While eight islands make up the Hawaiian Islands, only six are open to visitors. The Hawaiian Islands open to tourists include The Island of Hawaii ("The Big Island"), Maui, Molokai, Lanai, Oahu, and Kauai. The best island to visit in Hawaii depends on you: Are you looking for the best Hawaiian Island for couples? Or, maybe you're looking for the best island in Hawaii for families.
Wondering which is the best of the Hawaiian Islands to visit for adventure? Trying to determine the best Hawaii island to visit for history, culture, and off-the-beaten-path experiences? We've got you covered! In this guide to the Islands of Hawaii, we'll cover this and more to help you decide on the best island in Hawaii for your next vacation.
The Island of Hawaii ("The Big Island" & Hawaii's Island of Adventure)
"The Big Island" is certainly an appropriate nickname for the Island of Hawaii. Not only is it the youngest of the Hawaiian Islands, but it is also the largest. In fact, it's almost twice as big as all of the other islands of Hawaii combined!
The Big Island is the Best Island to Visit in Hawaii for Volcanoes
Due to its size, it should come as no surprise that you'll find a variety of different climate zones throughout the island. At close to 14,000 feet, snow is frequently found on the summit of Mauna Kea, especially December through February. In stark contrast, you could head to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park for a possible red-hot lava sighting. Located within the park's boundaries are two of the world's most active volcanoes, Kīlauea and Mauna Loa.
Things to Do on The Big Island Hawaii
Other things to do on the Big Island of Hawaii include a visit to the famous Punaluu Black Sand Beach. If you're lucky, you might even see turtles lounging in the sun atop the granular fragments of lava. Looking for a truly unique experience? Swimming with manta rays at night is another popular activity on the Big Island. Love coffee? Take your pick of many available Kona coffee plantation tours. Prefer beer? Grab a pint at Kona Brewing Company. When you're ready to explore, the Island of Hawaii offers scenic road trips, lush rainforest hikes, magnificent waterfalls, and white-sand beaches.
Maui Hawaii ("The Valley Isle")
Maui is the second-largest of the islands of Hawaii, and some of the most beautiful beaches in the world can be found here. So, if you're looking to simply relax on the sand with Mai Tai in hand, this is Hawaiian island for you! Additionally, Maui is the perfect island for honeymooners since it offers many luxury resorts and high-end restaurants.
Maui is the Best Island to Visit in Hawaii for Whale Watching
Maui is the best Hawaiian island for whale watching. See the majestic humpback whales off the coast of Maui during their annual winter migration from November to May. Peak season typically runs from mid-January through March, providing visitors with their best chance to see these majestic creatures. Maui Nui Basin is the best place to see whales in Maui. More than half of the humpback population migrates here to breed each winter.
Things to Do in Maui Hawaii
Unlike the active volcanoes found on the Big Island, Maui is home to the largest dormant volcano in the world. Haleakala Crater is situated within the borders of Haleakala National Park, which you can explore via car, bike, or foot. A scenic drive along the Road to Hana is one of the best things to do in Maui. Take a 52-mile ride through the island's most breathtaking scenery. There are plenty of lookout points, hiking trails, beaches, gardens, and waterfall stops along the journey. Drive the road yourself or let someone else do the driving on a guided tour. And whether you want to relax, swim, snorkel, or kitesurf, Wailea Beach will not disappoint. The pristine coastline offers plenty of space for locals and vacationers to relish in paradise.
Molokai Hawaii ("The Friendly Isle")
You won't find too many tourist attractions on the island of Molokai. This helps make "The Friendly Isle" the best Hawaiian Island for experiencing native Hawaiian culture.
Molokai is the Best Island to Visit in Hawaii for Hawaiian Culture
With the absence of luxury hotels and resorts, Molokai is the best Hawaiian island for escaping crowds. Head here to experience the local culture, as most of the island's population is made up of native Hawaiians. For a truly unique activity, visit the post office in Ho'olehua, where you can decorate and ship a coconut to anywhere in the world! An estimated 3,000 coconuts are mailed each year through the Post-a-Nut program.
Things to Do in Molokai Hawaii
Molokai is home to the largest sea cliffs in the world, which reach heights of up to 3,900 feet above sea level. Treat yourself and splurge on a helicopter tour to soar high above the dramatic coastline. If you prefer to stay at sea level, do some snorkeling in Hawaii's longest continuous fringing reef. The white sands of Papohaku Beach stretch on for miles, making it one of Hawaii's longest beaches. Other places to visit on the island of Molokai include Halawa Valley (and Halawa Falls). Kalaupapa National Historic Park is another island highlight, though this location can only be reached via hiking tour, helicopter or plane ride, or by riding a mule! Molokai is the best Hawaiian island for getting away from it all.
