Best Hawaiian Islands for a First Visit

(Last Updated On: January 10, 2022)

Best Hawaiian IslandsBest Hawaiian islands: How do you ever pick and choose?

The previous blog (Visiting Hawaii) gave an overview of Hawaii designed for the first visitor – or for the repeat visitor wanting some additional commentary. This installment (Best Hawaiian Islands) gives an in-depth discussion of the four islands most often chosen by the visitor. And after you know which island or island to visit on your first trip, the final blog installment (Best Hawaii Lodging) will discuss other essentials for your trip.

Best Hawaiian Islands for the Visitor

Let’s home in on those top four best Hawaiian islands and offer a hint of their differing attractions when visiting Hawaii.

First, what about their similarities?

All of the Hawaiian islands are tropical, far from the 48 States and volcanic in origin. The major islands each offer lush tropical flowers, spectacular golf courses, outstanding restaurants and luxurious hotels. You can see hula shows, eat shave ice and malasadas, surf or paddleboard, and snorkel with tropical fish. Moreover, every island abounds with activities. Many are free, but some charge eye-watering prices.

That’s about where the similarities end. The four most-visited, most-accessible islands each have distinct geography, style and features. Here are the differences between those best Hawaiian islands, plus personal observations about each one.


Best Hawaiian Islands

USS Arizona Memorial, Honolulu

Honolulu is the capitol of Hawaii the state and Hawaii the historic kingdom. It’s located on the island of Oahu, which is bursting with tourist attractions.

A visitor who hopes to see the Hawaii encountered by Captain Cook and the missionaries will be slammed by rush hour traffic on Hawaii’s “Interstate Highway” (numbered H-1) and may flee back to L.A. on the next flight. But a more forgiving vacationer finds the entire history of Hawaii, unfolding itself just behind Honolulu’s star-studded concrete façade.

From past to present, we have:
Iolani Palace, the only royal residence in the United States and center of the Hawaiian monarchy through the 19th century, open for public tours.
Waikiki Beach, once a royal retreat but now the home of resort hotels and beach glam.
Shangri-La, the famous waterfront estate of heiress Doris Duke, where she carried out an affair with world-famous surfer and Olympic athlete Duke Kahanamoku.
– The USS Arizona Memorial, a moving tribute to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which changed both the world and the U.S. irretrievably. If you only visit one place on Oahu, this should be it.
– Representing today, for better and for worse, is the shopping. Japanese and Australian visitors throng the Ala Moana center, vacuuming up brand-name merchandise. Prices are not cheap, yet they count as bargains for those who live in Tokyo and Sydney.

Best Hawaiian islands

Japanese shoppers in the Ala Moana center, Honolulu

These attractions put Oahu high on the list of best Hawaiian islands for the new visitor to consider.

            For Veterans Only

If you’re a veteran or have a veteran in your traveling group, Oahu has additional attractions. There’s a family-friendly Mongolian BBQ on Thursdays at Hickam AFB Officers’ Club that is reportedly open to all ranks, and the Honolulu Navy Exchange that’s famous as the world’s largest base exchange. In addition, all over Hawaii but especially on Oahu, you’ll qualify for outstanding discounts on hotels, tours and cruises.

Active and ex-military should consider staying at the beachfront Hale Koa hotel, adjacent to Waikiki. It’s a Joint Service facility with great amenities and low rates. You’ll need to have a military ID card, and you should book well in advance of your visit.

          Oahu Digression

As many-times visitors to Oahu, Nola and I have some additional personal favorites:
– The Honolulu Museum of Art always has enjoyable exhibits, spanning a range of local and international artists; their gift shop is a good stop as well.
Hanauma Bay State Park is a great, relaxing spot for snorkeling. Its small parking lot fills up around 7:00 am, after which they permit no more private vehicles. Unless you’re a real early bird, catch one of the park service’s shuttles from Waikiki for a hassle-free visit. Nola suggests not going at low tide, so as to have comfortable knee room when you’re floating over the shallow bottom.
Reyn Spooner, my favorite source for Hawaiian shirts, has several stores on Oahu. I especially like Reyn’s Rack, their downtown store that offers both new merchandise and end-of-season markdowns.

In addition, our friends in Honolulu introduced us to a rental condo property at the west end of Waikiki beach. Many units in the building offer a great view of the Friday evening fireworks over Fort DeRussy Beach Park. In addition, during winter the sun sets into the ocean, providing a perfect venue to watch for the famous Green Flash.


Best Hawaiian islands

Napili Bay beach, West Maui

If Oahu is a historical pageant, Maui is a visual festival. Its rich variety of scenery and activities easily qualifies it as one of the best Hawaiian islands:
Lahaina, a whaling town turned year-round party street.
– Kaanapali, one of many perfect sand beaches whose lodging offers “forever” ocean views.
Haleakala, a volcanic National Park offering sacred sunrises, endangered species and crack-of-dawn downhill bicycle tours.
– Hana, a secluded town at the end of a scenic winding road: the road is so slow and twisty that very few visitors make it all the way to Hana.
– During November through April, catamaran tours to watch humpback whales: the females nurse their calves, while the males joust in hopes of pairing off with a future mom.

            Maui Digression

Best Hawaiian islands

Evening on Front Street, Lahaina, Maui

For many years my Malibu neighbors Bill and Jackie Gould took a Maui vacation from mid-January to mid-February each winter. (Bill was a CPA with a large tax practice, and Maui provided a breather prior to his busiest season.) I asked Jackie once, what do you possibly find to do, visiting the same island for such a long vacation, year after year? Jackie mumbled, oh, there’s so much to do, and I thought that was the extent of her answer. However, the following day she handed me a full sheet of paper covered on both sides in tiny precise handwriting. It listed over a hundred activities on Maui, many of them free, that competed for their attention every visit.

As it turned out, the Goulds persuaded Nola and me to join them on a West Maui vacation and even helped us decide to buy a condo there. Regular readers will know that we are very proud of our condo and its private cove full of giant sea turtles and colorful tropical fish. We enjoy it for part of the Michigan winter and offer it through a rental association when we’re not there.

Although I have visited all of the best Hawaiian islands plus some of the smaller ones, Maui has captured my heart and I am no longer a disinterested judge of its merits. However, what I’ve given up in objectivity I’ve gained in experience. I feel no shame in referring you to these sources that extol the merits of a condo-based Maui vacation:
– Our condo website’s FAQ page.
– The three dozen units making up our private gated complex. And
– Our articles about Hawaiian cultural traditions and visitor activities.

The Big Island

Best Hawaiian islands

Panorama of the Mauna Loa volcanic caldera, Island of Hawaii

The Island of Hawaii is, first and foremost, big. At roughly 4,000 square miles (10,000 square kilometers) it is the largest island in all Polynesia except for the two main islands of New Zealand.

The Big Island is also the newest of Hawaii’s major islands – less than a million years old, and still being added to5 by volcanic eruptions and lava flow. One reason it counts as one of the best Hawaiian islands is that it’s the only one with active volcanism. Many tourists come to the Big Island to visit the steaming landscape of Mauna Loa and to see the molten lava from Kilauea flow into the ocean.

In addition to volcanos and lava, the Big Island has much to commend itself to the visitor:
– The Parker Ranch is one of the largest and oldest ranches in the United States. Dating from 1847, it’s even older than the famous (and larger) King Ranch of Texas.
– Agriculture is also big on this island: you can visit farms raising macadamia nuts, Kona coffee, vanilla beans, orchids and seahorses.
– Astronomy is a major activity, with 13 observatories at the summit of Mauna Kea. The public is welcome to the visitor center but the telescope facilities are off-limits unless you’re an astronomer with an invitation.
– There are botanical gardens and hiking trails, plus several historical museums on the Big Island.

            Big Island Digression

Best Hawaiian islands

Inside the Thurston Lava Tube, Island of Hawaii

Because the Big Island is young and volcanic, when you are driving around there are large areas that look like the moon. The lava fields are rough and barren, not yet displaying Hawaii’s lush flora. But don’t pick up any samples. There’s a legend that if you remove lava from the island, the volcano goddess Pele will pursue you with bad luck until you bring it back. True or not, this lore helps preserve the natural landscape, and each year motivates many past visitors to mail their purloined rocks back to the islands!

When I first visited the Big Island I drove up the west coast from Kona and marveled at the immense fields of lava. Even the golf courses seemed to be mere patches of green applied to the lava like icing on a cake. In those days I had not yet abandoned golf as a skill beyond my ken so I tried a few Big Island courses. I discovered their distinctive feature: when your ball ventures off the fairway, a hungry field of lava immediately embraces it.

