Complete Guide to the Hawaiian Islands

March 15, 2022

The Aloha State is home to so many gorgeous islands, it can be hard to choose which one to visit. We’re here to help you decide so you can be on island time in no time!

The state of Hawaii consists of eight islands total. Some are more well-traveled than others, but each is packed with paradise and has its own draw. Our Hawaiian Islands guide can help you sort through what each one has to offer!

Hawaii's surreal beauty makes it a proverbial Garden of Eden like the Biblical setting. However, the Islands of Hawaii are not the same location referred to in the Bible. Even so, Hawaii lays claim to some of the most beautiful beaches and tropical forests in the United States. 

Hawaiian Islands Guide

Some of the islands are so close together that you can see the others from the shore of one island. With only a sliver of the Pacific Ocean separating such an abundance of varied tropical paradise, many visitors opt to island-hop so they can see more of the state. Rain forest, volcano, and beach landscapes mean there is a lot of diversity throughout the islands.

Related Post: The Ultimate Hawaii Packing List: What to Bring and What to Skip

However, sticking to one island during your trip can be more cost-effective. There is much to consider when choosing, but you don't have to speak the Hawaiian language to figure it out. Read our Hawaiian Islands guide to begin sifting through the opportunities found on each island!

dark cloudy skies over aerial view of hawaiian islands and coastline in Hawaii, USAOahu

Highlights: Exciting tourist culture, shopping, food, surfing, historical sites

If the islands were high school students, Oahu would be the most popular kid. As the island with the largest population in Hawaii, it's also geared toward tourists more than any other island. If you like to go where all the people are, this is the island for you! Mingle among out-of-towners from all over alongside native Hawaiians.

Oahu's bent toward tourism also means it's the most modern of the islands, especially if we're talking about the Waikiki neighborhood. As a result, Shopaholics will want to flock to Oahu's high-end boutiques, sprawling shopping malls, and Aloha Stadium Marketplace, which is full of secondhand gems.

Related Post: 32 Unforgettable Romantic Things to Do in Hawaii for Couples

Fantastic fresh fare is a hallmark of all of Hawaii, and Oahu boasts its collection of restaurants offering vibrant cuisine. Think straight-from-the-ocean seafood with Asian influences and lots of fresh fruit. Doraku Sushi in Waikiki is a top pick if you're specifically after sushi. To keep it more casual, food trucks are one of the best ways to taste the island. For instance, the North Shore area is home to Giovanni's Shrimp Truck.

Speaking of the North Shore, world-famous surfing is the standard, especially at the Banzai Pipeline. So grab a board and hang ten, or sit back and watch the seasoned surfers do their thing.

The west side of the island, called the Leeward Coast, is a quieter respite with fewer tourist traps. There are only two resorts in the area, and the atmosphere is much less busy. Many people visit this side of the island but stay at Waikiki.

Fun Fact: Explorer James Cook is known as the first European to discover the Hawaiian Islands. When he and his crew first set foot on the Islands, the Hawaiian natives believed they were gods. However, things took a turn for the worse when a crew member died, and the Hawaiians learned they were not immortal after all. 

Related Post: Hawaii for First Time Visitors: 8 Tips to Know Before You Go

We'd be amiss if we didn't talk about Pearl Harbor while on the topic of Oahu. This historical site is located on the island. When visiting, take the chance to pay your respects to those who lost their lives or loved ones in the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack. 

Aerial view looking over Waikiki Beach towards Diamond Head State Monument on a sunny day with bright blue water in Oahu, Hawaii, USAKauai

Highlights: Tropical rainforests, hiking, beaches, less touristy

Known as "the Garden Isle," Kauai is a wild jungle land of tropical rainforests. 97% of the island consists of undeveloped forests and mountain ranges! This makes for some fantastic hiking. Moreover, many of the hiking trails come with big payoffs in waterfalls and canyon views. 

For instance, one such view is Waimea Canyon. Called "the Grand Canyon of the Pacific," this stunning sight is one you won't be able to resist crossing off your list. The Na Pali Coast is another must-see on Kauai. 

All that rainforest land doesn't mean Kauai is without its fair share of beaches, either. How do 43 miles of beaches sound? Capture all the sun and sand on world-class beaches like Hanalei Bay, Coconut Coast, and Tunnels Beach. If you like to get more active instead of just lazing on the beach, there are snorkeling opportunities galore on Kauai.

Related Post: Kauai Itinerary: How to Spend 5 Days in Paradise

Kauai is far less touristy than Oahu, so if you're looking for a more local experience, this may be your best bet. Typical, overrun resorts are less common here as building restrictions forbid hotels from extending beyond 50 feet. The result? A more laid-back, natural sort of vibe, free of tourist traps. 

