This article was originally posted July 6, 2018, and has been updated March 20, 2019.
Hawaii is one of the most beautiful places on the planet to visit for a fun vacation. Learn all about where to go, and what to see and do in our guide.
Planning a trip to Hawaii is many people’s dream of an exotic island paradise vacation. It’s comparable to the Caribbean in many respects. The sun, the palm trees, and the flying fish give a great tropical feel. But the Hawaiian islands also have volcanoes, grass skirts and more to potentially enjoy.
Contrary to popular mistaken belief, Hawaii is not a single island, but the largest one of an archipelago of eight islands. These are referred to under the umbrella name of the state of Hawaii, since it makes up one of the United States of America. Geographically it’s even more confusing, as the Hawaiian islands belong to the US, but are technically situated on the same continent as Australia and New Zealand.
We are going to look into all of the Hawaiian islands in this article, to really make planning a trip to Hawaii as easy as possible. We’ll be leaving virtually no stone unturned as to what you can do in Hawaii. And, we’ll be sure to touch on all the considerations you must make when planning a trip to Hawaii.
What’s the Best Island to Visit in Hawaii?
As we have already mentioned, you have a choice of eight islands to visit in the Hawaiian Archipelago. It really is impossible for us to say which is the best island to visit in Hawaii, though. They each offer their own respective features in terms of tourism. It would also be rather unfair. So, we will let you form your own opinion of the best island to visit in Hawaii – that is, if you can bear to stick to just one!
We have listed them in order of size, for your convenience.
Hawai’i (or Hawaii) “The Big Island”
Bearing in mind this is the largest of the eight, this is why the archipelago, and, by extension, the state gets the name Hawaii. Formed out of a constantly–erupting volcano that rose out of the sea (which we will go into later in the article), there is a wealth of amazing things for you to see and do on your visit. Of course, touring the Hawaiian volcanoes takes the spotlight, but a close second has to be manta ray snorkeling. Those sessions are usually held at sunset.
Maui “The Valley Isle”
Coming in second in terms of its size, Maui also gives its name to the “county” in which other Hawaiian islands also belong. This island is the place to see some very sweeping and photogenic valley views, as its nickname may imply. However, if that is not quite your scene when visiting the Hawaiian islands, that’s okay – there’s plenty more to do. Maui is also home to huge surfing and windsurfing culture. The watersports fans among the readers here may find that idea more inviting.
O’ahu (or Oahu) “The Gathering Place”
Birthplace to a number of well–known stars such as Bette Midler, Nicole Kidman, Jason Momoa and even Barack Obama. This Hawaiian island earns its nickname quite justifiably, for it is the most populous in the state of Hawaii. Around two-thirds of the state’s population live on O’ahu. It is home to some of the most recognizable places and names in the Hawaiian region, such as Waikīkī Beach, Honolulu and, of course, Pearl Harbor. We will get into all of those a little later in the article. A couple of the Hawaiian volcanoes (albeit dormant ones) can also be seen here.
Kaua’i (or Kauai) “The Garden Isle”
Although it may be the fourth–largest of the Hawaiian islands, Kaua’i is the oldest island in the archipelago. The volcano from which it is formed was still erupting over 4 million years ago. Kaua’i is where you go to find the Waimea Canyon State Park, which is nicknamed the Grand Canyon of the Pacific. Incomparable panoramic views and photo opportunities, ripe for the taking.
Moloka’i (or Molokai) “The Friendly Isle”
This member of the Hawaiian islands neighbors the island of O’ahu closely enough that you can see the lights there. Lāna’i and Maui are also visible from certain points on Moloka’i. This island is revered for its pineapple production, though that doesn’t gain it the nickname “The Pineapple Isle” (that’s Lāna’i). Instead, it is referred to as “The Friendly Isle.” From what research and reports have told me, this is a nickname given in irony. Moloka’i is not among the Hawaiian islands really recommended for tourism. It is the home of the true Hawaiian culture, rather than commercial hotels and restaurants.
Lāna’i (or Lanai) “The Pineapple Isle”
The entire island was once a huge pineapple plantation, hence why it gains the moniker “The Pineapple Isle.” Its reputation as a tourist destination is not as good as some of the other Hawaiian islands. When planning a trip to Hawaii, you may want to consider Lāna’i as a day–trip or even as a passing stop while you tour the other Hawaiian islands. There is an absence of real tourism facilities, such as shopping malls on the island. Furthermore, most attractions are only available via off-road vehicle, which will be restrictive to visitors with limited mobility.
Ni’ihau (or Niihau) “The Forbidden Isle”
That does sound like something out of a low–budget horror or adventure film, doesn’t it? Probably one of the few Hawaiian islands where English is not the primary language. Instead, the locals speak the native Hawaiian tongue. Access to the island is limited, as its name would imply since it is actually privately owned. So when planning a trip to Hawaii, if you cannot possibly leave without seeing Ni’ihau, research when one of their rare supervised safaris are on and coordinate your visit accordingly.
Kaho’olawe (or Kahoolawe) “The Target Isle”
So, we may have lied slightly when we said there were eight possible answers to the question, “What is the best island to visit in Hawaii?” The smallest of the Hawaiian Islands – Kahoolawe – has no permanent residents. Its population has always been very sparse. This is due to the lack of available fresh water there. It is by no means a tourist destination at all; in fact, these days, the natives use it for their own cultural and spiritual observances only.
