Hawaii is so much more than Honolulu and the island of Oahu, and while many people do stay in the capital, there are five other islands to explore. Each is unique in its own sense and offers a different experience. From the buzzing energy of the capital island, Oahu, hanging loose on Maui, exploring the natural wonders of ancient Kaua'i to marvelling at the volcanoes on the Big Island, lux-ing it up on Lana'i and delving into the rural Moloka'i, where native Hawaiian traditions run strong. Whatever you’re seeking in paradise, the Aloha State has it.
Here are the top picks for each island, so you can decide what fits best for you. Take in a couple of the islands, or spend your time all at one. The choice is easy when flights between the islands are so frequent.
It’s all about the beaches, food, culture
While it is home to the big city of Honolulu, the gateway to Hawaii, O’ahu is a small island. Basically, this means it is busy. There is lots going on here, however, you can escape the city and find yourself some space in the miles of beaches and forest trails that are just a short drive from Honolulu’s museums and historical monuments. For a foodie, however, Oʻahu is the spot. Everything from food trucks, island farmers markets and fusion menus by Hawaii’s star chefs are here, waiting to be tasted. Multicultural modernism thrives on Oʻahu, as it lets you take the pulse of multiracial Hawaii. East and West embrace as ancient Hawaiian traditions greet the 21st century.
2. Hawai'i the Big Island
Get active and explore with hiking, culture, wildlife
Here is the world’s most active volcano, Kilauea, and a dreamscape for hikers with emerald valleys, icy waterfall pools, lava flows crashing against rainforest and some of the loftiest summits your boots will ever struggle to top. On the Big Island, culture is participatory – absorbed, rather than simply observed. If you truly want to experience the culture of Hawai’i, this is the island to do it. A Cultural border crossing is a must, as you’re invited to create a lei and dance a hula, but just beware the night marchers. The wildlife is everywhere on The Big Island, from leaping spinner dolphins, sea turtles and coral gardens packed with brightly coloured fish. A visit in winter means you may also get a show from the humpback whales.
The place for beaches, hiking, food
Famous for its sun, sand and surf, Maui’s got a beach for everyone. It is a mecca for kiteboarding, calm snorkelling coves, still waters for stand up paddleboarding and hidden gems of some of the biggest surfable waves on the planet. Away from the ocean, there are trails galore to explore, winding through a bamboo forest, climbing to lofty ridgetops, wandering past waterfalls and crunching through a cindery volcanic national park. The culinary options on Maui come from the paddock and the ocean to the plate. Grass-fed beef from Upcountry pastures, day-boat fish and bountiful organic gardens ensure Maui’s chef-driven restaurants have the raw ingredients to whip up their famed Hawai'ian regional creations.
Get lost here in remoteness, history, beaches
Lana’i is best known for being an isolated bit of subtropical pleasure far from the rest of the world. And given that new owner, Larry Ellison wants to make the island self-sufficient, its sense of remoteness will only increase. The history of this island is unique, and one of pineapples. Nearly the entire island was planted with pineapples, which were exported around the world, for much of the 20th century. The crops are gone but the vintage plantation town of Lanaʻi City is timeless. Hulupo'e Beach is one main beach on Lana’i, a long crescent of sand on a bay good for snorkelling, and backed by a tidy, uncrowded park.
Delve into the culture, history, adventure
Moloka'i is often described as the most Hawaiian island, with more than half of Molokaʻi’s people having indigenous heritage. Locals favour the preservation of land and culture over schemes promoting tourism. Yet there is aloha spirit everywhere and visitors find a genuine – rather than a paid-for – welcome. Here is a spectacular peninsula with a national park offering a time-travel adventure from a special history. Saint Damien was a young priest who travelled to Molokaʻi’s remote Kalaupapa Peninsula in 1873 to care for leprosy patients is the USA’s first saint. For the adventuring type, Halawa Valley is the ideal place to explore. This end-of-the-road valley once was home to hundreds of sacred taro patches. Guides take you on a trail past ancient temples to waterfalls pounding into swimmable pools.
Here it is all about the landscapes, lifestyle
Poʻipu is a tropical paradise; with smiles abound on the South Shore, and where beach days abound with plenty of postcard sunsets. The lifestyle here is fuelled by the surfing culture, an irresistibly laid-back vibe on this mostly rural island. The North Shore is home to many folks who came to check-in and stayed to tune out. More than just postcard-pretty beaches, here you will find canyons and cliffs. The rugged terrain on the Garden Isle ranges from gaping chasms to dramatic coastal cliffs, balanced by copious verdant flora.