Every year, around 10 million people head to Hawaii to soak up the sun, splash in the sea, and explore the islands’ epic mountains. If you’re one of them, lucky you! Hawaii has so much to offer. Every island is different, and you can enjoy your trip in a hundred different ways. In fact, there are so many options that the tough part is often figuring out which Hawaiian island is the best for you.
Don’t get us wrong, it’s hard to have a bad time on any of Hawaii’s islands. However, the Aloha State is a long way away from pretty much everywhere, so chances are this won’t be a regular vacation spot. Even if it is, you want to make sure you get the most out of your time in paradise.
In this guide, you can get a feel for what makes each island special. You can figure out which island suits you best, depending on what you want to do. Whether it’s a beach break or an active adventure, Hawaii has it all – if you know where to look.
A Beginner’s Guide to the Islands of Hawaii
Before you dive into all the things you can do here, it’s useful to have an idea of how Hawaii fits together. There are four major islands: Kauai, Oahu, Maui, and the island of Hawaii, usually called “the Big Island.” There are also several smaller islands, most notably Lanai and Molokai. Each one has a ton of different things going on, but here’s a run-down of what they’re known for.
Oahu: The Gathering Place
Long before Europeans discovered the islands, Oahu was the main gathering place for the various peoples of Hawaii. These days, it’s home to the capital of Honolulu and it’s where the vast majority of visitors go to. Don’t let that put you off, though. Oahu is no tourist trap.
There are two very different sides to Oahu: town and country. The town, as Honolulu is known, is perfect for city lovers, shopaholics, and anyone looking for an easy vacation with plenty of sun, sand, and colorful cocktails. Head into the country, and you hit high mountains, remote beaches, and a “slow lane” feel that you wouldn’t expect from Hawaii’s most popular island.
Maui: The Valley Isle
If Oahu is where people gather on Hawaii, Maui is where they escape to. The island is the perfect hassle-free getaway for people who value relaxation and nature over active city living. Because of this, Maui is particularly popular with newly-weds. So much so, that it’s also known as “Honeymooners’ Isle.” Maui isn’t just for lovers, though – it’s an all-round winner for Hawaiian first-timers.
Most visitors to Maui never go more than a mile from the coast. They spend their days lounging on hidden beaches, then head back to their resort when the sun goes down. Take a trip inland, though, and you’ll find a lot more going on than you’d think. Maui’s famous valleys are home to some of the state’s only ranchland, as well as great wineries that you can take a tour of.
Hawaii: The Big Island
The Big Island is, you guessed it, the biggest of the Hawaiian islands. It’s also the youngest, and it’s constantly growing thanks to the island’s volcanic activity. The Big Island is a big hit with outdoorsy types who want to make the most of the incredible mix of landscapes you can find here. Lush jungle, cascading waterfalls, high arid plains, molten lava fields – you name it, the Big Island’s got it!
Hawaii island is split into two distinct regions. Kona, in the west, is a land of beautiful beaches and otherworldly lava fields. It’s also home to the renowned sportfishing town of Kailua-Kona. The eastern Hilo region is where you’ll find the waterfalls and jungle, not to mention the world’s most active volcano, Kilauea, which has been spewing out magma non-stop since 1983.
Kauai: The Garden Isle
Kauai is the least visited of the four main Hawaiian islands. It’s a land of unexplored mountains and dense tropical forest. In fact, much of the island is so remote that it can only be reached by boat or helicopter. Because of this, visitors to Kauai are often nature lovers or off-the-beaten-trail adventure seekers. You won’t find many glitzy resorts or luxury hotels here, just stunning nature.
The Garden Isle is well named. Kauai gets the most rainfall of any Hawaiian island and is eye-wateringly green as a result. The heavy rains cut through the center of the island, carving dramatic canyons and gathering into rushing rivers – a rare sight in Hawaii. Kayaking and tubing in these rivers is very popular, because there isn’t enough water on the coast!
Molokai: The Friendly Isle
Molokai has a reputation as the place to go to find the “real” Hawaii. The island gets very few tourists and has the largest indigenous population by percentage. If you want to escape the resorts and crowds and get a feel for everyday island life, this may be the place for you. Be aware that it’s harder to get to than the four main islands, though.
Molokai can be broken down into three distinct parts. The West End is where you’ll find the remote sandy beaches and small souvenir shops. The East End is known for its dense jungle, and unique plant life. In the middle, you’ll find coffee and macadamia farms, 700-year-old fish farms, and a national park commemorating the island’s former leper colony.
Lanai: The Pineapple Isle
Lanai is the smallest of Hawaii’s inhabited islands. Accommodation options here are limited, but people often visit on a day trip from nearby Maui. The island is known for its golf courses, which you can reach from local hotels or via a direct ferry from Maui.
Step away from the green fields and golf carts and you’ll find that most of Lanai is actually pretty arid. The island has a remote, rugged, almost martian beauty which you won’t find on most Hawaiian islands. Lanai is a place for people seeking stunning views without another human being in sight.
Which Hawaiian Island is the Best for…
So, you’ve got an idea of what makes each island special, but which one is right for you? That all depends on what you want to do. Each island is perfect for a certain kind of adventure. With that in mind, here’s a run-down of the most popular pastimes, along with which Hawaiian island is the best for each of them.
You don’t need three guesses for what comes first. Hawaii’s sands are legendary, and they’re the reason most people visit. There are few bad beaches in the Aloha State. However, the best Hawaiian island for beaches is either Oahu or Maui, depending on what you’re after. Allow us to explain.
Oahu has some of Hawaii’s most iconic beaches. Even in downtown Honolulu, Waikiki Beach has all the white sands and clear shallows you could ever need. If you don’t fancy fighting for elbow room, Oahu’s North Shore has plenty of beautiful beaches, with chilled surfer vibes for extra relaxation. Then you have Haunama Bay, Lanikai Beach, Kailua Beach – the list goes on.
