A beginner's guide to the Hawaiian islands

written by Eric Grossman
updated 5/21/2019
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The USA’s 50th state is considered a once-in-a-lifetime destination for good reason. The signature offerings ­of the Hawaiian islands – beaches, surfing, and luaus (parties) – all live up to the hype, but visitors should be sure to take in the islands’ native culture and unique cuisine.

Six of Hawaii’s eight major islands are open to tourism, and each one offers a slightly different experience – here’s a first-timer’s guide to help find the right Hawaiian islands for you.

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.

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What should I eat?

Hawaii has an interesting mix of culinary influences and popular dishes often combine native, Chinese, Portuguese, and American elements. Most restaurants incorporate the state’s bountiful assortment of tropical fruit and delicious seafood.

To enjoy and learn more about the produce available on the islands, visit one of the state’s lively farmers markets; the Hilo Farmers Market (Hawaii Island) and KCC Farmers Market (Honolulu) are two of the biggest and best.

Must-eat foods when visiting Hawaii 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).

There are a number of regional specialities across the Hawaiian islands, too. Head to Oahu’s North Shore for the no-frills shrimp trucks cooking tasty, locally harvested shrimp, then cool off with a sweet, slushy treat from a family-owned shave ice shack.

There are many Hawaii specialities to sample © Hawaiian Tourism Authority / Dana Edmunds

How do I get around?

Hiring a car is the best way to explore each island, but be prepared for the challenge of focusing on the road and not the gorgeous scenery.

To travel between islands there are regular, inexpensive flights, most of which consist of little more than a takeoff and landing. Flying is the only way to get from island to island, other than private, chartered boats – the public ferry from Maui to Lanai is the lone exception.

Perhaps the biggest travel challenge for any visitor is stepping on the plane home and saying goodbye to this slice of paradise on earth.

Where should I stay?

When choosing a place to stay in the “Aloha State” visitors are wise to consider how much they want to immerse themselves into the culture. The high-end resorts all but guarantee a perfect getaway, complete with gorgeous pools, direct beach access, world-class spa treatments, but there are plenty of less expensive options as well.

There’s everything from retro motels and basic chain hotels to the Hawaiian-based Outrigger Hotels and Resorts, renowned for their culturally-inspired hospitality.

Visitors with a historical bent soak up the atmosphere at historic Waikiki properties such as The Royal Hawaiian, Moana Surfrider, and Halekulani.

To really dive in and experience Hawaii like a local, though, consider a vacation rental or a cosy inn/B&B where local owners provide insight into all aspects of Hawaiian life. For a true back-to-nature experience, there are plenty of opportunities for camping and sleeping under the stars.

Words by Eric Grossman and Gerrish Lopez; Explore more of Hawaii with the Rough Guide to the USA.

Top image © Maridav/Shutterstock

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written by Eric Grossman
created 9/7/2016
updated 5/21/2019
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