Hawaii is a tropical paradise that is beloved by travelers from all over the world. With its white-sand beaches, crystal-clear blue waters, and lush green landscapes, it’s no wonder that Hawaii is such a popular destination. But with so many islands to choose from, which one is the best for a vacation?
The answer depends on your travel style. Oahu is best for you if you’re looking for a lively island with plenty of nightlife, beaches, and activities. Maui is perfect for those who want to relax, love luxury, and want to see multiple great beaches. The Big Island is ideal for adventure seekers who wish to explore volcanoes and national parks. And if you’re looking for an island that’s off the beaten path with gorgeous scenery, then Kauai is your best bet.
This article will focus on the best Hawaiian Island to visit based on different travel styles. We will discuss the four major Hawaiian Islands.
Whether you’re looking for an action-packed vacation or a relaxing getaway, we’ve got you covered!
The Four Major Hawaiian Islands in a Nutshell
Before we begin, let’s briefly discuss the four main islands and some of their highlights.
Hawaii Island in a Nutshell
Nicknamed “The Big Island,” Hawaii Island is the largest of all the Hawaiian Islands. It’s also the youngest island in the chain and is still growing thanks to the active volcano, Kilauea.
The Big Island offers an array of diverse landscapes such as rainforests, a green sand beach, black sand beaches, snow-capped mountains, and more.
The Big Island is more laid back with a slower pace than some of the other Hawaiian Islands.
Adventure seekers have many activities, such as hiking, zip-lining, cascading through waterfalls, and ATV tours. You can also stargaze at the Mauna Kea Observatory or take a helicopter tour to see the lava flow from an active volcano.
For a more relaxing vacation, you can visit one of the many beaches, take a coffee plantation tour, or stroll through a botanical garden.
Maui in a Nutshell
Nicknamed the “Valley Isle,” Maui is famous for its postcard-perfect beaches, lush green valleys, and stunning sunsets. The island is home to the Haleakala National Park, which contains the Haleakala Volcano. Maui also offers various activities such as golfing, zip-lining, and ATV tours, among many more options.
Maui is the perfect island for a relaxing vacation and is popular among honeymooners. You can spend your days lounging on the beach, exploring the shops in Lahaina, or taking a scenic drive along the Hana Highway.
The Road to Hana is one of the most popular attractions on the island. This winding road takes you through rainforests and past waterfalls to a famous black sand beach.
Maui is the second-largest Hawaiian Island and is an excellent place for first-time visitors to Hawaii. It’s also perfect for couples or families looking for a relaxing vacation.
Oahu in a Nutshell
Nicknamed “the Gathering Place”, Oahu is the third largest of the Hawaiian Islands. It’s the most populated island in Hawaii and is home to Honolulu, the state capital.
Oahu is perfect for those who want a lively vacation with plenty of nightlife, restaurants, and shopping. There are also many activities to choose from, such as surfing, stand-up paddle boarding, kayaking, snorkeling, scuba diving, and hiking.
There are also many historical sites, such as the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor.
Kauai in a Nutshell
Kauai is the oldest and northernmost Hawaiian Island. This island is nicknamed the “Garden Isle” thanks to its dramatic cliffs, emerald valleys, and waterfalls.
Kauai is a great place to relax and enjoy the natural beauty of Hawaii. There are many hiking trails, waterfalls, and beaches to explore. Kauai is also home to the Waimea Canyon, which is often referred to as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific.”
Kauai is a perfect choice if you’re looking for an island off the beaten path.
The Best Hawaiian Island to Visit Based on Your Travel Style
Now that you have a general overview of the four major Hawaiian Islands, let’s find the best island to visit based on your travel style!
Best Island for Beaches and Snorkeling
Winner: Maui and Oahu
This is hard to compare because the Hawaiian Islands offer so many beautiful beaches and fantastic snorkeling. If we had to choose, Maui and Oahu would win this section.
Beaches and Snorkeling on Maui
Maui is home to some of the best beaches in the world, such as Ka’anapali Beach, Wailea Beach, and Napili Bay. The swimming conditions in Maui are ideal all year round, with calmer waters and warmer temperatures.
