Planning to visit the Aloha State but not sure where to start? With so much to see and experience, even for returning visitors, choosing between the Hawaiian islands is a hard task. Our Hawaii travel guide will give you an insider view of the unique flavor, similarities, and differences of each of the archipelago’s spectacular islands. So whether you want to discover the lush, virgin countryside of Kauai, explore fiery landscapes on the Big Island, or catch a wave on cosmopolitan Oahu, you’ll be all set to experience the best of this Pacific paradise.
Oahu for Beaches, Surfing and Culture
Oahu is the “Gathering Place”, an island where big city life goes hand-in-hand with natural treasures. Around three-quarters of Hawaiians live on Oahu and Honolulu, the island capital, is characterized by a bustling, multicultural vibe. It’s loaded with royal history, nightlife, ono grinds (good food), and shopping. Yet, you don’t have to go far from the city to discover stereotypical Hawaiian wonders. Waikiki Beach, among others, lures surfers and sun worshippers while forest trails, green valleys, and waterfalls make it a sought-after destination for all kinds of travelers.
Our Oahu Top Five
- Waikiki Beach: An iconic coastal hangout just steps from the Waikiki Resort Hotel, Honolulu's most famous beach is the place for surfing, sunsets, and everything associated with Hawaiian beach life.
- North Shore: This 7-mile stretch of beach is Oahu’s big wave surf mecca and the place to be for experiencing competitions such as the Billabong Pro Pipeline.
- Pearl Harbor National Memorial: Informative and thought-provoking museums and galleries dedicated to Hawaii’s role in World War II.
- Diamond Head State Monument: A 1.6-mile-long trail leads to the summit of this emblematic craterhead for views of the coastline and Honolulu skyline.
- Polynesian Cultural Center: Take a fascinating journey into the culture and folklore of Polynesian islands, including live music and dance and luau buffet dinners.
Big Island for Hiking, Wildlife and Once-in-a-Lifetime Experiences
If you’re looking for unique experiences, then the Big Island is where you’ll find some of the top things to do in Hawaii. The largest island in the archipelago, it boasts a landscape shaped by the lava flows of active volcanic eruptions. Here it's possible to move between alpine and tropical landscapes, dramatic craters, coffee plantations, and beaches of black, golden, and white sands all on the same day. Meanwhile, quaint coastal towns like Hilo and Kona promise culture and cuisine akin to Honolulu, albeit in smaller doses.
Our Big Island Top Five
- Hawaii Volcanoes National Park: Day and backcountry hiking trails wind across a landscape of dazzling craters and lava flows that shelter two of the planet's most active volcanoes, Kilauea and Mauna Loa.
- Mauna Kea: Visit a dormant volcano that marks the highest point of the Hawaiian islands. Maunakea Visitor Information Station offers unmatchable views and stargazing events.
- Punaluu Black Sand Beach: Jet-black sand from volcanic activity contrasts wonderfully with coconut palms. Keep an eye out for basking honu (Hawaiian green sea turtles).
- Akaka Falls State Park: An easy self-guided walk weaves through tropical vegetation to lookouts that afford views of a 442-foot-tall cascade and its surrounding gorge.
- Kona Coffee Living History Farm: Step back in time to learn about the history and evolution of the cultivation of Hawaii’s now world-renowned Kona coffee.
Maui for Beaches and Tropical Adventures
Maui is the second-largest of the Hawaiian islands and a veritable tropical paradise. It’s a place that beckons with an idyllic combination of relaxation and venturesome pursuits. Like Oahu, it has commercial convenience on the shores of a postcard-perfect coastline where surfers flock to ride rolling waves. And like the Big Island, its volcanic landscape showcases Hawaii’s fiery creation. Hiking trails and wildlife encounters on Maui guarantee glimpses of the archipelago's essence without going overboard on strenuous levels, thus allowing opportunities to kick back and relax.
Our Maui Top Five
- Maui Ocean Center, The Aquarium of Hawaii: Spread over 5 acres of indoor and outdoor exhibits, visitors come up close with magnificent marine life here. Take it to the next level with a snorkeling tour or shark dive.
- Iao Valley State Park: Lace up your shoes and hike through a 4,000-acre valley to spot colorful plants, the green-mantled Iao Needle outcrop, and the site of the 1790 Battle of Kepaniwai.
- Hookipa Beach Park: Maui’s go-to for surfing is the “home of contemporary surfing” and the location for the Aloha Classic contest.
- Haleakalā National Park: Ethereal red deserts and rock gardens thrive alongside sub-tropical rainforests, waterfalls, and unique flora in this 30,000-acre wilderness loved for hiking and camping.
- Pipiwai Trail: This 4-mile round trip trail traverses the rear side of Haleakala National Park and leads to the beautiful Makahiku Falls and Waimoku Falls.
Kauai for Lush Green Landscapes and Pristine Beauty
Want to enjoy the best of the Hawaiian islands but in the most laid-back way imaginable? Then Kauai, “The Garden Isle” is the answer. You’ll truly feel like you’ve gone off the grid when uncovering the breathtaking and unspoiled charm of the island. From its low-key towns like Lihue to secluded beaches, life on Kauai moves at its own leisurely pace. But when adventure does come calling, you’ll find it among canyons, jungle-clad mountains, plantations, and rainforests.
Our Kauai Top Five
- Waimea Canyon State Park: Enjoy everything from scenic drives and strenuous hikes to wild picnicking and trout fishing in the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific.”
- Na Pali Coast State Wilderness Park: Hiking, camping, and helicopter rides around a stunning 17-mile coastline defined by 4,000-foot pali (cliffs), sea caves, and sunken tunnels.
- Princeville Botanical Gardens: One of many great botanical gardens on the Hawaiian islands, Princeville offers 3-hour walking tours with seasonal fruit, honey, and chocolate samplings.
- Lydgate Farms Kauai Chocolate: Sweet-toothed visitors will love the educational tour at a chocolate farm that strives to maintain the Malama ‘Aina (care for the islands) ethos.
- Poipu Beach Park: Transparent waters lapping at a crescent-shaped beach set the scene for bodyboarding, surfing, snorkeling, and wildlife spotting, namely Hawaiian monk seals.