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Best island to visit in Hawaii
If you’re looking for the best island to visit in Hawaii, you’re in the right place! There are actually 137 officially recognized islands in Hawaii. Don’t worry, you don’t have 137 to choose from. There are eight major islands in Hawaii although one is uninhabited, and one is privately owned. There are six islands that you can visit and four are considered the primary islands for tourism.
The best island to visit in Hawaii…for YOU!
I want to start out by saying that there isn’t really a “best island in Hawaii.” All of the islands are amazing and unique in their own ways. They all have differences, and they all have similarities.
Let’s start by talking about the things that all of the islands have. All of the islands have amazing beaches, adventurous hiking opportunities, upscale resorts, incredible golf courses, and a sense of tranquility and relaxation. You really can’t go wrong when choosing which Hawaii island to visit, but it can be hard to choose.
If you’ve never been to Hawaii, choosing which island to visit can be challenging. Don’t worry, I’m here to help! First, let’s talk about the one you might know the most about.
Oahu is the first island that you might consider when it comes to visiting Hawaii. Oahu is full of history, culture, and people. The most populated island in Hawaii, Oahu also has the only major city in Hawaii, Honolulu. You will likely find the best airfare to Oahu, just because so many planes fly on and off the island.
Oahu has many options for lodging. From small hotels to vacation condos to high-end resorts. There are even hostels on Oahu. If you love shopping, nightlife, and plenty of dining options, Honolulu is a great place to visit.
We can’t talk about Oahu without talking about the famous Waikiki. Swimming a Waikiki beach is a must, although you can find better (less crowded) beaches elsewhere. 😉 Waikiki also offers plenty of restaurants, shops, and hotels. You can also take a submarine tour, visit the Honolulu Zoo or Waikiki Aquarium, or just relax on the beach.
Outside of Honolulu, there are plenty of other options on the island for lodging and adventure. Check out the North Shore for some amazing (and not as busy) beaches with incredible waves. You can also visit the Dole Plantation, go zip lining, visit the Polynesian Cultural Center and so much more.
Disney’s Aulani Resort
Traveling with kids (or maybe you’re a kid at heart?) Disney’s Aulani Resort is also on the Island of Oahu. Located in Ko Olina, Aulani Resort is far enough from Honolulu to avoid heavy traffic and crowds, but close enough for convenience. Even though it is a Disney resort, they have done an amazing job in incorporating the local culture, customs, and traditions, all with a little Disney magic.
Important note: I’m also a Disney College of Knowledge graduate, and I’d be happy to answer any questions about Aulani Resort.
I’ve heard some people say that you don’t need a rental car to get around Oahu. I have to disagree. If you plan to strictly stay in the Honolulu/Waikiki area then you might not need a car. Oahu does have an excellent bus system, but if you would rather travel on your own time, I highly recommend a rental car. I recommend renting a car on every island, but Oahu is the only island where you might be able to get away with not having one.
Another important part about Oahu is the history and culture. You can learn about Hawaii’s history at the Polynesian Cultural Center mentioned above. You can also visit the Pearl Harbor Memorial. A must-see on the island.
The Big Island
The Big Island, also called simply “Hawaii” is often confused with Oahu. They are two different islands. The Big Island is the youngest of the islands, and also the biggest. You could even fit all of the other islands into the Big Island! It’s still growing thanks to an active volcano. Don’t let active volcano scare you away! It’s actually very safe, even after the eruptions in 2018. The volcano eruptions only affected a tiny area of the Big Island.
Flights to the Big Island can be a bit more expensive than flights to the other islands. The island has airports in Kona and Hilo, but the flights to Kona are almost always better priced. If you plan to stay in a resort, you’ll want to fly into Kona anyway. Most of the resorts on the island are in the Kona or Kohala area, which are north and south of the airport, respectively.
Hawaii Volcanos National Park opened again in September of 2018, and a must-see on the Big Island. I might be biased, but the Big Island is my favorite. Did you know that the island of Hawaii has 10 out of the worlds 14 climate zones? This means that you can experience many different climates, all on the same day.
You will definitely need a rental car on the Big Island. You’re going to want one to see everything! The Big Island is perfect for adventure lovers. I highly recommend renting a 4-wheel drive. This will allow you to get to some areas that are difficult (or illegal) to go by car. Mauna Kea, Waipio Valley, and many other places are only accessible by 4-wheel drive.
