It can be difficult to decide which Hawaiian island you’d like to visit since each one has its own unique culture and activities.
But you’ve already done most of the hard work by narrowing it down to two islands: Big Island vs Kauai.
Where Big Island is an endless reservoir of diverse landscapes, Kauai carries a deep prehistoric allure that comes with being the oldest island.
Read on as we compare these two islands and help you find your perfect vacation destination!
Big Island beaches give ‘dramatic’ a wholly different name – Hawaii’s biggest island really aims to surprise you depending on the surf that day.
Papakolea Beach for instance, is a green sand beach; not something you expect to see anywhere.
Magic Sands Beach is literally magic; you never know if it’s pearly white today or a hulking black mass of lava rock tomorrow.
Unfortunately, the rocky volcanic shores aren’t exactly best for a full day’s lounging.
The blackened formations are a startling contrast against the teal waves, so take advantage of this unique photo op!
Kauai, on the other hand, is what you expect from Hawaii’s beaches.
Sand that glimmers gold under the sun, soft waves singing along to the sway of palm trees… a treat for the eyes indeed!
A pristine two-mile stretch greets you at Maha’ulepu Beach, featuring not just the usual sand dunes but also sea caves and ironwood.
Hanalei Bay is even more generous, presenting five beautiful beaches right below Kauai’s sky-scraping cliffs.
For more adventurous travelers, Anini Beach is perfect for windsurfing and swimming due to its calm waters.
Conditions do get rough in the winter months, but the rest of the year? You’ll be in your snorkeling gear all day, every day.
If you like to be one with the sea, make sure you check out the best swimmable beaches in Kauai.
Kauai wins this round – there's just a lot more you can do on its sandy beaches.
From sun tanning to snorkeling and plucking seashells out of sea caves, there’s a beach activity for everyone.
With a whopping 45% of the coastline being white sand, you’ll definitely find your own sliver of paradise.
Big Island isn’t designed for all-nighters and free-flow booze; not the way you expect from nightlife at least.
Drinks tend to be a cocktail or two as you watch the spectacular sunset.
All-nighters happen within the comfortable boundaries of your hotel, when you can’t tear your eyes away from the stars.
Since the island is mostly rural, the most hype you’ll experience is live music at posh resorts or country bars.
You might also be enjoying a live performance at a luau.
Nightlife on the Big Island is about chill cultural entertainment.
Kauai is more of an early bird than night owl – almost everything goes dark after it literally turns dark.
But before it does, make sure you go find a spot to watch the sun go down.
Nightlife thrums slow here, although nice restaurants feature live music later in the evening.
Bar Acuda, Stevenson’s Library and Trees Lounge are three post-dinner venues that offer either excellent drinks, great food or a dance floor.
Both Big Island and Kauai tie when it comes to nightlife – or rather, lack of one.
The islands are slow and rural, with nighttime entertainment taking place where you just had dinner.
Still, it can be nice to unwind with live music and chill drinks, instead of ripping up the dance floor until the sun rises.
You have to understand that Big Island is exactly what it sounds like: huge.
Not only can it fit all the other islands combined, it’s home to eight ecosystems, five volcanoes, amazing flora and the expansive Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
Home to two active volcanoes, Kilauea and Mauna Loa, the natural park offers the peak of outdoor adventuring, perfect for active travelers!
Another of its famous attractions is none other than black-sanded Punaluʻu Beach.
A drive around the Big Island’s north shore unveils more of its diverse, picturesque landscapes.
Akaka Falls State Park and Waipio Valley is calmer but no less lush, presenting multiple hiking trails and amazing views.
Pololu Valley, like the curved Waipio, cleaves along the northern edge of Kohala Mountain.
Its black sand beaches are stunning, yet the truly unusual sand color is found at Papakolea Beach, also known as the Green Sand Beach.
Kauai’s landscapes don’t stun in terms of size but by sheer history.
Did you know that Kauai is 4 to 5 million years old?
