Planning a trip to Hawaii often starts with picking an island to visit, but which island is best for you?
General: DIY / How-To
A trip to Hawaii is a big deal! There’s so much to see and do, so many beaches to visit, zillions of hotel and resort options, and it’s not exactly cheap (see Hawaii Vacationing On A Budget). So you want to get it right and planning your trip ahead of time is a big part of getting it right. Speaking of getting it right, be sure to also read Top 8 Things Not To Do In Hawaii.
The first part of planning any trip to the Hawaiian Islands should be figuring out which island you should visit. As it turns out, each island is very unique and offers different things to different kinds of travelers. If you’re coming for a while you should also find the answer to: How Many Islands Should I Visit?
Let’s break it down by island and cover the main features of each as well as pair up certain traveler types to each island.
Oahu where most of Hawaii’s residents live so it’s an incredibly populated and busy island. It’s home to Honolulu which is both the state capital and a real, big city complete with skyscrapers and often called the Concrete Jungle. It’s also home to world famous Waikiki so you’ll want to be sure to read our Waikiki Guide.
Waikiki is an area within the city of Honolulu on Oahu’s south shore. It’s the reason the bulk of Hawaii travelers flock to Oahu. It’s full of lodging options that range from boutique hotels to mega resorts. The amount of restaurants, shopping, activities, and amazing beaches all in one spot means you can walk to virtually anything. You might now be asking, Do I Need To Rent A Car In Waikiki?
So what type of traveler is best suited for Oahu? Everyone really, but it’s a really great option for those who have never been to Hawaii before. It’s the closest to mainland living in terms of amenities, food options, shopping, and so on. Waikiki itself is very crowded, as are many parts of Oahu, but there are plenty of areas on the island that won’t be overcrowded and still let you get away.
If you simply aren’t in a position to rent a car in Hawaii, then this is the island for you. It’s the only island that has a mass transit bus system, called TheBus, that will take you virtually anywhere on the island.
View our Oahu Guide or see all that Oahu has to offer.
Maui is a favorite among many travelers and there are many reasons for that. It’s an amazing island that offers a good mix of modern day amenities and conveniences as well as seclusion and nature. The main tourist areas of Maui are on the west side (the city of Lahaina) and the south side (the city of Kihei and Wailea). Couples and families alike will find plenty to see and do in these areas, including many amazing beaches.
Maui is also home to the famous Road To Hana. This is a fun journey and the destination, the sleepy town of Hana, gives you a glimpse of simpler times.
So who should visit Maui? It’s a good all-around island for most travelers. It’s not quite as accessible as Oahu, but still very easy to explore. There are plenty of lodging options, restaurants, and things to do. Nature lovers will enjoy seeing waterfalls and hiking. Drivers will love the twisty drive to Hana even if their passengers won’t. It’s still a crowded island, but nothing like you’ll get on Oahu. There are no massive cities with skyscrapers here.
View our Maui Guide or see all that Maui has to offer.
It’s often called the Big Island but it’s technically Hawaii Island and it’s the biggest island in the chain. It’s so large that all of the other major island can fit in its footprint. So it’s huge, has relatively few people compared to Maui or Oahu, and it’s the only island with an active volcano.
That’s right, Kilauea Volcano is the most active volcano in the world and has been erupting for decades now. The big draw here is Hawaii Volcanoes National Park which is about the closest you’ll want to get to an angry volcano.
The Big Island is very different than the other islands. I’m not just referring to its massive size but also the land itself. Because of the volcanos and the fact that it is the newest of the islands, you’ll see more black lava rock here than lush green areas. The surface here looks like another planet with endless miles of black lava rock and pockets of green where various resorts have been built.
The west side is the touristy side along the Kailua-Kona and Waikoloa areas, which includes the massive Hilton Waikoloa Village. The east side, which is more lush, is home to the town of Hilo which is still touristy but not nearly as much as the west side. Drive up to the summit of Mauna Kea at certain times of the year and you’ll even find snow!
So who is the Big Island best for? Well, they have mega-resorts to cover families and couples, but it always feels like more of an island for those who want to explore and adventure. It’s a little more on the raw side here. Getting around requires a car and can mean long journeys, so maybe not as much fun for all kids. If you want to see lava then this is the only place you’ll have a shot at that. If you want more open space then this is a good bet. On the other hand, if you suffer from allergies, asthma, or have breathing issues this may not be a good option because of the Vog.
View our Big Island Guide or see all that the Big Island has to offer.
