Each of the islands of the Hawai’ian chain deserves to be considered one of the best places to visit in the world. Since it’s difficult for us to decide which island is the right one for you, we provide complete guides to Oahu, Maui, the Big Island, Kauai and Lanai to help you get a taste of the wonders that each island offers.
If you want to be convinced about traveling to Hawai’i, read our travelers overview, However, if you just want to get started, here are our recommendations for the best places to visit in Hawai’i when considering all islands,
1. Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park – the Big Island
Although there are five volcanoes on the Big Island, only three are active, in a geological sense. Hualalai last erupted over 200 years ago and Mauna Loa’s last eruption was in 1984. However the volcano known as Kilauea, which is part of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, has been erupting continuously since 1983.
The Volcanoes of the Hawai’ian Island chain normally evidence gentle eruption cycles that do not have the violence associated with them, as, for example, was witnessed in the cataclysmic eruption of Mount Saint Helens in 1980. As a consequence, the eruptions of this usually slow flowing, ropey-type of lava, are relatively safe to view, as well as being scenic and spectacular, especially when viewed at a safe distance at night or from offshore.
Kilaeua’s eruption is one of the most beautiful and visceral attractions that you will ever see. It’s not often that you will have the opportunity to visit an active, erupting volcano and no one knows when Kilauea will stop its current flow, In fact, we recommend traveling to the Big Island just to see Kilauea erupt. See our guide to the Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park for more details.
2. The Road to Hana – Maui
Maui is filled with a number of excellent attractions and foremost among these is the curvy, coast-hugging, spectacularly scenic Road to Hana. We recommend taking a tour to Hana, as this will allow you to focus on the breathtaking scenery, take photos and enjoy the ride, while someone else drives.
There are more curves along this seventy-mile stretch of road than you can count and a large number single-lane bridges from which to view the shoreline, the beaches the mountain valleys and numerous waterfalls.
While the Road to Hana is the attraction, we think you will find a lot to like about the town of Hana, especially if you spend the night. Read more about the Road to Hana in our guide to Maui.
3. Waikiki – Oahu
Waikiki is a gorgeous combination of a flat, lovely beach, adjacent to the azure waters of the Pacific, surrounded by cozy hotels, upscale shopping centers and sleek condominium towers. Waikiki is a good introduction to the tropics, as it is the entryway to the delights of Oahu, one of the most diverse of the Hawai’ian Islands.
During your visit, you can laze on its scenic beach, gaze in wonderment at Diamond Head, participate in water sports, ride a submarine, eat at some of the best restaurants in Hawai’i and participate in the area’s active nightlife – something that you may really have to search for on the other islands in the Hawai’i chain, but not in Waikiki. Waikiki has a solid reputation as a family-friendly resort area and has numerous alternatives when the kids get tired of surfing. If you are going to visit Oahu, Waikiki is the place to stay.
4. Snorkeling and scuba diving – Oahu, Maui, the Big Island and Lanai
Hawai’i’s tropical waters are rich with sea life and attract snorkelers and scuba divers from around the world. Few visitors can pass up the opportunity to snorkel in Hawai’i and those who are certified head for the deeper waters and scuba.
Although there are an enormous number of excellent scuba and snorkeling locations in the Hawai’ian Island chain, among the best are: The Hanauma Bay Nature Park in Oahu, Molokini off Maui’s southwest coast, Hulopoe Beach in Lanai (only via Trilogy cruises unless you are staying on Lanai). Next up is Mauna Kea Beach at Kaunaoa Bay on the Big Island, although access here is limited (unless you are staying at the Mauna Kea Beach hotel or the Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel, both formerly owned by Westin but now owned and operated by Prince Resorts Hawai’i).
Diving, whether snorkeling or scuba, carries risks, so be sure of your swimming skills, scout the surf conditions, dive with a capable partner, and always ask locally about the safety of diving anywhere in Hawai’i.
5. Waimea Canyon State Park – Kauai
Often advertised as the Grand Canyon of Hawai’i, Waimea State Park is a spectacular sight with steep, deep colorful canyons of the Waimea Gorge touched, in places, by lush vegetation.
You need to hike in, but it is worth the scramble. On the other hand, if the weather is clear, a helicopter tour of the park might be just the ticket. Read more about the park and Kauai in our one page guide to the best places to visit.
6. World War II Pearl Harbor Memorials – Oahu
The Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor is one of the most somber of the monuments in Hawai’i dedicated to the Americans who lost their lives in World War II. The memorial center has a number of informative exhibits explaining the attack by Japan on the United States on December 7, 1941. However, the boat ride from the center to the Arizona Memorial is a lonely journey across Pearl Harbor to the spot where the USS Arizona, moored in Battleship Row, was sunk with the loss of over one thousand sailors on that Day of Infamy.
