Which Hawaiian Island is Right For You? An Adventurer’s Guide

When visiting Hawaii for the first time, it can be very daunting trying to figure out how to pick which Hawaiian island to visit. It’s no surprise that the diverse range of activities and magnificent landscapes to see throughout the islands make it hard to choose just one. 

The truth is that Hawaii cannot be fully explored in just one trip or simply visiting one island. From the volcanoes of the Big Island to the jaw-dropping coastline of Kauai, there is a difference between the Hawaiian islands both in their vibes and what they have to offer.

Whether you’re looking for outdoor adventures like surfing and hiking, or just want to chill by the beach and embrace the relaxing island life with stunning tropical views, there’s a Hawaiian island that will make your dreams come true. If you can’t choose just one, you can also consider island hopping to fill your itinerary with unforgettable experiences. 

There are also ways to visit Hawaii on a budget that makes it more accessible to the younger backpacker community.

This Hawaiian islands comparison will help you choose which Hawaiian island to visit when planning the perfect island getaway.

An overhead view of the Kauai coastline

Maui

Hawaii’s Valley Isle has a little bit of everything, with surf culture reigning along the north shore and volcanoes with lush valleys filling out the island to provide amazing hiking opportunities with stellar views. I consider Maui to be the best Hawaiian island for young adults because of its plethora of adventure travel options.

Lahaina, located on the island’s western side, was once the capital of Hawaii and is a popular spot for boat tours out of the Lahaina harbor and accessing the nearby islands of Moloka’i and Lana’i. It also has a hippie-esque surf vibe, making it a great place to hang out and enjoy the island life, and it’s my favorite town in Maui. 

Good to know: Since the Maui fires in August of 2023, Lahaina has been closed to tourists to allow the locals to rebuild following the devastation of the fires. It’s unknown when it will reopen and how the town will change following this tragedy, but I will update this post as progress is made. 

The channel between Maui, Moloka’i, and Lana’i attracts many whales to its warm shallow waters, making it the best spot for whale watching in Hawaii. The western side is also home to some of the best hikes on Maui, with lush green valleys just waiting to be explored. The Iao Valley and Waihe’e Ridge Trail are not to be missed here.

A whale breaching at sunset in Maui
Whale watching in Maui in unrivaled

Maui’s surf culture flourishes along the north shore with world-renowned surf spots such as Pe’Ahi (“Jaws”) Beach holding records as the birthplace for some of the world’s largest waves ever ridden. There are several great surfing spots in Maui for the humble beginner to take a chance at riding waves.

As for the eastern side of Maui, Mount Haleakala takes up about 75% of the entire island- and it’s Maui’s most popular experience. Being driven to the summit for sunrise is unforgettable, and I loved the bike ride down the mountain to enjoy views across the island. 

View of a rainbow over Maui from Mount Haleakala
Cruising down Haleakala for the best views of Maui

Another one of Maui’s iconic experiences found on the windward side is the Road to Hana. This highway made up of over 600 turns will take you through the best views in Maui, eventually leading you to the town of Hana itself. 

Conclusion:

From once-in-a-lifetime hikes to the prominent surf culture, Maui is the best Hawaiian island for outdoor adventure and a Hawaii road trip. 

Oahu

Home to the capital city of Honolulu, Oahu is the most developed island in Hawaii and offers more high-end opportunities and all-inclusive resorts.

The most popular spot for vacationers is the southern side of the island in and around Honolulu and Waikiki Beach. Hawaii’s most popular surf beach, Waikiki, has long rolling waves perfectly suited for beginners learning to surf. However, the area is very touristy and can be crowded- especially during the high season.

If you’re still looking to hit the waves but want to ditch the crowds, there are dozens of other top surf spots in Oahu to visit, and the north shore is famous for its professional-level breaks. Even if you aren’t an advanced surfer, visiting Pipeline Beach to watch the surfers is an entertaining addition to your itinerary. 

Laynie and her friend after a surf sesh at Waikiki Beach
Surfing at Waikiki Beach never disappoints

Oahu’s west side has many great spots for surfing or boogie boarding as well, but is also home to the Pearl Harbor Memorial- the best thing to do for history buffs. It’s also worth noting that there is a strong military presence on this island and you’ll get exclusive access to certain beaches with a military ID.

Hiking in Oahu from the southern end with Diamond Head to the Lanikai pillbox on the east side is also abundant. Hanauma Bay lies between the two and is the best place for snorkeling in Hawaii, though there are dozens of famous snorkel spots to be found throughout the island. 

The east side is also home to the prettiest beaches in Oahu, with Lanikai Beach and Waimanalo Beach being top choices for relaxing beachside. The Makapu’u Lighthouse Trail is another hike for admiring the scenic coastline of the east side. 

Conclusion:

Oahu is the best Hawaiian island for snorkeling and a great choice if you’re looking for high-end experiences and love big cities. It also hosts the best wave breaks in the world, and surfing here is a no-brainer. 

