A beginner's guide to the Hawaiian islands

written by Joanne Owen
updated 8/31/2021
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With six major freely visitable Hawaiian islands - Oahu, Maui, Kauai, Hawaii (aka Big Island), Lanai and Molokai - the million dollar question for anyone looking to visit Hawaii is which one? The signature offerings ­of the USA's 50th state - beautiful beaches, top surf spots, breath-taking natural beauty, and lively luaus (parties) - all live up to the hype. To discover which of these dream destinations will best suit your needs, here’s our Hawaiian islands overview, written with first-timers in mind.

Which Hawaiian island should you visit?

Diverse in size, personality and population, Hawaii offer visitors a huge variety of things to see and do, so you’ll want to choose your island wisely - and this guide to the Hawaiian islands will help you do just that. Whether you want to scale epic volcanic pinnacles, uncover local culture and cuisine, surf some of the world’s wildest waves, or soak up sunrays, there’s an island that will deliver everything you’re looking for (and more).

Rising from the Pacific Ocean like fertile sea sanctuaries, the islands are actually enormous volcanoes. In fact, the volcanic vent that continues to cause Kilauea to erupt on Hawaii Island was responsible for the genesis of all Hawaii’s islands, in effect giving birth to all those fiery sunsets, misty mountains and colossal cascading waterfalls. But the Hawaiian islands have their bustling towns and cities too - Honolulu is home to almost 350 thousand people, for example.

Stunning Honolulu sunset © Shutterstock

Despite their differences - physical and cultural - the Hawaiian islands are united by the unmistakable spirit of aloha. Translated, aloha comprises alo (face) and ha (the breath of life), and it binds the islands’ populations, whatever their background. Though commonly used as a greeting, aloha means much more than “hello”. It’s an expression of sincerity from the heart. Something to strive for in life - an ethos of treating those around you with love and compassion. One thing’s certain, you’re sure to encounter the spirit during your trip whichever island you choose to visit, as this guide to the Hawaiian islands reveals.

Oahu

Home to Hawaii’s capital and largest city, Oahu is a pretty unique place, to put it mildly. Where else on earth can you explore dense rainforest and volcanic craters, surf monstrous waves, take-in a multimillion-dollar cityscape, and goof around on a Disney resort?

Honolulu itself has plenty to satisfy history and culture buffs, including the Iolani Palace and Honolulu Museum of Art. A great way to see the city and historic Pearl Harbour is to take this fascinating four-hour tour in the company of an expert Hawaiian Islands tourist guide. Alternatively, if you fancy mixing culture with nature, this full-day trip around the entire island is the perfect way to do exactly that. Covering Waimea Valley’s waterfalls, the beautiful Byodo-In temple, Halona Blowhole, and much more besides, it gives a great overview of Oahu.

Pearl Harbor, Honolulu, Hawaii, USA © Ppictures/Shutterstock

Perhaps the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Hawaii is Waikiki. This iconic beach, immortalised in many a movie, is located three miles east of the city. Actually a series of connecting beaches - Sans Souci, Queen’s Surf, Kuhio, Waikiki, DeRussy, and Duke Kahanamoku - the sand extends for more than a mile in a near-perfect crescent. You certainly won’t be short of things to do here. Waikiki is a buzzing tourist-oriented beach, with the likes of snorkelling and sailing tripssunset cocktail cruises and surf schools to keep you active and entertained.

Wakiki beach and Diamond Head, Honolulu, Oahu © aines / Shutterstock

Though Oahu certainly has its share of natural beauty and quieter spots, if you’re seeking solitude and a “back to nature” experience you might - on balance - want to keep reading this Hawaiian islands travel guide to find your perfect place in paradise.

Maui

Glamourous, scenic and with world-class water-sports and whale-watching experiences, Maui ticks a whole lot of boxes. It’s home to some of the Hawaiian islands’ swankiest resorts and best beaches, and big on natural diversity too.

The island’s main tourist area is lively (yet laidback) Lahaina, a waterfront town that was once a magnet for whalers and seamen, with the narrow streets once walked by Mark Twain and Herman Melville now lined with cafés and restaurants. A street segway tour is a fun and family-friendly way to see the town, which is also one of several bases from which to join a humpback whale-watching excursion

Humongous humpback whale tail in Hawaii © Shutterstock

When it comes to beaches, you’ll be spoiled for choice on Maui. Among its best are Kapalua Beach, Big Beach (officially named Oneloa Beach, or Makena Beach State Park), and La Pérouse Bay, a popular (and pretty) spot for snorkelling and kayaking.

