There’s enough beauty and activity in Hawaii to fill more vacations than we could take in a lifetime. With so much to choose from, first-time visitors need to be selective. Our recommendation is to settle first on the Hawaii you want to see. It might be beaches, a luau and nightlife; it might be rare orchids and hikes in the rain forest; it might be quiet countryside, small towns and scenic drives. Whatever the combination, there is almost certainly an island or islands best suited to your Hawaii vacation dreams.
Hawaii, quite literally, is growing. Active lava flows from Kilauea Volcano are forming new land daily. There’s even a new island forming a few thousand feet/meters below the surface of the ocean, off the southeastern coast of the Big Island, that will someday become the newest Hawaiian island. In fact, it already has a name: Loihi.
Everyone will find something enjoyable in Hawaii, and different islands will appeal to different people. Each island is unique, with distinctive attractions, special places and geophysical features.
Here’s a look at the eight primary islands and their major attractions:
Hawaii Island is commonly known as the Big Island for good reason. It’s larger than all the other islands combined. But aside from Hilo (the county seat), Kailua-Kona (a popular visitor destination) and the luxurious resorts along the Kohala coast, it retains a rural flavor.
Major Destinations on the Big Island: the Kona coast; Kailua-Kona; Hilo; Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, with two active volcanoes (Mauna Loa and Kilauea); Mauna Kea (the world’s tallest mountain).
Big Island Attractions: If you’re into the outdoors, this is the place for you. Attractions include sandy beaches in shades of green, red and black; beautiful coral reefs; snorkeling; deep-sea fishing; gorgeous flowers, including most of the orchids for lei made in the state; cattle and horse ranches; horseback riding; mesmerizing landscapes; cascading waterfalls; golf; watersports; and hiking. Nightlife and shopping are limited.
Access to this former U.S. Navy bombing target is strictly limited. Much of the island remains unusable because of unexploded ordnance.
Kauai is the oldest and northernmost of the inhabited Hawaiian islands. Nature is its biggest draw.
Major Destinations on Kauai Island: Waimea Canyon, Kokee State Park, Poipu, Lihue, Napali Coast, Princeville, Hanalei.
Kauai Island Attractions: Mountains; valleys; waterfalls; spectacular beaches; hiking; fishing; golf; whale-watching; kayaking and sailing; bird-watching; ziplining; and snorkeling, surfing and other watersports. Shopping and nightlife are limited.
The smallest of the main islands is quiet and uncrowded. It is almost completely owned by Castle & Cooke, the parent company of Dole Pineapple. But commercial pineapple production has stopped, and tourism is now the mainstay of the economy.
Lanai Island Attractions: Sailing, fishing, golfing, ocean rafting, hunting and back-road exploring.
Maui is the second most-visited Hawaiian island, after Oahu.
Major Destinations on Maui Island: Haleakala National Park, Hana, Ka’anapali, Kahului, Kihei, Lahaina, Wailea, Wailuku, Kapalua.
Maui Island Attractions: Wonderful beaches; calm ocean bays; stunning mountain and volcano vistas; sugarcane fields; highland ranches; twisting mountain roads; whale-watching; golf; hiking; ziplining; sailing and other boat excursions; deep-sea fishing; and watersports such as snorkeling, scuba diving, surfing, windsurfing and parasailing.
This rural island is best suited for travelers who want to see the old Hawaii and unwind quietly.
Major Destinations on Molokai Island: Kaunakakai, Kalaupapa National Historical Park, Halawa Valley.
Molokai Island Attractions: Isolated beaches, mountains, waterfalls, deep-sea fishing, history, hiking and relaxing.
This tiny, privately owned island is also known as the Forbidden Island. Home to about 200 native Hawaiians who live a traditional lifestyle, it is off-limits to visitors. Only those who book a tour with Niihau Helicopters can land there.
Oahu is the political, social, economic and population hub of Hawaii. It attracts the most visitors of all the Hawaiian islands.
Major Destinations on Oahu Island: Downtown Honolulu, Waikiki, Diamond Head, Pearl Harbor, Hanauma Bay, the North Shore.
Oahu Island Attractions: City life, including theater, opera, museums, shopping, nightclubs and fine dining; lush greenery; beautiful beaches; great historic sites; sailing; surfing, windsurfing, kayaking and other watersports; golf; and hiking.
The state of Hawaii comprises eight main islands—Kauai, Niihau, Oahu, Maui, Molokai, Lanai, Kahoolawe and Hawaii—and the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, a string of mostly uninhabited atolls, small islands and reefs that stretch across nearly 140,000 sq mi/362,598 sq km of the Pacific Ocean.
The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands harbor more than 7,000 species of undersea creatures, one-fourth of which are found nowhere else in the world. Former U.S. President George W. Bush designated this region Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in June 2006. It is the single largest conservation area in the U.S.
Of the main islands, Kauai, with tiny Niihau off its leeward coast, is the oldest and northernmost. As you travel south down the island chain, you’ll find Oahu, Molokai, Lanai, Maui, Kahoolawe and Hawaii, or the Big Island. There, Ka Lae, also known as South Point, has earned distinction as the southernmost point in the U.S. The Hawaiian Islands are volcanic in origin, with active eruptions continuing on the Big Island.
Honolulu, the state capital, is located on Oahu. The other islands are sometimes referred to as the “Neighbor Islands.”