Explore Hawaii

Planning a Hawaii Vacation

Hawaii's four major islands have a style all their own. Here's what you need to know before choosing your aloha destination.

Balmy weather, sandy beaches and a lot of aloha, but before packing sunscreen and bathing suits, first-time visitors to Hawaii need to ask themselves two preliminary questions: 1) How long will they stay?; and 2) Which island(s) will they visit?

For those on a weeklong vacation, visiting another island would be ill-advised. Aside from the hassle of going through TSA security and baggage check-in, the average cost of a roundtrip ticket from, say, Oahu to the Big Island is $180 per person. Add on top of that the $17 luggage tariff that’s imposed on the first bag and an equal amount for the second; you can see that expenses can quickly escalate.

To address the second question, deciding on which island to visit depends entirely on what you seek. Each island possesses its charm, and like we say in the Islands, “Lucky We Live Hawaii.” Here’s a quick snapshot of the four major Hawaiian Islands:

Map of the Hawaiian islands
Oahu has Waikiki and Diamond Head. The Big Island has a national park for volcanoes. Maui has amazing resorts, and Kauai's rugged beauty draws adventurous travelers.


Living up to its reputation as the “Gathering Place,” Oahu is the third largest of the Hawaiian Islands and is the most populous. Visitors from around the globe descend on our sunny shores every year to explore our beaches, restaurants, nightlife and collection of retail shops. The island is home to Waikīkī, which means “spouting water,” referring to the swamps that were drained in the 1920s to create what is now the fun capital of Hawaii and one of the most famous destinations in the world. With its 1.5 miles of turquoise-and-white-sand coastline, famous beachboys and surfers, and hotels for all tastes, Waikiki is a place where everyone is having a good time. Kalākaua Avenue is lined with restaurants and shops, from upscale-designer to kitschy souvenir, and the beaches are awash with sun worshippers, swimmers, canoe paddlers and the occasional curious sea turtle (keep your distance). At the Diamond Head end of Waikīkī, Kapi‘olani Park (a former polo field), Honolulu Zoo and the Waikiki Aquarium are recreational magnets for visitors. With its varied attractions, romantic sunsets, perfect weather and storied beach, this former playground of Hawaiian royalty still lives up to its name.

Honolulu and Waikiki Beach
Honolulu and Waikiki Beach are among the world's most famous vacation destinations. (©Sergiy N/Shutterstock)


The Big Island

As the largest of the Hawaiian Island chain, Hawai’i, or the Big Island, offers visitors many things to do and see. There are beaches, mountains, waterfalls, old cowboy towns, many ancient sacred sites and, of course, Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park. Home of the fiery goddess Pele, Kilauea Volcano has been creating new land while alternately devouring homes and roads since its most recent eruption in 1983. As the most popular attraction in the Hawaiian Islands, thousands have seen its glowing displays and walked through its strange sulfuric clouds. The main lava pit, or caldera, is easily accessible by car on the Chain of Craters Road. The volcano is a constantly changing dynamic, so call or stop by the Kilauea Visitor Center (808.985.6000) first to get the latest flow reports and lava-viewing tips.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Hike across cooling lava flows like this one at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. (©Radoslaw Lecyk/Shutterstock)



From Upcountry to the shoreline, rainforest to resorts, Maui is the island that has it all, including a certain kind of red rain that’s visible only at a certain time in the late afternoon from a certain part of the road leading to Haleakala in Upcountry Maui. This is the magic of Haleakala and its surroundings, where the interplay of atmospheric elements creates a visual feast at every turn. You’ll pass the town of Makawao, true to its paniolo (cowboy) past yet lined with sophisticated boutiques and restaurants. The most frequently visited spot on the island, Lahaina is the only West Maui destination with a genuine downtown. Once the capital of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i and the international center of whaling, it’s now known as a fun-loving town of seaside attractions, restaurants, galleries and hideaway cafés. Its main draw is Front Street, a maze of quirky, carefree haunts that includes galleries, souvenir shops, Lahaina Harbor and such historic sites as the Old Courthouse on Wharf Street. Isolated from the rest of the island, Hana is an undeveloped tropical enclave on the east end of Maui. You’ll find some of the island’s most striking beaches here: the black-sand beach of Waianapanapa State Park, the red sands at Kaihalulu, and Hamoa Beach. The famous Hana Highway, the only road that connects the town with the rest of the island, takes roughly three hours to traverse and winds its way over single-lane bridges and past numerous waterfalls and scenic sights.

From sophisticated resorts to quirky culture, Maui is a breathtaking island full of a variety of experiences. (©Ruth Choi)



Like its mountains, Kauai’s beaches are among the most beautiful in the world. You’ve seen them in such films as “South Pacific” and “Blue Hawaii,” with 2012’s “The Descendants” their latest starring role. Hanalei Bay is a sweeping curve of white sand surrounded by mountains that are often laced with waterfalls. At the end of Highway 56, where the Napali Coast begins, the waters of Kee Beach teem with fish and corals that dazzle snorkeler and beachgoers. Kee’s south shore counterpart, Poipu Beach, is known for its idyllic swimming and snorkeling, and in Hanapepe, Salt Pond Beach Park is calm and popular year-round. In Wailua, Lydgate Beach Park has a protective surrounding reef that makes it a favorite for families with small children. From shoreline to mountains and everything in between, the Garden Isle does not disappoint. While Kauai’s beaches are always beautiful, they can also be dangerous at times, especially in the winter. Before exploring the ocean, the Hawaii Lifeguard Association advises visitors to log on to OceanSafety.Soest.Hawaii.Edu for daily forecasts, or call the Kauai Marine Forecast at 808.245.2564 for information.

Kauai's Napali Coast
Kauai's Napali Coast is famous for its breathtaking scenery. (©SergiyN/Shutterstock)