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Best Island to Visit in Hawaii: What’s Best for You?

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Dreaming of a tropical Hawaiian vacation? Maybe it’s your first time planning to visit the islands, or perhaps you’re a seasoned visitor looking for more to explore. In any case, this article is a perfect stepping stone to figuring out which is the best Hawaiian island to visit for you.

Born and raised in Hawaii, I’ve been lucky to visit each island multiple times. Each of the main Hawaiian islands has its unique features.

The main islands of Oahu, Maui, Kauai, and Hawaii each have many things to do and see. Consider the smaller islands of Lanai and Molokai to find the real hidden gems of the Hawaiian islands. Here’s a map of Hawaii to help you get oriented with the layout and the islands.

Map of Hawaii's islands with key locations for Pacific vacation planning.

Which are the best Hawaiian islands for you to visit? Read our guide below to discover which island will make your dream vacation come true!

Oahu – The Gathering Place

Surfers in Oahu

Oahu is the main island of the Hawaiian island chain and is home to the state capital, Honolulu. I think Oahu is an excellent island in Hawaii for first-time visitors because there are beautiful beaches, scenic hikes, and fantastic shopping. If you’re planning to see just one island, I recommend Oahu.

The Downtown Honolulu area features urban living influenced by a melting pot of Pacific Rim cultures. You can always find a new restaurant or cafe to check out.

It’s also home to ‘Iolani Palace, the only royal palace in the United States. The island’s North Shore is famous for its laid-back surfer lifestyle and stunning beaches like Waimea Bay.

The west side is home to Ko Olina, a resort area that includes Disney’s Aulani and the Four Seasons Resort, perfect for relaxing beach days. Oahu’s east side has some great beaches to spend the day at, like Lanikai Beach and Kailua Beach Park.

Oahu is also a convenient option if you’re interested in Hawaiian island hopping. There are many daily flights from Honolulu to the other major islands, so it should be easy to find one that’s convenient for you.

Check Kayak.com for the best flight deals to and from Honolulu International Airport. Oahu might be the best island for you if you are a first-time visitor to the islands or want a completely relaxing vacation.

See Related: Things to Do in Oahu, Hawaii

Top Attractions on Oahu

Oahu Island Scenery

Waikiki Beach

Waikiki beach view, beachgoers, and skyline at Oahu, Hawaii
Richie Chan / Adobe Stock

Waikiki Beach is arguably the most iconic symbol of the Hawaiian islands. The white sand contrasts with the turquoise blue waters as the Diamond Head crater stands out on the coast and the most luxurious resorts line the shore.

Waikiki is an excellent place for relaxation, nightlife, and luxury shopping all in one. Check out this Glass Bottom Waikiki Beach Sightseeing Boat Tour to get out on the water and enjoy the marine life.

Hanauma Bay

 Aerial view of Hanauma Bay on Oahu Island, Hawaii
Wirestock / Adobe Stock

Hanauma Bay is the best spot on the island for snorkeling. It is conveniently located just 20 minutes from Waikiki, so it’s super convenient if you’re staying in the area.

Pearl Harbor National Memorial

Pearl Harbor National Memorial

Pearl Harbor is considered to be the most important landmark on Oahu. It is a military base and the site of an attack by the Japanese military in December 1941, which pushed the United States into World War II.

Take this Half-Day Pearl Harbor Tour to see the USS Arizona, which is still sunken today, along with several brave sailors in their final resting place. It is a truly sobering experience.

Polynesian Cultural Center

Statue and entrance of the Polynesian Cultural Center in Oahu, Honolulu, Hawaii
Scalia Media – stock.adobe.com

The Polynesian Cultural Center is a great place to learn about Hawaiian culture and other Polynesian cultures found throughout the Pacific.

Check out the island villages to learn about the culture and history of Fiji, Hawaii, New Zealand, Samoa, Tahiti, and Tonga. There is also a great luau to enjoy live entertainment and delicious traditional Hawaiian food.

