I’ve been to all but one of the Hawaiian islands and they are all so different from each other, it’s hard to pick a favorite!
If you’ve always dreamed about going to Hawaii but don’t know where to start when it comes to picking an island, you’ve come to the right place!
All of the Hawaiian islands are so drastically different from each other, and are all worth a visit! I know I know, no one has endless funds to just quit their job and go to all of them.. so hopefully this guide will help you choose which one to visit first!
In this Hawaiian Island comparison, I will give you the differences, highlights, best sites, bucket list excursions and where to stay.
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– Maui –
Maui was the first ever Hawaiian island I visited, so I’ll try to not be biased here. I feel Maui will give you a perfect mix of everything, giving you the ultimate Hawaiian experience.
They have luxurious beachfront resorts, luaus, snorkeling, tourist attractions, booze cruises, zip-lining, you name it! There are endless things to do on Maui to give you a relaxing and adventure-filled vacation. Maui is also home to the most breathtaking sunsets I’ve ever seen!
I do feel that my time on Maui was more on the touristy side. Meaning the beaches were very packed and people were constantly trying to sell time shares. I didn’t really notice this until I traveled to the other islands that are all more laid-back. With that said, it was also my first time to Hawaii so I might have just planned to stay around all of the touristy spots.
Best Highlights of Maui
- Hawaiian Luau! You can’t go to Hawaii and not go to a luau.
- Black Rock Beach Snorkeling where you get to swim with soooo many turtles! And if you are feeling adventurous, you can go cliff jumping right in front of the beach.
- Zip Lining with the most amazing island views.
- Molokini Crater where you snorkel at an underwater volcanic crater. This tour also takes you to Turtle Town where you can see tons of turtles swimming in open waters!
- Road to Hana is tour that takes you along half the island and shows you one of the most picturesque drives of your life.
Where to stay on Maui?
I stayed right on Black Rock Beach at the Sheraton Hotel. This place was magical with a giant pool, private beach with several restaurants lined up to witness the gorgeous sunsets, and a very popular snorkeling site.
TIP: If you’re there in the winter, book a tour to see the majestic giants of the sea – Whales! Maui has some of the best whale watching.
– Kauai –
On Kauai, you will get a very laid back and local feeling vacation. The beaches are not “overly” crowded and there aren’t nearly as many resorts in comparison to the other islands. Being the oldest and northernmost island, it is by far the greenest! It will feel like you in a secluded and peaceful rain forest.
If you stay on Kauai, I would recommend renting out a beach house / condo, going to a local fish market to pick up some fish, and cook! What?! You want me to cook on vacation?! I know, I sound crazy right? But Kauai is instantly relaxing, and what better way to spend your vacation than making it feel like you actually live there?
TIP: Don’t forget to pick some fresh fruit from the millions of fruit trees around your area!
Have you seen the famous movie, Soul Surfer? If not, well.. Go watch it because you’re missing out. It’ based on the true story where a young girl loses her arm to a shark bite while surfing. This movie was filmed and based on Kauai at Tunnel’s Beach!
Best Highlights of Kauai
- Tunnel’s Beach, but go early or on a week day if possible. This beach can get very crowded because of the movie.
- Polihale State Park is a very large beach area on the western side of the island.
- Napali Coast is extremely picturesque that can be seen from a scenic helicopter flight or boat ride. You can check out hundreds of tour options here!
- Waimea Canyon is known as the Grand Canyon of the pacific. It has multiple hikes that look out to the stunning view of the green and red canyons.
- Koke’e State Park is another scenic area with endless waterfall hikes to choose from.
- Wailua Falls Hike this long and muddy trail will be completely worth it when you see the size of the waterfall at the end of it.
- Rafting through old sugar cane canals was one of my all-time favorite things I did on my trip to Kauai!
- Sunset Luau with buffet dinner.
- Queen’s Baths, which are natural tide pools that you can swim in.
Where to stay on Kauai?
I recommend staying in a beach house if you are with a group. This way you can buy fish at local markets and enjoy dinner in the middle of a Hawaiian rain forest. If you are going by yourself or with your partner, I would recommend staying at hotel near Queen’s Baths in a town called Princeville.
