As a first time visitor to the Hawaiian islands, it’s really hard to choose which islands to head to. When I organised our initial trip to Hawaii I did lots and lots of research but I still found it hard to decide. Each of the islands has its own unique charms and personality. Ideally you’d visit them all, but of course, for most of us, that’s not practical. Which island makes sense for you will also heavily depend on the type of vacation that you’re after.
There are eight main islands in the Hawaiian Islands archipelago but only six can be visited by tourists. That’s probably just as well because it makes the decision that little bit easier! Of those six the four most popular islands are Oahu, Hawaii, Maui and Kauai. Lanai and Molokai are a little bit off the beaten track and a lot less visited. But you shouldn’t discount them because they also have a lot to offer tourists.
Here’s our rundown on each of the six islands to help you make your own choice:
Best for: Nightlife, shopping, museums, food, surfing, big city life
Oahu is home to the bustling capital city of Honolulu and it’s where you’ll find the famous Waikiki beach. It’s the most visited island in Hawaii and it attracts more than five million visitors every year. Unless you’re arriving from the U.S mainland, your entry point to the Hawaiian Islands will be Honolulu airport. Because it contains Hawaii’s capital city, Oahu is the most inhabited of the islands. That means that when compared to the other islands it feels a lot more crowded. But if you venture out of bustling Waikiki you can still find some peace and quiet. Plus just like the other Hawaiian Islands, Oahu offers some incredible scenery, some terrific hiking and many beautiful beaches.
If you’re after exciting nightlife, then there’s only one place for you in Hawaii, and that’s Waikiki. With so many bars and nightclubs to choose from, you could easily stay up all night, every night of your trip.
If you love to shop until you drop then Oahu is the only island that really offers a fantastic shopping experience. Whether you’re enjoying the high-end shops on Kalakaua Avenue or hitting the Ala Moana mall, the largest open-air shopping centre in the world, you may need a spare suitcase for the flight home.
Oahu is home to extensive museums and galleries. It’s also home to the most visited museum in Hawaii, the Pearl Harbour Museum with the USS Arizona Memorial. This is a must visit while on Oahu. You’ll learn all about the attack on Pearl Harbour and the United States’ subsequent entry into the second world war.
For the foodies among you, Honolulu offers the best fine dining in the state and a great variety of cuisines. Be it tropical island flavours, French, Italian, Asian, or Mexican, you are in for a very refreshing culinary experience!
Surfing is the king sport in Hawaii, and Oahu holds some of the world’s biggest surfing competitions on its north shore every year. Surfing Oahu’s northern beaches is the key attraction for many surfers visiting Hawaii.
If you like to combine big city life with stunning scenery and gorgeous beaches, then this is the island for you.
- Relax on the famous Waikiki Beach
- Spend the day surfing on the North Shore
- Visit Pearl Harbour
- Snorkel at Hanauma Bay
- Shop until you drop at the Ala Moana mall
Accommodation on Oahu
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Best for: Beaches, waterfalls, snorkelling, food, weather
Maui is the second most visited island in Hawaii with more than two and a half million visitors every year. It is also the second-largest island in the archipelago. Thanks to its stunning sunset vistas and beautiful golden beaches Maui takes the award for being the most romantic Hawaiian island. It is, therefore, a favourite with honeymooners.
But it’s not just about the beaches; Maui offers some spectacular coastal drives, flowing waterfalls, magnificent hikes, and lush green valleys and mountains. There are lots of activities to do for all ages, making it a very popular island with families.
The most popular activity on Maui is snorkelling and for good reason. Maui has some of the best snorkelling in Hawaii with a huge diversity of marine life and an abundance of Green Sea Turtles.
Although there are less fancy dining options than in Oahu, Maui is all about the farm to plate food experience. Whether you prefer food trucks or fine dining, Maui will provide you with an exceptional dining experience, with fabulous flavours and some of the freshest food you can find.
If you want to avoid rain while on holiday then Maui’s weather is the best of all the Hawaiian islands. If you stay in West Maui or on the South Coast you are almost guaranteed sunshine throughout your stay, even in the winter months.
- Catch the sunrise at the Haleakala Summit
- Snorkel in the sunken volcanic crater of Molokini
- Drive the thrilling Coastal Road to Hana
- Swim in one of Maui’s many waterfalls
Accommodation on Maui
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Best for: Volcanos, snorkelling, diversity, wildlife
Hawaii is home to five volcanoes (two of which are still active) and is bigger than all of the other islands combined. So make sure you allow plenty of time if you choose to visit this island.
Visit Kilauea, the earth’s most active volcano. If you are lucky you might even get to see red hot lava flowing over the cliffs down into the ocean. You can hike down into a dormant crater to experience a spectacular volcanic landscape, where you’ll feel like you’re on another planet. You can walk through a five-hundred-year-old lava tube, or wander along a path surrounded by active volcanic steam vents. A visit to the Hawaiian Volcanoes National Park is one of the most incredible experiences you can have.
Although the biggest reason to go to the Big Island is to explore the volcano, it’s by no means the only thing it has to offer. The snorkelling on the island is exceptional, with some of the best snorkelling spots in the state. It has stunning coral formations, a very healthy population of tropical fish and the best water clarity.
Hawaii is the island with the most contrasting and diverse landscapes. It has tropical forests, lava-rock deserts, dense jungles, plentiful waterfalls, deep valleys, and black, golden and even green sandy beaches! You’ll find them all on the Big Island.