Oahu’s North Shore

Aerial view of Waimea Bay on the Oahu North Shore, Hawaii
Paul / Adobe Stock

The iconic North Shore is known for its great surf and chill vibe. Residents and visitors flock here in the winter to watch the various professional surf competitions held throughout the season.

Where to Stay on Oahu

Waikiki Beach and buildings at Honolulu , Oahu, Hawaii
FernandoM / Adobe Stock
  • Budget: Mountain View North Shore Studio – This lovely studio in Waialua is a perfect getaway from the hustle and bustle of Waikiki with beautiful views of the Ka’ala Mountain Range. It’s close to Haleiwa town, where you can find the best restaurants and boutiques the North Shore has to offer.
  • Mid-Range: The Modern Honolulu – The Modern is found right at the entrance of Waikiki from Downtown Honolulu. The beautiful pool area is perfect for enjoying a mai tai and the sunset.
  • Luxury: Four Seasons Resort Oahu at Ko Olina – The Four Seasons is known for its luxury appeal and unbeatable hospitality. Guests can enjoy two pool areas, the beautiful lagoons of Ko Olina, and the best restaurants on the island’s west side.

See Related: Best Snorkeling Spots in Hawaii

Hawaii – The Big Island

Lava in The Big Island

When determining the best island to visit, Hawaii island probably comes to mind. It’s the biggest island in the Hawaiian archipelago and is full of adventure!

The island has three active volcanoes: Kilauea, Mauna Loa, and Mauna Kea. Locals and newcomers consider the Big Island the best island in Hawaii because of its lower cost of living than the rest of the state and its many outdoor activities.

The island has eight climate zones, so you can go from trekking up snow-capped mountains to snorkeling alongside Hawaiian green sea turtles on the same day. As its nickname suggests, the island is huge, so most visitors choose to visit either the Kailua-Kona or Hilo sides.

Kailua-Kona is on the west coast and is known for its sunshine and pristine beaches. Hilo is on the east side, and while it also boasts some amazing beaches, it is prone to a lot more rain, so waterfall hikes through tropical rainforests are more popular on this side of the island.

Depending on which side of the island you’d like to visit, look for flights to either Kona International Airport or Hilo International Airport. Hawaii’s Big Island is the best island to visit if you’re looking for a lot of outdoor adventure and unique experiences in different climates.

See Related: A Guide to Hiking Oahu’s Stairway to Heaven

Top Attractions on Hawaii Island

Hawaii Island and Skyline

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Steam coming from Kilauea Volcano in Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park, Big Island, Hawaii
Paul / Adobe Stock

Looking to visit one of the most active volcanoes in the world? Look no further than Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Kilauea has been erupting continuously since 1983. The stunning active volcano is a natural beauty and is just 45 minutes south of Hilo.

Drive Along the Hamakua Coast

Panoramic view of Hamakua Coast of Big Island, Hawaii
Pomaikai / Adobe Stock

The Hamakua Coast is on the northeastern part of the island and sees an average of 84 inches of rain annually. All this rain makes for lush rainforests and beautiful scenery. On your drive, stop at Akaka Falls, a colossal 442-foot-tall waterfall.

Punalu’u Beach

Punalu'u Black Sand Beach and skyline in Big Island, Hawaii
youli zhao / Adobe Stock

Punalu’u Beach is the most famous black sand beach in the state. The gorgeous beach is just as popular with green sea turtles as with people. There are several black sand beaches throughout the islands, but this one is certainly unforgettable.

Visit South Point Park

South Point Park lava rocks, grassland, and ocean view at South Point Park in Hawaii
Alexandre ROSA / Adobe Stock

South Point is not only the southernmost point of Hawaii but also the southernmost point in the entire United States! It’s a scenic drive from Kona and Hilo, and there’s a cool jump spot from the cliffs into the deep blue ocean.

Take a Night Swim with Manta Rays

Swimming With Manta Ray
image by GetYourGuide

One of the most unique experiences I recommend to everyone visiting the Big Island is to do a nighttime snorkel with Manta Rays along the Kona coast. These breathtaking creatures gracefully glide through the sea while feeding on plankton.

This Eco-Friendly Twilight Manta Ray Adventure is 75 minutes long and will provide all the gear you need to get up close to these beautiful animals safely.