Where Can I See the Hawaiian Volcanoes?
The Hawaiian volcanoes are responsible for the islands we know and love in the Hawaiian archipelago. Technically, the Hawaiian islands are the tops of these massive volcanoes, which began erupting underwater and never stopped. A couple still haven’t, it may surprise or excite you. So, when you are planning a trip to Hawaii, maybe include a guided tour of one of the active volcanoes on the island of Hawaii in your itinerary.
Five of the key Hawaii volcanoes belong to the island of Hawaii, and three of them are still active. Maunaloa and Kilauea are the Hawaiian volcanoes where guided tours are available. They’re obviously operated at a safe distance from the molten lava flow. The third is Loihi, which is actually still underwater. However, as it continues to erupt, it is suspected that it will form an additional island to the archipelago. Eight Hawaiian islands will become nine soon enough – maybe even within our lifetime!
Dormant volcanoes on the island of Hawaii include Maunakea and Hualalai, while on the other Hawaiian islands there is Leahi on O’ahu and Maui’s Haleakala.
Planning a Trip to Hawaii – The Details
Visas and Permissions
As the Hawaiian islands form the US state of Hawaii, the same entry rules apply as those on the mainland. That is, any travelers that are not American citizens must have a valid visa and passport to enter Hawaii. However, there are a few notable exceptions. Australian citizens, for example, can remain in Hawaii with only a valid passport for up to 90 days. Staying any longer than this period will then require a visa as usual.
Money is a relatively simple process in the Hawaiian islands. They belong to the US, after all, so they use the US dollar. Withdrawing money is also no different than on the mainland.
For the most part, citizens of the Hawaiian islands speak English. This is a great asset for many travelers. However, there is also the native Hawaiian language, which is only spoken by a few thousand people nowadays. It’s primarily restricted to certain islands, such as Ni’ihau. As such, this travel guide won’t give you the basics in the language, as it’s highly unlikely you will require them while you travel to Hawaii.
Much like the Caribbean, the weather in the Hawaiian islands is consistently warm across the year. The summers tend to get quite humid, however. In short, when planning a trip to Hawaii, it is best to pack light, loose clothing. Unless, of course, you are planning on going on some of the mountainous or canyon hikes while you tour the Hawaiian islands. For those, you will need suitable walking gear. But don’t skimp on swimwear and beachwear, either. All those beaches and watersports opportunities should not be wasted!
Food and Drink
Hawaiian cuisine has been formed only in part from its ancient ancestry. It has otherwise been influenced by Japanese and Portuguese visitors (among others). Delicacies to try include Lau Lau, Spam Musubi (sushi made with fried spam instead of raw fish), and Poi.
If you would rather stick to what you know, but have been planning a trip to Hawaii that is relatively cheap, then keep your eye out for coupon booklets at public transport stations. These will help you save a few dollars across your trip.
Other Things to Do in the Hawaiian Islands
The hub of tourism and hospitality of all the Hawaiian islands really belongs to O’ahu. It is celebrated for its comfortable and inexpensive hotels. Service is generally regarded as friendly, helpful, informative, and knowledgeable. When planning a trip to Hawaii, you need not worry about any less–abled members of the party. The Hawaiian islands – again, particularly O’ahu – cater very well to tourists with disabilities.
Let’s have a little closer look into some of the main points of interest there, which are famed throughout the world as icons of the Hawaiian islands.
Of all the beaches in the Hawaiian islands, Waikīkī is definitely the best–known to tourists and locals alike. Providing you arrange your accommodation correctly, even disabled tourists will find getting down to the beach reasonably easy. Once you get there, you’ll know what to do. Sunbathe, surf, swim, etc. Don’t waste a minute.
If you fancy a walk towards true Hawaiian culture and history, the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, also known as The Pink Palace, is just down the road from Waikīkī Beach. Even if you need a change of scenery from your current accommodation – they cater for non–resident visitors.
It may surprise you, but Honolulu is the capital of the state of Hawaii, rather than the island of Hawaii. In fact, the city is not even situated on that island at all. Honolulu is placed on the third–largest island in the archipelago – O’ahu.
Helicoptering to Pearl Harbor
If you find a place offering helicopter rides around Pearl Harbor, you must not refuse. By extension, if you’re feeling very brave or daredevilish, take a ride in an open–door helicopter. From the sky, the views are truly amazing. See the Hawaiian islands in their entirety from your overhead position.
Visit a Pineapple Plantation
Trips are available to visit pineapple plantations when you visit one of the Hawaiian islands. Whether this is on O’ahu, wherein it is often included as an excursion on many cruise lines, or one of the others such as Lāna’i, there are lots of opportunities available. Even though these are places of industry and agriculture, visitors have often remarked on the beauty of the pineapple plantations. And, of course, it should go without saying that a chance to taste a fresh pineapple from a plantation should never be passed up. The flavors are unparalleled.
Don’t Forget to Buy…
With so much to see in so many places, it’s difficult to find a travel guide that caters to all the Hawaiian islands. This guide from Michelin is one of the few, so if our little article hasn’t quite done it for you, we recommend buying this instead.
We hope you enjoyed this article! Please feel free to comment with suggestions for new content and follow us so you’ll never miss another post.