What are the differences between the Hawaiian islands? No two Hawaiian islands are alike, and choosing which island to visit on your vacation to Hawaii can set the whole vibe of your trip. The state of Hawaii is made up of eight islands, of which six are major islands for tourists to choose from: Kauai, Oahu, Molokai, Lanai, Maui, and the Big Island. Each island boasts its own unique personality, offering distinct adventures, activities, and sights to its visitors. Here's how to choose which island of Hawaii is right for your vacation needs.
Kauai, the "Garden Isle
Kauai is the oldest of the Hawaiian islands, located the farthest north in the island chain. Its age has graced it with valleys, mountains, and cliffs unlike those on any of the other islands, as well as lush rainforests, rivers, and waterfalls. Visitors can choose from an array of top-notch resorts with some of the best beaches, but if you're spending time on Kauai, make sure to get off the resort once in a while, as well. The island's dramatic green scenery makes it the perfect spot for outdoor activities, like kayaking, snorkeling, and hiking, so it's a perfect spot for nature lovers and hikers.
Flights to Kauai tend to cost a little more relative to the other islands, but for the traveler who values a balance between thrill and relaxation, the trip is well worth it. On Kauai, you'll discover Hanalei Bay, Poipu Beach, and Kokee State Park, as well as Waimea Canyon State Park – otherwise known as the Grand Canyon of the Pacific. Waimea Canyon stretches for about 10 miles and drops as deep as 3,600 feet at some points, making it a must-see for Kauai visitors.
Oahu, the "Heart of Hawaii”
Honolulu, Hawaii's state capital, is located on Oahu, as are some of the state's most famous surf towns. Oahu is the busiest, most populous island in Hawaii, featuring world-famous spots like Waikiki Beach, Pearl Harbor, and the North Shore. The island is sometimes referred to as "the gathering place," as it houses the majority of Hawaii's population and showcases some vastly diverse cultures as a result.
On Oahu, you'll find ancient traditions infused with modernity, fast-paced cities juxtaposed with laid-back surf towns. Visitors here can enjoy Honolulu's world-class shopping and high-class dining on one day and immerse themselves in the history of World War II at Pearl Harbor the next. If you're looking for a high-energy vacation with many different kinds of activities, Oahu might be the island for surfers, luxury resorts, and rentals.
Maui, the Famous Island
On Maui, you'll find world-famous beaches (featuring black, red, and white sand), the road to Hana, and adventures at Haleakala National Park. This lets the island's visitors mix up their day-to-day activities – boredom is not an option on Maui. You can spend one day sprawled on a beach resort in Lahaina, with nothing on the agenda but catching rays and perhaps a spa evening. The next day, on the other hand, might bring action and adventure: Catch an early-morning shuttle to the top of the dormant Haleakala volcano, where you can watch the sunrise before hopping on a mountain bike to enjoy several hours' worth of beautiful scenery on the road to the bottom. Renting a car is a great way to explore Maui, making the road to Hana – a twisting, turning cliff-side drive, featuring unbeatable views and hiking trails along the way – a possibility.
Flights to Maui from the mainland are the second-cheapest in Hawaii (with the first being to Oahu). This island is an excellent choice for travelers looking to mix it up between adventure and relaxation. The Valley Isle, as Maui is often called, offers a variety of attractions such as Wailea, Humpback Whales (during the season), Kaanapali, and the luxurious resorts of Kapalua.
Hawaii, the "Big Island"
On the Big Island, you'll find Hawaii's only active volcano, plus awesome white sand beaches and a captivating history. Enjoy some of Hawaii's best snorkeling here, along with beautiful resorts, waterfalls, and coastal scenery. Coffee fans can find their own personal heaven here as well, as the Big Island is home to the United States' only home-grown coffee. The island features seven different coffee-growing regions, each boasting its own unique climate and industry.
The island lives up to its name, as it's the biggest of all the Hawaiian islands. On this one plot of land, visitors can travel through all but four of the world's existing climate zones, with everything from the tropics to the polar tundra. These zones are possible due to the Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa volcanoes, which provide elevation and shielding properties that contribute to the island's diverse climates. On the Big Island, you can witness everything from black sand beaches to flowing molten magma to snowy mountaintops. Popular destinations on this side of the island include Kona, Hilo, the Na Pali Coast, as well as spots known for Manta Ray sightings.
Molokai, the Rustic Island
Molokai offers the most remote feel you'll find in Hawaii, as it's the state's least populated island and the most lacking in modern amenities. It also boasts some of the region's highest sea cliffs and Hawaii's longest continuous fringe reef. If you're a traveler who likes to divert from the beaten path and truly get off the grid while you're away, consider vacationing on Molokai.
Lanai, the Rugged Island
This one's a tiny island and easily accessible by ferry from Maui, so it might be best to visit here in addition to Maui or a couple of the other islands. On Lanai, you'll get to experience small island life firsthand, as most of its population descends from plantation workers. There are two world-class resorts on Lanai, as well as a renowned golf scene.
No matter which Hawaiian island you choose to say “Aloha!” to, and whether it is your first time there or your fifth time coming back, you will find beautiful beaches and endless outdoor adventures. Always consult travel guides like TripAdvisor if you want to find special restaurants, historical sites to visit, or special nightlife activities. Following travel tips set out by other tourists is always a great idea, but be sure to investigate what native Hawaiians would say are the “must-sees” on any of the islands as well. Enjoy the natural beauty of this part of the world and relax! It can't get better than swimming with sea turtles and going whale watching, right?