From laid-back yet cosmopolitan Oah‘u to wild Moloka‘i, Hawai‘i is as diverse as the travelers who visit. Within the archipelago there are eight main islands, each with its own distinctive characteristics, but a total of 137 islets and minor ones. How would you even begin to choose where to visit?
To help, we’ve highlighted six of the biggest Hawaiian islands to help you select which are the best for you to visit on your next trip.
Context to know before you go
Before you book your next trip, keep in mind that Hawai‘i has undergone changes during the pandemic. Even prior to COVID, Hawai‘i was struggling with the impact of overtourism on its people and the land. For many locals the year-plus of shutdowns, while economically devastating, allowed them to have the islands all to themselves for the first time in decades, which has led to deeper conversations about what tourism should look like going forward.
“We had our space back for a year,” says Edwin “Ekolu” Lindsey III, president of Maui Cultural Lands. “And we realized what we’ve given up over the last 50 years of tourism.”
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go—to the contrary, Lindsey says, “We’re happy to share—if the visitor’s intentions are right.” As a good guest, travelers should abide by the no-trespassing signs, use reef-safe sunscreen, and follow best practices when it comes to the ocean and wildlife (like giving animals space and never touching coral reefs with hands, feet, or watercraft). Essentially, we should treat the islands as if we were entering the home of a dear friend.
“We don’t call them islands. We call them family because they are—they’re like human beings to us,” says Healani Kimitete-Ah Mow, Mauna Kea Resort aloha ambassador, “and when it comes to family . . . we need to take care of them.”
To encourage travelers to think of a trip to Hawai‘i as more than just a vacation spot, the state recently introduced the Mālama Hawai‘i initiative. Mālama means “to care for,” and that’s what the program invites us to do: To find a way to show care to the islands we visit. As you scroll below, consider joining one of the mālama experiences: replanting native species, participating in a beach cleanup, or any of the many other volunteer experiences.
- Nickname: The Big Island
- Best for: Outdoor adventurers who want to go stargazing on the highest peak in Hawai‘i, whale-watching, and hiking on volcanoes
One of the world’s most ecologically diverse places, the state’s youngest and largest island (commonly referred to as the “Big Island”) sweeps from a black-sand beach to waterfall-laced rain-forest valleys, lava deserts, and snow-capped mountains. The active Kīlauea volcano sits on the flank of massive Maunaloa. But Maunakea wins the world heavyweight title for height, outstripping Mount Everest by 4,500 feet when measured from the ocean floor. It’s also among the most sacred of the five mountains on the island.
“We don’t look at this mountain as a mountain,” says Kimitete-Ah Mow. “She’s really alive.” For that reason, adventurous travelers who want to head up the steep winding road to the summit, famed for its stargazing, should book a guided tour with a company that will help visitors understand the history and culture of the mauna, or mountain.
Not in the mood for the high road? When it reopens to the public, visit the NASA-funded Imiloa Astronomy Center instead. Or go low with a nighttime snorkeling trip to visit giant manta rays as they soar and loop, feeding on tiny zooplankton. Make sure to check out the incredible aerial breaching displays of the 11,000-odd humpback whales that winter offshore, too.
Then finish with a peek into ancient traditions at Puʻuhonua O Hōnaunau or Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Park, where Hawai‘ians once fished, carved petroglyphs, and used toboggan-like sleds to ride downhill over stones covered in dirt and leaves. As of June 2021, travelers will also be able to tour the seven-acre Kona Sea Salt farm, buy sea salt harvested from 2,200 feet below the ocean surface, and join in clam bakes featuring sustainable seafood raised at the neighboring Hawai‘i Ocean Science and Technology Park.
Where to stay
The island of Hawai‘i offers plenty of options for lodging. For high-end resorts, look to the Kona area on the west side of the island; travelers who prefer more low-key lodging should look to the eastern Hilo side.
One of the most luxurious resorts on the island, the Kona-side Fairmont Orchid occupies 32 acres, complete with tropical gardens and a white-sand beach. Of the 540 guest rooms and suites, all have lanais and half have ocean views.
You might spot a celebrity or two at this Hollywood favorite, beloved for its 865 acres of palm-fringed coastline. Just a 15-minute drive from the Kona International airport, this Four Seasons has seven pools, a rock amphitheater where kids can overnight, and even an on-site museum and cultural center.
