There's enough beauty and activity in Hawaii to fill more vacations than we could take in a lifetime. With so much to choose from, first-time visitors need to be selective. Our recommendation is to settle first on the Hawaii you want to see. It might be beaches, a luau and nightlife; it might be rare orchids and hikes in the rain forest; it might be quiet countryside, small towns and scenic drives. Whatever the combination, there is almost certainly an island or islands best suited to your Hawaii vacation dreams.
Hawaii, quite literally, is growing. Active lava flows from Kilauea Volcano are forming new land daily. There's even a new island forming a few thousand feet/meters below the surface of the ocean, off the southeastern coast of the Big Island, that will someday become the newest Hawaiian island. In fact, it already has a name: Loihi.
Everyone will find something enjoyable in Hawaii, and different islands will appeal to different people. Each island is unique, with distinctive attractions, special places and geophysical features.
Here's a look at the eight primary islands and their major attractions:
Hawaii Island is commonly known as the Big Island for good reason. It's larger than all the other islands combined. But aside from Hilo (the county seat), Kailua-Kona (a popular visitor destination) and the luxurious resorts along the Kohala coast, it retains a rural flavor.
Major Destinations on the Big Island: The Kona coast, Kailua-Kona, Hilo, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, with two active volcanoes (Mauna Loa and Kilauea), Mauna Kea (the world's tallest mountain).
Big Island Attractions: If you're into the outdoors, this is the place for you. Attractions include sandy beaches in shades of green, red and black, beautiful coral reefs, snorkeling, deep-sea fishing, gorgeous flowers, including most of the orchids for lei made in the state, cattle and horse ranches, horseback riding, mesmerizing landscapes, cascading waterfalls, golf, watersports and hiking. Nightlife and shopping are limited.
Access to this former U.S. Navy bombing target is strictly limited. Much of the island remains unusable because of unexploded ordnance.
Kauai is the oldest and northernmost of the inhabited Hawaiian islands. Nature is its biggest draw.
Major Destinations on Kauai Island: Waimea Canyon, Kokee State Park, Poipu, Lihue, Napali Coast, Princeville, Hanalei.
Kauai Island Attractions: Mountains, valleys, waterfalls, spectacular beaches, hiking, fishing, golf, whale-watching, kayaking and sailing, bird-watching, ziplining, and snorkeling, surfing and other watersports. Shopping and nightlife are limited.
The smallest of the main islands is quiet and uncrowded. It is 98% privately owned by Larry Ellison, CEO of Oracle Corp. Tourism is now the mainstay of the economy.
Lanai Island Attractions: Sailing, fishing, golfing, ocean rafting, hunting and back-road exploring.
Maui is the second most-visited Hawaiian island, after Oahu.
Major Destinations on Maui Island: Haleakala National Park, Iao Valley, Hana, Ka'anapali, Kihei, Lahaina, Wailea and Wailuku.
Maui Island Attractions: Wonderful beaches, calm ocean bays, stunning mountain and volcano vistas, sugarcane fields, highland ranches, twisting mountain roads, whale-watching, upcountry agriculture tours, golf, hiking, ziplining, sailing and other boat excursions, deep-sea fishing, and watersports such as snorkeling, scuba diving, surfing, windsurfing and parasailing.
This tiny, privately owned island is also known as the Forbidden Island. Home to about 200 native Hawaiians who live a traditional lifestyle, it is off-limits to visitors. Only those who book a tour with Niihau Helicopters can land there.
Oahu is the political, social, economic and population hub of Hawaii. It attracts the most visitors of all the Hawaiian islands.
Major Destinations on Oahu Island: Downtown Honolulu, Waikiki, Diamond Head, Pearl Harbor, Hanauma Bay, the North Shore.
Oahu Island Attractions: City life, including theater, opera, museums, shopping, nightclubs and fine dining, lush greenery, beautiful beaches, great historic sites, sailing, surfing, windsurfing, kayaking and other watersports, golf and hiking.
Major Destinations on Molokai Island: Kaunakakai, Kalaupapa National Historical Park, Halawa Valley.
