Which Hawaiian Island Should You Visit?
Assuming each island is the same is one of the biggest blunders a first-time Hawaii visitor could make. While all the islands are jaw-droppingly beautiful, each offers a unique flair. So which Hawaiian island should you pick? Here is a complete breakdown of the Hawaiian chain for those unsure which island best suits their style.
Hawaiʻi Island – The Big Island
Volcanos, manta rays, and a laid-back lifestyle
Hawai’i Island is the youngest and largest island in the archipelago, thus its moniker, the Big Island. The massive, 4,028 square mile island is famous for its rugged natural beauty— from towering waterfalls and vibrant coral reefs to fiery, active volcanoes. Hiking, snorkeling, and coffee farm tours are popular activities on the Big Island. Meanwhile, the nightlife is minimal. Travelers will find visitor amenities in more populated areas, but this Hawaiian island is decidedly less “touristy.”
Big Island Regions
Kona: Most visitors are drawn to Kona because of its beaches, sunny weather, resorts, snorkeling, shopping, and dining. Kona activities abound in this region, from manta ray snorkel tours to luaus. Kona is ideal for families or travelers looking for a quintessential Hawaiian vacation experience.
Kohala: South Kohala is home to a collection of luxurious resorts and white sand beaches, making the region a popular place to stay. North Kohala is characterized by historic small towns, undulating pastureland, and dramatic valleys. Travelers who enjoy lounging in luxury will love Kohala’s resorts.
Hilo: Hilo is the Big Island’s largest town, but it is known for its consistently cloudy weather. Thus, it’s not as popular as Kona or Kohala. However, downtown is dotted with historic storefronts, mom-and-pop shops, museums, iconic waterfalls, and verdant botanical gardens. Travelers who enjoy less-touristy experiences and foodies interested in exploring local cuisine will enjoy Hilo.
Puna: Puna is characterized by funky villages, black sand beaches, dense rainforests, and fresh lava flows. This area was reshaped by lava flows that poured from Kilauea’s East Rift Zone in 2018— so please be mindful of locals and respect signage in this recovering community. Visit Puna for a taste of untouched old Hawaii.
Volcano: Home to Volcanoes National Park and Kilauea, Volcano is a reminder of Hawaii’s aliveness. Outdoor lovers should spend a night or two in Volcano exploring ancient forests, hiking through an active volcanic crater, and experiencing the Hawaiian mountains.
Kau: Pronounced KAH-oo, this region is vast, rural, rugged, and raw. Very few visitors stay in this area, but the Kau district is well worth visiting for its black sand beach (Punalu’u), charming rural communities, and growing coffee industry.
Hamakua Coast: The Hamakua Coast is incredibly lush and remote. Visitors are drawn to the area for its scenic drive that winds through dense rainforests, gaping valleys, and along dramatic coastlines. Towering waterfalls like the famed Akaka Falls are also found in this area. The Hamakua Coast will be the highlight for travelers keen to explore.
Big Island Things To Note
- Top attractions: Volcanoes National Park, Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park, manta ray snorkel tours, Mauna Kea stargazing, Akaka Falls, and Kona coffee farm tours.
- At the time of publishing, Waipio Valley is closed to everyone except valley residents.
- The Big Island is home to the only active volcano in the state— Kilauea.
- Hawai’i Island has incredibly diverse landscapes and climates, including vast lava fields, rainforests, undulating pastures, and snow-capped mountains.
- The Big Island is the only Hawaiian Island to offer nighttime manta ray snorkeling tours and is excellent for spotting spinner dolphins.
Maui – The Valley Isle
Beaches, luxury, and a little bit of everything.
Maui has become one of Hawaii’s most popular destinations because it truly offers a bit of everything. The Valley Isle is home to extravagant resorts, mellow small towns, five-star restaurants, mom-and-pop eateries, and more beaches and hiking trails than you can count. In addition, there is no shortage of things to do. Activities like zip lining, luaus, and boat tours are at every turn. For these reasons and more, Maui appeals to all types of travelers— big spenders who want to luxuriate, families, couples, and even solo backpackers.
West Maui (Lahaina/Ka’anapali): This area is the hub for tourism on Maui. Kaʻanapali is lined with a strip of luxurious hotels, while Lahaina is a premier shopping, dining, and nightlife destination. Families will enjoy the region’s resorts, beaches, and countless nearby activities like boat tours, parasailing, whale watches, ziplining, and luaus.
Upper West (Napili/Kapalua): The Napili/Kapalua area is studded with picturesque coves, hidden-gem eateries, golf courses, and a mix of budget-friendly vacation condos and luxury villas. Travelers looking to lounge on the beach and enjoy a laid-back atmosphere will adore Napili. Meanwhile, visitors seeking a quiet, luxurious getaway will love Kapalua and its lavish amenities.
South Maui (Kihei/Wailea): The south Maui region is the most consistently sunny part of the island. Miles of golden beaches line the coast, presenting countless snorkeling opportunities. There are dozens of restaurants, bars, and affordable vacation condos in Kihei, while Wailea is studded with opulent resorts, luxury shopping centers, and fine dining establishments. Beach bums, foodies, families, and loungers will enjoy south Maui.
