A nirvana of scenic beaches and stunning waterfalls, the Hawaiian islands are a natural paradise for surfing, wildlife watching and hiking. Consisting of six major islands – Oahu, Maui, Lanai, Kauai, Molokai, and the island of Hawaii – travellers experience unique landscapes, local traditions and activities that are special to each one. Choosing the best island in Hawaii to visit isn’t easy. Oahu attracts surfers to its world-renowned Bonzai Pipeline, Maui has its stunning scenic Road to Hana and some of the world’s deepest ravines are on Kauai while the world’s largest shield volcanoes are the top attraction on the island of Hawaii.
Popular beaches include Waikiki Beach, Kaanapali Beach and Waimea Bay. Wildlife is abundant, with a unique range of endemic species and colourful marine life. Besides nature, the islands of Hawaii are also home to rich culture, with traditional Hawaiian music, hula dancing and crafts. With a blend of natural beauty, cultural richness and outdoor adventure, choosing the best island in Hawaii to visit is not easy (they’re all wonderful in their own ways). You’ll find these tips helpful when choosing the best island in Hawaii to visit.
- Best Island In Hawaii
- Overall Best Island To Visit In Hawaii
- Best Island To Visit In Hawaii For First Timers
- Best Island In Hawaii For Couples
- Best Island To Visit In Hawaii For Kids
- Best Island In Hawaii For Snorkelling
- Best Island In Hawaii For Beaches
- Best Island To Surf In Hawaii
- Best Island For Hiking In Hawaii
- Day Hikes
- Backcountry Hiking
- Best Island In Hawaii For Adventure
Best Island In Hawaii
Overall Best Island To Visit In Hawaii
Oahu, known as The Gathering Place, offers breathtaking beauty, rich culture, vibrant nightlife, hotels for all budgets and modern amenities.
Honolulu, the state capital, has famous hikes, such as the iconic Diamond Head Summit Trail – its shape formed by a violent volcanic eruption more than 150 000 years ago, forming Hawaii’s most recognisable landmark rising 762 feet (232 m) above sea level.
It is also home to the world-famous Waikiki Beach, where you can enjoy a free 10-minute fireworks display every Friday hosted by Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort.
Oahu’s gastronomy scene is a delight for foodies.
At Helena’s Hawaiian Food, you will enjoy tasting local favourites like poke and plate lunches from Rainbow Drive-In and Pioneer Saloon and Hawaiian food.
About 5 miles (8 km) and an 18-minute drive from Waikiki is Manoa Falls Trail which leads to a 150-ft (46-m) waterfall.
If you love shopping, there are many options available in Honolulu, from luxury boutiques to local markets at International Market in the heart of Waikiki and the hip SALT complex in Kakaako, three miles from the city.
Oahu’s North Shore is a magnet for surfers and offers challenging big wave surfing at legendary surf spots such as Waimea Bay, Banzai Pipeline off Ehukai Beach Park and Sunset Beach Park.
Oahu has a rich cultural heritage and you learn more about Polynesian culture at the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum and the Polynesian Cultural Center.
The Pearl Harbor National Memorial, where the infamous attack occurred on 7 December, 1941, is another iconic landmark that makes this island in Hawaii unique.
Oahu offers accommodation for a range of budgets, from the luxurious Four Seasons Resort Oahu at Ko Olina to budget-friendly hotels (without sacrificing amenities) like Surfjack Hotel & Swim Club.
- Diamond Head Summit Trail is at Diamond Head Visitor Center, Honolulu.
- Manoa Falls Trail is at the end of Manoa Road, Honolulu, Oahu.
- Recommended tour: Best of Oahu – Pearl Harbor, Arizona Memorial and the Polynesian Cultural Center
Best Island To Visit In Hawaii For First Timers
Maui is known as The Valley Isle for its lush and breathtakingly beautiful landscape, making it a popular destination for first-timers to the Hawaiian islands.
You won’t be disappointed with the Road to Hana, world-famous for its 600 cliff-hugging curves and 54 bridges that wind 64.4 miles (104 km) through gorgeous tropical vistas filled with cliff drops, waterfalls and picturesque towns.
Iao Valley in central Maui is home to another natural Hawaiian landmark, the 1,200-ft (366-m) Iao Needle.
The emerald-green pin-like tower juts straight up from the valley floor and locals believe it’s a symbol of love.
Another reason why Maui is the perfect island for first-timers because it has a diverse range of attractions.
It offers a little bit of everything, from Kaanapali Beach Resort, known as the most Hawaiian hotel in the northwest, to the eye-popping lunar landscapes of Haleakala National Park and the tranquil Kihei Coastal Trail.
