If you want to get away from it all, Hawaii is a perfect escape. But how do you narrow down the best island to visit in Hawaii?
Planning your holiday can be overwhelming, especially with so many great options available but only limited time. One of the most challenging decisions to make while planning is choosing the island.
To make this decision easier for you, I’ve put together this Hawaii travel guide with the highlights and pros and cons of each island.
Hawaii consists of six main inhabited islands and over 100 smaller ones. O’ahu, with its capital Honolulu, is the most populated island and the business hub in the Hawaiian archipelago, while Big Island is the largest.
Oahu is a good choice for a first-time visit to Hawaii as it offers a wide array of activities.
From white sandy beaches, lūʻaus (traditional Hawaiian feast), water parks, horseback riding, and surfing to snorkeling, vibrant nightlife, shopping, top-notch restaurants, historic sites, and hiking.
It’s also easy to get around. Unless you plan on heading to the North Shore or Eastern Shore, you don’t need a vehicle. It does feel quite touristy, though, and it’s more fast-paced than other Hawaiian islands.
If you prefer a more authentic-Hawaiian style, Kauai is magical. No building is taller than a palm tree, with lush scenery and endless outdoor activities. And it isn’t super crowded either.
However, the nightlife and amenities are more limited compared to Oahu or Maui.
My favorite Hawaiian island is Molokai, but I might be a bit biased as my husband and his family have been coming to this island since the 80s. With my family, we continue this tradition to this day. I love the laid-back Aloha spirit, the remoteness, and fewer crowds.
That said, every Hawaiian island is paradise on earth, so don’t stress too much over which island to choose, as you can’t go wrong.
Each island has its unique personality, geography, culture, activities, historical sites, and opportunities for new experiences.
If you go once, you’ll likely want to come back and explore all the main islands.
You might be interested in:
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Best Time to Visit Hawaii: All you Need to Know
Which Island in Hawaii Is the Best to Visit? (Based on Your Preferences)
Here’s a quick guide to the best place to visit in Hawaii if you’re interested in:
- beaches: Maui
- nature: Kauai and the Big Island
- sailing: Oahu
- surfing: Oahu and Maui
- whale-watching: Maui
- snorkeling or scuba: Oahu, Maui, and Kauai
- hiking: Oahu and Kauai
- beachside bars: Oahu
- views: Kauai
- family vacation: Maui and Oahu
- authentic island culture: Big Island, Molokai
- history: Oahu and Big Island
- getting away from it all: Molokai and Lanai
- golf, shopping, and luxury: Maui, Oahu, and Big Island
Best Island to Visit in Hawaii Overview
- Top Islands to Visit in Hawaii – The most popular islands in Hawaii are Oahu, Maui, Kauai, and Big Island.
- Best Island to Visit in Hawaii with Family – Oahu and Maui – both offer plenty of kid-friendly activities, tours, and a large variety of restaurants to keep your whole family entertained for days, if not weeks.
- Best Island to Visit in Hawaii for Couples – Maui and Kauai
- Least Touristy Island in Hawaii – Molokai and Lanai
- Best Island to Visit in Hawaii for Volcanoes – Big Island
- Best Island to Visit in Hawaii for Breathtaking Outdoors – Kauai and Big Island
- Cheapest Hawaiian Island to Visit – Oahu and Molokai
- Best Hawaii Island to Visit for Relaxation – Maui – has a true island vibe, plenty of luxury spa resorts, and beautiful beaches.
- Best Island to Visit in Hawaii for Exploration – Big Island because of its diversity
Hawaii Island Hopping
Ok, so you’ve decided to go to Hawaii, but should you stay on one island or try sampling more than one?
If you feel indecisive and overwhelmed by too many options, a good compromise is a week-long cruise, which stops by each island for a day.
Norwegian Cruise Line Excursions are a great option. This way, you’ll get a taste of each island.
If you’re not into cruises, the next best option for island hopping is taking multiple flights. The flights between the islands are about 30 mins.
There is also a ferry between Maui and Lanai.
Hawaiian Airlines is Hawaii’s leading airline, with the largest selection of flights between the main islands.