One of the many beaches viewable from the Road to Hana, Maui © Vacclav / Shutterstock

If staggering scenery is more your bag, you’ll want to make a beeline for Haleakala National Park. Here on the slopes of Maui’s volcano, life is a mix of geologic wonders and cowboy culture, with a thirty-mile system of trails to follow on foot or horseback. Watching the sunrise atop Haleakala volcano is an unforgettable experience, as is driving the winding 64-mile Hana Highway. Not for the faint-hearted, this zig-zagging route along Maui’s north-eastern shore affords incredible views of waterfalls, beaches and tropical rainforests. You could combine seeing a staggering number of Maui’s natural hotspots into one trip by taking this epic private tour.

All things considered, Maui is best-suited for active adventurers and devoted beach-worshippers - with plenty of luxury resorts to lay down your head in style, among them Montage Kapalua Bay, an elegantly landscaped 24-acre oceanfront resort with luxurious suites. What’s more, it’s primely positioned for sunsets that will take your breath away.

Kauai

It’s not for nothing that Kauai is known as the “Garden Isle” of the Hawaiian islands. This fertile stunner is mostly covered in tropical rainforest and, as a result, it typically attracts hikers, nature-lovers and bird-watchers (the island is home to rare species of Hawaiian honeycreepers, such as the black-masked, yellow-and-olive ‘akeke‘e, which is only found in the mountains of Kauai).

Putting its dramatic landscape aside (for the moment, at least), Kauai has a lovely laidback vibe and feels a million miles from the hubbub of Honolulu. But drama is what the island does best, as epitomised by the jaw-dropping pinnacles of the Na Pali Coast, oft-featured in Hollywood adventure films. This coastline is a genuine geological wonder - its natural rock spires were created by two types of erosion after the island was formed hundreds of thousands of years ago.

The Na Pali Coast on Kauai © Maridav / Shutterstock

Inaccessible to vehicles, the Na Pali Coast can be enjoyed in a number of ways - helicopter, kayak, paddleboard, or boat. For a full-on Jurassic Park perspective, they don’t come better than this out-of-this-world helicopter trip, which also offers incredible views of Kauai’s other major geological draw - Waimea Canyon. Hands down, this helicopter experience is one of the best ways to explore Hawaiian islands in epic style. Alternatively, this sunset sailing trip affords stunning views of the same coastline from the sea. Or, if you’re fit (and fearless), you could hike the coastline’s Kalalau Trail. While this trek is difficult (guaranteed to get your heart thumping), it’s more than worth the effort, as you’ll discover when you reach the Kalalau Beach endpoint.

Head to the southeast coast for more traditional tourist offerings - Kauai Museum and Grove Farm Homestead and Sugar Plantation Museum, for example, both of which provide Hawaiian islands’ tourist information with a cultural focus). This area is also blessed with some of the island’s best beaches. But, with over half its 550-square miles reserved for conservation and preservation, and tonnes of hiking trails, zip-lines and tropical forest, Kauai is, above all, a paradise for adventurous nature-lovers.

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The Big Island

Geologically the youngest of the Hawaiian islands and twice the size of all the others combined, Hawaii Island (aka the Big Island) is roughly the size of the US state of Connecticut. But, being home to just 185,000 people, with many towns largely unchanged for a century, Big Island has more of a rural small-town atmosphere.

Big Island’s biggest draw is, unquestionably, the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park made up of its southernmost volcanoes - Mauna Loa and Kilauea. Besides its active volcanoes, the park’s landscape includes the windswept deserts of Ka‘u, arctic tundra, and canopied rainforest. The main attraction of the park is Kilauea, which has erupted consistently since 1983. Getting to the part of the park where you can see molton lava takes time - most visitors spend a full day doing this.

Lava flowing into the ocean on The Big Island © Yvonne Baur / Shutterstock

For an alternate way to experience the Big Island’s natural wonders, this Twilight Volcano and Stargazing Tour is out of this world. Offering opportunities to learn about (and sample) local coffee and see green turtles alongside a guided tour of the volcanoes, this varied trip ends with a spot of extraordinary stargazing near Mauna Kea, a massive dormant volcano renowned for its snow-capped peak.