Molokai Island Attractions: Isolated beaches, mountains, waterfalls, deep-sea fishing, history, hiking and relaxing.
The state of Hawaii comprises eight main islands—Kauai, Niihau, Oahu, Maui, Molokai, Lanai, Kahoolawe and Hawaii—and the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, a string of mostly uninhabited atolls, small islands and reefs that stretch across nearly 140,000 sq mi/362,598 sq km of the Pacific Ocean.
The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands harbor more than 7,000 species of undersea creatures, one-fourth of which are found nowhere else in the world. Former U.S. President George W. Bush designated this region Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in 2006. It is the single largest conservation area in the U.S.
Of the main islands, Kauai, with tiny Niihau off its leeward coast, is the oldest and northernmost. As you travel south down the island chain, you'll find Oahu, Molokai, Lanai, Maui, Kahoolawe and Hawaii, or the Big Island. There, Ka Lae, also known as South Point, has earned distinction as the southernmost point in the U.S. The Hawaiian Islands are volcanic in origin, with active eruptions continuing on the Big Island.
Honolulu, the state capital, is located on Oahu. The other islands are sometimes referred to as the "Neighbor Islands."
Polynesians arrived in the Hawaiian Islands more than 1,500 years ago, one of many moves these people had undertaken over the centuries. Evidence suggests that these first settlers of Hawaii set out from the Marquesas Islands in present-day French Polynesia—and never expected to return there. Their oceangoing canoes were filled with domesticated animals (chickens, dogs and pigs), plants and seeds—everything they needed to start their new home. In time, the islands came to be ruled by a powerful hierarchy of chiefs and nobles, who oversaw elaborate agricultural projects and the construction of many ceremonial shrines and temples.
In January 1778, British explorer James Cook and his two ships reached Kauai. (This may have been the first Western contact with Hawaii, though another theory holds that a Spanish ship may have visited the area in the 1500s.) Cook's party traded with the locals and reported that the Polynesians were fascinated by anything made of iron. Common nails became valuable items for trade, and sailors used them to woo Hawaiian women, from whom they received a very cordial welcome. Unfortunately, this contact passed venereal disease to the Hawaiians, the first of many Western ailments that would devastate the population.
When Cook returned to the islands the next year, things didn't go as smoothly. A dispute arose when Hawaiians on the Big Island at Kealakekua Bay, Kona, took one of the ship's small boats. Violence broke out, and Cook was killed. For many years, the islands were known in the West by the name Cook gave them, the Sandwich Islands (after the Earl of Sandwich, Cook's benefactor who financed his voyages of exploration).
At roughly the same time that Europeans first came in contact with Hawaii, internal politics and warfare were also redefining the islands. Each island was ruled independently until King Kamehameha I (1758-1819) united them by force. The continuing presence of Westerners played a role in the wars: The armaments of the newcomers were a decisive factor in Kamehameha's victory. Greater encroachment by outsiders took place in the 1800s, with two rather divergent groups—Calvinist missionaries and whale-hunting seamen—leading the charge.
In the mid-1800s, another group, sugar planters, became a force in Hawaii. They gained control of large parcels of land, imported foreign workers and eventually, in 1893, orchestrated the overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani, the last reigning Hawaiian monarch.
The Hawaiian Islands were annexed to the U.S. in 1898, though the island election approving annexation excluded most native-born Hawaiians. Hawaii became a U.S. territory in 1900. In 1941, the Japanese attack on the Pearl Harbor naval base on Oahu brought the U.S. into World War II. Following the war, the movement favoring statehood gained strength, and on 21 August 1959, Hawaii became the 50th U.S. state.
Most of Hawaii's sugar plantations closed by the mid-1990s. Since then, crops have diversified. Farmers statewide now grow coffee, flowers, macadamia nuts and a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. Tourism now is the state's major industry.
Hawaii's foremost attractions are beaches, volcanoes, surfing, luau, lush scenery, waterfalls, Polynesian culture, ravishingly beautiful (and rare) tropical flowers and plants, hiking, relaxation, historical sites, shopping, watersports, deep-sea fishing and friendly people who exude the "spirit of aloha."