Mokulele Airlines provides flights to and from Molokai and Lanai.
Island Air is a small fleet that covers the routes from Kauai, Maui, Molokai, and Lanai to Oahu.
The plus side of island hopping is that you get to see more.
The downside is you waste a lot of your time in airports.
It’s possible to see the best of all the islands in two weeks with proper planning, but it’s a lot to take in.
I’d suggest allocating at least a month for a full immersion into Hawaii.
If all you have is a week, it might be best to stick to one island. You traveled all this way, so why waste your precious vacation time waiting at car-rental counters, hotel check-in desks, and airports?
Renting a Car in Hawaii
Renting a car is the easiest way to get around so you can make the most of your vacation.
You can find various rental car companies on the main Hawaiian Islands.
For something different than traditional car rental services, check out Turo – it’s like Airbnb for cars.
You can rent cars from local owners at often much lower rates than traditional rental companies.
Turo also takes care of auto insurance, so you don’t have to worry about unexpected mishaps.
If you’re renting a car, reserve your vehicle in advance, especially when traveling during the holidays and summer breaks. Planning ahead will not only ensure that you get a car but also that you get lower rates.
What Is the Best Island to Visit in Hawaii for the First Time?
I’d recommend Oahu for first-time visitors.
Most national and international flights go through Honolulu International Airport, so Oahu is a great starting point.
Even if you just stop by for a day or two at the start or end of your trip.
Oahu also has many iconic sites, such as Honolulu, Waikiki, Diamond Head, Pearl Harbor, North Shore, and more.
As touristy and cliche as it may appear, there is something special about the electric vibe of Honolulu and Waikiki.
If you want to experience something less commercialized and more outdoorsy, you can always rent a car and explore the island outside the main tourist traps. I love the look of Waimanalo Beach Park. Do yourself a favor and Google the images.
Oahu is also a very kid-friendly island if you travel with family.
For sea life, you can take your little ones to Hanauma Bay.
At Pearl Harbor, you can visit an aircraft carrier or a World War II submarine.
Then there’s the Honolulu Zoo and water park, not to mention some very family-friendly beaches.
It’s safe to say that Oahu has it all – for every budget and taste and for every type of traveler, whether you’re seeking adventure or relaxation, city vibe or rural country, fine dining or food truck, mountains or beaches.
Best Time to Visit Hawaii
Hawaii is a year-round destination with a comfortable tropical climate and pleasant temperatures with an average of 80˚F (27˚C).
Winter and spring generally have more rain showers. But the frequent showers leave behind stunning rainbows, and they usually pass pretty quickly, so the rain doesn’t disrupt the vacation.
Hawaii’s busiest tourist seasons are Memorial Day, Labor Day, and the summer holidays. As a result, room rates are higher, and many hotels are operating at full capacity during this time.
There is also an influx of visitors from the last two weeks of March to the end of April, thanks to the spring break holidays in the United States.
However, the busiest time to visit the islands is around Christmas and New Year. So if you’re planning to be here at that time, make hotel and airline reservations well in advance.
The prices would also be quite steep around this time of the year. Therefore, December is often considered the worst time to visit Hawaii.
If you prefer fewer crowds, the shoulder season in Hawaii is Spring (mid-April to early June) and Fall (September to early December).
For more information about the best time for whale watching, surfing, and more, check out this comprehensive guide about the best time to visit Hawaii.
Now that I’ve covered when to go to Hawaii, let’s dive into the best vacation spots in Hawaii and top activities.
Top Must-Do Activities in Hawaii
- Dive and snorkel
- Attend lūʻau (traditional Hawaiian party)
- Enjoy sunrise or sunset at Haleakala
- Marvel at volcanic and lava landscapes
- Hike Kalalau trail along Na Pali coast
- Admire Waimea canyon
- Take Helicopter tour
- Drive the scenic road to Hana
- Have a cup of Kona coffee
- Visit Pearl Harbor
- Stroll countless laid-back beaches
- Go surfing
- Night swim with manta rays
- Experience Honolulu nightlife
- Go whale watching in Maui
- Have a close-up encounter with sharks
OAHU Travel Guide – Convenience Paired with Natural Beauty
Best known for:
- Waikiki beach
- Pearl Harbor
Oahu, also known as the “Gathering place,” has the main buzz of the Hawaiian Islands. The island earned its nickname not only because it’s the most populated island but also because it attracts the highest number of tourists annually.
