Which of Hawaii’s islands is best for you?
One of the hardest parts of planning a trip to Hawaii is deciding which of Hawaii’s six main islands you should visit. Each of Hawaii’s six main islands has its own personality and offers unique adventures and activities. We recommend visiting at least two of the islands so you can get a feel for what Hawaii is all about.
Oahu has a little bit of everything, packed into 597 square miles. You can walk through lush rainforests, take in world-class surfing, and when you need to relax, relax on lush white sand beaches and stay at luxury resorts. The urban core of Honolulu and Waikiki has historic sites, museums, bustling food and nightclubs. The island lives up to its nickname The Gathering Place.
Maui is a great island for honeymooners. The island’s valley has top-notch resorts and golf courses, near some of the state’s best beaches, such as Kaanapali Beach and Makena Beach Park. Haleakala National Park, a large dormant volcano in eastern Maui at sunrise or sunset, is a serene experience, and drives along the road to Hana, known for its unobstructed views and rumbling waterfalls. There are also many restaurants and stores on the island.
Kauai, also known as Garden Island, is the oldest of the main Hawaiian islands. The island gets a lot of rain, but that’s what makes it so colorful. You’ll encounter flowers and plants you’ve never seen before. For the best views of the island, visit Waimea Canyon, known as the Great Pacific Ocean, and the Na Pali Coast, where you can see some of the world’s tallest sea cliffs.
The Big Island is Hawaii’s only island still growing. Witness the power of Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire, wind, lightning, and volcanoes, by visiting Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. It’s one of the few places in the world where you can see a lava flow. In fact, the Big Island has 10 sub-climatic zones of the world, from the snow-capped Mount Mauna Kea to the emerald green forests of Waipio Valley to stretches of barren desert. Rent a car to explore the island’s diversity, hike or ride a horse on one of the many trails, or see the island from above by helicopter.
Lanai is romance and luxury encapsulated in one of Hawaii’s smaller islands. Here you can stay in one of the best hotels in the country and indulge yourself endlessly. It’s also a great place for golf enthusiasts. Lanai doesn’t offer too many activities, but you can rent a 4-wheeler and head off-road to one of the island’s secluded beaches.
If you visit Molokai, you will be one of the few visitors who visit Friend Island. Molokai has the highest percentage of Hawaiian population in the island chain. The islanders are proud to be rooted in their culture. Although lodging and activities are limited, there are secluded beaches and valleys to explore. You can also visit Kalaupapa National Historical Park, home to Hansen’s Disease patients in Hawaii, and accessible only by hike, mule or plane ride.
Below we’ve broken this feature down by interest, including lodging, restaurants, stores, beaches, water sports, hiking, cultural sites and more. Read on to see which Hawaiian island is the best fit for you!
Tropical lodging vacations.
Honestly, a trip to Hawaii doesn’t come cheap. The cost of airfare alone is often quite expensive. But there are ways to save money on lodging. From all-inclusive five-star hotels and family-friendly resorts to Airbnb rentals and wallet-friendly hostels, there are plenty of hotels on the islands.
Each of the Hawaiian Islands has fantastic resorts where you can spend your entire vacation without even wanting to leave. Many of them have golf courses next to the hotel. There are Mauna Lani Bay & Bungalows and Fairmont Orchid; 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 Molokai Hotel on Molokai.
For many families and couples looking to save money on lodging and food, Airbnb or condo rentals are a great alternative. The daily rate is usually less than hotels and resorts, and you can prepare meals on the spot. Look online and book in advance; Oahu has most rental options, followed by Maui, Kauai, Hawaii, Lanai and Molokai.
Hawaii for lovers.
Hawaii is the number one honeymoon destination in the world. For inseparable couples, Maui is a great island to visit. There are pristine beaches, upscale accommodations and romantic activities like couples massages or sunset cocktail cruises. For those looking for solitude, visit Lanai. With a population of about 3,000, you’re sure to get a beach like Polihua Beach on the north side of the island. The luxury of a Four Seasons resort can’t be beat.
Fun for the whole family.
