Both islands have plenty to offer, but these two distinct islands cater to different types of travelers and offer distinct coastlines.
Maui, the second largest Hawaiian island, is a well-known resort island with 30-miles of pristine beaches. Aside from a gorgeous coastline, Maui offers lush rainforests, farm-to-table dining and world-class golf. Overall, Maui offers more in the way of resorts, traditional beachfronts and nightlife compared to the Big Island. The landscapes are also a bit more predictable than the Big Island.
Per the name, the Big Island (island of Hawaii) is the largest island comprising the Hawaiian archipelago, twice the size of every other Hawaiian island put together. This huge island features about 266 miles of coastline. Its sheer size allows for a variety of climates across the island. Experience tropical weather at sea-level and freezing cold temperature at the heights of Mauna Kea volcano. It’s even possible to snowboard and ski at the top of Mauna Kea, albeit with no ski lifts to take you to the summit. As a whole, Big Island is able to offer more in the way of diverse landscapes, hikes and volcanic exploration.
Maui’s beaches are what you’d typically imagine from a tropical beach. Soft white and gold sands make up most of Maui’s best beach retreats.
On the northern coast of Maui, you’ll find Baldwin Beach Park, Ho’okipa Beach Park, and Honomanu Bay.
Baldwin Beach Park is one of the most popular beaches in Maui due to its beauty and public amenities, which include a large parking area and public showers and restrooms.
Ho’okipa Beach Park is more known for its water sport conditions, drawing crowds from surfing and kiteboarding enthusiasts.
Honomanu Bay is more difficult to access and more of a hidden local gem. But its surrounding jungles and gorgeous ocean vistas make it worth the trek.
On the southern coast of Maui, you’ll find Makena Beach State Park, Charley Young Beach and Palauea Beach.
Makena Beach State Park, the most photographed beach in Hawaii, features nearly a mile of pristine white beachfront that’s perfect for snorkeling and swimming. Beware that Makena Beach State Park is divided into Big Beach and Little Beach, the latter being one of Hawaii’s nudist beaches.
Charley Young Beach features nearly a mile of golden sand and lava formed tide pools, perfect for paddle boarding and snorkel exploration.
Palauea Beach is a medium-sized beach frequented by locals. Clear water conditions make Palauea great for diving and snorkeling, but be careful swimming alone here, as there are no lifeguards at this beach.
On the eastern coast of Maui, you’ll find Wai’anapanapa State Park, Hamoa Beach and Koki Beach.
Wai’anapanapa State Park (easy for you to say) is one of Maui’s few black sand beaches and features lush tropical surroundings, deep blue waters and public bathrooms/showers.
Hamoa Beach, a crescent silvery-colored beach adjoining the Travaasa Hotel, is a great family-friendly beach with shaded picnic spaces and crystal clear water.
Koki Beach is a golden stretch of beach that’s popular among local surfers. Strong rip tides and a lack of lifeguards makes it a more dangerous swim, so use precaution. This beach is perfect for picnics and sunbathing.
On the western coast of Maui, you’ll find Honulua Bay, Kapulua Bay and Ka’anapali Beach.
Honolua Bay is a popular surfing and snorkeling spot for more seasoned swimmers. There aren’t any public amenities available at this beach and it must be accessed via boat or by a short jungle hike. This beach is one of the most vibrant and hidden gems on Maui.
Kapulua Bay is part of Kapalua Resort, but still open to the public. It’s also a sheltered beach, making it perfect for families looking for calm tides. Watersport equipment is available for rent at the beach activities desk.
Ka’anapali Beach is a public stretch of beach that runs alongside several shops, restaurants and bars. This beach is appealing to large families or groups who might want to engage in a variety of activities within a close area. This beach is also located amongst many of Maui’s top resorts like Marriott’s Maui Ocean club and The Westin Maui Resort. Lifeguards, bathrooms and showers are available at Ka’anapali Beach.
Big Island Beaches
Many of Big Island’s beaches are colored by the island’s heightened volcanic activity, making for black and green sand. White sandy beaches can still be found in some areas of Big Island.
On the northern part of Big Island, by Kohala and Waimea, you’ll find Waipi’o Valley Beach, Kauna’oa Beach, and Hapuna White Sand Beach.
Waipi’o Valley, home of ancient Hawaiian kings, is also home to a gorgeous black sand beach. Getting to this beach requires a long hike and the beach is known for dangerous currents, so proceed with caution.
Kauna’oa Beach or Mauana Kea Beach is a half-mile sugar white sand beach with calm waters. But Hapuna’s most exciting time of day comes at night when the Manta Ray’s come to feed on masses of plankton. The Mauna Kea Beach Hotel uses a floodlight to attract plankton for a late night Manta Ray show, thus the aptly named Manta Ray Point at Hapuna Beach State Park.
Hapuna White Sand Beach is a beautiful beach, but also one of Big Island’s most crowded. An alternative activity to swimming, sunbathing or snorkeling here is to hike the Ala Kahakai coastal trail, which runs through Hapuna White Sand Beach.
On the southern tip of Big Island, you’ll find Papakolea Green Sand Beach and Punalu’u Black Sand Beach.
Papakolea Green Sand Beach is more remote and require longer hikes to access. But the unusual green sand and calm swimming conditions make it worth the effort.
Punalu’u Black Sand Beach is another remote beach that’s popular for spectating Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles and hiking. Snorkeling can also be fun in the calmer coves adjoining Punalu’u. This beach area features picnic areas and restrooms but does not have a lifeguard.
On the eastern part of Big Island, by Hilo, you’ll find Isaac Hale Beach Park, Richardson’s Beach and Ocean Park, and Carlsmith Beach Park.
Isaac Hale Beach Park only recently became a black sand beach after the 2018 volcanic eruption on Big Island. The eruption also created several thermal ponds, kind of like natural hot tubs! These ponds are not cleaned/treated so enter at your own risk!
Richardson’s Beach and Ocean Park is a black sand beach that’s frequented by families due to its calm waters and tide pools. A marine conservation area within the park makes for superb snorkeling and water visibility. Richardson’s Beach has a lifeguard, shower and restrooms available.
Carlsmith Beach Park, right down the road from Richardson’s Ocean Park, is protected by a surrounding lava and reef barrier making it perfect for children. There isn’t a beach exactly, but a lawn and walkway to enter the water. Think of it as one giant lava formed pool! Turtles also frequent this cove, and lifeguards, restrooms, showers and picnic areas are available.
On the western part of Big Island, by Kailua-Kona, you’ll find Manini’owali Beach and Kamakahonu Beach.
Manini’owali Beach is a white sand beach surrounded by lava rocks at the rear. Dolphin sightings are common off the coast here and the snorkeling is spectacular during calm tides. This beach requires a short walk from the parking area and does not include any public amenities.
Kamakahonu Beach is directly next to King Kamehameha Hotel, and is a well-known children’s beach. Located in a heavily sheltered bay, there are almost no waves at Kamakahonu, making it perfect for small children learning how to swim and snorkel. Beach equipment rentals are available on site.
Which island is right for me?
Both Maui and Big Island have an abundance of amazing beaches. What you should really consider is what type of travel you prefer, laid-back or active. Maui’s resorts, thriving nightlife, and easy access beaches will best serve travelers who like to unplug and relax on vacation. Big Island is for those seeking lots of activity. Many of Big Island’s most brilliant beaches are guarded by lush jungles and lengthy hiking trails. If you enjoy hiking and exploration, then Big Island is probably the destination for you.