You’re ready to take the vacation of a lifetime, but with such a rich variety of islands within the Aloha State, how do you choose? Our guide will help you pick the perfect Hawaiian island for you.

By Kait Hanson
May 07, 2019
Hulopoe Beach Park
Photo: Makena Stock Media/Getty Images

Every single one of the Hawaiian Islands is captivating. From tranquil beaches and lush green mountains to buzzy cityscapes and quaint seaside towns (not to mention turquoise seas in every direction), there is a tropical paradise to fit everyone’s dream trip. But vacation time isn't unlimited (we wish!), so which island should you visit?

Read on to find out which Hawaiian island is perfect for your getaway, and take our Hawaiian island quiz to verify your pick. Then use our vacation planning guides to plot the trip of your dreams. Let’s get started.

Which Hawaiian Island Should You Visit?

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Oahu Is Best For: Families or groups who have different definitions of a tropical vacation.

Sound Like You? Get Our Oahu Travel Guide

Why We Love Oahu: Dubbed “The Gathering Place,” Oahu is the third largest of the Hawaiian islands and home to famous Waikiki Beach and the state’s capital of Honolulu. It’s also the most densely populated island with nearly 1 million residents. Visitors seeking a taste of city life and quintessential Hawaii favorites should pin Oahu to the very top of their itinerary.

Most tourists stay right on Waikiki Beach for panoramic views of Diamond Head Crater, but secluded spots like Turtle Bay Resort on the North Shore and Four Seasons Oahu in Ko Olina on Oahu’s quieter west side are peaceful picks.

City slickers should head straight for Honolulu. Grab lunch in colorful Kakaako, an up-and-coming neighborhood marked by hand-painted wall murals, before visiting Ala Moana Center, the largest open-air shopping mall in the world, which features a mix of stores ranging from high-end shops to local boutiques. Venture into the heart of Waikiki and breeze through the legendary Royal Hawaiian Hotel, dubbed the Pink Palace of the Pacific, before enjoying a mai tai on the beach.

History buffs should make a point to see Iolani Palace, the official residence of Hawaii’s monarchy, as well as Doris Duke’s Shangri-La, the heiress’s former residence and present day museum for Islamic art and culture, and Pearl Harbor. All sites require a reservation, so book ahead for smooth sailing.

Despite development, Oahu is brimming with beaches. Enjoy local favorites like Lanikai, Waimanalo, and Kailua beach parks, all on the east side, and Makaha, a great spot for snorkeling for strong swimmers, on the west, or leeward, side of the island. Oahu’s North Shore is famous for enormous waves in the winter months, so if you’re visiting between December and March, hop on the island's H-2 highway to see them at Waimea Bay, making sure to enjoy pineapple Dole Whip from Dole Plantation en route and Matsumoto’s Shave Ice in Haleiwa on the way home.

Big Beach, aka Makena Beach, on Maui
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Maui Is Best For: Couples seeking a romantic getaway and animal lovers who want to get up close and personal with humpback whales.

Sound Like You? Get Our Maui Travel Guide

Why We Love Maui: Known as “The Valley Isle,” Maui is the second largest Hawaiian island and marked by quaint towns, farms, and stunning beaches. During the winter months, migrating humpback whales call the shores along Maui’s coast home, and the island has been consistently rated among the best in the United States, according to Conde Nast’s annual Readers’ Choice Awards.

From the island’s main airport in Kahului, make a beeline for Paia before navigating the hairpin turns of the Road to Hana, a 52-mile scenic drive stacked with 620 curves and 59 bridges, making sure to indulge in Thai Food by Pranee before making the turnaround.

Beach lovers should head for Makena Beach Park, known locally as Big Beach, in south Maui, or Kaanapali, a three-mile strip of powdery sand on the western coast.

Step back in time by strolling the historic streets of Lahaina, a preserved whaling village, or Makawao, a famed cowboy town with a bustling art scene.

Outdoor highlights include Iao Valley State Park, a lush valley offering both hiking and picturesque views of the Iao Needle, as well as Haleakalā National Park, a 10,023-foot dormant volcano. Watching the sunrise at the summit of Haleakalā, is bucket list-worthy, but requires reservations that tend to fill up quickly, so book this must-do prior to arrival.

Waimea Canyon, Kaua'i
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Kaua'i Is Best For: Vacationers who want to see unspoiled Hawaii—there’s less development and fewer people than on other islands.

Sound Like You? Get Our Kaua'i Travel Guide

Why We Love Kaua'i: If tropical jungles and cascading waterfalls are on your vacation vision board, Hawaii’s fourth largest island, Kaua’i, is the island escape of your dreams. Nicknamed the “Garden Island,” Kaua’i lives up to the title with her web of greenery, emerald ocean, and famed coastline.

