Oh, the joys of planning a Hawaiian vacation!
You know what I’m talking about – hours spent scouring the internet, weighing pros and cons, and trying to figure out which island will deliver the paradise you’ve always dreamed of. Well, guess what? Your search ends here.
You see, I’ve been fortunate enough to experience many amazing places with my boyfriend – but nothing quite tops our love for Hawaii. In particular, we’re smitten with two of its most enchanting islands: Oahu and Kauai. They each have their own unique charm and allure – but how do you choose between them?
I’ve poured my heart and soul into researching every aspect of these two tropical gems so that you don’t have to. Together, we’ll explore the sights, sounds, tastes (and yes – even sand textures) that define each island’s magical appeal.
Warning: This guide might inspire intense daydreams about swaying palm trees and mai tais by the poolside. Read at your own risk!
So sit back as if you were on a warm sandy beach already, sip on some imaginary coconut water (or a real one if you’re lucky), and let me paint a picture of these two stunning Polynesian paradises just waiting for you to make your choice. Aloha!
Overview of Oahu
Oahu is a gorgeous island full of activities and natural beauty. Still, areas like Honolulu and Waikiki, offer all the great accommodations, shopping, and other luxuries for those seeking modern amenities and comforts. Home to Perl Harbor and the famous North Shore, the island offers something for everyone. Surfers will love the legendary North Shore waves, while history buffs will enjoy great museums and tours showing off the rich culture of the island.
The island is also home to some of the most beautiful beaches in Hawaii. Though Waikiki has the world-famous white sand beach, other less crowded areas of the island have some great hidden treasure beaches perfect for couples and families. In the wintertime, Oahu is home to the migrating Humpback whales which can be often spotted right off the beaches, or with one of their many tours available.
Overview of Kauai
Garden Island (Kauai) as its sometimes called is the fourth largest island in Hawaii. Unlike the more developed and larger islands, it has preserved a lot of its natural beauty and wilderness, virtually untouched by tourists. In other words, it is a true island paradise. It offers authentic tropical rainforests, exotic waterfalls, and secluded pristine beaches.
The island has a much more laid-back culture and atmosphere perfect for nature lovers looking for great hiking trails, kayaking, snorkeling, ziplining, and enjoying the secluded beaches. The locals are welcoming and the small towns are filled with local food art and entertainment. Still, about 90% of the island is inaccessible by road, so exploring will take hiking or taking some 4x4s out into the rainforest.
Beaches of Oahu
#1 Hanauma Bay – The Best Snorkeling Spot in Hawaii
This spot is often described as the world’s biggest open aquarium. Only half an hour from Honolulu this idyllic beach offers a long fine sand stretch with a great shallow end and an enormous coral reef. In fact, it has many tide pools suitable for children and adults and is a beautiful turquoise blue color.
Those looking to snorkel will be amazed. The preserve has more than 400 species of tropical fish along with many corals and green turtles. At Hanauma bay, there are great amenities including showers, bathrooms, and a fully stocked snack bar. Since it’s a natural preserve Honolulu parks & Recreation limits visits 1 thousand visitors a day. You will need to reserve your spot. But on the upside, limited entrances mean plenty of space and fewer crowds.
#2 Turtle Bay (Kawela Bay) – Best beach to spot turtles
Visiting Turtle bay can be easily turned into an all-day activity due to all the fun content and nearby hiking trails (over 12 miles of trails). There’s even a beach bar with great cocktails. This is the most popular kayaking spot on the North Shore because it has a gentle current perfect for trying out different watersports. It also has a swimmable beach but is better suited for more advanced swimmers.
When we visited I was amazed by the number of green turtles just sunbathing and lounging on the beach. It’s quite easy to observe them and even take great pictures. But don’t get too close, for the safety of the animals. The sand here is powdery, fine, and perfect for sunbathing and taking a relaxing barefoot walk.
#3 Lanikai Beach – The best family beach for swimming
This beach is regularly voted as one of the most beautiful in Hawaii. It offers spacious fine white sand, clear turquoise water, and a calm surf perfect for swimming and relaxing. It’s the perfect beach for families and those looking for an easy swim and some time in the sun. I also enjoy reading on this beach and looking out at the paradise-like panoramic view.
If you are an adventure seeker (like my boyfriend) it’s relatively easy to kayak out to Mokulua islands off-shore. In fact, the water is so calm it can be done even by first-time kayakers. Kayaking out is less than a mile, and makes for some stunning pictures, especially close to sunset.
Beaches of Kauai
#1 Hanalei Beach Park & Bay – The Best beach for swimming and body surfing
Hanalei Beach Park & Bay is located in the North Kauai Region and it’s by far the most beautiful beach on the island. It’s a huge beach stretching out over two miles with fine sand and a calm crescent-shaped bay. Next to the beach is finely manicured grass with covered pavilions and plenty of space to spread out and play, or just read a book. I love the stunning view of the lush and powerful mountains rising in the background.
Though I enjoy swimming and sunbathing on the calmer end of the beach, my boyfriend loves surfing at the other end. The right side of the beach has a reef, creating the perfect conditions for watersports like body surfing. Families looking to visit should feel comfortable since the beach has lifeguards, showers, and bathrooms available.
#2 Kee Beach – The Best Snorkeling Beach
This lagoon-like beach is located on the North Shore as part of the Haena State Park. I love it because it’s never crowded and the shoreline is covered with perfectly fine golden sand. This secluded beach is tucked away and calm, giving you the impression that you are on a deserted island. I enjoy the peace and tranquility it brings me as the small waves crash into the sand.
This is the best place to snorkel because there is a great concentration of tropical fish. You don’t have to go out far to see a lot of great fish and coral. You can also walk out to one of the lookouts and enjoy the endless panoramic views of the coast and Kee Beach.
