If you are planning a trip to Hawai’i you NEED to make sure the island(s) you choose best suit your vacation plans, because each island offers many different activities.
All the islands are known for world renown beaches, Hawaiian cultural experiences, waterfalls, epic diving, and scenic drives. I have lived and explored Hawai’i for 8 years and can easily tell you which islands give the most bang-for-your-buck, depending on what you are looking to explore.
Using this guide ask yourself what aspect of Hawai’i you are trying to experience. Are you looking for adventure, relaxation, food, Hawaiian culture, volcanoes, etc.? I will explain major differences between the main islands and explain why you should travel to each one! You can also skip directly to individual interests from my expert recommendation list!
My Expert Recommendations
Oahu is the most populated island with almost 1 million residents, and more than half a million tourists every year. This island offers a myriad of attractions and will fulfill your Hawai’i vacation bucket list tout suite.
Adventure to Oahu if you want access to public transportation, night life, beaches, and world class hiking. Oahu is highly developed catering to the needs of any solo or group backpacker, especially if you want to save money using public transportation without having to rent a car. DaBus is an amazing public transportation tool that can bring you virtually everywhere on the island almost any time of the day. Downtown Honolulu and Waikiki can be transited using Biki bikes and street scooters. For deals on car rentals check out HUI, craigslist, Turo, or rent a moped.
Did you know you can drive mopeds everywhere on the island except the highways?
Oahu boasts some of the world’s BEST BEACHES with destinations like Lanikai, Waikiki, and North Shore. Check out my post on Oahu’s best beaches for more travel ideas. The beaches with amazing snorkeling and diving include Electric Beach, Shark’s Cove, Hanauma Bay, and Makua Beach.
The hiking on Oahu is some of the best in Hawai’i because of its easy accessibility for most tourists, a variety of difficulties, and INSANE views. Hikes to include on your itinerary include Manoa Falls, Diamond Head, Koko Head, Pali Lookout, Lanikai Pillbox, Crouching Lion, and you can find more on Oahu’s BEST Hikes.
Venture to Oahu in search of the best night life in Hawai’i with touristy Waikiki, urban Kaka’ako, China Town, and downtown Honolulu. You can enjoy an evening cocktail, sunset shanty, or party until 2 am at most venues. There are many local island breweries if beer is more your style. My favorites to check out are Honolulu Beer Works, Waikiki Brewing, Maui Brewing, Kona Brewing, and Lanikai Brewing. Check out more night life ideas on Night Life Activities | Oahu.
- Muragame Udon
- Dukes Waikiki
- Doraku Sushi
- Mai Tais
- Maui Brewing
- Honolulu Beer Works
- Lanikai Brewing
- Pali Lookout
- Lanikai Pillboxes
- Diamond Head
- Koko Head
- Crouching Lion
- Manoa Falls
- Waimano Falls
- Surfing Waikiki
- China Walls cliff jumping
- Snorkel Hanauma Bay
- Sunset Booze Cruise Waikiki
- Skydive Hawaii
Summary: Oahu is your go to Hawai’i island if you are looking for public transportation, budget alternatives, night life, the world’s best beaches, tourist activities, and relatively short drive times.
Maui is MY FAVORITE island because I think it has the perfect blend of tourist attraction and local atmosphere! Maui has less tourists and people than crowded Oahu, but has more venues available than Kauai or the other islands.
I am an avid cliff jumper and Maui is a cliff jumper’s paradise. The Road to Hana has 15 waterfalls accessible directly from the road, no hiking required! Many waterfalls have jumps from 5 to 60 feet tall! Beaches like Waianapanapa also have jumps other avid cliff jumpers and adrenaline junkies will enjoy. If cliff jumping is not your style, do not worry Maui has many more experiences to offer!
The atmosphere on Maui is quite different than Oahu. Tourists are consolidated toward the Lahaina coast offering reprieve from crowds of people, in most areas. That being said, Maui does cater to many tourist attractions like the Road to Hana, Haleakala, and Twin Falls. So expect to run into people and crowds at popular destinations, especially during peak summer travel season.
You can easily escape tourists on Maui by adventuring outside peak visiting hours, heading up country in Makawao town, or going to lesser frequently explored sides of the island.
If you are deciding between Maui and Oahu the deciding factor may come down to aspects Maui offers that Oahu does not. Maui has one of the only Hawaiian volcanoes to exceed 10,000 feet in elevation. Mt. Haleakala will give you a unique experiences driving high above the clouds where you can witness the sun rise or set behind the thick clouds. Be prepared because the summits of this enormous mountain experience high altitude environments and temperatures will be cold, arid, and even snow in the winter!
