Find the Right Hawaiian Island for You

May 21, 2024

When you hear the word, Hawaii, what image springs to mind? Brilliant sunsets over golden beaches? Lush rainforests? Otherworldly volcanic landscapes? 

One of the wonderful things about Hawaii is that each island offers its own distinct flavor and experiences — from the cosmopolitan vibe of Oahu to the rugged landscapes of the Big Island, the verdant cliffs of Kauai, and the secluded luxury of Lanai.

So when planning a Hawaiian vacation, it's important to align each island's unique features with your travel aspirations.

 Hawaii: The Big Island

Hawaii is the largest of the Islands and uniquely diverse. It's best known for its dynamic landscapes and geological features. At Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, visitors can witness lava flows, hike through lava tubes, and explore volcanic craters.

The lush rainforests near Hilo on the east coast lead to waterfalls like Akaka and Rainbow Falls.

The island’s west side is known for its sunny beaches and world-class snorkeling. And stargazing from Mauna Kea’s observatories offers an unforgettable cosmic experience.

Who Loves It:

The Big Island is ideal for adventurers, geology enthusiasts, and nature lovers. The island also appeals to those who love astronomy, as Mauna Kea is a world-class stargazing site.

Know Before You Go:

  • You'll want to bring layers because temperatures may vary significantly between regions.
  • Also, check current volcanic activity at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park for potential trail closures.
  • The Big Island is vast so we suggest renting a car to explore its varied regions.

 Maui: The Valley Isle

Maui, the second-largest of the Hawaiian Islands, is famous for its beautiful beaches, scenic drives, and outdoor adventures. The road to Hana winds through waterfalls, coastal cliffs, and lush forests. Haleakala National Park offers breathtaking views of the volcanic landscape.

Viewing Maui's world-famous sunrise atop the dormant Haleakala volcano is not to be missed. Snorkelers will find paradise at Molokini Crater, while the Upcountry region reveals local farms and wineries. Maui provides a perfect mix of relaxation and thrilling activities.

Who Loves It:

Outdoor enthusiasts will find plenty of adventure, from hiking volcanic craters to snorkeling coral reefs. Families enjoy Maui’s blend of beaches, whale-watching, and rainforest hikes. Couples find romance in the island's luxury resorts, spas, and picturesque landscapes. Cultural explorers are drawn to historic towns, art galleries, and traditional Hawaiian experiences. Ultimately, Maui offers a multifaceted vacation destination, catering to travelers seeking diverse adventures and experiences.

Know Before You Go:

  • Book sunrise reservations for Haleakala well in advance to secure a spot.
  • Plan your Road to Hana drive with stops along the way and allow a full day to truly enjoy it.
  • Maui is popular year-round, so booking accommodations and activities ahead is crucial.

Oahu: The Gathering Place

Oahu is the third-largest but most populous Hawaiian island, home to two-thirds of Hawaii's total population. It attracts travelers with a unique combination of beautiful beaches, historical sites, and urban delights. 

The nightlife, shopping, and dining scenes are bustling in Waikiki, where you can find everything from high-end boutiques to local fare.

Pearl Harbor provides an important glimpse into World War II history, with memorials like the USS Arizona and Battleship Missouri. Iolani Palace, the only official royal residence in the U.S., reveals a proud Hawaiian history as the Islands' spiritual and physical multicultural epicenter.

Venturing to the North Shore unveils legendary surfing spots like Waimea Bay and the Banzai Pipeline. During winter, waves reach incredible heights, attracting top surfers worldwide. Conversely, summer waves are gentler and ideal for swimming and snorkeling.

The island’s countryside is also worth exploring, with attractions like the Byodo-In Temple, the windward beaches of Kailua and Lanikai, and hikes such as the Makapuu Lighthouse Trail.

Who Loves It:

Oahu appeals to urban explorers who enjoy mixing historical sites, shopping, and dining alongside beach activities. History enthusiasts can explore Pearl Harbor and Iolani Palace, while beach lovers will enjoy both the bustling Waikiki and the quieter shores of Kailua. Adventure seekers can surf the North Shore’s legendary waves or hike less-frequented locales like Kaena Point. ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

Know Before You Go:

  • Oahu is very popular, so book accommodations and activities well in advance, especially during peak seasons.
  • Traffic is heavy around Honolulu and Waikiki, so allow extra travel time, particularly during rush hour.

Kauai: The Garden Isle

Kauai is the oldest of the Hawaiian Islands with a relaxed, old-Hawaii charm and untouched wilderness that make it an appealing destination for those seeking tranquility and adventure.

The Napali Coast offers breathtaking views best experienced via boat, helicopter, or on a challenging hike. Waimea Canyon provides dramatic landscapes often likened to a tropical Grand Canyon.

The south shore’s Poipu Beach is perfect for families and swimming, while the North Shore’s Hanalei Bay is ideal for surfers and those seeking solitude.

Kauai’s small towns, like Hanapepe and Koloa, offer local art galleries, eateries, and shops.

Who Loves It:

Kauai is perfect for outdoor enthusiasts, nature lovers, and adventurers who enjoy hiking, kayaking, or simply relaxing amid breathtaking scenery. Couples and families seeking a peaceful retreat with a touch of adventure will also find Kauai appealing.

Know Before You Go:

  • Book helicopter and boat tours of the Napali Coast early to secure your preferred dates.
  • Hiking on the Napali Coast requires a permit, so plan ahead.
  • Kauai is quieter than other islands, so many activities and dining spots close early.

Molokai: The Friendly Isle

Molokai is often considered the most authentic of the Hawaiian Islands. With little commercial development and a focus on traditional Hawaiian culture, Molokai remains true to its roots. 

The island's rugged landscapes and a strong sense of community create a unique atmosphere.

