Last updated on February 16th, 2022
A vacation in Hawaii pushes all your senses to their limits, certainly with your eyes doing most of the heavy lifting. But with a half a dozen islands to choose from, each with their own distinct personality, how do you choose the ones that are right for you? I spent four months exploring the major Hawaiian Islands, hopping from one to another in a quest to find the top spots. Though it was a challenging task, here is my ranking of the best islands in Hawaii!
Visiting Hawaii? Sample itineraries, guides to the best spots, and the must-see highlights in five islands are all waiting for you in the Hawaii Travel Guide collection. Aloha!
Watch this video countdown of the top 5 islands in Hawaii (you might need to disable your ad blocker).
Oahu is the main international gateway to the Hawaiian Islands and is often overlooked by visitors in transit to the more “rugged” gems of the island chain. Home to Honolulu – the state’s capital and only proper city – Oahu is way more than just the “concrete jungle” of high rises on Waikiki Beach. With volcanic craters dotting the coastline, magnificent beaches, and the signature eroded peaks of the Pali Coast – Oahu may possibly be the most beautiful island in Hawaii if it weren’t for its exploding population, which accounts for roughly 70% of the state’s total.
The main Hawaiian island offers visitors a choice to either stay in swanky and busy Honolulu – with all the benefits of a proper American city, including bad traffic – or to stay out of town and experience the island’s “country charm”. Oahu is famous for its surf beaches and city life, but the ultimate fun revolves around combining hiking and beach time together with road tripping along the south and windward (east) coasts. Do not miss the hike to the summit of the Diamond Head Crater – where you’ll be treated to panoramic views of Waikiki Beach and the south coast, and snorkeling at Hanauma Bay – a magical bay that is wrapped by towering cliffs and blessed with a rare coral reef that is hard to come by in Hawaii.
Great for: shopping, museums, road trips, beaches, surfing, hiking, family holiday
Cons: over-developed, crowded with locals & tourists, traffic issues
Further Reading: Top 10 Things To Do In Oahu
One of the most famous islands in the world, Maui rides its reputation as a paradise island like a pro surfer and has transformed its agriculture-based economy into a multi-billion dollar tourism factory. Though “paradise” is not the perfect way to describe one of the more overdeveloped and busier of the Hawaiian Islands, Maui certainly does reward its active visitors. Created by the rendezvous of two completely distinct volcanoes, the island boasts diverse natural ecosystems and man-made vibes in a relatively short landmass. The island’s almost eternally sunny southern coasts are where you’ll find the prettiest beaches, but unfortunately also the mega-resorts and golf courses. Over on the north shore, things are a bit different, especially on the scenic Hana Highway in the west. On this epic road trip, a 44-mile journey crosses 54 one-lane bridges and nearly as many waterfalls, offering the chance to hike and visit beaches along the way.
Maui’s #1 highlight, however, is the visit to the Haleakala Crater on the interior of its eastern side. The crown jewel of Haleakala National Park, so immense that it is roughly the size of Manhattan! Haleakala reaches a height of 10,023 ft (3,055m) and its accessible summit is a magnet for early risers, space scientists, and ferocious winds, while its crater is a heaven for hikers. The best way to experience Haleakala is by hiking all or part of the Sliding Sands Trail. The challenging hike leads you down to the crater floor and offers a unique look at Haleakala’s magnificent red shades, unique flora, and bizarre cinder cones.
Great for: hiking, beaches, diving, surfing, family holiday, waterfalls
Cons: expensive, over-developed, crowded with tourists
Further Reading: The Top 10 Things To In Maui
If it’s cocktails by the pool, 24-hour room service, and 5G data coverage that you’re in search of – look elsewhere. Molokai is as real as Hawaii gets and finally drives home the message that you’re visiting one of the most remote island chains in the world. Life around here is beautifully stuck in the ’90s, on a good day, but this is actually part of Molokai’s charm. Just stick to the island’s unofficial motto – “Slow down, this is Molokai!” – and you’ll discover a Hawaiian treasure that is off the beaten track. Molokai is sparsely populated and of its tiny population, over 50% have native Hawaiian heritage. This means that you don’t have to go to touristy luau shows to actually meet real Hawaiians.
