lavender farm (who says you need to go to Provence to see lavender fields?). While we were on Maui, we drove all over the island and while distances could sometimes take a while, this was due more to the fact that there are not a ton of highways on any of the Hawaiian islands, rather than because of traffic.

Want to bike down a volcano? You can do so on Haleakala. Just be careful to mind the switchbacks

Individuals looking to get away from it all: Our hotel on Maui was in a more developed area (Kaanapali). However, was it anything to the degree of development on Waikiki Beach? Definitely not! But Maui is still a pretty big island and offers scores of beaches where you can visit and not see a single person for miles, or a drive through upcountry means the only living creatures you see are birds and other animals. I think that was one of the things I disliked most about Oahu-it was just too busy. While I love a city ambiance full-time, the purpose of going to a destination like Hawaii is to get away from it all and Maui definitely provided that.

You’ll find peaceful bliss in Maui’s upcountry

First time visitors to Hawaii: I’m confident that our next trip to Hawaii will be to the island of Kaua’i (in fact I cannot wait to visit). But I think if you’ve never been to any of the islands before, Maui is truly perfect on many levels. Why? Well,  there are numerous direct flights a day from multiple American cities on the mainland, which means you wouldn’t need to connect through Honolulu (we connected in San Francisco when traveling there and in Phoenix when coming back). It has everything you could possibly want in a dream Hawaiian vacation-perfect sunsets, gorgeous beaches, an array of dining options, flowers so stunning you think they’re fake, and best of all, traffic that won’t induce copious amounts of stress while driving.

The famous black sand beach-utterly unique, utterly memorable

Don’t get me wrong, I liked Oahu a great deal but that had more had to do with specific things and experiences. From an “island as a whole” stance, Maui was my favorite. But don’t shaft Oahu. I can’t tell you the number of people who do and I find this incredibly disappointing. People fly into Oahu, spend a night or two (usually enough to make it to Pearl Harbor) and then journey on to another island for the majority of their trip. If you only spend a night or two on Oahu in an area like Waikiki, yes, it’s not going to leave the most favorable of impressions. But if you do what I did, spending more time in an area of Oahu that is less developed and more secluded, trust me when I say that you will love it. There is no shortage of sights on Oahu so be sure to give it its due. Just go with an open mind and remember the differences between places like Oahu and Maui.

Oahu is beautiful too, you just need to go to it

Have you been to a Hawaiian island? Is it somewhere you’d like to go back to again? Is there an island you’re dying to visit?

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  • Reply
    January 27, 2014 at 6:55 pm

    Love the comparison!

    • Reply
      Julie Tulba
      January 27, 2014 at 9:36 pm

      They really are different. Every Hawaiian island has the “Hawaii stereotypes” but no two are completely alike. I think that’s a misconception many people have about Hawaii (not realizing they’re entirely different islands). And with this weather I SO want to go back!

  • Reply
    June 12, 2017 at 9:25 am

    Yes ive been wanting to visit kauia and been to oahu multiple times, been to maui once and fell in love with the place. Oahu nahhhh i didnt really like it because it is too populated, i only liked it bec some relatives live there that i want to visit, thank god they live in a nice area where disney aulani located at ko olina, easier for me to take the kids whenever they get bored and wanted to swim. I just dont like it bec of too much traffic, it will take me hours to get to one place i wanted to see. Unlike maui traffic is less and it is really a paradise! Hana is a must to see, nice beach that i dont have to drive an hour just to visit the place, beautiful sunset, quiet and more relaxing! Maybe oahu is good once in awhile to visit my family.

    • Reply
      June 18, 2017 at 8:12 pm

      Oahu definitely has its charms but it’s more a case of having to seek them out 🙂 I still do strongly feel that too many people visit Oahu and all they see of it is just the Waikiki area which is a terrible thing indeed. Maui is a true gem and I can’t wait to return one day.

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