The Best Islands In Hawaii

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!

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Video Countdown: The Best Islands In Hawaii

Watch this video countdown of the top 5 islands in Hawaii (you might need to disable your ad blocker).

5. Oahu – “The Gathering Place”

Oahu is Hawaii’s main international gateway, often overlooked by visitors in transit to the archipelago’s more “rugged” gems. Home to Honolulu, the state’s capital and only proper city, Oahu is more than just Waikiki’s “concrete jungle”. With volcanic craters dotting the coastline, magnificent beaches, and the eroded peaks of the Pali Coast – Oahu might be the most beautiful island in Hawaii if it weren’t for its exploding population.

Honolulu Panoramic View - Tantalus Scenic Drive - Oahu - Hawaii
Honolulu and Diamond Head from Tantalus Drive

Hawaii’s main island offers visitors a choice. Stay in swanky and busy Honolulu with the benefits of a proper city, or out of town to experience the island’s “country charm”. Oahu is famous for its surf beaches and city life. However, the ultimate fun combines hiking and beach time with road-tripping along the south and windward (east) coasts. Do not miss the hike to the summit of the Diamond Head Crater and snorkeling at Hanauma Bay.

Hanauma Bay - Oahu - Hawaii
Hanauma Bay
Waikiki Beach from Diamond Head - Honolulu Hawaii
Waikiki from Diamond Head

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

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4. Maui – “The Valley Isle”

One of the world’s most famous islands, Maui rides its reputation as a paradise island like a pro surfer. The island 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 small landmass. Maui’s almost eternally sunny southern coast is 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. On this memorable scenic drive, a 44-mile journey crosses 54 one-lane bridges and nearly as many waterfalls.   

Kaumahina State Wayside - Driving scenic road to Hana - Maui - Hawaii
The scenic road to Hana
Big Beach Maui Hawaii 2
Maui’s “Big Beach”

Maui’s #1 highlight, however, is the Haleakala Crater. The crown jewel of Haleakala National Park is so immense that it‘s 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.

Sliding Sands Hike - Haleakala Crater - Maui Hawaii 1
Haleakala Crater on the Sliding Sands Trail

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

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3. Molokai – “The Friendly Isle”

If it’s cocktails by the pool, 24-hour room service, and 5G data coverage that you’re searching for – 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. The island 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 actually to meet real Hawaiians.

Slow down this is Molokai sign - Hawaii

Molokai is all about winding down and balancing doing nothing on a 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 Kalaupapa National Historical Park. From 1866 to 1969, the remote Kalaupapa Peninsula was a quarantine zone for victims of leprosy who were forced to relocate here.

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Father Damien Grave site - Kalaupapa Molokai Hawaii
View of Pali Cliffs from Kalaupapa - Molokai Hawaii

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

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2. Hawaii – “The Big Island”

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 archipelago‘s most diverse destination, an island where you could theoretically ski, get stuck in torrential rain, and work on your tan at the beach – all on 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 “split personality” is the best adjective to describe this place. The sunny Kona Coast is where you’ll find the Big Island’s best beaches and resorts. In contrast, the Hilo Coast is tropical, wet, and the island’s beating heart. Over in the north, it’s all about majestic deep valleys, while the remote south is barren and hides the island’s ultimate jewel.

Akaka Falls - Big Island Hawaii
Akaka Falls
Sunset with palm trees - Kona - Big Island
A typical Kona sunset
View of Waipio Valley from the Muliwai Trail - Big Island Hawaii
Waipio Valley

One cannot visit the Big Island without making the journey to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, home to Kilauea – one of the world’s most active volcanoes. Spend a day or two hiking in volcanic craters, decyphering ancient Hawaiian petroglyphs, and completing the scenic Chain of Craters drive. To experience the spectacle of the fresh lava flow, take to the skies on a scenic helicopter flight and get as close as possible to fire goddess Pele.

The Kalapana lava flow area - Big Island

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

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1. Kauai – “The Garden Isle”

Kauai is blessed with such immense natural beauty that even a quick trip to the gas station counts as a scenic drive. It is the oldest of the major Hawaiian islands, home to some of the wettest spots on the planet and the most “hippies” in the state. Given its geological head start over neighboring islands, Mother Nature has had millennia to erode Kauai’s volcanic peaks and carve its lush interior into 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.

Tunnels Beach
Wailua Falls

Without a doubt, Kauai’s premier attractions are centered around its impenetrable Na Pali coastline. It is here that you can hike the spectacular Kalalau Trail or head to Koke’e State Park to get a better angle from the Awa’awapuhi Trail. Other highlights include Waimea Canyon – “the Grand Canyon of the Pacific”, and Tunnels Beach – the prettiest stretch of soft sand on the island.

Pu’u Hinahina Lookout - Waimea Canyon - Kauai
Waimea Canyon
The Awa’awapuhi Trail

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

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More from Hawaii

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 await you in the Hawaii Travel Guide collection. Aloha!

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