For travelers who want to stay on the Hilo side of the island—and close to Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park—consider this quiet, four-cottage inn on the edge of the rain forest. All cottages are unique, but each has cedar walls, shoji screen, and plenty of windows that look out on giant ferns.
How to give back
As part of the Mālama Hawai‘i initiative, many hotels and resorts are offering volunteer projects—some, like Marriott properties statewide, will offer the fifth night free with a volunteer project.
- Sign the island’s Pono Pledge. Pono means “righteous” and the pledge invites travelers to traverse the island with gentleness, humility, and respect.
- Join a community or educational event put on by Pōhāhā I Ka Lani, a nonprofit devoted to stewardship of Hawai‘i’s sacred land.
- Guests of the Fairmont Orchid can participate in three different projects: forest reforestation with Waikoloa Dry Forest Reserve, beach cleanup with Hawai‘i Wildlife Fund, and a tree planting with Hawaiian Legacy Reforestation Initiative.
- Guests and local residents can join Kimitete-Ah Mow’s E Ala E ceremony at Mauna Kea Beach Hotel and Westin Hapuna Beach Resort. It’s a morning ritual to greet the sun—one that many Hawaiians participate in—that begins on the beach at 6 a.m. Kimitete-Ah Mow, also a Pono pledge ambassador, begins with a short blessing, invites travelers to gaze into the Pacific, and then they face the east and ask the sun to rise with another chant. After, people are invited to participate in a self-directed beach cleanup.
- Nickname: The Garden Isle
- Best for: Travelers looking for a quiet, laid-back island full of natural beauty, waterfalls, and long stretches of beach, as well as a chance to learn about ancient traditions and visit small towns
Lushness and serenity reign on the “Garden Isle,” home to the planet’s wettest spot, Mount Waialeale, averaging 451 inches of rain each year. The town of Poipu and the South Shore tend to be sunnier with more restaurants, shops, and water sports.
But Waimea—“the Grand Canyon of the Pacific”—and Nāpali Coast State Wilderness Park hog the spotlight. Here waterfalls and swift streams sculpt one of the world’s most staggeringly beautiful wilderness areas, threaded with ancient Hawaiian archaeological sites. Just keep in mind that those wishing to visit Haena State Park, which includes Kee and Tunnels beaches, as well as the trailhead, need to make reservations in advance.
Fancy a more accessible cascade? Check out Wailua Falls, a 173-foot veil featured in the opening credits of the 1970s TV hit Fantasy Island. Then contrast that riot of water and vegetation with Polihale State Park, where Hawai‘i’s longest stretch of beach covers 15 miles and dunes can pile up to 100 feet high.
Where to stay
Most travelers stay along the North Shore (home to Princeville and Hanalei); on the drier, sunnier South Shore, near the town of Poipu; or along the eastern coast, near the Lihue Airport.
On the North Shore, the family-friendly resort is within a short drive of Hanalei Bay and offers plenty of pools, local cuisine at the Nanea restaurant, and fully equipped villas (including washers-dryers and kitchens).
Find laid-back luxury at this 59-cottage property (once a sugar plantation) on the sunnier, slightly less-traveled West Side, home to the storied Waimea Canyon. All cottages were built in the late 19th century or early 20th and reflect that charm: painted wood-paneled walls and shaded lanais, each with a fully equipped kitchen.
Not far from the Lihue Airport, the resort is on Kaua‘i’s east coast. Choose from rooms that overlook the gardens, ocean, and pools—and make time to check out each of the three restaurants overseen by chef Mark Arriola, a pioneer in Kaua‘i’s farm-to-table movement.
How to give back
- Hawai‘i Land Trust hosts volunteer days, including a marine cleanup on Kāhili Beach on the first Sunday of every month.
- Support Mālama Kaua‘i, an organization devoted to increasing local food production. Travelers can donate and shop the Mālama Kaua‘i Store (perfect for souvenirs and gifts).
- Hotels across Kaua‘i, including Kauai‘i’s Marriott Resort and the Grand Hyatt, are also participating in the Mālama Hawai‘i project.