Maui also has some of the best snorkeling in the world, especially on the island’s southwestern coast. The Molokini Crater, which is 2.5 miles off the coast of Maui, is a popular snorkeling spot home to over 250 different types of fish.
Black Rock is another excellent spot for snorkeling and is located on the northwestern coast of Maui. Here you’ll find turtles, tropical fish, and even octopuses!
If you’re hoping to see green sea turtles in their natural habitat, you will most likely see them in Maui. We have seen some of the biggest turtles off the coast of Maui without even looking for them. Our favorite place to spot turtles is at Black Rock.
Beaches and Snorkeling on Oahu
Oahu is also famous for its beaches, such as Waikiki Beach, Lanikai Beach, Kailua Beach, and Sunset Beach. Oahu’s North Shore is a world-renowned surfing destination and is a great place to catch some waves.
If you are ever on Oahu in the wintertime, check out the 7-mile miracle, where you can find some of the best surf conditions in the world. If you are a beginner surfer, we don’t recommend surfing at the North Shore beaches as the waves can be hazardous.
Oahu is also home to Hanauma Bay, one of the best snorkeling spots in Hawaii. Hanauma Bay is a protected marine life conservation area home to over 80 different types of fish.
Oahu has about 227 miles of coastline, so there are plenty of beaches to explore.
Best Island for Black Sand Beaches
Winner: The Big Island
Undoubtedly, the Big Island has the best black sand beaches in Hawaii. These beaches are made of lava rock that has been eroded over time – they’re truly unique sights to experience!
The Big Island is home to some of the world’s most active volcanoes, meaning new lava is consistently flowing into the ocean. This new lava creates these black sand beaches. One of Big Island’s most famous black sand beaches is Punalu’u Beach.
Punalu’u Beach is located on the island’s southeastern coast and is known for its dramatic cliffs, lush vegetation, and the famous Hawaiian green sea turtles. If you’re looking to catch a green sea turtle basking in the sun on black lava rocks, then go to the Big Island.
The Big Island also has many other black sand beaches, such as Pohoiki, Pololu, Kehena, and Waipio Beaches.
Best Island for Scenery
Kauai is commonly referred to as the “Garden Isle,” and it’s easy to see why. This island is absolutely stunning with its lush green landscape, towering cliffs, and pristine beaches.
Kauai is home to one of the wettest spots on earth, Mount Wai’ale’ale. This mountain is located in the island’s center and is blanketed with rainforest vegetation.
The Napali Coast is one of the most popular attractions on Kauai, and for good reason. This coastline is comprised of enormous cliffs, lush green valleys, and stunning beaches.
The Kalalau Trail is a popular hike that takes you along the Napali Coast and offers some of the most incredible views on the island. Our other favorite hikes include the Awa’awapuhi Trail, Mahaulepu Heritage Trail, and the Kuilau Ridge Trail.
Kauai is also home to Waimea Canyon, often referred to as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific.” This canyon is over 14 miles long and 3,600 feet deep. One of the best ways to see Waimea Canyon is by taking a helicopter tour or hiking.
Kauai is an incredibly scenic island with something for everyone. Whether you are looking for rugged mountains, lush green valleys, or pristine beaches, Kauai has it all.
Best Island for Outdoor Activities
Kauai is the perfect place for outdoor enthusiasts, as this island is home to some of Hawaii’s most beautiful hiking trails. The Waimea Canyon alone has many miles of hiking trails.
Kauai is also great for water activities such as swimming, snorkeling, and kayaking.
One of the most popular kayaking spots on Kauai is the Wailua River. This river is located on the island’s east side and flows through some of Kauai’s most lush landscapes.
Kauai is also a great place for camping, with many campsites on the island. One of our favorite camping spots is Kalalau Beach, located on the Napali Coast.
More than 97% of Kauai is untouched nature, so there are plenty of opportunities to explore the great outdoors. For all of our nature lovers who do not prefer congested areas like Oahu, Kauai is the best Hawaiian island to explore the great outdoors.
See Also: Queen’s Bath, Kauai
Best Island for Hiking
Winner: Oahu and Kauai
This is another hard choice, so we had to pick two. If you love to hike, Oahu and Kauai have some of the best hikes in Hawaii.
