The Hawaiian archipelago is a glittering tropical paradise in the Pacific Ocean. But while it may inspire a universal image of sunny shores and palm trees, the Hawaiian Islands are as varied as their visitors. From snow-capped peaks to golden coasts and wet rainforests to volcanic rocks, Hawaii changes in the blink of an eye, and so do its islands. Though the islands can all claim to be the best to visit in Hawaii, your ideal vacation may lead to one island in particular. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is finding out which island that is. But not to worry. Your picture-perfect version of paradise exists, and we’re here to help you find it.
Table of Contents
- What Are the Top Islands to Visit in Hawaii?
- The Big Island Is the Best Island for One-of-a-Kind Adventures
- Oahu Is the Best Island for a Cosmopolitan Getaway
- Maui Is the Best Island for a Tropical Vacation
- Kauai Is the Best Island for Untamed Beauty
- Molokai Is the Best Island for a Taste of “Real” Hawaii
- Lanai Is the Best Island for Pampered Luxury
- Frequently Asked Questions about the Best Islands in Hawaii to Visit
- Get the Best Flights to the Aloha State with Next Vacay
What Are the Top Islands to Visit in Hawaii?
The best islands to visit in Hawaii are—drumroll please—all of them. We’re not kidding; you truly can’t go wrong with choosing any Hawaiian Island for your next trip to paradise. For the simple satisfaction of sun in your hair and sand between your toes, they all deliver.
But, if you have a clear vision for your island getaway, you can and should narrow your scope. Hawaiian island hopping can be fun, but it can also eat into your vacation time meaning you spend more time traveling than exploring. However, if you do it right, you can explore your most anticipated sights and enjoy the best of your chosen islands. From undeveloped jungles to soaring high-rises and back to quiet coasts that make you feel like the last person on earth, the Hawaiian Islands truly have something for everyone. So, pick your island of adventure, and let the fun begin!
The Big Island Is the Best Island for One-of-a-Kind Adventures
Those looking for big-time fun can cease their search and settle on the shores of Hawaii’s biggest island. Aptly nicknamed the Big Island, the Island of Hawaii caters to outdoor adventurers looking for the bluest of blue waters, the blackest of black sand beaches, and some of the most unique sights they’ll ever lay eyes on.
Visitors can travel from white sand beaches to snow-capped mountains within hours. Coffee plantations dot the slopes of volcanoes, thundering waterfalls plunge over hundreds of feet, and Kileau sets the night ablaze. Among all these varied landscapes lie some of the most well-preserved historical and cultural sites, offering a peek into Hawaii’s rich history, from the place of a nation’s birth to a sacred refuge for those running from the law.
Whether you want to night dive with manta rays, sleep in a rainforest, or hike along a volcanic caldera, the Big Island is the place to make your big dreams come true.
Best Big Island Highlights
The Big Island has many reasons to visit, but here are just a few that prove why it’s one of the best islands in Hawaii for a fun-filled vacation from start to finish.
- Hawaii Volcanoes National Park sweeps over hundreds of acres of beautiful beaches, stunning rainforests, and oh yes, bubbling lava. Home to the fire goddess herself, the most active volcano in the world constantly puts on a show, overlooked by the largest active volcano in the world.
- Mauna Kea will require traveling outside of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Still, it’ll be worth the extra effort for the galaxy of stars visible from its peak and the powdery slopes of snow you can ski during the day.
- Akaka Falls and Rainbow Falls on the Big Island’s east coast promise visitors extraordinary displays of sound and color.
- Punaluʻu Black Sand Beach is Hawaii’s most famous black sand beach, but it’s not the only colorful shore. With plenty of black sand beaches dotting the west coast and Hawaii’s only green sand beach at Ka Lae, the Big Island is the best Hawaii island—the only one really—to behold an amazing kaleidoscope of painted sands.
Oahu Is the Best Island for a Cosmopolitan Getaway
The island of Oahu is as boundless as its surf. Culture and history live and breathe alongside ritzy high-rises and white sand beaches. Between glittering Waikiki Beach and towering Diamond Head, the city sprawls endlessly with fun festivals, decadent foods, and Aloha spirit to fill your day. However, when night falls, the fun doesn’t end, with the loudest and busiest nightlife scene of any island to keep your days going long after the sun sets.