- Nickname: The Pineapple Island
- Best for: A more rugged, remote-feeling trip on a small, uncrowded island with a cat sanctuary, hiking trails, and snorkeling
Before Lāna‘i was colonized by Westerners, the land—where Hawaiian settlers lived off taro and seafood—was rich with native vegetation and purple flowers. But when goats, sheep, and other grazing animals were introduced to the island in the 1800s, the land was stripped, leaving it bare. Then came the pineapple years: Before statehood, the United States recognized the Republic of Hawai‘i in 1894 with pineapple entrepreneur, and longtime Hawai‘i resident, Sanford Dole as its president. When Hawai‘i was annexed in 1900, it became a territory, and in 1922, Sanford Dole’s cousin James Drummond Dole bought the island of Lāna‘i to expand his pineapple farming empire. Then came Larry Ellison: In 2012, the tech billionaire bought 97 percent of this island, including two Four Seasons resorts (and their championship golf courses).
Ellison, while controversial, has placed an emphasis on sustainability, founding Pulama Lāna‘i to protect native and endangered species, improve water and recycling systems, and attempt to transition the island’s diesel grid to 100 percent renewable energy. Today Lāna‘i remains an off-the-beaten-path destination, with an emphasis on “path”: Only 30 miles of the island’s roads are paved, but there are more than 400 miles of rugged trails you can explore by four-wheel-drive or horse or by hiking. Many lead to the 18 miles of nearly empty beaches that ring Lāna‘i and to lovely views of other islands. Be sure to stop by Lāna‘i Culture and Heritage Center, run by Kepa Maly, who was born on the island.
Where to stay
Shortly after Ellison bought the island, he overhauled the resort, reducing rooms from 286 to 213, updating the design with slate and teak walls, and adding outposts of Nobu and L.A.’s Malibu Farm.
Wellness is the big focus at this 24-acre resort, which offers everything from day-long spa immersions to a five-day program that includes a fitness assessment, a Whoop wearable device to track your progress, and lots of fitness and bodywork.
This 10-room historic property was built in 1923 by James Dole—and until 1990, was the only hotel on the island. Now owned by Ellison, it’s also home to the popular Lāna‘i Bar & Grille.
How to give back
The best way to give back is to visit—and donate to—the Lanai Cat Sanctuary. The organization began back in 2004 when founder Kathy Carroll started sterilizing Lāna‘i’s street cats and relocating them to a facility to protect Lāna‘i’s ground-dwelling birds. Today it’s a popular spot for cat (and bird)-loving travelers.
- Nickname: The Valley Isle
- Best for: A little of everything—adventure, black- and red-sand beaches, food, culture, and relaxation
Editor’s note: This piece was written before the devastating fires in Maui in August 2023.
Maui remains the best one-stop sampler of Hawai‘i’s highlights. The island is anchored by the dormant Haleakalā volcano, which forms three-quarters of its mass. Catch a lift to the top with your bike, then cruise down 21 switchbacks, passing through as many ecological zones as you would on a Canada-to-Mexico road trip. Or make a reservation to visit Waīa‘ānapanapa State Park, home to a famous black-sand beach. (The new reservation system is a part of the state’s commitment to the Mālama Hawai‘i initiative.)
Hungry for culture? Hire a hula instructor for a lesson nearly anywhere on Maui. Shop the galleries of Paia, then strap in for the world-famous Road to Hana, a drive tracing the rugged black-lava coastline. (Be sure to check out the new guidelines for driving the famous road.) Hungry in general? Wake early to queue up at Donut Dynamite, arguably the island’s best doughnuts. Or book a 90-minute chocolate-and-cacao tour at Maui Ku‘ia Estate. Or stop by the new Sunset Market in Wailea Village to shop for local goodies, including Pau Maui vodka, tacos and shave ice, and cookies from Maui Cookie Lab.
Maui is also the access point for the Molokini atoll just off the coast, where visitors can snorkel an extinct volcanic caldera. But the caldera’s not your only option for gorgeous waters to explore: Get a mask and fins and then zip over to the beach town of Olowalu on the west coast where you’ll find a “cleaning station” for green sea turtles. For any ocean activities, watch for outfitters certified by the Surfrider Foundation.
Where to stay
There’s no shortage of places to stay in Maui—here are a handful to get you started.
