How to Decide Which Island to Visit on Your Next Hawaii Vacation

The Hawaiian Islands are the 50th state within the United States of America, but they can feel a world apart from the mainland.

Surrounded by the blue waters of the Pacific Ocean, Hawaii is a major tourism hub known for its beaches, scenic beauty, and recreational opportunities. Great food and great views await, but the hardest part of planning a trip to Hawaii is choosing which island to visit. The main six islands in Hawaii are Kauai, Oahu, Maui, Lanai, Molokai, and the Island of Hawaii.

Learn more about each as you plan your upcoming getaway to Hawaii.

How to Decide Which One is For You?

Choosing which Hawaiian island to visit can be tricky, but it all boils down to what you want out of the vacation. If it is beautiful scenery and warm weather, you’ll find it across each of the islands. Beyond that, however, consider your ideal getaway. Are you doing a lot of shopping, or are you hiking? Are you dressed to impress, or are you in a bathing suit most of the time?

First, consider public transport. This is something that often gets forgotten, but it can have a big impact on the kind of vacation you’ll experience. Many visitors who come to Hawaii will need to rent a car. The exception to this rule is on Oahu, where public transport is more common. Otherwise, you may be limited to expensive taxis or staying put at your choice of resort.

Then, think about the crowds. Everyone has seen a picture of the gorgeous Waikiki Beach, but the strip of white sand is virtually never empty. If you’re dreaming of seclusion and quiet beaches, then be sure to pick an island that is less developed and offers spots just for you.

Outdoor recreation is another key aspect to consider. All the islands boast gorgeous beaches and opportunities to swim, but more specific activities may require more planning. Do you want to ride horses through a rainforest? Would you like to ride a bike down the side of an inactive volcano at sunrise? How about visiting an observatory and playing in the snow before heading to the beach just two hours later? All of this is possible if you choose the right island for your trip.

Finally, think about logistics. All six of these Hawaiian Islands have airports, but not all have the same number of flights. If you’re hoping for a direct flight from a major hub in the United States, your options might be limited. If you head to one of the smaller islands, factor an extra connecting flight into your travel plans.

The Islands of Hawaii

Kauai

If you’re searching for a little more seclusion, then Kauai is a great island to explore. Nicknamed the Garden Isle, Kauai is packed with stunning scenery but far fewer crowds than some of the neighboring islands like Oahu. Getting around on Kauai is a breeze, because there is just one major ring road that circles the island.

There are lots of beautiful resorts, not to mention a long list of breathtaking natural landmarks like the Na Pali Coast. You can explore Waimea Canyon, paddle down the Wailua River, or hike through Haena State Park. Lihue is the biggest town on the island, and it is where you’ll find the biggest collection of shops and restaurants. The downside of staying on Kauai is that you won’t get much upscale shopping, and budget accommodation is hard to find.

Oahu

The most developed of the Hawaiian Islands, and the most densely populated, is Oahu. The island is home to the capital city of Honolulu, not to mention world-famous beaches like Waikiki. It is often where visitors fly into, since it is home to the biggest airport in Hawaii. Visiting Oahu means hiking to Diamond Head, taking a surfing lesson on the North Shore, or riding horses at Kualoa Ranch on the Leeward Coast.

The benefits of visiting Oahu are numerous. There are countless attractions, thousands of things to do and see, amazing hotels, and world-class cuisine. There is shopping at the Ala Moana Mall, boutique stores in Honolulu, and some of the best surfing on the islands. The drawback to visiting Oahu is how crowded it can get. Be prepared for lots of traffic as well as big crowds at major attractions like the USS Arizona National Memorial at Pearl Harbor.

Maui

The second largest of the Hawaiian Islands is Maui. Its nickname is the Valley Isle, thanks to the valley that runs between the mountains on the western side of the island and Haleakala on the east. Maui is a wonderful choice for those who want to spend lots of time outdoors. One of the best ways to soak up the views is by driving along Hana Highway, a road packed with hairpin turns but also breathtaking beauty.

In Maui, you’ll be treated to beautiful waterfalls as well as long stretches of white sand coastline on Kaanapali Beach. Watch migrating whales from the coast during the winter months or tee off at one of the world-class golf courses. One of the downsides to visiting Maui is the parking, which is limited in places and expensive in others. This is especially true at some of the smaller beaches as well as in towns like Lahaina and Kahului.

The Island of Hawaii

One Hawaiian island is known as simply as the Island of Hawaii, or the Big Island. Just like the name suggests, this is the largest of all the islands. However, it is far from the busiest. If you want to escape the touristy feel, then the Big Island can be a wonderful place to explore. The island is home to working cattle ranches, macadamia nut farms, and coffee plantations. It boasts miles of beaches, many of which are empty and secluded much of the time.

The weather can be confusing on the Big Island of Hawaii. In Hilo, closer to the Volcanoes National Park, you can expect up to 180 inches of rainfall each year. Two hours away in Kailua-Kona, expect substantially less rain and clear, sunny days most of the year. Kona is the busiest part of the island, but it is also where you’ll find many of the top restaurants, shops, and resorts.

Lanai

Lanai is the smallest inhabited island in Hawaii as well as one of the least visited. It is an island that was once owned by Dole, serving as the biggest pineapple plantation on the planet. Today, Lanai is a true dichotomy. On one hand, it’s still a rustic paradise where dirt roads lead to empty beaches. On the other hand, it is home to some of the most spectacular resorts in Hawaii. By taking advantage of both aspects of Lanai, you can create the ultimate Hawaiian getaway.

You may find that some of the highly-rated resorts on Lanai are very expensive. Staying at these resorts can be wonderful, but make sure you leave the property and explore the island fully. Try snorkeling at Hulopoe Bay and be sure to stop and enjoy the view at the lookout called Puu Pehe or Sweetheart Rock. Get your adrenaline flowing with a horseback riding adventure along Munro Trail or get off-road with ATVs on the red dirt valleys in the center of the island.

Molokai

Molokai is an island with incredible beauty and a fascinating history. Nicknamed the Friendly Isle, Molokai may be best known for Kalaupapa, its former leper colony on the north shore of the island.

Today, Molokai is an island packed with incredible beauty and rustic landscapes. There is lush greenery in the Kamakou Preserve, where you can hike and spot wildlife. In Papohaku Beach, there is world-class snorkeling and a beautiful white-sand coastline. You can ride a mule through the remote and poignant Kalaupapa National Historical Park, or you can dig into the local cuisine at Kaunakakai.

Molokai is not the place to visit if you’re after upscale restaurants or shopping malls, although there are some fantastic local eateries and boutiques. Instead, it is an island filled with friendly residents, breathtaking beauty, and captivating history. Also, be prepared to drive while on Molokai, because alternative transport options are limited at best.

Shane Myers Photography / Shutterstock

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