Natural erosion over time has created sheer cliffs, canyons and jungles – incomparable to anything else.
Na Pali Coast and Waimea Canyon are two such giants, featuring beautiful (if dangerous) hikes like the Kalalau Trail.
For a slightly less life-threatening but verdant hike, take the Kauilau Ridge Trail. The 3.6-mile trek features a waterfall and breathtaking views up top.
You can also throw yourself in the other direction and challenge dinosaur-inhabited Jurassic Park!
Just kidding – this 2800-acre ranch might have been featured in all three of the films, but what you’re really there for are the oversized Moreton Bay fig trees, the countless waterfalls and jungle exploration.
For tamer outdoor exploits, Poipu Beach Park offers a shallow and serene swimming area. You can rent snorkeling and surfing gear onsite.
There are numerous other white sand beaches for you to lounge the day away at.
For more ideas on this to do on this Hawaiian island, check out our 3-7 day itinerary for Kauai!
Big Island's diverse landscape and ecosystems mean there's an endless range of outdoor adventures, making it a perfect spot for nature lovers.
There's so much ground to cover and stunning scenery – you're going to need at least an entire week to sample the field!
As expected, the culture and history on Big Island and Kauai overlap with the outdoors.
For instance, Big Island houses over 650 coffee plantations!
Clustered along the roads of Hualalai and Mauna Loa, these offer farm tours where you can go on the field and learn about the coffee harvesting process.
Big Island also comes with undeniable energy – it carries a woven tapestry of cultures.
Hawaiian, Portuguese, Tahitian, Filipino, Japanese and other cultures came together to offer cultural experiences like Portuguese oven baking and Tahitian dance.
There are, of course, tangible historical sites such as: Mo’okini Heaiau (a sacrificial temple that dates back to 480 AD), the birthplace and statue of Hawaii’s first king, ancient petroglyphs, and burial grounds within Waipio Valley’s caves.
While its museums aren’t as polished as those in metropolitan states, there’s plenty of information about Hawaiian arts, the island’s natural defenses and more
As an active participant of ancient Hawaiian rites, Kauai is probably the most immersed in Hawaiian culture and history, giving you an authentic experience.
The oldest of the islands, it carries plenty of historic sites and a broad range of experiences.
To sneak a peek at the past, visit the Kauai Museum in Lihue for vast collection of historical photos, artisanal pieces and Hawaiian artifacts.
The Daniel K. Inouye Kilauea Lighthouse is one of the most frequently visited attractions; the restored building is extremely striking.
But it is Old Koloa Town that brings you back to Kauai’s sugar plantation past via the 19th-century storefronts.
Better yet, step on its eponymous trail towards Poipu.
14 cultural sites dot the long walk, bringing you past Spouting Horn (south shore blowhole) to the 1910 Koloa Jodo Mission.
Don’t forget to visit Kilohana Plantation, where the plantation train takes you on a whimsical and informative tour around the estate.
Round off your trip with an authentic luau experience.
There's no denying Kauai wins when it comes to cultural and historic attractions!
Being on ancient lands that still honor long-held traditions is exactly the historical immersion you're looking for.
Keep in mind that history doesn't always belong in museums; in this case, it's found outdoors.
Big Island shines with its abundant natural beauty, but its shopping isn’t as minimal as you might think.
There are a few indoor shopping venues, most notably Prince Kuhio Plaza and The Kings’ Shops at Waikoloa Beach Resort.
For a respectable blend of boutiques, galleries and outdoor space, drop by Coconut Grove, Kona Marketplace or Keauhou Shopping Center.
You might find unique souvenirs and vintage items at smaller shops scattered along the coast too.
Likewise, Kauai isn’t exactly shopping paradise. But that’s not to say that there aren’t browsing opportunities!
Most boutiques are geared towards its surfer culture, brimming with swimsuits, beach fashion, and surfboards if you want to lug one home.
Then there are others that feature an eclectic mix of tableware, stationery, textiles, etc.