Lanai Hawaii ("Hawaii's Most Enticing Isle")
Lanai is the smallest of the inhabited Hawaiian Islands open to visitors. It is also one of the least visited islands. Lanai, combined with the island of Molokai, only accounts for 1 percent of visitors to the Hawaiian Islands!
Lanai is the Best Island to Visit in Hawaii for Off The Beaten Path Experiences
While there are luxury resorts and championship-level golf courses on the island of Lanai, there are also over 400 miles of off-road trails. Hop in a 4-wheel drive vehicle and explore Hawaii off the beaten path! You won't find a single traffic light on the island of Lanai. Plus, only 30 miles of the island's roads are paved.
Things to Do in Lanai Hawaii
Head to Hulopoe Beach for a quiet and secluded experience. Keep your eyes peeled for spinner dolphins off the shore of Hulopoe Bay. While in this area of the island, be sure to check out the iconic natural landmark of Puu Pehe. Puu Pehe, an 80-foot picturesque rock formation, is steeped in fascinating Hawaiian folklore. Discover a terrain like no other at Keahiakawelo (The Fire of Kawelthe), Garden of the Gods. Experiencing this lunar-like landscape requires a 4-wheel drive vehicle or mountain bike, but it's worth the journey. Another unique find on Lanai is Kaunolu Fishing Village, the largest surviving ruins of a prehistoric Hawaiian Village.
Oahu Hawaii ("The Heart of Hawaii")
Oahu tends to be the best Hawaiian island for first-time visitors because it offers a little bit of everything. Most flights to the Hawaiian Islands arrive in Honolulu (HNL), the capital city of Hawaii on the island of Oahu. This may be another reason Oahu is the most popular island in Hawaii, with the most visitors annually.
Oahu is the Best Island to Visit in Hawaii for Attractions
Because of its wide variety of attraction offerings, Oahu is the best Hawaii island to visit for families. It's also one of the cheapest Hawaiian Islands to get to, as it doesn't require an inter-island transfer. With everything from sandy beaches, historical sites, hiking trails, city experiences, surf towns, and world-class snorkeling, there's truly something for everyone on the island of Oahu. Want to experience a traditional Hawaiian luau? Head to the Polynesian Cultural Center in Laie on the northern shore of Oahu.
Things to Do in Oahu Hawaii
Make the climb to the top of Diamond Head Crater for outstanding views over the island and beyond! Pay your respect for the lives lost at Pearl Harbor. Surf big waves on the North Shore or snorkel the coral reefs and underwater volcanic crater at Hanauma Bay. Relax along the famous shores of Waikiki Beach. Shop at Hawaii's largest shopping mall (Ala Moana Center) and take in the city's nightlife in Honolulu. There is no shortage of things to do on Oahu, Hawaii's most popular island.
Kauai Hawaii ("The Garden Isle")
Kauai is the oldest and most northern of the Hawaiian Islands. It encompasses some of the lushest landscapes and most dramatic scenery, hence its nickname, "The Garden Isle."
Kauai is the Best Island to Visit in Hawaii for Hiking
Much of Kauai's most dramatic vistas can only be accessed by land or sea. However, there are still amazing views to be had along the endless miles of trails found throughout the island. The best hike in Kauai is the Na Pali Coast (Kalalau) Trail. You can hike to Hanakāpīʻai Beach (four miles roundtrip) or Hanakāpīʻai Falls and back (eight miles). Please note: In order to hike past Hanakāpī‘ai Beach, you'll need a valid camping permit for Napali Coast State Wilderness Park. Of course, you can always do a shorter portion of the trail and head back when you're ready. The dramatic views start shortly beyond the trailhead!
Things to Do in Kauai Hawaii
Besides hiking, other things to do in Kauai include a boat tour along the Na Pali coast and snorkeling on Poipu Beach. Adventurer-seekers can zipline over Kauai's lush valleys and kayak down the Wailua River. To enjoy the slower pace of Kauai, stop by one of its many small towns, including Kapaa, Hanapepe, and Hanalei. Like on the island of Molokai, this is where you want to splurge on a helicopter tour: In fact, many of Kauai's best views are from above. Your helicopter tour of Kauai may include flying over Waimea Canyon, which is known as the "Grand Canyon of the Pacific." Know that you can also drive to the canyon and wander along one of several hiking trails. Be sure to close out your day of adventure on Kauai island with a refreshing shave ice treat from Hee Fat in Kapaa.
All in all, you really can't go wrong with any of the Hawaiian Islands. The best Hawaii island depends on the experience you're after. No matter which Hawaiian island you choose, you'll be blown away by its beauty and splendor! And no doubt, you'll want to return to the islands of Hawaii again and again!
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