But, while the Gathering Place promises urban delights, it doesn’t treat its natural beauty lightly—even in Honolulu, billboards are banned. You’ll find unspoiled beauty sprinkled throughout the island, whether it’s lush valleys, gorgeous waterfall trails, or towering mountains.
Oahu puts the “active” in active travel. You’ll be hard-pressed to fit in lazy days between visiting cultural highlights like the Polynesian Cultural Center, planning fun escapades like those to the Kualoa Ranch (Jurassic Valley), and exploring the colorful interiors of Oahu’s verdant jungles. Oahu effortlessly combines Hawaii’s history, beauty, and culture with a twist of modernity to unveil a cosmopolitan oasis unlike any other.
Best Oahu Highlights
The Gathering Place isn’t just an island where people congregate. It’s an island where some of the best aspects of Hawaii culture come together in a beautiful fusion.
- Pearl Harbor National Memorial is a somber break from Oahu’s sunny shores but a moving tribute to the island’s singular history and one that’s well worth the visit.
- Iolani Palace is more than just a pretty face. Hawaiian royalty once walked the hallowed halls, leaving a compelling history and legacy behind.
- Oahu’s north shore holds the seemingly endless stretch of beach known as the Seven Mile Miracle promising unbelievable winter surf and breathtaking beauty year round.
- Sunset Beach is part of the famous north shore. Still, it deserves a special visit for some of Hawaii’s most stunning sunset performances.
- Waikiki Beach shines as a classic Honolulu hangout with glittering white sand and four beaches to choose your perfect fit.
Maui Is the Best Island for a Tropical Vacation
Maui is a land of dreams come true. While Oahu welcomes many newcomers to its shore, Maui is the best island to visit for first-timers hoping to see the image of Hawaii in their mind come to life in reality. Perfectly blending uncultivated beauty with commercial comforts, Maui delivers a tropical escape that’s not too safe or too adventurous but, as Goldilocks might put it, feels just right.
Luxury resorts overlook stunning beaches and ocean vistas, while well-trod trails lead intrepid explorers to cascading falls and radiant pools. Remote beaches offer surprising moments of intimacy, while volcanic landscapes serve as an instant reminder of Hawaii’s fiery beginnings. The endless sunshine of the south shore, the wild adventure of the east, and the relaxed comfort of the west ensure that Maui has something to satisfy no matter what you’re in the mood for.
While that all may feel busy, the Valley Isle offers a true paradise where you can relax and take in the island’s beauty without worrying about rushing off to the next thing—that’s Maui Time for you!
Best Maui Highlights
The Hawaiian Island known for the Road to Hana, famous golden-sand beaches, and epic sunrises promises a picture-perfect tropical getaway.
- The Road to Hana best highlights the island’s concept of Maui Time. Not only should visitors take their time with the winding curves of the road but with the many delightful stops along the way.
- Whale-watching tours in Maui abound, but you can just as easily appreciate these magnificent creatures from the shore as from the ocean.
- Haleakala National Park peaks at the volcano’s summit with a gorgeous sunrise view. However, the park encompasses much more, from a botanical garden along Haleakala’s slopes to cascading falls in its jungle.
- Kaanapali Beach (Black Rock Beach) is a stunning stretch of golden sand with easy swimming and phenomenal snorkeling.
- Maluaka Beach is simply called Turtle Town by the locals. Snorkeling here almost guarantees you’ll spot the famous Hawaiian green sea turtles during your swim.
Kauai Is the Best Island for Untamed Beauty
Kauai’s beauty does all the talking, which is good, considering how likely it is to leave you speechless. Laidback and easygoing, Kauai doesn’t take itself too seriously. Visitors are bound to appreciate the lack of urgency strolling through Kauai’s botanical gardens or relaxing on its golden beaches.
But suppose it is adventure you’re after. In that case, you won’t have to look very far, just to Kauai’s north shore, where adventure awaits around each rugged cliff of the Na Pali Coast and each towering ridge of Waimea Canyon.
Even if you like your adventures low-key, the Garden Isle blooms to life with plantation tours, botanical gardens, farmers’ markets, and more to bask in the fruitful beauty of an untouched masterpiece.
