With eight major islands, Hawaii offers a lot of different experiences for visitors. You can relax on Kauai, have adventures on Oahu, or explore the ocean around Maui.
If you’re planning your upcoming trip to Hawaii, keep reading for the four best islands in Hawaii to visit and explore.
4 of the Best Islands in Hawaii to Visit
Hawaii has eight major islands: Hawai’i, Maui, Oahu, Kauai, Moloka’i, Lāna’i, Ni’ihau, and Kaho’olawe. Most visitors to Hawaii will stick to Hawai’i, Maui, Oahu, and Kauai.
The five major tourism islands each offer different experiences for your upcoming Hawaiian vacation. For the best Hawaiian vacation, it’s essential to know which island will give you the experience you’re looking for.
If you’re wanting a party vacation, staying on Lāna’i will leave you wanting more. If you’re looking to avoid the crowds, a vacation in Maui might not be the best idea.
To avoid making those mistakes, keep reading for our list of the four best islands in Hawaii, complete with specific points of interest and things to do on each island.
Known as the Garden Island, Kauai is the ultimate Hawaiian destination for people looking to enjoy Hawaii’s famous natural beauty.
It’s less built-up than the more popular islands of Hawai’i, Oahu, and Maui, so it’s a great choice for travelers looking for a more low-key vacation. Kauai has famous views, partially because buildings cannot legally be taller than 50 feet.
There are a lot of building codes that protect the small town, rural nature of Kauai while still providing infrastructure for locals and visitors alike. Kauai is a favorite island amongst hikers, snorkelers, and all-around adventures.
Read below for the best things to do on Kauai.
Hike the Kalalau Trail
The famous Kalalau Trail is an 11-mile one-way trail from Ke’e Beach to Kalalau Beach. It takes you along the stunning Nāpali Coast on a trail created by Indigenous Hawaiians to get from village to village.
The two-mile start of the hike is a popular day hike because you get amazing vistas of Hanakapi’ai Falls without needing a permit.
However, if you want to hike all 11 miles, you’ll need a permit for overnight camping. It’s one of the most beautiful hiking trails in Hawaii, with sweeping ocean views, jungle exploring, and waterfall stops.
Join a Nāpali Coast Boat Tour
The Nāpali Coast is the epitome of the classic Hawaiian coast. With steep peaks dropping dramatically to bright blue water, it is stunning. It’s also only accessible via the Kalalau Trail or by boat.
Taking a boat tour of the Nāpali Coast is a fantastic way to relax and enjoy the sights.
You can take a sunset sail or dinner tour for full-on relaxation. If you want an adventure still, there are Nāpali snorkeling tours that will also bring you to nearby Ni’iahu for world-class marine life spotting.
Visit Waimea Canyon
If you’re looking for another hiking adventure on Kaua’i, look no further. Waimea Canyon, also known as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, is an outdoor lover’s dream.
Hike up to the Waimea Canyon lookout for panoramic views of lush jungle, dramatic canyon walls, and bright blue Hawaiian skies.
Or challenge yourself on the Kukui Trail to get a view of the canyon from the west in Kokee State Park. You’ll travel to the bottom of the canyon and along the river.
Snorkel at Tunnels Beach
If you’re going to Hawaii for underwater adventures, Tunnels Beach is a must-visit. Located on the north shore, it’s a beach made for snorkeling and scuba diving. You can see fish, coral, turtles, eels, octopus, and more.
Low tide is not only the safest time to snorkel, but it’s also the best time to spot all of the tropical fish and sea turtles that call Tunnels Beach home. Just remember, it’s illegal to touch a sea turtle in Hawaii.
Relax at Polihale State Park
For a relaxing day at the beach, Polihale State Park offers 17 miles of pristine golden sand to enjoy. You’ll almost always have it to yourself because there’s more than enough room to spread out. Located on the west coast, it’s a fantastic spot to catch the sunset!
