It’s no secret that the islands of Aloha are a paradise on earth. And it’s a given that no matter where you go in Hawaii, you’ll be treated to gorgeous scenery, spectacular beaches, a tranquil atmosphere, fantastic weather and friendly faces. But, just like people, each of the islands has its own personality and vibes. And with vacation time, not to mention dollars, in limited supply these days, visitors want to know which of the six Hawaiian islands best suits their style. Here, we’ve profiled the picturesque isles so you can make the most of your time.
Maui has more than 30 miles of beaches, and with that many all on one island, your only worry is deciding among them. Sun worshippers swear by Kaanapali Beach, a three-mile-long crescent lined with posh resorts, tony condos, swanky shops and top restaurants. Its central location makes it great for people watching. Some of the best snorkeling can be found at Kapalua Bay Beach, bordering the Kapalua resort area. The bay is protected by two reefs, which keep the waters calm, making it an ideal spot for beginners. Maluaka Beach in Makena on the south shore is known as Turtle Town, for its booming population of placid green sea turtles. Windsurfers and kiteboarders have made the north shore’s Kanaha Beach their haven.
Grab a spot on the sand and watch the world’s best windsurfers in action at Hookipa Beach, where 20-foot waves are the norm. Puamana Beach on the west coast is a favorite for beginner-and intermediate-level surfers, thanks to waisthigh, gently rolling waves. And if powdery-white or gleaming golden-sand beaches become too run-of-the-mill for you, head to the redsand Kaihalulu Beach in Hana on the far east coast of the island. This hidden gem can be reached only by a slippery cinder trail, but the view makes it well worth the effort.
From left: Life’s a beach on Maui. Get ready to row your boat off Maui’s coast. Call of the conch shell signals sunset on Maui. Photography courtesy of Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailer: Jamie Ardiles-Arce, McDuffee Everton, Kyle Rothenberg.
The Garden Isle is regarded as the most verdant and beautiful green scene in the Hawaiian Islands. Kauai has endless scenery to savor and explore. One of the finest walks is the strenuous Kalalau Trail, an 11-mile trek that winds along the rugged coastline. The path descends into dense rain forests and climbs up cliffs; along the way, streams and pools provide refreshing swimming holes. Kokee State Park, home to the enormous Waimea Canyon, offers about 45 miles of the state’s finest hiking trails, in varying degrees of difficulty. Hop on an excursion with Kayak Kauai, and you can enjoy the adventure with the help of knowledgeable guides (excursions start at $126 per person and include guides, gear, lunch and juices; kayakkauai.com). If you prefer to explore from the water, Outfitters Kauai offers several day-long kayak excursions, including tours to breathtaking 2,000-foot-high waterfalls and whale watching (excursions start at $81 per person and include transfers, lunch and water; outfitterskauai.com).
From left:The Garden Isle, indeed: a typical—and gorgeous—sight on Kauai. Riding high on the Princeville Ranch. Photography: Kauai Visitors Bureau; courtesy of Princeville Ranch Stables.
With 12 climate zones, ranging from tropical rain forest to desert and snowy peaks, the Big Island of Hawaii is the perfect playground for those who crave adventure. You’ll soar over lava fields, towering sea cliffs, gushing waterfalls, isolated valleys and black-sand beaches (excursions start at $183 per person; bluehawaiian.com). Or get down and dirty on a hike through the lush forest on the rim of Waipio Valley, located along the Hamakua Coast on the northeastern portion of the island. Hawaii Forest & Trail offers guided hikes to the area, as well as tours of the rain forest in Kohala, on the northernmost portion of the island.
You can also take an excursion to the observatories on top of snow-covered Mauna Kea as well as to the continuously erupting Kilauea in Volcanoes National Park (excursions start at $135 per person and include water, juices and snacks; hawaii-forest.com). A five-hour bike tour, starting at the rim of Kilauea and winding through the protected area and down to the sea, is available through BikeVolcano.com, Inc. (excursions start at $99 per person; bikevolcano.com).
From left: Flying high above Kilauea in Volcanoes National Park, the Big Island. A spectacular Big Island waterfall. Photography: Blue Hawaiian Helicopters. Hawaii's Big Island Visitor Bureau (BIVB).
Attention all foodies, shoppers and club goers: Oahu, home to famous Waikiki Beach, the sizzling city of Honolulu and more than 60% of the state’s entire population, is tailor-made for you. The most cosmopolitan of the Pacific archipelago, this island boasts world-class shopping and highly rated restaurants. But even as a city setting, the island is still very Hawaiian—strolling, surfing and enjoying the sunset are top activities.
A unique blend of cultures can be found in Hawaii, which means that many restaurants here feature a fusion of flavors with influences from Japan, the Philippines, China, Korea, Portugal and the Pacific Rim. Fine dining options include Chef Mavro, where you’ll find intense flavors and the freshest ingredients in a seasonally changing menu. Each dish is paired with a wine of the chef’s choosing (chefmavro.com). At Alan Wong’s, foodies flock nightly to sample the playful interpretations of traditional Hawaiian dishes such as ginger-crusted onaga and Big Island abalone with Japanese mushrooms (alanwongs.com).