Central Maui: Visitors looking to avoid tourist crowds and experience a different side of Maui will appreciate Central Maui, namely, Wailuku. Hidden gem eateries, museums, local boutiques, lush valleys, and several hiking trails characterize this area.
North Maui: Travelers who enjoy quiet getaways are drawn to north Maui. This area comprises quiet country villages, windswept beaches, and funky beachside towns.
East Maui: Rural east Maui is famous for the road to Hana. The region is celebrated for its lush rainforest, flowing waterfalls, unique beaches, and old Hawaiian feel. Some adventurous visitors stay a night or two in Hana to break up the long drive.
Maui Things to Note
- Top attractions: Haleakala Crater, the Road to Hana, whale watching, Molokini Crater, Iao Valley, Waiʻanapanapa State Park, and Ka’anapali Beach.
- Maui is one of the top islands for whale watching between December and April.
- Most visitors choose to stay in the Kihei/Wailea area or in Ka’anapali. These areas are consistently sunny and boast great beaches, snorkeling, restaurants, and accommodations.
- Some attractions require making reservations in advance, like Haleakala Crater sunrise and Waiʻanapanapa State Park.
Oʻahu – The Gathering Place
Historical sites, iconic beaches, and city life.
This bustling isle is home to Honolulu and Waikiki. While Waikiki is known for its luxe resorts, nightlife, shopping, dining, and ocean activities, Oahu is also home to great hikes, pristine beaches, and excellent snorkeling. Urbanites will love Waikiki’s dreamy seaside setting, while solitude seekers can easily escape the city in a short drive.
Waikiki: Waikiki is home to a collection of resorts punctuated by endless restaurants, bars, shopping, and activities. This area caters to many travelers, including families and foodies. History buffs will also enjoy Waikiki’s proximity to points of interest like the Iolani Palace, Pearl Harbor, and Bishop Museum.
Ko Olina: Ko Olina appeals to visitors who would rather kick back in a luxurious hotel or on the beach than spend time in a bustling city. The area is a master-planned vacation community with four resorts, artificial lagoons, golf courses, restaurants, and a harbor. The Aulani Disney resort, protected coves, and nearby water park are huge wins for families with kids.
North Shore: Surfing beaches, shark diving tours, and outdoorsy activities like hiking and snorkeling (in summer) are the focal points on Oahu’s north shore. Stay here if you enjoy adventures and laid-back vibes.
Windward Oahu: The windward side of Oahu is known for its secluded white-sand beaches and dramatic mountain ranges. Hotels are not as plentiful here, but rather small inns and B&Bs. Visitors looking to get to know Oahu outside of Waikiki will appreciate the windward side.
Oʻahu Things to Note
- Top attractions: Pearl Harbor, Diamond Head State Monument, Iolani Palace, Hanauma Bay, North Shore, Kualoa Ranch, and the Bishop Museum.
- Hanauma Bay and Diamond Head require reservations to enter.
- Avoid swimming or snorkeling on the north shore in the winter months.
- If you choose to stay in a vacation rental outside of Waikiki, make sure your accommodation is permitted and legal.
Kauaʻi – The Garden Isle
Dramatic coastlines, small towns, and raw natural beauty.
Kauaʻi is the oldest and smallest isle in the main Hawaiian islands. The island is best known for its strong local character and striking landscapes. Natural wonders dominate Kauai, and outdoorsy types will value Kauai’s many hiking trails and quiet beaches. Nightlife is basically nonexistent on Kauai, but visitors who enjoy an occasional libation will hold the island’s breweries and distilleries in esteem.
East Side and Lihue: There are endless outdoor activities in this area of Kauai, from kicking back at the beach and exploring hiking trails to paddling up the Wailua River or finding Kauaiʻs secrets on an ATV or zipline tour. This region is also home to boutiquey small towns and several lovely resorts, making it ideal for families.
North Shore: Kauai’s lush north shore is the gateway to the Na Pali Coast. Here, isolated beaches, streaming waterfalls, and country villages abound. Travelers looking for a quiet getaway in a striking setting will enjoy Kauai’s north shore.
South Shore: Kauai’s south shore sees the majority of Kauai’s visitors because of its consistently sunny skies, resorts, golf courses, and perfect beaches. The Poipu area is an ideal home base for families or travelers hoping to enjoy a sun-filled beach holiday.
West Side: The West Side is littered with funky small towns and beautiful state parks, namely Waimea Canyon, Kokee, and Polihale State Park. Stay here if you truly want to get away from it all.
Kauaʻi Things to Note
- Top attractions: Na Pali Coast, Waimea Canyon, Kokeʻe State Park, Hanalei Bay, Kilauea Lighthouse, and Haena State Park.
- Due to capacity concerns, out-of-state visitors must make a reservation at Haena State Park or be denied entry.
- The Na Pali Coast is only accessible by boat, air, or on foot via the Kalalau Trail. Permits are required to hike the Kalalau Trail.
- The north shore and east side receive a fair amount of rain, especially in winter.