Just be aware that the road to Polihale State Park is dirt since it can be a bit treacherous for low-clearance cars. Some rental car companies specifically prohibit driving on the road, so double-check your paperwork before making the journey.
Read Next: Where to Stay in Kauai, Best Time to Visit Kauai, and Best Hikes in Kauai
2. Hawaii–The Big Island
For a classic Hawaiian vacation, the Big Island of Hawai’i is the perfect all-around choice. Visitors tend to overlook it in favor of Maui or Oahu, but it’s an underrated island with a lot of variety.
The Big Island is great for visitors looking for the beauty of Kauaii, the fun of Maui, and the adventures of Oahu. One of the most impressive things about the Big Island is its unique geography and geology.
Mount Kilauea is the world’s most active volcanic mass and is in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, right on the southeastern side of the Big Island.
There are also black and green sand beaches, amazing hiking, and gorgeous vistas on the largest island in Hawaii. Read below for our top five things to do on the Big Island of Hawai’i.
Visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
If you’re on the Big Island, you must visit Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. National Park buffs know that it’s one of the most unique parks in the National Park System because it has two of the most active volcanoes in the world–Kilauea and Mauna Loa.
Plus, it’s an International Biosphere Reserve and UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can view the latest eruption at night for the best chance to see glowing lava.
You can also go day hiking or overnight backcountry hiking (with a valid permit) for a more off-the-beaten-path exploration. The Chain of Craters road tour is a beautiful drive with scenic vistas and important cultural and historical stops along the way.
Do a Kona Coffee Tour
If you’re passionate about your morning cup of joe, a Kona coffee tour is sure to put a pep in your step. You can visit the fields where the coffee bean is grown, see how it’s harvested and processed, and even sample the liquid gold during a coffee tasting.
Swim at Punalu’u Black Sand Beach
Visiting Punalu’u Black Sand Beach should be on every beach lover’s bucket list. The dark black sand contrasted with the bright blue waters is unlike any other beach you’ve ever seen.
You can also find the famous green sea turtles (Honu) that call Hawaii home. They like to bask on the warm black sand or feed in the shallow water. Stay at least 10 feet away from them at all times, but enjoy their beauty.
Enjoy the Views at Akaka Falls State Park
Akaka Falls plunges 442 feet from the jungle floor to the gorge below in one of the most beautiful spots on the Big Island. There’s an easily graded, paved trail that is less than a mile long to get there.
It is not wheelchair accessible, though. On the same loop, you can also view the cascading Kahuna Falls, which flows 100 feet down amongst the lush, green jungle.
Snorkel at Kealakekua Bay
For an outdoor adventure, pack your snorkeling gear and hiking boots for the hike to Kealakekua Bay. It’s one of the most beautiful places on the Big Island and home to one of the best spots to snorkel in all of Hawaii.
Take the 3.8-mile loop trail to the other side of the bay by the Captain Cook monument. Your reward will be some stellar snorkeling and a chance to see hundreds of different tropical reef fish, coral, spinner dolphins, eels, turtles, and more.
Maui is one of the most popular tourist spots in Hawaii, and for a good reason. With out-of-this-world sunsets, amazing whale and turtle watching, and some of the best beaches in Hawaii, it’s the ultimate Hawaiian destination.
Known as the Valley Isle, Maui is the second-largest island in the Hawaii group. It’s broken into five regions: South Maui, West Maui, East Maui, Central Maui, and Upcountry Maui.
Most tourists stick to South and West Maui, but every part of the island is worth exploring. From highland adventures to world-class snorkeling, Maui has it all. Below, you’ll find the five best things to do on Maui.
Drive the Road to Hana
No trip to Maui is complete without a visit to the famed Road to Hana. Located on the Eastern shore of Maui, it offers unparalleled views of Maui’s beautiful landscape.
Despite being only 52 miles long, it can take up to four hours, thanks to its 59 narrow bridges, 620 tight turns, and amazing vistas.
