With over 100 picture perfect beaches, 10 of the world’s 14 climate zones, three active volcanoes and limitless warm aloha spirit, the Hawaiian Islands definitely earn the status of (at least..) a once in a lifetime trip. Of the eight islands in the Hawaiian chain, only seven are inhabited and six open to tourists. Each one is unique in landscape and atmosphere so dependent on what you’re looking for, some islands may be a better fit for you than others. But let’s get one thing straight, there is no wrong island, all are paradise! A good rule of thumb is a week minimum per island if you really want to see what it has to offer. Hawaiian Airlines fly between all the islands, and prices start at £110 round trip.
So unless you are lucky enough to have time to see them all, we’ve got some tips to help you choose which Hawaiian islands to hit up first…
Best for: White sand beaches, surf and big city fun on a small island setting
Of Hawaii’s 1.4 million residents, just under 1 million of them live on the island of Oahu, and it is home to the state’s capital Honolulu. It’s also the most visited of all the Hawaiian Islands. You may want to completely bypass the busy tourist scene in Waikiki (it’s a love or hate) but we recommend you don’t miss the nearby Diamond Head trail hike, as the views of Honolulu and the North Pacific from the top of this volcanic crater are out of this world. Honolulu is the place for the state’s best shopping, nightlife and cultural activity. Think fancy restaurants, bars, heritage sites, museums – you will not be short of entertainment here. However, we love and prefer the laid back North Shore for the aloha spirit, surf, snorkelling and sunsets. Under an hour from lively Honolulu, the crowds dissipate and you’ll be met with pristine white sand beaches and pink-hued sunsets over turquoise waters. Head to both Sunset Beach and Waimea Bay for unparalleled beach beauty and big waves in the winter.
DON’T MISS: Haleiwa Town
Haleiwa is sleepy surf town meets bohemian art scene and historic charm. On the main strip, the streets are lined with brightly coloured boutiques, art galleries, casual sun-drenched cafes, restaurants and surf shops. Spend an afternoon perusing the art, local handmade jewellery, organic Hawaiian skincare and more. You’ll be spoilt for choice with delicious food options, in a place where locavores rule and ingredients are locally sourced where possible. Our favourite food spots are The Beet Box for their mushroom burger and The Elephant shack for Thai food.
WE LOVE: Poke Bowls
Before poke bowls became a worldwide phenomenon, it was a centuries-old meal on the Hawaiian Islands. The signature cuts of fresh fish are tossed over rice and coated with flavourful sauces; seasonings change from place to place but there are a few varieties that show up often such as Hawaiian style (soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic and ginger) and Spicy (same as Hawaiian style but with sriracha). You’ll find amazing fresh poke on all Hawaiian islands, but our favourites on Oahu are the Aji Limo truck on the north shore, for their Peruvian, Japanese and Thai inspired flavours. Top tip – do like a local and buy your poke from a local supermarket, where the quality is high and the prices low.
Best for: Hiking, surfing, and those that want to escape the tourist crowds
The Emerald Isle or Garden Island, Kauai is the oldest of the islands and the wettest. But don’t let that put you off. With the rain comes raging waterfalls, lush tropical vegetation, and a remarkable landscape of sculpted mountain ridges covered in every shade of green, unequivocally earning its nicknames. The island is truly beautiful and a special place where the mana (life energy) and aloha spirit is abundant. If you are a nature lover then this is the island for you. You are spoilt for choice for hikes of all lengths on Kauai, offering views that will stick with you a long time after you leave. At the time of writing, Nā Pali Coast State Park is closed due to flooding damage, so keep a check on when this reopens. But until then there is still plenty to keep you busy and trails in Koke’e State Park will give you awe-inspiring views of the coastline. For more Nā Pali Coast viewing you’ll need to take a boat trip or helicopter to see it in all its glory – a magical experience. Some of the most beautiful beaches in the state are on Kauai and surf is plentiful; our favourites are Secret Beach for its secluded location and nearby lava pools, and idyllic Hanalei Bay for the calmer waters and iconic pier. Head to Poipu Beach for a glimpse of Hawaiian Monk Seals sunbathing next to giant Green Sea Turtles. Then as you make your way up to the pretty town of Hanalei, stop for the freshest açai bowls at Kalalea Juice Hale.
DON’T MISS: Waimea Canyon
Waimea Canyon is a sight to behold and a must visit, even if you just make the lookout point which is accessible by car. If you’re in the market for a hike then you have a few options with canyon views in Koke’e State Park including Kukui Trail that takes you 2000ft down to the bottom of the canyon – allow for at least 5 hours for this round trip. Our favourite is the more moderate Canyon Trail which has sweeping views and takes you to the top of the 800ft Waipio Falls.