Big Island

The Big Island of Hawaii certainly lives up to its name, as you can fit every other Hawaiian island inside of it. While there’s certainly tons of ground to cover on this island, there’s still a balance between developed spots and laid-back rural areas, and I believe this is the best Hawaiian island for first-timers.

The island is the go-to spot for volcanoes in Hawaii and is home to the famous Volcanoes National Park which has an abundance of hiking trails to appreciate. The Big Island’s largest town is found just east of the park; Hilo is a scenic coastal town providing the gateway to several Hawaii favorites like waterfalls and outdoor activities. 

An eruption from Volcanoes National Park in Hawaii
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is unique and fascinating

The windward side is also home to most of this island’s rainforest, contributing to the lush greenery and diverse flora and fauna that can be appreciated here. The Big Island is known for its rich biodiversity that makes it possible to experience a diverse array of climate zones within the relatively small area- including the snow-capped mountain of Mauna Kea and lava fields throughout the island. 

Though the Hilo side is typically greener, it also experiences rain for most of the year. For this reason, staying in Kailua-Kona is a necessary addition to your Big Island adventure. Found on the island’s western side, Kailua-Kona is home to many beaches for enjoying the sunny climate. 

The Manta Ray Night Dive is the most popular attraction in this area, but for good reason. I’ve done this experience several times and it never fails to blow me away. Living through this breathtaking connection with nature is reason alone to visit the Big Island.

A baby and mother manta ray feeding on the Big Island night dive
Get up close to these gentle giants in an ethical way!

Outside of Hilo and Kailua-Kona, most of the Big Island remains rural and allows you to appreciate the slowed-down island life. The majority of my trip there was spent outside of these towns exploring the natural wonders of:

  • Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park
  • Akaka Falls State Park
  • Pololu Valley
  • Papakolea Green Sand Beach
  • Rainbow Falls State Park

While there are high-end resorts, there are also several budget accommodation options for adventure-seekers to be able to see the Big Island, and many of the outdoor activities are free, making this the most affordable Hawaiian island to visit. 

Conclusion:

You’ll never run out of things to do and see on the Big Island of Hawaii. This island is best suited for those who have an abundance of time or want to enjoy the diverse landscapes that it has to offer.

Kauai

Kauai is the least developed of the main Hawaiian islands. In fact, about 97% of the island remains untouched. For this reason, the Garden Isle hosts a plethora of greenery and natural landscapes to be explored. 

Kauai certainly has a more rural vibe and is the place to go for an authentic Hawaiian experience. Hanalei Bay of the North Shore attracts tons of visitors for surfing, snorkeling, water sports, or simply relaxing with views of a stunning landscape.

Between the north and west sides of the island lies the magical Na Pali Coast, a rugged and dramatic coastline that’s only accessible by boat, helicopter, or by foot via the Kalalau Trail. This is perhaps Hawaii’s most scenic and untouched landscape- however, it may be difficult to experience it on a budget if you are not up for the challenging trek. 

Yet another can’t-miss sight of Kauai’s western side is the Waimea Canyon, one of the country’s largest canyons only second to the Grand Canyon. The vibrant colors and dramatic valleys of this canyon are perfect for nature lovers and hikers alike, as there are also several hikes to delve deeper into the viewpoints of the canyon. 

Panoramic of Waimea Canyon in Kauai
Pictures do not do it justice, the Waimea Canyon is unbelievable!

Kauai’s southern coast is the spot for relaxation. Poipu Beach is known for its golden sand and crystal-clear waters, but also the best spot to see monk seals and sea turtles who frequent the area.

With excellent snorkeling conditions at Poipu and prime surfing conditions at nearby Shipwreck Beach, Kauai’s south coast combines a beautiful beach setting with an abundance of ocean activities to enjoy.

Sea turtles seen basking on the sand at Poipu Beach in Kauai
Looking for the best place to see turtles in Kauai? Poipu is the place to go!

The eastern side of Kauai is home to the largest city of Lihue and is undoubtedly where you’ll find more shopping opportunities. Go souvenir shopping in the charming and laid-back Old Kapa’a Town- a favorite among coastal Hawaiian towns.

Also located among the windward side are yet again a variety of natural landscapes to choose from, including Wailua River State Park, Opaekaa Falls, Lydgate State Park, and the Kauai Bike Path. 

Conclusion:

Kauai is the best island in Hawaii for nature lovers, and you can find the most challenging hikes for avid hikers on the picturesque Garden Isle. It’s also best for eco-tourists looking for a greater connection to culture and nature, as well as the best island for relaxing in Hawaii. 

Maui's lush green valleys leading to the ocean
The valleys of Maui are unforgettable

Choosing which Hawaiian island to visit is a tough decision, but armed with this information, you should have a pretty good idea of which Hawaiian island is right for you. 

Even after multiple trips to each of the islands and living on Oahu, I still find joy in the island life and the vibe that Hawaii brings. If you have the time, I’d recommend island hopping and seeing all of the Hawaiian islands at least once. 

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