It’s also home to many significant historical sites, such as Pearl Harbor and the main Hawaiian hot spot for digital nomads.
Oahu is the most culturally and socially diverse Hawaiian island.
It has a fantastic climate and relatively inexpensive vacation rentals.
You can simultaneously experience the comforts and convenience of city life and the natural beauty Hawaii is famous for.
It might surprise you that a small island in the middle of the Pacific, such as Oahu, gets rush-hour traffic and has skyscrapers.
But the hustle and bustle of the city are balanced with beaches and ocean activities which are the cornerstones of daily life here.
The good news is it’s fairly easy to get around the island. Honolulu even has Uber available.
The North Shore draws the world’s best surfers and hosts world-class surfing competitions.
For Disney fans, there is a resort in Ko Olina.
Here’s is the list of top things to do in Oahu:
Best Things To Do in Oahu
- Hanauma Bay
- Koko Crater
- Pearl Harbor
- Makapu’u Point
- Kualoa Ranch
- Waimea Valley
- Waimanalo Beach Park
- Diamond Head
- Polynesian Cultural Center
Top Tours & Experiences Oahu:
- Turtle Canyons Snorkel Excursion from Waikiki
- Oahu Submarine Scooter Adventure
- All-Inclusive Circle Island Day Tour with Lunch and Waimea Waterfall
- Oahu Shark Dive
- Grand Circle Island and Haleiwa 9-Hour Tour
- Toa Luau at Waimea Valley
- Zip Line Tour
- Open-Door Helicopter Tour over Oahu
- Kayaking Tour of Kailua Bay with Lunch
Pros of Oahu:
- Affordable – There are more options for mid-range accommodation compared to Maui’s luxury resorts
- Frequent Flights – Flights tend to be more frequent and cheaper than other Hawaiian islands
- Vibrant Nightlife
- Easy to Get Around – Uber is available so that you can save on your car rental
- Wide Array of Activities for any budget
Cons of Oahu:
- Overcrowded – The most visited Hawaiian island and the most populated island
- Commercialized – More touristy rather than the traditional Aloha vibe
- Heavy traffic
KAUAI Travel Guide – Epic Sceneries and Quiet Towns
Best known for:
- Epic hiking trails and outdoor activities
- Napali coast
- Waimea Canyon
Kauai has a fantastic rural jungly feel and natural beauty, which you’ll see as soon as you step off the airplane.
No one is in a hurry, and relaxing at the beach or trekking through the mountains is all the entertainment you need.
Kauai is also known as “Garden Isle,” and it’s easy to see how this island earned its nickname.
Approximately 90 percent of the island is uninhabited, with Mount Waialeale (the wettest place on earth). Lots of rain also means lots of lush greenery.
Many famous movies have been filmed on this island, such as Jurassic Park and Six Days and Seven Nights.
Kauai has a beautiful Waimea canyon, a.k.a “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” because it resembles Grand Canyon in the United States.
It has lush rainforests, tropical jungles, and stunning beaches. Some claim it’s the most beautiful island in Hawaii, although that’s very subjective.
The South Shore has plenty of oceanside restaurants, resorts, and shopping centered around the town of Poipu.
Read our full guide on things to do in Kaui if this is the island you are considering visiting.
