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Discover the Top Island for You to Visit in Hawai‘i

Quick overviews of Maui, Oʻahu, the Big Island, Kauaʻi, Lāna‘i and Molokaʻi

spinner image The beautiful and unique landscape of coastal Oahu, Hawaii
An aerial view of O‘ahu showcases the island’s unique landscape.
Art Wager/Getty images

From stunning beaches and volcanoes to waterfalls and wildlife, each of Hawai‘i’s six major islands has its own beauty and charm. Many visitors, understandably, paused travel plans to Hawai‘i in the wake of August’s devastating wildfires in the Maui community of Lahaina. However, mindful and respectful travel to all of the Hawaiian Islands — including Maui — is now encouraged to support recovery efforts. Here’s a brief rundown of what to do and where to eat and stay.

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Maui: The best island for luxury and a legendary drive

The fast-moving wildfires devastated the island’s historic Lahaina neighborhood, forever altering Maui’s landscape. Out of respect for the town’s residents, Lahaina remains off-limits, but as of Oct. 8, the rest of West Maui began to reopen to visitors in phases.

“In caring for Maui’s communities, the Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority is supporting residents who work in the hospitality industry and business owners who rely on visitors by encouraging mindful visitation to the island,” said Ilihia Gionson, public affairs officer at the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority.

Maui’s economy is dependent on tourism; there is a plethora of ways responsible travelers can use the power of their dollars to help boost recovery efforts.

Top things to do on Maui

Snorkeling. Maui is a gorgeous spot for snorkelers. Teralani Sailing Adventures operates relaxing snorkeling cruises with barbecue lunches and an open bar, boarding at West Maui’s Kāʻanapali Beach. The Ambassadors of the Environment educational program (developed by Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of oceanographer and filmmaker Jacques Cousteau) at the Ritz-Carlton Maui in Kapalua offers fun and informative snorkeling tours in Kapalua Bay. For a more adventurous day on the water, Redline Rafting Co. runs snorkeling tours to the islet of Molokini on small, fast Zodiac boats. Departing at 7 a.m. from Kihei in South Maui, the excursion includes the often-skipped backside of Molokini Crater. (On one early morning snorkeling adventure, I saw two Hawaiian monk seals, among the most endangered seal species in the world.)

spinner image Water pool on Road to Hana, Maui, Hawaii
Visitors are encouraged to take guided tours as opposed to driving the Road to Hāna.
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Road to Hāna. Visitors are encouraged to book guided tours as opposed to driving the challenging Road to Hāna on their own. Reservations are required for out-of-state visitors to go to Waiʻānapana State Park and its stunning black sand beach.

ʻĪao Valley State Monument Park. Rich in Hawaiian history, the ʻĪao Valley State Monument is best known for the ʻĪao Needle, a natural rock formation covered with lush vegetation. Advance reservations are required for out-of-state visitors.

Learn how to make chocolate. Maui Kuʻia Estate Chocolate offers tasty tours of its chocolate factory. One hundred percent of the company’s net profit is donated to Maui charities and nonprofit community organizations. Tours of the company’s working cacao farm (on the slopes of the West Maui Mountains) are scheduled to resume in 2024.

Accommodations and dining on Maui

There are scads of hotels and rentals on Maui. The major resort areas are the Kāʻanapali Beach Resort in West Maui and the Wailea Resort Association in South Maui. 

Many displaced Lahaina residents found temporary shelter at hotel properties in Kāʻanapali Beach Resort. To provide time to address housing needs, this section of West Maui will be part of the last stretch to reopen to visitors.

A 25-mile drive from Lahaina, Wailea was not threatened by the wildfires but has felt the economic repercussions of the resulting drop in tourism. Along with a handful of stunning beaches, hotel options range from luxury accommodations at properties such as the Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea and the Fairmont Kea Lani (set to emerge from a multiyear renovation project in December) to the less pricey AC Hotel by Marriott Maui Wailea and Residence Inn Maui Wailea.

Those seeking a less bustling experience might consider heading to Kapalua. The Ritz-Carlton Maui recently underwent a $100 million renovation that includes guest rooms featuring extended lanais, hammocks and firepits.

