As someone who is still learning and exploring the islands of Hawaii, it got me thinking about what is the best island to visit in Hawaii?
In researching this topic and from personal experience, when it comes to choosing the “best” island it is a matter of personal preference and your vacation goals. If you’re traveling as a family the “best” island for you may be different than if you’re a solo traveler. The best way to decide which is the best island for you is to visit each one. However, I realize that that may not be possible for most. So, I want to help provide you with this guide when it comes time to choose which island to visit.
The Hawaiian Islands are a chain of eight major islands. However, the total number of islands recognized is 137. All of the Hawaiian Islands are special and beautiful in their own way. The eight major Hawaiian Islands are Hawai’i (The Big Island), Maui (The Valley Isle), Oahu (The Gathering Place), Kauai (The Garden Isle), Molokai (The Friendly Isle), Lanai (The Pineapple Isle), Nihau (The Forbidden Isle), and Kahoolawe (The Target Isle).
In this guide we’ll take a closer look at the islands as well as some personal recommendations. Let this be a guide in your decision, not the final say. Hawaii is meant to be explored and discovered. I simply wanted to provide an overview for you as you plan your next visit to Hawaii. Below you will find an overview of the most visited Hawaiian islands (Kauai, Oahu, Maui, and Hawai’i) along with Pros and Cons for each.
Whenever somebody asks my opinion on which island they should visit and they’ve never been to Hawaii I typically recommend going to Oahu first. The capital of Hawaii is Honolulu which is located on Oahu. Also, the world-famous Waikiki Beach is on Oahu. However, Oahu has so much more to offer than just the south shore of the island.
The windward side of the island or the east side is the wetter side of the island. It has one of the most beautiful beaches in the entire world. It’s called Lanikai Beach and it also has two islets off the shore that you can canoe to. The water there is typically calm throughout the entire year. When you think of Hawaii you think of white sandy beaches and this is the picturesque version of that.
The east side is very lush and green and has a very country feel as you drive up the island towards the North Shore. The North Shore of Oahu feels more like Kauai. You’ll forget that Honolulu is just 45 minutes away. The North Shore has its own pace and feel. You’ll want to slow down and enjoy it’s the vibe and the people. Here you’ll find a lot of the world-famous surf spots, such as Pipeline and Sunset.
On the leeward side of the island, or the west side it’s a lot drier. On this side of the island, you’ll find more resorts. In the mid-’80s the area of Ko Olina was developed by Japanese investors. Most recently the resorts of Disney’s Aulani, Marriott’s Ko Olina Beach Club, and the Four Seasons Resort Oahu at Ko Olina have been established.
Also on the west side, you have the city of Kapolei. If you are familiar with a suburban area this area will feel very normal to you. There’s a Costco, Target, and all the amenities that you can think of when you think of a suburban area.
- Oahu has something to offer on everyone’s vacation list
- Explore Hawaii’s rich history by visiting Iolani Palace in Honolulu
- Features some of the best weather in Hawaii
- Incredible hikes and beaches
- Honolulu is crowded and has some has the worst traffic on the Hawaiian Islands. Being from the LA area, Honolulu traffic feels very similar to LA with less aggressive drivers
- It’s harder to find true Hawaiian culture on Oahu. But it can be found. Especially at Iolani Palace. However, a lot of the hotels in the Waikiki area and across the islands paint the Hawaiian culture in an inauthentic way. Recently, many hotels and resorts are starting to do a better job of showcasing true Hawaiian culture and history
Young families, Bachelor/bachelorette parties, budget travelers, solo travelers, first-time visitors
Maui is the second most visited island in Hawaii with Oahu being the first. Surprisingly, Maui is actually the most touristy island, because not as many people live on Maui as they do on Oahu.
There are no large cities on Maui, only a few small towns such as Lahaina and Kihei. The bulk of the resorts can be found in Kaanapali and Wailea. Both of these areas feature some of the best beaches in Hawaii.
In my opinion, the best whale watching can be done on Maui. During the months from December through April, you can find charter boats who will take you out to see these incredible creatures.
Maui County also features the islands of Lanai and Molokai. Both of which are rich in history. If you want a 5-star resort and a slower-paced vacation, then staying at Four Seasons Resort Lanai would be a great choice.
Personally, Maui is my favorite because it’s a little slower than Oahu and I really don’t need the nightlife. I also love the beaches and the food options on Maui
- World-class luxury resorts
- Epic whale watching
- Great restaurants
- Haleakala, the world’s largest dormant volcano, is the best place to catch sunrises
- Not a lot of nightlife opportunities
- Renting a car is a must, due to lack of public transportation options
- Becoming more and more crowded with tourists
Family vacations, honeymoons, destination weddings, luxury travelers
The Big Island (Hawaii)
The Big Island of Hawaii is the youngest and biggest island in Hawaii. It is home to one of the world’s most active volcanoes. In 2018 it made the news with its eruption, but don’t let that scare you away as it only impacted a tiny section of the island.
The island is the least crowded and the largest, so it gives you a lot of space and freedom to really explore. The Big Island is a great choice for everyone you’re traveling with.
Most people that visit tend to stay on the west side of the island, which is the Kona side. The other main city on the island is Hilo which is on the east side of the island.
All sides of the island are worth exploring. However, staying on the Big Island of Hawaii requires renting a car, preferably with four-wheel drive if possible.
- Those seeking a quiet vacation
- Great for exploring
- People are very friendly and it is less commercialized than the other Islands
- Can spend a lot of time driving because it is such a big island
- Not a big light nightlife scene
- Restaurants and other suburban amenities are limited. Maybe that’s a ‘pro’ for you or it could be a ‘con’
Those who love the outdoors, families, people looking to experience Hawaii in its raw natural state
Knowing the season of life you and your family are in is a good indicator of how to choose the best island for you and your next Hawaiian vacation.
When getting around the islands, I’ve found it useful to use a tour guide app on my smartphone. Shaka Guide is a great turn-by-turn app that takes you to some of the most can’t-miss spots on each island, as well as some hidden gems. You can download the app today and use this link to get a free tour on us!
When choosing the island for your next visit, it is also important to consider the best time to visit Hawaii. Even though all the islands are mostly sunny all your round, there are some times during the year that may be better to go than another. Check out our blog post and podcast episode about when to go to Hawaii.
You may also want to check out our packing checklist for what to pack for your next Hawaiian vacation.
What about you? What do you think is the best island from your experience?