The Hawaiian Islands
Selecting the best Hawaiian island to visit can often be a daunting task for first-time visitors. Hawaii offers a wide assortment of fantastic islands to choose from; so how do you know which one to pick?
Well, know that you really can't go wrong, as each island is beautiful and majestic in its own unique way. The guide below will hopefully help you narrow your choices down a bit as we go over the most- to least-visited major islands: Oahu, Maui, Hawaii (The Big Island), and Kauai. We've omitted Lanai and Molokai from this list since together they only account for 200,000 visitors annually. You may also want to head over and take our quick quiz - Which Hawaii Island to Visit?
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Oahu - The Gathering Place
Oahu is the most visited of all the Hawaiian islands, at nearly 4.7 million visitors annually. Oahu is primarily defined by the state capital of Honolulu, as well as Pearl Harbor and the famous beach known as Waikiki. These areas attract tourists by the thousands daily. Oahu boasts a fantastic climate, inexpensive accommodations, a large variety of shopping options, and world-renowned beaches - it's fair to say the island entices visitors from around the world. Some say this may be the one fault of the island, as many are discouraged by the large crowds of Oahu and thus dismiss the island, instead opting to visit one of the other less-visited islands in the chain. But Oahu is much more than Honolulu or Waikiki - it may well be the most beautiful of all the major islands. You simply have to know where to go to experience the beauty that is Oahu.
The eastern coast of Oahu is hemmed in by a gorgeous mountain range and boasts three of the islands best beaches. Surprisingly, you'll find no major accommodations here, jut a few vacation homes along the quaint towns that dot the coast. The eastern region offers many visitors an escape from the bustling Waikiki scene while still offering the proximity to the shopping and activities of the nearby city just a half-hour drive away.
The famous North Shore of Oahu is a surfer's paradise, especially in the winter months when the surf is up. Located about an hour from Honolulu, this region has a surprisingly unpopulated feel to it. Many miles of beaches stretch along this portion of Oahu, making it a popular haven for those looking to relax in the sun.
The western, northwestern, and central regions are where most of the island's residents live. For the most part, there isn't much here for the typical island visitors - just a few scattered beaches.
Maui - The Valley Isle
Maui is the second most visited island with around 2.4 million visitors each year. Tourism greatly affects the nature of Maui and it boasts a very wide assortment of resorts, hotels, condos, and private rentals available across the island.
Often called, the "playground of the wealthy," Maui definitely caters to those looking for more expensive accommodations, sans the crowds of Oahu. But don't fret if top-notch accommodations aren't in your plans - Maui caters to all types, including the budget conscious. The island has a reputation for being a playground for all tourists, not just the super-rich.
The island of Maui features an abundance of beaches, especially along the west coast. Sun is abundant here, too, as the volcanoes in the center of the island block the majority of precipitation from ever reaching the leeward side of the island. While portions of Maui's west coast are often dry and barren, the eastern portions of the island are a lush green paradise boasting waterfalls in numerous valleys. Many visitors enjoy the Hana Highway (aka The Road to Hana) as it winds its way along the coast to the sleepy town of Hana in the bay.
The center of the island is where Maui earns its nickname, the "Valley Isle." The isthmus stretching from Haleakala to the West Maui Mountains is likely where you'll begin your journey- at the airport.
Kauai - The Garden Island
Kauai is the fourth most-visited island, at 1.3 million visitors annually. The island is easily identified by its amazing scenery and relaxed persona. The island, arguably, we'll admit, also boasts more coastline filled with beaches than any other island in the chain. Kauai is full of sparsely-visited and secluded beaches all around the island; you'll surely find one that's just right for you.
Kauai's North Shore features some dramatic and beautiful mountain scenery along with a variety of hidden beaches. The area also has an incredible selection of shopping and dining options. While the winter months will mean more rain for the northern part of the island, it's still one of the most popular places on the island. Hanalei Bay is a popular location for water activities and boasts some of the best beaches in all of Hawaii along her crescent shores.
Kauai's South Shore is popular due to its abundance of sunny weather, even during the wet winter months. Poipu and Lawai offer a wide variety of accommodations, fine dining, and shopping. On the East Coast- also known as the Coconut Coast- Kapaa offers a nice selection of affordable rentals and more shopping than most other areas. While Kauai has a small town feel to it, many larger store brands can still be found on the island - Costco, K-Mart, and Wal-Mart all are present here.
Kauai's West Coast is more barren and dry than the rest of the island, and accommodations are fewer and more far between here. However, one of the main attractions on the island is present here- the Waimea Canyon. Mark Twain dubbed it the "Grand Canyon of the Pacific." At ten miles long, it's an amazing sight to behold on an island the size of Kauai. The true splendor of the region, and the neighboring Kokee State Park, can only truly be appreciated by taking one of the many trails that crisscross the parks.
Hawaii - The Big Island
The Big Island of Hawaii is the third most popular choice by visitors, with over 1.6 million travelers annually. The vast majority of the Big Island's visitors stay in the Kailua-Kona area with its fantastic weather, abundant shopping, and the vast array of dining options. It also hosts a wide assortment of accommodations, from high-end resorts to condominiums. The ocean off the Kona coast is clear and great for both snorkeling and diving. To the north of Kona is the "Gold Coast" of Kohala. While drier and more barren than Kona, the region offers amazing beaches, great weather conditions, and several luxury accommodations to choose from.
On the other side of the island, you'll discover Hilo and the Puna region. These are good locations to stay if you're interested in exploring Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. This part of the island receives an abundance of rainfall that creates the lush green surroundings. Accommodations are harder to find, but a few hotels, small inns, and private rentals can be found, especially in the Volcano town area. The Volcano area, which is located at a crisp 4,000 ft. (1,219 m) above sea level, is dotted with a wide assortment of homes, bed and breakfasts, and small cottages for renting. This area is also a great place to stay if you're primarily interested in exploring the HVNP.
And speaking of the park, most visitors would be wise to forget anything they've seen or heard about the volcano long before they visit the island. The erupting volcano photos, the videos, and all the hype about lava everywhere are just that... hype; at least at present. The media and the park create unrealistic expectations as they try to draw in the public. Most visitors will be surprised that Kilauea is nothing more than a smoking caldera with no visible lava. The only way to get up close and personal with the volcano is to take a helicopter tour that will take you over the current eruption location. Occasionally, visitors may also be lucky enough to catch a surface pahoehoe lava flow near the end of the road; but all of these things can change in an instant. Most of the lava/magma is flowing directly underground to the ocean. Those who have an appreciation for geography or geology will love the park, though.
Despite the fact that Kilauea is the most active volcano on the planet, the volcanoes of Hawaii are nothing like their cousins on the mainland West Coast (Mt. St. Helens or Mt. Rainier). They are not explosive, pose little threat to visitors on the island, and their lava flow moves at a turtle-like speed that you could outwalk if necessary- no running required. To fully appreciate and explore the park you'll want to give yourself at least one full day, preferably two, if possible. There are many great hikes within the park and several stops which offer informative displays about the history of the region. Also, be wary of VOG (a volcanic smog) when visiting the park.