Lanai vs Kauai: Which Hawaiian Island is Best to Visit?

Lanai vs Kauai
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Lanai vs Kauai is a choice between one the lesser-known Hawaiian Islands and one of the wildest in the Aloha chain. One – little Lanai – sits midway through the archipelago just to the south of Oahu and Honolulu. The other marks the northern end of the state, sat some 120 miles as the crow flies from the capital.

Both places are actually pretty unique, although Kauai is unquestionably the more famous. It beckons with crumpled mountains and lush rainforests, waterfalls, hibiscus blooms, and some of the most untouched coastline in the region. Then there’s Lanai, which remains one of the least-visited inhabited islands, and offers a shoreline of unchartered coves, strange geological formations, and historic plantations inland.

This guide will outline the key similarities and differences between the isles by taking a look at five of the most important aspects of each. From the sort of atmosphere to the type of hotels to the top things to on both of them, you’ll get an idea of what a vacation to either Lanai or Kauai usually entails. Let’s begin…

Lanai vs Kauai: The general vibe

A bird in Lanai
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The first thing to point out here is that both of these islands are pretty off the beaten path when compared to, say, Oahu (the most visited of the Hawaiian chain). The land of The North Shore and Honolulu pulls in a whopping 4.5 million visitors per annum, while Kauai manages just 1.3 million. However, Lanai takes that remoteness to all new heights, with a mere 60,000 people venturing its way each year. Only little Molokai gets fewer than that, so expect somewhere that’s pretty quiet and rarely packed to bursting if you choose Lanai.

Kauai is big enough to offer all sorts of different things at once. You can head north to Princeville to keep company with golfers and A-listers in deluxe coast villas. Inland are rugged mountains crisscrossed by some of the most fantastic hiking paths and untrodden forests in the state (Kauai is nicknamed the Garden Island, don’t you know?). Surfers ride the waves at Hanalei Bay and Tunnels Beach, while the southerly area around Poipu has more traditional family resorts. Basically, there are varying vibes on varying parts of Kauai.

It’s not like that on Lanai, mainly because it’s less than a quarter of the size of Kauai. In fact, there’s really only two sides to this isle. One comes with the handful of hotels, most of which are opulent and luxury in the extreme, complete with golf courses and upscale restaurants. The other comes with the untamed backcountry of pine woods and scrub hills, perfect for intrepid travelers who really want to escape from the Rat Race into the tropical wilds of the American Pacific.

Winner: Kauai. There’s just more to the island, while Lanai is mainly good for dodging the crowds and getting a taste of luxury.

Lanai vs Kauai: Getting there

Driving in Kauai
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Although Hawaii’s chain of islands would fit neatly into the Greek Aegean Sea, it’s not at all linked up by ferry connections. That means you can’t really put together island-hopping itineraries in the Aloha State like you could in the home of tzatziki and Zorba. Nope, the only real way to go from A to B (or, more specifically, from the main arrival point in Honolulu to somewhere like Kauai) is to fly.

Thankfully, Kauai does actually have its own airport. Cue Lihue Airport (LIH,), which now serves nearly three million passengers each year. It’s located on the far southeastern shoreline of the island and is just the sort of terminal you’d expect of a tropical escape – think al fresco check-in desks and a bijou arrival hall surrounded by palm trees. A number of airlines run regular routes straight into Lihue Airport from the US mainland, including connections from LA and San Diego (Alaska Airlines), Denver and San Francisco (United Airlines), and Oakland and San Jose (Southwest Airlines). Hawaiian Airlines also run a whole load of inter-island flights for those looking to connect through via Oahu.

Lanai also has an air terminal. However, it’s a far smaller affair than up in Kauai. A mere 6,000 or so aircraft operations occur there each year, so there are just a few inter-island commercial flight arrivals on the menu. They’re run by Mokulele Airlines and go to Honolulu, on Oahu, and Kahului, on Maui. One upside to Lanai is that you can arrive by boat, thanks to the regular Maui-Lanai Expeditions Ferry that goes up to five times every day.

Winner: Kauai. One of the beauties of Lanai is that it’s not that easy to get to.

Lanai vs Kauai: Things to do

Kauai coast
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Kauai has risen to become the main adventure hub of the Aloha State. It’s not for nothing that it’s nicknamed the Garden Island, what with ancient rainforests and mist-plumed waterfalls dotting its backcountry by the bucket load. The coast is also pretty spectacular, so expect a lot of your trip here to be about encountering the wilder side of Hawaii. If we had to whittle it down, our top draws would be:

  • Na Pali Coast – The Hawaii of the postcards, Na Pali is all sinewy cliffs lurching straight out of afrothing Pacific Ocean. It’s been used in the backdrop of major Hollywood productions like Jurassic Park and Lost, and is best seen on helicopter flyover tours or long-distance treks, whichever suits the budget better!
  • Waimea Canyon – Hailed as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, Waimea Canyon carves through the heart of western Kauai. It can hit heights of 3,000 feet from rim to base and comes riddled with breathtaking waterfalls and viewpoints.
  • Kōkeʻe State Park – Jagged mountains and backcountry camping abounds at this state park, which hosts perhaps the top hiking paths in the whole state (big words!).

Lanai doesn’t have the same level of wilderness that Kauai does. A lot of that is down to the fact that it’s way smaller, but also because it was once a pineapple plantation from coast to coast. Consequently, much of the country is now covered in imported pine woods and scrub. However, you will get to see:

  • Keahiakawelo – A volcanic rock field that’s unlike anywhere else in the Aloha State, this one’s more Lanzarote than Lanai. Expect big hoodoos, boulders, and strange nooks and crannies that have been eroded out over thousands of years.
  • Munroe Trail – See six Hawaiian Islands in a single day on this 13-mile loop. Some people use an ATV, but we think hiking is the best way to go!
  • Lanai Culture & Heritage Center – Your fix of culture, this one’s all about showcasing the unique history of this small island, right back from the days when it was formed by volcanic eruptions to when it was a pineapple farm from tip to toe.

