Which of the Hawaiian Islands Suits You Best?

Na Pali Coast, Kauai, Hawaii
••• Kauai's Na Pali coast.

M Swiet Productions/Getty Images

 

One of the hardest parts of planning a trip to Hawaii is deciding which of the six major Hawaiian Islands you should visit. Each of Hawaii’s six major islands has its own personality and offers unique adventures and activities. We recommend visiting at least two islands so you can get a feel for what Hawaii is about.

Oahu has a bit of everything, packed in 597 square miles. You can hike into lush rainforests, surf world-class breaks, and when you need a break, relax on powdery white sand beaches and stay at luxury resorts.

The urban core of Honolulu and Waikiki has historic sites, museums and bustling food and nightlife scenes. The island lives up to its nickname of the Gathering Place.

Maui is a great island for honeymooners. The Valley Isle has top-notch resorts and golf courses, adjacent to some of the state’s best beaches, such as Kaanapali Beach and Makena Beach Park. Haleakala National Park, a large dormant volcano in east Maui at sunrise or sunset is a serene experience, as well as driving the Road to Hana, famed for its unfettered views and thundering waterfalls. The island also has thriving dining and shopping scenes.

Kauai, also known as the Garden Isle, is the oldest of the main Hawaiian Islands. The island gets a lot of rain, but that’s what makes it so vibrant. You’ll come across flowers and plants you’ve never seen before. For some of the best views on the island, visit Waimea Canyon, known as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, and the Na Pali coast, boasting some of the world’s highest sea cliffs.

The Big Island is the only Hawaiian island still growing. Witness the power of Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire, wind, lightning and volcanoes with a visit to the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. It’s one of the few spots in the world where you can see lava flow. In fact, the Big Island has 10 of the world’s sub-climate zones, from the snow-covered mountain of Mauna Kea, emerald green forests of Waipio Valley to stretches of barren desert.

Rent a car to explore the island’s diversity, hike or ride horseback on one of its numerous trails or see the island from above in a helicopter.

Lanai is romance and luxury encapsulated in one of Hawaii’s smaller islands. Here you can stay at one of the top hotels in the country and be endlessly pampered. It’s also a great place for golfers. Lanai doesn’t offer too much in the way of activities, but you can rent a 4-wheel and go off-roading to one of the island’s secluded beaches.

If you visit Molokai, you’ll be one among an intimate number of visitors that visit the Friendly Isle. Molokai has the highest percentage population of Hawaiians in the island chain. The island’s residents pride themselves on staying rooted in their culture. While lodging and activities are limited, there are secluded beaches and valleys to explore. You can also visit Kalaupapa National Historical Park, home to Hawaii’s Hansen’s disease patients and only accessible by hiking tour, mule ride or airplane.

We’ve divided the feature below by interests, including lodging, restaurants, shopping, beaches, water sports, hiking, cultural sites and more. Read on to see which Hawaiian island suits you best!

Relax in Tropical Accommodations

In all honesty, no trip to Hawaii is cheap.

The airfare alone is often quite expensive. But there are ways to save money on lodging. The islands have a diverse array of accommodations, from five-star, all-inclusive hotels and family-friendly resorts to Airbnb rentals and wallet-friendly hostels.

Each of the Hawaiian Islands has fantastic resorts where you can spend the entirety of your vacation without ever wanting to leave. Many have golf courses adjacent to the property. There’s Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows and Fairmont Orchid on Hawaii Island; Four Seasons Resort Oahu, Hilton Hawaiian Village and Halekulani on Oahu; Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort & Spa, Ritz-Carlton Kapalua and Montage Kapalua Bay on Maui; Four Seasons Resort Lanai on Lanai; and Hotel Molokai on Molokai.

For many families and couples who are looking to save some money on lodging and food, an Airbnb or rental condominium is a great alternative.

The daily rate is generally less than hotels and resorts, and you can prepare your meals on the premises. Look online and book in advance; Oahu has the most rental options, followed by Maui, Kauai Hawaii Island, Lanai and Molokai.

Hawaii is for Lovers

Hawaii is the number one honeymoon destination in the world. For lovebirds, Maui is a great island to visit. There are pristine beaches, top-rate accommodations and romantic activities such as couples massages or a sunset cocktail cruise. For those looking for seclusion, visit Lanai. With a population of roughly 3,000, you’re sure to have the beach to yourself, such as at Polihua Beach on the north side of the island. The luxury of the Four Seasons Resort can’t be beat.

Fun for the Whole Family

Hawaii has become a great destination for families. Oahu offers plenty of activities for “keiki,” or kids, including the Honolulu Zoo, the Waikiki Aquarium, Sea Life Park and Wet ‘n’ Wild Hawaii water park. Aulani, a Disney Resort and Spa, located on the west side of Oahu, was built with young ones—and the young at heart—in mind. Many other resorts also have tailor-made features for children, including weekly or daily hula and lei making lessons, and kid-friendly amenities. These include: Sheraton Waikiki and the Hilton Hawaiian Village on Oahu, Hyatt Regency Resort and Spa on Maui and Kauai Marriott Resort.

