If you have never traveled to Hawaii before, then it can be time consuming to try and figure out which island is best for you. Even if you are familiar with Hawaii, you may only really know one or two of the islands, and therefore miss out on what the other ones have to offer. The Gathering Place, The Valley Isle, The Big Island and The Garden Isle are all individually unique and interesting to explore, but it helps to know the highlights of each one. I’ve compiled two to three different characteristics about each island that really give insight into their personality and defining traits. Hopefully it’ll help you choose where to vacation amongst the four main islands and offer ideas for what to see and do once you’re here in Hawaii. Oahu, known as The Gathering Place is the most popular Hawaiian Island of all. Partly because it harbors the capitol of the Aloha state which is most common for business travelers, but also partly because Oahu has a variety of landmarks and culture that boast an iconic impression of Hawaii. Such as Waikiki, my first highlight. Waikiki is classic Hawaii, with white sand, clear waters, longboarders and evening tiki torches, and has the feel of topical, luxurious and picturesque Hawaii. Even if you’re not into this aspect, Waikiki still offers a lot of history and culture that helps to round out your Hawaii imprint.

2 Paddleboarders head for the ocean at Haleiwa

My next highlight for Oahu is the Seven Mile Miracle, located on the North Shore in the town of Haleiwa. Known as the legendary birthplace of surfing, this stretch of sand is home to the world-famous breaks of Pipeline, Waimea Bay and Sunset, among many others. Even if you’re not into surfing, this area can still be appreciated in different ways, such as boutique shopping, local coffee shops, roadside fruit stands, food trucks and gorgeous beaches. You can even visit the North Shore for the famous shrimp truck experience, and shrimp hop from spot to spot to sample the different flavors. The last Oahu highlight has to do with anyone interested in history, architecture and a lively nightlife. During the day, downtown Honolulu, otherwise known as Chinatown, consists of streets upon streets of unique shops and eateries dotted with museums and historical landmarks. This is a great place for an urban adventure, and if you need some time away from the beach I highly recommend a walking tour through downtown Honolulu. During the nighttime, this area comes alive with the youth of Oahu. From swanky lounges to dance clubs to wine bars, you can find the gamut of nightlife here in Honolulu. Music, comedy clubs and other live entertainment are abundant, and I highly recommend experiencing Chinatown during both daylight and nighttime hours. Kauai, known as The Garden Isle, is quiet, lush and natural. You won’t see many streetlights here and much of the land remains undeveloped and untouched. For those seeking seclusion, I recommend Kauai, and here’s a few reasons why.

waves crashing on the shore of Napali Coast on Kauai

The Na Pali coast is the land that extends between the west side and the north shore, and is famous for its breathtaking scenery. Steep cathedral-like ridges drop straight into the ocean below, and the combination of greens, blues and red colored earth are stunning. You can visit the Na Pali coast by boating or hiking, and each is a wildly difference experience. By boat you can explore the sea caves, waterfalls and snorkel the coastline, whereas with hiking you can walk the beaches and trails, explore the bamboo forests and enjoy a slower pace. And speaking of the North Shore of Kauai, my next highlight is snorkeling the beaches that are strewn along the coast here. Hanalei is most ideal for swimming and snorkeling in the summer months. The waves have died down and the water is clear and calm. Some of the more famous beaches for snorkeling are Tunnels and Ke‘e, but you can also enjoy underwater sightseeing in Hanalei (around the pier) and Anini. These beaches are all worth your time, especially since there is little to no crowds. Don’t forget to stop at the main town in Hanalei, known as Ching Young Village, which is populated with cute shops, eateries, art galleries and more.

My last highlight for Kauai is Poipu, on the south side. While it has always been touted for its beautiful beaches and gorgeous weather, Poipu has recently undergone some major development and now offers much more for visitors. Kukui‘ula shopping center was built within the past five years and includes high end shopping and dining plus lively sports bars, sushi restaurants, surf shops and unique gift stores. You can also find Lappert’s here, which is the famous ice cream shop and a must-try for anyone with a sweet tooth. Poipu is also wonderful for leisure walking, beach combing, snorkeling and swimming, and the Beach Park has pavilions, BBQ’s and picnic tables for anyone looking to spend a full day in the outdoors. Across from this beach park is a sandwich shop that sells awesome shave ice and upstairs you can find finer fare and a fun happy hour. Next-door is Nukumoi surf shop where you can rent surfboards, body boards or snorkel gear to enhance your Poipu day.

lava rock ocean scene at Hana Maui

Maui, or The Valley Isle, is notorious for its dramatic scenery and lush interiors. It’s got a great mix of daytime activities with nighttime events and is a favorite among many Hawaii vacationers. My first highlight for Maui is hands down the Hana Highway. Whether you take this drive starting from the southwest side of the island or from the north side, it’s going to be a gorgeous ride. With 68 miles to explore, this route winds through a range of views including dramatic cliffs, black sand beaches, lush tropical rainforest, tumbling waterfalls and natural pools. There are tons of stop-offs to enjoy and I highly recommend the Pipiwai Trail to the Waimoku Falls. If you park in the lot to walk this trail, don’t forget to explore the beach side of it all too, where you can swim in the fresh water pools near the sand. Hana also has country shops, stores and street side luncheonettes.
The Hana Highway is a wonderful driving tour.

My second recommended highlights on Maui are Lahaina and Kaanapali, which are located within five miles of one another. Lahaina is one main street with various smaller streets consisting of charming shops, boutiques, art galleries, eateries, museums and more. It’s a great place for strolling and window shopping and even better for its nightlife. Bars like Moose McGillycuddy’s, Fleetwood’s and Longhi’s are good fun and a great way to mingle with locals and other visitors. During the daytime you can find just as much liveliness to enjoy on the streets of Lahaina too. Five miles west of Lahaina is the Kaanapali coast, which is a beautiful stretch of sand backed by resorts. This beach is ideal for swimming, snorkeling and lounging and you can even watch the famous cliff-jumping-torch-lighting ceremony that happens at Black Rock. Quintessential to Hawaii, men in traditional garb scale the cliff to light the torches along the volcanic rock and then plunge into the waters below. During the daytime, you can take this plunge too if you’re feeling adventurous.

Lastly, the Big Island, otherwise known as Hawaii, is notorious and unique for many things, my favorite being its national park. The Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is located 30 miles southwest of Hilo and is the most popular attraction on the Big Island. No other park boasts these types of natural wonders, such as the active Kilauea volcano, calderas, lava flows, volcanology museum and more. It is quite a spectacle and very unique to this island, but Big Island is also notorious for its varied climates and landscapes. The largest of all islands in Hawaii, the Big Island is fantastically diverse and known for its great daytime adventuring.

Mother and daughter Hiking on the big island

Kailua-Kona, on the Big Island’s sunny Kona coast, is a historical seaside hotspot that is great for just about anything. Charming, historical yet with modern luxuries, Kailua-Kona has a variety of restaurants, beachfront rental properties, small beaches and snorkeling coves, live music, shopping and more. It’s a great place to enjoy the beauty of the Big Island, especially during sunset hours.

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