The hikes on Oahu are easily accessible for the most part. You can find easy hikes such as the Waimea Valley Hike, intermediate hikes such as Lanikai Pillbox, and the more demanding hikes like the Olomana Trail.
No matter your experience level, you can find a hike that’s perfect for you on Oahu.
As mentioned, Kauai is another excellent place for hiking, with trails ranging from easy to difficult.
Kauai is also home to many incredible hiking trails, including the famous Kalalau Trail. This trail is an 11-mile out and back hike that takes you along the Napali Coast. The Kalalau Trail is considered one of the most challenging hikes in Hawaii due to its cliffs and narrow path.
If you are looking for a moderate hike, Kauai has many options, such as the Kuilau Ridge Trail. Kalepa Ridge Trail or Okolehao Trail would be one of the best easy hikes on Kauai.
Best Island for History Buffs/Cultural Experiences
Oahu is the perfect place for history buffs. This island is home to Pearl Harbor, the site of the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941 that led to the US entering World War II.
Pearl Harbor is now a national monument and historical park. Visitors can take a boat tour of the harbor, see the USS Arizona Memorial, explore the Submarine Museum, and visit the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center.
Oahu is also home to the Battleship Missouri Memorial. The Missouri is the last battleship built by the United States and was the site of the signing of the Japanese surrender at the end of World War II.
The Punchbowl Crater is another popular historical site on Oahu. This crater was used as a burial ground for soldiers who died during World War II.
Oahu is also home to the Iolani Palace, the only royal palace on US soil. The palace was built in 1882 and was the home of Hawaii’s last two monarchs, Queen Liliuokalani and King Kalakaua.
Best Island for Food, Drinks, and Nightlife
Oahu is the best place for food, drinks, and nightlife. Compared to the other islands, Oahu is more lively, with a higher concentration of restaurants, bars, and clubs.
We recommend trying out one of the many plate lunch spots or poke bowls for the best Hawaiian food on Oahu. We recommend going to one of the many rooftop bars or happy hour spots for drinks.
And for nightlife, there are a few different options depending on what you’re looking for. For a more laid-back scene, we recommend checking out one of the many live music venues. For a more club-like atmosphere, we recommend going to one of the many nightclubs in Honolulu.
Best Island for Families
Winner: Maui or Oahu
This is another tough one, but we had to pick either Maui or Oahu. Both of these islands have a lot to offer for families.
Maui is an excellent place for families with its many beaches, resorts, and activities. Maui is also home to the Maui Ocean Center, an aquarium perfect for kids.
Many resorts offer kid-friendly activities, kid pools, and budget options on Maui. If you love relaxing at your resort and taking your kids to a separate kid-friendly pool, most of the resorts on Maui will not disappoint.
Regarding the great outdoors, Maui offers Haleakala National Park, Iao Valley State Park, and the Pipiwai Trail.
There are also plenty of waterfalls to see in Maui, so you can definitely plan a day or two around that with your family.
Oahu is another great option for families. It has many parks and museums that are perfect for kids. Oahu is home to Sea Life Park, a marine park that will keep your kids entertained for hours.
The Honolulu Zoo and the Waikiki Aquarium are great places to take the family. Families can also take a scenic drive along the Interstate H-3 Freeway, visit one of Oahu’s many waterfalls or take a family-friendly hike.
Oahu has many outstanding options if your family loves to relax on the beach. Lanikai Beach, Ko Olina Beach Park, and Kailua Beach Park are great places to take the family.
You can also find many family-friendly resorts on Oahu that offer kids pools and budget options.
So, overall both islands offer a great deal for families, but we’re giving the slight edge to Oahu because it has more to offer in terms of attractions and things to do on the island.
Best Island for Couples/Honeymoon/Babymoon
Winner: Maui and Kauai
If you are looking to celebrate a special occasion, Maui is the perfect place. There are many romantic beaches, resorts, restaurants, spas, and activities to experience.
If luxury is what you’re looking for, Maui has many 5-star resorts that offer breathtaking ocean views, spas, and fine dining. Some of the best resorts include the Four Seasons Maui, Grand Wailea Maui, and The Ritz Carlton Kapalua.
Maui is the only island with one adults-only resort, Hotel Wailea. This resort is perfect for couples or honeymooners looking for a romantic and relaxing getaway away from kids.