Winner: Kauai. It’s bigger. It’s more varied.

Lanai vs Kauai: Hotels

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There are three major hotspots to look for hotels on Kauai: Poipu, Princeville, and Hanalei. The first is in the south, the sunniest part of the island and the home of the most varied array of midrange and family resorts. Princeville, meanwhile, is mainly for golfers and country club types – the accommodations are spacious and very private. Hanalei mixes the two, adds in some surfing, and brings a touch of traditional islander charm. More generally, Kauai offers a wide range of places to stay, running the gamut from affordable B&Bs on the Coconut Coast (the less-popular east shore) to slick resorts in gated communities. Some of our favorites are:

  • Hanalei Colony Resort ($$) – A Hanalei classic, this gorgeous hotel is sandwiched between the north-shore mountains and the beach.
  • Club Wyndham Shearwater ($$) – One of the more affordable hotels in Princeville, but still luxurious, Club Wyndham Shearwater has condo-style rooms with access to stunning pools with Pacific views.
  • The Point at Poipu By Diamond Resorts ($$$) – A touch of real luxury close to Poipu’s brilliant beaches, this one boasts several pools, standalone villa rentals, and stunning gardens with stepped ponds and palm trees.

The hotel situation is completely different on Lanai. In fact, with 98% of the land there privately owned, there’s only really room for three hotels. Yep – three! On the plus side, they are all pretty darn fantastic. In fact, two of them are owned by acclaimed chain Four Seasons. The other is slightly less plush, but still comes with cozy, cabin-style lodges in the pine woods near Lanai City (the only town on the island). The options are:

  • Hotel Lanai ($$) – Two stars but pretty darn lovely if you ask us, this one’s got a taste of the Pacific Northwest about it thanks to its wood-trimmed cabins in the forests.
  • Four Seasons Resort Lana’I ($$$) – It’s the full five stars for this jaw-droppingly opulent resorts. You’ll live in luxury with a mix of Polynesian and modernist design styles, inviting infinity pools, and sprawling ensuite bathrooms.
  • Sensei Lanai, A Four Seasons Resort ($$$) – Another five stars goes to the Sensei Lanai, where Japanese-style yoga studios meet minimalist suites and gorgeous Far Eastern spa facilities.

Winner: Lanai. Two of the hotels on the island could just be the very best in all of Hawaii!

Lanai vs Kauai: Beaches

Kauai beaches
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Poipu is widely considered to have the crème-de-la-crème of the beaches on Kauai. That’s down to the fact that the geography of the island is less harsh down south, so long runs of golden sand and palm thickets take over from the mountains. It’s also because the region is way sunnier, with less cloud coverage and balmier temperatures to keep the holidaymakers going. That said, we also love some of the wilder bays up north. Don’t miss:

  • Hulopoe Beach Park – The most popular swimming spot in the Poipu area, Hulopoe Beach Park offers all sorts of facilities – BBQ, WCs, parking – and ample snorkeling possibilities.
  • Hanalei Beach Park – Hemmed in by coral reefs, the mountains loom large over this fantastic north-shore beach.
  • Tunnels Beach – A surfer’s hotspot with beefy reef breaks that can barrel, Tunnels is also a gorgeous bay with coral gardens and green mountains just behind.

Again, the relatively small size of Lanai means that there are fewer beaches overall. But that doesn’t mean the island is without sands. Some offer that classic mix of Aloha goodness, coming with soft powder and seas that are perfectly clear and sky blue. The best beaches tend to be near to the major hotel resorts, but they will still be far less busy than their counterparts on nearby Maui or Oahu, for example, and certainly less busy than those popular bays in Poipu, Kauai. The very best of the bunch are:

  • Shipwreck Beach – Not to be confused with its namesake over on the Greek island of Zante, Shipwreck Beach in Lanai is a dramatic part of the island’s north coast where the shell of a rusting cargo vessel looms on the reefs. Not paradise, perhaps, but hauntingly beautiful, nonetheless.
  • Lopa Beach – Long, rust-tinged sands run by Lopa Beach on the east coast and you get gorgeous views across to Maui in the distance.
  • Hulopo’e Bay – A dose of true Hawaiian gorgeousness on Lanai, Hulopo’e Bay is a scythe-shaped beach that arches under a verdant coconut palm grove on the south shore. It’s the best place to swim and probably the best all-round beach on Lanai.

Winner: Kauai. There’s just way more coastline to explore.

Lanai vs Kauai: The verdict

To be frank, we’d probably direct 99% of vacationers to the fabled Garden Island of Hawaii over Lanai. Yep, Kauai comes up trumps as our overall winner here simply because it’s way larger and packs in far more action and adventure. That’s not to say we don’t like Lanai. We most certainly do. What’s more, we think that there are certain travelers – honeymooners on the hunt for real luxury hotels, most notably – that it tops the list for. However, Kauai offers that formidable array of rugged coast, glinting beaches, all sorts of hotels, and a backcountry that’s just waiting for the hiking boots.

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Joe has been a freelance travel writer for over nine years. His writing and roaming have taken him from the colonial towns of Mexico to the chowks of Mumbai to the Southern Alps of New Zealand. When he's not putting together the next epic blog on the best Greek islands or ski fields in France, you can usually find him surfing or hiking – his two top hobbies.