During COVID, this long-standing lodge rededicated itself as a “refuge for the responsible traveler.” Built in 1988 on land blessed by a Hawaiian priest, the retreat has just a handful of rooms, yoga classes, and an oceanfront location.
This Lahaina hotel has won numerous awards for its sustainability initiatives (it’s one of two Gold LEED-certified resorts in Hawai‘i), which include minimizing plastic use and food waste and adding one of the largest solar panel systems in the state. Amenities are equally appealing: The oceanfront property has six pools, 10 restaurants, and even resident penguins.
On the island’s west side, the Plantation Inn is an adults-only bed-and-breakfast with plantation-style architecture and complimentary French breakfasts. It’s 10 minutes from the beach, but right in the heart of Lahaina.
The only Relais & Châteux property in Hawai‘i, Hotel Wailea occupies 15 acres—and only has 72 suites. This adults-only property offers everything from tree-house dining and sustainable travel experiences, such as outrigger canoeing, to a surf safari (a tour of Maui’s best breaks) and a new line of reef-safe sunscreens.
For those who want to live a little closer to nature, book a campsite, tentalow, or cabin at Camp Olowalu. The beachfront spot, a former sugar plantation, was created in 1955 as a camp operated by the Protestant Episcopal Church. Over the years, it added 700 acres and set about restoring them, and in 2015, added tent lodging and renovated the cabins and eating areas.
How to give back
Maui Cultural Lands: Launched as a nonprofit in 2002 by Puanani and Edwin “Ed” Robert Naleilehua Lindsey Jr., Maui Cultural Lands focuses on restoring and preserving Hawaiian cultural sites. Now headed up by their son, Edwin “Ekolu” Lindsey III, the nonprofit offers travelers the opportunity to help reforest Honokowai Valley and the Ka‘anapali areas, all while learning about the cultural significance of these archaeological sites (for example, the work begins with a chant asking for permission to enter).
Pacific Whale Foundation: Founded in 1980, the nonprofit is dedicated to protecting the ocean and inspiring environmental stewardship. Travelers can book ecotours including snorkeling trips, stargazing, and of course, whale-watching. All profits support the foundation’s research, education, and conservation programs.
Lahaina Restoration Foundation: Help preserve Maui’s history by measuring, describing, photographing, and/or transcribing historic artifacts and documents. The foundation aims to preserve the history of Lahaina, the west Maui town that was once the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom.
- Nickname: The Friendly Isle
- Best for: Outdoor adventures without the resorts, such as bird-watching, snorkeling, and swimming, plus an excellent choice for camping
Molokaʻi packs in plenty of beauty, adventure, and also authenticity, thanks to the high percentage of Native Hawaiian descendants living there. Papohaku Beach, with three miles of silky white sand, fringes the island’s west end. The sunbathing and camping are superlative here, but avoid swimming in the dangerous breaks between October and March.
Don’t miss Kalaupapa National Historical Park, created to memorialize the leper colony that once existed here. (Some residents still live at the site, but they have been cured of leprosy.) The classic Pali Trail leads down to it—with 3.5 miles of switchbacks down some of the world’s steepest sea cliffs—but a landslide in late December 2018 has closed it indefinitely.
Instead, visit by air (instructions and options are spelled out on the park service site) to experience this unique site, tour the settlement, and see the world’s tallest sea cliffs, the Kalaupapa Cliffs, rising dramatically from the Pacific.
Where to stay
There are no resorts on Molokaʻi, and most lodgings are low to the ground and laid-back.
At this 52-year-old hotel, the bungalows are outfitted with kitchenettes and carefully arranged to allow the trade winds to move through. Step out the front door and walk the Kamiloloa beach, snorkel the 28-mile barrier reef (the longest in Hawai‘i), or drive five minutes to wander Kaunakakai, the island’s main center.
For a truly remote stay, book a few nights at this lodge on the eastern side of the island. It is a family-owned, working organic and biodynamic ranch, so expect to see cattle and a wide range of produce, including bananas. The three cottages don’t have Wi-Fi, making this an off-the-grid experience.
How to give back
Molokaʻi is pure nature—and one of the best ways to help it remain that way is to join a project with the nonprofit Moloka‘i Land Trust, which is working on restoring three land preserves.