The Kalaupapa National Historical Park is a testament to resilience and compassion, telling the story of the former leper colony. Guided hikes led by locals provide a look into ancient Hawaiian traditions at Halawa Valley.

Papohaku Beach, one of Hawaii’s largest white-sand beaches, is often almost empty, providing a serene setting.

Who Loves It:

Molokai is best suited to travelers seeking an authentic, off-the-grid experience. Those interested in learning about Hawaiian traditions and immersing themselves in local culture will find Molokai enriching. Nature enthusiasts will appreciate the untouched landscapes and serene beaches.

Know Before You Go:

  • Accommodations and services are limited. So, be sure to book well in advance.
  • Many roads are unpaved; renting a 4x4 vehicle is helpful for exploring.
  • Molokai has no nightlife or shopping malls, offering a different pace than other islands.

Lanai: The Pineapple Isle

Lanai, the smallest inhabited island in Hawaii, is known for its seclusion and luxury. Once dominated by pineapple plantations, Lanai is now home to exclusive resorts and rugged terrains.

Hulopoe Bay, with its marine sanctuary and dolphin sightings, is perfect for swimming and snorkeling.

For a dramatic change of scenery, Keahiakawelo (Garden of the Gods) provides a Mars-like landscape accessible only by 4x4 vehicles.

The island’s only town, Lanai City, retains a quaint feel. Unlike the bustling cities of other Hawaiian islands, it has a small-town charm that makes it unique. With fewer than 3,000 residents, Lanai City reflects a simpler, quieter lifestyle.

But don't let Lanai's quiet nature fool you, it's home to two of the most sophisticated luxury resorts in the islands. World-class dining, a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course, watersports of all kinds, and advanced wellness spas are but a few of the amenities that make these resorts popular destinations for relaxation, adventure, and rejuvenation in a serene island setting.

Who Loves It:

Lanai is perfect for those seeking high-end luxury, and a peaceful retreat. Adventurers looking for exclusive off-road exploration will also love the island.

Know Before You Go:

  • Vehicle rentals are limited, so book ahead if you plan to explore the rugged terrain.
  • Lanai is quiet, with few amenities, so be prepared to spend most of your time within the resort or on outdoor adventures.

Planning Your Hawaii Vacation

Each Hawaiian island offers a distinct experience, and choosing the right one(s) can significantly impact the satisfaction and depth of your vacation.

So, when considering a Hawaiian vacation, it's essential to ask yourself:

  • What type of experiences are you looking for: relaxation, adventure, culture, nature, luxury, or urban vibe? 
  • Who will be traveling with you, and what are their interests and needs? 
  • How much time do you have, and how might that influence the number of islands you can realistically visit?
  • What is your budget, and how can it be best allocated to ensure the experiences you value most?

Answering these questions can help tailor your trip to your preferences.

 Packaged vs. Custom 

There are a couple of ways to design your Hawaiian vacation: pre-packaged trips or customized planning. 

Packaged Hawaii vacations abound on the internet, and can offer a quick solution if you enjoy handling all of the details and can stay within the pre-determined plan. However, packages may not include the personalization needed to fit your travel style or provide the activities and experiences you'd hoped for.

A customized plan from a travel professional specializing in Hawaii can provide highly personalized experiences, insights into hidden gems, advice on the best times to visit certain spots, help navigating inter-island travel, and expertise to handle the details for you. 

Ultimately, choosing between a pre-packaged vacation and a custom plan depends on the flexibility and personalization you desire. Your decision should take into account your travel preferences, desired level of spontaneity, and the specific experiences you're interested in.

Hawaiian Activities

Whale Watching – The 'Big Island' is the most popular destination for whale watching in Hawaii. The peak season to catch a glimpse of Humpback whales is from January to March. You have the option to view via a cruise or private boat tour.

Luaus – These traditional ceremonies are a major source of entertainment on all islands within Hawaii. Take the opportunity to enjoy live dancing, learn about Hawaiian as well as Polynesian culture, and enjoy delectable cuisines.

See a Lava Show – Hop aboard a World-class catamaran to get up and close to the volcano fingers as they enter the sea. You will have thoroughly trained staff aboard, and safety is paramount. You can select from a tour in the morning, sunset, day, or twilight tour.

Helicopter Tours – Various tour lines offer unique aerial journeys that allow you to view the breathtaking Hawaiian scenery. From volcanoes and waterfalls to hidden valleys and majestic coastlines. A helicopter tour is truly an ideal way to sightsee.

SUP (Stand-Up Paddle Boarding) – This activity originated in Hawaii and is a derivative of surfing. SUP is soothing and allows you to explore the waterways on your terms. An excellent paddle path to take is from the Lanikai Beach to the Mokulua Islands.

Horseback Riding Tours – Explore the coastline or venture to hidden trails on an exploratory horseback tour. Most companies offer private as well as group tours. Some countless ranches and stables accommodate tourists. Paniolo Adventures is one of the largest, with an 11,000-acre cattle ranch located in Waimea.

Mauna Kea – This dormant volcano is a unique wonder to explore, and erupted over 4,000 years ago. You can hike the summit, but be sure to stop by the VIS (Visitor Information Station) to check for weather and safety tips.

Kona Coffee Farm Tour – Kona coffee is some of the best gourmet coffee that you can find and is world-renowned. Kailua Kona, which is located on the 'Big Island,' is the heart of Kona coffee. When taking a tour, you will get to see processing facilities as well as the coffee fields. Don't forget to take some time to indulge in the popular beverage.

Grab your gear and take charge of your getaway with these great suggestions that will be sure to make your experience fascinating.

For more information on current promotions on travel in Hawaii, call 406-259-0999 to chat with one of our professional travel advisors.

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