If ultra-lush is what you envision for your Hawaiian fantasy then Kauai is your island. It’s the oldest of the major islands and those extra years have made this an incredibly lush, green place. Sure, all of the islands have plenty of tropical green stuff to go around, but Kauai has it spades.
Compared to some of the others, Kauai is a pretty tiny island. Traveling around the island is easy via an automobile, but much of the island (far west side, center areas, etc) is hard to access. The most popular places for tourists are along the north side in and around the city of Princeville or along the southern side near the Koloa area.
Who should visit Kauai? There are plenty of hotels and resorts and some of those do very well at catering to families but others might be a little boring for younger kids. On the flip side, couples who want a more romantic vacation may have a better chance at finding that here, especially at a place like The St. Regis Princeville Resort.
This is a good island for those who want that incredibly lush experience while getting away from it all. There’s less to do here and the pace of life is slower here. There are plenty of food and shopping options, but not as much as you’ll find on Oahu or Maui. It’s great for those who want to relax and soak it all in.
View our Kauai Guide or see all that Kauai has to offer.
Lanai is a tiny, tiny island. It doesn’t have a whole lot to see and do, relatively speaking, but somehow packs in some incredibly unique experiences. This is an island that truly makes you feel like you’re on a small island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
The lodging here consists mainly of the Four Seasons Resort Lanai at Manele Bay, Four Seasons Resort Lana'i, The Lodge at Koele, and the tiny Hotel Lana'i. The island has around a dozen beaches but many aren’t swimmable and others are incredibly difficult to access. You’ll probably only visit Hulopo'e Bay Beach Park, which is quite nice.
You won’t find tons of activities here either but there is stuff to see and do. Renting a Jeep and seeing Garden of the Gods / Keahiakawelo is a must. Otherwise, you don’t need a vehicle here since they have a shuttle service that runs between the hotels and main town area, Lanai City, and there aren’t many roads anyhow. On the other hand, if you want some adventure then do explore in a 4x4! The city has a few small shops and restaurants but not much else.
This is old Hawaii. This is a slow paced life. This is where you come to unwind, relax, and let go. Play some golf, take a hike, then soak it all in while reading a book in a hammock. The two Four Seasons resorts will wine and dine you, but otherwise expect a far more rustic experience.
So who should visit Lanai? If you have younger kids then this may not be your best bet, though the Four Seasons Resort Lanai at Manele Bay has a kids club that is both free and second to none. If you have older kids who want to explore then you’ll be okay renting a Jeep and going off road. Couples who want to relax will love this island and the charm that it oozes. For most, Lanai isn’t an island to spend a lot of time on. It’s a great island for two to four days. All but professional people of leisure will be bored after that. Lanai is best for those who want to visit a second island on their trip and have the time to island hop.
View our Lanai Guide or see all that Lanai has to offer.
Molokai is old, real Hawaii at its finest. Short of getting a personal invitation from the Robinson Family to visit the private and forbidden island of Ni'ihau, Molokai is the closest you’ll get to the real Hawaii from years ago. Time almost stands still here and that’s a good thing.
If you’re looking for a place with tons of shopping, activities, and chain restaurants then you’ll want to skip Molokai. Sure, they have a fair amount of amazing beaches and incredibly unique activities, but this is a place that the outside world hasn’t touched all that much.
Molokai is also home to Kalaupapa, an old leper colony that was the home and final resting place of those with Leprosy (Hansen’s Disease) who were exiled here many years ago.
So who should visit Molokai? For most, it’s not a place for families with young children. There are exceptions to that but that’s a good general rule. There are no big resorts here, just a handful of hotels. You won’t have trouble finding food, but there are only a few restaurants total here. It’s also not a place that most would spend their entire vacation at, but it is a good place if you’re island hopping and want a second or third island to see. Those who have an interest in Hawaii’s history and culture, will enjoy spending a few days here.
View our Molokai Guide or see all that Molokai has to offer.
I hope that this gives you some guidance when choosing an island to visit. Of course, there really isn’t any wrong island to visit. Each is unique and beautiful and offers something different to different types of people.
Once you’ve decided on an island you’re ready to figure out what hotel or resort to stay at, what beaches you’ll want to play at, which activities you’ll want to try, and even which restaurants to eat at. We even offer metric tons of general Hawaii knowledge and information.
With any luck, planning the trip should be a huge part of the overall fun. It will also help you see everything you want to see as well as plan your budget accordingly.
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