Searching for the best Hawaiian island for your trip? Whether you’re seeking budget-friendly, luxury, kid-friendly, or romance, here’s how to choose.
Hawaii, with its picturesque islands scattered across the Pacific Ocean, is a dream destination for travelers worldwide. The allure of Hawaii lies in its exceptional versatility, catering to a diverse range of vacation styles.
Whether you’re a budget-conscious traveler seeking an affordable getaway or a luxury aficionado looking for lavish indulgence, Hawaii has it all. The islands offer the perfect canvas for crafting your ideal vacation.
To help you navigate the Hawaiian archipelago and find the perfect island that aligns with your travel preferences, we’ve written this comprehensive guide.
From the expansive and dynamic Big Island, ideal for a classic Hawaiian experience or family getaway, to the intriguing Kailua airport with its budget-friendly fares on the west coast, we’ll provide insights into how to make the most of your Hawaiian adventure.
Here’s how to choose the best Hawaiian island for your vacation!
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The Best Islands to See in Hawaii
Technically, Hawaii has 8 main islands — 1 of which is uninhabited, and another that is privately owned. You’re likely familiar with the names of the 6 major islands, so read on to find out more about them and discover which of them would make the best destination for you!
The Big Island — officially known as “Hawaii” — is an all-in-one package; if you’re seeking out the idyllic Hawaiian experience for your first trip to the islands or for a breezy family vacation, the Big Island may be the spot for you. Because it is the largest island of the bunch, it will require a rental car and a few longer drives if you want to venture beyond airport cities — however, I highly recommend doing so!
The Kailua airport on the western coast of the Big Island offers consistently (and often significantly) cheaper fares than the Hilo airport on the eastern coast, so take that opportunity to road trip around the island if seeing Hilo is a must.
Best Things to Do on Hawaii’s Big Island
Most are aware the Kilauea volcano has been especially active lately, but don’t let that deter you from planning your trip! This volcano has been active for over 20 years and continues to be safe for tourists, given the 10 square miles it’s affected is an exclusively residential area and far from popular tourist spots.
Favorite activities on the island include a visit to a coffee plantation (Mountain Thunder on the west coast, Hawaiian Crown on the east), hiking (the coastal Waipio Valley is jaw-dropping), snorkeling with manta rays (you can book a manta ray adventure here), and chasing waterfalls — you can even try zip lining at Umauma Falls!
The lava on the Big Island has shaped beautiful black sand beaches, such as Punalu’u Black Sand Beach, where you can spot basking sea turtles.
Cultural sites like Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park take you back in time to ancient Hawaii. For outdoor activities, a visit to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park to witness the majesty of Kilauea and Mauna Loa (the largest active volcano on the planet) is a must!
Oahu is one of the most budget-friendly islands, with plenty of affordable hotels (even hostels!) to choose from and no necessity for a rental car; dining and activities even tend to be easy on the wallet as well. In fact, you can even get great deals on vacation packages through Costco! Known as “The Gathering Place,” Oahu is home to some of the best beaches in Hawaii, like the famous Waikiki beach!
Best Things to Do on Oahu
Oahu is a vibrant hub of diverse activities and attractions, making it a must-visit island for your Hawaiian adventure. For outdoor enthusiasts, the island offers an array of adventures, including hiking to the summit of Diamond Head, snorkeling in Hanauma Bay, and experiencing the iconic North Shore. Other favorites on the island include the Honolulu Botanical Gardens, the famous Pearl Harbor site and Manoa Falls.
Just 24 miles from Honolulu, Kualoa Ranch (known as Hawaii’s “Jurassic Valley”) is a must visit, especially with kids! This 4,000 acre private nature reserve is a working cattle ranch and the filming location for many popular films and TV shows including Lost, Jurassic Park, Godzilla, and 50 First Dates.
Recommended Tours at Kualoa Ranch Include:
- Jurassic Adventure Tour
- Best of Kualoa Experience Package
- Jungle Expedition Tour
- Hollywood Movie Sites Tour
Oahu’s rich cultural heritage is on full display in its museums, historic sites, and local markets. This island provides a dynamic blend of relaxation and excitement, ensuring you’ll find the perfect activities to match your travel style.
Due to its affordability, Oahu tends to attract the crowds — though for the same reasons, it also may be the best option for families. Kid-friendly activities include the Honolulu Zoo, Waikiki Aquarium, and Sea Life Park Hawaii. No matter the age range or family size, there is quite literally an attraction for everyone — and all accommodating to little ones!
Maui, often referred to as the “Valley Isle,” is a gem among Hawaii’s islands, offering a plethora of activities for your vacation.
Maui’s beautiful beaches are known worldwide, and it’s no secret why; the stunning black sands of Pa’iloa Beach and red sand Kaihalulu Beach, make this island a no-brainer for those wanting to lounge by the sea for the entire duration of their vacation.
Best Things to Do on Maui
Maui embodies everything relaxation and luxury (there are 12+ renowned luxury hotels to choose from!), with sunset cocktail cruises and helicopter tours abound; however, you can always enjoy the best of both worlds and take some time to explore on your own.
Iao Valley State Park is a lush green wonderland perfect for a day hike, and you can even learn to swim in the ocean as a mermaid!
Outdoor adventures on Maui are in abundance, from hiking the Pipiwai Trail to discover the bamboo forest and Waimoku Falls in Haleakala National Park, to embarking on the scenic Road to Hana, filled with breathtaking vistas and hidden waterfalls. I also highly recommend taking a Molokini snorkel tour!