Best Things To Do on Kauai
- Napali coast
- Waimea Canyon
- Hanalei valley and town
- Waialua River and Falls
- Kalapaki Beach
Top Tours & Experiences Kauai
- Kauai ECO Adventure Helicopter Tour
- Koloa Zipline in Kauai
- Raft adventure – Na Pali 1/2 Day Snorkel
- Wailua River and Secret Falls Kayak and Hiking Tour
- Kauai’s Ultimate Guided Shore Snorkeling Adventure
Pros of Kauai
- Fewer crowds
- Breathtaking sceneries
Cons of Kauai
- Less developed (it could be a pro if you prefer more wilderness)
- Limited dining options
- Rainest island
- Difficult access to many beaches
MAUI Travel Guide – Relaxing Island Vibe and Luxurious Resort
Best known for:
- luxury resorts
- whale watching
There is a Hawaiian saying about Maui: Maui no ka oi, which means Maui is the best, and many would agree.
The island’s miles of endless golden beaches, lush green valleys, historic villages, top-notch water sports, outdoor activities, and amazing marine life have made it earn this statement.
But nature isn’t all Maui, a.k.a “Valley Isle,” has to offer.
It’s also home to a wide variety of cultural activities, spa retreats, stellar restaurants, and resorts. Popular luxury resorts are in Kaanapali or Wailea.
Picture yourself relaxing in a lounge chair on the sand with a mai tai cocktail in hand, the soft breeze, and the sound of crashing waves.
Maui is also a prime location for snorkeling and whale watching, especially on the island’s west side.
The best time to visit Maui for whale watching is between November and April.
After whale watching, you can go on a mission to find green sea turtles. The best places to spot them are Maluaka beach and Hookipa beach.
Just keep in mind that green sea turtles are a federally protected species, and it is against the law to touch them.
Best Things To Do on Maui
- Road to Hana
- Haleakala National Park
- Sea Turtles at Hookipa or Maluaka Beach
- Waianapanapa State Park
- Honolua Bay
- Makena Beach State Park
Top Tours & Experiences Maui
- Maui Atlantis Submarine Adventure
- Maui Pineapple Tour – 1.5-Hour Farm Tour in Haliimaile
- Eye-Level Whale Watching 2-Hour Eco-Raft Tour from Lahaina, Maui
- Lahaina ATV Adventure
- Turtle Town Snorkel with Photo and Video
- Haleakala Sunrise Best Self-Guided Bike Tour with Bike Maui
- Jungle Zipline Tour on Maui
- Sunset Cruise with Open Bar from Ka’anapali Beach
- Maui Horseback-Riding Tour
Pros of Maui
- stunning beaches
- the comfort of world-class resorts
- top whale-watching location
- many direct flights
Cons of Maui
- pricey accommodation
- minimal nightlife
- second most touristy island after Oahu
BIG ISLAND Travel Guide – Volcanoes, Colorful Beaches and Lava
Best known for:
- manta rays
- Kona coffee
Big Island in Hawaii is most known for its volcanoes. It’s the largest Hawaiian island. Its climate and landscape are the most diverse – from snowy peaks, lava fields, and volcanic craters to emerald valleys with waterfalls.
It’s the only Hawaiian Island where you can play in the snow on the top of the Mauna Kea volcano and swim in the Pacific Ocean on the same day.
The island is primarily rural.
There are white sand beaches (Hapuna Beach), black sand beaches (Punalu’u) on the island’s east side, including Waipio Valley, and even a green sand beach (Papakolea) near the southern part of the island.
The most popular black sand beach on the Big Island is Punalu’u.
For something a little different, head to Waimea and discover one of the island’s numerous farmers’ markets.
You’ll love the fresh tropical fruits, malasadas (doughnuts), mouthwatering huli huli chicken and kalua pork.
In terms of accommodation, you can also find everything here, from 5-star resorts, such as Westin Hapuna Beach Resort, to low-key off-the-grid spots.
Big Island is sure to keep you entertained for many days – from Kona coffee, chocolate farms, and every ocean activity you could imagine to the Volcanoes National Park, lava fields, and volcano wineries.
You can go zip lining, horseback riding, or rent ATVs for an adrenaline boost.
Big Island is also home to black lava fields and one of the world’s most active volcanoes, Kilauea. I recommend going on a small group volcano tour. After all, there are few places in the world where you can experience active volcanoes, so you shouldn’t miss this opportunity.
