From cerulean waters to verdant vegetation to sandy beaches, Hawaii is home to a wealth of natural beauty. Though it can be easy to assume the six main Hawaiian Islands travelers visit offer similar experiences, they are more diverse than you can imagine. To help you decide which island is ideal for your next vacation, U.S. News took into account sights, expert opinion and reader input to determine the best Hawaiian Islands. Vote for your favorite destination below to have a say in next year’s list.
Honolulu — Oahu
№1 in Best Hawaiian Islands
Oahu blends cosmopolitan luxury and breathtaking scenery more than any other Hawaiian island. The state’s capital city, Honolulu, showcases the island’s urban appeal. Nearby you’ll find a host of cultural and historic sites, from the ornate Iolani Palace to the austere USS Arizona Memorial at the Pearl Harbor National Memorial. In the nearby Waikiki neighborhood, a skyline of high-rises and resorts contrasts with sprawling white sand beaches. For a taste of rural Hawaii, visit the North Shore. Here, you’ll find the most brilliant blue waters and meandering hikes. But those three spots aren’t Oahu’s only must-see locales. Its top-notch restaurants, vibrant cultural events and wild nightlife further showcase this island as a «Gathering Place» of Hawaiian culture.
№2 in Best Hawaiian Islands
Maui is not nearly as large as the Big Island, nor is it as small as Lanai, as bustling as Oahu or as quiet as Kauai. For many Hawaii vacationers, Maui is just right – offering a taste of just about everything the Aloha State has to offer, from impressive wildlife to intriguing history and culture. While on a visit here, you can shimmy alongside professional hula dancers, golf along coastal fairways, snorkel alongside five different types of sea turtles or simply lounge along some of Hawaii’s most notable beaches.
One of the archipelago’s most popular tourism spots, Maui can be found sandwiched between the Big Island and the much tinier Molokai. Maui is divided into five distinct regions: Many travelers base themselves along the coasts of South Maui (home to the famous Wailea Beach) or West Maui, where the sands of Kaanapali Beach and the music from the Old Lahaina Luau are located. But the rest of the island should not be missed. Travel along the Road to Hana to experience East Maui’s scenic coastline, explore Haleakala – the world’s largest dormant volcano – in the Upcountry and explore the former tribal battlegrounds of Central Maui’s Iao Valley State Park. And for a bird’s-eye view of it all, reserve a spot on one of Maui’s best helicopter tours.
№3 in Best Hawaiian Islands
Brilliant sunsets, pristine beaches, aquamarine skies – Kauai has mastered seduction. But the oldest island in the Hawaiian chain doesn’t have to resort to over-the-top luxury or tourist traps to entice; instead, it appeals to a no-muss, no-fuss type of traveler. You prefer rural to resplendent? Kauai’s your island – there are only two major highways, and some regions can only be explored on foot. Resorts are no taller than a coconut tree (literally).
Some would say that you need little more than a good pair of hiking boots, an umbrella and an adventurous spirit to visit. But we should warn you: You might also need a little cash. Kauai has put a premium on its natural beauty and prized hiking trails, and room rates during the winter can reach $500 a night. To get the most and save the most, consider visiting during the shoulder seasons.
Hawaii — The Big Island
№4 in Best Hawaiian Islands
In Hawaii, the Big Island is like the sometimes awkward older sibling. Forgotten in favor of adorable little brothers and sisters, her attributes are often glossed over. Maui is for fun and families. Oahu attracts surfers, partiers and outdoor adventurers. Kauai is for romance and luxury. And the Big Island is just … big.
Majestic is more accurate. Geographically unique, the Big Island boasts everything from black sand beaches to snow-covered peaks, from hardened lava deserts to steamy and lush rainforests. And it’s still growing. The Big Island’s trump card – the active, fire-spitting Kilauea volcano – has been increasing the island’s land mass since 1983. During the most recent eruption in May 2018, volcanic activity caused eruptions, earthquakes and the collapse of the Halemaumau crater. It’s true that if you arrived here hoping for a stereotypical Hawaiian getaway that’s full of luaus and a honeymoon-esque atmosphere, you’ve probably missed the mark. But the hiking trails and state parks that are here hold sights that no other Hawaiian island can boast of. And the beaches are colors you’ve probably never seen.
№5 in Best Hawaiian Islands
When billionaires are fighting over something, you know it’s special. That’s the case with Hawaii’s most exclusive island, Lanai. Microsoft co-founder, Bill Gates, has been trying to lay his hands on some Lanai real estate for some time. Larry Ellison, founder of Oracle, took control of 97 percent of Lanai in 2012. But don’t let this clash of titans stop you from visiting.
Here is where Mother Nature puts on quite a show, providing remote beaches, otherworldly rock formations and colorful underwater reefs. You’ll probably need an off-roading vehicle and a taste for adventure to reach them – top sights like Shipwreck Beach and the Munro Trail are literally off the beaten (or paved) paths. Cool down from exploring the terrain at one of the area’s posh hotels where you can expect to luxuriate in exceptional cuisine, first-class service and upscale accommodations. Should you crave more activity, you can try your hand at deep sea fishing, horseback riding, lawn bowling and more. With all this, how can you resist the coveted charms of tiny Lanai?