Heading to Hawaii? You’re in for a dreamy time wherever you go, but it can be difficult to work out exactly which island to base yourself on. You may be wondering whether you should hop around the islands or just pick one place to stick around and explore. Hawaiian islands pretty much guarantee amazing beaches, great food, and a laid-back culture.
However, each of the islands has something unique just waiting to be discovered. Whether it’s soaking up the energy of Oahu, lazing in a luxury resort in Maui, or hiking on the Big Island, there’s a paradise awaiting every traveling type.
If you’re stuck, help is at hand: our insider info is here to aid you in your quest to figure out which is the best island to visit in Hawaii for first time visitors.
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- Honolulu’s best shave ice
- Best waterfall hikes on Oahu
- Best snorkel spots in Maui
- Ultimate 5 day Maui itinerary
- 11 best things to do in Hilo, Big Island
- Best snorkeling on Big Island
- Kauai in 3 days
- Where to stay in Kauai
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The Best Islands to Visit in Hawaii For First Time Visitors
Hawaii’s islands are more diverse than you think. It can be tricky to make a choice, but the wealth of information below is on hand to help you decide which are the best islands to visit in Hawaii for first time visitors.
What we’re going to do in this guide is to cover all of the major islands of Hawaii to put all the cards on the table.
Warning: you may just want to go to every single one!
Map of Islands of Hawaii
To start with, let’s help with orienting how the main islands of Hawaii of laid out and the location of the airports.
Now that you know where they are in relation to each other, let’s go through the 5 of the best islands to visit in Hawaii.
The third-largest Hawaiian island of Oahu is definitely the best island to visit in Hawaii for first time visitors. There’s a lot going on here. Home to the capital, Honolulu, as well as the majority of the archipelago’s population, the island is teeming with life, culture, and nature too.
It’s also good if you want a good mix of beach break and city living. Honolulu is a bustling urban center with just about everything you need to have an awesome time – shopping, museums and monuments, beaches (starting with Waikiki), good food, and forest trails to hike on (the Diamond Head trail is notoriously amazing). So it’s easy to understand why over six million people per year visit the island.
Other popular attractions on Oahu are Pearl Harbor, the North Shore, the Dole Plantation, and Hanauma Bay.
So, if you were looking for a blissed-out island vacation destination, perhaps Oahu is not for you. However, if you like food, the modern multicultural island of Oahu is ideal – it really lives up to its name (meaning “Gathering Place” in Hawaiian).
From restaurants to food trucks and farmers’ markets, gastronomy is a big deal here. Influences on the island’s cuisine and culture, in general, come from as diverse backgrounds as Japan, China, indigenous Hawaiian, Europeans, and Americans.
If all that sounds good to you, then you’ll find most accommodation on the island centered around Waikiki Beach, while if you want something a little more out of the way, the Windward Coast (east side) is packed with beautiful parks and surf spots.
Why Oahu is great for first time visitors: This is the most well-known island and while is the busiest as well, has a very nice balance of activities and famous attractions that any first timer will feel serious FOMO for not doing.
Hawaii (Big Island)
The colloquially named “Big Island” isn’t just big: it’s huge. The island of Hawaii is actually the size of all the other Hawaiian islands combined and a diverse natural oasis. It’s also home to the world’s most active volcano, Kīlauea – one of five active volcanoes found on the island.
The incredibly rich landscape of the Big Island means that it’s the best island in Hawaii for nature enthusiasts, especially those who like to hike and explore. There are countless places to hit the trail in Hawaii, taking you into lush jungles, barren lava fields, sweeping grasslands, and discovering stunning waterfalls.
Apart from the amazing nature, however, the Big Island is full of history and culture. It’s thought that the first Polynesians landed at Southern Point on the island, for one thing, while the unifier of the Hawaiian islands – Kamehameha the Great – was born on the islands.
Overall, the Big Island is made up of six regions, each of which is a little different from the next: Hamakua Coast, Hilo, Kau, Kohala, Kona (of Kona Coffee fame), and Puna.
In the northern Hamakua Coast area, you’ll find black sand beaches and dazzling waterfalls; over in the east side, Puna’s wild nature has been dramatically shaped by volcanoes; Hilo is a chilled area with fantastic beaches and interesting farmers’ markets; in the south, Kua is remote, rustic, and home to incredible lava flows.
Why Big Island is great for first time visitors: While Oahu is as urban as it gets in Hawaii, Big Island is where you go to see the true raw and rugged side with active volcanoes, giant waterfalls, Kona coffee, and sharp coastlines. If you have a keen sense of adventure, you’ll love Big Island.
Kauai is, in a word, paradise. That goes doubly for anybody who likes bountiful nature and classic Hawaiian vibes, and definitely could be the best island to visit in Hawaii for those looking for a laid-back, slower pace of life.
Nicknamed the “Garden Isle”, Kauai is well known for its natural splendor, but it’s not just on land, with surfing and snorkeling being excellent here.
On the north shore of Kauai you’ll find the Na Pali Coast. This area is known for its abundant wildlife and beautiful beaches. Surfing is pretty much a way of life in the northern part of the island, with many visiting to check out of modern-day stresses and sink right into the chill of island life.
Over on the east side is the Coconut Coast. Named for its coconut palms, this is the most populated part of mostly rural Kauai and makes for a good place to base yourself if you want some more modern amenities. Nearby, to the south, you’ll find Wailua Falls along with luxury resorts and golf courses (if you’ve got the money to spare, of course).