Close up of a sea turtle swimming over the reef in blue green water near Oahu, Hawaii, USA

photo credit: Sea Turtle Foundation via Facebook

Maui

Highlights: Beaches, adventurous excursions, famous scenic drive, whale watching

Lovingly tagged "the Magic Isle," Maui is nothing short of magical. Dreamy sunsets are best spent on the shore, and there are around 80 beaches! So, you'll have no trouble choosing a spot to settle in and waiting for screaming color to explode across the sky.

Related Post: 12 Most Romantic Restaurants in Hawaii

Fun Fact: Another one of Maui's nicknames? "The Valley Isle." Maui is frequently called this, as most of the island sits at a mere 200 feet above sea level. 

Our favorite beaches include Kapalua Beach, Kapalua Beach, and Wailea Beach. They're all excellent spots to find a shady palm and relax. Snooze under your straw hat or splash around in the waves!

Pro Tip: Plenty of time in the sun is a serious vitamin D boost. However, it also puts you at risk for sunburns! So stock up on plenty of waterproof sunscreen for your Hawaiian beach days.

Moreover, adventure awaits if you decide to break away from the beach. First, hike the Pipiwai Trail in Haleakala National Park to enjoy beautiful bamboo forestry. Then, for a truly unique experience, you can bike 23 miles down the Haleakala Volcano! 

Another classic landmark in Maui is the Road to Hana. This scenic highway allows visitors to zip in and out of some of the most breathtaking views in all of Hawaii. Waterfalls, trails, and parks all make great stops.

Related Post: How to Plan a Budget Hawaii Vacation

Lastly, Maui is known for its humpback whales! If you find these magnificent sea creatures as captivating as we do, visit this island from November to May for some prime whale watching.

Aerial View of The Pools at 'Ohe'o - Maui, Hawaii, USAThe Big Island

Highlights: Diverse landscapes, volcanoes, outdoor activities, black sand beaches

Sometimes called the island of Hawaii, the Big Island is the largest Hawaiian island. It boasts a wide range of landscapes, making it a great place to get out in nature and explore. But, above all, one of its biggest draws is that it lays claim to four active volcanoes. 

In fact, the world's most active volcano, Kilauea, is located in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the Big Island. Hike the trails or take a scenic drive to experience the wonder of this state park.

Head to new heights in Hawaii! Other ways to explore all that the Big Island has to offer include ziplining on the Kohala Coast or taking a helicopter tour of the island. 

Related Post: Which is the Least Expensive Hawaiian Island to Visit?

To add to the Big Island's jaw-dropping portfolio of natural wonders, Mauna Kea is located here and serves as the tallest mountain in the world. It's more than 3,000 feet taller than Mount Everest (when counting the portion below sea level.) Needless to say, there's nothing little about the Big Island!

White sand beaches? Stereotypical. If you're a trailblazer always on the hunt for ways to be original, visiting one of the nine black sand beaches on the Big Island is a must. Punalu'u Black Sand Beach has a bonus: sea turtles frequent this bay. 

Photo Alert: Your 'gram won't be complete without some black sand shots. Dress up for a photoshoot with the black sand beach in the background, or stay out of the photo and let the gorgeous beach speak for itself!

Wide shot of Punalu’u Black Sand Beach with lots of palm trees and the ocean in the background on the Big Island, Hawaii, USAOther Islands

While Oahu, Kauai, Maui, and the Big Island typically attract the most tourists, there are a few other members of the Hawaiian Islands. The other islands on the list are Lanai, Molokai, Niihau, and Kahoolawe. 

Fun Fact: Molokai is home to the tallest sea cliffs in the world. They're more than a whopping 3,000 feet above the ocean!

The Hawaiian Islands have excellent characteristics that make them stand out from the rest. If you have the time and resources, by all means, island-hop to see them all!

grass and tree covered cliffs in molokai along the coastline in Hawaii, USARelated Post: Big Island 5-Day Itinerary: A Definitive Day-by-Day Guide

However, planning a vacation to Hawaii often means sticking to a budget. If this is the case, you'll have to weigh the options and make a choice. Hopefully, our handy guide will make the choice a little easier. 

As a bonus, Tripster offers excellent deals on everything from activities to hotels to make forming your dream Hawaii vacation itinerary that much easier. Happy planning!

Which island (or islands) will you choose from our Hawaiian Islands guide?

Leave us a comment below!

    • Teresa says:

      We couldn’t agree more! Hawaii truly is the “Paradise of the Pacific.”

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