I know what you’re thinking – why not go to all of them? The trouble is, all three islands are so packed with things to see and do that you’d be hard-pressed to find the time to relax and explore them all without staying 20 days or more.
My advice to you is don’t spread yourself too thin. It’s better to thoroughly enjoy one island than spend your entire vacation hopping between them. After all, we go to Hawaii for a relaxing holiday. Changing hotels and boarding flights every other day doesn’t sound particularly tranquil!
Oahu – The Family Island
Although Oahu may be a bit touristy and commercial to some, it is a great destination for families to visit. Beaches, restaurants, water sports, shopping — you name it. People often regret hopping to different islands and spending too little time on Oahu because it has so much to offer. Waikiki Beach is the most famous beach on Oahu not only for its gorgeous sunsets and white sand, but its fantastic beachfront restaurants and shops, where you can get a Hawaiian t-shirt, a surfboard lesson, and even rent a stand-up paddle.
If you like shopping, go to the largest shopping mall in Hawaii — Ala Moana Shopping Center — and enjoy the low sales tax (4.16 percent!) at Waikele Premium Outlets.
North Shore is a surfers’ paradise but also great for families and couples to enjoy the spectacular views from Sunset and Waimea Beaches. You can also spot sea turtles at the Laniakea Beach, snorkel at Sharks Cove, and see monk seals at Ka’ena Point. Best of all? These are all FREE activities you can enjoy at North Shore!
Other must-dos include grabbing a shaved ice and Kua ‘Aina Burger at Old Town Hale’iwa, hiking at Diamond Head, discovering Pacific culture at the Polynesian Cultural Center, snorkeling at Hanauma Bay, and kayaking at Kailua Beach. If you can afford it, Disney’s Aulani Resort is a magical spot for spending some family time, too.
Maui – The Honeymoon Island
Maui’s beautiful scenery and quiet beaches make it a great island for honeymooning. Visit Mama’s Fish House for fancy, locally sourced seafood or the Flatbread Company for delicious wood-fire pizzas, then treat your eyes to incredible sunsets and clouds over the Haleakala Crater. There are plenty of activities to join, too, such as the popular whale-watching and snorkeling tours at Molokini Island. If you’d like some adventure, try joining a downhill biking tour from the Haleakala Crater — it’s a 6,500-foot descent so quick that you hardly have to peddle!
For a more leisurely excursion, take a stroll along Front Street in the historic whaling village of Lahaina. You’ll love the charming local shops and unique Hawaiian crafts, decorations, and food. A drive along the scenic Road to Hana makes for a romantic adventure, too, and I highly recommend spending a day on the white sand beach of Makena — a spacious alternative to popular spots such as Kaanapali Beach.
Don’t forget to stop by the black sand beach at Wai’anapanapa State Park and snap a selfie!
Big Island of Hawaii – The Volcano Island
The main reason most people visit the Big Island is to see the volcanoes. There are three active volcanoes on the Big Island. Together, they make up Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
To see lava flowing into the ocean, you’ll have to take a helicopter tour. Make sure to check for updates on daily volcano activity here. To get up close and personal with the lava, you’ll need to take a guided lava tour. I recommend going at night so that you can really see the lava glow. I also highly recommend finding a separate activity for the kids since lava hikes tend to be wet, long (at least seven hours), and physically challenging.
Other must-sees on the Big Island include Rainbow Falls in Hilo, Akaka Falls State Park in North Hamakua, and Waipio Valley. Since the island is so large, I suggest you plan to fly into Kona and depart from Hilo. That way you can explore the whole island without the hassle of driving back (a five-hour drive round trip). Just check with your car rental company and make sure they allow different drop-off locations.
Which one should I go to?
It really depends on the nature of your trip. If you would like a little of everything all in one, then I’d go with Oahu; if you don’t care about shopping and don’t mind the super laid back atmosphere, then Maui is a great choice; if you really want to see the volcanoes, then go to the Big Island of Hawaii.
Which island interests you the most? If you had five days to spend in Hawaii, which island would you visit?