The cinnamon rolls and Argentine medialunas (like a croissant but sweeter) at Momona Bakery and Coffee Shop have developed a dedicated following since the eatery opened in Kahului (about a 10-minute drive from the airport) in March. Matteo’s Osteria Cucina Italiana & Wine Bar in Wailea, offers seared local ahi tuna and Caesar salad alongside a plethora of classic Italian dishes including chicken parmesan, lasagna and carbonara.

Oʻahu: The top island for big city living and Pearl Harbor

Oʻahu offers Hawai‘i’s take on big city living. Bustling Waikīkī is home to high-rise hotels, restaurants, shopping and one of the world’s most famous beaches. Day trips deliver entertaining doses of culture and history.

Things to do on Oʻahu

spinner image USS Arizona Memorial
You need to reserve tickets at the USS Arizona Memorial at the Pearl Harbor National Memorial.
Reed Kaestner/Getty Images

Pearl Harbor. You’ll want to visit the USS Arizona Memorial at the Pearl Harbor National Memorial (reserve free tickets before you arrive). History buffs should consider spending time at other Pearl Harbor historical sites, including the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum & Park, the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum and the Battleship Missouri Memorial.

Polynesian Cultural Center. Weave a fish of coconut leaves, taste poi or take a canoe ride at this cultural theme park, which offers a luau and evening show with skilled fire knife dancers.

North Shore. After watching the surfers on the North Shore make the sport look easy, snorkel in the clear water of Shark’s Cove (don’t let the name scare you; sharks aren’t common here). Then head into charming Haleʻiwa, where you can shop, eat and cool off with shave ice from Matsumoto’s.

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Dole Plantation. Explore the gardens, hop on the Pineapple Express Train Tour or get happily lost in the Pineapple Garden Maze. Good luck saying no to a cup or cone full of the world-famous Dole Whip pineapple soft serve.

Accommodations and dining on Oʻahu

Hotels can be found throughout Oʻahu, but a majority are in Waikīkī. Across the street from the famous Duke Kahanamoku statue, the Hyatt Regency Waikiki Beach Resort and Spa offers rooms with beach, mountain and city views. 

spinner image The Halekulani pool overlooks the beach and is a great place to watch the sunset
The Cattleya orchid mosaic at the bottom of the Halekulani pool features 1.2 million pieces of glass tile.
Images courtesy of Halekulani

Overlooking Waikīkī Beach, the Halekulani hotel pool offers a one-of-a-kind view for days of leisure — the Cattleya orchid mosaic at the bottom of the pool features 1.2 million pieces of glass tile. Ernest Hemingway honeymooned at Halekulani in 1940; his favorite table, at the hotel’s newly reopened and expanded House Without A Key restaurant, is known as Table 97 and available by advance reservation only.

Since 1952, Leonard’s Bakery has been churning out hot malasadas (Portuguese doughnuts) and other sweets. The iconic Rainbow Drive-In serves filling plate lunches that come with scoops of rice, macaroni salad, and meat or fish. Along with the original in Kapahulu, there’s are two locations to choose from on the island. On the North Shore, locals and visitors alike line up long before opening hours for sautéed shrimp from Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck.

Hawaiʻi: The top island to view volcanoes and waterfalls

Often referred to as the Big Island, Hawaiʻi is nearly twice as large as all of the other Hawaiian Islands combined. Among your many options for adventure are chasing waterfalls, seeing two of the most active volcanoes on the planet and swimming with manta rays.

Things to do on Hawaiʻi Island

Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park. On the east side of the island, the park includes two of the world’s most active volcanoes: Kīlauea and Mauna Loa. Kīlauea is no longer erupting, and no glow is visible at night, but things can change quickly, so check its website for updates. Save time to walk through the 500-year-old Nāhuku, or Thurston Lava Tube, not far from the Kīlauea Visitor Center. When driving the scenic Chain of Craters Road, stop to explore the Puʻuloa Petroglyphs.

Waterfall viewing. The east side of the island is also the wet side of the island, and lots of rain makes for stellar waterfall viewing. At ʻAkaka Falls State Park, you can glimpse two waterfalls during a spectacular hike that takes less than an hour. (The route is paved, but there are multiple steps.) Waiānuenue Falls, often called Rainbow Falls, is a five-minute drive from downtown Hilo in Wailuku River State Park.

Coffee farm visit. From the fields to your coffee cup. Greenwell Farms offers free guided tours daily that include samples of 100 percent Kona coffee. No reservations are necessary.