From left: The romance of Oahu on Waikiki Beach. Sublime style reigns supreme in the Vera Wang Suite in the Hotel Halekulani on Oahu. Photography: Hilton Hawaiian Village Beach Resort & Spa; The Hotels & Resorts of Halekulani.
Don’t miss out on an authentic Hawaiian dining experience—the plate lunch—a mountain of rice and meat, or fish topped with gravy, and served with a side of macaroni salad or cole slaw. Carb-rich, calorie laden, dead cheap and absolutely delicious, these so-called local “grinds” are the soul food of Hawaii. The humble Ono Hawaiian Foods, widely considered one of the best plate-lunch spots, serves authentic Hawaiian favorites, including lau lau, lomilomi salmon, kalua pork and poi. When President Obama comes to town, he favors Rainbow Drive-In, an outdoor eatery founded in 1961 that’s also a hit with surfers (rainbowdrivein.com).
Fukuya is a 70-year-old family-run Japanese okazuya (delicatessen) that sells items individually, so you can create a personalized plate lunch. Specialties include Spam musubi (a cake of Japanese steamed rice, topped with a piece of Spam that has been simmered in a salty-sweet glaze), tempura and sushi (fukuyadeli.com).
Dancing under the stars is just one of the nightlife options in this up-all-night destination. Kick the evening off with a sunset mai tai in the oceanfront hot spot, Duke’s Canoe Club and Barefoot Bar, at the Outrigger Waikiki Beach Hotel. Enjoy live Hawaiian music sitting in the sand or opt to tour the walls of surfing memorabilia inside the popular beach bar. After dinner, join Hawaii’s chic set at the Pearl Ultralounge, located in the Ho’okipa Terrace at Ala Moana Center. The sleek bar features killer appetizers, an extensive cocktail menu, live acoustic music in the early evening and a DJ playing top-40 hits at night (pearlhawaii.com). Level 4 Nightclub & Ultra Lounge is arguably the best nightclub on Oahu. Modeled after Las Vegas discos, the hot spot has three bars, an exclusive VIP seating area, go-go dancers and aerialists. Don’t be surprised if you bump into vacationing pop stars and pro-football players here (l4waikiki.com).
Shoppers score big on Oahu, which boasts a host of upscale designer stores and smaller, family-run boutiques. For designer duds, head to 2100 Kalakaua. Here, elegant shops, including Chanel, Bottega Veneta and Gucci, are situated along a palm tree-lined block (2100kalakaua.com). The enormous,open-air Ala Moana Center is a good option for those who like to combine some high-end window shopping with their more mid-priced buying sprees (alamoanacenter.com). Bailey’s Antiques & Aloha Shirts is jammed with an array of new and vintage Hawaiian shirts (known in the islands as aloha shirts), with prices that range from breathtaking to bargain (alohashirts.com). The Aloha Stadium Swap Meet & Marketplace is a can’t-miss for bargain hunters. Here you can purchase souvenir staples like coral shell jewelry, T-shirts and pottery, as well as an array of everyday items decorated in Hawaiian-style floral prints (admission is $1 per person; open Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday from 6:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.; alohastadiumswapmeet.net).
What you won’t see on these sleepy isles: crowds, tall buildings or traffic lights. What you will see: empty beaches, awesome vistas and seemingly endless miles of untamed coastline. Lanai, the more developed of the two, has just 3,000 residents and two resorts—the seaside Four Seasons Resort Lanai, Manele Bay and the upcountry Four Seasons Resort Lanai, The Lodge at Koele (room rates start at $385 a night; fourseasons.com). Unlike the other islands, Lanai doesn’t have much of a tropical feel—kiawe trees, towering Cook pines and red dirt replace swaying palm trees. Go on a horseback ride from the Stables at Koele through stands of ironwood trees in the high country or hike along the Munro trail, which rises to Lanai hale, the island’s highest point. From here, savor the views of nearly all of Hawaii in silence. And from the comfort of a beach chair, watch the spinner dolphins frolic in Hulopoe Bay near the Four Seasons property at Menele Bay.
Visiting Molokai is like stepping back in time. Known as the Most Hawaiian Island, Molokai is dotted with horse ranches, rolling pastures and farmland. Condos and vacation rentals take the place of luxury resorts, and the low-key, ocean-front Hotel Molokai is the lone hotel option. Visitors love the open-air bungalows, friendly staff and live entertainment (room rates start at $159 a night; hotelmolokai.com). The island’s must-do activity is the three-mile mule ride to the tiny town of Kalaupapa, along a winding path, during which you pass numerous sheer drops on sea cliffs and negotiate about 26 switchbacks. After that, slip back into unwind mode on Papohaku Beach, which, at three uninterrupted miles, is the longest in the Hawaiian islands.