Fly just 6 hours from the west coast of the USA and you can find yourself in the tropical paradise of the North Pacific Hawaiian Islands. Beaches, jungles, snow-cloaked mountains, active volcanoes, desert, and 11 out of 13 of the world’s climates, Hawaii has a staggering amount of diversity packed into a small area. It’s one of the most naturally beautiful places in the world and thanks to the many State Parks, that beauty is incredibly accessible.
It’s a dream trip for many. However, with several islands to visit, how do you choose between them?
If you’re not sure which Hawaiian Island is the best to visit, I’m here to help you decide. I’ve spent months visiting Hawaii, fitting in as many sights and activities as I can. And although I have my personal favourite, each island offers a different experience.
While there are actually a staggering 137 Hawaiian islands, there are only eight main islands. And, of those, most tourists visit one of the main four: Oahu, Maui, Big Island and Kauai. There are two smaller islands, Lanai and Molokai that you can also visit. However, people tend to visit these two after already ticking off the main four. There are two final islands – Ni’ihau and Kaho’olawe – that you can only visit if you are military personnel or a Hawaiian native. So, I haven’t included them here.
In this guide, I’ll share an overview of what to do on each of the main six islands – Oahu, Maui, Kauai, Big Island, Lanai and Molokai – and explain which islands are best depending on the kind of trip you want.
For more information about the islands, check out my more detailed Guide to The Hawaiian Islands – Names, Map & Facts.
Oahu – Best for beaches, families & first-time visitors
Oahu has the largest airport in Hawaii, which makes it one of the easiest islands to visit – there are several flights a day to Oahu from all over the USA. Yet, that’s not the only reason Oahu is the best island for families and first time visitors. Oahu has some of the most iconic sights in Hawaii. From famous Waikiki beach to big wave surf competitions on the North Shore, cultural downtown Honolulu, and the historically poignant Pearl Harbor Hawaiian memorial, it’s easy to fill a week or more on Oahu. These must-see attractions are a perfect introduction to Hawaii for first time visitors (especially if you’re a fan of Hawaii 5-0 which is filmed on Oahu).
Oahu is also the best island for families. Base yourself in Waikiki beach and you have the perfect combination of a safe beach for the kiddies to play, cute parks, plenty of shops, and cafes. Plus, some stunning sunsets and excellent restaurant right in the centre of Waikiki to entertain the adults.
It’s hard to choose which is the best island for beaches – there are fine beaches on every island. However, Maui and Oahu compete most closely and Oahu wins. Yes, it has Waikiki beach but Oahu also has miles of golden sands to lounge on.
Top things to do in Oahu
- Waikiki Beach – golden sand and pink sunsets to keep first-timers, kids and adults entertained
- 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
- Dole Plantation – try one of the most famous Hawaiian fruits
- Polynesian Cultural Centre – spend a day learning about the Polynesian islands (including Hawaii). Finish with a luau and fire dance show.
Here’s my full guide to 10 Top Things To Do In Oahu For First Time Visitors.
Maui – Best for romance, snorkelling & whale watching
Ah, Maui, the Valley Isle. With the largest number of resorts in Hawaii, it’s no surprise the Maui is the best island for romance. From proposals to weddings, to honeymoons, or just a vacation with your beau, Maui is the place to be.
But do step out of your resort. Maui has psychedelic rainbow eucalyptus trees, other-worldly volcanic craters and the chance to listen to humpback whales singing. Yes, Maui has plenty to offer besides its resorts.
What about spending a day driving the Road to Hana? Famous for having over 600 bends that take you past waterfalls, forest, beaches and impressive sea views its a highlight on Maui. Just don’t forget to pick up some freshly-baked banana bread for the ride.
And if all that lying down has left you with some excess energy to burn, consider a hike through Haleakala National Park. At the very least, go there at dawn or dusk for a chance to see the sun rise or set above the clouds on the highest point in Maui.
Maui is also one of the best islands for snorkelling. You take a day trip to snorkel off the coast of Molokini, a half submerged volcano cone. Or what about Turtle Town where you can swim with green sea turtles. I did this for the first time in the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico and it was magical. But really, just hop into the water with a snorkelling mask in Maui and you’re bound to spot something.
If you’re lucky enough to be visiting during the winter season, Maui is the best island for whale watching. To get started, head to the former whaling town of Lahaina. From there you can hop on a boat to watch humpback whales swimming and breaching out of the water. Does it get any more romantic than that?
Top things to do in Maui
- 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.
- Whale watching – off the coast of Lahaina, the old whaling town, take a whale watching cruise (seasonal only).
- Snorkel Molokini Crater – this submerged volcano crater is a fertile spot for ocean life.
- Turtle Town – swim with green sea turtles.
Here’s my full guide to 21 Best Things To Do in Maui – Hawaii
Kauai – Best for hiking, waterfalls & dramatic views
Kauai is the best island for dramatic scenery. It’s one of the older islands and its former volcanic landscape has has time to turn green and lush with nature. This has earned Kauai the nickname ‘the garden isle’.
Thanks to rain erosion, the island has developed a unique and diverse topography. That means Kauai is a sprawl of canyons, valleys, sea cliffs and gulleys. And, as you can imagine, this provides some wow-worthy scenery. The Napali cost is the island’s picture-postcard view, with staggering sea cliffs spiking out of the ocean. And Waimea Canyon is the often referred to as the Grand Canyon of Hawaii.
Although there is good hiking throughout Hawaii, Kauai is the best island for hiking. For those wanting to hike their way through Hawaii on some serious trails, or take a multi-day hike, Kauai is the place to go. And the Napali coast offers some of the most impressive hiking in Hawaii. Elsewhere, the Wailua river is perfect for kayaking and shore-line hiking. You’ll be rewarded with both scenery and hiking in the same trip.