Seahorse farm tour. The only seahorse farm in the world, Ocean Rider breeds endangered seahorses for home aquariums to help prevent them from being taken from the wild. Naturalist-led tours end with the opportunity to submerge your hand in a tank and hold a seahorse. It’s nothing short of magical when they curl their tails around one of your fingers and hang out.

spinner image Totems at Pu`uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park, Hawai'i (The Big Island)
Statues stand watch at Pu‘uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park on Hawai‘i Island.
Dennis Frates/Alamy Stock Photo

Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park. A stunning seaside refuge for lawbreakers, defeated warriors and any person seeking sanctuary. Once within its boundaries, all were safe from harm. It’s a beautiful and easy walk around the sacred grounds.

Hawaii Island Humane Society. Check out an adoptable dog from the shelter and take it on a well-deserved island field trip. You’ll get a fun buddy to keep you company while you get your steps in and support the nonprofit’s efforts to help animals in need. It’s a win-win.

Snorkel with manta rays. If you enjoy spending time in the water, swimming with mantas is not to be missed during a trip to Hawaiʻi Island. Snorkel trips take place at night. Underwater lighting is used to attract the microscopic plankton that manta rays eat. Harmless to humans, manta rays don’t have stingers or barbs. Manta Ray Advocates lead small snorkeling tours with a maximum of six people; their tours enter the water from the beach instead of from a boat. Experiences are education-rich, designed to ensure the safety of both participants and the manta rays. I met two manta rays — Kamala and Vegemite — during my moonlight snorkel. I am a certified scuba diver, but snorkeling with Manta Ray Advocates was far more intimate and rewarding than other diving and snorkeling experiences I’ve had on Hawai‘i Island.

Accommodations and dining on Hawai‘i Island

On the Kohala Coast, about a half-hour drive from Kona International Airport, the Fairmont Orchid boasts a white sand beach and calm lagoon where I’ve met a turtle on more than one occasion. About a dozen honu (Hawaiian green sea turtles) call the property home. They are a federally protected species, so if you are lucky enough to see one, give it ample space; harassing or touching honu is against federal law. Closed in 2011 after extensive tsunami damage, Kona Village, a Rosewoood Resort, reopened in July. The property is fully powered by 8,000 solar panels.

spinner image a comfy black lounge chair on a balcony at Kona Village, A Rosewood Resort on Hawaii's Big Island
Kona Village, a Rosewood Resort, is powered by solar panels.
Kona Village, A Rosewood Resort

In Kailua-Kona, Umekes Fish Market Bar & Grill is a go-to spot for poke made with fresh ahi. With two taprooms, one in Kona and one in Hilo, Hawaiʻi Island-based Ola Brew incorporates ingredients from local farmers in its brews to encourage growth in Hawaiʻi’s agricultural economy.  

On the eastern side of the Big Island, every stay at relative newcomer SCP (Soul Community Planet) Hilo hotel supports local beach cleanup efforts.

Volcano Village Lodge is in a quiet residential neighborhood a couple of miles from Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park. Rooms feature small refrigerators, microwaves and toaster ovens; included gourmet breakfasts are placed in the room’s refrigerator so guests can enjoy them on their own schedule. Nearby Kilauea Lodge Restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner daily, as well as brunch on Sunday. You can’t beat the pad thai or papaya salad at the Thai Thai Bistro & Bar.

spinner image Scenic views of Kauai from above
Kauaʻi as seen from above.
Matthew Micah Wright/Getty Images

Kauaʻi: The top island for nature lovers

Nicknamed the Garden Island, Kauaʻi boasts a dreamy landscape including sun-kissed beaches and towering serrated-edged mountains that reach for the sky, then plunge into the blue Pacific Ocean. It has all the makings for a romantic getaway or a vacation soaked in natural beauty.

Things to do on Kauaʻi

Nāpali Coast. Set on Kaua‘i’s North Shore, the 17-mile stretch of magnificent coastline is accessible only by boat, air or difficult hike. Capt. Andy’s offers tours that allow time for snorkeling and sailing (be on the lookout for turtles). Island Helicopters provides a bird’s-eye view of the isolated Nāpali Coast along with 400-foot-high Manawaiopuna Falls (featured in the movie Jurassic Park) and Olokele Canyon, the gateway to Waimea Canyon, sometimes called the Grand Canyon of the Pacific.