For something a little bit more quaint, head to the west side of the island. Here there’s a scattering of tiny towns and yet more natural beauty, especially in the form of Waimea Canyon.
Why Kauai is great for first time visitors: We absolutely love Kauai and if you ask others, Kauai is usually a favourite despite not being as well known for first time visitors. If you go as your first visit to Hawaii, you’ll be treated to hands down the most beautiful coastline, secluded beaches, and epic canyon. When you go, it’ll feel like you’ve stumbled on a secret.
If you really want some isolation, however, Lanai is the best island to visit in Hawaii for sheer remoteness. Though it’s located just nine miles from the more popular Maui, Lanai feels worlds away from the rest of the world.
Lanai is actually almost entirely owned by a billionaire, Larry Ellison, whose vision is to make the island self-sufficient. The history of the island is intrinsically linked with pineapples; for most of the 20th century, Lanai was the property of fruit conglomerate Dole and was home to the largest pineapple plantation in the world. The island housed immigrant workers as well as tyrannical managers, with that same colonial-esque 1920s architecture still remaining in Lanai City.
There are only a handful of accommodation options on Lanai, one of the most iconic being the 1930s-era Four Seasons Lanai. The island as a whole is all about privacy and seclusion and is not exactly the best island to visit in Hawaii for families – think golf courses and four-wheel drive trails. With no international connections, flights to Lanai are only possible from Honolulu or Maui.
Nature is in abundance on Lanai. Turtle and dolphin spotting are popular pass times here, as is snorkeling or simply hiking on one of the island’s many trails. Lanai’s main beach is Hulupo’e Beach – a stunning, long, sandy crescent tucked in a bay and an ideal spot for snorkeling.
Why Lanai is great for first time visitors: If you’re the kind of traveller that likes to take the path less traveled with fewer tourists, Lanai is somewhere that not too many people get to see. You’ll certainly get bragging rights and access to some incredible trails, and excellent snorkeling.
MORE RESOURCES ON LANAI
Maui is the second-largest of Hawaii’s islands and arguably one of the most famous. People from around the world come to visit this dreamy destination which offers up just about everything that’s good about a trip to Hawaii.
Known as the “Valley Isle”, Maui has lush landscapes, a long list of picturesque beaches, and volcanic scenery. Many argue that it’s the best island to visit in Hawaii for couples, with a collection of luxurious resorts and restaurants to relax in (many of these are situated in the southern part of the island).
However, you’ll also find plenty of resorts in the west of Maui with amenities like shops and restaurants, too. In eastern Maui, there’s more of a down-to-earth atmosphere, with the Road to Hana driving route being something that should definitely be on your to-do list here.
Simply put, if you’re in Hawaii for sun, sea, and surf, Maui is probably the place for you – couple or not. There’s a beach for every type of person here, whether you want to try easygoing snorkeling, kiteboarding, or simply laying out in the sun.
Another bonus is that Maui is great to visit in the winter months: you may be able to spot humpback whales as they migrate through the waters around the island. Those who enjoy hiking should make a beeline for Haleakala National Park for some real heaven-on-earth vibes and prime trails through the subtropical wilderness.
Why Maui is great for first time visitors: We’ve always said that Maui is a bit of Oahu, Big Island, and Kauai. You’ve got those fabulous resorts, the moon-like Haleakala crater, and also great hikes. Take it for what you will but if you can’t decide which island to visit in Hawaii as a first time visitor, Maui is never a wrong decision.
More than 50% of people living on Molokai have indigenous Hawaiian roots. Because of this, there is a real focus here on preserving the island’s natural landscape and heritage, rather than solely on tourism. The authentic feel of Molokai makes it the best island to visit in Hawaii to experience real Hawaiian culture.
This long, thin island is awash with national parks and farming land, with accommodation made up mainly of small hotels and family-run bed and breakfasts: a reflection of that authentic feeling.
Over on the western side of the island, you’ll find Molokai’s most idyllic beaches, prized for their great snorkeling. Here, you’ll also find the quaint town of Maunaloa, with a selection of shops and eateries to discover.
On the east side of Moloka’i is Highway 450. Alongside this stretch of road you’ll find many loko i’a (fish ponds) – a type of fish farming that was created by ancient Hawaiians. Some have been restored and are still used by locals to this day.
For more ancient history, head to the Halawa Valley. Once home to sacred taro patches, this jaw-dropping landscape is home to a combo of nature and history with temple ruins and waterfalls with pools.
Why Molokai is great for first time visitors: It may not be as remote as Lanai but is less visited for sure which presents opportunities to see a more authentic side of Hawaii. Many have said that Molokai is the ‘most Hawaiian’ of the islands, taking a step back in time. Also, since this is the large island you can see from Maui, you could do Molokai as a day trip.
MORE RESOURCES ON MOLOKAI
Frequently Asked Questions
The most popular choice would be the island of Hawaii, followed by Maui, and then Kauai.
If you’re a first time visitor, a full week (7 days) in Hawaii is recommended.
With 5 days, you should stick to one island. Maui or Oahu would be great choices if it’s your first time.
With 7 days, you’ll be able to split your time between two islands. Oahu and Maui is a great combination but so is Oahu and Kauai.
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