- The Road to Hana starts in the town of Kahului in the northwest of Maui.
- Kaanapali Beach Resort is at 2525 Kaanapali Pkwy, Lahaina.
- Recommended tour: From Ma’alaea Harbor, Maui: Molokini Snorkeling Adventure Aboard Calypso
Best Island In Hawaii For Couples
Kauai is the oldest island in Hawaii and lives up to the moniker the Garden Isle for its dramatic lush landscape filled with awe-inspiring waterfalls, fluted mountains and glistening waters.
It is perfect for couples looking for a remote romantic getaway.
Hanalei Bay is a crescent-shaped 2 miles (3.2 km) beach in the north surrounded by lush green mountains and where the horizon melds sky and sea.
In contrast to sandy beaches and tropical landscapes, Waimea Canyon is the Grand Canyon of the Pacific.
The most scenic point is the Waimea Canyon Lookout, where the 13-mile (21-km) river bed at the bottom of the 2500 ft (762 m) deep canyon with its black and red horizontal striations along its walls is a phenomenal view.
The Napali Coast has towering cliffs, dramatic fluted mountains, sea caves and waterfalls.
A fabulous way to enjoy the coast is on a boat tour from Port Allen on the west side.
Active couples will love kayaking to the awe-inspiring cathedral cliffs during summer or taking a raft tour to discover remote beaches.
Splurge on a helicopter tour (from Lihue Airport) to see the majestic Manawaiopuna Falls featured in Jurassic Park.
Hanapepe on the southwest of Kauai has a farmer’s market every Thursday and the Hanapepe Art Walk on Friday nights, when galleries, shops, and restaurants come alive with local artists, musicians and vendors lining the streets.
Best Island To Visit In Hawaii For Kids
Oahu is the perfect island for kids as it offers plenty of kid-friendly options.
Waikiki Beach is an obvious choice with plenty of beginner surfing lessons, kid-friendly outrigger experiences, nearby places to grab a quick bite after hours of non-stop fun in the sun and plenty of hotels with direct access to the beach.
Honolulu Zoo is a fun and educational experience featuring 300 species and a variety of exotic animals, including lions, tigers, elephants, and monkeys, spread across 40 acres of tropical greenery.
Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum is the best Polynesian anthropological museum in the world and is home to Oahu’s only planetarium, which features traditional wayfaring (navigation) using stars.
Kids can participate in hands-on activities, multimedia exhibits and demonstrations that teach the history and culture of the islands in a fun and interactive way.
A rainy-day option is the Hawaii Children’s Discovery Center for younger children.
Diamond Head Summit Trail is also easy for kids as the trail is mostly paved.
For more nature, head to the Lyon Arboretum and walk over for an easy jungle hike along the Manao Fall Trail.
- Honolulu Zoo is at 151 Kapahulu Ave, Honolulu, Hawaii.
- Hawaii Children’s Discovery Center is at 111 Ohe Street, Honolulu.
- Lyon Arboretum is at 3860 Manoa Road, Honolulu.
- Recommended tour: Turtle snorkeling adventure on a Waikiki boat tour
Best Island In Hawaii For Snorkelling
Although all the islands in Hawaii offer excellent snorkelling, Maui is often voted as the top island for this activity.
Molokini Crater is an unusual snorkelling spot as it’s a submerged ancient volcanic crater with a partially exposed crescent moon ridge rising 160 feet (49 m) above the surface.
The crater has over 250 species of fish, manta rays and turtles swimming among the dramatic steep walls and ledges.
Ahihi-Kinau Natural Area Reserve is about 5 miles (8 km) outside Kihei and about a mile from Makena Beach.
It is a protected bay with a jagged lava coastline where hikers have destroyed the rock.
There are plenty of fish and Hawaiian green sea turtles that snorkellers should not touch.
Makena Beach, also known as Big Beach, is 1.5 miles (2.4 km) long and over 300 feet (91.44 km) wide.
Snorkelling at this beach is best at Makena Landing on the south side, where you have a good chance of spotting Hawaiian green sea turtles, coral reefs and peacock grouper. Find out more here.
Best Island In Hawaii For Beaches
The smallest inhabited Hawaiian island is Lanai, which was once covered with pineapple fields.
These days, it’s a full-scale luxurious island with various beaches catering to the upscale traveller looking for beaches not overrun with other tourists.
Hulopoe Bay is one of Hawaii’s finest on the island’s southern coast.