– Oahu –
Oahu is the most populated of all the islands. It has the most history, excursions, and crowds! This will also be your most affordable option because Honolulu is the main international airport. You won’t have to worry about making a connection flight to the smaller islands and hotels will also be cheaper (and when I mean cheaper, they are still very expensive, but less than other islands).
If you want to save some money but avoid the crowds, I would stay on the eastern side of the island, more of a local town called Lanikai. The beaches are beautiful, the crowds are minimal and the prices are better too! The only downside is it is far from the most popular sites like Pearl Harbor & Waikiki Beach.
Oahu is so large that you can not possibly see it all in one trip! I did the best snorkeling of my life on this island, Yes, better than my trips to Thailand, Cayman Islands, and all the other Hawaiian Islands. If you decide on Oahu, be sure to check out Shark’s Cove!
Best Highlights of Oahu
- Snorkeling Shark’s Cove! Absolute must-see when in Oahu.
- Pearl Harbor is the number one attraction on Oahu. It holds so much moving history that is 100% worth spending the day exploring.
- Waikiki Beach is also an extremely popular site on Oahu. This beach is known for amazing surfing, waves crashing miles from the shore and a lot of crowds… don’t say I didn’t warn you!
- Diamond Head Hike will give you a 360 view of Waikiki beach, the big city of honolulu and the endless ocean. I recommend opting in for the sunrise hike to beat the crowds!
- Zip Lining at Kualoa ranch. I’ve been zip lining in Las Vegas and Maui and this was BY FAR the best! The views just can’t be topped.
- Hanauma Bay is extremely picturesque and a very famous spot. It is so protected that there is not a single wave for miles. If you pull it up on a map, you will see why. It is shaped like a small keyhole and has a wonderful coral reef.
TIP: Go to Hanauma Bay early or buy a tour! It is a natural park so they only allow a certain number of visitors per day.
Where to stay on Oahu?
I stayed on Lanikai Beach in Kailua and could not recommend it enough. The beaches were stunning, the local restaurants were fairly priced and the crowds were minimal. I would stay at any of these hotels that are in your price range.
If you want to see Waikiki Beach, Pearl Harbor, and Diamond Head, I would stay in Waikiki. Click here to see hotels located on Waikiki Beach.
– The Big Island –
This is the “Big Island.” Even though it is the largest of the islands, it is least populated because majority of the island is covered in Lava Rock. This island is bigger than all of the other islands combined and hosts 11 of the world’s 13 climatic zones.
The Big Island of Hawaii is split into two sections, the dry and wet side. The western side will be very dry, not a lot of greenery, but better weather. The north eastern side will have unpredictable weather but a lot of greenery.
When I visited this island, I split the trip into two sections to experience both sides. I would highly recommend this because you feel like you get to visit two places at the price of one plane ticket!
Best Highlights of The Big Island
- ATV tours where you can see the island from a more adventurous stand point.
- Black Sand Beaches, especially Punaluʻu Beach. So unique to see a beach with all dark sand! A lot different from my other black sand beach experience in Iceland, ha!
- Active Volcano Tour where you can soar over the beautiful island to see an active volcano hitting the cold ocean water.
- Natural hot springs and tide pools!
Where to stay on The Big Island?
On the dry side of the island, the only place you should be staying is the Hilton Waikoloa Village. This place is pure luxury. It has a giant hotel pool, a private snorkeling area that feeds from the actual ocean, and an entire village that holds restaurants and shopping. It even has a tram that takes you around the hotel… yes, it’s that big.
On the greener side of the island, I would recommend staying in the town of Hilo. My family and I rented out a vacation home along the beach. If you are looking for a hotel, you can browse through several here.
They all have their beauty and differences, but I would say Oahu was my all-time favorite, with Kauai being a very close second. It truly depends what kind of trip you’re looking for!
If it is your first time, I would choose Maui.
If you are looking for a laid back, couples vacation I would choose Kauai.
If you are looking for history, Oahu.
If you’re looking for best marine life for snorkeling / scuba diving, The Big Island.
Good luck, let me know what island is your favorite in the comments below 🙂
Pssst… Before you book your flight to somewhere tropical, I have a few resources I think you’ll love!
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