Which Hawaiian Island Is Right for You?

Discover the Hawaiian Islands and the resorts, foods, and history that define them.

People lounge and play at Big Beach on Maui, Hawaii.
Experience the fiery force of active volcanoes on Hawaii's Big Island.
Benjamin van der Spek / Shutterstock

So many islands, so little time. Each Hawaiian destination beckons in a different way. Discover which of its six main islands is ideal for which type of traveler.

Maui: For the Romantic

Maui’s many resorts are made for alone time with a loved one. At Lumeria, a secluded luxury wellness retreat, greet the day with a yoga class on the lawn, indulge in an outdoor couple's massage, or sway the day away in a hammock. At the Andaz, there are no cares in the world while floating in one of three ocean-facing infinity pools. In the evening, catch the sunset from the resort’s open-air Ka’ana Kitchen while enjoying a customized six-course dinner with wine pairings. For a magical time, take in the sunrise on Maui’s highest peak at Haleakala National Park. Dress in plenty of layers, as the temperature at the summit dips surprisingly low overnight.

the mapo vegetables served at the Pig and the Lady in Honolulu, Oahu, picture
Honolulu's the Pig & the Lady showcases Southeast Asian flavors in unique dishes. 
Courtesy Pig and the Lady

Oahu: Fit for Foodies

Hawaii’s culinary scene is undergoing an exciting renaissance. That’s especially evident in Honolulu, where a new generation of young chefs have adopted the Hawaii regional cuisine movement and made it their own. At MW Restaurant, husband-and-wife team Wade Ueoka and Michelle Karr-Ueoka, disciples of chef Alan Wong, craft elegant signatures such as mochi-crusted Kona kampachi. At the Pig & the Lady, chef Andrew Le’s bold Southeast Asian flavors are on full display in dishes such as the black truffle tofu gnocchi with wood ear mushrooms, ginger herb sausage, and Mrs. Cheng’s soy milk. And at favorite son, chef Ed Kenney's first Waikiki restaurant, Mahina & Sun’s, local ahi gets gussied up with seaweed salsa verde at the retro-cool Surfjack Hotel.

the 3,600-foot deep Waimea Canyon on Kauai, picture
Experience epic natural beauty when you venture above or within Kauai's 3,600-foot deep Waimea Canyon. 
Noah Powell / Shutterstock

Kauai: Calling All Nature Lovers

The oldest and northernmost island is known as the “Garden Isle’’ for good reason. Its dramatic cliffs, emerald valleys, and cascading waterfalls have made it a favorite Hollywood backdrop for films such as Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and The Descendants. A must-see is Waimea Canyon, considered the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific." Take in the view of the 3,600-foot deep canyon from the lookout point. Or jump in a kayak, outrigger canoe, or on a boat tour to experience up-close the scenic Wailua River with its two waterfalls and fern-covered, natural lava rock grotto.


The Big Island: For the Adventurous

Hawaii’s youngest island is still growing and changing, as evidenced by the molten lava that can be seen flowing at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, home to Kilauea volcano, which has been erupting since 1983. The 333,000-acre park boasts 150 miles of hiking trails through a cratered, otherworldly landscape. Just east of the park is the old fishing village of Kalapana, which was partially leveled by the volcano’s eruption and is now a prime viewing spot to witness lava spilling into the ocean. Be warned that it is a rugged, three-mile hike to the viewing area. For a tamer time, take a drive along Queen Kaahumanu Highway to gaze upon hardened lava fields.

the pool at the Four Seasons Resort Lanai, picture
Looking for a little luxury? The remodeled Four Seasons Resort Lanai won't disappoint. 
Courtesy Barbara Kraft / Four Seasons

Lanai: For Luxury Travelers

The smallest Hawaiian island was famously purchased by billionaire Oracle founder Larry Ellison in 2012. The island has no stop lights yet boasts not one but two Four Seasons resorts. The Four Seasons Lodge at Koele is closed for renovations, the Four Seasons Resort Lanai has sumptuous accommodations that start at more than $1,000 a night. After you've explored the property's botanical gardens and relaxed by one of its two pools, play 18 holes overlooking the Pacific on the verdant Manele Golf Course or see the island’s vibrant, rugged landscape from above during a private helicopter ride. Four Seasons’ revamped, adults-only Sensei Lanai has a wellness focus with private spa hales, fitness classes, and fresh fish served at communal tables inside glass-walled Sensei by Nobu.

the Kalaupapa peninsula on Molokai, picture
Consider Hawaii's rich and fraught history on remote Molokai at the Kalaupapa National Historic Park. 
norinori303 / Shutterstock

Molokai: For History Lovers

Often described as “the most Hawaiian island,’’ Molokai is considered the birthplace of hula dancing. But it’s probably best known for being a former leper colony, where Hawaiians who contracted Hansen's disease were exiled to the isolated Kalaupapa peninsula, now preserved as a National Historical Park. (The park is accessible via guided tour only and requires a permit for entry.) South of Kalaupapa, discover more island history at the Molokai Museum & Cultural Center, where a restored sugar mill and various photographs and films offer a unique glimpse of the island's past. 

This article was first published in January 2017 and was last updated in January 2024.