The Memorial is evocative, heart- breaking and thought provoking.
While in the area, you can visit the refurbished battleship USS Missouri (it was on her deck that the declaration ending the War with Japan was signed in Tokyo Bay in 1945), the USS Bowfin Memorial to submariners and the Pacific Aviation Museum.
7. Haleakala National Park – Maui
One of the favorite adventures of visitors to Maui is to see the sun rise over Haleakala National Park, a view which is breathtaking, to say the least.
Haleakala is an ancient volcano, often wreathed by clouds, that looms over much of Maui. It is the signature vista of this island and thought by some to be an energy vortex with “powers” much like those associated with the peaks surrounding Sedona, Arizona. We are not sure what to think about the vortex claim, but Haleakala is mysterious, foreboding and starkly beautiful. In addition, Haleakala is a scenic wonderland with many unique habitats to explore and the Park is recognized as an important international biosphere.
Finally, you can rent a bike and glide down the slope of Haleakala (starting outside of the National Park boundary) for an exciting ride while experiencing an enchanting view of Maui.
8. Hilo and Hamakua – the Big Island
If you are looking for a sense of the tropics as they used to be, the Big Island’s northeast coast from Hilo through the Hamakua District is a must-see. This is the rainy side of the Island and home to lush rainforests and amazing waterfalls. Take the Hilo Hamakua Heritage Drive (the Hawai’i Belt Road) and be prepared to experience Hawai’i’s primal beauty, including small towns and villages seemingly unchanged for generations. See our description of the Hilo and Hamakua area in our guide to the Big Island.
9. Whale Watching Cruises – Maui
The warm winter water off Maui’s western and south shores attracts Humpback whales who migrate here from the North Pacific near the Aleutian Islands to mate and birth their offspring. The season runs from November through May and the gentle giants are usually present in abundance. See our Guide to the best places to visit in Maui for more details on what else this famous island has to offer.
10. Napali Coast State Wilderness Park – Kauai
The beauty of the rugged Napali Coast is stunning. You can discover this for yourself by trekking a series of trails that are as rugged as the topography, or you can observe the spectacular view from a boat or a helicopter. Either way, the beauty is endless, although you may feel more a sense of accomplishment if you are an avid, in-shape trekker and conquer the challenge of the trail.
11. Polynesian Cultural Center – Oahu
The Polynesian Cultural Center on the northeast shore of Oahu explores and celebrates the Polynesian culture across the Pacific Ocean. Interactive activities make this attraction a hit with kids and its luau is one of the best on Oahu. Do yourself a favor; this is a must-see stop if you visit Oahu. Explore our guide to Oahu for more information on this and other fantastic attractions.
12. Luxury resorts and golf – Lanai
If you really want to get away from it all and be pampered at the same time, visit the island of Lanai. Although it’s a compact, almost tiny isle, it is well-known for its two luxury resorts, each of which has a signature golf course. The Four Seasons at Manele Bay is a spectacular beach-side resort in the lowlands of the island, while the Four Seasons Lodge of Koele is a plantation-style resort,located high in the hills of Lanai. Other than seclusion, pampering, relaxation and golf, Lanai is short on attractions, but most people who visit never notice and for good reason.
13. North Shore Surfing Beaches – Oahu
One of the delights of visiting Oahu is the chance to view the activity at its North Shore surfing beaches that are famous around the world for their waves and the unique surf culture that permeates this area of Hawai’i. Sunset Beach, Ehukai, Waimea Beach Park and other beach areas will thrill you with the size of the breaking surf and the hardy riders that brave their majestic waves. See our recommendations on the best beaches in Oahu, part of our guide to the best places to visit in Oahu.
14. Mauna Kea – Big Island
Mauna Kea is an extinct volcano that towers almost fourteen thousand feet above sea level. Its peak is adorned with numerous observatories and high powered telescopes for searching the universe. Although the biggest and best of these imaging devices are off limits to visitors, stargazing from the slopes of Mauna Kea on a clear night will likely be the highlight of your visit to the Big Island.
The drive is difficult and demanding of both the driver and the vehicle. Four-wheel-drive vehicles are required and we recommend that you sign up for a Mauna Kea Summit tour and let someone else do the driving while you gawk at the sights. Read more about visiting Mauna Kea in our guide to Hawai’i’s Big Island. Mauna Kea is not a tour for everyone and as you can see from the snow in the photo, it’s cold at that elevation, even if it is in the tropics.