Best Kauai Highlights
North shore Kauai delivers endlessly rugged and infinitely beautiful escapades, making it the best island to visit in Hawaii for those with free spirits and wild hearts.
- Waimea Canyon, the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” promises stunning canyon views along gorgeous hiking trails and a dramatic waterfall that doubles as an idyllic picnic spot.
- The Na Pali Coast is a stunning 17 miles of coastline. Visitors will appreciate viewing the looming cliffs from the outside looking in, which is one of the reasons why the north shore is a popular kayaking spot.
- Kokeʻe State Park is flush with over 45 miles of hiking trails winding through forests and valleys full of colorful wildflowers and endemic flora and fauna.
- Polihale State Park is both isolated and eye-catching. A rough journey unveils breathtaking vistas from a sandy beach bordered by craggy cliffs.
Molokai Is the Best Island for a Taste of “Real” Hawaii
Molokai is authentic Hawaii down to its roots. Outside of Nihue, the Forbidden Isle, Molokai has the highest percentage of native Hawaiians, making it the best island to visit for a taste of “real” Hawaii.
Make no mistake; Molokai isn’t for the everyday tourist. With the least amount of development, Molokai’s landscapes remain largely untouched. Instead of bustling cities and big-name attractions, you’ll find tight-knit communities and quiet splendor amid an essence of pure Aloha.
From sacred valleys to sprawling beaches, the Friendly Isle invites travelers to do more than visit Molokai but to fully experience its heart in a way that leaves lasting impressions on the island and travelers.
Best Molokai Highlights
The Hawaii Island where “off the beaten path” takes on a whole new meaning, Molokai isn’t exactly untouched. But, it will certainly feel that way as you explore the unspoiled landscapes.
- Kalaupapa National Historical Park tells the island’s most tragic story, as the once-prison for those afflicted with Hansen’s Disease, and is a must-visit destination in Molokai.
- Post-A-Nut lets you mail a personalized coconut to anywhere in the world to commemorate your trip.
- Papohaku Beach stretches three miles long, making it one of the largest in Hawaii and one of the best beaches to drink in the peace and quiet.
- Halawa Valley and Beach almost seem too good to be true. Hear stories from native Hawaiians on a hike through the valley or enjoy a calm day at the beach, soaking in the sun and the views.
Lanai Is the Best Island for Pampered Luxury
Lanai may be small, but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in experiences. An intriguing blend of tranquility and adventure, Lanai feels remote and private, despite being just nine miles from Maui. That’s thanks, in part, to the two halves of the whole that make up Lanai. The first half is rugged landscapes that require a four-wheeler to traverse—the island is largely unpaved and wild. The second half is luxury resorts that take lavish comfort to new heights, with top-tier amenities to indulge your every whim and fantasy of a private island paradise.
The allure of luxury is often hard to beat, but Lanai’s untamed adventure proves just as appealing. From horseback riding to hiking, Lanai offers over 400 miles of adventure along lush hills and breathtaking coasts. But while day trips from Maui can give you a taste of Lanai’s wild experiences, its pampered extravagance is best enjoyed on a multi-night stay in paradise.
Best Lanai Highlights
Serenity and luxury, the two halves of Lanai make it the best Hawaii island for a vacation centered around relaxation and tropical views.
- The Lanai Cat Sanctuary houses nearly 700 cats and welcomes visitors to come and play with the famous “Hawaiian Lions.”
- Four Seasons Resort Lanai promises an unmatched experience of island bliss and comfort, with on-site restaurants and waterfront vistas that’ll sweep you away.
Frequently Asked Questions about the Best Islands in Hawaii to Visit
The only mistake you can make in visiting Hawaii is assuming the six main Hawaiian Islands offer the same experiences. Each island is as unique as its nickname and stands out for a variety of reasons. Now you know what some of those are, here’s a quick Q&A to help you pick the best island for your next adventure.
Which Island Is Best for First Time in Hawaii?
The Hawaiian Islands aren’t necessarily a one-size-fits-all destination. The answer to which island in Hawaii is best to visit will largely depend on your itinerary. Maui and Lanai were made for relaxing beach vacations, while tropical adventures abound on the Big Island, Oahu, and Kauai.
