There are 137 islands that make up the state of Hawaiʻi. The six main islands in Hawaii are Kauaʻi, Oʻahu, Lānaʻi, Molokai, Maui and the island of Hawaiʻi. Out of these six, there are four that have historically been deemed the best islands in Hawaii to visit: Kauaʻi, Oʻahu, Maui and the Big Island of Hawaiʻi. Each destination offers an experience that is unique to their own county.
I have been to two out of the four most popular islands: Kauaʻi and Oʻahu. My time on both of these islands has been nothing short of pure magic. And, with many family and friends that have gone to the other islands, I have become acquainted with the spots that are worthwhile to go to. In this article I will share the best islands to go to in Hawaii as well as what are the islands in Hawaii that are best to stay clear of.
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What Are The Best Islands In Hawaii To Visit
At the top of the list of islands in Hawaii to go to is Kauaʻi. This is the oldest island and therefore, in my opinion, a frontrunner for being one of the most beautiful islands in Hawaii, if not the most beautiful. After all, it is referred to as the “Garden Isle” because of its lush vegetation and scenery that is straight out of a movie. In fact, Kauaʻi has been the location of many famous movies such as Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Ark and 50 First Dates.
The Best Places To Go In Kauaʻi
Limahuli National Tropical Botanical Garden
Sitting on the north shore side of Kauaʻi is a tropical oasis with some of the richest biodiversity in all of Hawaiʻi. The stewards of this land promote the conservation and replenishment of lots of endangered plant and animal species that live there. To do this, they use indigenous practices of tending to the land and its animal inhabitants. In this vast valley they also have archaeological sites, streams, meadows and the lands native caretakers.
Visitors are allowed to come and visit the gardens on either a self guided or official tour. Ticket prices range from $25 for adults to $60 depending on the type of tour you choose. If you choose to participate in the group tour, you will receive extensive background on the history of the Garden and its caretakers. This includes learning about Hawaiian culture and customs, and the dichotomy between caring for the ecosystem using ancient practices in modern eras.
This attraction is one of my favorites to do while on the island because of its beauty and uniqueness. This lava-rock grotto is adorned in ferns and other types of tropical plants and it looks like it was drawn up by an artist. The only way to get here is by a two mile boat ride up the Wailua River.
Once you arrive, you take a short walk through the dense jungle that leads you to the grotto. Here you will be met with the strange yet breathtaking ferns that grow upside down from the top of the grotto and will be able to stand or sit on the platform beneath. From this vantage point, you are able to truly take in the wonder before you. Standing there admiring the beautiful gift that nature has given to us, will make it clear why Kauaʻi is one of the best islands in Hawaii to visit.
This popular island is definitely one of the top islands in Hawaii to visit. If you are going to be hopping islands in Hawaii, I would say to make sure that Oʻahu is one of the spots you hit. If you are someone that likes a city vibe but also loves to have the option to go to the beach, this is the perfect place. Because Oʻahu is such a metropolis, there are many different ways to blend activities related to Hawaiian culture as well as incorporating those that are more mainland.
Where To Go In Oʻahu
Here, there are options to surf, snorkel, paddleboard, tan, or (my personal favorite) lounge on a floatie in the water. With so many activities to choose from you will never grow bored of this area. This beach is the most popular within the chain of islands in Hawaii, and it’s for good reason. The waters are crystal clear, the sand is white hot, and there are enough restaurants and shops to keep you occupied when you want to escape the sun.
Overlooking the strip of beach is Diamond Head, an easy to do hike that will give you awesome views of downtown Honolulu. From the top you will be able to see whales on the water (if you’re lucky), surfers ripping on some waves, and kids and adults alike playing on the sand. This is a fun and exhilarating way to experience such a beloved piece of Hawaiian real estate. For more information on what to do while in Waikiki, visit my Oʻahu article. You will see why I think Oʻahu earned its spot on the list of best islands in Hawaii to visit.
I always think that it’s important to honor historical parts of a place during a trip. Therefore, taking a day trip to Pearl Harbor is one of the places I tell people to hit on their visit. It’s a short drive from Waikiki, only about 11 miles. The full significance of a place like Pearl Harbor is not able to be fully described in an article such as this. However, the memorial pays tribute to a pivotal moment in US history when an attack here lead the US to join World War Ⅱ.
At the memorial, there is an orientation available at the visitor center upon arrival. There are also galleries that exhibit photos, written statements and explanations of what happened the day of the attack. Displays of equipment, clothing and other items are available for people to examine and learn from. The Pearl Harbor Memorial Theater is where visitors can watch a 23 minute documentary that details the events of the attack and what followed after. A remembrance circle nearby honors those that lost their lives.
Finally, there is an option to take a Navy operated boat ride to the USS Arizona Memorial where visitors can stand on a large white rectangular structure on the water and look out at the ocean and think about the massive weight of the events that happened on December 7, 1941.