During the winter months, Maui is a prime spot for whale watching. I recommend taking a boat tour to see humpback whales in their natural habitat.
Lanai, often referred to as the “Pineapple Isle,” is a serene and unspoiled Hawaiian gem that beckons travelers with its unique charm. This small island is perfect for intimate getaways, a destination worthy of the ultimate honeymoon or anniversary.
You won’t find massive resorts brimming with tourists, or noisy kid-filled beaches here; one of the smallest Hawaiian islands, Lanai is secluded enough that you’ll only be able to reach it by ferry!
Best Things to Do on Lanai
The island’s cultural heritage is celebrated at sites like the Lanai Culture and Heritage Center, where you can delve into the island’s rich history.
I also recommend taking a photo at the Pu’u Pehe — “Sweetheart Rock” — sea stack, see the awesome Shipwreck Beach on the north shore, snorkel at Hulopoe Bay (the best spot on the island for novices), enjoy yoga or a unique body treatment at the Four Seasons, or simply relax and enjoy the tranquility of this isolated paradise.
Where to Stay on Lanai: Four Seasons Resort Lanai, Hotel Lanai (when available)
Read more: 10 Best Places To Visit In Hawaii
A raw Hawaiian gem, Molokai is another smaller island that hasn’t been completely taken over by tourism. The island is mostly inhabited by natives, so you’ll get an authentic Hawaiian experience with a ton of culture here on “The Friendly Isle.”
Molokai has a lot of history, which you’ll discover through hula, food, and storytelling. Coconut palms are plentiful (the perfect backdrop for gorgeous vacation pics), and you can see everything from towering waterfalls to the lush, deep Halawa Valley by hike or even helicopter!
Best Things to Do on Molokai
Molokai a place where time seems to stand still, offering a glimpse into the traditional Hawaiian way of life. While Molokai has some gorgeous beaches, such as Papohaku Beach, the real allure lies in its cultural sites, like the Kalaupapa National Historical Park, where you can learn about the island’s history.
Outdoor adventures are plentiful, with opportunities for hiking along the Kalaupapa Trail or exploring the Halawa Valley’s lush landscapes.
Witness sea life underwater with a snorkel around the reef, or go on a whale watching tour to see humpback whales up close and personal. There’s something for everyone here — you’ll just experience it with less tourists and more true Hawaiians around you. Molokai’s laid-back and authentic atmosphere makes it the perfect destination for those seeking a tranquil and off-the-beaten-path Hawaiian adventure.
Kauai, known as the “Garden Isle,” is a paradise for hikers and those seeking outdoor adventure. Kauai will feed the nature lover’s soul!
Best Things to Do on Kauai
Outdoor adventurers can get a taste of the Grand Canyon of the Pacific at the stunning Waimea Canyon, trek the island’s most famous trail — Kalalau Trail — along the scenic Na Pali coast, or dive into the rainforests to search out the numerous waterfalls scattered throughout.
Its breathtaking beaches, like Tunnels Beach and Poipu Beach, make Kauai a haven for sunbathers, swimmers, and snorkelers. Kauai’s cultural sites, including the historic Kilohana Plantation and the Waioli Mission House, provide a window into the island’s history.
Overall, Kauai is a fantastic middle-ground between the intimate and peaceful Molokai and Lanai and attraction-filled Oahu and Maui.
The Best Time to Visit Hawaii
Hawaii enjoys a pleasant tropical climate throughout the year, making it an attractive destination any time you choose to visit. However, the ideal time for your Hawaiian adventure may depend on your specific preferences.
The peak tourist season typically occurs during the dry and warm months from December to April, offering plenty of sunshine and enjoyable beach weather. This period is perfect for water sports, beach relaxation, and exploring the islands.
On the other hand, if you’re looking for a more budget-friendly trip with fewer crowds, consider the shoulder seasons of spring and fall when the weather is still inviting, and you can take advantage of reduced accommodation rates.
Weather can vary from one island to another, so understanding the microclimates of your chosen destination can help you plan your trip to coincide with the most favorable conditions.
Traveling between the Hawaiian Islands is a seamless and essential part of exploring the Aloha State. Several inter-island transportation options are available to make island-hopping a breeze.
1. Domestic Flights: The quickest and most common way to move between islands is by booking a short domestic flight. Several airlines, such as Hawaiian Airlines, Southwest Airlines, and others, offer frequent flights between the major islands, ensuring you can swiftly reach your next destination.
2. Inter-Island Ferries: For a more leisurely and scenic journey, consider taking an inter-island ferry. Companies like the Maui-Lanai Ferry and the Expeditions ferry service provide connections between Maui and Lanai, while the Molokai Ferry links Maui and Molokai.
3. Small Aircraft and Helicopter Tours: If you’re looking to combine transportation with a thrilling experience, consider taking a small aircraft or helicopter tour. These tours provide breathtaking aerial views of the islands as you move from one to the next.
4. Cruise Ships: For a more extensive Hawaiian adventure, opt for an inter-island cruise. These voyages offer the chance to visit multiple islands on a single trip while enjoying onboard amenities and entertainment.
With these inter-island transportation options, you can easily create a personalized itinerary to explore the diverse beauty of Hawaii’s islands, each with its unique allure and activities.
Travelers from all over the world visit Hawaii every year looking for a tropical vacation that fits their lifestyle and the beauty of Hawaii is its versatility. Whether you’re seeking budget-friendly or luxury, a relaxing vacay on the beach or adventurous wanders through lush landscapes, you’ll find the perfect vacation on one of Hawaii’s islands.