Outdoor enthusiasts should start at Waimea Canyon, known as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” where numerous waterfalls frequently produce rainbows along the 14-mile stretch. Dedicated hikers can take the 11-mile Kalalau Trail along Kaua’i’s famous Nāpali Coast, a strenuous hike marked by steep cliffs and sweeping ocean views.

Related: The Perfect Weekend in Kaua'i

Grab a coffee from turquoise-colored Java Kai in Kapa'a before heading to the North Shore to explore some of Kaua’i’s most pristine, gold-sand beaches as well as the stunning Queen’s Bath—a natural tide pool big enough to luxuriate in.

Finally, consider that Kaua’i's dramatic topography is great to observe from the air, meaning that a helicopter tour can be a crowning excursion. 

Puu Pehe, also known as Sweetheart Rock
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Lana'i Is Best For: Luxury lovers who want to indulge in a quieter island landscape.

Sound Like You? Get Our Lana'i Travel Guide

Why We Love Lana'i: For travelers looking to escape (but still connect to wifi), Lana’i is the place to be. Known as the “Pineapple Island” because of its past as a pineapple plantation, Lana’i is 140 square miles of serenity.

Only nine miles from Maui, Lana’i is accessible by air and via a ferry that leaves Maui’s Lahaina Boat Harbor daily. Two Four Seasons properties flank the island (the central island location is undergoing renovation), while Hotel Lanai, a plantation-inspired retreat, sits just off the town square.

Take the island’s rugged back roads in a 4x4 to catch sunrise at Shipwreck Beach, followed by an exploratory cruise through Garden of the Gods. End the day with a short hike out to Puu Pehe, also known as Sweetheart Rock, to watch the sun sink below the horizon.

Kalaupapa National Historical Park on Moloka'i
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Moloka'i Is Best For: Travelers who crave deep culture and a real sense of remove.

Why We Love Moloka'i: The roots of Hawaii are deeply embedded in Moloka’i, frequently referred to as “The Friendly Isle.” Visitors to the Hawaiian Islands seeking a tranquil escape for a few days after spending time in a more populated place should pinpoint Moloka’i on their vacation map.

Only 38 miles long and 10 miles wide, Moloka’i is best known for Kalaupapa National Historical Park (site of a historic colony for people with Hansen's Disease—also known as leprosy) and the world’s highest sea cliffs, which frequently generate natural waterfalls after heavy rainfall. One hotel and a handful of cottage-style rentals are the available accommodations on this pristine island, adding to the sense of escape, nostalgia, and wonderful quiet. 

Punaluu Black Sand Beach on Hawai'i Island
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Hawai'i Island

Hawai'i Island Is Best For: Adventure seekers with a thirst for outdoor excitement, like jumping off a cliff at the southernmost point in the United States or watching lava from an active volcano sizzle into the ocean.

Why We Love Hawai'i Island: Often referred to as the Big Island, Hawai’i Island is both the youngest and largest member of the Hawaiian Islands archipelago. From coffee farms to active volcanoes, the Big Island of Hawaii is an adventure seeker’s paradise.

Head north out of Hilo after stopping at Rainbow Falls, an 80-foot waterfall known for generating rainbows on sunny days, and drive up the Hamakua Coast, a scenic stretch of coastline, toward Waipio Valley. Known as "The Valley of The Kings," this lush, paradisiacal valley rewards hikers with panoramic views.

Driving south down the western coastline, make a pit stop at Hapuna Beach Park, the largest of the island’s white sand beaches, before arriving at the Kona district, home to both Hulihee Palace, Kaloko-Honokohau Park, and an abundance of coffee farms that offer tastings and tours. Nightly excursions out of Honokohau Harbor allow visitors to partake in one of Kona’s most memorable experiences: snorkeling and diving with manta rays.

Leaving Kona, drive to the island's southernmost region, Kau. It’s best known for one of the most famous beaches in the state, Punaluu Black Sand Beach. South Point, the southernmost point in the United States—attracts hundreds of people daily to jump off the famed overhang (don’t worry—there’s a rope ladder to climb back up!)—is another Kau highlight, not to mention Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park.

If Hawai’i Island is your destination of choice, pack for all seasons. Visitors can expect all but four of the world's varying climate zones, ranging from Wet Tropical to Polar Tundra, a result of the shielding effect and elevations of the five volcanoes that call Hawai’i Island home.

Maunakea, a dormant volcano, is one of the only places in the world where you can drive from sea level to 14,000 feet and see snow. Mauna Loa, the largest active volcano on Earth, is one half of the volcanoes that comprise Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. The other half, Kilauea volcano, the most active in the islands, erupted continuously for several months in 2018, causing evacuations and destruction in the surrounding areas.

Choose the Perfect Hawaiian Island For Your Visit

The beauty of Hawai’i is that no matter which island you land on, you can’t go wrong. If you’re still not sure which island is best for you, take our Hawaiian Islands quiz to find out. Then use our Island Guides to help plan the vacation of a lifetime.

Island Travel Guides: