By Kent Coules, Publisher
Hawai‘i is home to 137 islands and atolls. Eight of these islands are considered the “main” islands, and only six of them are legitimate tourist destinations.
Ni‘ihau, the “Forbidden Island,” is owned by the Robinson family and access is strictly limited to native Hawaiians. Less than 200 people call Ni‘ihau home.
Kaho‘olawe is the smallest of the eight main volcanic islands. During World War II, Kaho‘olawe was used as a training ground and bombing range by the Armed Forces of the United States. After decades of protests, the U.S. Navy ended live-fire training exercises on Kahoʻolawe in 1990, and the whole island was transferred to the jurisdiction of the State of Hawai‘i in 1994. There are no permanent residents on Kahoʻolawe.
So that leaves six. We’ll look at each island in order of descending population.
O‘ahu (population: 953,000)
O‘ahu is home to the state capitol, Honolulu, and is home to roughly two-thirds of the state’s 1.428 million people. It is the second oldest and third largest of the Hawaiian Islands.
O‘ahu is for you if you desire a combination of history, culture, entertainment, fine dining and nightlife.
Pearl Harbor Historic Sites is the second most popular tourist destination in the state. Polynesian Cultural Center on the North Shore is the third most popular. Entertainment is abundant in Waikīkī, where hotels line one of the world’s most famous beaches. O‘ahu has also become famous for its fusion cuisine, where more cultures than anywhere on earth have blended to create one of the most diverse dining scenes anywhere. Nightlife is sparse on any other island compared with O‘ahu where you can party into the wee hours of the morning.
World-class beaches and hiking are common to all the Hawaiian islands and O‘ahu is no exception. The most famous surfing beaches in the world are on O‘ahu’s North Shore, where waves routinely top 25 feet in the winter months. The hikes are amazing, and sometimes hazardous to the severe ridgelines on the two mountain ranges crisscrossing the island.
O‘ahu has as much natural beauty as any of the islands, but for some, the larger population and all that comes with it may compromise the feeling of “getting away.”
The Big Island (a.k.a. Hawai‘i Island, a.k.a. the Island of Hawai‘i; population: 186,000)
The Big Island is the youngest, largest and southernmost of the main islands. It has about 186,000 residents and is so large that it is roughly twice the size of all the other islands combined.
The Big Island is home to the most popular tourist destination on the state, Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, which hosts two million visitors per year.
In addition to Kīlauea Crater, the Big Island is the most diverse landmass in the world, containing ten of the 13 climate zones.
The Big Island is the best choice for nature lovers. It has the most bird species and the mountains boast the best stargazing opportunities on earth. While it has fewer beaches than other islands, it has black—and even green—sand beaches. It may not be the top choice for foodies, but it is the island for coffee lovers as the Kona region is home to over 200 coffee farms.
Nature lovers should check out Hawai‘i Forest and Trail.
Maui (population: 144,000)
Maui is the second youngest and third largest island in the chain.
Maui might represent the best balance of many things people look for in a Hawaiian vacation—superb beaches, great restaurants, five-star resorts and picturesque towns like Lahaina and Pā‘ia.
Maui is also home to the iconic Road to Hāna, a 64-mile meandering drive with 59 one-lane bridges and 620 turns. It is more about the journey than the destination. Haleakalā, a dormant volcano, towers over the rest of the island at 10,023 feet and is a popular spot for watching the sunrise and sunset.
From roughly December to April, whale watching is the most popular sightseeing activity (along with helicopter rides). Check out Pacific Whale Foundation for more information.
Kaua‘i (population: 66,000)
Kaua‘i is the oldest and fourth largest island in the chain.
The “Garden Island” is perhaps best known for being a romantic getaway, but that’s really true of all islands. By comparison, Kaua‘i might be the place for you if you love beaches, surfing, golfing, horseback riding or taking in some of the most beautiful nature anywhere.
Waimea Canyon and the Nā Pali Coast are two of the most breathtaking sites on earth. Waimea, known as the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” is a spectacular 10-mile long gorge, with rims as high as 3,000 feet. The red dirt and waterfalls feeding the river below make for a one-of-a-kind viewing treasure. The Nā Pali Coast, which is only accessible by sea and air—or via a challenging 11 mile hike—is the spectacular result of tectonic shifts that created mountains that burst from the Pacific to almost 4,300 feet vertical.
If you’re into horseback riding or golf, Kaua‘i deserves your consideration. CJM Stables near Poipu and Silver Falls Ranch on the North Shore offer two of the most beautiful places to mount up anywhere. For golfers, Princeville Makai is consistently rated as one of the Top 10 most beautiful courses in the world.
Food is good on Kaua‘I, considering its small size and population, but eat early; things shut down early here.
Moloka‘i (population: 7,300)
Moloka‘i, also known as the “Friendly Isle,” is the fifth largest and third oldest island in the chain.
The best way to determine if Moloka‘i is for you is if your primary goal is to “get away.”
Moloka‘i is not known for tourism—it has the fewest visitors each year of any of the six islands—and that’s what makes it attractive for those that want to experience a Hawai‘i devoid of other visitors.
Moloka‘i has only one active hotel (the Sheraton was closed years ago), no traffic lights and fewer than a dozen restaurants. Its biggest tourist attraction is a leper colony, Kalaupapa, which is now a national park.
Visiting here is akin to going back in time, given the sparse population and lack of development. One can find a beach all to themselves. Moloka‘i is also home to the world’s tallest sea cliffs. Nature’s beauty is not in short supply.
For those who want to dip their toe in Moloka‘i’s beautiful waters, it is an easy, cheap and short flight from O‘ahu of Maui on Makani Kai Airlines.
Lāna‘i (population: 3,100)
Lāna‘i is the smallest and fourth oldest of the six main islands. Known as the “Pineapple Island” for its historical production of the fruit, it is now owned almost entirely by Oracle founder Larry Ellison.
Lāna‘i is also for those who want to get away, but in a luxurious way. The two main resorts are owned by The Four Seasons, so check your bank account before booking a trip to this island.
Due to its size and limited (and pricey) accommodations, Lāna‘i only hosts 59,000 visitors per year. For those who do make the trip, there are beautiful deserted beaches, horseback riding, two championship golf courses and a lot of nature to be explored via the many dirt roads.
So which island is right for you?
[Editor’s note: I recommend all of them!]