I grew up in Hawaii and live on Oahu. Here’s how I help friends and family choose which island is best to visit.

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  • I live on Oahu and have spent time on all four main Hawaiian islands.

  • Each island is gorgeous and has its own distinct feel, activities, and places to stay.

  • While you can’t go wrong on any island, some are better suited to certain types of travelers.

A woman standing under a shop's hanging sign.A woman standing under a shop's hanging sign.

Each Hawaiian island has its own attractions and natural wonders to experience.Kathleen Wong

History buffs, adventure seekers, and repeat visitors would all love the Big Island.

Majesitc Rainbow Falls waterfall in Hilo, Wailuku River State Park, Hawaii.Majesitc Rainbow Falls waterfall in Hilo, Wailuku River State Park, Hawaii.

Nature and adventure lovers will love all the lush parks and waterfalls on the Big Island.MNStudio/Shutterstock

Hawaii Island, affectionately known as the Big Island, is truly big. At 4,028 square miles, it can actually encompass all the other Hawaiian islands inside of it. For reference, the second-largest island is Maui, which covers 727 square miles.

That means there’s a lot of ground to cover, and you probably won’t see all of it in just a couple of days. The island also has a wide range of diverse climates and landscapes, from the snowy cold summits of Mauna Loa to colored sand beaches formed from volcanic rock.

While you can definitely relax on the Big Island, this is for people who want an active vacation. There’s not much nightlife, but you can snorkel with majestic manta rays after the sun sets or stargaze atop Mauna Kea. The sunrise at Mauna Kea is also remarkable. I thought it looked otherworldly contrasted against the rugged volcanic terrain.

Additionally, the Big Island is home to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site steeped in Hawaiian culture and legend that’s open 24 hours a day. It’s one of my favorite places in the entire state because you can just feel the mana (spiritual power).

Who should visit:

  • History buffs looking to explore the numerous historical sites available on the Big Island.

  • Nature lovers who want to explore Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Kilauea is said to be home to Pele, the goddess of volcanoes and fire who created the Hawaiian islands. The dormant volcano Mauna Kea has significant cultural value that’s worth learning about and, of course, visiting.

  • Adventurous travelers who don’t want to spend their entire trip lying on a beach. On the Big Island, take a heart-pumping ATV ride along the Kohala Coast or join a tour of a coffee or macadamia nut farm. Snorkeling around Kealakekua Bay is another must.

  • Hawaii vacation veterans who have visited the state a few times before and are looking for new things to do.

Pros:

  • The Big Island has the most diverse landscapes and things to do in all of Hawaii.

  • It’s not as touristy as Maui or Oahu.

  • It has the best selection of golf courses in Hawaii.

Cons:

  • Because of its size, this island requires the most driving, which can take up a lot of time.

  • There are accommodation options in Waikoloa or Kona but don’t expect as many as on Oahu or Maui

  • The Big Island doesn’t have as many swimmable or surfable beaches as Maui or Oahu.

Nature lovers looking to unplug away from crowds should consider Kauai.

Aerial view of the colorful Na Pali coast, Kauai, Hawaii.Aerial view of the colorful Na Pali coast, Kauai, Hawaii.

Known as the Garden Island, Kauai is full of lush rainforests.Emperor Cosar/Shutterstock

When I think of the lushest island, my mind immediately goes to Kauai. Known as the Garden Island for good reason, Kauai is full of incredible leafy green rainforests.

Nature feels limitless on Kauai, which boasts the 11-mile-long Na Pali Coast, which might look familiar if you’ve ever seen “Jurassic Park” as it was filmed here. Waimea Canyon has been dubbed the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” and Mount Waialeale, located almost in the center of the island, is one of the rainiest places on the planet.

Kauai is also the least developed of the four main islands, so it’s quieter and slower-paced. When I visited, I was intoxicated by the island’s country charm and natural beauty, especially in Old Koloa Town.

Waking up early to drive the curvy Waimea Canyon Road and stopping at each dramatic lookout to savor the panoramic view was a true highlight that anyone looking to disconnect will appreciate.

Who should visit:

  • Nature lovers who want to enjoy immersive activities. Go for early morning hikes in Kokee State Park, camp in Waimea Canyon, backpack the Na Pali Coast, or book a helicopter tour to see it from a bird’s-eye view.

  • People who hate crowds. Kauai is low-key and tranquil, with no busy city centers or dense crowds like in Honolulu or Lahaina.

Pros:

  • Kauai is not as developed as the other islands, which means it feels exceedingly serene, remote, charming, and is far less touristy than Maui or Oahu.

  • All of the unspoiled nature is a good pick for hikers looking to explore, or couples seeking a romantic getaway.

  • It’s easy to see all of Kauai in one trip since it’s a smaller island.

Cons:

  • Kauai is rainy most of the year (so yes, there will be mud), which may impact your beach plans.

  • Most beaches or shorelines are rocky and the water isn’t as calm as Maui or Oahu.

  • There are not as many resort areas as Maui or Oahu, but you can find some in Poipu and Princeville.