If you’re planning a relaxing getaway, then Maui and Lanai deliver. Though Maui has plenty of activities to fill your days, there are few better places to unwind and treat yourself than on its sunny shores. And the picturesque white sand beaches on Lanai don’t disappoint. Of course, it also helps that most of your choices for accommodations on Lanai lean toward luxury.
But relaxing vacations aren’t all the Hawaiian Islands have to offer. Intrepid explorers may find themselves drawn to adventures on more rugged coasts like those in Kauai and the Big Island, which offer some of the most captivating landscapes in Hawaii. But, if you’re not ready to go all in on the tropical escape, Oahu’s familiar liveliness and commotion will give you a taste of the tropics while safely ensconced in the lights and sounds of the big city.
Is Oahu Better Than Maui?
If you’re asking which Hawaiian Island is best, Oahu or Maui, you’re focusing on the wrong thing. Instead, it’s all about the vibes. Oahu was made for action-packed city vacations where you can see and do everything. But if you want to escape to a true tropical paradise, Maui is calling.
If you want a vacation that screams New York minute, tropical edition, then Honolulu is your city that never sleeps. From historical sites like the Pearl Harbor Memorial and Diamond Head Monument to cultural sites like the Iolani Palace and Bishop Museum, Oahu bursts with life and color, and that’s just in Honolulu! The island never slows down between the fun surf of the north shore, real-life movie sets on the east, and jungle escapes in Oahu’s lush valleys.
Maui, on the other hand, practically invented island time. The best things about Maui are best enjoyed slowly, from relaxing on the pristine beaches to drinking in the sunrise over Haleakala. The Road to Hana is another great example. The twisting turns demand nothing less than patience—along with a steady pair of hands and your undivided attention. Whether you’re whale watching, scuba diving, or hiking the trails, Maui reminds you that you’re on the island’s time, and slow and steady wins every time.
Which Island Is Most Beautiful in Hawaii?
The Hawaiian Islands are each beautiful in their own right, but Kauai takes beauty to a whole new level. Thanks to government regulation, the Garden Isle remains largely undeveloped and shines all the brighter for it.
The nature haven teems with wild jungles, deep canyons, and untouched coasts. Home to one of the wettest places on earth, Kauai’s rainforests are always lush and green. You’ll find more than one view framed by gleaming emerald mountains, whether taking in the splendor of Secret Falls or traveling along the lazy Hanalei River. From the breathtaking Napali Coast to the sweeping Waimea Canyon, visitors will be hard-pressed to find a bad angle on Kauai.
What Is the Best Island to Visit in Hawaii with Kids?
Oahu is hands down the best island to visit in Hawaii with your family. Flying into bustling Honolulu, you’ll immediately find yourself in the heart of the action, with everything at your fingertips, from budget-friendly accommodations to some of the best beaches on the island. Furthermore, Oahu is one of the easiest islands to get around, thanks to Honolulu’s easy walkability and extensive public transport system.
And when you get down to it, Oahu has the most diversity of activities. Easily accessible beaches, waterfalls, and kid-friendly hiking trails will have you out exploring the wilds of Hawaii. Meanwhile, top attractions like the Pearl Harbor Memorial in Honolulu, the Polynesian Cultural Center in Laie, and the Kualoa Ranch on Oahu’s east shore, give a glimpse into the island’s history and culture. Families will find plenty on Oahu to keep the whole family glued to the moment instead of being glued to their screens.
What Is the Best Island to Visit in Hawaii for Couples?
Maui might just be the best island in Hawaii for visiting couples. Seamlessly combining adventure and luxury, the Valley Isle offers romantic delights and thrilling excursions.
Both urban and untamed, Maui presents the best of both worlds. Couples trying to choose between pampered resort stays versus wild exploits or fun nightlife versus untouched beauty don’t have to choose in Maui.
Top-notch resorts promise perks like private lanais to let couples greet the morning with gorgeous views and adult-only pools to ensure the mood is never spoiled. Fun cities like Kahului and Kihei keep the vibes upbeat, while the beaches and the bays keep things laid back and beautiful. After all, what’s more romantic than a stroll along the beach or drinking in a famous Hawaii sunset from the shore? Not a whole lot when it comes to Maui, where the shores are tailor-made for intimate moments. But, of course, adventure awaits in the valleys. Scenic hikes, gorgeous waterfalls, and sweeping views set the scene for incredible photos and unforgettable memories.
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