If you’re not sure which Hawaiian Island to visit, I’m here to help you decide. Having spent three months flitting between the islands, I crammed in as many sights and activities as I could and although I have my personal favourite (more on that below), each island offers different experiences depending on the kind of trip to Hawaii you’re planning.
Understanding the Hawaiian Islands: An Overview
Prone to disorganisation, I didn’t have clue about Hawaii when I boarded my last-minute flight. I picked up a guidebook in San Francisco during a 4-day layover and left it neatly unopened in my bag until I boarded my flight to Oahu. But even when I started to read about the islands of Hawaii, I couldn’t quite grasp Hawaii in the same way I usually do with new destinations. Perhaps it was the number of islands and the differences (and similarities) between them or maybe I was having a mental block, but it took me more a bit more research online (and then 3 months in the islands) to truly figure things out.
So, with that in mind, I’ll start with the overview of the Hawaiian islands I wish I’d had before I arrived.
There are eight Hawaiian Islands in total but from a tourism perspective they can be categorised as follows.
The Main Hawaiian Islands: Oahu, Hawaii Island (Big Island), Kauai and Maui – these are the ones you’re most likely to explore.
The Smaller Hawaiian Islands: Molokai and Lanai – you’re most likely to visit these islands if you’re looking for adventure away from the tourists or are splashing some serious cash at one of the remote Four Seasons resorts.
The Islands Off-Limits to Tourists: Ni’iHau and Kaho’olawe are the remaining two islands and, for the reasons explained below, you’re highly unlikely to step foot on them.
Guide To The Main Hawaiian Islands
Here’s the fact that impressed me most about Hawaii – the Hawaiian islands have 11 out of 13 of the world’s climates. Beaches, jungles, snow-cloaked mountains, active volcanoes, desert, Hawaii almost has it all. It’s a staggering amount of diversity packed into a relatively small area. It’s also one of the most naturally beautiful places in the world brimming with state parks making that beauty so accessible. For that reason it’s difficult to condense the variety of Hawaii into a small number of highlights, especially when everyone has a different list of what they’re looking for. With as much objectivity as possible, and a small sprinkling of my personal favourites, below is a summary of each of the visitable island’s highlights. I have also written longer guides to each of the islands, which I link to below.
I’m not going to slap a label on each island (Best for Romance, Best for Hiking etc.) because – thanks to Hawaii’s diversity – you can pretty much find what you want on each island – it’s perfectly possible to find romance watching the surf or add a hike into a romantic star-gazing trip – that’s the beauty of Hawaii. Plus, as remote exotic islands go, Hawaii has got to be one of the most family friendly places you can go, if you’re treating the kids to the trip of a lifetime.
Which Hawaiian island to visit might be answered, in the first instant, according to your inbound flight. While O’ahu may not be the biggest island (Big Island takes that title, if the name didn’t already tell you that), it does serve as the landing point for most visitors to Hawaii who touch down in Honolulu International Airport.
While it’s perfectly possible to bounce in and out of Oahu without leaving the airport, it would be a shame not to spent at least a couple of nights exploring what the island has to offer. The highlights of Oahu are:
- Waikiki Beach – golden sand and pink sunsets
- Pearl Harbor – War memorial and one of the most historic sights in Hawaii
- Diamond Head crater – good for hiking and panoramic views
- North Shore – famous for surfing, skydiving and shrimp trucks
Here’s my full guide to 10 Top Things To Do In Oahu For First Time Visitors.
Hawaii Big Island
If you really forced me to answer the question, which Hawaiian Island to visit, it would be this Big Island. Why? Hawaii’s Big Islands really does offer everything – nature operates at its most dramatic on Big Island (where else can you witness new land being spewed forth from the earth’s core?), the beaches are not just pretty but also rare (Big Island has one of the few green sand beaches in the world). And that’s not to get me started on the coffee plantations and local brewery.
What’s in a name? Big island’s official name is “Hawaii” – confusing, given that it is just part of the larger state of Hawaii. With that in mind, the island has been answering to the nickname “Big Island” for years (for obvious reasons if you look at a map). But some locals are not happy with this nicknaming process and are returning to an amended version of the traditional name – “Hawaii Island”. Got it? Good, because I’m not sure I have!
The highlights of Big Island are:
- Hawaii Volcanoes National Park – where lava is still erupting.
- Mauna Kea – the world’s largest mountain, perfect for star gazing.
- Green Sand Beach (Papakolea) – so rare there are only two other Green Sand beach locations in the world – Galapagos and Norway.
- Kona Coffee and Kona Brewery – they make darn good drinks on Big Island!
Here’s my full guide to 15 Things To In Hawaii Big Island For First Time Visitors.