- Nickname: The Gathering Place
- Best for: A laid-back urban trip that still features beaches, hiking trails, historical sites—and some of the world’s most legendary surfing
On Oʻahu, Honolulu is undergoing a renaissance of art, culture, and cuisine, with a foodie scene that champions Hawaiʻi-inspired cuisine. Enjoy the resort hot spots of Waikiki, Ko Olina, and Turtle Bay (slated to reopen in July 2021) but make sure to venture beyond them. Pay your respects to local culture and history—more important than ever, now that so few WWII veterans remain—at the extensive Bishop Museum and at Pearl Harbor, now the Pearl Harbor National Memorial. The Pearl Harbor campus includes the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum and Park, which recently reopened after a $20 million renovation that added virtual tours of submarine interiors and interactive displays about submarine warfare, among many other things.
Explore the history of Hawaiian royalty at Iolani Palace, where travelers can pick between guided and self-led tours that wind from palace grounds to the opulent interiors. Commission an instrument from Ukulele Hall-of-Famers or dip a smoked-beef brisket bánh mì in aromatic phở at Piggy Smalls, an outpost run by Andrew Le, a chef at the forefront of the efforts to include regional cuisine on Hawaiian menus. For those who want to tour local delicacies, try the Saturday markets. The KCC Farmers’ Market at the foot of Diamond Head specializes in prepared food and travel-friendly foods like local honey. Closer to downtown Honolulu is the Kakaʻako Farmers’ Market, which has more produce but also foods made locally, such as Koko Kai, a coconut yogurt.
Oʻahu has a strong connection to surfing and the ocean, of course—respecting the ocean and marine life is critically important, and almost spiritual, for many locals. Consider the Bishop Museum, which frequently offers surf exhibits and has permanent exhibits devoted to celestial navigation and outrigger canoeing.
Experienced surfers can head to the North Shore, where 36 breaks grace the “Seven-Mile Miracle,” a storied stretch of surfing heaven. Not quite ready to catch a world-class wave? Rest easy: In addition to Waikiki, Oʻahu has more mellow aquatic options such as the Hanauma Bay underwater park. Honolulu often has the best airfare deals, too, as the state’s main hub.
Where to stay
Most travelers stay in or near Honolulu, where you’ll find plenty of options, no matter what you’re looking for.
A newish addition to the Waikiki waterfront, this hotel designed by George Yabu and Glenn Pushelberg is great for those who prefer a more modern stay. Rooms are whitewashed with many overlooking the Ala Wai Boat Harbor. There’s a nightclub and several restaurants on site.
Many say that this hotel, built in the Roaring ’20s, put Waikiki on the map. For years, celebrities flocked to the luxurious beachfront resort; in 2008, a renovation renewed preserved the art deco details but added more modern flair.
Set on a peaceful 1,300-acre property on a palm-tree-lined stretch of O‘ahu’s North Shore, Turtle Bay gives guests the chance to experience a quieter side of O‘ahu. It was also voted one of AFAR’s top sustainable hotels in 2021 and has long been committed to reducing its impact on the environment.
How to give back
- Learn about bamboo-pole fishing and help restore fishponds with the Mālama Loko Ea Foundation.
- Participate in one of Ulu A ‘e Learning Center’s days of caring held several times a year.
- Learn to make papa and pohaku (a poi board and stone) with Hui Aloha Aina Momona, a three-acre farm raising pork and olena (aka turmeric) plants.
- Join one of the nonprofit Hui o Ko‘olaupoko’s many volunteer projects, including the He‘eia Estuary Restoration Project, located in He‘eia State Park, where volunteers remove invasive species and replant native ones.
- Get involved in Kōke‘e Resource Conservation Program, which also invites people to help remove nonnative species, as well as do trail and fence maintenance and care for tea plants in the Kōke‘e wilderness preserve.
- Plant a tree in the Hawaiian Legacy Forest at Gunstock Ranch, which offers a series of sustainable experiences, including horseback rides and off-road tours.
It’s difficult to go wrong with whatever island you choose to visit. The hard part comes when you have to leave Hawaiʻi—hopefully a little better than you found it—to return home.
This story was originally published in 2019 and most recently updated on August 18, 2022, to reflect current information.