The funny thing about getting to know a place is that you always end up thinking, “Why didn’t I do this instead of that?” Or “Why didn’t I know this before now?” I kinda let fate determine the route I’d take in Hawaii. My flight landed in Maui, I had friends in Oahu, and then another friend convinced me to stay an extra week to travel around Big Island (it’s not like he had to do much convincing).
So those were my choices.
I am pulled to islands like most islanders are. I can’t imagine living a landlocked life for more than a year (Berlin!). And although many islands shared those famed characteristics of island life (“island time!”), I’ve found most islands act as though they’re within their own universe. Newfoundland’s like that.
The same goes for Hawaii. From what I saw and learned about Hawaii, each island has its own uniquely distinct vibe and lifestyle. Find something that suits your style.
Oahu is the mother of all islands. It’s home to the capital city, Honolulu, and a massive military base. About 1.4 million people live in Hawaii, and nearly a million of those people live on Oahu.
This was my least favourite island. I loved the people I met, and the beaches I saw, and the food I ate, but it was a really fast-paced lifestyle and ultra expensive. I admit a lot of this was my own fault. I opted for an expensive hotel room so I could be nearer to the action of Waikiki, and I didn’t get to see a great deal outside of Honolulu, because I didn’t have a car rental. And although the bus system is excellent, you can’t ride the public transit with all your backpacking gear. The North Shore would have been more my speed.
Everything here is VERY much catered to tourists. If that’s what you’re into, then go for it.
Oahu is for: Surfers, big spenders, family travel, partyers, foodies.
I knew Big Island would be my favourite island before I even arrived. It’s the great outdoors that gets me awe-struck when I travel, and Big Island is nothing but drama. The coastline, the active volcanoes, the waterfalls, the culture…this, to me, is what REAL island life is all about. It was much easier to meet locals. It was cheaper. And it was a MILLION TIMES SLOWER.
So much slower, in fact, that public transit basically just stood still. Big Island is a bit difficult to get around without a rental car, but hitchhiking is apparently safe and legal. If you’re a hiker, this is your place. Especially Volcanoes National Park.
Big Island is divided up into two sides: the Hilo side and the Kona side. Hilo is a fun hippie town; Kona is the touristy resort area. Both are a LOT of fun, but Hilo is more local. The beaches on this side aren’t great – they’re rocky lava beaches. I didn’t see much in the way of nice sandy beaches on the Kona side either, actually, but apparently a storm surge had dropped in and caused things to go all willy-nilly.
Big Island is for: Hikers, adventurers, budget travellers, wildlife lovers, families.
I had the most fun in Maui. Most of my days consisted of finding an awesome beach and snorkeling or drinking beer forever. Then I watched the sun set. I was the happiest I’ve ever been.
There’s a ton of tourist infrastructure here for travellers as well, making it much easier to get around than Big Island. But it’s also more expensive.
Maui is for: Hikers, adventurers, families, beach goers, partiers.
I haven’t been to the final few islands. But I met a lot of people along the way and gleaned enough information about them that I can at least give you the ultra-bare basics. Or feel free to rip me a new one in the comments. Whatever.
Or check out Lonely Planet’s awesome itineraries.
Lanai is crazy remote. It’s also the smallest Hawaiian island, but it once supplied most of the world’s pineapples. True story.
This is where you come to relax and hang out and be a hippie. There are a lot of good beaches, and you can camp just about anywhere.
Lanai is for: Budget travellers, relaxed lifestyles, remoteness, nature lovers, hippies.
Molokai is Hawaii’s cultural centre, and more than 50% of the people living here have indigenous heritage. So Molokai does a LOT to keep tourism from overrunning the place. In other words, it’s probably the most authentically Hawaiian experience you’ll have in Hawaii.
It’s remote, it’s scenic, and it’s fiercely defended by the locals. Perfect for when you wanna get away from the real world and hang out with people who have real values.
Molokai is for: Budget travellers, adventurers, hikers, escape artists, culture vultures.
Kauai is the island I wish I had replaced Oahu with. No wait, I take that back. All experiences are good experiences? Screw it. I wish I had done Kauai.
Apparently there’s not even a traffic light here. Everyone just comes to surf, hang out on beaches, hike, camp, and be merry. Hiking the Napali Coast is good enough reason to visit, never minder Wailea River and everything in between. CLEARLY going to be my first stop on my next visit!
Kauai is for: Adventurers, budget travellers, Candice.
I’m Googling images of the islands I missed now and sobbing like a little baby. But don’t take my word for it. My friend Mica over at Travel This Earth lives in Hawaii and spends most of her time exploring the state. Hit her up for more!