Where to Stay on Hawaii Island

Kahalu’u Beach Park, Big Island Hawaii
PhotoImage / Adobe Stock
  • Budget: Lava Tree Tropic Inn – This adorable bed & breakfast is a hidden gem in the quaint town of Pahoa, just south of Hilo. Continental breakfast is included in all stays, and there is live entertainment every Friday afternoon.
  • Mid-Range: Courtyard by Marriott King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel – This hotel offers stunning views of the Kona Coast and a wonderful pool area. Paddleboard and kayak rentals are available on the property.
  • Luxury: Hilton Waikoloa Village – The Hilton Waikoloa is a stunning property spanning over 62 acres right on the water. One of the most fun experiences for the whole family is taking a boat ride within the property’s canals to get to your room.

See Related: Best Islands to Visit

Kauai – The Garden Isle

Aerial Shot of an Island and the Sea

Kauai is smaller than Maui, Oahu, and the Big Island but offers many outdoor activities. It’s a favorite weekend getaway for Oahu residents because it’s just a 30-minute flight from Honolulu to Lihue Airport.

I think it is the most beautiful island in Hawaii because of the natural beauty you will find. There are canyons, rivers, waterfalls, hiking trails, and beautiful beaches on this island. There isn’t significant nightlife on Kauai, unlike the other Hawaiian islands, beyond the bar of your hotel – assuming it has a bar!

The towns on this island are quite small, and there aren’t even any high rises on the entire island. It’s a great opportunity to get away from a city if that’s what you’re used to and immerse yourself in the outdoors.

Kauai is the best Hawaiian island for you if you’re looking for rugged adventure during the day and quiet, relaxing nights.

See Related: Best Beaches in St. Thomas for Snorkeling

Top Attractions on Kauai

Kaua Overview

Na Pali Coast

Nāpali Coast State Wilderness Park in Kauai Island, Hawaii
JHVEPhoto / Adobe Stock

While you may have heard of the North Shore of Oahu, the North Shore Kauai has to offer is arguably even more breathtaking. The north shore, also known as the Na Pali Coast, is a stunning combination of towering sea cliffs, deep valleys, and hidden beaches.

This island part is only accessible by boat or multi-day hiking and camping. I recommend this half-day morning snorkel and sailing tour to explore the pristine waters of this part of Kauai.

Kōkeʻe State Park

Aerial view of the Na Pali Coast and Kokeʻe State Park
Faina Gurevich / Adobe Stock

Koke’e State Park is conveniently located right on the top of the Na Pali Coast. It’s very easy to get to by car, and you can walk out just a few hundred feet from the parking lot to get a stunning look at the valley below and the gorgeous waters of the Na Pali Coast.

See Related: Best Restaurants in Waikiki

Waimea Canyon State Park

Aerial view of Waimea Canyon State Park in Kauai, Hawaii
Danita Delimont / Adobe Stock

Waimea Canyon is often called the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific.” It truly is a sight to see, and the soil even has the same burnt-orange color as the real Grand Canyon.

It is about 10 miles long and over 3,000 feet deep. There are several lookout points at the top of the canyon and several hiking trails through the canyon.

Sightseeing Flight Around the Islands

Lanai Helicopter Ride and Experience in Hawaii
Shutterbas / Adobe Stock

Sightseeing flights are the best way to see a whole island in a short amount of time. Many remote parts of the island are only accessible by multi-day hiking over difficult terrain, so a flight is an easier and safer way to see these parts of Kauai.

I recommend this scenic sightseeing flight.

Wailua River

Wailua River

A few months into dating my now-husband, he surprised me with tickets to Kauai for my birthday weekend! It was a lovely trip, and he took care to plan many activities, even though we were both college students at the time.

One of my favorite things we did was kayaking on the Wailua River. The river is just 15 minutes from Lihue and is remarkably peaceful. Check out this highly-rated Wailua River and Secret Falls Kayak and Hiking Tour to be immersed in the natural beauty of Kauai.