You’ll pass waterfalls, jungles, and ocean views as you make your way from Hana to Kahului. You can drive yourself along, but joining an official tour will ease traffic, decrease accidents, and allow you to sit back and enjoy the views.
Visit Haleakala National Park
Haleakala National Park is Maui’s answer to the Big Island’s Volcanoes National Park. Over 30,000 acres large, the park encompasses the 10,000+ ft Mount Haleakala, Maui’s most popular hiking trail, Pipiwai, with endless waterfalls, miles of coastline, and acres of bamboo and jungle forests.
The best thing to do in Haleakala National Park is to watch the sunrise from the summit of Haleakala. You will have to make reservations in advance, but it’s very worth it.
The four-mile Pipiwai hike is amazing, too. You’ll wander along the coast through bamboo forests until you reach the stunning Waimoku Falls.
Enjoy Waianapanapa State Park
While it’s the glistening waters that give Waianapanapa Beach its name in Hawaiian, it’s most known for its black sands. Most people choose to stop quickly and take a picture as they make their way along the Road to Hana, but that’s a mistake.
Waianapanapa State Park is worthy of an excursion of its own. Walking along the coast will lead you to the freshwater caves, a site of haunting Hawaiian lore.
Supposedly, Chief Ka’akea murdered his wife, Princess Popo’alaea, and her attendant in the caves. Despite the lore, many visitors enjoy swimming in the cave pools.
Join a Snorkeling Tour
While there’s good snorkeling just offshore from some of the most popular beaches on Maui, booking a snorkeling tour will get you to the best spots.
You’ll be able to visit Molokini Crater and Turtle Town for excellent opportunities to see turtles, dolphins, hundreds of different fish, eels, sharks, and more! Plus, most tours offer an open bar, breakfast and lunch, and all the gear you need.
Eat Your Way Around Maui
Because Maui has a lot of tourism and visitors, many of the best restaurants in Hawaii are in Maui. A lot of them specialize in a farm (and ocean) to table cooking style because of all of the wonderful produce available from the Kula area farms and fresh seafood caught hours before serving.
Mama’s Fish House is a Maui institution at this point, famous for its stuffed Mahi Mahi. Nuka offers some of the most authentic Japanese food outside of Japan. Sam Sato’s has been a local spot known for its delicious noodles since 1933.
Read Next: Where to Stay in Maui and Best Time to Visit Maui
Oahu, also known as “the Gathering Place”, is home to the capital of Hawaii, Honolulu, and the most populated island in Hawaii. With tourist attractions like Pearl Harbor and Waikiki Beach, it hosts thousands of tourists every day.
Despite being best known for these places, O’hu is beyond just the Honolulu area. There’s something for everyone on Oahu. If you crave the adventures of Kauai and the food and bar scene of Maui, Oahu offers both on one island.
It’s the third-largest island and has two volcanoes, which hikers love to explore. Plus, it has some of the best beaches in Hawaii. Read below for our list of the five best things to do in Oahu.
Visit Pearl Harbor
For history buffs, families traveling with children, or interested citizens, Pearl Harbor is an incredibly vital piece of American history that you can visit. It’s a national memorial, so the National Park Service runs the site.
Head to the Pacific National Monument for the Road to War and Attack & Aftermath exhibits in WWII Valor. You’ll learn all about the significance of December 7, 1941, and how it felt to be there that day.
Not technically managed by the National Park Service, the on-site Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum is a must-visit for all aviation fans. You can view restored planes from the Korea and Vietnam theaters of WWII.
Surf (or Watch) the Famed Pipeline on the North Shore
If you’re an experienced surfer, drop into the waves of Waimea Bay, Banzai Pipeline, and Sunset Beach. Oahu’s entire North Shore is a surfing Mecca with some of the biggest waves in the world.
If you’re inexperienced, leave the surfing to the pros and adrenaline junkies because they are extremely dangerous to attempt without expert skills. You don’t have to miss out on all of the fun, though. All of the beaches are beautiful spots to relax and watch the experts.
