You’ve saved up, requested off work, and have started to count down the days until your vacation. The white sands and lush mountains of Hawaii have already begun calling your name, but when it comes to starting the planning process, how do you know which island to visit? Although it seems like a pretty basic question, it's a problem that a lot of Hawaii visitors run into, especially since opportunities to visit paradise don't come along every day.
A good thing to remember is that your choice isn’t set in stone. Island hopping is not only easy but often budget-friendly as well. That way, you can still experience even more of the best things to do in Hawaii and maybe even enjoy the ultimate Hawaii itinerary). Keep reading to learn which of Hawaii’s unique islands suits you best.
Oahu: Ideal for Families
Oahu is known as the “Gathering Place,” and for good reason. This island is by far the most popular for travelers, partially due to the accessibility of everything from nightclubs and world-class restaurants to sandy beaches and quaint surf towns. Honolulu, the state capital, is located on this island. Drive just a few miles outside the city, and you’ll find yourself surrounded by rainforests in Manoa Valley or the state’s most tourist-friendly snorkeling in Hanauma Bay.
Iconic and bustling Waikiki provides the main strip of incredible resorts, with plenty of choices for families, couples, friends, and solo travelers alike. Or, head to the north side of the island, which is known for being a bit more laid-back without sacrificing vacation staples such as restaurants and shops. Museums, opportunities for surf lessons, and family friendly activities can also be found on this populous island, as well as cultural sites and malls. Consider spending some time at Pearl Harbor if you choose Oahu, this incredibly important historical site is the most-visited attraction in Hawaii.
Maui: Great for Honeymooners
Home to stunning scenery and some of the best resorts in the country, the “Valley Isle” of Maui is a no-brainer for honeymooners. Maui is a fantastic option for those who want to have most of the vacation amenities offered on Oahu, such as the restaurants, bars, and accommodations choices, without the large crowds. The possibilities on Maui are endless; Newlyweds can drive past waterfalls and rocky coastal shores along the Road to Hana, go ziplining through the rainforest, frolic through lavender fields, watch the sunrise over a dormant volcano on Haleakala, or simply lounge on the sand. Haleakala National Park encompasses over 33,000 acres, most of which is wilderness, along with the spectacular Pipiwai Trail and Maui’s tallest peak. Kaanapali Beach and Makena Beach Park are often on lists of the state’s best beaches, and nearby Lahaina town has a condensed group of restaurants, shops, and art galleries. Maui also has incredible whale watching during the winter season, with a good deal of boat tours and ferries leaving the Lahaina Harbor throughout the day.
Kauai: Plenty of Outdoor Adventures
Kauai gets the most rain out of any other island in the state, so don’t bank on staying dry during your outdoor adventures. This rainy weather is what helps make the place so special, and also how the “Garden Isle” got its name. For this reason, the island is home to unique plants and flowers that thrive in the tropical weather and an abundance of botanical gardens.
This island is also the oldest in the main island chain, with important cultural sites where the first Native Hawaiians lived off the land and sea. Na Pali Coast State Park is home to many of these historic outdoor sites, as well as towering sea cliffs, world-famous hiking trails, and snorkeling. Waimea Canyon, known as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” boasts some of the state’s most unique and spectacular views and camping spots. Kauai’s wildlife refuge at Kilauea Lighthouse is an important sanctuary for the state’s wildlife, too.
Big Island: Best for Nature Lovers
As you may have already guessed, the Big Island (also known as Hawaii Island) is the state’s largest island. This is the place for outdoor-loving adventurers who aren’t afraid to fully immerse themselves in new environments.
What truly sets this island apart from the others is its volcanic activity, one of the true wonders of nature. The Big Island’s constant active lava flow means that it is still growing, which is particularly impressive, considering it is already bigger than all of the other Hawaiian Islands put together. Hawaii Island is home to most of the world’s 14 climate zones, from snowy Mauna Kea to its many hot, sandy beaches.
A road trip or two on the Big Island isn’t just recommended, it's inevitable. The island’s massive size means that a car is pretty much mandatory for getting around; that is unless you’re planning on staying inside your resort the entire time. Hilo, on the east side, is known for its waterfalls and rainforests, while Kailua-Kona on the west side has a more lively ambiance.
Lanai: Perfect for Relaxing
While the quaint island of Lanai is still known as the “Pineapple Isle” from its days as the state’s leading producer of pineapples, the island grows very little of the fruit these days.
Lanai has a population of just over 3,000 full time residents living in its 140 square miles of land area, so it is extremely quiet. This peaceful vibe comes in handy for those who want to relax. The luxurious Four Seasons and golf course at Manele Bay is absolutely gorgeous and frequented by celebrities looking to get away from it all. And, the sandy area off the connecting Hulopoe Beach Park is known for its pristine snorkeling. From there, you can hike up to Puu Pehe Sweetheart Rock for majestic views of Maui and Molokai in the distance, as well as crystal clear tidepools below.
It's not all R&R, however, as the island does offer a few great attractions such as an offshore WWII tanker wreck near Shipwreck Beach, the Lanai Cat Sanctuary, and the moonscape-like Keahiakawelo Garden of the Gods.
Molokai: The Friendly Isle
Molokai is small — as in, not one traffic light on the entire island small. This island has a reputation for being the “most Hawaiian” of the Hawaiian Islands, thanks to its aloha spirit, the residents’ embracement of old Hawaii lifestyle, and small tourist numbers.
Since the small island only welcomes an intimate number of travelers each year, there isn’t a wide selection of accommodations by any means. Dining options level out at local mom-and-pop stores, family-owned eateries, and small beachside restaurants.
Kalaupapa National Historical Park is the island’s biggest attraction. Only accessible by organized tour (typically done on mules to help navigate the steep and narrow access trail), Kalaupapa is home to Hawaii’s historic former leper colony. Other popular activities include hiking the Halawa Valley to Moaula Waterfalls with a local guide and kayaking near Molokai’s barrier reef, the longest reef in the state.