Where to Stay on Kauai

Aerial view of Kauai, Hawaii houses and coastline
Reagan / Adobe Stock
  • Budget: Poipu Condo at Prince Kuhio – This condo is just a short two-minute walk from the beautiful Poipu Beach, a fantastic spot for snorkeling. Guests can also enjoy the resort’s pool and restaurants.
  • Mid-Range: Sheraton Kauai Coconut Beach Resort – The Sheraton is conveniently located close to Kapa’a town but still feels perfectly secluded. The hotel features three dining options and a beautiful infinity pool where you can lounge all day.
  • Luxury: Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort & Spa – This Grand Hyatt features several pools, including a lazy river and seven different restaurants. It is the most stunning resort on the island.

See Related: Best Restaurants in Oahu

Maui – The Valley Isle

Beach in Maui

Maui is nicknamed the “Valley Isle” for a good reason. Maui is known for its lush rainforests and waterfalls found throughout the valleys of its two mountain ranges, namely the West Maui Mountains and the famous Haleakala.

South Maui is known for its long, beautiful sandy beaches like Makena. Snorkeling along these stunning coastlines can allow you to view colorful reef fish that call the island home.

In the winter months, whale watching tours are popular and a great way to see the majestic Humpback Whales up close. Maui has a long history of whaling culture and is known today as a top spot in the world for conservationists to help the humpback whale populations.

Maui is the perfect island if you’re planning a vacation for the whole family. It combines leisure and adventure flawlessly without much of the hustle and bustle on Oahu.

See Related: Best Whale Watching Places in the World

Top Attractions on Maui

Maui Island

Haleakala National Park

Aerial view of Haleakalā crater at Haleakala National Park in Maui, Hawaii
Tom / Adobe Stock

Haleakala is still considered an active volcano today, but don’t worry; it isn’t erupting and hasn’t in over 400 years. The name Haleakala means “house of the sun” in Hawaiian, which is completely fitting.

It’s the best place on the island to watch the breathtaking sunrise and sunset. Check out this Haleakala Maui Sunrise Tour that includes breakfast and pick-off/drop-off at your hotel.

Iao Valley State Park

Trail and cliff of Haleakala National Park in Hawaii
Ferrer Photography / Adobe Stock

See why Maui is nicknamed the Valley Isle by visiting the Iao Valley State Park. The main site to see here is the Iao Needle, a stunning 1,200-foot-tall rock formation. There are also several marked hiking trails in the area for visitors to enjoy.

Molokini Crater

Molokini Crater Aerial View

The crescent-shaped Molokini crater is not to be missed if you’re interested in snorkeling or scuba diving. Hundreds of species of fish and other marine life call this crater home. Check out this half-day Snorkeling and Sailing Tour on a luxury glass-bottom catamaran.

Road to Hana

Aerial view of Road to Hana and ocean view in Hawaii
Eli / Adobe Stock

The Road to Hana is an unbelievably scenic drive through Maui’s east side. On this drive, you’ll see countless waterfalls and sandy beaches. Stop frequently along the drive at places like Twin Falls, Hana Lava Tube, Waianapanapa State Park, and the Halfway to Hana fruit stand.

Humpback Whale Watching

Humback Whale in Maui, Hawaii
manuel / Adobe Stock

Whale-watching season in Hawaii is from mid-December to mid-May, though some whales can be spotted starting in October. Maui is arguably the best Hawaiian island for whale watching.

Although it’s possible to see whales on land, the best way to see them is to go on a whale-watching tour like this one, where you can get up close and personal with these gentle giants.

Where to Stay on Maui

Waianapanapa state park, black sand beach. Maui, Hawaii
Photo Image / Shutterstock
  • Budget: Romantic Private Garden Cottage – This highly-rated cottage is conveniently located in Kihei, just a few minutes from Wailea Beach.
  • Mid-Range: Courtyard by Marriott Maui Kahului Airport – This hotel, located just a few minutes from Maui’s main airport, is a convenient spot to base yourself on Maui. Less than 10 minutes from the beach, it features a great pool and hot tub area.
  • Luxury: Grand Wailea Resort Hotel & Spa – The beachfront Grand Wailea is a fantastic property for the whole family. The property has 9 outdoor swimming pools, a water park, and a swim-up bar.

