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10 Tips for Choosing the Right Hawaiian Island

With idyllic beaches, lush forests and dramatic views, the island chain offers something for everyone.

U.S. News & World Report

10 Tips for Choosing the Right Hawaiian Island

A snorkeler in the waters of Hawaii.
Credit

(Getty Images)

Find the perfect island retreat for your next vacation.

First, let's get one thing straight: There's no wrong Hawaiian island. All six of the major islands in the chain have the ingredients for paradise: stunning beaches, awe-inspiring scenery and a warm aloha spirit that's palpable the moment you step off the plane. That said, depending what you're looking for in a Hawaiian vacation, some isles may be a better fit for you than others. Whether you're on a budget, traveling with the family or simply want to see some volcanic lava, here are some tips for choosing the best Hawaiian island for you.
Hawaii, Oahu, Honolulu, Waikiki Beach
Credit

(Getty Images)

If you have less than a week, stick to one island.

The general rule of thumb when visiting Hawaii is traveling to one island per week. You can push it. With five days you can do a quick sampler of two islands. But each island is diverse and filled with far more than a week's worth of things to see. The best way to experience Hawaii is to devote at least five days to each island. If you want to tack on a quick trip to another island in a short amount of time, Oahu is your best bet, as it's the main hub for the islands. Spend an extra day or two here on your way to or from Hawaii, and check out Pearl Harbor, Waikiki and more.
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Find the perfect island retreat for your next vacation.

First, let's get one thing straight: There's no wrong Hawaiian island. All six of the major islands in the chain have the ingredients for paradise: stunning beaches, awe-inspiring scenery and a warm aloha spirit that's palpable the moment you step off the plane. That said, depending what you're looking for in a Hawaiian vacation, some isles may be a better fit for you than others. Whether you're on a budget, traveling with the family or simply want to see some volcanic lava, here are some tips for choosing the best Hawaiian island for you.

If you have less than a week, stick to one island.

The general rule of thumb when visiting Hawaii is traveling to one island per week. You can push it. With five days you can do a quick sampler of two islands. But each island is diverse and filled with far more than a week's worth of things to see. The best way to experience Hawaii is to devote at least five days to each island. If you want to tack on a quick trip to another island in a short amount of time, Oahu is your best bet, as it's the main hub for the islands. Spend an extra day or two here on your way to or from Hawaii, and check out Pearl Harbor, Waikiki and more.

If it's your first time visiting Hawaii, head to Maui.

Every island has its strengths, but Maui offers key attributes that make Hawaii so special. The Valley Isle has all the things you've probably dreamed of in Hawaii, including sunny golden beaches, beautiful resorts and a volcano. Plus, it's easy to explore by car, and the isle boasts one of the most scenic drives in the country along the Road to Hana. Base yourself on the west or south side of the island, but be sure to explore all sides: the quirky mom-and-pop shops in Upcountry Maui, the lush and independent Hana and the eclectic town of Paia.

If you want a vibrant nightlife or city vibe, Oahu's your spot.

Not only is Honolulu (on Oahu's south shore) the capital of Hawaii, it's the largest city across the islands and the place to base yourself if you enjoy urban locales. Here, you'll find big-city amenities, including high-rises, taxis and an array of shops, restaurants and nightclubs. Most Oahu visitors stay in Waikiki, a busy resort town that backs one of the world's most famous beaches. This is one of the only places in Hawaii you can get away with visiting without a car, as many attractions such as the beach, Diamond Head and Pearl Harbor are an easy walk or taxi ride away. And while the other islands can get pretty sleepy as the night wears on, Honolulu keeps the party going.

If you're looking for romance, go to Kauai.

Dubbed "the Garden Island," Kauai is so beautiful it's hard not to fall in love here. The dreamy landscape, filled with lush green cliffs, long unspoiled beaches, shimmering taro fields and colorful botanical gardens makes it the perfect spot for an escape for two. You'll find lavish resorts that will pamper you day and night, and you can sneak away to a cozy beach bungalow for a little more privacy. There's plenty of opportunities for biking and hiking along with places to relax.

If you're planning a return visit, check out the Big Island.

There are places on the Big Island that look exactly like a scene from a postcard and others that look nothing like the picturesque scenes you would expect, marked by barren brown lava fields and even a snowcapped mountain. This island also has a rich history. The stories of old kings, gods and traditions are very much alive here – especially at sacred places like Pu'uhonua o Honaunau. All of these attributes make the Big Island an ideal place to visit for a return trip, when you've already been introduced to the magic of Hawaii, its people, its geology and its stories.

If you're planning your fifth visit, go to Molokai.

When you've checked the major islands off your list, why not go somewhere a little more off the beaten path? Molokai sees a smaller number of tourists than Maui, Oahu, Kauai and the Big Island, and it retains an authentic local Hawaiian vibe. There's a strong sense of history here: The dramatic Kalaupapa Peninsula was the site of a famous leper colony, and the hula is said to have originated here. Best of all, in lieu of major resorts, you'll find secluded cottages and condominiums here.

If you're traveling with kids, stay on the south or west side of an island.

There isn't really a "best" island for kids in Hawaii. They all offer kid-friendly activities, amenities and accommodations galore. But each island has some parts that are more family-friendly than others – places where the waves are calmer, the beaches are more accessible and there are more kid-focused things to do. If you're traveling with a family, it's a good idea to try to stay on the south or west sides of an island. The north shore of each island tends to get larger waves in the winter, and the east side can sometimes be windier, with less than ideal swimming conditions.

If you're a nature nut, go to the Big Island or Kauai.

Each island has its own natural charms, but if you're looking for something a little more adventurous, try Kauai or the Big Island. Kauai is a hiker's dream, with Waimea Canyon, which Mark Twain once called the "Grand Canyon of the Pacific," as well as the granddaddy of Hawaiian hikes, the Kalalau Trail. This epic 11-mile trail carves its way over the otherwise inaccessible green cliffs along the Na Pali Coast. Prefer to embrace Mother Nature? Head to the Big Island, where you can watch lava flows and a glowing volcanic crater at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

If you want to avoid crowds, go to Lana'i.

There are no traffic lights, few chain businesses and only about 3,100 people living on Lana'i, making the isle a great place to get away from it all. Outside of the island's two Four Seasons resorts (one of which is currently closed for renovation) and Lana'i City, a small town that forms the main hub of the island, you will need a four-wheel drive vehicle to reach most sights. But don't let that deter you: Lana'i is home to some fascinating places that few visitors experience, such as Shipwreck Beach, with its massive rusty hulk offshore, and Garden of the Gods, a boulder-strewn red rock landscape.

If you're on a tight budget, visit one island.

Contrary to popular belief, a Hawaiian vacation doesn't have to break the bank. Sure, you can pay pretty penny for a beachfront resort and fine dining, but it's also fairly easy to explore Hawaii on a budget. The first trick to cutting costs is staying on one island. Flying between the islands isn't cheap, but it's the only way to island-hop (unless you're on a cruise). Find an island that fits your style, and rent a condo or Airbnb that fits your needs. That way, you can save by stocking up on food at markets and forgo restaurant meals for roadside plate lunch stands. Activities such as hiking and swimming are usually free (every beach – and most trails – are open to the public). And if you really want to trim costs, rent a campsite.
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