In the south, Kona District is the island’s centre of tourism. Once the playground of Hawaiian royalty, this sun-washed town is crammed with boutiques, bars and hotels. Down by the waterfront, visitors can discover Hawaiian history at Hulihe‘e Palace, built as a holiday home for Hawaiian royalty, and now a museum.

All things considered, the Big Island is ideal for laidback lovers of the great outdoors - people who like their natural wonders explosive, and their towns more understated than, say, Honolulu’s hullaballoo.

Lanai

Lanai may be little (a mere 18 miles long and 13 miles wide, to be exact), but it packs a whole lot of diversity into its small size. Privately owned but open to visitors, Lanai was once known for its pineapple production - in the early twentieth century it was the world’s largest pineapple exporter, hence its Pineapple Island nickname. Though Lanai's focus has shifted from prickly fruit to luxury resorts, most of the population are descended from plantation workers.

Beach Lava Boulders and Shipwreck view © JMT2064/Shutterstock

Alongside having its fair share of quintessentially Hawaiian palm trees and picture-perfect beaches, Lanai is also home to an eerie red-rock landscape that looks more like something you’d expect to find in the Wild West (or on Mars) than Hawaii. Known as the Garden of the Gods, this unearthly scene of boulders and lava formations look especially spectacular at sunset - the rocks exude blazing orange in the last light of day.

Another Lanai must-see is Sweetheart Rock, a triangular-shaped rock just offshore in Hulopo‘e Bay. At the heart of a tragic Romeo and Juliet-esque Hawaiian legend, the rock is only accessible by kayak or stand-up paddleboard on days when the water is flat and calm. The bay itself is a nature conservation site, home to spinner dolphins, turtles and a whole lot more besides, and off-limits to nearly all boats. It also happens to be one the best places on the island to swim and snorkel.

Lanai’s unusual sights don’t stop there - Shipwreck Beach is home to the offshore wreck of a WWII tanker, then there’s the Munro Trail, a 4x4 dirt track that climbs along the island’s eastern ridge. On a clear day, all the major Hawaiian islands except Kauai and Ni‘ihau can be seen on the horizon.

If you love small-island sweetness, otherworldly landscapes and eclectic sights (with ample opportunity to indulge yourself at a luxury resort), Lanai’s the one for you. 

Molokai

The least populated of the Hawaiian islands, Molokai is a haven for travellers who want to immerse themselves in authentic Hawaii, not least because it has the state’s highest percentage of Native Hawaiians. Here tourist resorts are few; big bus tours are non-existent. Molokai is quiet, and moves at its own (slow) pace - and therein lies its appeal. Having said that, the island has plenty to attract adventure-seekers.

With three geological anchors - Mauna Loa, Mauna Kamakou and Kauhako - Molokai’s landscape is dramatic, and the island boasts both the world’s highest sea cliffs and Hawaii’s longest continuous fringing reef.

Molokai's sea cliffs - the highest in the world © kridsada kamsombat / Shutterstock

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The island is also home to one of Hawaii’s greatest hikes - the Pepe‘opae Trail. After an hour-long stretch of springy boardwalk, you’ll encounter high-altitude mountain boglands and stunted forest before reaching verdant views into two deep valleys along the shore - Wailau and Pelekunu. Molokai’s Halawa Valley also offers great hiking opportunities.

The Kalaupapa National Historical Park is a Molokai must-visit, too. Once an isolated colony for Native Hawaiians suffering from Hansen's disease (also known as leprosy), the most thrilling way to take the trail is on the back of a mule. Pala'Au State Park - home to Ka Ule o Nanaho (“Penis of Nanahoa”), a 6-foot-high phallic rock that was formally visited to cure infertility - offers spectacular views of the former colony from atop the massive cliffs.

If you’re looking for an authentic, back-to-basics Hawaiian islands holiday experience - in stunning surroundings, far from the madding crowd, with plenty of opportunities for adventure - Molokai has your name all over it.

Best beaches on the Hawaiian islands

In all honesty, it’s pretty much impossible to pick the Hawaiian islands’ best beaches. But, if forced to highlight a few, some excellent options include Maui’s Makena Beach and Big Beach (the latter of which also made it onto our best beaches in the USA list), Poipu Beach (Kauai), Punaluu Black Sand Beach (Hawaii Island), and Barack Obama’s personal favourite, Lanikai Beach (Oahu). Oh, and a special (second) mention must go to Kauai’s Kalalau Beach.