Why Kauai? In short, adrenaline…and peace in equal proportions. The island may be a 5 million year old dormant volcano (what?) but its unique and diverse topography will find you scrabbling for your hiking boots, snorkelling mask or kayak paddle all in the same breath. If you’re less keen on activity, you can still take a boat, ‘copter or car to explore things more leisurely. The best things to do in Kauai include:
- The Napali Coast – dramatic coastline with sheer drop cliffs. See on a sunset sail or hike it if you’re fit enough.
- Waimea Canyon – more photogenic and colourful than the Grand Canyon and without the crowds.
- Wailua River – kayak to a beautiful fern grotto on one of Hawaii’s few stretch of navigable inland water.
- Jurrasic Park Falls – much of Jurassic Park was filmed on Kauai including the famous tumbling waterfalls, Manawaiopuna Falls.
Here’s my full guide to 16 Best Things To Do In Kauai For First Time Visitors
Ah, Maui, the valley isle. With psychedelic rainbow eucalyptus trees, other-worldly volcanic craters and the chance to listen to humpback whales singing, Maui is definitely one of the most surreal feeling of all the Hawaiian islands. Which is why it seems strange to me that so many people visit Maui for resort relaxation, missing much of what makes it so special. Do yourself a favour – if you do book a beach break, make an escape from the manicured boundary of your resort, even if only for a while. The highlights of Maui include:
- The Road to Hana – often named the most beautiful drive in the world – don’t miss the trippy rainbow eucalyptus trees.
- Haleakala National Park – hike it or visit for sunrise or sunset above the clouds. The Mars scenes of Total Recall were filmed here.
- Whale watching – off the coast of Lahaina, the old whaling town, take a whale watching cruise (seasonal only).
- Snorkel Molokini Crater – a submerged volcano crater is a fertile spot for ocean life.
Here’s my full guide to 21 Best Things To Do in Maui – Hawaii
The Smaller Hawaiian islands
If you have time, an adventurous spirit and/or the money, there are two more islands you may meet in Hawaii. Although I didn’t make it to either of them during my stay in Hawaii, I definitely have plans to do so when I go back.
Regularly described as “Real Hawaii”, Molokai is a place where Hawaiian time has stood still. Traffic and traffic lights have not yet infiltrated the island, no property is higher than a palm tree and the beaches are best explored with snorkel gear. In short, Molokai hasn’t made it onto the tourist circuit, and the sights are all the better for it. Halwa valley with thick, luscious greenery and ribboning waterfalls is a huge highlight.
The main stumbling block you might find on Molokai is the lack of accommodation where beach houses, condos and villas are the main places to stay and hotels few and far between, but if you can make that work for you, you’ll be in for a nice slice of seclusion.
Chances are, you’re not going to have time to explore Molokai unless you specifically stay there. If you do want to catch a glimpse, why not take to the sky? Helicopter rides are incredibly popular in Hawaii and if you’re going to throw down the money to do it, you definitely want to soar over paradise instead of a city. My sky-dive was my sky-high view but I’ll be trying out a helicopter tour next time I’m in Hawaii. This helicopter tour takes in Maui as well as flying over Molokai.
Lanai is another of Hawaii’s less tourist-touched islands. The top sights include the rugged Munro Trail, lined by Cook pines and offering views out to the Pacific Ocean, which will be on my list when I finally get to the island. Golf (yawn…sorry), untouched bays and plantation history are also prevalent.
Honestly, I’d just go and deposit myself at the Four Seasons…if that wer within my budget. Otherwise, there’s enough going on on the other Hawaiian Islands to keep you occupied at a much more affordable rate.
The Islands Off-Limits to Tourists
And then, for the sake of completeness, there are those islands you’re simply not going to step foot on – unless you’re local or the recipient of an invitation.
Ni’ihau is a private island accessible only by native Hawaiians, the owners, the United States Navy and guests – please, please, please can someone invite me? This is the place where the sacred Hawaiian culture apparently exists untouched. It’s no surprise it’s known locally as the “Forbidden Island”. Sigh.
Uninhabited (for spiritual reasons) and also presenting a risk of unexploded ordnance, Kaho’olawe is most definitely off-bounds.
Have you been to Hawaii? Any recommendations to share? Let me know in the comments below.
- Which Hawaiian Island To Visit?
- 10 Top Things To Do In Oahu For First Time Visitors
- 15 Things To In Hawaii Big Island For First Time Visitors
- 16 Best Things To Do In Kauai For First Time Visitors
- 21 Best Things To Do in Maui – Hawaii
- How To Hike Diamond Head in Oahu
- How To Go Skydiving in Hawaii
- Guide To Visiting Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
- How To Visit Pearl Harbor – Tickets, Tours & Tips
- Things To Do In Pearl Harbor – The Main Attractions
- Where to Stay in Hawaii on a Budget