There is so much to do on the Big Island, it’s hard to choose. Check out my list of the 7 best things to do on the Big Island.
Maui is a popular destination for honeymooners and destination weddings. Maui is the second most visited island after Oahu and has plenty of options for accommodations, dining, and shopping.
You’ll find the best whale watching on Maui and one of the best snorkeling experiences on Molokini Crater. Maui also has plenty of adventure opportunities, including the popular Road to Hana.
Maui is also the gateway to two other islands, Lanai and Molokai. You can take a ferry to Lanai, and it’s a very short flight to Molokai. While we’re talking about flights, no Hawaii adventure is complete without an island hopping experience on Molokini Airlines. These small planes fly low and give you a great view of the islands.
Maui has amazing beaches, including green and red sand beaches along the Road to Hana. You’ll also want to experience a sunrise on Haleakala. Make sure to bring a jacket, it’s chilly up there.
I wrote a post with some of my favorite things to do in Maui, check it out!
Kauai is the oldest island, and one of the most beautiful. Of the four major islands, Kauai remains the most untouched. When considering which Hawaiian island to visit, this can be both a good and bad thing! Kauai was the backdrop in several famous movies including Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones.
If you love adventure, Kauai might be the best island for you. From hiking the Na Pali coast to kayaking the Wailua River, to visiting Waimea Canyon. Kauai has something for every adventurer.
Kauai does not have many options for shopping or nightlife, and it can take a while to get around. The Na Pali Coast is only accessible by boat, helicopter, or hiking in. The island does have two resort areas, in Poipu (south) and Princeville (north.)
Looking for a luxury resort or golfing? Don’t worry, Kauai has those too! Look no further than the Grand Hyatt or Princeville Resort for accommodations. When it comes to golfing, Kauai also has many top-rated golf courses.
You might also enjoy: What to pack for Hawaii.
Lanai has upscale accommodations, great golf courses, and great beaches. If you’re looking for a relaxing vacation with a little bit of golf, Lanai might be the perfect destination for you. Of course, Lanai does have other things to do. Missing your cat at home? You could visit the Lanai Cat Sanctuary. The Garden of the Gods and Lanai Cultural and Heritage center are other popular attractions.
Molokai is often referred to as the “real Hawaii.” This island has no stoplights and only three gates at the airport! The seacliffs in Molokai rival those on Kauai, you can explore the sea cliffs by boat.
Molokai is called the “Friendly Isle” and you’ll see why when you meet the locals. Come to Molokai with respect for the land and the culture, you’ll be greeted with open arms.
The south coast of Molokai has the longest barrier reef in Hawaii. Of course, this means snorkeling in Molokai is fantastic. Molokai even has a golf course, so if you want to golf on every (inhabited and not privately owned) Hawaiian island – you can!
So, what is the best island in Hawaii for first-time visitors?
Which island would I recommend for your first time in Hawaii? That’s a tough one! If you are only going to one island, I would recommend Maui or The Big Island. Maui has so much to do and offers options for day trips to Molokai and Lanai. The Big Island has so much to do and so much variety that you’ll never get bored.
If I had to choose one island that would be best for first-time visitors, it would probably be Maui. The Valley Isle has shopping, dining and lodging options for any taste and budget. Maui also has something for those who love adventure, so it has a little bit of everything.
Don’t forget to check out 10 things you NEED to know before going to Hawaii.
One island, two, three?!
If you think that all of the islands sound amazing, they are! I wouldn’t recommend trying to see everything in one trip. If you’re visiting for one week, I would choose two islands, max. It would be better to stay on one island for a week, is possible. Visiting for two weeks? It’s definitely possible to fit in two or three different islands in your itinerary. Contact me to plan the perfect Hawaii vacation for you.
When you book your Hawaii vacation with me, I help you every step of the way! I am a certified Hawaii Expert through the Hawaii Tourism authority and would love to help you plan your Hawaii adventure! I will even walk you through the best itinerary to get the most out of every day you’re on the island.
Want help pre-booking tours and other things to do? I can do that too. Working with a Hawaii Expert Travel Agent will ensure that every little step of the process is taken care of for you.