See Related: A Complete Maui Itinerary You’ll Want to Copy

Molokai – The Friendly Isle

Aerial view of the Molokaʻi Island's Halawa Bay in Hawaii
vladimir / Adobe Stock

Molokai is the second largest island in Maui County. It’s a terrific place to disconnect from the rest of the world completely; life just seems to slow down here.

The people are super friendly, and everyone seems to know everyone. If you look lost or in need, I can almost guarantee that someone will stop what they’re doing to help you!

To get to Molokai, you must fly from Oahu or Maui to Molokai Airport (MKK). There is also a limited ferry service between Maui and Molokai. Public transportation is very limited here, so consider renting a car to visit the top attractions on the island.

Molokai is the best Hawaiian island to visit if you’re looking for something totally off the beaten path that will transport you back to Hawaii from long ago.

See Related: How to Experience the Great Barrier Reef in Australia

Top Attractions on Molokai

Lookout and cliffs of the Kalaupapa in Molokai, Hawaii
Reimar / Adobe Stock

Kalaupapa National Historical Park

Kalaupapa National Historical Park rock formations and ocean view
Reimar / Adobe Stock

Kalaupapa was once a settlement where individuals with Hansen’s disease were exiled from the late 1800s.

Today, it is a preserved site where visitors can learn about the residents of Kalaupapa and what they went through. The park is only accessible via an organized hike or donkey ride down a 2.9-mile-long trail. For more tour information, check the official Kalaupapa National Historical Park website.

Halawa Bay

Aerial view of Halawa Bay in Molokai, Hawaii
Robert W. Coffen / Adobe Stock

Halawa Bay has a unique mix of golden and black sand. The beautiful bay is located just outside sacred Halawa Valley, one of the earliest settlements in Hawaii. It’s about a one-hour drive from Kaunakakai, so you’ll most likely have the beach all to yourself.

Papohaku Beach Park

Aerial view of Papohaku Beach Park in Molokai, Hawaii
Bob / Adobe Stock

Papohaku Beach is one of the largest beaches in all of Hawaii. The golden sands seem to go on for miles, and you can even see the south shore of Oahu on a clear day. You can usually find the beach empty or close to it, making it an excellent place to search for beautiful seashells.

Snorkel Hawaii’s Longest Continuous Fringing Reef

Molokai mountain view
CascadeCreatives / Adobe Stock

Molokai’s south shore is home to a 28-mile-long fringing reef, the largest in the Hawaiian islands. A fringing reef is the most common reef found close to the shore. Murphy’s Beach is great for snorkeling the reef alongside colorful, tropical fish.

Stroll Through Kaunakakai Town

Kaunakakai Town

Kaunakakai is the quaint main town of Molokai. Great mom-and-pop shops sell clothes, food, and local products. Kanemitsu’s Bakery’s freshly baked sweet bread is a local favorite and one of my favorite things to bring back home.

Where to Stay on Molokai

Ocean and skyline view of Halawa Bay in Molokai, Hawaii
Juergen Wallstabe / Adobe Stock
  • Budget: Ocean Front Luxury Condo at Wavecrest – Wavecrest is a luxury condominium that offers great views of the Kaunakakai area and a lovely pool. It’s just a short walk away from Murphy’s Beach, the best place to snorkel on the island.
  • Mid-Range: Hotel Molokai – Hotel Molokai is the only full-service hotel on the island and my top recommendation for accommodation in Molokai. Most rooms have a beautiful view of the island’s south shore, and the property features an oceanfront restaurant and pool, often with live entertainment. The staff of Hotel Molokai is super friendly and helpful as well.

See Related: An Honest Review of Hilton Grand Vacations Club Kings’ Land Waikoloa

Lanai – The Pineapple Island

Shipwreck in Lanai

Lanai, nicknamed The Pineapple Island, is the smallest of all the Hawaiian Islands on this list. As the nickname suggests, it was formerly filled with pineapple plantations before the LDS church settled it. Controversially, billionaire Larry Ellison “owns” 98 percent of the island.