  • Most businesses close early and there’s not much nightlife. Activities are not as suited for little children or older folks.

Maui is the island I’m most likely to recommend to families, couples, and those who have only been to Oahu.

A side by side of a woman sitting in front of the ocean and an aerial view over Maui, HawaiiA side by side of a woman sitting in front of the ocean and an aerial view over Maui, Hawaii

Kathleen Wong/ Lucas Moore/Shutterstock

As I covered in my guide to visiting Maui, the Valley Isle offers an abundance of unspoiled natural beauty, from the breathtaking Haleakala Crater to the winding Road to Hana. One of my favorite childhood memories is watching the sunrise at Haleakala with my family and passing the cows as we drove up.

Home to Iao Valley, which Georgia O’Keeffe captured in paintings, Maui has pristine beauty, a strong agricultural sector, and loads of island charm. In my opinion, it also has the most beautiful beaches, including Ka’anapali and Wailea.

Although not as country as Kauai or as lively as Oahu, Maui is a wonderful choice that will appeal to most visitors.

Who should visit:

  • Honeymooners and couples wanting a romantic getaway. There is no shortage of privacy granted by lush tropical foliage and if you do your research, uncrowded pockets of beaches, like Chang’s Beach. For a date night out, go to Monkeypod Kitchen, and I think watching the sunrise at Haleakala Crater together is a memory that will last forever.

  • Travelers who have already been to Oahu. You’ll find less hustle and bustle here while still enjoying beaches and hikes. You can also spend a day or two over on Molokai.

  • Foodies will adore a trip to Maui. Stop by farms in Kula, like the Surfing Goat Dairy Farm, and fruit stands on the Road to Hana to taste juicy local produce. I also love the local eateries that have been around for decades.

  • Families will have a great time on Maui, thanks to sprawling beaches in Wailea and activities, such as the Maui Ocean Center.

  • Surfers looking for fewer crowds than in Oahu. Depending on your skill level, you can escape the crowds at Waikiki or charge Honolua Bay.

Pros:

  • Maui has the most swimmable beaches in the state, in my opinion, as well as excellent snorkeling.

  • There are more accommodation options than on Kauai or the Big Island, especially in Lahaina and Wailea.

  • Maui is both family-friendly and great for romantic getaways, offering wide appeal.

Cons:

  • Nightlife is not as varied as on Oahu.

  • As it is the second-largest island, Maui will require more driving than Oahu or Kauai.

  • Because Maui is quite popular, it can be more crowded and touristy than Kauai or the Big Island.

Oahu is great for first-time visitors, families, and travelers who appreciate nightlife and dining.

A side by side image of a woman posing on a balcony on Oahu and the coastline of Waikiki in Oahu, HawaiiA side by side image of a woman posing on a balcony on Oahu and the coastline of Waikiki in Oahu, Hawaii

Waikiki Beach in the center of Honolulu has the most visitors in Hawaii.Kathleen Wong/ Okimo/Shutterstock

Home to the state’s capital of Honolulu, Oahu is the most populated island, and the place I call home.

It’s often where first-time visitors go, and for good reason. The island offers a nice balance of urban activity and nature. There are bustling areas like downtown Honolulu, Kakaako, and Waikiki, which I frequent when I go to bars, restaurants, and breweries. There’s still gorgeous nature, too, like Hanauma Bay, with renowned snorkeling.

Oahu is also home to several iconic landmarks: Pearl Harbor, Waikiki Beach, Iolani Palace, Diamond Head, and North Shore, where pro surfers go for pumping winter swells.

If the city crowds become too much, take a day trip to the North Shore to feel the country life before returning to Honolulu to dine at buzzy restaurants. You’ll also be able to check off iconic things to do, like surfing in Waikiki.

Who should visit:

  • First-time visitors will find a little bit of everything they want. Oahu is well developed, easy to navigate, and has many lodging options.

  • Young people or foodies who want vibrant nightlife. Honolulu has many places to go out, like Hotel Street in Chinatown.

  • Museum aficionados can go to Pearl Harbor to learn about World War II or visit the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum and Iolani Palace to learn about the Hawaiian monarchy and the tragic overthrow. At the former, you’ll also learn about other indigenous cultures around the Pacific.

  • Families who need to please both unhurried grandparents and hyper kids. Snorkeling, surfing, easy-to-access hikes for all fitness levels, beaches, and the aforementioned museums are all wonderful activities for families.

Pros:

  • Several Hawaii must-dos are on this island, like Pearl Harbor, great surfing, and nice beaches.

  • Oahu has the most accommodations, especially in Waikiki, which also makes it the most budget-friendly.

  • Families will appreciate the wide breadth of activities, restaurants, and ease of navigation. It has the best public transportation.

  • Oahu has the best nightlife, alongside the most restaurants and bars.

Cons:

  • Oahu is very populated, and as a result, can feel crowded, loud, and touristy, especially on hikes and popular beaches.

  • Rush hour traffic is very real and Oahu might not feel as peaceful as the other islands.

  • While Oahu is beautiful, it’s not considered to have as much unspoiled nature as the other islands on this list.

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