Oahu vs. Big Island: Shocking Differences You Won’t Believe!

Aloha, fellow Hawaii dreamers!

I know the feeling – you’re all excited to book that highly anticipated Hawaiian getaway, but hold up! You’ve got a choice to make: Oahu or the Big Island? Well, no need to stress because I’ve spent countless hours researching and even experienced the wonders of both islands firsthand. Yep, my boyfriend and I have frolicked on their sandy shores more times than we can count, so trust me when I say that you’re in excellent hands.

You see, choosing the right island can transform your ordinary trip into an unforgettable adventure! Each island has its own unique charm and attractions, which is why it’s crucial to find the perfect fit tailored for your vacation style. And did I mention my knack for organizing amazing trips?

A few years back, my boyfriend and I embarked on our first journey to these enchanting Hawaiian islands. Through trial and error (and one spontaneous luau night!), we’ve gained some serious expertise in what makes each destination completely magical.

Warning: Choosing between Oahu or the Big Island might still be difficult after reading this article – they’re both just that incredible!

So sit back, relax, and let me guide you through an enlightening comparison of everything from mesmerizing landscapes to delectable island cuisine. Soon enough, you’ll be well-equipped with all the insider knowledge needed for deciding on that picture-perfect Hawaiian paradise!

Overview of Oahu

Of the two islands, Oahu is the traditionally pretty island you associate with Hawaii. It has nice sandy beaches, lush jungle trails, waterfalls, and great resorts. Honolulu is the central hub of Hawaii, so it provides all the city excitement like great restaurants and nightlife, while Waikiki has mile-long white sand beaches and family-friendly parks. In fact, Oahu has some of the most beautiful beaches in Hawaii. 

This island is a great destination for surfers in the winter because it hosts some of the world’s best surfing competitions on the famous North Shore. It’s an opportunity to see the world’s best surfers and enjoy surfing yourself. Wintertime is also great for whale watching in Oahu, and there are many opportunities to see them right off the beaches or with an organized tour. 

Vacationing on Oahu provides more modern comforts and a more touristy vibe than the Big Island. There are great shopping opportunities and luxurious resorts to pamper you if you wish.

Still, the Big Island also has its treasures worth visiting!

Overview of the Big Island

If you are looking for adventure or just to submerge yourself in all the diversity of authentic Hawaii then you will love the Big Island. Think active volcanoes, snow-covered peaks, and beaches in red, green, black, and white sand colors! And this is just a small part of what the Big Island has to offer.

Home to Hawaii’s Volcano National Park the island offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see craters, steaming peaks, and even magma. It also offers great hiking trails, swimmable waterfalls, and a rich cultural history as told by the true natives of the island.

Having said that, the island also offers some great resorts and restaurants that offer exotic and luxurious meals, cocktails, and high-end service. This island can be a perfect mixture of adventure and peaceful and romantic relaxation for couples and families. It offers great sunsets overlooking the ocean and amenities needed for a comfortable vacation. 

Oahu Beaches

Oahu has arguably some of the most beautiful sand beaches in Hawaii. For example, Waikiki is famous for its endless stretches of perfect sun and sand. But the island is home to many other secluded and impeccable beaches as well. 

Here are my personal top two picks:

#1 Keawaula (Yokohama Beach) – The white sand beach

This beach is located in one of the most secluded areas on the island. It’s one of the two beaches in Kaʻena Point State Park and about 20 mins away from Ko Olina. The beach is gorgeous. It’s covered in fine white sand and it’s underdeveloped, so there’s a good chance there won’t be any tourists around. 

The beach has bathrooms, showers, and lifeguards, but make sure to bring your own picnic and refreshments. It lacks shade so bring sun protection, hats, and a sun umbrella. 

When we visited I enjoyed listening to the waves and reading my book under my sun umbrella (I just stuck my legs out under the sun to get an awesome tan!). My boyfriend did some snorkeling since there is a nice coral reef close to the shore. We also saw several large green turtles lounging on the beach close to the entrance. In the wintertime, it’s a good spot to watch whales. 

#2 Lanikuhonua Beach (Secret Beach) – The best place to swim

Lanikuhonua Beach is located in the Ko Olina resort area in the town of Kapolei. There is no path to this beach, which helps keep it a secret and away from overcrowding. The easiest way to get there is to go to Sacred Beach near the Four Seasons and then go over the rocks. Don’t worry it’s not too difficult to cross the rocks, but do be careful, just in case. 

There is a great shallow lagoon there, which is perfect for exploring, snorkeling, and letting the kids play safely. Since we really enjoy our privacy, we arrived early morning and were almost alone on the whole beach until about 10:30 a.m. We were also greeted by some green turtles who were enjoying their morning sunshine. 