#3 Makua ‘Tunnels’ Beach – Great Lava tubes, Snorkeling, and Diving
This is a special and unique place. Many lava tubes formed under the water making it an ideal spot for diving and snorkeling. It’s a perfect gathering area for diverse marine life and tropical fish. The beach itself is beautifully crescent shaped framed by large trees that provide a lot of shade and protection from the sun.
I enjoyed watching some locals windsurfing and kite surfing during our visit. But my favorite part was the incredible fiery sunset, which made for a perfect romantic picnic. If you plan on driving as we did, it’s best to park at Haena Beach Park and take a short walk.
Restaurants of Oahu
#1 Chef Chai – contemporary restaurant with a bar and celebrated chef
Address: 1009 Kapiolani Blvd, Honolulu, HI 96814
This hidden gem at the Pacifica Honolulu serves amazing food and has a great bar, making it perfect for lunch or dinner. The venue is modern and sleek and the menu is big with a lot of different food to try. Don’t let the modern setting fool you, the food here is intelligently sourced and prepared, And the portions are more than filling. My favorite option here is the roasted butternut squash and lobster bisque, but whatever you choose, you won’t be disappointed.
We love to visit this restaurant for a casual date night and enjoy all the great cocktails at the bar. Asides from the quality wines, they make a great martini and Mai Tai. Those not fans of alcoholic drinks have creative and innovative tea infusions worth trying.
#2 La Mer – open-air French restaurant with an Ocean view
Address: 2199 Kālia Rd, Honolulu, HI 96815
This beautiful restaurant is romantic and elegant with great indoor and outdoor seating available. It’s located at the Halekulani Hotel and has a breathtaking view of the open ocean. The quality of food and unique tastes is impeccable, and the restaurant is awarded both AAA Five Diamonds and a Forbes 5 Star rating.
Make sure to book your reservation well ahead, we usually plan a few weeks. They also have a dress code that includes jackets, slacks, and closed-toe shoes for men. It’s a perfect opportunity to dress up and have a night out. For families planning to visit keep in mind that they have a child policy. Guests must be 8 years old or older.
#3 Azure Restaurant – upscale ocean-front Royal Hawaiian spot
Address: 2259 Kalākaua Ave, Honolulu, HI 96815
This restaurant holds a special place in my heart because we celebrated our anniversary here. They have a stunning view of the city lights, ocean sunset, and even a great mountain view. Really wherever you look it’s gorgeous and the restaurant is perfectly decorated and modern.
The restaurant has a pre-fixed four-course menu that has something for everyone and ends with a choice of impeccable desserts. (And we are foodies, so trust us!) For dessert try my favorite, the Citrus Olive Cake which is unique and delicate. Another great thing about the restaurant is the extensive wine choices and masterfully created cocktails. the Azure Mai Tai with fresh lime, orgeat, orange liqueur, and El Dorado 15 years will leave everyone satisfied.
Restaurants of Kauai
#1 The Plantation House by Gaylord’s – Best romantic dinner spot
Address: 3-2087 Kaumualii Hwy, Lihue, HI 96766
When I crave authentic island food with impeccable presentation and service, I choose this restaurant as my top pick on the island. Located in Kilohana’s original courtyard the restaurant has a modern well-manicured yard fit for royalty and an inside decorated with stunning artwork. This was once a working 23,000-acre Sugar Plantation, and they have tastefully left details that will make your experience elegant and unforgettable. Often they also have live music in the outside seating area.
We have visited several times for lunch, happy hour, and dinner, and each time we loved the menu offered an extensive wine list. The champagne chicken and the Lobster and Short Rib are my favorite meals here. And let me tell you, the portions are large and filling at reasonable prices.
#2 JO2 Natural Cuisine – Best thoughtfully sourced Hawaiian cuisine
Address: 4-971 Kuhio Hwy, Kapaʻa, HI 96746
Unlike the large resort-like restaurants, this is a small and intimate spot, It’s perfect for a cozy conversation and a great meal. They offer booth seating and some small well spaced tables. Service is friendly and attentive. Each plate of food is served as a piece of artwork.
The menu is well planned and is a great combination of Japanese and Hawaiian fusion. Some of our favorites include the Sake cured Steelhead salmon, a seared rack of lamb, and my favorite dessert, the Yuzu lemon cheesecake. Overall, they offer a great experience.
#3 Hukilau Lanai – Best nightly entertainment with local seafood
Address: 520 Aleka Loop, Kapaʻa, HI 96746
Known as a wedding destination, this restaurant is spacious, beautifully and elegantly decorated and the food is great. Asides from a great and well-stocked bar, they have covered outside seating lined with palm trees and tropical flowers. We had dinner here, and it was romantic, perfectly lit with tiki torches and there was local live music. I loved the live music because it perfectly set the mood, but it wasn’t too loud that we couldn’t enjoy our conversation.
When we visited, the sky was a perfect rainbow color as the sun went down. Service was well knowledgeable about their menu, friendly, and efficient. They helped us pick a perfect wine to go with our dinner and we were very happy with the food and portions.
Planning a trip to Hawaii is no small task. Picking the right island can be daunting and make all the difference in your experience.
That’s why this guide, based on my experience gives you all the information you need to decide between Oahu and Kauai.
Travelers looking for modern comforts, shopping, larger cities, and beautiful urban beaches will love Oahu.
Nature lovers, adventures, and those looking to feel like they are on a deserted island will love Kauai. Don’t get me wrong, Kauai has all the comforts you need, just in an isolated jungle-like setting with much less crowd.
Whatever type of vacation you are looking for this simple and quick guide can save you time and help make your decision simple. So please share it with your friends!
Last Updated on May 2, 2023 by Brigitte