So you want to come to Hawaii.
Maybe you were inspired by a stunning Instagram picture, an awesome YouTube video, or a friend’s vacation posts on Facebook.
In any case, you’ve decided that “Yes, this is the place that I want to visit.”
So how do you go from wanting to doing?
Well, the first step is planning.
Which island(s) will you visit?
Hawaii, as you should know by now, is an archipelago.
The most often visited islands are Kauai, Oahu, Maui, and Hawaii (generally referred to as “the Big Island”).
Every island has its own unique “feel” and subculture, and each island also is home to a variety of communities, climates, and things to do and see!
Here are some short summaries of the four most-visited islands to help you figure out where you most want to visit.
Nicknamed “The Gathering Place,” Oahu is home to Honolulu, the capital of Hawaii.
In addition, Honolulu is the largest city in the state, significantly more populated than the other commercial and residential hubs across the islands.
As such, you won’t have any trouble finding restaurants, bars, and shopping plazas throughout the city.
The famous Waikiki Beach is located on the south shore, next to the unique profile of Diamond Head crater (pictured above).
In general, the south side of the island is a bustling city with many attractions, stores, bars, and restaurants, while the North Shore is more laid-back with places such as Haleiwa retaining the quaint feel of a small surf town.
There are a few attractions you can find only on Oahu but that deserves its own blog post: so we made one.
For now, here are the biggest attractions on Oahu:
- Pearl Harbor
- Polynesian Cultural Center
- Hanauma Bay
Known as “the Garden Isle,” Kauai is your destination to see natural Hawaiian beauty.
Although it’s one of the oldest islands in the archipelago, much of Kauai is untamed and sparsely populated, making it the perfect spot for adventurous travelers and nature-lovers.
Kauai has famously served as a backdrop for dozens of major Hollywood films, including Lilo & Stitch, Jurassic Park, King Kong, Tropic Thunder, and The Descendants.
The two most famous sites on the island are the Na Pali Coast and the Waimea Canyon.
Na Pali, which means “high cliffs” in Hawaiian, stretches along the northwest coast of the island, and is characterized by rugged, steep sea cliffs that are completely uninhabited and only accessible by hiking, helicopter, or small ocean rafts.
The Waimea Canyon is nicknamed the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific” due to its size and rich color. The canyon is 10 miles long, 1 mile wide, and up to 3,000 feet deep, instantly recognizable in photos for the contrast of lush green vegetation with the rich red soil for which it is named.
Kauai’s natural landscape offers unique outdoor adventures, including the most stunning helicopter tours, the only river cruise in Hawaii, and amazing boat tours of the Na Pali Coast, as well as popular activities like hiking, ziplining, snorkeling, and horseback and ATV riding.
The island has been filled with wild chickens since 1992 when the hurricane Iniki destroyed chicken coops throughout Kauai.
For more information on the unique features of Kauai, check out our top 10 must-do activities the island.
Biggest attractions of Kauai:
- Na Pali Coast
- Waimea Canyon
The most popular destination for travelers arriving from the U.S. continent, Maui is nicknamed “the Valley Isle.”
The biggest tourist center in Maui is, without a doubt, Lahaina.
Once the capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii, Lahaina historically served as a major whaling port.
Today, the waters off the island’s west coast are designated as a conservation site during whale season (December to April), and is the best spot in the islands to go whale watching.
Even in the off season, Maui’s many beaches all offer excellent snorkeling, especially at Molokini, a crescent-shaped islet that serves as a seabird and marine life sanctuary.
The east side of Maui, which is most of the landmass of the island, is famous for the Road to Hana and Mount Haleakala.
The Road to Hana is a long, winding road to the island’s easternmost coastline, where the sleepy town of Hana is located. The drive is beautiful and has many scenic coastlines, beaches, cliffs, and waterfalls along the way.
The 10,000-foot high peak of Mt. Haleakala allows visitors to view the sky from above the clouds, making it a popular destination at sunrise and sunset as well as for stargazing.
While Maui is a single island, the state-designated Maui County also includes a few smaller islands, Lanai and Molokai being the populated ones.
Lanai is nicknamed “the Pineapple Isle” due to its history of being one large pineapple plantation. There are only a little more than 3,000 people that live here, and most of the island is only accessible via dirt roads.
Molokai is another small island with a population of about 7,000. Nicknamed “the Friendly Isle,” Molokai is known for its sleepy, small-town atmosphere and hospitable residents. Kalaupapa, the famous leper colony and site of Father Damien’s ministry, can be found in an isolated peninsula on the north coast of the island.
We’ve made a list of Maui County’s unique attractions, which you can find right here in our archives.
These are the biggest attractions on Maui:
- Road to Hana
- Molokini Crater
Officially named Hawaii, the Big Island is the largest island by area, though much of the land is uninhabited due to its harsh volcanic terrain.
The volcano dominates the south side of the island, with Volcanoes National Park being the site of Kilauea Crater, one of the most active volcanoes in the world.
The two major towns on the island are Kailua-Kona on the west side and Hilo in the east.
Kailua-Kona, often referred to as simply “Kona,” started out as a small fishing town, but has grown significantly to offer plenty of attractions for visitors and locals alike.
Hilo is the largest town on the Big Island, and is located on the lush, wet east side. There’s plenty of outdoor activities to take part in around Hilo and up the Hamakua Coast, including hiking and various ocean sports, and the beautiful rainforests are filled with amazing waterfalls and incredible canyons.
The Big Island isn’t all lava-scarred, though: the east side of the island is covered with tropical rainforests, and is the site of many tall waterfalls and secluded valleys.
The now-dormant Mauna Kea is famous for being one of the best sites in the world for astronomical observation due to its height (measured from sea level, it’s the tallest peak in the world), dry climate, and location close to the equator.
We’ve put together all the must-do activities on the Big Island in a blog post found here, just for you.
Here are the biggest attractions on the Big Island:
- Volcanoes National Park
- Hamakua Coast
- Mauna Kea
- Waipio Valley
Why stop at one?
Each island has its own attractions, and it’ll be cheaper to fly inter-island than to cross the Pacific multiple times.
Inter-island travel is a topic that deserves it’s own blog post, which is why we’re making one for you.
When do you want to visit?
High season? Low season? What does that mean, anyway?
Hawaii’s a tropical destination, so the weather isn’t significantly different in the summer when compared to the winter.
The biggest seasonal differences are the price of travel and the crowds.
Also, some activities such as whale watching are seasonal, so do your research before buying plane tickets.
We explain it all more in-depth in another blog article, so stay tuned to figure out what works best for you.
What do you want to do in Hawaii?
Some want to explore Hawaii’s natural beauty. Others want to see unique features of the island that they won’t ever experience at home. And some people just want to relax on the beach, Mai Tai in hand.
The good news is that Hawaii welcomes and caters to all types.
However, what you plan to do in the islands will probably dictate when you decide to visit, where you stay, and how you’ll be getting around.
We know what you’re thinking: you’re on vacation and really shouldn’t have to stress out about this kind of thing. The thing is, planning it all now will save you a headache or two when you’re actually in the islands.
Trust us, it’s for the better.
What else do you want to know?
‘Everything,’ would be our guess.
Thankfully, we’re here to help.
We’re doing our best to get you all the details you need to make your first visit to Hawaii spectacular, memorable, and fun, so take a stroll through our archives to see what you can learn about this beautiful place.
You can also get in touch with us if you have any questions or just want to talk—feel free to use the comments section as well!
Check back regularly: we update twice a week!