The Big Island of Hawaiʻi
If you are searching for volcanic islands in Hawaii, this is it. The Big Island of Hawaiʻi has four active volcanoes,the most out of any of the other Hawaiian Islands. This is because it is the youngest out of the main islands of Hawaii. One of the volcanoes, Kīlauea, which is the youngest and most active volcano, erupted almost non stop from 1983 to 2018. So it’s unsurprising that the Big Island is home to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. If you are fascinated by lava and volcanoes, then you will definitely think the Big Island is one of the best islands in Hawaii to visit.
This has long been considered the largest above ground volcano on Earth. Mauna Loa is Hawaiian for “Long Mountain” and long it is. Its peak is 13,100 ft above sea level! It is also considered one of the most active volcanoes in the world. Since the first time it was truly well documented in 1843, Mauna Loa has erupted 34 times. The last time it erupted in 2022, lava came less than 2 miles within the state route of Hilo.
Mauna Loa is managed by the US National Park System so there are trails that visitors are allowed to hike on the volcano. There are also different trails you can take and cabins along the way where hikers can stay for a few nights during their trek. To stay in these spaces you need to make a reservation and obtain the necessary permits. Due to the latest eruption though, and concerns for the safety of the visitors and the nearby wildlife, some trails are currently closed. You can check out the continuously developing state of these routes here.
There are a number of black sand beaches on the Big Island that are popular amongst visitors. Punaluʻu Beach is one of these and it’s situated between Pāhala and Nāʻālehu. The black sand is created from basalt and lava that has exploded and cooled from coming into contact with the ocean water. Right behind the initial line of sand along the coast sits a long line of picturesque palm trees. Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles are also commonplace here as they enjoy lounging on the warm sand.
While swimming isn’t prohibited on this beach, it is strongly advised against because of the inconsistent topography of the ground underneath the water. Because of its close proximity to active volcanoes, there can be really steep shelves that drop off without warning and can be dangerous. Always use caution when going to a beach that you haven’t been to before, especially where there are no lifeguards on duty.
Where Not To Go in Hawaii
This one of a kind island is often referred to as the “Forbidden Island.” This is because, though it is just 15 miles off the coast of Kauai, only certain people are allowed on its shores. It was once owned by the Hawaiian Royal Family, but in 1864, Elizabeth Sinclair bought the island from King Kamehameha. It is said that as a condition of selling the island to Sinclair, King Kamehameha told her that the island had to preserve its traditional cultural customs.
Sinclair’s descendants still own the island and today, there are about 200 inhabitants. No one is allowed to go to the island except for the family of owners, the native Hawaiians that live there, and some government officials and military members. Little development has been made on the island as well. There is no telephone service, paved roads, and up until recently, no electricity. Within recent years, solar panels were brought to the island and this is what powers the schools and some homes. The predominant activity of the villagers is hunting and fishing.
The people that live on the island are able to come and go as they please, and so a number of people have chosen to move off of the island completely and relocate to places like Kauai. As times have begun to change, very few outsiders have been allowed to go to the shores through tours. Even still, they are kept away from the native Hawaiian people on the island so as not to disturb their way of life.
As I listed before, Maui is one of the main four islands for tourists. Maui has always been a very popular vacation destination amongst visitors because of its beautiful beaches, stunning foliage, and popular downtown area. In August of this year however, devastating wildfires rocked the island and burned down almost the entirety of the Lahaina, their downtown and much of the surrounding area. Many people lost their homes and their lives in this fire, and Maui has been in a very fragile state ever since.
On November 1st, Maui declared that it would fully reopen to tourists, with the exception of Lahaina. However, a lot of people believe that this reopening is happening sooner than it should, and many locals fear for the impact that large crowds can have on their land that is trying to heal. For these reasons I do not recommend going to Maui during this time. The other three main islands, Kauaʻi, Oʻahu and the Big Island of Hawaiʻi are still wonderful options to choose from when thinking about a Hawaiian vacation.
Of course, the best islands to visit in Hawaii are relative to people’s interests. Because of their own unique aspects, every one of them has something special to offer those that decide to vacation there. Hawaiʻi has always been one of my favorite places in the world to visit. I highly encourage you to do some more research into which island is the best fit for you and your party. No matter which island you decide on, I’m sure you will not regret it.
There are a total of 137 islands within the state of Hawaiʻi, but there are six main islands, and four islands that are the most popular for visitors to go to.
This depends of course on what island you are flying into. On the Big Island, there is an airport in Kona and an airport in Hilo. The one that is the best is dependent upon which side of the island you are staying on. On Kauaʻi, Lihue airport is the main one for international flights and flights to other states in the US. On Oʻahu, the Daniel K Inouye International Airport is the one that is used to fly in and out of.
Island hopping is a great way to experience a bunch of different island atmospheres during one trip. Flights between islands are a quick and easy option to do so. One time while staying on Kauaʻi, my dad and I flew over to Oʻahu to tour the University of Hawaiʻi. We flew over in the morning, spent the day on Oʻahu, and flew back to Kauaʻi that evening.