And what about waterfalls? Again, you’ll find them on every island. However, the staggering highs and lows of Kauai give it some of the best waterfalls in Hawaii. In fact, the stunning waterfalls in Jurassic Park was filmed on Kauai, at Manawaiopuna Falls. You will need to take a helicopter tour to visit but it’s completely worth it.
If you’re less keen on activity or less able, you can still take a boat, helicopter or car to explore. That way you can see Kauai’s scenery in a more leisurely way.
Top things to do in Kauai
- The Napali Coast – dramatic coastline with sheer drop cliffs. See it on a sunset sail or hike it if you’re fit enough.
- Waimea Canyon – more photogenic and colourful than the Grand Canyon without the crowds.
- Wailua River – kayak to a beautiful fern grotto on one of Hawaii’s few stretches 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
Hawaii Big Island – Best for volcanoes & adventure
If I had to choose a favourite island, it would be Big Island. Why? Because Hawaii’s Big Islands really does offer everything. Here, nature operates at its most dramatic. 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 before you get to the coffee plantations and local brewery.
Volcano obsessives like me will love that Big Island is an active volcano. And, if you’re lucky, there will be active lava flowing when you visit. I’ve visited twice, several years apart, and both times the volcano was erupting. Don’t worry. The island is excellent at handling visitors’ curiosity for viewing the volcano. And, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park exists to help you do that.
Volcanic activity has made Big Island an adventure playground. Outside the main cities and settlements, the island is rugged with miles of black lava fields to explore. It’s an island where white sand beaches have become black sand beaches. And there is even a rare green sand beach – one of only four in the world.
Another fact most people don’t realise is that Big Island has the world’s biggest mountain. Measured from its base on the sea floor, Mauna Kea is actually taller than Mount Everest! You can hike up the mountain or drive up there for some of the best star-gazing in the world.
Tip: You might also hear Big Island referred to as Hawaii Island. Find out why in my guide to the Hawaiian Islands.
Top things to do in Big Island
- Hawaii Volcanoes National Park . Great for hikes, seeing lava tubes, steam vents and lava viewpoints.
- Mauna Kea – the world’s largest mountain, perfect for star gazing.
- Green Sand Beach (Papakolea) – one of only four Green Sand beaches in the world.
- Night snorkelling with manta rays – swim off the west Kona coast to watch a manta ray underwater feeding frenzy.
- 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.
Lanai – best for luxury, remote relaxation & Maui day trip
Lanai is a fascinating island. It’s the smallest of the main visitable islands and also the least touristy of the islands. A lot of this is to do with the fact that the island is 98% owned by a private individual – Larry Ellison, Oracle’s co-founder.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a slice of Lanai’s paradise and see a quieter side of Hawaii. There are two Four Seasons Resorts on the island. The first one is the Four Seasons Resort Lanai at Manele Bay near Hulupoe Beach. This is conveniently close to the port where the ferry from Lahaiana on Maui docks. There is a second resort, Sensei Lanaʻi in the mountain area of Kōʻele. Both are going to offer a luxury retreat if they are within your budget.
Perhaps the biggest attraction on Lanai, apart from its remoteness and lack of tourists, is the island’s golf courses. There are three courses to play: The Challenge at Manele, The Experience at Koele and The Cavendish. If golf isn’t your thing, there is the beautifully rugged Munro Trail, a hike that promises a combination of Cook pines and Pacific Ocean viewpoints. Add in the island’s pineapple plantation history, authentic Lanai city and untouched bays, and you have just enough to explore outside your resort.
Can you take a day trip to Lanai? Yes! There is a daily ferry from Lahaina on Maui. Find out more in my guide to the best things to do in Maui.
Top things to do in Lanai
- Lanai City – a great starting point for exploring Lanai
- Four Season Resorts – luxury stay on the least visited island
- Golf courses – Lanai has some of the best golf-courses in Hawaii
- Munro Trail – Rugged trail with Pacific Ocean views alongside a Cook pine interior
- Day trip from Maui – catch the ferry from Maui to visit Lanai for a day
Molokai – best for seeing real Hawaii
If you’re looking to travel back in time, head to Molokai. It’s a place where traffic is limited, palm trees are taller than the properties and life is slow and traditional. This makes Molokai the best island to visit to experience real Hawaii, and glimpse what life was like in Hawaii before tourism grew.
What Molokai might lack in resorts, hotels and cheap accommodation like hostels, it makes up for with secluded beach condos and villas available for rent. So, if you’re looking to truly kick back and live the Hawaiian lifestyle, Molokai is the place to do it.
If you want some activity, Halwa valley with thick, luscious greenery and ribboning waterfalls is a huge highlight. As are the beaches and snorkelling opportunities.
Given how close the islands are to each other, many people wonder if you can take a day-trip to Molokai by boat. There used to be a ferry from Lanai. However, this unfortunately closed in 2016. Even if you don’t stay on Molokai, you can catch a view of the island by taking to the sky. This helicopter tour takes in Maui as well as flying over Molokai.
Top things to do in Molokai
- Halwa Valley – a valley rich with greenery and waterfalls
- Beach House stays – ditch the hotels and book a beach condo for a local stay
- Real Hawaii – little traffic and low-rise seclusion. You can experience Hawaii as it once was.
- Guide to The Hawaiian Islands – Maps, Names & Facts
- 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
- 22 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
- 18 Hawaiian Fruits For A Taste of The Tropics
Photo credits: Molokai