On Maui, learn about the fish you’ve spotted during a family snorkeling trip with a visit to the Maui Ocean Center. It’s also the best place to book a whale-watching cruise during the winter months.

Kauai and Hawaii Island have some of the best ziplines in the state. You can zoom down a half-mile long line in south Kauai and soar over a 250-foot tall waterfall on the east coast of the Big Island.

On Lanai, you can book ATV, horseback rides and clay pigeon shooting and archery tours at the Four Seasons Resort concierge desk.

No trip to the islands is complete without a luau, especially for families. On Oahu, Paradise Cove offers a great luau. Don’t miss the Old Lahaina Luau on Maui and the Smith Family Garden Luau on Kauai. On Hawaii Island, the Mauna Kea Beach Resort Luau is the island’s oldest and most polished show.

Enjoy the Best Beaches

Hawaii has consistently dominated Dr. Beach's list of the best beaches in the United States. The Islands don’t just have white-sand beaches stretching for miles, but are also home to black and green sand. You can find these on the Big Island. The Punaluu Black Sand Beach and the Papakolea Green Sand Beach are unique thanks to volcanic eruptions. The beaches are about an hour drive apart, but they won’t disappoint.

Poipu Beach Park, on the southern coast of Kauai, is a great place to swim, snorkel, bodyboard and relax. It’s a preferred spot for Hawaiian monk seals to sunbathe, and from December through May, you can see humpback whales spout offshore.

On Molokai, Kapukahehu Beach Park, also known as Dixie Maru—named after a Japanese sailing boat that sank offshore in the 1920s—is a favorite beach with locals and visitors. The beach cove is great for swimming and snorkeling.

Experience Hawaii Water Sports

For many in Hawaii, being in the water isn’t just an activity, it’s a way of life. While you’re on vacation in the Islands, you can surf, snorkel, dive, canoe paddle, stand-up paddle, kayak, fish and more.

Surf breaks abound across the state. On Oahu there’s Queen’s in Waikiki and the renowned North Shore Banzai Pipeline surf break, where the Vans Triple Crown big wave contests are held each winter. On Maui, you’ll find surfers at Honolua Bay and Hookipa Beach, as well as Peahi, also known as “Jaws.” Even better, learn to surf while on vacation. Visit Hans Hedemann Surf School on Oahu, Maui Surfer Girls on the Valley Isle and Kauai Surf School.

Many of the state’s beach parks are also suitable for snorkeling, swimming and scuba diving and stand-up paddling. Thanks to Hawaii’s isolation, around 25 percent of the Islands’ fish species are endemic. The Molokini Crater, a crescent-shaped volcano islet off the shores of Maui, is a premier snorkeling and scuba-diving destination. On Oahu, visit Hanauma Bay, a protected nature preserve on east side of the island. Both are home to hundreds of marine species. For a unique underwater experience, snorkel or scuba with manta rays off the Kona coast of Hawaii Island.

If you want to stay above the sea, kayaking is good water activity. It’s best to kayak in calm waters, such as bays. We recommend Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island. (It’s where Captain James Cook first made contact with Native Hawaiians.) On Oahu, you can paddle out to the Mokuluas in Kailua Bay. On Kauai, you can paddle down the island’s largest navigable river, Wailua River.

Hawaii is the winter home to the Pacific humpback whale. From November to May, the whales and their new offspring are found in the waters of Hawaii; Maui is the best place to spot them.  

If you’re an avid sportfisher, a visit to the Big Island, the sportfishing capital of the world, is a must. You can book deep-sea charters to help you reel in the big one.

Dining Out, Hawaii Style

Hawaii is a diverse place and its dining scene is proof of that. You can find traditional Hawaiian food, plantation inspired plate-lunches, cozy sushi bars, hip gastropubs and four-star surf-and-turf dining.

Look for Hawaii-sourced ingredients on restaurant menus. You’ll find produce grown on Oahu, onions and dairy from Maui, beef from Hawaii Island, venison from Lanai and salt from Molokai. Much of the seafood is of course locally caught. You can also buy many of these goods directly from vendors at farmers markets. There’s a big one on Saturdays at Kapiolani Community College on Oahu, the Hilo Farmers Market on the Big Island, the Upcountry Farmers Market on Maui and the Hanalei Farmers Market on Kauai.

Hawaii is also home to several food festivals: The Hawaii Food & Wine Festival takes place on multiple islands in the fall; the Kapalua Wine & Food Festival happens on Maui each June; and the Kona Brewers Festival is on Hawaii Island each spring.