It has crystal-clear turquoise waters, and a protected marine preserve, making it a perfect spot for snorkelling and swimming with Hawaiian green sea turtles and spinner dolphins.
Manele Bay is adjacent to Hulopoe Bay, where coral is abundant and on the western edge are the Cathedrals, Lanai’s best dive spot.
Kaunolu Beach is a secluded beach on the southwest coast that was once a fishing village and a playground for Hawaiian royalty.
The village has an important collection of over 100 stone ruins from a prehistoric Hawaiian village, now a U.S. National Historic Landmark.
Recommended tour: Private Lana’i Circle Island Experience
Best Island To Surf In Hawaii
Surfing was a way of life for the ancient Hawaiians and continues to play an important role in Hawaiian culture.
Oahu is a premier destination for surfers worldwide and caters to all levels of surfers, from beginners to professionals.
Waikiki Beach is perfect for beginners and has a choice of surf schools, making it a convenient spot to take lessons at Queens, Canoes, Populars and Publics.
Ala Moana Beach Park is a beginner-friendly spot with gentle waves and a protected bay where stand-up paddlers share the gentle waves.
Haleiwa is on the North Shore, where the waves are smaller than Waimea Bay or Sunset Beach but still a challenge for intermediate surfers.
Diamond Head has fast and powerful breaks – Cliffs and Lighthouse – close to shore, making it a popular spot for locals.
Makapuu Point has a spot called Suicides, located off the point on the northern end in front of the Sea Life Park, with waves that push fast over shallow rock and reef. Take some surf lessons to get into the groove.
The North Shore attracts big wave surfers worldwide to compete in the Triple Crown of Surfing in Haleiwa, Sunset Beach and Pipeline.
Makaha spots – Point, Bowl, Blowhole and Inside Reef – are known for their big waves and are for advanced surfers only.
Best Island For Hiking In Hawaii
Hiking trails in Hawaii range from beautiful to treacherous, lush to bone dry.
Hikers have wonderful options across all the islands, but the Big Island offers the most variety on one island, from arid landscapes and rain forests to lave fields and the summit of Mauna Loa at 13,677 ft (4,169 m).
Both day and backcountry hikes are available but check with Hawaii Volcanoes National Park for the latest updates and closures.
Recommended hike: Hidden Craters Hike Big Island
Crater Rim Trail
This trail is an 11.5-mile (19-km) hike and approximately five to six hours around the caldera of Kilauea.
The trail has several access points along Crater Rim Drive, including Uekahuna, Kilauea Overlook, Steam Vents and Volcano House.
This trail is a moderate 2.5-miles (4 km) out-and-back hike and takes about two to three hours, starting near the Maunaulu parking area.
Do not disturb or build new ahu (stacked rocks) that mark the trail across the lava flows.
This trail is a moderate 1.4-mile (2.25-km) out-and-back hike and approximately 1.5 hours starting at the Puuloa parking area on Chain of Craters Road.
Keep an eye out for ancient Hawaiian rock etchings.
This trail is an easy 2-miles (3.2-km) out-and-back hike and approximately 1.5 hours, starting near the parking lot exit on Crater Rim Drive.
Haakulamanu (Sulphur Banks)
This trail is an easy 1.2-miles (2 km) out-and-back hike from Kilauea Visitor Center, starting at the western end of the Kilauea Visitor Center parking lot toward the Volcano Art Center Gallery.
The highlight is viewing view vents releasing volcanic steam.
This trail is a moderate 0.8-miles (1.3-km) one-way hike from Crater Rim Trail to the floor of Kaluapele (Kilauea caldera).
It can be a 1.3-miles (2.1-km) one-way hike from Crater Rim Trail up to the top of Uealoha (Byron Ledge), which leads to Kilauea Iki and Nahuku (Thurston Lava Tube).
The trail starts from behind the Volcano House off Crater Rim Trail.
This trail is a moderate to challenging 400-ft (122-m) hike with steep and rocky ascents and descents.
There are several access points:
- From Kilauea Iki Overlook, there’s a 3.3-mile (5.3-km) hike, approximately two to three hours, and the Nahuku (Thurston Lava Tube) can be included.
- From Kilauea Visitor Center is a 5.3-mile (8.5-km) out-and-back hike, approximately three to four hours, and can include the Halemaumau Trail near the visitor centre.
- From the Devastation Trailhead is a 6-miles (9-km) out-and-back hike, approximately four to five hours, and can include the 0.5-mile (0.8-km) Devastation Trail by parking area at Puupuai.
