Each of the islands of Hawaii offers its own unique ambience and activities, from laid-back and lush Kauai to the much livelier island of Oahu. If you want to go to Hawaii, but aren't sure which spot is right for you, use this cheat sheet to help you find your ideal island.
Of all the islands in Hawaii, is perhaps the best all-rounder for those who want a leisure-focused vacation. It’s the second most visited (after Oahu), and features a solid mix of upscale beach resorts, golfing opportunities, and gorgeous jungle and volcano hikes. Popular activities include hiking on the crater at the top of Haleakala National Park, driving through the jungle along the scenic Road to Hana, whale-watching, and snorkeling. Because of its popularity with tourists, there are also plenty of regular cultural activities, and many of the larger hotels hold frequent luaus for their guests.
Home of Honolulu, the state’s main hub of business and Hawaii’s only big city, gets more visitors than any of the other islands. For those who want a bit of a party scene, it’s a good choice, and Waikiki in particular has plenty of clubs, bars, and restaurants open well into the night. However, there are plenty of quieter, less urban places to visit, meaning that visitors can get a fully Hawaiian experience without having to hop over to another island. The North Shore is particularly popular, with lots of little bohemian beach towns that are especially favored by surfers. Other major attractions on the island include the Polynesian Cultural Center, which is easily the island’ s most interesting museum, and the sunken remains of the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor.
The Island of Hawaii, almost universally referred to as the “Big Island” to avoid confusion with the state, is — unsurprisingly — by far the largest of the state’s islands and offers a ton of activities, from swimming, surfing, and snorkeling to hiking up to waterfalls to exploring lava tubes. Compared to some of the other islands in the chain, parts of the Big Island look contrastingly stark, particularly on the dry, leeward side, where Kona and many of the resorts are located. Don’t miss a visit to Mauna Kea (the highest mountain on earth if measured from the floor of the sea to its summit), where a number of astronomical observatories are located. Just be prepared with a four-wheel drive and make sure to rest to acclimatize on the way up. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is also worth a visit and has two active volcanoes, including Kilauea, which has been in a state of eruption since 1983.
Arguably the most beautiful island in Hawaii, Kauai (a.k.a. the Garden Island) is a quiet, laid-back island with a gorgeous mix of arid canyons and lush coastline. It lacks some of the major development found on Oahu, Maui, or even the Big Island, and while there’s not much of a party scene, the opportunities for relaxing and exploring are unparalleled. One of the most popular activities is exploring the Na Pali Coast, a stretch of mystical coastline that can be accessed either by boat or by hiking 11 miles each way and camping. The other star attraction on the island is the mile-long Waimea Canyon, often called the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific” due to its impressive size.
The smallest island that the public can access, Lanai was once a huge pineapple plantation. Today it’s almost privately owned (by Oracle’s Larry Ellison) and largely undeveloped. Most travelers come here to golf, and many stay at one of the two Four Seasons properties, each of which has its own golf course. Cat lovers should stop at the Lanai Cat Sanctuary, and visitors can even arrange out-of-state adoptions for free.
If you really want quiet and are interested in foregoing typical tourist attractions in favor of a back-to-basics experience, Molokai might be a good choice. Life on this compact island is slow, and while there’s not a ton to do in terms of organized activities, it is home to one of the state’s most interesting sites: Kalaupapa National Historical Park. This former leper colony on the coast is cut off from the rest of the island by road, and can only be accessed by plane or trail (most opting for the latter ride a mule down into the park). Most visitors to Molokai also stop off at the “post-a-nut” facility at the Hoolehua Post Office. Here, travelers can address and decorate a keepsake coconut using multicolored Sharpies kept on-site at the post office. The postmaster will then stamp the nut and send it off, just like regular mail.
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