During the winter Maui experiences some of the largest waves in the world, seeing waves exceeding 50 and 75 feet high every year! Watch brave surfers challenge mother nature at the Jaws lookout along the island’s north shore.
Maui also offers many local restaurants that are unmissable including Maui Brewing, Sam Sato’s, Paia Thai food, Hana food trucks, and the Kihei shave ice hot spots.
- Maui Brewing
- Sam Sato’s
- Maui Tacos
- Da Kitchen
- Paia Thai food
- Hana Food Trucks
- Kihei Shave Ice
- Twin Falls
- Windmill Hike
- Mt. Haleakala sunrise/sunset
- Iao Valley
- Waimoku Falls
- Cliff House
- Ching’s Pond
- Black Rock
- Big and Little Beach (clothes optional)
- Kaihalulu Red Sand
- Cliff House cliff jumping
- Little Beach Sunday Night Bonfire
- Molokini Crater Diving
- Jaws Lookout
Summary: Maui island is your go to if you want access to dramatic scenery along the Road to Hana, waterfalls, cliff jumping, Haleakala, and less tourists! Travel to Maui outside of peak tourist season to experience the smallest crowds, but also consider coming during peak winter wave season to witness the shear power of jaws surf break and the 70ft wave riders.
Check out my Guide to the Road to Hana >> 11 Must See Stops on the Road to Hana
Kauai is often called the ‘country’ of Hawai’i because the island is extremely local, community oriented, and has a ‘small town’ vibe. The island only has one main road wrapping around the island, with more than 26 miles of coastline that cannot even be accessed by car, and more than 15 miles that cannot even be accessed by foot. Kauai has some of the world’s most remote, secluded, and uncrowded destinations.
Tourists mostly stay in the Poipu where there are many hotels and post card beaches like those found in Waikiki. I would recommend avoiding this area, because the beaches are NOT ALL THAT and some of the ‘worst’ on the island, even though they are still great. My favorite towns to stay in include Kapa’a, Waimea, Lihue, and north shore. You can find relatively good deals on Airbnb or other hotel sites depending on the time of year you are traveling. Kauai also offers the most designated camping sites of any island, and you can easily turn your trip into an island backpacking excursion.
The top activities to do on Kauai include scenic drives around the island, up Waimea Canyon, and through Hanalei to the north shore. It takes less than 1 hour to drive around the island, so circumnavigating is very doable in one day or short vacations. Even if you have no desire to go rainforest hiking, the quick pullouts are well worth the scenic drives. Driving up Waimea canyon will take you to the Kalaulau summit where you get a birds eye view of one of the most remote places on the planet.
Waialua falls is a MUST SEE waterfall to include on your Kauai itinerary. The waterfall has a large parking lot at the lookout, and you can even hike down to the base if you are more adventurous. This waterfall has cascading water dropping over 100 feet to the bowl shaped valley below.
As Kauai is community oriented you are going to get more authentic culinary and island experiences than other islands. My favorite local companies to check out are Kauai Juice company and Kauai Brewing. Waimea has some of the best shave ice I have ever tried in Hawai’i, and make sure you support as many local businesses as you can!
- Kauai Brewing
- Kauai Juice Co.
- Waimea Shave Ice
- Waialua Falls
- Hanakapi’ai Falls
- Kalaulau Trail
- Waimea Canyon
- Hanalei Pier
- Queen’s Bath
Summary: Travel to Kauai for smaller, community island vibes. This island is very local, country, and Hawaiian! Kauai offers secluded beaches, dramatic scenic drives, waterfalls, and local businesses. There is limited public transport, but is the most hitchhiker friendly island. Drive times are minimal, and there are opportunities for backpackers, waterfalls, and island road trips.
Hawai’i island also referred to as the Big Island is you guessed it, A BIG ISLAND! The big island is the biggest of the Hawaiian chain, and the only with an active volcano. The island sits on top of the Kilauea hot spot responsible for forming the entire Hawaiian archipelago. If you want more info on how it all works, DM me on Insta and I will totally geek out and give you the science behind the island’s formation.
The volcano erupts from Kilauea’s Halema’uma’u crater, continually moving toward the south eastern most section of the island. You can explore Volcanoes National Park venturing through ancient lava tubes, lava flows, crater rim lookouts, steam vents, and see the erupting volcano. Make sure you check the eruption status on the US geological survey website to plan your trip accordingly, because volcanoes can experience rapid changes.