Hawaii has become a great place for families. Oahu offers plenty of activities for the “keiki” or kids, including the Honolulu Zoo, Waikiki Aquarium, Sea Life Park and Wet ‘n’ Wild Hawaii Water Park. Aulani, the Disney Resort and Spa, located on the west side of Oahu, was built for the young – and young at heart – in mind. Many other resorts also have special features for children, including weekly or daily hula and lei lessons and amenities for children. These include the Sheraton Waikiki and Hilton Hawaiian Village on Oahu, the Hyatt Regency Resort and Spa on Maui and the Kauai Marriott Resort.
On Maui, learn about the fish you spot on 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 have some of the best ziplines in the state. You can zoom down the half-mile line on the south side of Kauai and soar over the 250-foot waterfall on the east coast of the Big Island.
At Lanai, you can book ATVs, horseback riding, and clay and archery tours at the Four Seasons resort concierge desk.
No trip to the islands is 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. Mauna Kea Beach Luau Resort on the island of Hawaii is the oldest and most exquisite show on the island.
Enjoy the best beaches
The Hawaiian Islands have not only white sand beaches that stretch for miles, but also home to black and green sand. You can find them on the Big Island. Punaluu Black Sand Beach and Papakolea Green Sand Beach are unique because of volcanic eruptions. The beaches are about an hour away from each other, but they will not disappoint.
Poipu Beach Park, on the south coast of Kauai, is a great place to swim, snorkel, bodyboard and relax. It’s a preferred spot for Hawaiian monkfish sunbathing, and from December to May you can see humpback whales taking in the sea.
On Molokai, Kapukahoehu Beach Park, also known as Dixie Maru–named after a Japanese sailboat that sank into the sea in the 1920s–is a favorite beach for locals and visitors. The beach bay is great for swimming and snorkeling.
The Hawaii Watersports Experience
For many in Hawaii, being in the water isn’t just an activity, it’s a way of life. While on vacation in the islands, you can surf, snorkel, dive, canoe, kayak, fish and more.
Surf breaks are abundant throughout the state. Oahu has Queen’s in Waikiki and the famous surf break on the north shore of Banzai Pipeline, where the Vans Triple Crown big wave event is held every winter. On Maui, you’ll find surfers at Honolua Bay and Hukipa Beach, as well as Pihi, also known as Jaws. Even better is learning how to surf while on vacation. Visit Hans Hedemann Surf School on Oahu, Maui Surf Girls on Valley Island, and Kauai Surf School.
Many of the state beach parks are also suitable for snorkeling, swimming, and scuba diving, as well as outdoor sports. Due to Hawaii’s isolation, about 25 percent of the fish species on the islands are endemic.Molokini Crater, a crescent-shaped volcano island off the coast of Maui, is a prime spot for snorkeling and scuba diving. On Oahu, visit Hanauma Bay, a protected nature preserve on the east side of the island. Both are home to hundreds of marine species. For a unique snorkeling, scuba diving or manta ray snorkeling experience off the coast of Kona, Hawaii.
If you want to stay above the sea, kayaking is a good water activity. It’s best to kayak in calm waters such as bays. We recommend Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island. (This is where Captain James Cook first made contact with Native Hawaiians.) On Oahu, you can go to Mokuluas Mountain in Kailua Bay. On Kauai, you can go down the island’s largest navigable river, the Wailua River.
Hawaii is the winter home of the Pacific humpback whale. From November through May, whales and their new offspring are found in Hawaii’s waters; Maui is the best place to spot them.
If you’re an avid sport fisherman, a visit to the Big Island, the sport fishing capital of the world, is a must. You can book deep-sea charters to help you reel in the big ones.
Restaurants, 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, trendy gastropubs and four-star surf and turf dining.
Look for Hawaii ingredients on restaurant menus. You’ll find produce grown on Oahu, onions and dairy from Maui, beef from the island of Hawaii, venison from Lanai and salt from Molokai. Most of the seafood, of course, is caught locally. You can also buy many of these items 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 Maui Farmers Market and the Hanalei Farmers Market on Kauai.
Hawaii also hosts several food festivals: the Hawaii Food and Wine Festival is held on several islands in the fall, the Kapalua Wine and Food Festival is held on Maui every June, and the Kona Brewers Festival is held on the island of Hawaii every spring.
Take a walk
With nearly year-round beautiful weather and Instagram-worthy prospects, hiking is a great thing to do in Hawaii. Each island has numerous hiking trails of varying difficulty. The islands are also home to endemic flora and fauna. These flowers, trees, and birds are found nowhere else on the planet and play an important role in Hawaii’s unique ecosystem. Take a hike and you might spot the red Hawaiian honeybush or see uluhe ferns and ochia lehua flowers.
