Hawaii is a dream holiday destination for many and tourists are truly spoilt for choice when it comes to stunning island destinations. Each Hawaiian island has its own unique charm and beauty that draws people to visit. However, all six of the main islands that make up Hawaii are incredible and have so much to offer anyone who visits; this can make it almost impossible to know which island is right for you.
Hopefully, this detailed guide to the best islands in Hawaii 2021 will give you some insight into which island destination will suit you and your vacation needs the most. So, go ahead and explore what each Hawaiian island has to offer you.
How Many Hawaiian Islands Are There?
In total there are a whopping 137 islands that make up Hawaii; most, however, are really tiny and uninhabited. When people refer to Hawaii, they are generally referring to a group of 7-8 main islands. Yet, the smallest of this 8, Kahoolawe, doesn’t have any residents and access is restricted due to the risk of unexploded ordnance given that it used to be a training ground and bombing site for the US military. As well as this, one of the remaining 7 Hawaiin islands, Niihau, is privately owned and so is also largely off limits to visitors.
So, this leaves us with just 6 main Hawaiian islands to choose from (we’re slowly whittling it down). These islands include Maui, Kauai, Big Island, Oahu, Molokai and Lanai. Each one of these islands has something wonderful and unique to offer and makes for an incredible vacation. However, given the stunning beauty of every single Hawaiian island, it can be super tricky to decide which one to visit (I doubt you have the time or the money to visit them all – unfortunately).
The Best Hawaii Islands to Visit
Referred to as the “Gathering Place”, Oahu is Hawaii’s most populous island, primarily defined by the state capital of Honolulu, which is a hotspot for endless activities, shopping trips, delicious dining, surfing, nightlife and much much more. It is also the home of the world-famous Waikiki Beach, making it the ideal Hawaiian island for those looking for beach action in a big, bustling city.
However, the island of Oahu is so much more than Honolulu or Waikiki – in fact, it may be the most beautiful of all of the Hawaiian islands, often being considered the closest place to paradise. There are so many diverse sides of this island to explore that you are sure to be kept busy during your entire Hawaiian stay. Venture to the east side of the island for pristine, unspoiled beaches, with stunning views of the Mokulua islands, crystal clear blue waters and flawless white sand. This side of Oahu it ideal for outdoor lovers; you can rent a kayak and discover the twin islands off the coast of LaniKai beach, go surfing, snorkelling, swimming or even paddle boarding. Alternatively, if you prefer dry land, why not trip into Kailua town for a spot of shopping and to try some delicious food.
Meanwhile, the north shore of Oahu has just as much to offer. Home to the famous surf break, Bonsai Pipeline, you can enjoy watching the incredible surfing spectacles at Waimea Bay, Sunset Beach or Turtle Bay. You can also keep active yourself by taking one of the many waterfall hikes on this side of the island, giving you a chance to appreciate its lush green scenery. The north side of this Hawaiian island provides a more relaxing, laid-back retreat relative to its counterpart location of Honolulu and Waikiki.
The west side of this Hawaiian island is rapidly growing in popularity among tourists, with new shopping centres and resorts cropping up all along the shore. The resort community of Ko Olina is equipped with an expansive golf course, private beach coves, fine dining restaurants and sea-view cocktail bars. Right next door is the town of Kapolei, where you will find everything from shopping and movie theatres to restaurants and bars. If you want to venture a little further west, you can explore the local parts of Nankuli, Waianae and Makaha Beach; these areas offer out-of-this-world white sandy beaches, surrounded by dramatic mountain ridges.
So, Oahu is the best Hawaiian island for those who like to have the best of both worlds. Whether you’re looking to shop in a big, bustling city, party until dawn, relax on a beach or get active – Oahu has it all.
When it comes to travelling on a budget, Big Island is by far the best Hawaiian island to visit. In particular, Big Island seems to have the greatest range of affordable accommodation options for budget travellers to choose from. As well as those looking to travel on the cheap, Big Island is also a great option for lovers of nature and anyone looking to experience a variety of astonishing landscapes.
What sets this island apart from the rest? Big Island stands out from the other Hawaiian islands for its incredible natural diversity – find everything from white sandy beaches, black lava fields, lush green rain forests, dramatic mountain ridges and even snow-capped mountain peaks. This ongoing battle between contrasting landscapes and sceneries means that Big Island is constantly breaking the norm of what you would typically expect from a tropical island.
Big Island is definitely the best Hawaiian island for travellers who like adventure. On this island you should always expect the unexpected; there is always a new surprise around every corner when it comes to Big Island. You can sink your toes into one of the world’s few green sand beaches, snorkel with Manta Rays in the Kona area or tour the island’s many volcanoes.
Although much smaller, Molokai does give Big Island a run for its money in the competition for best island in Hawaii for outdoor enthusiasts. It is certainly the best Hawaiian island for independent travellers and those who enjoy a more authentic experience. Unlike Oahu and Big Island, Molokai lacks the major resorts, with a more ‘local’ vibe where you can travel off the beaten path much easier. However, this absence of large tourist resorts can make finding decent affordable accommodation a little trickier than on some of the other islands in Hawaii.
Molokai also represents a much quieter and less crowded option for travellers to Hawaii. Kaunakakai is the biggest town on Molokai, but with a largely native population of just 3000, it isn’t exactly a hive of action and energy. Yet, this is probably your best bet for finding a room on a budget and it does provide a good base for exploring the rest of the island.