Though it’s a great place to swim, walk around in the water, and just relax, it’s also a great snorkeling spot. While snorkeling we saw lots of fish, including different kinds of butterfly fish, eel, Moorish idols, and more. This lagoon by far has the best snorkeling and the biggest concentration of marine life. 

Big Island Beaches

If you are looking for diverse landscapes and beaches, the Big Island offers some of the most uniquely beautiful spots in the world. It is a rear island with black, red, green, and white sand beaches. 

After multiple visits to the island, these two beaches really stand out for me:

#1 Hapuna State Beach – Best Luxurious white sand beach

This gorgeous beach is often internationally recognized as one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Located along the Kohala Coast and stretches over half a mile between two reefs. During the summer months, the beach becomes over 200 feet wide, providing plenty of powdery white sand to relax in and enjoy. The sand is soft and pleasant for taking walks or sitting in the shallow waves. 

The beach is well kept with covered picnic areas and a gradual sandy descent into the water. It’s a great spot for swimming, sunbathing, and watersports. We tried boogie boarding and body surfing. It is easy to find rental equipment right next to the beach. For those looking to snorkel, on each end of the beach, there are great coral reefs filled with tropical fish and marine life. In the wintertime, even humpback whales can be seen from this spot.

We spent most of our day here, since there is a resort close by, so we could take a break and enjoy a meal mid-day. There is also a lot of shade available at this beach. The edges are nicely framed by large trees. 

#2 Kaunaoa Beach (Mauna Kea) – The best snorkeling and swimming beach

This is another beautiful white sand beach on the central, Kohala coast located in Waimea. Covered with fine white sand, this beach is surrounded by palm trees and has the best crystal clear blue water. The water is almost always calm, making it perfect for swimming and snorkeling. Especially for beginners and those looking just to relax. 

Asides from the stunning ocean view, there is a great view of Mauna Kea volcano from the beachside, which made for some great backdrops in my pictures. We also tried some stand-up paddleboards in the calm water (and let me tell you, I was great at it!) 

There is a restaurant right on the beach, so it’s easy to get some food and drink. Make sure to try some of their amazing cocktails, we loved them. 

Oahu adventures

The gorgeous waters of Oahu set it apart. It’s also a diverse and beautiful island often chosen for movies and shoes because of its beautiful and lush jungle trails. When visiting make sure to do my favorite tours for the ultimate experience: 

#1 TOUR: Open-Door Helicopter Tour

Duration: 50 minutes (approx.)

Address: Magnum Helicopters 130 Iolana Pl, Honolulu, HI 96819

Link: https://www.viator.com/Oahu/d672-ttd/p-5055DOORS

If you are an adrenalin seeker, this tour will be the highlight of your Oahu trip. Even if you are not, it’s a perfect opportunity to see the entire island, with remote sights not accessible any other way. We got to see over 18 great sights including Hanauma Bay, Mokoli’i Island, Pearl Harbor, the USS Arizona Memorial, Halona Blowhole, and more. The highlight for me was the stunning Sacred Falls and Jurassic Parks Kaaawa Valley. 

#2 TOUR: Turtle Canyon Snorkel (Semi-Private Boat Tours)

Duration: 1 hour 30 minutes (approx.)

Address: Captain Max Boat Tours: Oahu Turtle Snorkeling and Whale Watching Tours, 1125 Ala Moana Blvd Pier B, Honolulu, HI 96814

Link: https://www.viator.com/tours/Oahu/Turtle-Canyon-Snorkel/d672-327247P1

For the ultimate snorkeling experience at all levels, there is no better option than Turtle Canyon (only accessible by boat). Especially when you have a great instructor and quality equipment as we did on this tour. The tour only takes a maximum of 6 people, so there is plenty of personalized attention and instruction to see the most marine life possible. I think I saw hundreds of different types of fish and critters. During the boat ride, we even saw some green turtles and dolphins in the water. I loved it! 

Big Island adventures

This island screams adventure. Rich with natural beauty and multiple volcanos, there are many opportunities to get your heart racing. Here is what I recommend: 

#1 TOUR: Big Island Volcano Deluxe Helicopter Tour

Duration: 1 hour 45 minutes (approx.)

Address: The Westin Hapuna Beach Resort, 62-100 Kaunaʻoa Dr, Waimea, HI 96743

Link: https://www.viator.com/tours/Big-Island-of-Hawaii/Big-Island-Volcano-Deluxe/d669-100824P5

This is an especially exciting and adrenalin-filled tour because you get to fly over a volcano. I was amazed by the steam vents and fiery lava streaming out of Kilauea. It also made for one-of-a-kind pictures. This tour took us all over  Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and we got to see Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa, and active Kilauea from above. It opened my eyes to the power of nature and was a highlight of our trip. We also got to enjoy the impeccable views of the Hamakua coast. We even purchased the video of our adventure on USB, which made the perfect souvenir. 

#2 TOUR: Zodiac Raft Whale Watching Adventure

Duration: 3 hours (approx.)