Upscale shopping can be found mostly at resorts, although you have Kukui Grove and Poipu Shopping Village for high-end goods as well.
It's a tie between Big Island and Kauai when it comes to shopping because they're both...not shopping hubs.
If you can't be fussed to hit up Oahu, however, both islands have a decent spread of small treasure shops and high-end retailers.
Big Island steps up its game when it comes to dining options – especially regarding agriculture and beef.
Restaurants, whether fine dining or casual, feature delicious dishes with homegrown produce.
From gnocchi filled with Hamakua mushrooms to reinventing hamburgers with goat cheese, Big Island’s menus are full of creativity thanks to its bounty of game and fresh catches.
Its coffee beans are world-famous too, perfect for those who survive on their morning cuppa.
Definitely give both traditional fare and casual eats a try; Hilo’s farmers’ markets are great for afternoon refreshments.
Casual joints and exclusive ventures are also expected on Kauai – although you’ll find more gastropubs than anything.
To further flavor your ahi tacos and lobster deviled eggs, grab a seat surrounded by tiki torches and stare out at the Pacific Ocean.
Apart from innovative twists (usually coming hand-in-hand with award-winning chefs who opened boutique restaurants on Kauai), you’ll also get a taste of traditional Polynesian foods.
Coconut milk-braised pork is served alongside chicken swimming in macadamia nuts, gorgonzola cream and a lick of lilikoi drizzle.
Big Island edges out Kauai by a slim margin. Kona houses a generous cluster of bars and restaurants, while Hilo caters to more casual tastes.
Keep in mind that these two islands can hardly rival Oahu or Maui in terms of quantity and sometimes, quality.
On Big Island or Kauai, foodies probably won’t find the food ventures they dream of. That's not to say the food won't be good; choices are simply more limited.
Even with their growing food scene, dining on the two islands is relatively limited in terms of restaurant options.
Whether you’re headquartered on Big Island or Kauai, accommodation is more limited compared to Maui and Oahu.
Still, there’s a decent range of options for all travelers.
Big Island splits their accommodations according to the west and east coast.
With Kona being more developed, more resorts and hotels line the west side of the island.
Kailua-Kona town features the densest cluster, with cheap rooms averaging $120 to $250 per night for 3 or 4-star hotels. There are also luxury condos that cost more than $600.
The town of Hilo offers more variety, running from $60 double rooms at guesthouses to exclusive $500 lodgings.
If you fancy a quaint but comfortable stay, local inns are a great compromise! They tend to cost less than $200, perfect for budget travelers.
Pick between fancy resorts, popular hotel chains, cheap hotels, B&Bs, historic inns and on-ranch cottages.
Here are our top picks for where to stay on Big Island:
The Westin Hapuna Beach Resort
Four Seasons Resort Hualalai
Courtyard King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel
Kauai is similar in terms of where accommodations are generally located.
Most options line the coast (you won’t find many inland stays), taking advantage of its unobstructed sea views.
With it being slightly less traveled compared to Big Island, cheaper deals (with ensuite bathrooms) are offered at a comfy $100 per night. Airbnbs are a popular option as well.
The eastern and southern sides offer a good selection of hotels and resorts too.
The average rate is between $200 and $300, but you can spoil yourself with an upscale condo stay for double the cost.
Some of the older hotels are exceptionally charming and there are tons of romantic hotels for couples as well.
Here’s our top hotel picks for Kauai:
Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort & Spa
Kauai Beach Resort & Spa
Sheraton Kauai Resort
Make sure you also check out our guide on where to stay on Kauai for first-timers.
You'll be guaranteed great sleep either way, but Big Island is the undisputed winner.
Not only is there a larger range of accommodations available, the diverse climate means there are more things to do!
It's also home to Four Seasons Hualalai – an exceptional and beautiful resort titled the Forbes Five Star-winner.
Kauai Beach Club is a great option if you're staying in Kauai.