So you’ve been dreaming and scheming of escaping the mainland and flying off to paradise, the paradise that is Hawaiian islands complete with soft sandy beaches and tranquil waters, but you have limited time. Maybe you can only go for a week, or maybe it is longer but you simply don’t want to spend what time you have in the Hawaii jet hopping from one island to the next. Which island do you choose?
Naturally, the easy answer to this question of which Hawaiian island should one choose for their vacation is that every island has plenty to offer. But things aren’t always so easy, and what one person might enjoy most might not be the same as another. So if you are struggling on what Hawaiian island should you visit for your upcoming vacation, we’re here to help! Check out the following quick guide to the key characteristics of each of Hawaii’s six biggest islands:
The Six Big Hawaiian Islands: Choosing the Right Vacation for You
Oahu – Home of Hawaii’s Capital, Honolulu
If you want beaches but also love vacationing in a place with an active nightlife and bustling cityscape, then the island of Oahu might be the best choice for you.
The capital city of Honolulu should certainly be at the top of the list for a culture-loving Oahu traveler. This is the largest city in Hawaii and the next largest isn’t even close with Honolulu having 341,300 residents and the next largest, non-Honolulu suburb, city being Hilo at 45,000 residents. That’s a pretty incredible difference! With a city this massive, it should come as no surprise that Honolulu is the epicenter of rising Hawaiian arts, music, and food scenes.
Oahu is also a strong pick for history-lovers. You will find plenty to interest you in the capital city, of course, but remember this too is the island that suffered the Pearl Harbor attack. Take a walk further back into Hawaii’s history by exploring the summer retreat of Queen Emma, wife of King Kamehameha IV, as well as old kingdom buildings.
Maui – The Valley Isle & Island of Many Activities
Maui is perhaps the most multi-faceted Hawaiian island with a good mix of resort communities, entertainment, kid-friendly attractions, and nature.
At the heart of Maui is the great and stunning Haleakala volcano. A drive along the twisting road going up this massive central mass will take you through as many ecological zones as you would experience if you drove from Mexico to Canada. You would be hard-pressed to find that type of experience elsewhere — and the Haleakala summit is just one of the many unique nature experiences one can have here. You might spend a day at the Waiaanapanapa State Park’s famed black sand beaches or check out the cascading waterfalls and lush rainforest life along the Road to Hana. Don’t forget to take the kids snorkeling in the calmer waters off of Olowalu.
Kauai – The Garden Isle Where Adventures Await
Maui certainly has a lot of outdoor recreational opportunities, but it is a touch more resort-y or tourist-y. If you want to really feel like you’re going to a tropical island away from others, then you should check out Kauai, nicknamed The Garden Isle.
Kauai is an incredibly lush and gorgeous place where mountains rise up covered in a rich layer of vibrant greens. Here, one could spend weeks hiking and finding a rich array of rainforest flora and fauna. Unfortunately, the drawback to all of this rich plant life and beauty is that it is all possible because of the intense and common rainfall the island gets. So while beautiful, don’t go here if you have no tolerance for rain.
Hawaii – The Big (and Luxurious) Island
Oahu might have the state’s capital and the highest population of residents, but it is the Big Island of Hawaii that often gets the most tourists and attention. Its name comes from the fact that it is the largest island by landmass in the Hawaiian archipelago. It also happens to be the island most often featured in those glitzy postcards and for good reason, this has always been the big resort island for those looking for a luxurious Hawaiian vacation.
Visitors to the Big Island will find a ton of lodging options to choose from. We recommend if this is your first time, trying a resort in or near Hilo. Hilo is one of the more populous towns on the island and has a lot of entertainment amenities as well as easy access to some of the island’s top outdoor attractions.
Speaking of which, there are a ton of outdoor attractions on the island of Hawaii. While couples and those looking for a luxurious escape will appreciate the resorts and entertainment offered by the Big Island, families and adventure-minded visitors will love all the outdoor spots. Ziplines, ATV tours, scuba diving charters, sugar cane flumes, and so much more all await those with active lifestyles.
Molokai – The Friendly Isle aka the Quieter One
Molokai is one of two smaller islands that visitors to the Hawaii islands can travel to and stay at. This one is known colloquially as the Friendly Isle for its very aloha attitude and a culture that really brings native Hawaiian culture to the forefront.
The big drawback of Molokai is that, because it is smaller, getting to this island can be a bit rough. There is no direct air service from the mainland to Molokai and most people will find a boat ferry as the best way to arrive. Alternatively, you can get air service via Honolulu’s airport or either of Maui’s airports.
Naturally, a place this hard to get to also means things get sparse accommodation-wise. Molokai does not have any brand or big chain accommodations, but the good side of this coin means you are going to get a more local, authentic Hawaiian travel experience. As we said, this is a friendly island and a good pick for those who hate crowds and want to enjoy a quieter vacation amidst Hawaii’s tropical beauty.
Lanai – Alone & Loving It
The technical nickname for Lanai is “The Pineapple Island” due to its, well, pineapple plantations, but recent years have seen a lot of environmental rejuvenation of those farmlands. Today, the entire island is owned by Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison, and it has become a beautiful example of what sustainable farming techniques can deliver.
Lanai also happens to be a great place to visit if you really, really want to get away from it all. Unlike Molokai, there is absolutely no air service into Lanai. Meaning, you will need to go by boat. Once on the island, you will have two Four Seasons resorts to choose from or a more private lodging. The resorts are pretty pricey, as you might expect for a remote island experience, but for those looking for a more unique and isolated Hawaiian adventure, that price tag may very well be worth it (and then some).
Note, while the resorts are luxurious, the island is itself pretty raw. There are only 30 miles of paved roads on the entire island. But for those who like to hike and take the less-traveled route, you will have over 400 miles of rugged, four-wheel-drive-friendly trails to traverse. Many of which lead to almost empty beaches with idyllic views.