Molokai is all about winding down and balancing the act of doing nothing on a deserted pristine beach with hiking to stupendously scenic spots. And while there aren’t a whole lot of activities to choose from, the ones that do exist are extraordinary. Molokai’s most moving experience is the visit to the remote Kalaupapa Peninsula. From 1866 to 1969, the peninsula was a quarantine zone for victims of leprosy who were forced to relocate here. These days, access is restricted and a special permit is required for hiking or riding a mule down to the national park. Your guided visit to the village and peninsula covers both historical and scenic spots. If you’re lucky, you might even meet one of the former patients who now willingly lives in this slice of paradise.
Great for: hiking, remote beaches, going “off the grid”, meeting Hawaiians
Cons: not well-geared for tourists, hikes require a guide, expensive
Further Reading: Top 10 Things To Do In Molokai
Larger than the rest of the Hawaiian Islands put together, they don’t call the Island of Hawaii “The Big Island” for nothing. It is by far the most diverse destination in the archipelago, an island where you could theoretically ski, get stuck in torrential rain, and work on your tan at the beach – all in the same day. The Big Island has something for everyone and it’s usually served in a low-key and unpretentious manner. When you hit the road and explore the island’s four corners, you realize that a “split personality” is the best adjective to describe this place. The sunny Kona Coast on the west side is where you’ll find the Big Island’s best beaches and resorts, the Hilo Coast on the east is tropical and wet, the most authentic slice of the island and its beating heart. Over on the north side, it’s all about the valleys, a series of them slicing through the interior and inviting you to explore, while the remote south is barren and hides the island’s ultimate jewel.
One cannot visit the Big Island without making the journey to the Kilauea Volcano – the world’s most active volcano at the present time. The Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is a world of its own, with hiking trails, viewing areas, lava tubes, and plenty more. However, to really get close to the Fire Goddess – Pele – you must hike or cycle to the lava viewing area in Kalapana from outside the national park. It is there that your shoes will melt and your eyes will glow as you enter the “gates of hell” and witness the power of creation at work, in real-time!
Great for: hiking, beaches, scenic drives, lava viewing, snorkeling
Cons: long driving distances, haze
Further Reading: The Top 10 Things To On The Big Island
Kauai is blessed with such immense natural beauty, that even a quick trip to the gas station is a scenic drive. It is the oldest of the major Hawaiian islands, home to some of the wettest spots on the planet and to the most “hippies” you’ll find in the state. Given this geological head start, Mother Nature has had millennia to erode Kauai’s volcanic peaks and carve its lush interior to absolute works of art. You come to Kauai for the outdoors and to get as close as possible to experiencing that “paradise” of a feeling. The same can be said for Hollywood, which frequently uses Kauai as the backdrop in blockbuster films.
Without a doubt, Kauai’s premier attractions are centered around its impenetrable Na Pali coastline. It is here that you can hike the Kalalau Trail with the blue of the Pacific beneath your feet, or head to Koke’e State Park for an even better angle from the Awa’awapuhi Trail. Other not to be missed highlights include Waimea Canyon – “the Grand Canyon of the Pacific”, and Tunnels Beach – the premier snorkeling spot on the island in a magnificent tropical setting.
Great for: hiking, beaches, surfing, family holiday
Cons: lots of rain in winter, always packed with visitors
Further reading: Top 10 Things To Do In Kauai
Now that you know which are the best islands in Hawaii, dig a bit deeper and plan your very own Hawaiian adventure. Sample itineraries, guides to the best spots, and the must-see highlights in five islands are waiting for you in the Hawaii Travel Guide collection. Aloha!
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