Which Hawaiian island should you visit?
The Hawaiian islands, which vary greatly in size and population, offer a huge variety of things to see and do. Here are the ones you can visit and what you can expect from them.
Oahu, by far the busiest and most populated island, is home to the state’s capital and largest city, Honolulu. From iconic Waikiki Beach and Pearl Harbour to the idyllic North Shore famed for the surfing competitions hosted there, Oahu offers an unparalleled variety of activities and experiences. It's perhaps one of the most built-up Hawaiian islands, so while it means more options in accommodation and dining, it may not be for those seeking solitude.
Wakiki beach and Diamond Head, Honolulu, Oahu © aines / Shutterstock
Maui is known for its breathtaking beaches and scenery, as well as unforgettable experiences such as driving the Road to Hana, or Hana Highway, a 64 mile-long winding route on Maui's northeastern shore with plenty of amazing lookout points passing waterfalls, volcanic beaches, rainforests and botanical gardens. Maui is also where you can witness the sunrise atop Haleakala volcano, shrouded amongst clouds and feeling like you're on top of the world. Lahaina is the island’s primary tourist town, but otherwise Maui is one for adventurers and beach-worshippers.
One of the many beaches viewable from the Road to Hana, Maui © Vacclav / Shutterstock
Nicknamed the 'Garden Isle' for the tropical rainforest covering most of it, Kauai offers a more relaxed experience, without the hustle and bustle of its neighbouring islands but with plenty to do, from zip-lining in the forest to boating along the coast’s dramatic cliffs. The Na Pali Coast's pinnacles (which have featured in Hollywood films such as Jurassic Park) are stunning to view from a boat, a helicopter or even hiking amongst them.
The Na Pali Coast on Kauai © Maridav / Shutterstock
The Big Island
Hawaii Island (aka “The Big Island”) is roughly the size of the US state of Connecticut, the largest of the Hawaii archipelago, with incredible biodiversity epitomised by snow-capped Mauna Kea and the otherworldly Volcanoes National Park. The latter is a main attraction for visitors, with views such as lava flowing into the ocean and two active volcanoes still forming the island, Kīlauea and Mauna Loa.
Lava flowing into the ocean in Volcanoes National Park on The Big Island © Yvonne Baur / Shutterstock
The tiny, mostly rural island of Lanai is a short ferry ride from Maui and offers a unique look into small island life. Most of the population are descended from plantation workers who helped make it the world’s largest pineapple exporter in the early twentieth century, the reason for its nickname of 'Pineapple Island'. It also offers the inland lunar landscape known as Garden of the Gods, and on its northern side is Shipwreck Beach for its offshore wreck of a WWII tanker.
The mostly rural island of Lanai © Joe West / Shutterstock
Molokai, the least populated island and lacking in most modern visitor amenities, offers a chance to vacation off the grid among the world’s highest sea cliffs and Hawaii’s longest continuous fringing reef. It's also home to Kalaupapa National Historical Park, a former isolated leper colony, and Halawa Valley, which offers great hiking opportunities.
Molokai's sea cliffs, the highest in the world © kridsada kamsombat / Shutterstock
Where can I find a good beach?
Rare is the first-time visitor who, upon arrival, doesn’t make a beeline to Hawaii’s legendary beaches. There’s a remarkable variety to enjoy and explore, from bustling, commercial Waikiki Beach to the myriad quiet coves that dot each island’s coastline.
All beaches are open to the public, guaranteeing a distinctly Hawaiian mix of locals, seasonal residents, and tourists enjoying the sun and surf – and often a spot of barbecuing.
Can’t-miss options include Makena Beach (Maui), Poipu Beach (Kauai), Punaluu Black Sand Beach (Hawaii Island), and President Obama’s personal favourite, Lanikai Beach (Oahu).
Are there adventure activities available?
Outdoor activities, both land- and water-based, are available at all skill levels. Each of the Hawaiian islands offer the opportunity to hop on a boat for a kaleidoscopic snorkeling session or scenic sunset cruise. Certain sites, like Kauai’s jaw-dropping Na Pali Coast, are best appreciated from the water.
Intrepid surfers can practice their craft along Oahu’s North Shore, globally famous for its big wave competitions. 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).
To truly appreciate Hawaii’s position on the Ring of Fire, a visit to Volcanoes National Park is also essential: tour volcanic remains and see the glow of active volcanoes as they bubble away beneath the surface.
Not all about the ocean; Hawaii's dramatic volcanic scenery is stunning, too © Hawaiian Tourism Authority / Tor Johnson
What about the culture?
In addition to the endless natural beauty, Hawaii’s cultural activities are an essential part of any visit. Oahu’s Polynesian Cultural Center is a great start for understanding Hawaii and the various Polynesian cultures that have contributed to the Hawaii of today. Many of the islands' resorts and hotels offer daily cultural activities; guests can make leis out of fragrant plumeria, learn to play the ukulele, hear stories of ancient Hawaiian kingdoms, or learn to dance the hula.
Organized luaus give guests the opportunity to enjoy Hawaiian dance performances while feasting on kalua pig and other delicacies prepared in a traditional manner. 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 the traditional culture.