If you love watching wildlife then you won’t be disappointed. On Hawaii, you can swim with pods of spinner dolphins, hang out with green sea turtles, and even snorkel at night with the Manta Rays. If you’re visiting in winter, keep your eyes peeled for humpback whales. These majestic giants spend their winters off the coast, raising their calves in Hawaii’s warm waters.
If you are looking for diversity and uncrowded beauty, this is the perfect island for you.
- Check out the active volcano at the Hawaiian Volcanoes National Park
- Snorkel with colourful fish at Kealakekua Bay
- Snorkel at night with the Manta Rays
- Stargaze at the Mauna Kea summit
Accommodation on the Big Island
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Best for: Beaches, hiking, sunsets, breathtaking scenery, surfing
Kauai is the oldest, smallest and least touristy of the four major islands. What it lacks in nightlife it easily makes up for in nature with its iconic tropical scenery, incredible sunsets, rural charms and its breathtaking coastline. Most visitors to Kauai are return visitors because it’s so easy to fall in love with the island. We ourselves are addicted to this island!
Kauai is home to some of the world’s best beaches, with fifty miles of white sandy beaches. Whether you are into swimming, surfing, snorkelling, paddle boarding, body boarding or just sunbathing, you’ll easily find a beach perfect for you.
Although all of the Hawaiian islands have great hikes, Kauai offers the best hiking trails in the state. This might have something to do with some parts of the island not being accessible by car. Whatever your fitness level or hiking experience, you can find a hike on Kauai to match your ability.
Every night when the sun goes down, Kauai puts on a show. Kauai has some of the most dramatic sunsets in Hawaii, and tourists and locals alike gather nightly on its beaches to enjoy them.
Kauai has some of the greenest and most breathtaking scenery on the planet. This does mean that it gets a large amount of rainfall, especially on the north shore. However, this means that after a heavy downpour you’ll witness some spectacular waterfalls flowing down the surrounding mountains. On our last visit, we once counted six of them from the balcony of our condo! But if that’s not good enough you can always stay on the sunny south shore. The south shore gets a lot less rain, especially in the winter months.
Kauai is packed with surfing spots, and because of the trade winds, you can surf all year long. Even if surfing is not your thing, you’ll get a kick out of watching the surfers go up against the big swells while you sun yourself on the beach.
If you love nature, adventure, the great outdoors, stunning scenery, and if you want to escape from the crowds and city life, then Kauai is your paradise island.
- Take a helicopter ride over the island
- Sail down the breathtaking Na Pali Coast
- Hike the Waimea Canyon
- Spot endangered Monk Seals on Poipu Beach
- Trek the Mahaulepu Coastal walk from Shipwreck Beach
Accommodation on Kauai
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Lanai ( The Pineapple Isle)
Best for: Relaxation, beaches
With only three thousands residents, Lanai is the smallest inhabited island of the Hawaiian Islands. It’s just a short ferry ride from Lahaina on Maui, so you can easily take a detour to Lanai during your Maui getaway.
There isn’t a lot to do in Lanai compared to the other Hawaiian islands. Most people will tell you not to spend more than two days there. But if you’re after pure relaxation and a bit of dolce far niente, then this just might be the island for you.
Lanai has eighteen miles of beautiful sandy beaches and with so little tourists you won’t struggle to find your own private spot on one.
In 2012, 98% of Lanai was bought by Larry Ellison, the founder of Oracle. Ellison plans to turn Lanai into an eco-tourism destination. So there are big changes coming to this island in the future.
- Take a morning snorkel at Hulopo’e Beach
- Visit the Lanai Cat Sanctuary for a purrrfect afternoon
- Relax at one of the two Four-Seasons resorts on the island.
Accommodation on Lanai
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Molokai (The Friendly Isle)
Best for: Unspoilt coastline, a real Aloha spirit, and seclusion
Molokai is the least visited of all the Hawaiian islands. It is very different from the other islands, with no five-star resorts, no fancy restaurants, no shopping malls, and no traffic (in fact there are no traffic lights!). It is completely non-commercialised and thankfully the locals want to keep it that way. Instead, you’ll find miles of unspoilt coastline, lush valleys, waterfalls, soaring cliffs and mountains.
Molokai is the most Hawaiian of all the Hawaiian islands with fifty percent of its inhabitants being of Hawaiian descent. So when you arrive on Molokai, you’ll receive the real “Aloha spirit”, not one put on for the tourists.
With only eight thousand locals and with only a few tourists making it to the island, Molokai will give you that real sense of seclusion.
Molokai is the island to pick if you want to experience the real Hawaii of fifty years ago.
- Hike the Kalaupapa Trail
- Drive the scenic coastal road to the Halawa Valley
- Have an entire beach to yourself!
Accommodation on Molokai
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You can’t go wrong
Hopefully, this guide will help you decide which Hawaiian islands are best for you. But the best thing about Hawaii is that no matter which island you choose, you can’t really go wrong. Each of them offers a great Hawaiian experience with spectacular landscapes, lush tropical vegetation, fantastic beaches, and enough activities to keep anyone happy. Because you will automatically fall in love with Hawaii, you’ll be back there before long, so you can always explore another island the second and third time around!
If you’ve been to the Hawaiian Islands, please comment below and let us know which island is your favourite and why. Mahalo for reading!