Best Things To Do on Big Island
- Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
- Kona coffee plantations
- Hapuna Beach
- Akaka Fall
- Kilauea Volcano
- Waipio Valley
- Night swimming with manta rays
Top Tours & Experiences Big Island
- Captain Cook /Kealakekua Bay
- Volcanoes National Park Safari
- Big Island in a Day: Volcanoes, Waterfalls, Sightseeing, History
- Night Manta Ray Adventure
- Big Island Zipline Over KoleKole Falls
- Best Mauna Kea Summit Tour (Free sunset and star photo!)
- Big Island Volcano Deluxe Helicopter Tour
- Wild Dolphin, Sea Cave & Reef Snorkel on Speed Boat
- Polynesian ATV Tour
- Big Island Circle Tour and Volcano: Coffee, Wine, Waterfalls and Hamakua Coast
Pros of Big Island
- a great mix of local culture and western comfort
- diversity of landscape
- less crowded
- accommodation options for every budget and style
- pristine beaches
Cons of Big Island
- large size
- lots of driving is needed if you want to explore the entire island
- frequent draughts
MOLOKAI Travel Guide – True Aloha Spirit and Unspoiled Beauty
Best known for:
- Kalaupapa National Historical park
- Molokai leper colony
Molokai is the best place to vacation in Hawaii if you prefer off-the-beaten-path destinations.
Visiting Molokai is like stepping back in time. Locals here still predominantly farm and fish.
You can enjoy fewer crowds and a genuine Aloha spirit.
People sometimes underestimate this Hawaiian island because of the lack of typical resort activities but make no mistake.
The slower pace doesn’t mean that the island is boring. Imagine surfing perfect waves off an empty white-sand beach or hiking through rainforests to waterfalls in Hawaii’s original settlement.
Molokai is Hawaii’s most “Hawaiian” island in the sense that it has the highest percentage of ethnic Hawaiians and is one of the last places you might still hear the Hawaiian language spoken on the street.
It’s a great place where culture and tradition are well preserved and treasured over modern progress.
The highlight is visiting Kalaupapa National Historical Park, the former home of a leper colony.
You can take an organized tour or hike down a trail with breathtaking views of the ocean and surrounding cliffs.
Best Things To Do in Molokai
- Kalaupapa Penisula
- Molokai forest reserve
- Papohaku Beach
- Halawa valley
Interested to discover more things to do in Molokai?
Pros of Molokai
- Welcoming locals
- Unspoiled beaches
- Fewer tourists
Cons of Molokai
- No direct flights
- Limited accommodation
- Limited entertainment options besides outdoors
LANAI – Private Off-the-beaten-path Adventure
Best known for:
- private luxury resorts
- beautiful reefs
Lanai is the smallest inhabited Hawaiian island.
With the construction of the luxurious Four Seasons Resort and miles of open space, the island instantly became one of Hawaii’s most exclusive getaways.
Resort life aside, you can enjoy snorkeling here at Hulopoe Beach Park and the plantation-era charm of cozy Lanai City, the island’s only town.
Because of the expensive and limited accommodation, people usually go to Lanai only for a day trip from Maui.
The best way to explore Lanai island is by off-roading in a jeep.
Best Things To Do on Lanai
- Hulopoe Beach Park
- Keahiakawelo, a.k.a Garden of Gods
- Kaiolohia (Shipwreck Beach)
- Polihua Beach
- Diving at Cathedrals
- Cat Sanctuary
- Lana’i Culture and Heritage Center
Pros of Lanai
- luxurious resorts
- off-the-beaten-path experience
- privacy and serenity
Cons of Lanai
- lack of infrastructure
- limited and expensive accommodation
No matter which island you choose to visit in Hawaii, you’re guaranteed to have an unforgettable adventure. So what is the best island to visit in Hawaii, in your opinion? Visit all six to find out.
Casandra Karpiak is a travel writer and the co-owner of Savoteur. A Toronto native with Danish roots currently residing in British Columbia, her travel writing has been seen on The Associated Press wire, MSN, CBS, NBC, Entrepreneur, 24/7 Wall St, Times Daily, and many more.
You can follow her travel adventures on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.