Molokai is the best Hawaiian island for those who are looking to escape the high-speed pace of modern life. You can get the benefit of beautiful scenery and stunning beaches, without the hustle and bustle of a big city or commercialised tourist resorts. While its neighbours have taken full advantage of and cashed in on mass tourism, Molokai remains unusual in that is has largely remained the same, sitting right in the middle of the Hawaiian island chain. However, this lack of a tourist industry is reflected in the island’s fairly negative attitude towards tourism which can often leave some visitors feeling a little uncomfortable.
Often referred to as the “Garden Isle”, Kaua’i is the best island in Hawaii for those who want to experience the true iconic representation of what people think Hawaii really is. With seemingly endless lush, foliage-covered mountains and tree-lined dirt roads that wind on for what seems like forever, this Hawaiian island offers a paradise retreat like no other.
The south side of Kaua’i has experience rapid development in recent years, with a shoreline packed with hotels and resorts, including world-famous destinations such as the Grand Hyatt Kauai and the suave Koa Kea Hotel. Despite its newly tourist-centred approach, on the south side of this Hawaiian island you will also find the secluded beaches, dramatic mountains, clear blue waters perfect for snorkelling and sunny beach weather that is typical of Hawaii. Although you might expect the south side of the island to be largely crowded given its well-developed tourist industry, it has a surprisingly small population. This makes it one of the best islands in Hawaii for those who like to explore in some peace and quiet, while benefiting from the luxuries of up-market hotels and resorts.
The west side of the island offers a more authentic experience, with plenty of quaint local towns to discover. Take a trip to the small towns of Hanapepe, where you can weave in and out of art galleries, independent shops and local restaurants. You can also visit the popular Banana Patch Studio where you can watch local artists hand-paint Hawaiian tiles and pottery. This side of the island is also home to Kauai’s longest stretch of beach, Polihale, which translates to “house of the dead”. This beach is one of the most beautiful on the island and is a great place to get some good snaps.
Kauai’s main town is Lihue, where the island’s only airport is located. This town is where most of the activity is centred, with plenty of shopping malls, river kayaking, dining experiences, nightlife, hikes and more to keep you busy. Kauai is one of the best islands in Hawaii for vacationers who are looking to enjoy a little bit of everything. Whether you’re looking to stay active in the outdoors, get a tan on the gold sandy beaches or eat and drink to your heart’s content – the east side of Kauai can offer all this and much more.
Creating another mesmerising contrast is the north shore of Kauai, where rainforests border beaches and trickling streams hurry across roads. The north shore of Kauai is much more secluded and quiet than the other sides of the island. With incredible snorkelling sites and unbeatable hiking trails, this is the side to visit if you’re looking for a relaxed, laid-back tropical retreat. It is especially ideal for honeymoon getaways, when you require maximum peace and quiet. However, there are only a handful of hotels and resorts on this side of the island, so most visitors look into home rentals instead.
Maui is the queen of tropical paradise when it comes to the Hawaiian islands. With so much to offer, from relaxing days at the beach, adventurous waterfall hikes, lively nightlife, stunning coral reefs and luxurious resorts, this Hawaiian island is hard to beat. Most first-time visitors to Hawaii travel to Maui to take advantage of its massive diversity and justified popularity. Often referred to as the Valley Isle, this island in Hawaii features mind-blowingly stunning scenery alongside an abundance of friendly guided tours to aid your sightseeing. Enjoy taking in vistas of lush green rainforests, volcanoes as well as long stretches of golden beaches.
Many of Maui’s most popular tourist hotspots are divided between the west and south sides of the island. On the west coast of Maui are the very popular Kaanapali and Lahaina where you will find an ideal blend of luxury and tourism. The west side of this Hawaiian island is where you want to be if you like your home comforts and a touch of glamour. Kaanapali Beach has a resort community vibe, with endless hotels, resorts and condos that are all within walking distance of each other. The beach itself is superb, offering a load of cool activities for couples and families. You can go snorkeling, surfing, swimming or even shipping at the Whalers Village shopping centre. Lahaina is another popular town amongst tourists but for different reasons – this town is rich in history and culture, so is a great escape from the more built-up area of Kaanapali.
Meanwhile, on the south side of Maui, you will find the towns of Kihei and Wailea. Here, the resorts and hotels tend to be much more spread out, creating a much quieter and relaxed feel. Oneloa Beach is a huge stretch of sand that is ideal for a range of activities, including body surfing, swimming and snorkelling. With portable toilets and picnic tables, this is a great destination for families with kids.
Along the east side of this Hawaiian island is the famous Road to Hana, a major attraction that boasts some of the island’s most jaw-dropping scenery. The snaking Road to Hana winds its way around mountains with dramatic cliff edges that slice into the ocean and lush green rainforests that are bursting with life. Here you will also find black sand beaches, cascading waterfalls and the stunning Haleakala National Park. If you’re one for taking in impressive scenery and soaking up nature, then Maui might be the Hawaiian island for you.
So, there you have it – he best Hawaiian islands to visit in 2021! Hopefully this Hawaiian island guide has given you some more insight into what each island in Hawaii has to offer. Although each island has similarities and differences, they are all incredibly unique. One thing is for sure though, you won’t be disappointed whichever Hawaiian island you choose to visit.