Relax at Lanikai Beach
If you’re planning a Hawaiian vacation, you’re probably picturing a beach like Lanikai Beach. With pristine white sand and gentle waves slapping its shore while being located in a quiet neighborhood, it’s the ultimate Hawaiian beach.
It’s the perfect beach for active beachgoers. You can kayak to the uninhabited islands just offshore. Or sail and windsurf around.
For swimmers, it’s one of the most swimmable beaches in Hawaii, thanks to the reef that protects it from big waves or dangerous rip currents. The reef also allows for excellent snorkeling with a chance to see all sorts of marine life–from fish to sharks!
Soak Up the Famous Waikiki Beach
If you’re staying in a resort or hotel on Oahu, there’s a good chance you’ll be only minutes from Waikiki Beach, one of the most famous beaches in the world.
It’s the perfect place to head for sunset or sunrise as it can get quite busy at the peak hours of the day. If you’re looking to learn how to surf from some of the best in the world, Waikiki Beach is the venue to do it.
As the legacy of the father of modern surfing, Duke Kahanamoku, one of the top surf instructors in the world taught people how to surf the gentle waves of Waikiki every day.
Hike to the Top of Diamond State Monument
Diamond Head State Monument is one of the most iconic sights in Honolulu, and you can hike to the top of it! Originally built as part of Oahu’s defense system, you can now hike the historic trail to take in views of the Pacific Ocean and Honolulu below.
Even though it’s less than a mile long, the trail ascends steeply to the top along switchbacks and through a 225-foot tunnel. The views at the top are worth the climb.
Right now, out-of-state visitors must pay a fee to reserve hiking spots up to 14 days prior, but Hawaiian residents can hike for free whenever.
Read Next: Where to Stay in Oahu
Things to Consider When Visiting Hawaii
If you’re planning a trip to Hawaii, there are several different things to consider when booking your vacation. One of the most important things to consider is which island to visit, but reading all of the above will help you make that choice.
For the other things to consider, keep reading for some extra tips and tricks for the ultimate Hawaii trip:
- Look for deals. Travelers looking for the best deal should visit Hawaii in September for the best prices for airfare and hotels. There are plenty of free things to do once you’re in Hawaii–from state parks to public beaches!
- Bring the right sunscreen. Hawaii only allows reef-safe sunscreen to protect its underwater ecosystems and marine life.
- Rent a car. The best way to get around is by car because there isn’t great public transportation outside of Waikiki and Honolulu. Renting a car allows you the freedom to check out all of the cool places listed above.
- Bring reusable bags for shopping. Hawaii banned plastic bags on Oahu, and many retailers on the other islands followed the ban.
Frequently Asked Questions About Hawaii
Below, you’ll find the answers to the most frequently asked questions about visiting Hawaii:
When is the best time to visit Hawaii?
Hawaii has year-round temperatures between 75-85˚F, so any time is a good weather time to visit Hawaii. Peak season is from December-April, so if you want to avoid the biggest crowds, plan for outside of that time frame.
What is the time difference in Hawaii?
Hawaii is six hours behind Eastern Standard Time (EST) and three hours behind Pacific Standard Time (PST) during March-November. During non-Daylight Savings Time, Hawaii is five hours behind EST and two hours behind PST.
How expensive is Hawaii?
Hawaii can be an expensive place to visit. Airfare and hotels are the biggest costs, but food also tends to be more expensive in Hawaii than in the continental US. Cooking your own food, staying in a smaller Airbnb, and visiting during the non-peak season can all help make the trip cheaper.
How long is the flight to Hawaii?
It depends on where you’re flying from, but the most popular flights are about 5.5 hours from Los Angeles and San Francisco.
The Best Islands in Hawaii: Final Thoughts
The best island in Hawaii depends on what you want your vacation to look like. If you want an outdoor adventure, the Big Island or Kauai is the best.
If you want a busy trip, Oahu has the bustling capital of Hawaii. If you want a little bit of everything, Maui offers just that.