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What’s the Best Island in Hawaii for You?

There’s no wrong choice when it comes to deciding which Hawaiian island to visit. They’re all naturally beautiful, they all have gorgeous beaches, and they all welcome visitors with the gentle “aloha” spirit for which the islands are known. But there are important differences from one island to the next—and while there’s no such thing as a single best island in Hawaii, there may be a best island for you.

What’s the Best Island in Hawaii?

The best island in Hawaii depends on your passions. Are you into food? Adventure? Hiking? Beaches? There are six Hawaiian islands open to visitors, and each one offers something unique.

Luckily, you don’t have to choose just one. Most flights from the mainland U.S. land in Oahu, but frequent service from Hawaiian Airlines makes it easy to fly to other islands in the chain. You can also visit four different islands in seven days with Norwegian Cruise Line, allowing you to sample the best of Oahu, Maui, Kauai, and the Big Island.

Below is a rundown of Hawaii’s six main islands to help you decide which one (or more than one) is the right choice for your next tropical vacation.

Oahu

oahu skyline

About 1.4 million people live in Hawaii, and you’ll find the bulk of them on Oahu. The capital city, Honolulu, is home to the best high-end shopping, fine dining, and nightlife in the islands. Waikiki is the heart of the action, where you can hit the beach, snag a new pair of Gucci sunglasses, and sample chef Roy Yamaguchi’s Japanese/Hawaiian fusion cuisine all in the same day.

But Oahu has its quieter sides, too. Get outside of Honolulu and you’ll discover the laid-back surf towns of the North Shore and the lush green mountains of the windward (east) coast. Movie buffs and adventurers should stop at Kualoa Ranch, where you can go horseback riding or mountain biking, take an ATV tour, or check out the filming locations for dozens of movies including Jurassic Park and 50 First Dates. For more ideas, see The 10 Best Things to Do in Oahu Beyond Waikiki.

Best for: Shoppers, foodies, city lovers, and those who like a mix of action and relaxation. Oahu is also probably the best island in Hawaii for travelers on a budget, as you don’t have to spend extra on inter-island airfare, and the wide choice of hotels and vacation rentals means it’s easier to find a reasonably priced place to sleep.

Where to stay: One of the most popular spots to stay in Waikiki is the upscale Aston Waikiki Beach Tower, with spacious condos located right in the heart of the action. A more affordable option is the Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort, which has two towers right on the beach as well as a vast outdoor complex including a saltwater lagoon, waterslides, and five swimming pools.

Maui

garden of eden maui

The second-largest of the Hawaiian islands, Maui is a perennial visitor favorite because it has a little of everything: golden beaches, tumbling waterfalls, laid-back nightlife, championship-caliber golf courses, and plenty of outdoor adventure, from hiking and biking to snorkeling and surfing. You can get a taste of many of these attractions along the rugged Road to Hana, one of the most gorgeous drives on the planet.

If all you want to do during your vacation is to lie on a beach and relax, you can do so in popular resort areas like Kaanapali and Wailea. But more active travelers will find endless things to do in Maui. Head to Haleakala National Park to watch the sunrise from the summit of a volcano and then take an exhilarating 26-mile bike ride back down to the base. Go snorkeling among sea turtles and lava arches off the small island of Molokini. Come in the winter months to see migrating humpback whales. Or visit Maui’s many farms and plantations to sample local specialties like coffee, dragon fruit, and chocolate. (Many of these ingredients make it into farm-to-table cuisine around the island.)

Best for: Adventure seekers, honeymooners, foodies who love sampling local fare, and travelers who enjoy scenic drives.

Where to stay: Hotel Wailea is an ultra-luxe, adults-only resort featuring 72 beautifully designed suites with ocean or garden views; it’s the perfect spot for a secluded honeymoon. Or book yourself a beachfront condo at Maui Kai, where family-friendly units include kitchenettes and on-site laundry is available.

Big Island (Island of Hawaii)

beach turtle

Put all the other Hawaiian islands together and they’re still only about half the size of the Big Island (officially known as the Island of Hawaii). Nor can they match the Big Island’s sheer natural diversity. As you travel around the island, you’ll see not only the landscapes you’d expect to see in Hawaii—black and white sand beaches, golf courses, fertile jungle valleys, waterfalls—but also a green sand beach (Papakolea), stark black lava fields, and even a little snow.

This varied terrain means there’s plenty to do on the Big Island for any visitor, starting with its most famous attraction, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, which you can explore on foot or by car. Try stargazing from Maunakea, the island’s highest peak, where you’ll see that aforementioned snow. Near Kona you can relax on the beach or go snorkeling at night with manta rays, while the Hilo area is known for rainforest hikes, botanical gardens, and waterfalls. The Big Island is also a good spot to see Hawaiian green sea turtles, especially along the Kohala Coast.

Best for: Animal lovers, golfers, and outdoorsy travelers. The Big Island is also the best island in Hawaii for those seeking a variety of climates and landscapes on their vacation.

Where to stay: The Fairmont Orchid sprawls over 32 oceanfront acres in the northwestern part of the Big Island. Thanks to its large swimming pool, tennis courts, fitness center, and “spa without walls,” you may never leave the resort. If a B&B is more your speed, try The Inn at Kulaniapia Falls, an eco-friendly collection of rooms surrounding Hawaii’s largest privately accessible waterfall.