Poʻipū Beach Park. This inviting stretch of sand is frequented by visitors, locals and the occasional endangered Hawaiian monk seal. If you see a monk seal, enjoy it from a distance. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recommends at least 50 feet; 150 feet if there is a mother with a pup. Lifeguards are on duty seven days a week.

Kauaʻi Backcountry Adventures. Don a headlamp, grab a tube and gently float your way through a former sugarcane plantation. The mountain tubing adventure winds through channels, flumes and tunnels hand-dug circa 1870 to irrigate the Lihue Plantation sugarcane fields. Guides are fun and knowledgeable.

Accommodations and dining on Kauaʻi

There’s a range of accommodations to choose from when staying on Kauaʻi. Many visitors opt for the south side, near Poʻipū. Stretching 20 acres along Kauaʻi’s Poʻipū Beach, the Sheraton Kauai Resort is an easy walk to shopping and dining, including Uncle’s Shave Ice. The shave ice is top-notch, but the shave snow is even better. Inspired by Taiwanese shave ice, milk, sugar and flavoring is added to the water before it’s frozen into ice blocks, so unlike with shave ice, no syrups are needed on top. The flavor is in the ice. You’ll thank me later.

spinner image The beautiful gardens at Kauai' 1 Hotel Hanalei Bay
The gardens at 1 Hotel Hanalei Bay help the resort blend into its surroundings.
1 Hotel Hanalei Bay

On a secluded bluff overlooking the North Shore, condominium accommodations at The Cliffs at Princeville are spacious, with well-equipped kitchens and private balconies. After a $300 million renovation, beachfront 1 Hotel Hanalei Bay (formerly the St. Regis Princeville) is open. Native greenery and rooftop gardens help the resort blend into its striking cliffside location.

In addition to oozing old-school Hawaiian charm, Hanalei is loaded with delicious dining locales. The Hanalei Dolphin specializes in fresh seafood. Parked at the Hanalei Pier, by Black Pot Beach, Pat’s Taqueria white taco truck serves burritos and tacos with rice and beans, carne asada, kalua pork and fish. Wishing Well Shave Ice whips up smoothies, acai bowls and, you guessed it, shave ice, out of an old bus at the entrance to Hanalei town.

spinner image The Hawaiian island of Lanai at sunset
Lāna‘i is home to rugged scenery and nearly 3,400 residents.
M Swiet Productions/Getty Images

Lāna‘i: The top island for secluded natural beauty

A former pineapple plantation that once produced up to 75 percent of the world’s pineapples, Lāna‘i is home to rugged scenery and nearly 3,400 residents. The island has just three hotels, two of which are Four Seasons resorts. Larry Ellison, billionaire cofounder of software giant Oracle, owns 98 percent of Lāna‘i, the smallest of the six inhabited Hawaiian islands.

Things to do on Lāna‘i

Keahiakawelo. A windswept rock garden with striking red and orange hues, Keahiakawelo is what I imagine Mars looks like. Sometimes referred to as the Garden of the Gods, it’s about a 45-minute drive from Lāna‘i City and is accessible only in a four-wheel-drive vehicle. A rental car is a must to truly explore Lāna‘i, and four-wheel-drive is recommended, since only 30 miles of the island’s roads are paved. There are no traffic lights.

Lanai Cat Sanctuary. Home to nearly 700 rescue cats, this nonprofit invites travelers to spend vacation days playing with its residents. No reservations are needed; the Lanai Cat Sanctuary is open daily from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Admission is free, but tax-deductible donations are welcome.

Lānaʻi Adventure Park. Those seeking an adrenaline boost may gravitate toward zip-lining or the Aerial Tower, but guided e-bike island tours come with breathtaking views and Lānaʻi history lessons.

Hulopoʻe Bay. On Lānaʻi’s southern coast (next to the luxurious Four Seasons Resort Lanai), Hulopo‘e Bay is the most talked-about spot on the island for snorkeling and swimming. Summer conditions are best; surf and currents can intensify in the winter months.

