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Photo by Erin Kunkel
Whether your ideal Hawaiian vacation means time sunning, shopping, or snorkeling, there’s an island for you.
Will it be lava flows or luxury resorts? Waikiki Beach, Pearl Harbor, or humpback whales? Settle that difficult “which island to visit” question once and for all.
The islands of Hawai‘i are as diverse as the travelers who visit. Within the archipelago are 137 islets and minor islands, along with the eight main islands, each with its own distinctive characteristics. How would you even begin to choose where to visit?
Below are the best Hawaiian islands for each type of traveler. We highlight six of the biggest, but before you book your next trip, keep in mind that—like many other places in the world—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 now,” 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 be aware of all quarantine and COVID test requirements and obey all social distancing and mask mandates (yes, even on the beach). 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.
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 Hawaiians 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 Hawaii Ocean Science and Technology Park.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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 Lanai 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.
The best way to give back is to visit—and donate to—the Lana‘i Cat Sanctuary. The organization began back in 2004 when founder Kathy Carroll started sterilizing Lanai’s street cats and relocating them to a facility to protect Lana‘i’s ground-dwelling birds. Today it’s a popular spot for cat (and bird)-loving travelers.
Maui remains the best one-stop sampler of Hawai‘i’s highlights. The island is anchored by the dormant Haleakala 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.
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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.
There’s no shortage of places to stay in Maui—here are a handful to get you started.
You could spend your entire time on Maui volunteering at organizations, from helping the Hawai‘i Land Trust restore Waihe‘e Coastal Dunes and Wetland Refuge to preserving Hawaiian architecture with HolaniHana:
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.
There are no resorts on Molokaʻi, and most lodgings are low to the ground and laid-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.
On Oʻahu, Honolulu is undergoing a renaissance of art, culture, and cuisine, with a foodie scene that champions Hawaiʻi-inspired Hawaiian 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.
Most travelers stay in or near Honolulu, where you’ll find plenty of options, no matter what you’re looking for.
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 updated May 3, 2021, to reflect current information.
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