When it comes to activities, Maui does not disappoint either. You can take a helicopter tour, go on a whale watching tour, go snorkeling, and visit the famous Haleakala National Park.
We also recommend taking the scenic drive along the Hana Highway and a sunset cruise.
Kauai is another great option for couples and is more secluded than the other Hawaiian Islands, making it the perfect place to relax and escape the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
Kauai is home to many beautiful beaches, waterfalls, and hiking trails. We recommend checking out Hanalei Bay, Shipwreck Beach, Poipu Beach, Ke’e Beach, and Tunnels Beach. Kauai is also home to the Napali Coast, which is a must-see.
When it comes to accommodations, Kauai has many great options for couples. Some top favorites include the St. Regis Princeville Resort, The Westin Princeville Ocean Resort Villas, and the Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort and Spa.
Whether you’re on your honeymoon or babymoon, Kauai will not disappoint.
Best Island for Solo Travelers
There is no shortage of things to do on the island of Oahu. You can explore the beaches, hiking trails, and museums, then finish off the day by checking out the nightlife.
As far as accommodations, Oahu has many options for solo travelers. Depending on your travel style, you will find options ranging from hostels to hotels, Airbnb, and multiple resorts that cater to all budgets.
When it comes to nightlife and dining, Oahu has plenty to offer as well. Honolulu, in particular, has a great selection of bars, clubs, and restaurants for solo travelers to enjoy.
Overall, Oahu is a safe and welcoming place for solo travelers. It is an accessible island, and there is no shortage of things to see and do.
Best Hawaiian Island for First-Timers
Winner: Maui or Oahu
We had to pick two options here because we believe that the best island for first-time visitors depends on what you are used to seeing. If you come from a big city and are used to a lot of the hustle and bustle, then we recommend Oahu for your first-time visit. Maui might be a better fit if you come from a small town or the suburbs and are used to quietness.
We say this because we come from a big city, and we found Maui to be a little quieter and secluded for our first time in Hawaii. In contrast, Oahu had a good mixture of quietness and city life.
Now that we have been to both places multiple times, we love them both and are used to their different atmospheres.
As mentioned, Maui is great for its beaches, hiking trails, and small-town feel. Kihei is a great place to stay on Maui if you’re looking for a budget-friendly, laid-back atmosphere.
Kapalua and Lahaina are also good options and offer a little more in terms of nightlife and restaurants.
Overall, Maui is an excellent option for first-time visitors looking for a more relaxed Hawaiian experience.
Oahu is the island for you if you want to stay in the action. Honolulu is the capital of Hawaii and home to Waikiki Beach. This is a great place to stay if you’re looking for a mix of relaxation and nightlife options.
You can find several hotels, resorts, Airbnb options, and hostels in Waikiki. If you want to explore more of the island, we recommend renting a car to check out other parts of Oahu, such as the North Shore, the windward side of Oahu, and Haleiwa Town.
Best Island for Budget Travelers
Winner: The Big Island and Oahu
The Big Island
Compared to Maui and Kauai, The Big Island is more affordable. You can find cheaper accommodations, food, and activities here. With that being said, The Big Island is large, and renting a car is recommended to get around.
Some great places to stay on the Big Island on a budget are Hilo and Kailua-Kona. Hilo is the largest city on the island and has several affordable hotels, hostels, Airbnb options, hotels, and resorts.
The Big Island is the largest island in Hawaii and has a lot to offer in terms of activities and attractions.
By the way, if you’re having a hard time deciding if Hilo or Kona is best, check out our article above for a good comparison.
Oahu is also a good choice for budget travelers. Compared to the other Hawaiian Islands, Oahu has a lot to offer when it comes to accommodations.
Honolulu, in particular, has a great selection of hotels, hostels, Airbnb options, and resorts that cater to all budgets. You will find many affordable options (in Hawaii standards) in or near Waikiki Beach as it is centrally located and has many affordable hostels, hotels, and Airbnb options.
When it comes to food, Oahu also has a lot of affordable dining options. You can find cheap eats at food trucks, local restaurants, and even some of the higher-end restaurants. If you are visiting the North Shore of Oahu, don’t forget to check out the North Shore food trucks.
