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Which Hawaiian Island should I visit?


The beauty of the Hawaiian Islands is that each one has its own flavor and personality, yet all offer a bit of what you’re looking for in a vacation. While the largest four islands have so much to do they can be explored on their own trip, island hopping is possible and easy to accomplish. If it’s your first time to the islands and you don’t know where to start, I recommend making list of what you’re looking for in your ideal vacation and what activities you are most interested in doing.

My “Unique Experiences” are meant to be unique to that island so while ziplining, waterfalls, and horseback riding are awesome, those can be found on all the major islands. Great beaches, nature, shopping, food, activities, different budget options, etc can be found on all islands, so keep that in mind as well.

 

Hawai’i “Big Island”

Best for:

Adventure, Culture, Hiking

Specialties:

Snorkel/Scuba, Volcanoes, Fishing

Unique Experiences:

Night Dive with Manta Rays, stargazing on Mauna Kea, watching lava flows from Kilauea

My Recommendation:

2/3 time in Kona area, 1/3 time in Hilo area
The Big Island has adventures and experiences unlike the other islands and the eight or so different micro climates make it possible to hike through a rainforest, tour a lava tube, and ski the slopes on the same day. With 5 volcanoes including 3 active including the continuously erupting Kilauea it’s one of the few places in the world where you can see active lava flows. Scuba and snorkeling is arguably the best out of the islands with regular visits from Honu Turtles, dolphins, and sharks, and in Kona there are night dives with Manta rays. While nightlife and shopping is less abundant than the other islands, you can still find markets, retail shops, and big box stores in Kona and Hilo. There are three historical parks driving distance from Kona that are great to learn more about Hawaiian culture and history.

Maui “the Valley Isle”

Best for:

Food, Beaches, Activities

Specialties:

Scenic drives, whale watching, black sand beaches

Unique Experiences:

Road to Hana, Sunrise at Haleakala Crater

My Recommendation:

Depending what you’re looking for the beachy South side of Maui (Kihei & Wailea area) and the mountainous West side of Maui (Lahaina & Kaanapali area) are both good areas to stay in. If you take the Road to Hana stay 1-2 nights in Hana.

Maui is officially the “valley isle” but I call it the “variety isle.” Components of the magic of every island can be found here just a drive away. The Road to Hana leads to amazing waterfalls, a lush rainforest, botanical gardens, and amazing scenic views comparable to the garden island Kauai. In south Maui there is no shortage of amazing beaches, although there are beaches on the central and east of the island as well. There is also ample shopping and nightlife centered in the Kihei and Lahaina areas and several shops and farmers/craft markets around the island. Food is amazing here, with all kinds of different cuisines and fresh food options (the fruit bowls, seafood and local beef are particularly fantastic). Maui has all kinds of activities- zip lining, snorkeling/scuba, whale watching (seasonal), fishing, surfing, stand up paddleboarding (SUP), parasailing, and pretty much any outdoor activity can be found here. For nature fans, there is one active volcano Haleakala, and many black sand beaches and waterfalls which are also day trips from most parts of the island.

O’ahu “the Gathering Place ”

Best for:

Food, Beach Sports, Nightlife

Specialties:

Luaus, Surfing, Snorkeling/Scuba, Kids activities

Unique Experiences:

tour Pearl Harbor, surf on the North Shore

My Recommendation:

If you’re looking for more city and nightlife, Honolulu is the place to be. If you want to escape that stay in the Kailua or North Shore areas

O’ahu is rightfully called “The Gathering Place” with the largest local population as well as number of yearly visitors which mean the most choices of hotels, restaurants, and entertainment. The majority of the action is in state capital Honolulu and Waikiki Beach area in particular is a seemingly never-ending party. O’ahu is the smallest of the four major islands so escaping the crowds to get to the east and north shores is easy and there are rideshares and public transportation for those who are unable to rent a car. A trip to the North Shore brings legendary surfing, great snorkeling, awesome beach towns, and the Polynesian Cultural Center with their world famous luau. Across the Ko’olau Mountains to the windward side of the island you’ll find Kualoa Ranch with many activities and film tours, Kailua beach, and plenty of great hiking. O’ahu also boasts a zoo, a water park, Sea Life Park, and many other activities for families and children. Since O’ahu has the largest population and a ton of diversity, the food is also amazing and Honolulu typically ranks high among cities with best food.

Kaua’i “the Garden Isle”

Best for:

Adventure, Hiking, Nature

Specialties:

Kayaking, helicopter and boat tours

Unique Experiences:

11 mile Kalalau trail, Waimea Canyon, dive with sharks near Ni’ihau

My Recommendation:

Both North and South sides of the island deserve equal time, if your trip is shorter consider staying on the East side for easier access to both

Out of the four largest islands Kaua’i is the least sought out by tourists but attracts attention due to its raw nature, underrated yellow sand beaches, and world class hiking. Since Kaua’i contains the only navigable rivers in Hawai’i, river kayaking is another option on top of the other activities offered. On the North shore of the island there are many vacation rentals and timeshares, and this area provides the best access to the Na Pali coast and has better surfing. In contrast, the South shore has better weather and closer access to Waimea Canyon. Surfers will find good waves on the North shore beach town of Hanalei, and snorkelers/scuba divers have many options mostly on the North shore, but also some areas off the South shore. Since most of Kauai land is inaccessible by roads, a helicopter or boat tour is highly recommended, and there are some famous backpacking trails such as the Kalalau Trail as well for the experienced hiker.

Lana’i “the Pineapple Isle”

Best for:

Off the Beaten Path, History

Specialties:

Golf, Snorkel/Scuba, off-roading

Unique Experiences:

Visit the Lanai Cat Sanctuary, See Shipwreck Beach

My Recommendation:

This is a great addition to a Maui or O’ahu trip

Lanai is a wonderful day trip option and/or addition to another island visit. Lanai City is the center of activity with local businesses, historical buildings, an art gallery, and a museum. There’s plenty of history here including remains around the island of the former Dole Plantation, ghost town of Keomuku, Shipwreck Beach, “Garden of the Gods” a rock garden with ancient Hawaiian legends behind it, and petroglyphs in different places along the island- many of these do require renting a four wheel drive vehicle. For only day trips Hulapo’e Bay is a world class beach with great snorkeling, beautiful sand, has a campground, and it’s also walking distance from the harbor.

Moloka’i “the Friendly Isle”

Best for:

Off the Beaten Path, Culture, Nature

Specialties:

Snorkel/Scuba, off-roading

Unique Experiences:

Decorate and ship a coconut, tour a former leprosy colony, have the whole beach to yourself

My Recommendation:

This is also a great addition to another island visit, since it’s such a small island stay near the main city of Kaunakakai

A trip to Moloka’i will be an “Old Hawai’i” experience: a refreshing change of pace with local shops only, entire beaches to yourself, and practically undisturbed waters snorkeling off the southern shore which is Hawaii’s longest barrier reef. Signs of “Slow down, you’re on Molokai” are sprinkled along the island reminding visitors of the pace. Wi-fi and phone service is spotty, so this is a great place to disconnect and “talk story” with some of the locals. Renting a Jeep or four wheel drive is a must, although some of the adventures on Molokai can be accomplished with a day trip such as a “Father Damien tour” of the historical leprosy colony on Kalaupapa by air from O’ahu or Maui. Some of the tallest waterfalls in Hawai’i and the world are on Moloka’i and can only be toured through local companies or via a helicopter or airplane ride.

Thanks to GLT member Chrystea for sharing her adventures, which you can find more of on her blog PDX Girl Meets World or on Instagram!

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