Take a Hike

With virtually year-round perfect weather and Instagram-worthy vistas, hiking is a great Hawaii vacation activity. Each island has numerous hiking trails of varying difficulty. The islands are also home to endemic flora and fauna. These flowers, trees, birds are found nowhere else on the planet and play an important role in Hawaii’s unique ecosystem. Go on a hike and you might spot a red Hawaiian honeycreeper, or see uluhe ferns and ohia lehua flowers.

There are numerous state maintained trails across the islands, featuring waterfalls, verdant rainforests and unobstructed views with the ocean in the distance. You can opt for shorter and easier hikes, such as Manoa Falls on Oahu, Pipiwai Trail on Maui, Waipio Valley on Hawaii Island, Munro Trail on Lanai and Halawa Valley on Molokai. There’s also intense, backpacking adventures, such as the 22-mile round trip hike to Kalalau Valley on Kauai.

Hawaii is home to two national parks: Haleakala on Maui and Hawaii Volcanoes on the Big Island. Both feature trails of differing lengths and intensity and are worth visiting.

Shop ‘Til You Drop

If you need some retail therapy, or just a break from the sun, you’ll discover Hawaii is an outstanding shopping destination. The islands have everything from affordable souvenirs for family and friends back home, sprawling outdoor shopping centers, luxury retail to locally made art, crafts, clothing and more.  

Ala Moana Center on Oahu has something for everyone. There are more than 350 stores and restaurants. Waikiki also has great shopping options, including high-end fashion and local boutiques.

Whalers Village on Maui features 90 shops and restaurants, plus a whale museum.

A newer shopping space, the Shops at Kukuiula, has local stores, restaurants and galleries.

On Hawaii Island, there’s the sprawling Kings Shops in Waikoloa on the west side of the island and locally owned shops in downtown Hilo on the east side.

Learn about Hawaii’s History and Culture

Prior to the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893, Hawaii was an independent kingdom. Iolani Palace, the only royal palace in the United States is located in Honolulu. Also located in Honolulu is Bishop Museum. Dive deep into Hawaii’s storied past with a visit to the museum. Charles Reed Bishop founded Bishop Museum in 1889 in honor of his late wife, Princess Pauahi Bishop, to house her extensive artifact collection. Today, the state’s largest museum displays millions of Hawaii and Pacific island artifacts, photos and original documents in newly renovated buildings. On Kauai, the Kauai Museum is worth a visit as well as the Baldwin Home Museum on Maui and the Lanai Culture and Heritage Center.

In addition to museum artifacts, many Hawaiian archeological sites are still scattered throughout the islands. Some are preserved state historic sites and worth visiting to learn more about Hawaii’s rich culture. You can visit the Alekoko Fishpond on Kauai, built roughly 1,000 years ago by Native Hawaiians. On Hawaii Island, the Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park has a sacred temple guarded by “kii”, or wooden statues and a 10-foot high Great Wall. On Lanai, Keahiakawelo is an otherworldly rock garden landscape.

Get a Hole in One

If hitting the links is your idea of a good time, you’ll be right at home on a Hawaii golf course. The Islands have many world-class golf courses created by master designers such as Trent Jones, Jr., Greg Norman and Jack Nicklaus.

Oahu golf courses host the PGA, including the Waialae Country Club and Turtle Bay Resort. Hawaii’s first golf course, the Moanalua Golf Club built in 1898, is located near Honolulu.

You’ll find public and private courses, many with an ocean view, on Hawaii Island. The Mauna Kea, Mauna Lani and Waikoloa resorts feature challenging, beautifully designed courses.

There are two areas to golf in Maui. In south Maui, you can golf at the Wailea Golf Club, and in west Maui, there are courses at both the Kaanapali Beach Resort and Kapalua Resort.

Kauai offers three main golf areas: Poipu Bay Golf Course on the on the South Shore, Princeville Makai Golf Club on the North Shore and the Ocean Course at Hokuala in Lihue.

The Four Seasons Resort on Lanai is a Jack Nicklaus signature golf course. The 18-hole course features scenic views and a fun challenge.

Hawaii After Dark: Local Nightlife

Some people get started on their vacations after the sun goes down. Many local establishments across the islands close after sunset. But that doesn’t mean you need to go to bed! There’s still much to see and do for late night revelers. Oahu has the most options. There are clubs in Waikiki, and bars and late night eats in the Honolulu neighborhoods of Chinatown and Kakaako.

While Maui, Hawaii Island and Kauai may not be as vibrant after dark as Oahu, you can certainly find watering holes catering to locals and visitors that serve cold brews and handmade cocktails. The bigger towns, such as Lahaina, Maui, Hilo and Kona on the Big Island and Lihue on Kauai have a more hopping nightlife.

Resorts are also a popular place to get a good drink and hear live music. On Oahu, visit Hilton Hawaiian Village, Waikoloa Beach Resort on the Big Island, Kaanapali Beach Hotel on Maui and Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort & Spa.