Planning a trip to the Hawaiian Islands but not sure where to start? Torn between picking a single island or doing some island hopping?
Wherever you travel around the Hawaiian Islands, fantastical beaches, friendly faces and ono grinds (good eats) are practically guaranteed, but every island has a unique flavor. Get swept up by the kinetic energy of the capital island, O'ahu. Hang loose on Maui, which offers a little something for everyone, but especially for beach bums. Gaze at the towering sea cliffs on ancient Kaua'i. Wonder at new land being birthed by volcanoes on the Big Island, Hawaii’s youngest isle. Escape to total resort luxury on Lana'i or learn to live life off the land on rural Moloka'i, where native Hawaiian traditions run strong. Whatever you’re seeking in paradise, the Aloha State has it – all you have to do is open your eyes.
Islands at a glance
Big city, small island – Three-quarters of Hawaii residents call ʻthe Gathering Place’ home. It’s crowded – so everyone rubs elbows on the bus and city sidewalks. Yet miles of beaches and forest trails are just a short drive from Honolulu’s museums and historical monuments.
An endless feast – If you do nothing else on Oʻahu, eat. And then eat some more. Food trucks, island farmers markets and fusion menus by Hawaii’s star chefs – they're all here, waiting to be enjoyed.
Multicultural modernism – Oʻahu lets you take the pulse of multiracial Hawaii, which confounds census categories. East and West embrace as ancient Hawaiian traditions greet the 21st century.
Trail junkies, unite! – Kilauea, Earth’s most active volcano, conjures up a dreamscape for hikers: emerald valleys, icy waterfall pools, lava flows crashing against rainforest and some of the loftiest summits your boots will ever struggle to top.
Cultural border crossing – On the Big Island culture is participatory – absorbed, rather than simply observed. You’re invited to create a lei and dance a hula, but just beware the night marchers.
Wildlife – Spinner dolphins leap, sea turtles glide and coral gardens are packed with brightly colored fish. In winter humpback whales steal the show.
Sun and surf – Justifiably famed for its glorious sands, Maui’s got a beach for every mood – wind-whipped kiteboarding meccas, calm snorkeling coves, hidden gems and some of the biggest surfable waves on the planet. Or just plop down on the sand and scan the horizon for wintering whales.
Trails galore – The island’s hiking trails wind through a bamboo forest, climb to lofty ridgetops, wander past waterfalls and crunch through a cindery volcanic national park.
Locavore heaven – Grass-fed beef from Upcountry pastures, day-boat fish and bountiful organic gardens ensure Maui’s chef-driven restaurants have the raw ingredients to whip up their famed Hawai'ian regional creations.
Isolation – Ignoring the great views of other islands, Lanaʻi feels like an isolated bit of subtropical pleasure far from the rest of the world. And given that new owner Larry Ellison wants to make the island self-sufficient, its sense of remoteness will only increase.
Pineapples – Nearly the entire island was planted with pineapples, which were exported around the world, for much of the 20th century. The crops are gone but the vintage plantation town of Lanaʻi City is timeless.
Hulupo'e Beach – Lanaʻi’s one main beach is a beaut: a long crescent of sand on a bay good for snorkeling, and backed by a tidy, uncrowded park.
Most Hawaiian – More than 50% of Molokaʻi’s people have indigenous heritage. Locals favor preservation of land and culture over schemes promoting tourism. Yet there is aloha spirit everywhere and visitors find a genuine – rather than a paid-for – welcome.
Saint Damien – A young priest who traveled to Molokaʻi’s remote Kalaupapa Peninsula in 1873 to care for leprosy patients is the USA’s first saint. Today the spectacular peninsula is a national park offering a time-travel adventure.
Halawa Valley – This end-of-the-road valley once was home to hundreds of sacred taro patches. Guides take you on a trail past ancient temples to waterfalls pounding into swimmable pools.
Sunny Po'ipu – The most consistently sunny area of the island, Poʻipu is like a tropical version of sleepaway camp. Smiles abound on the South Shore, where beach days abound with plenty of postcard sunsets.
Canyons and cliffs – The rugged terrain on the Garden Isle ranges from gaping chasms to dramatic coastal cliffs, balanced by copious verdant flora. Peer into the 'Grand Canyon of the Pacific' or kayak Hawaii's only navigable river.
The Northern bubble – Surfing and an irresistibly laid-back vibe make up the lifestyle on this mostly rural island. The North Shore is home to many folks who came to check in and stayed to tune out.
This article was originally published August 2012. It was updated April 2015 by Alexander Howard.