WE LOVE: #VanLife
One of the biggest misconceptions of Hawaii is that it’s all expensive touristy resorts. Yes – they exist. But what you’ll also find is state and county parks offer camping and van camping across all islands and honestly what could be better than having your home wherever you decide to park it? On Kauai, the best option to live out your van life fantasy is Kauai Camper Rentals. Their beautifully restored VW Westfalia campervans look as good as they are convenient. Owners Josh and Sarah are the perfect island guides giving you lots of local tips when they pick up at the airport. The campers are fully equipped with everything you could need including a propane stove, sink with running water, tables, chairs, travel hammocks… the list is endless. $165 a day.
HAWAI’I (AKA The Big Island)
Best for: Traditional Hawaiian culture, active volcanoes, black sand beaches and swimming with turtles
The biggest of the Hawaiian Islands – but with only a fifth of Oahu’s population – The Big Island is home to Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire and volcanoes. For a true taste of Hawaiian culture, the Big Island is for you; Hawaiian’s say it reminds them of ‘old Hawaii’ and you can almost feel the history across the island. It’s a place to slow down and disconnect, quite literally sometimes as the WiFi can be dodgy, and common speed limits are 15mph. Hiring a 4×4 is not essential, but preferable to allow you to access all areas of the island. In May 2018, 700 acres of new land was created as a river of lava flowed into the ocean, following Kīlauea’s biggest volcanic eruption in recent history. Four months later, Volcano National Park is now partially reopen allowing visitors to access some of the trails, overlooks and see the devastation first hand. Water babies will definitely want to stop at Kahalu’u Beach which is considered the best snorkelling in the whole of Hawaii, for swimming with Honu (sea turtles) and tropical fish. Hiking to Papakolea Beach – the most southern point of the USA – is a great morning activity and you’ll be rewarded by a picturesque bay and green (ish) sand. Set off early to beat the crowds and avoid walking in the blazing sunshine. Don’t forget to head up north for delicious vegan food in Javi, and stop at Hapuna Beach on your way back down to Kona.
DON’T MISS: Mauna Kea
The journey to Mauna Kea is an experience in itself, driving across the Saddle Road past volcanic rock, old craters now covered in grass, and panoramic views of the island. You’ll feel like you’re on Mars. Free stargazing takes place on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday evenings at the Mauna Kea visitors centre (at 9,200ft). Call on the day to check it’s on before you make the long drive up, as cloud cover is common and you need a clear night for an unforgettable experience. We recommend hiking the Mauna Kea summit and then sticking around until the sun goes down for stargazing.
WE LOVE: Volcano Village Lodge
Visiting the volcanoes and seeing the lava is a must on the Big Island, and nearby Volcano Village Lodge is a rainforest retreat; peaceful, unspoiled and located under two miles from the park entrance. Wake up in the middle of your very own secluded tropical paradise. If you’re alone or in a couple – ask for the Hale Kīlauea room with its glass walls that let you blend into the primal garden of the bamboo, giant tree ferns, colourful Anthuriums, and the old Ohia trees. From $280 a night.
Best for: Resorts, water sports, beaches and scenic drives
Maui is the second biggest and second most populated island, with over 30 miles of white, red and black sand beaches. The island definitely feels more developed than Kauai or the Big Island, but it’s touristy for a reason, and if you look in the right places there are still some hidden gems to be discovered. The breathtakingly beautiful Road To Hana drive is 64.4 miles long with 54 one lane bridges and more hairpin turns than you can count. Dependent on your schedule, do the drive over a couple of days allowing time to stop at sites off the road. Expect endless waterfalls, bamboo forests, food stalls and dramatic viewpoints along the way. To hang out with the surfers, soul seekers and daydreamers, spend a day in Paia, a cute beach town where you’ll also find Mama’s Fish House, a must if you are looking for freshly caught fish. You’ll spend a lot of time hanging out on the beach in Maui, and our favourite places to do that are Big Beach, Ka’anapali and Malala Beach. Head to Hi’okipa for surfing, windsurfing and kiteboarding, and when you get hungry we recommend Choice Health Bar, for reasonably priced and delicious vegan food.
DON’T MISS: Sunrise at Haleakala
Set an early alarm and drive the twirling mountain road to the lofty peak of Haleakala, one of the world’s largest dormant volcano. Haleakala forms more than 75% of Maui! You’ll need to make a reservation online at the recreation.gov website ahead of time (up to 60 days in advance). Top tip – pack a warm jacket! It can get very cold at the summit.
WE LOVE: Island Hopping
There are only two inter-island passenger ferries in Hawaii, and they both go to and from Maui. One is 45 minutes to Lana’i ($30 one way) and the other is to Moloka’i (90 minutes/ $70). A good way to cure your wanderlust on a budget if you don’t want to take a more expensive plane journey to one of the larger islands.
words by Mea Perkins