Best Island for Volcanoes
Winner: The Big Island
The Big Island is the only Hawaiian island with active volcanoes. You can find two of them on the island, Kilauea and Mauna Loa. You might also see some lava flow at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, depending on the activity level of the volcanoes.
Because of volcanic activity, The Big Island is also a great place to see black sand beaches. The lava flow creates new land, and over time, the waves break down the lava rocks into the sand.
There are numerous black sand beaches, with Punalu’u Beach Park being the most famous option.
Best Island For Diversity
Winner: The Big Island
The Big Island is the most diverse of all the Hawaiian Islands. It is home to eight of the thirteen climate zones in the world and has a wide variety of landscapes.
You can find everything from rain forests to deserts to snowcapped mountains on the Big Island.
When it comes to activities, there is no shortage of things to do. Some activities you can do while on the Big Island include:
Manta ray night snorkeling– You can snorkel with manta rays on the Big Island. This is one of the best activities in Hawaii, with many tours to choose from.
Visit a working coffee farm– Hawaii is one of the two states in the US that grows coffee. You can visit one of the many coffee farms on the Big Island and learn how coffee is grown and harvested.
Hike to a waterfall– There are many waterfalls on the Big Island that you can hike. One of the most popular options is Rainbow Falls, located in Hilo.
Stargazing– Mauna Kea Observatory is located on the Big Island and is open to the public for stargazing. Mauna Kea is also the tallest mountain in the world when measured from the seafloor.
Seeing an active volcano– As mentioned above, the Big Island is home to two active volcanoes.
Other Things to Consider
Flights to Hawaii
Flights to Hawaii can be expensive, especially if you’re not flying from the west coast of the United States. However, there are some ways to save money on airfare.
One way is to fly into Honolulu (Oahu) and then take an inter-island flight to your final destination.
Honolulu has the most flight options and is often cheaper to fly into than other airports in Hawaii.
Interisland flights in Hawaii are very affordable and typically range from $25-$150 one way, depending on the time of year you visit.
Another way to save money on airfare is to fly during the shoulder seasons. The shoulder seasons are April-May and September–October. Flights are typically cheaper during these months as there are fewer visitors.
The Best Time to Visit Hawaii
The best time to visit Hawaii depends on what you want to do while on the islands. For example, the best time to visit if you want to surf is in the winter (November-February). The waves are at their biggest during these months.
If you want to avoid the crowds, the best time to visit is in the shoulder seasons (April-May and September-October). The weather is still nice during these months, and there are fewer visitors.
The weather in Hawaii is terrific year-round; temperatures typically range between 73°F and 86°F. Severe storms are a rare occurrence, and winter is basically nonexistent.
You will find wetter and marginally cooler temperatures between October and February.
If you do not like crowds, September to November is the perfect time to visit as you will find that sweet mix of fair weather and prices.
The ocean is in full swell from January to March, which brings professional surfers from around the world in search of giant waves.
Public transportation is available on all islands, but it can be limited. The best way to get around Hawaii is by renting a car. This will allow you to explore the islands at your own pace.
Oahu is probably the only island where you can get away with not renting a car. If you plan on staying in Waikiki the entire time, a car rental is not required as Waikiki is very walkable. That said, we recommend renting a car on Oahu as there is so much to Oahu other than Waikiki.
Uber, Lyft, and taxis are also available on all islands but can get expensive depending on how far you need to drive.
See Also: Do I need to rent a car in Maui?
The Verdict: Which Hawaiian Island Is Best for You?
There is no wrong answer when deciding which Hawaiian Island to visit. It depends on what you want to do and see while on vacation. All the islands have something unique to offer, and you can’t go wrong with any of them.
If you are looking for a lively island with plenty of cultural activities, nightlife, big waves, and excellent surfing, then Oahu is the island for you. If you want to avoid the crowds and enjoy more peaceful surroundings with incredible scenery, then Kauai would be better suited for you. Maui is your answer if you want to relax and love luxury on your vacation, fantastic beaches, and snorkeling. And, if you love volcanoes and want to stargaze at some of the best night skies in the world, then the Big Island is the place for you.
No matter which island you visit, you will have a memorable and fantastic experience!
Mahalo for reading out our post! Until next time, Aloha!