Magnificent Makena Beach © 123rf

It’s worth knowing that beaches on the Hawaiian islands are open to the public, which makes for a pleasing mix of locals and tourists enjoying the sun, surf and aloha spirit together.

Adventure activities on the Hawaiian islands

Outdoor activities on both land and sea are available at all skill levels on the Hawaiian islands.

All the islands offer amazing opportunities to hop on a boat for a snorkelling session or scenic sunset cruise. Dolphin, turtle and whale-watching are a feature of many of them, too. Intrepid surfers will want to practice their craft along Oahu’s North Shore, globally famous for its big wave competitions.

Big-wave surfing, Hawaii © Shutterstock

For a break from the water, you can enjoy horseback riding, off-road vehicle tours, or one of the state’s many famous hiking opportunities. Waikiki’s Diamond Head volcano is one of the most popular, and of course there’s the Volcanoes National Park - there’s no better way to appreciate Hawaii’s position on the Ring of Fire than touring its volcanic remains and marvelling at the glow of active volcanoes bubbling beneath the surface.

Not all about the ocean - Hawaii's volcanic scenery is stunning, too © Hawaiian Tourism Authority / Tor Johnson

Cultural experiences on the Hawaiian islands

Alongside experiencing its seemingly infinite natural beauty, Hawaii’s cultural activities are an essential part of any visit. Oahu’s Polynesian Cultural Center is a great place to learn about the various Polynesian cultures that contribute to Hawaii. In addition, lots of resorts and hotels offer daily cultural activities – from learning how to make leis from fragrant plumeria and how to play the ukulele, to discovering how to dance the hula.

Organized luaus give guests the opportunity to enjoy Hawaiian dance performances while feasting on kaluapig and other traditionally-prepared delicacies. The potato-like taro root is a Hawaiian staple, and many cultural organizations throughout the Hawaiian islands offer you the opportunity to help maintain sacred taro patches by getting down and dirty to pull weeds while learning about traditional culture.

What to eat on the Hawaiian islands

Hawaii has a tantalising mix of culinary influences and popular dishes typically combine native, Chinese, Portuguese, and American elements, with the state’s bountiful tropical fruit and seafood a feature of most menus.

Hawaiian seafood at its freshest - ahi poke (raw tuna salad) © Shutterstock

Must-eat foods include loco moco (white rice topped with a hamburger patty, fried egg, and brown gravy), malasadas (Portuguese donuts), Spam musubi (a slice of grilled Spam atop a block of rice, wrapped in dried seaweed), poke (chopped raw fish), slow-cooked kalua pig, and poi (pounded taro root). Gastronomes would do well to book a tour that combines the best of the island’s sights with culinary experiences, such as this full-day foodie and sightseeing tour on Oahu.

Hawaii has a host of seafood specialities you'll want to sample © Hawaiian Tourism Authority / Dana Edmunds

Where to stay on the Hawaiian islands

Choosing what kind of place to say will, of course, depend on your budget and which island you’re on. If you’re looking for get-away-from-it-all luxury, most Hawaiian islands aren’t short of high-end resorts (though you won’t find fancy concierge service resorts on less developed Molokai). In Waikiki, for example, The Royal Hawaiian is a palatial option for those with a bigger budget.

But to really dive in and experience Hawaii like a local, you might want to consider a cosy guesthouse or, for a true back-to-nature experience, there are plenty of opportunities to camp and sleep under the Hawaiian islands’ awe-inspiring stars.

At Rough Guides we’ve always taken pride in telling it like it is - whether we’re updating details in our guide books, or researching emerging destinations. With that in mind, we want you to know that when you click on links that lead to our affiliate partners’ sites, we can earn a small commission (at no cost to you). This is one of the ways we’re able to keep doing what we do best - provide you with travel advice and inspiration you can trust. Speaking of which, you can trust what we link to - our travel writer experts are exactly that (experts) and have highlighted them to share ideas that might make your trips all the more satisfying.

Header image Na Pali Coast, Kauai, Hawaiian Islands © Maridav / Shutterstock

Travel advice for USA

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written by Joanne Owen
updated 8/31/2021
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Joanne is a Pembrokeshire-born writer with a passion for the nature, cultures and histories of the Caribbean region, especially Dominica. Also passionate about inspiring a love of adventure in young people, she’s the author of several books for children and young adults, hosts international writing workshops, and has written articles on the Caribbean and inspirational community initiatives for Rough Guides. Follow her @JoanneOwen on Twitter and @joanneowenwrites on Instagram.

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