Other reasons to chose Big Island as your Hawai’i destination include its enormous scenic driving opportunities. The island is so big it would take you more than 9 hours to drive around it. I recommend taking a drive through Waimea country if you want to see rural Hawai’i where they cultivate farms, and live a cowboy lifestyle. I recommend driving out to South Point, the official southern most point in the USA, and a cliff jumper’s dream!
Hawai’i island offers unique diving opportunities with dive sites offering some of the most protected coral reefs in the islands, manta rays, and ocean wildlife. Tours will take you to see spinner dolphins, pilot whales, false killer whales, whale sharks, and more species.
This island is built around the Mauna Kea volcanic mountain peak stretching 13,000 feet high. The drive up the Mauna takes an hour and a half from Hilo or Kona, but is an amazing sunset spot or to experience the highest point in the Pacific Ocean. Mauna Kea is technically even taller than Mount Everest if you measure from its base thousands of miles beneath the ocean.
Hiking on Big Island has many unique options. Sunset Hill on Mauna Kea is a quick 5 minute hike up to watch the sunset after the drive up the mountain. You can hike to a man mad waterslide in the jungle at White Roads, and many other popular waterfalls on the Hilo side of the island.
- Kona Brewing
- Punalu’u Bakery
- Kona Thai Food
- Sunset Hill, Mauna Kea
- Eagle’s Nest
- Rainbow Falls
- Captain Cook
- Punalu’u Black Sand
- South Point Cliff Jumping
- Hilo Tower Sunset
Summary: Choose Big Island for your trip if you want to experience sites like Mauna Kea, South Point, or its wildlife opportunities. This island is very large and drive times, gas, and popular venue access will reflect that. That being said Big Island also offers many waterfalls in Hilo, snorkel spots in Kona, and the LAVA!
Molokai hosts a miniscule populated situated between Oahu and Maui, and it only has one stoplight! This is an extremely local island with a tight knit community, and believe me everyone knows when a new person arrives on the island, so you cannot hide.
Molokai is extremely secluded, with many untouched beaches, coastline, and remote landscapes to explore. Mokulele airlines operates small capacity propeller planes to the island from the main island airports.
Most of the island needs to be accessed by helicopter tours to enjoy the Jurassic park scenery and backside sea cliffs of the island. The dramatic north face of Molokai is a twisting and turning coastline of steep sea cliffs, waterfalls, and island fragments left after ancient collapses in the island archipelago’s history.
- Kulapuu Cookhouse
- Molokai Forest Reserve
- Dixie Maru
- Helicopter Tour
- Moaulu Falls
Summary: The best thing to do on Molokai is escape tourists. This island offers secluded exploration into untouched beaches and nature. There is virtually no amenities beside the miniscule town center, so expect to rely on local connections. The best activities on Molokai is helicopter and boat tours to the exotic north face sea cliffs, waterfalls, and remote lagoons.
Lanai is similar to Molokai in terms of its seclusion, untouched nature, and remote accessibility. However Lanai does offer some amenities with small resort developments at its port city. The easiest way to get to Lanai is by flying to Maui and taking a quick 90 minute boat ride from Lahaina.
Lanai offers several beaches and sight seeing attractions like Sweetheart Rock, Shipwreck Beach, and the Kaunolu Cliffs. The Kaunolu Cliffs are said to be the origins of cliff jumping, and ancient Hawaiian teens transitioned to men proving their bravery by jumping off the 75 foot plus cliffs into the crystal clear water.
- No Ka Oi Grindz
- Sensai by Nobu
- Sweetheart Rock
- Hulopoe Beach
- ATV Rentals
- Kaunolu Cliffs
This is the forbidden island and you cannot go here unless you get invited by a native Hawaiian or you pay A LOT OF MONEY!
I was lucky enough to go on a crabbing trip off the coast of Ni’ihau and we got to drive all the way around the island and see all of its untouched white sandy coast. People that have visited this island say it is like Hawai’i before Europeans discovered the islands.
There is abundant wildlife including reef sharks, monk seals, dolphins, crabs, fish, and turtles. Definitely do not give up an invitation if you get one!
If you want more Hawai’i travel guides, tips, and inspiration check out my other blog posts about the islands!
Venture to the BEST stops on the Road to Hana in Maui, Hawai’i. Step-by-step directions, instructions, and helpful tips for seeing everything Maui has to offer!Keep reading
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