The island is known for being a playground for the rich and famous due to its seclusion and privacy from the rest of the state. There are only two hotels on the island, both very expensive.

This contributes to Lanai being one of the least visited islands in the state, but don’t let that stop you. The island is absolutely beautiful, and the luxurious Four Seasons Resort Lanai is 100 percent worth the high price tag.

You can fly from Oahu or Maui to Lanai Airport (LNY) to get to Lanai. You can also take the ferry from Maui to Lanai, which I recommend if you don’t plan to stay overnight on the island.

If you plan on staying on Lanai, I highly recommend renting a Jeep (you can do this directly from the Four Seasons) to access beaches on all sides of the island.

Because of all the off-road driving, consider purchasing travel insurance. A website like InsureMyTrip will allow you to compare hundreds of travel insurance plans to find one that perfectly fits your needs. One of our trusted favorite travel insurance providers is VisitorsCoverage.

Lanai is the best island for you if you want to stay in absolute luxury – off-road adventuring optional.

See Related: Beaches in the US to Visit

Top Attractions on Lanai

Panoramic view of Sweetheart Rock and the ocean in Lanai, Hawaii
Cam / Adobe Stock

Hulopo’e Bay

Sunset view of Hulopo'e Bay at  Hulopo'e Beach Park in Lanai, Hawaii
Billy McDonald / Adobe Stock

Just a short jaunt away from both the Manele Boat Harbor and the Four Seasons Lanai lies Hulopo’e Bay. The wide beach is perfect for relaxing all day on a beach chair. The tide pools and reefs are great places to spot some tropical fish. Dolphins are often seen playing in the bay.

Garden of the Gods

Rocks formations and skyline at Keahiakawelo, Garden of the Gods in Lanai island, Hawaii
youli / Adobe Stock

Also known as Keahiakawelo, the Garden of the Gods is an impressive red rock garden found 45 minutes from Lanai City.

The spiral rock formations were naturally created by erosion over hundreds of years. On a clear day, you can see Oahu and Molokai from this spot, which is only accessible with a four-wheel-drive vehicle or mountain bike.

Go Off-Roading

Road Trip with a Jeep on the Garden Of The Gods, Lanai, Hawaii
norinori303 / Adobe Stock

While you could spend your entire vacation at a secluded, luxury resort, if you’re looking for adventure, consider renting a jeep and going off-roading. Kaiolohia, also known as Shipwreck Beach, is a great picnic stop with a unique view of a beached oil tanker from the 1940s.

Lanai Cat Sanctuary

Cats in Lanai Cat Sanctuary
image by Happy traveler Jen/TripAdvisor

My favorite attraction on Lanai is the Lanai Cat Sanctuary. Over 600 cats and kittens call the sanctuary home. You can tell how well taken care of and happy the animals are by how easily they warm up to strangers.

Manele Golf Course

Manele Golf Course by the Ocean in Hawaii
gdvcom / Adobe Stock

The Manele Golf Course offers some of the most spectacular views on the island. Besides playing the full course, the golf course also offers a special sunset nine, where guests can play the back 9 while enjoying stunning sunset views and cocktails.

Where to Stay on Lanai

Aerial view of houses and establishments in Lanai city, Hawaii
youli / Adobe Stock
  • Mid-Range: Hotel Lanai – Hotel Lanai is the only other hotel on the island besides the Four Seasons. It’s beautifully designed to imitate the plantations of old Hawaii and is a relaxing vacation location.
  • Luxury: Four Seasons Resort Lanai – The stunning Four Seasons Resort is my favorite hotel in Hawaii. I’ve never experienced a property so luxurious in my life. Each room feels like its own private villa. The staff is incredibly friendly, and the food is next-level. It is a splurge but certainly worth it, in my opinion.

FAQs

What are the best Hawaiian islands?

As a local and native Hawaiian, there is no better island out of each Hawaiian Islands. Each has unique beauty, vibe, attractions, culture, history, and activities. It depends on what you want to do when visiting Hawaii!

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