The lava is remarkably porous, with many golf-ball-sized cavities. In fact, there are so many openings that you cannot know which one conceals your ball. On only one occasion was I able to spot my ball (or one that looked just like it), solidly wedged about six inches below the surface. The ball would have been useless if I could have retrieved it, its aerodynamic dimples hopelessly scarred by its adventure. However, it was oddly satisfying that, for once, I had seen through Pele’s tricky disappearing act.

            Graffiti Spotting

Until several years ago the lava hills along the highway were heavily decorated with words, faces and drawings. They were created by placing bleached white coral against the gray-black lava landscape. There were also stacked rocks forming cairns and more elaborate shapes. Today, much of that folk art survives only in photographs.

In 2012 the residents decided that these memorials were actually graffiti and launched a cleanup campaign to return the coral to the beaches. The more vocal locals seem to prefer a totally black landscape with only subtle features and shadows. What tourists prefer, no one knows or cares. Despite the periodic cleanups, if you drive past lava fields you may still notice coral graffiti here and there.


Best Hawaiian islands

Opaeka’a Falls, Kauai

The last of the four best Hawaiian islands is Kauai. As the oldest of them, Kauai has the lushest vegetation, giving it the nickname the Garden Isle.

Kauai’s verdant splendor did not escape Hollywood’s attention, which used Kauai whenever a movie or TV show needed a tropical setting. Kauai’s website lists 77 past productions, including South Pacific, Blue Hawaii, Gilligan’s Island, Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Jurassic Park series and Avatar. Even Disney’s Lilo and Stitch, which as an animated feature was not actually filmed anywhere, depicts a specific town in Kauai.

Even without taking a “movie tour” you’ll find pleasant touring in Kauai:
– Three of the five National Tropical Botanical Garden sites are on Kauai, of which Allerton Garden has been lauded as one of the world’s fifty must-see destinations.
– Kauai also has Waimea Canyon, a scenic site that has been called the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, by Mark Twain as well as by many others.
– Although all the Hawaiian islands offer excellent golf courses, Kauai’s few courses get high ratings. Of its 10 courses, some folks consider four of them to rank in Hawaii’s top ten.

            Kauai Digression

Best Hawaiian islands

Wailua River valley, Kauai

If you were to ask a new resident about life on Kauai, it’s likely that they would mention none of the beauties listed above. Instead, they would grumble about the wild chickens all over Kauai, which wake them up by crowing at every hour of the night.

I have seen wild chickens throughout Polynesia, living on every island big enough to sport more than one palm tree. All the best Hawaiian islands have their share of fowl running loose. For example, on Maui you will see wild chickens and feral cats co-habiting at sites such as the Iao State Park parking lot. However, Kauai’s chicken population is something remarkable, far exceeding that of any other island I know.

Kauai’s chickens graduated to “pest” status following Hurricane Iniki in 1992. The storm apparently released hens from coops, and roosters from illegal cockfighting farms. The resulting hybrid fowl are extremely tough and hardy.

Visitors who imagine a “chicken in every pot” often ask whether the feral fowl are good to eat. Someone will tell them one of the following stories, as captured by Jennifer Bauman-Roy in her Kauai blog:

Locals might share their wild chicken recipe if asked. Here’s mine: Put one wild chicken in a pot of boiling water. Add spices and a lava rock for flavor. When the rock is tender, the chicken is done. Version-2: Put one wild chicken in a pot of boiling water. Add spices and a lava rock for flavor. Simmer for several hours. Discard chicken. Eat the rock. Lol…

Your Plan to Visit the Best Hawaiian Islands

This completes our detailed look at the best Hawaiian islands for the vacationer. You’ve seen our first installment on Visiting Hawaii and this one on the Best Hawaiian Islands. Therefore now you know not only how long to spend, but which island or islands are best for your first visit.

In the last blog of this series (Best Hawaii Lodging) we’ll talk about where and how you stay in Hawaii. We’ll also give suggestions about local transportation and touring options.

Your suggestions on the best Hawaiian islands – what they are and how to choose them – are welcome here!

Image Credits:

USS Arizona Memorial, Honolulu, Hawaii from US Navy via Wikipedia

Other photos taken by Art Chester


Best Hawaiian Islands for a First Visit — 1 Comment

  1. I was working in Honolulu a few years ago and the only drawback was the cost of living was much higher than Austin…. Everything else – good.