Address: 74-425 Kealakehe Pkwy, Kailua-Kona, HI 96740

Link: https://www.viator.com/tours/Big-Island-of-Hawaii/Zodiac-Raft-Whale-Watching-Adventure/d669-3196WHALE

When visiting the Big Island in the wintertime, this is a can-not-miss tour. It’s a great opportunity to see the majestic humpback whales up close. When we did the tour we saw several huge whales only hundreds of feet away from us. As we made our way across the  Kona coast we even got to see manta rays and spinner dolphins. 

The entire time was filled with great sights and the adventure kept getting better and more exciting. We even got to see some coastal sea caves and small, volcanic lava tubes, not accessible by land. The groups on the tour are small (about 15 people) so the guide gave everyone personalized attention and shared with us some great insight and information about the animals and landscape. 

Oahu restaurants

Ahu has a wide variety of dining options. Whether you are looking for a hole-in-the-wall or a romantic restaurant, they have the perfect offer for you. Many restaurants pride themselves on locally sourced food and beautiful sunset views.

Based on my visits, here are my top two picks: 

#1 Chef Chai – contemporary restaurant with a bar and celebrated chef

Address: 1009 Kapiolani Blvd, Honolulu, HI 96814

Located at Pacifica Honolulu, Chef Chai is a contemporary and modern restaurant perfect for lunch or dinner. They have a famous chef and serve award-winning Hawaiian food with a great and innovative twist. Along with outdoor seating, they have a great well stocked bar with a huge offer of cocktails, craft beer, and wine (The best dirty martini and Mai Tai I tried on the island). 

Now, when you hear modern and contemporary, don’t be fooled, the portions here are large and filling and the prices are reasonable. They have a large diverse menu with something for everyone and the servers are efficient and friendly. We have eaten here several times and it’s always great. I highly recommend my favorite, the wok-seared jumbo black tiger prawns with roasted garlic chili sauce.

#2 Hy’s Steak House – The best fine dining and steak house in an elegant setting

Address: 2440 Kūhiō Ave., Honolulu, HI 96815

So after a couple of days of great seafood, I usually crave a steak. This gem of a restaurant is located at the Park Heights Hotel and serves the best USDA Prime Beef on the island. Think dry age rib eye or the New York strip! Ask your waiter to pair a perfect wine with your meal, because they have a wonderful selection. 

The restaurant is elegant but old-fashioned with leather seating, spacious and massive furniture, and great decorations. They have a dress code, which makes it fun to dress up for date night or a night out with friends. 

Big Island restaurants

My favorite restaurant in Hawaii is on the Big Island which offers a fantastic view, service, and fresh perfectly prepared food. But even if you are not looking for fine dining for your date night, the island has a huge offer. From exquisite bakeries, food trucks, and funky holes in the wall, the island has a huge offer.

Try my favorite two restaurants on the Big Island, and you won’t regret it: 

#1 ULU Ocean Grill & Sushi Bar – The best waterfront sushi spot

Address: 72-100 Ka’upulehu Drive Ka’upulehu, Kailua-Kona, HI 96740

I have visited this restaurant many times, and I just can’t get enough of it. Each time the food and service have been on point, and they always go above and beyond to accommodate guests. They have spacious open-air seating and modern decor. 

It also doesn’t hurt that it’s located right on the beach with an impeccable view of the ocean and sunset. Even though it’s at the Four Seasons Resort, this restaurant doesn’t have a resort feeling. It’s authentic, and most of its ingredients are locally sourced. The menu is extensive and the portions are large. For sushi lovers, they serve the best quality fish on the island.

#2 Merriman’s Big Island – Mountainside restaurant with regional dishes

Address: 65-1227 Opelo Rd B, Waimea, HI 96743

This restaurant has been here since 1988 and is a local staple. Owned and run by the chef (Peter Merriman) the restaurant sources almost all of its ingredients locally and regionally. They offer lunch, Sunday brunch, and a pre-fixed dinner menu. Unlike other restaurants running to the beach, this one is located next to a lush green mountainside and set with elegant decor. If you choose to do dinner here, they serve a pre-fixed three-course dinner menu full of well-thought-out options and combinations. You will usually find lamb, tenderloin, steak, and fish options for dinner. And it’s really filling! 

We have had several great date nights here, and the Sunday brunch is also fun. 


While both Oahu and the Big Island are truly wonderful paradise destinations – each one is better suited for a specific kind of traveler.

That’s why this article breaks down the two islands and compares the activities available, island culture, beaches, restaurants, and more. 

By reading through my knowledge and experience I am sure you will find just the right spot for your dream vacation. So read carefully and consider all the rich options these two exotic islands have to offer.

No matter which one you choose, I am sure you will enjoy all the natural beauty, luxury, and excitement – with a cocktail in one hand.

Last Updated on May 2, 2023 by Brigitte