Kauai

kauai hawaii

As you drive past mile after mile of lush foliage in every imaginable shade of green, it’s not hard to see how Kauai earned the nickname “the Garden Isle.” Only about 20 percent of the island is accessible by foot or road; the rest is a dense tangle of rugged cliffs, primeval jungle, and rain-drenched mountain peaks. Consider taking a helicopter ride for the best views over Kauai’s most remote landscapes.

But there’s plenty to do on land, too. Drive to the western part of the island where lookout points and hiking trails offer spectacular views into Waimea Canyon, a deep and colorful gorge that’s often compared to the Grand Canyon. Just up the road is Koke’e State Park, where you can gaze out over Kauai’s distinctive Napali Coast and the pristine Kalalau Valley. Another must-see spot is the North Shore. Here you’ll find Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge, home to albatrosses and red-footed boobies, and Kauapea Beach (also known as Secret Beach), a vast, unspoiled stretch of golden sand accessible via a short downhill hike. For more ideas, see The 10 Best Things to Do in Kauai.

Best for: Nature lovers, beach bums, hikers, bird watchers, and travelers who want to escape tourist crowds without getting too far from civilization.

Where to stay: Those looking for a resort experience should try the Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort & Spa, which offers multiple restaurants, a golf course, a massive pool area (including a lagoon and a lazy river), and a location right on the beach. A more affordable option is the family-owned Garden Island Inn in Lihue, with 21 rooms featuring kitchenettes and freshly cut tropical flowers from the hotel’s own gardens. The beach is a short walk away. For more ideas, see The 10 Best Kauai Hotels for Every Budget.

Lanai

lanai hawaii menele bay

Lanai sees only a tiny fraction of the tourists that visit the four best-known islands, and that’s part of its appeal. For much of the 20th century, the island was used exclusively for pineapple farming by the Dole company, but these days the main source of income for Lanai is its small but growing tourism industry. About 98 percent of the island—including its two Four Seasons resorts—is owned by billionaire Larry Ellison.

Apart from relaxing on Lanai’s uncrowded beaches, travelers can visit the Lanai Cat Sanctuary to see what the staff playfully calls “Hawaiian lions,” check out the galleries and boutiques in Lanai City, relax on serene Hulopoe Beach, or hike the 12.8-mile Munro Trail to Lanaihale, the island’s highest point.

Best for: Well-heeled travelers looking for an exclusive escape and day trippers from Maui (via the Lanai Ferry).

Where to stay: The Four Seasons Resort Lanai is all about oceanfront opulence and seclusion, complete with a spa, an 18-hole golf course, limo service, and a Nobu restaurant. Non-Four Seasons options on Lanai are few and far between, but the 1920s-era Hotel Lanai offers 11 simple, recently renovated rooms.

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Molokai

molokai hawaii

The only Hawaiian island that sees fewer visitors than Lanai is Molokai, which feels like the island that time forgot. The pace of life is slow, there are no big resorts or traffic lights, and the mostly Native Hawaiian locals still embrace a simple, laid-back lifestyle. “If you want a place where you can sit on the beach by yourself and have no one talk to you, Molokai might be the best bet,” one recent visitor told me.

Molokai’s most unique attraction is Kalaupapa National Historical Park, a remote part of the island where people with Hansen’s disease (leprosy) were once sent to isolate them from the rest of the Hawaiian population. (You can currently reach the park only by air due to a landslide that wiped out the trail used by mules and hikers; restoration efforts are under way.) The island also has numerous uncrowded beaches, including Papohaku, a three-mile stretch of white sand. Take a guided hike through the stunning Halawa Valley to learn about local history and see one of the island’s most impressive waterfalls.

Best for: Outdoorsy travelers, those looking for off-the-beaten-path experiences, and people who want to get away from it all.

Where to stay: Accommodations on the island are limited. Hotel Molokai is the best of the bunch, offering comfortable rooms (some with air conditioning, some cooled only by the trade winds) as well as a pool and restaurant. The condos at Ke Nani Kai are another good option, though past guests report that some units feel dated.

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What to Pack

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Sarah Schlichter traveled to Hawaii as a guest of Hawaiian Airlines and Barclays. Follow her on Twitter @TravelEditor for more travel tips and inspiration.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2018. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

By Sarah Schlichter

Deputy Executive Editor Sarah Schlichter's idea of a perfect trip includes spotting exotic animals, hiking through pristine landscapes, exploring new neighborhoods on foot, and soaking up as much art as she can. She often attempts to recreate recipes from her international travels after she gets home (which has twice resulted in accidental kitchen fires—no humans or animals were harmed).

Sarah joined the SmarterTravel team in 2017 after more than a decade at the helm of IndependentTraveler.com. Sarah's practical travel advice has been featured in dozens of news outlets including the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Budget Travel, and Peter Greenberg Worldwide Radio. Follow her on Twitter @TravelEditor.

The Handy Item I Always Pack: "A journal. Even years later, reading my notes from a trip can bring back incredibly vivid memories."

Ultimate Bucket List Experience: "Road tripping and hiking through the rugged mountains of Patagonia."

Travel Motto: "'To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world.'—Freya Stark"

Aisle, Window, or Middle Seat: "Aisle. I get restless on long flights and like to be able to move around without disturbing anyone else."

Email Sarah at sschlichter@smartertravel.com.

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