Pu‘upehe. Less than a mile walk from Hulopo‘e Beach, Pu‘upehe is one of Lānaʻi’s most recognizable natural landmarks. The rocky islet, reaching 80 feet into the sky, and the neighboring cliffs offer a beautiful contrast to the vibrant blue surf. I was so taken with the view at sunrise, I made the early morning trek again the following day. The site is also known as Sweetheart Rock. According to Hawaiian legend, a warrior overwhelmed with grief jumped to his death here after his lover drowned during a storm.

Accommodations and dining on Lānaʻi

The Four Seasons Lanai overlooks beautiful Hulopo‘e Bay, and it would be easy to spend your entire vacation on the grounds, but with rooms starting at $1,450 a night, it’s a splurge. Guest experiences run the gamut: Think private catamaran tours, horseback riding and visits to an observatory where guests peer into the night sky and learn how early Polynesians and Indigenous Hawaiians used celestial bodies to navigate on the open ocean. Along with renowned Japanese restaurant Nobu Lanai, onsite dining options include the steak and seafood-focused One Forty. Sensei Lanai, A Four Seasons Resort focuses on wellness and is open to guests 16 and older.

Hotel Lanai, which has just 11 accommodations, is the island’s most budget-friendly hotel and home to the Lānaʻi City Bar & Grille. Open for dinner Tuesday through Sunday, the menu features invasive axis deer alongside fish caught by Hawaiian boats. Nearby Dole Park is bordered by a handful of shops and restaurants, including the Blue Ginger Café, Ganotisi’s Pacific Rim Cuisine and Pele’s Other Garden deli and bistro.

Getting here

There are no direct flights to Lānaʻi from the continental United States; the small Lanai Airport is served by interisland planes.

spinner image Molokai
A visit to Molokaʻi is like stepping back in time.
Florian Krauss/Getty Images

Molokaʻi: The top island to get off the beaten path

Another Hawaiian island without a traffic light, Molokaʻi is less developed than the other five inhabited islands, making a visit a bit like stepping back in time.

Things to do on Molokaʻi

Pāpōhaku Beach Park. On the island’s west shore, Pāpōhaku Beach Park is one of the largest white sand beaches in all of Hawai‘i, making it perfect for strolling. Swimming is recommended only when the surf is calm and flat. Conditions can be hazardous in fall and winter.

Hālawa Valley. With lush, stunning vistas and thundering waterfalls, this is a must-do for hiking enthusiasts. On Molokaʻi’s East End, the only way to explore the Hālawa Valley is on a guided hiking tour, so be sure to plan ahead.

Accommodations and dining on Molokaʻi

There are some home and condo rental accommodations and a couple of bed-and-breakfast options, but there’s only one hotel — Hotel Moloka‘i. The hotel restaurant, Hiro’s Ohana Grill, serves lunch and dinner and Sunday breakfast with ocean views.

Kaunakakai, Molokaʻi’s main town, is home to a handful of eateries, including the Kanemitsu Bakery, Molokai Burger and Molokai Pizza Café.

Getting here

There’s no ferry service to Moloka‘i, but there are interisland flights from Maui and Oʻahu. Public transportation isn’t available, so plan on renting a car from Alamo, Molokai Car Rental or Mobettah Car Rentals.

Mālama Hawaiʻi 

When the Hawaiian Islands reopened to tourism after the COVID-19 crisis, they encouraged visitors to accept responsibility for caring for their natural resources. The Mālama Hawaiʻi program (mālama means “give back” in Hawaiian) promotes organizations offering volunteer opportunities ranging from beach cleanup to the reforestation of native and endemic Hawaiian plants. “We are doing this work not for us but for those not even here yet, preserving what’s here for the future,” says Ekolu Lindsey, with the nonprofit organizations Maui Cultural Lands and Kipuka Olowalu. “It seems a little cliché, but I think as we go in our different cycles in life, that’s what it comes down to.”

As an added incentive to get travelers involved, some hotels reward participating guests with discounts or possibly a free night’s stay. Volunteer opportunities are available on Maui, Kauaʻi, O‘ahu, Hawai‘i and Moloka‘i. In addition to pulling weeds at Maui’s Kipuka Olowalu, I helped clear invasive plants from a taro pond at Kualoa Ranch on Oʻahu. (It’s muddy work, and I recommend wearing a good pair of water shoes.)

Mālama voluntourism options are plentiful and not complicated. Suggestions can be found on Go Hawai‘i’s Voluntourism website. Also check hotels for any possibilities.

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