Many state trails wind through the islands, including waterfalls, green rainforests and unobstructed views of the ocean in the distance. You can opt for shorter, easier hikes such as Manoa Falls on Oahu, the Pipiwai Trail on Maui, Waipio Valley on Hawaii Island, Munro Trail on Lanai Island and Halawa Valley on Molokai. There are also intense, hiking adventures, such as the 22-mile round trip hike to Kalalau Valley on Kauai.
There are two national parks in Hawaii: Haleakala Volcanoes on Maui and Hawaiian Islands on the Big Island. Both have varying lengths and intensities and are well worth a visit.
Store ‘Til You Drop.
Whether you need retail therapy or just a break from the sun, you’ll find that Hawaii is an outstanding shopping destination. The islands have everything from inexpensive souvenirs for family and friends back home, street malls, luxury stores, 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 stores, including high-end fashion and local boutiques.
Whalers Village on Maui has 90 stores and restaurants, as well as a whale museum.
The new Shops at Kukuiula mall has local stores, restaurants and galleries.
On the island of Hawaii, there are huge Kings Shops in Waikoloa on the west side of the island and local stores in downtown Hilo on the east side.
Learn about Hawaii’s history and culture
Before 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 in Honolulu is the Bishop Museum. Immerse yourself in Hawaii’s storied past and visit the museum. Charles Reed Bishop founded the Bishop Museum in 1889 in honor of his late wife, Princess Pauahi Bishop, to house her extensive collection of artifacts. Today, the state’s largest museum features millions of Hawaii and Pacific Island artifacts, photographs and original documents in newly renovated buildings.
On Kauai, the Kauai Museum is worth a visit, as well as the Baldwin House Museum on Maui and the Lanai Cultural and Heritage Center.
In addition to museum exhibits, many Hawaiian archaeological sites are still scattered throughout the islands. Some are state historic sites and are worth a visit to learn more about Hawaii’s rich culture. You can visit Alekoko Pond on Kauai, built about 1,000 years ago by Native Hawaiians. On the island of Hawaii, Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park has a sacred temple protected by “kii” or wooden statues and the 10-foot-high Great Wall of China. On Lanai, Keahiakawelo is an otherworldly alpinarian landscape.
Get a hole in one.
If you want to have a good time hitting the links, you’ll feel right at home on a golf course in Hawaii. The islands have many world-class golf courses designed by prominent designers like Trent Jones Jr., Greg Norman and Jack Nicklaus.
There are PGA golf courses on Oahu, including Waialae Country Club and Turtle Bay Resort. Hawaii’s first golf course, Moanalua Golf Club, built in 1898, is near Honolulu.
On the island of Hawaii, you’ll find public and private courses, many with ocean views. The resorts of Mauna Kea, Mauna Lani, and Waikoloa offer challenging, beautifully designed courses.
Maui has two golfing areas. In south Maui you can play golf at Wailea Golf Club, and in west Maui there are courses at both Kaanapali Beach Resort and Kapalua Resort.
Kauai offers three major golf courses: the Poipu Bay Golf Course on the south shore, the Princeville Makai Golf Club on the north shore, and the Hokuale Golf Course in Lihue.
The Four Seasons Resort on Lanai is a Jack Nicklaus-signed golf course. An 18-hole course with scenic views and a fun challenge.
Hawaii after dark: local nightlife
Some people start relaxing after the sun goes down. Many local establishments on the islands close after sunset. But that doesn’t mean you should go to bed! There is still plenty to see and do for late night walkers. Oahu has the most options. There are clubs in Waikiki, and the Honolulu, Chinatown and Kakaako areas where you can eat dinner until late at night.
While Maui, Hawaii and Kauai may not be as bright after dark as Oahu, you can certainly find watering holes for treats for locals and visitors that serve cold drinks and handcrafted cocktails. Big cities like Lahaina, Maui, Hilo and Kona on the Big Island and Lihue on Kauai have a boiling nightlife.
The resorts are also popular places for good drinks and live music. On Oahu, visit the Hilton Hawaiian Village, Waikoloa Beach Resort on the Big Island, Kaanapali Beach Hotel on Maui, and Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort Spa Hotel.