Oahu can be a victim of its own success, though. Waikiki is always crowded. In high season, even the most remote beaches can feel crowded. If you want picture-perfect sands all to yourself, then Maui is the place for you. The whole of Maui’s south shore is covered in small, secluded beaches where you can get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
Hawaii has a fishing tradition dating a thousand years. Many of the world’s top techniques were pioneered here, and it still has some of the best sportfishing on the entire planet. You don’t have to shell out a fortune to enjoy it, either. Most charter captains offer shared trips if you just want to try it out, as well as private charters if you’re serious about catching a monster.
The best island for fishing in Hawaii has to be the Big Island. It has the largest charter fleet and the most legendary fishing grounds. The Big Island’s main sportfishing hotspot, Kailua-Kona, even made it onto our ultimate angling bucket list. Marlin, Tuna, Mahi Mahi, and more show up just a mile or two from the shore here. What’s more, they grow to unbelievable sizes – fish over 1,000 pounds are caught every year.
Hawaii’s fishing scene isn’t just about Billfish. The shallows on Oahu are home to inshore favorites like Bonefish and Trevally, while Maui’s sheltered reefs are perfect for spearfishing. You can even find Largemouth and Peacock Bass in Kauai’s rivers. Every island in Hawaii has awesome angling – check out our detailed write-up here.
Stepping away from the coast, you’re immediately faced with tall mountains and deep valleys that just scream “explore me.” On top of that, some of the top beaches and most stunning views can only be reached on foot. It’s tough to name the best Hawaiian Island for hiking – it really depends on your own abilities and ambitions.
If you’re a hardcore hiker who wants to take on Hawaii’s ultimate trails, go to the Big Island. It has the widest variety of different landscapes, allowing you to explore a completely different world each day. It also has the added thrill of letting you hike alongside molten lava. Just don’t get too close!
If that all sounds a little extreme, Oahu and Kauai also offer beautiful walks for beginners and experts alike. Oahu’s Diamond Crater will give you a real workout and reward you with an unbelievable view at the top. Kauai’s coastal mountain trail has been voted one of the best in the world, and the canyons are too scenic for words. You can find a detailed guide to Hawaii’s walks here.
What’s an island adventure without a swim with colorful fish? Hawaii’s reefs and rocks are home to hundreds of species of tropical fish, each more vibrant than the last. The great thing about snorkeling is that you can do it pretty much anywhere, as long as the waves and the weather behave.
Maui is the best Hawaiian island for snorkeling, simply because the waters here are more sheltered. The southwest of Maui is protected from the wind by the island’s tall mountains. At the same time, the neighboring islands of Lanai and Molokai keep the biggest waves at bay. These waters are also pretty shallow by Hawaiian standards – meaning they’re not sheer cliffs.
Add all that together, and you have some amazing snorkeling grounds. The most famous spot is Molokini Crater, where the sea is so clear that you can see over 200 feet underwater! If you prefer to stay closer to shore, there are plenty of spots that you don’t need a boat to get to. From Black Rock to Turtle Town, this whole coastline is great for snorkeling.
You couldn’t ask for a more Hawaiian pastime than surfing. People have been surfing in Hawaii since ancient times, and it’s still as popular today as ever. Every island has great surf and most have plenty of places to rent a board. You can also find surf schools advertising on the more sheltered beaches.
Some of the most accessible surfing spots are in Oahu. The crowd here is used to beginners and unfamiliar faces. Waikiki Beach itself is great for surfers of all levels, and the North Shore has some of the biggest, cleanest waves you could ask for.
The important thing to bear in mind is that Hawaii has some of the greatest (meaning biggest) waves in the world. Most of the famous spots aren’t for beginners. On top of that, locals get understandably annoyed when crowds of inexperienced tourists ruin their fun. A little respect and an awareness of your skill level will be greatly appreciated here.
Things to Consider When Visiting Hawaii
There are a few final points you should consider before you make your itinerary. They may not be the most exciting part of planning a holiday, but setting some expectations will make your vacation much, much more enjoyable.
Is this a honeymoon splurge? A thrifty beach break? If money is no object, keep looking through those beachfront resorts and luxury hotels. Plan that private island cruise. Take a helicopter tour of the island – you won’t regret it. If not, don’t worry! Visiting Hawaii on a budget is totally possible.
Forget the resorts and stay in a guesthouse – you’ll get a warm welcome and even some tips on local spots to eat. Ditch the rental car and take public transport (doable on Oahu, at least). And of course, activities like swimming and hiking don’t need to cost a penny. Save your money for that special something, whether it’s a luxury meal or a once-in-a-lifetime fishing trip.
It’s natural to want to see as much as possible while you’re on your vacation. It’s not every day you get to go to Hawaii, after all. However, the islands aren’t nearly as close to each other as they look. We’re not saying “don’t explore.” Just be aware that what seems like an easy hop can end up being half a day in transit.
You should use the same logic when deciding which island to visit. Maui and Oahu are the only ones with good connections to the rest of the world. If you’re heading somewhere else, factor in the time and effort it will take to get there. Make sure you have plenty of time to take things slow. That’s what Hawaii’s all about, after all.
Which Hawaiian Island is the Best for You?
At the end of the day, there’s no one “best” island. They’re all unique and amazing in their own special way. As long as you make a plan and keep an open mind, you really can’t go wrong wherever you go in Hawaii.
Which Hawaiian island would you most like to visit? Which ones have you been to before? What’s your top tip for traveling to the Aloha State? Let us know in the comments below, we would love to hear your thoughts.