Nāhuku (Thurston Lava Tube)
The Thurston Lava Tube trail is a moderate 1.5-miles (2.4-km) out-and-back hike from Kilauea Iki Overlook or a 6-mile (9.7-km) out-and-back hike from Devastation Trailhead, which includes the Kilauea Iki loop with an option to add 1 mile (1.6 km) from Puupuai.
The trail starts with two options: the Nāhuku (Thurston Lava Tube) parking area or the Kīlauea Iki Overlook.
The Devastation Trail is an easy 1-mile (1.6-km) out-and-back hike that takes about one hour.
It’s wheelchair and stroller accessible and starts from either the Puupuai parking lot or the Devastation Trail parking lot, both off Crater Rim Drive.
Kupinai Pali (Waldron Ledge)
Kupinai Pali trail is an easy 1-mile (1.6-km) out-and-back hike to the overlook and takes under one hour.
The trail is wheelchair accessible and starts across the street from the Kilauea Visitor Center.
Kipukapuaulu trail is an easy 1.2-miles (1.9-km) hike and takes about 1.5 hours, starting at the Kipukapuaulu parking area with gentle ascents and descents.
You’ll learn about Hawaii’s rarest plants and animals.
Maunaiki and Footprints Area
There’s an easy 1.8-miles (2.9-km) hike between the Kau Desert Trailhead on Highway 11 and the Footprints shelter.
For more of a challenge, you’ll find a moderate 7-mile (11.3-km) hike between Maunaiki and the Maunaiki Trailhead on Hilina Pali Road.
Uealoha (Byron Ledge)
This trail is a moderate 1.1-miles (1.8-km) one-way hike from Devastation Trailhead to the intersection with Kilauea Iki trail.
The trail is also accessible via a 1.3-mile (2.1-km) hike on Halemaumau Trail near Volcano House.
The Kahuku Unit
Once one of the biggest cattle ranches in Hawaii, Kahuku Ranch was the site of paniolo or Hawaiian cowboys producing beef and hides on 116,000 acres (46,944 ha) of land that both grazing animals and humans have altered for more than 150 years.
Visitors can choose from plenty of trails on Kahuku Ranch – Puu o Lokuana, Kamakapaa, Palm Trail, Pali o Kaeo, Pit Crater, Glover Trail and Kona Trail.
All backcountry hikes require a permit.
The access point is about 140 feet (43 m) above sea level and descends to the ocean.
The hike is 7.6 miles (12.2 km) from the nearest access point to the campsite.
The hike is a hot 8 miles (12.8 km) from the nearest access point to the campsite.
The hike begins with a steep descent followed by 24 switchbacks to the base of the cliff.
The rest is a gradual descent to a well-protected cove great for snorkelling with Hawaii green sea turtles swimming or resting on the shore.
The trail passes through lava flows from the Maunaulu eruptions from 1969 through 1974 that created fascinating geologic features where visitors can enjoy the Old Pulu Factory.
Best Island In Hawaii For Adventure
Kaui prides itself in not being Waikiki, making it the best island in Hawaii for adventure in nature.
There’s excellent surfing, snorkelling, hiking and ziplining.
Experienced surfers can enjoy stunningly beautiful Hanalei Bay, the Crown Jewel of The North Shore, and Poipu, where plenty of surf schools exist for beginners.
Shipwreck Beach is a local favourite and a popular spot for surfing and body surfing.
The beach is right in front of the Grand Hyatt Hotel and is also where you can find an access point to Mahaulepu Heritage Trail.
Kealia Beach is a famous beach for surfing, with a long white-sand beach that is excellent for relaxing walks and whale watching during the winter.
Poipu Beach Park is a popular spot for snorkelling for its abundance of fish and Hawaiian green sea turtles.
Salt Pond Beach has shallow waters and a protected lagoon perfect for kids at Lydgate Beach.
You can take a boat tour from Port Allen, Kikiaol Small Boat Harbor, or Hanaei to Napali Coast.
Along the Napali Coast, the most adventurous visitors can enjoy the 11-mile Kalalau coastal trail to Hanakapiai, Hanakoa, and Kalalau Valleys, which have the best views of the fluted mountains and lush tropical landscape.
Waimea Canyon Park, Kokee State Park, Pihea, and Alakai Swamp Trail are favourites for hikers.
Shaka Zipline Kauai’s only eco-zipline adventure.
For a birds-eye view of Kauai, over and through canopies and past lush backdrops and breathtaking mountains, Shaka Zipline has two fantastic options: an 8-Line Zipline Tour and 5-Line Zipline Tour.
Shaka Zipline is at 2829 Ala Kalanikaumaka St. Poipu, HI 96756.
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